A Clean Car is a Happy Car

It’s been brought to my attention that I am known for having and keeping a clean car. I’ve done that since I got my very first car – which wasn’t much of a car (1981 Pontiac Phoenix! Yeah man!), but it was clean. Even when that awful car suffered complete internal organ failure, and I was given a whopping $150 in trade-in credit, the dealer noted “At least it’s clean and the interior is in really good shape. I can use those seats at least”.

Not too long ago, a friend asked, “How do you manage that? How do you keep your car so clean? I just don’t see how it’s possible.” The answer is in the question itself: It’s clean because I keep it clean. And honestly, I don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t do the same thing.

My car is the most expensive single thing I own. For homeowners, it’s probably the second most expensive thing. I spend a lot of time in my car, hours and hours every week. I breathe the air there. I sit on the upholstery. I put my hands on the steering wheel. I touch the dash, the seats, the sides of the doors. To me, it’s like another room of my house.

These same people who are amazed at my clean car have perfectly clean houses and apartments. They know how to clean. They vacuum, wash dishes, wipe countertops, and mop floors. They have bottles of Windex and Pledge, they own scrub brushes and sponges, they use paper towels regularly. They quite clearly know how to keep things clean, and how to clean them.

Some months ago, I rode in someone’s car that had an odd… smell. After a while, I gently asked about the smell. “Oh, my daughter spilled orange juice in the back a few months ago. It got all over the seat and carpet.” The End.

This exact same person, if the exact same daughter had spilled that exact same glass of orange juice in their living room? On a couch, and it had gotten into the living room rug? They would have immediately soaked the coach cushions, cleaned the rug with shampoo, and scrubbed out the orange juice stains. Can you imagine walking into someone’s house, seeing a giant, congealed glob of rotten orange juice on the carpet and couch, and having them say, “Oh, yeah, one of the kids did that a few months ago.”

Yet, when the same thing happens in a car, they just throw up their hands and say “Oh, well, it’s the car.” No. Don’t do this. It’s the same thing as your living room.

And then there’s trash in the car. Would you leave empty bottles, cups, used Kleenex, hamburger wrappers, etc on your living room floor? Or on your kitchen counters? Or in your bathroom? For months at a time? But I see this in cars all the time. “Yeah, I need to clean that stuff up someday”.

No. No, you don’t clean it up “some day”. You clean it up that same day. Always. If I eat something in the car, then wrappers, cups, you name it, everything gets taken out and thrown away at the next stop. The very next time I get out of the car. I never, ever carry trash of any kind around in my car. No more than I would just let trash pile up on my kitchen counter or on my dining room floor.

If something spills on the car rug? I bring down the vacuum, clean it out, and use rug cleaner on it. The exact same thing that I would do if something spilt on the rug in my house.

Every few weeks, I vacuum out my car. Just like I do my house.

I wipe off the dash, the door insides, the steering wheel, and every surface. Just like I do with my kitchen counters, my living room furniture, and my bathrooms. To me, there is no difference.

Every few months, I do an intense interior cleaning on my car, using Armor All, leather cleaner, and polish. Just like I do when, every few months, I do an intense cleaning of my floors, using wax and cleaner. Just like I do, every few months, to my furniture with deep wax and polish. To me, there is no difference.

And every month or two, I take the car to a car wash, and have the exterior washed and cleaned. I pay about $20 for this. I do this because I live in an apartment, and I don’t have access to a hose and the like.

That’s pretty much it. Keeping a clean car, to me, is a simple matter of maintenance and basic hygiene.

Now. To you parents out there.

I see you’re always careful to keep certain areas of your house extra clean, so that germs don’t spread and so your kids stay as sniffle-free and healthy as possible. But for some reason, you think your car possesses some magical power to resist germs without cleaning. I see you wiping off bathroom surfaces and kitchen areas meticulously – but the inside of your car hasn’t been touched since you bought it. Where do you think all those germs are coming from?

A clean car is a happy car, and it makes you feel good to be in one. So if your car is a bit of a mess… turn it around. Go clean out all the trash. Vacuum the carpet. Get some good old Woolite rug cleaner and get those stains out. Windex off the inside and clean those door handles. Clean the insides of the windows. Clean off old stickers and gunky areas with Goof Off. Shine up the dash with some Armor All. You will feel so much better driving, and everyone who gets into your car will feel better too.

From then on, remember: Whatever goes in the car, goes out of the car. Every time, every day. If you wouldn’t put up with it in your house, then don’t put up with it in your car.

And then you can be Happy Happy Happy like me. Well, at least in your car. Have an A1 Day!

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The End of Ambition

Today I watched the last Space Shuttle lift off, right up the coast from me. Once the Atlantis lands, 9,000 people will be laid off. One man has worked at NASA for over 30 years, and he has worked on every single one of the 135 shuttle launches since the first one in 1981.

But it’s not just lost jobs. It’s a loss of will. It’s a loss of national ambition. A loss of of our sense of purpose as a country.

It’s been decades since we’ve done anything to build our future. The last big national infrastructure project was the interstate highway system, started in the 1950s. The last big national technology program, manned space flight, ends next week when the Atlantis lands for the last time, and gets shipped off to a museum.

Taxes are the lowest they’ve been in 80 years. But at what cost to our country?

Our train tracks rust. Our highways crumble. Our bridges collapse. Our schools, once the best in the world, rank lower and lower every year against other countries. China builds high-speed railways that whisk its citizens from one city to another at 200 miles an hour. Brazil has managed to make itself completely energy independent, thanks to a massive national program to make biofuels. India has a space program that is rapidly progressing towards full satellite launches and manned missions.

Every other western democracy provides full health care for all its citizens. Many new immigrants to the United States keep a second citizenship, not from loyalty to the country of their birth, but as a hedge in case they get really sick – they can always go home for medical care. Business fail, or never start in the first place, because they can’t provide health care coverage for their employees.

To me, the end of manned space flight is a symbol of everything that is wrong with our country. We have become tight and petty. We care more about keeping the most money in our pockets we can, rather than building a future.

We used to reach for the stars. Now we reach for our wallets and hold on to them tightly, refusing to contribute anything for fear that someone, somewhere, might cheat us. We’ve become a nation of dogs in the manger.

It is said, over and over, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Just look at the history books – the last time we had ridiculously low taxes, no national infrastructure programs, and a culture that didn’t believe in bringing people up from under? The 1920’s. Ending in 1929. The Great Depression. And it took 15 years and a world war to pull our heads back into the sky and start building up again.

But we don’t learn from history, because we’re doing it again. We keep cutting taxes and cutting programs. The rich have more money than they’ve had since the 1920s, while contributing less and less to the country that made their wealth possible in the first place. We cut or eliminate every program that has a chance of building a new future.

We should be building and spending our way towards a new future, not cutting back and screaming “Mine! Mine!”. We should have a million new workers out right now, building new and better highways. Better and faster railways. Newer and more efficient airports. We should rebuild our entire electrical system, to make it more efficient and modern. We should be running fiber optic internet cable to every single resident of the entire country.

And yes, we should have a cutting edge space program, both to give our children something to look up to and admire, as well as to create all the new technologies and companies that will fuel the future. Without Apollo and the manned space program, we would not have the modern computer industry, many new health breakthroughs like MRIs and laser surgery, and literally hundreds of other things. It has been estimated that every dollar we spent on the space program earned back a hundred times that amount in new jobs, technologies, and businesses.

China has a lock on rare earth minerals, vital for computer parts and medical machinery. Why don’t we fund a national space program to mine those minerals from asteroids? We are beholden to countries we hate, because we have to grovel for their oil. Why don’t we start a massive solar satellite power system to build and beam down energy from space? Refining certain pharmaceuticals in centrifuges is phenomenally expensive and time consuming, while the same drugs could be made in zero gravity for pennies. Why don’t we fund a massive medical and pharmaceutical facility in earth orbit for manufacturing such things?

We spent a trillion dollars invading and “rebuilding” a country that never attacked us, and in which we have no national interest. We spent another trillion dollars invading another country and occupying it for 10 years when what we really wanted was to capture a single criminal. Yet our politicians haggle and whine over amounts that don’t even amount to one ten-thousandth of those figures if it has something to do with issues here at home.

One of our political parties cries and whimpers that they won’t even consider raising a single tax on anyone or anything. “We refuse to pay for our country”, they say. “We want all the money for ourselves”. The other political party dithers and waffles, refusing to set goals or an agenda or object to anything. “We’ll just wait and see”, they say. “The future will be whatever it is”.

Remember when we used to have actual leaders? Remember when John F. Kennedy sparked a nation when he announced the goal of putting a man on the moon, and said, “We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard”? Where is that spirit now?

Everyone who reads this, I beg of you: The next time a politician asks for your vote, don’t ask them how much of your money you get to keep. Ask them how they’re going to build the future. Demand that they look forward, not backward. Tell them to spend every cent they can to make our country the best and the brightest.

In other words… Demand that they reach for the stars.

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I’ve Moved to WordPress

I have moved to WordPress! This blog, powered by MovableType for lo these many years, is now running under a brand-new install of WordPress. Stay tuned for a new header, new theme, and new features!

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Unnatural

Unnatural by Michael Griffo. 352 pages, Kensington.

This is a Young Adult (“YA”) novel. Not a genre I usually traffic in, unless it crosses over into strong science fiction or horror.

So why did I read it? And why write this review of it? Well, you see, the last time I tried a true YA novel, I attempted to read Twilight. I made it until about page 90 or so, and just gave up. I couldn’t stand it. However, I’ve seen the movies of both Twilight and New Moon, so I know the story. And this book here, Unnatural? Basically… it’s Gay Twilight. Or, Twilight for gay teens, if you prefer.

On that premise, I had to at least give it a try.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t Gay Anything as far as books went. I didn’t come across any positive portrayal of gay person at all until I was in college. I’m aware that times have changed quite a bit now, and I see and hear about kids coming out of the closet while they’re still in high school. Heck, it seems like a lot of teens today are never even in the closet to begin with. I was curious to see what a book like this might be like.

Like Twilight, this is a story of a mortal who falls in love with a vampire, a love that turns out to be so strong it breaks through the barrier that separates mortal humans from immortal vampires. Like Twilight, there’s a pretty deep and clever mythology around the particular vampires (and other supernatural creatures) that populate the novel. And like Twilight, there are good and evil factions warring against each other, with our love crossed teens at the center.

But unlike Twilight, this is pretty darn good read. Unnatural moves along at a brisk pace, the character’s motivations are pretty clear and understandable, and there is no bizarre superimposition of pious morality overlaying the whole thing. And also unlike Twilight, it’s a lot of fun, and pretty sexy to boot. Well, as sexy as the author can get away with and still keep the book firmly in the YA camp, that is.

As the novel begins, Michael Howard is a sixteen-year-old high school student living in Weeping Waters, Nebraska. Tall and blond with striking green eyes, Michael is an excellent student who dreams only of getting out of Weeping Waters and moving on to somewhere else, the sooner the better.

Michael lives in a small farm house with his mother and his grandparents. When Michael was three years old, his parents divorced. His mother moved in with her parents, and they’ve been there ever since. Michael has never met his father; all he knows is that his father is British and lives in London. His mother never speaks of him.

Michael is tormented and bullied at school, and treated with disdain by his own grandfather. Even though Michael has never come right out and said it, everyone pretty much knows he’s gay, and he suffers endlessly because of it. And his mother is no help, lost as she is in alcohol and pills.

Then one night, Micheal’s mother commits suicide. And within a few hours, his life changes. The father he’s never met arrives for his mother’s funeral, and announces he’s going to take him back to England and enroll him in a prestigious private school, Archangel Academy. Saddened as he is by his mother’s death, Michael is thrilled to finally leave Nebraska and start a new life.

Archangel Academy is everything Michael hopes it would be – and more. Because on his first day there, he meets Ronan Glynn-Rowley, a handsome, muscular, dark-haired boy the same age as Michael. And, it’s love at first sight for both of them.

Ronan, of course, is not what he seems. Although he really is only sixteen years old, he is a vampire, a special hybrid who only needs to drink blood once a month and can walk around during daylight without problems. In fact, other than being immortal and possessing supernatural strength and speed, Ronan is otherwise strikingly human, right down to his piercing blue eyes.

Archangel Academy, as it turns out, is quite the hotbed of supernatural activity, and Ronan is not the only vampire (or even the only kind of vampire) that walks these grounds. Even among the close group of Michael and Ronan’s friends, there are some who are not what they appear to be. As Ronan makes plans to bring Michael permanently into his life, so that they can life together forever, others try to do everything they can to pull them apart.

That’s enough of a summary to give the flavor. There are lots of supporting characters that help to build the world of the book. Two of my favorites are Ronan’s mother Edwige, and Ronan’s brother Ciaran. Ciaran is a human who desperately wants to become a vampire, and Edwige is both a Machiavellian bitch and a lovingly devoted mother at the same time.

This is clearly the first book in a series; in fact, the novel ends with the prologue and Chapter 1 of the next book. I suspect I’ll be reading the others as well. Because… well…

OK, so this isn’t Great Literature. I personally think it’s much better written than Twilight, and that the characters are a lot more fun. But this is not Anne Rice or Stephen King or Philip Pullman . Unnatural is rather derivative, pulling elements from Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and every other popular supernatural fiction of the last 10 years. The two lead characters are almost too perfect for each other. And everything does fall into place a little too neatly at the end.

But, you see… it’s like this. I felt this book in my heart. I was a gay teenager myself. And when I was in high school, there just weren’t any books like this around. I had no stories to read about romantic love between two handsome young men who were destined for each other. I love the fact that here’s a fun, enjoyable, entertaining Young Adult novel where not only are the two lead characters gay… but they are celebrated and heroic. They are admirable.

If the teenaged me had been able to read this book, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would have read it several times. I would have fantasized about being Michael or Ronan. I would have imagined myself falling in love with a handsome man and living happily ever after. Maybe, just maybe, if I’d been able to read a book like Unnatural when I was in the age group it’s written for, I would have become comfortable with who and what I am a lot earlier in life.

And so, while I was reading and enjoying Unnatural, I was also hoping that somewhere, some shy gay kid is reading it as well. And it’s allowing him to fantasize about a future. And it’s showing him a way out and a way up. Because that’s why I love reading. It’s not always about the highest quality prose or the most fascinating plot or startling characters or exciting twist endings. Instead, what’s most important is enjoying a good story with people you like, one that maybe gives you some new insight you didn’t have before.

And at that level, Unnatural succeeds very well. Go get yourself a copy and walk along the fogbound paths of Archangel Academy.

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Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011). 336 pages, Knopf.

Not surprisingly, I read a lot of book reviews. I subscribe to the New York Times Book Review, as well as listen to their podcast once a week (go Sam Tanenhaus!). I read a lot of book and publishing blogs as well, such as TeleRead. And I pick up lots of recommendations from various Kindle forums and blog posts as well.

Swamplandia! has been showing up with glowing recommendations on almost every one of these places. In addition, since the novel is set in South Florida, and since the author Karen Russell is from Miami, it’s gotten a lot of local attention as well. Usually I don’t get around to actually reading recommendations like this until months after the book has come up… but something about the reviews for Swamplandia! made me decide to put it at the top of my list. And, since the Kindle edition was priced at the magic $9.99 point, I started into it right away.

This is a wonderful, engrossing book. All of those other glowing reviews are right on the money. Enjoyable, unusual plot in a unique and unusual setting. Characters that are entertaining as well as realistic. And Russell’s prose is fantastic – evocative and thrilling, tender and wistful, humorous and encouraging – and even deeply disturbing when called for.

Swamplandia! (yes, it’s always with an exclamation mark) is the story of an odd family, the Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Tribe. The Bigtrees are as white as I am, and moved down to Florida decades ago when they got sold, literally, 100 acres of swamp land. Rather than cursing the real estate agent who swindled them and then returning home, they stayed. And over the years, turned their one of the Ten Thousand Islands of the Everglades into a local tourist attraction, thanks to a ferry that made a mandatory stop on their island.

Somewhere back in the forties, Grandpa changed the family surname to “Bigtree”, and decided they were a tribe. And that became part of the family legend. Swamplandia! is like a lot of Florida roadside attractions, featuring alligator wrestling, a few other sad animal acts, and a lot of exaggeration. The Bigtrees run the park purely as a family business, with all the children doing their part.

The current generation consisted of Sam “Chief” Bigtree, wife Hilola, and their three children: oldest son Kiwi (17), daughter Osceola (16) and youngest daughter Ava (13). Both Ava and Kiwi have taken up the family calling of alligator wrestling, Ava with enthusiasm and Kiwi with reluctance. Osceola, a more moody child, contents herself with running the gift shop and giving tours.

The star attraction is their mother Hilola, whose act consists of diving from a platform into a pool filled with alligators, and then swimming between them to safety as the crowd cheers. In fact, Hilola Bigtree’s “Diving with the Gators” is really the only thing that distinguishes Swamplandia! from any of the other hundreds of cheesy tourist traps in Florida.

But as the novel opens, Hilola has just died of cancer, leaving the Chief and the three children without guidance – and the park without its star attraction. Young Ava hopes to make up for her mother’s absence, but it’s a tough row to hoe.

That’s the setup. The novel alternates between the first-person narration of Ava in the swamps, and the third-person narrative of Kiwi on the mainland. Kiwi strikes out to try to make some money for the now-broke family, and ends up as a janitor at an amusement park that simulates hell (the patrons are “Lost Souls”, for example). Chief Bigtree heads back to the mainland to call upon his “investors”, leaving Ava and Osceola alone on Swamplandia!

But Osceola has become entranced with an occult book, and becomes convinced not only that she can commune with the spirits – but that she has fallen in love with one. When she vanishes, leaving a note that she has decided to elope with one of her ghosts to travel to “The Underworld”, Ava is determined to go after her.

The only adult Ava can call upon is the odd Bird Man, a local gypsy-type who wears a coat of feathers, and makes his living scaring birds off of people’s property. And so, while her brother works in an amusement park version of hell, Ava sets off with the Bird Man in a tiny skiff to try to find the real thing.

Ava’s journey with the Bird Man is the heart of the novel, and is both enthralling and creepy at the same time. Because, as it turns out, the Bird Man’s motives for wanted to help find Osceola are not at all the same as Ava’s, and in a disturbing and uncomfortable scene, he turns out not to be who (or what) Ava thought he was. When Ava suddenly realizes she’s been duped, it’s a crushing moment that almost took my breath away. While reading the next scene, I was muttering “no… no… no…” under my breath. That’s some powerful prose right there, folks.

Kiwi’s journey through the World of Darkness parallels Ava’s journey through the swamp. While Ava learns about the underbelly of the Everglades, Kiwi discovers just how sheltered their upbringing was. And, when he discovers just what his father’s “investment” activities consist of, it changes his life almost as much as Ava’s journey changes hers.

The second half of this book, once everything is set up and rolling, is a nonstop read. I couldn’t put the Kindle down, and had to stay up until 2:30 in the morning to finish it.

The book ends cleanly and properly – although with not much in the way of denouement. We are led to believe that Ava and Osceola, at least, end up in high school on the mainland. It’s hinted that the three siblings are still in friendly contact in their adulthood. But, we don’t know what actually happened to any of the characters. Did Kiwi become a pilot? Did Ava ever return to alligator wrestling in any form? And I can’t begin to imagine what path Osceola would take later in life.

I know that Russell has written some short stories with these characters in the past; perhaps she’ll write some more with them in the future. I’d like to travel around Florida with these characters some more. Regardless, I eagerly await her next creation.

But you don’t have to wait. Go get yourself a copy of Swamplandia! and devour it.

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Toys in the Sun Run: 2010 Edition

23rd Annual Toys in the Sun Run. December 5, 2010, Broward County, Florida.

Jonathan on his new SportsterA few months ago, thanks to a bit of prodding from my friend and coworker Justin Armstrong, I bought myself a brand-new Harley-Davidson motorcycle: a 2011 Sportster SuperLow. 883 cc’s of marvelous two-wheeled rumbling power, in exactly the size and shape to fit my 5′ 7″, 145 pound frame. Outfitted with leather-covered hard saddlebags, a GPS, luggage rack, and with the optional fuel and temperature gauges to boot. I ride it every chance I get, and drive it to work unless it’s raining or too damn cold.

Since I got the Harley, I’m always looking for fun runs to take it on. Up to Lake Okeechobee. Across Alligator Alley over to Naples. Down to Key Largo for an afternoon lunch at the Fish House. That kind of thing.

And as luck would have it, here in South Florida there’s a charity event that takes place every December. To raise money for Unicef, thousands of motorcyclists gather together down here for the Toys in the Sun Run. Driving across a chunk of Broward County, the participants carry toys on their bikes to donate to children around the world. Every rider donates at least $10 in cash, in addition to at least one toy of that value or higher. The ride ends at Markham Park, just outside of Weston, Florida, and turns into an outdoor festival with live music, food, bike and car oriented outdoor vendors, art shows, and everything else you can think of that goes with such an event.

About a month after I bought mine, Frank bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as well, a 2010 Sportster Iron. Thus it does not require Einstein or Hawking intelligence levels to figure out where the two of us were heading early on Sunday morning, December 5th, 2010. You got it. We were on our bikes, suited up and toys loaded in the saddlebags, off to Pompano Beach.

The flyers said to arrive no later than 9am at the line-up, for a 9:45 departure from the holding area at the Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek. We left the house at 8am. Frank, being new to riding a motorcycle and not yet comfortable driving on the freeway, wanted to stick to surface streets. So, about an hour later, we pulled into the parking lot at the Casino, taking our place in what seemed like an endless line of motorcycles. We ponied up our $10 donation, got our hands stamped, and took our place in the parking lot, lined up and ready to go.

Much to our surprise, we waited in the parking lot for a little over an hour. Even more to our surprise, we weren’t bored in the least. All around us were tons of fun people and thousands of bikes. We ended up chatting with all our surrounding bikers, especially a female couple (Lou and Maggie) who were riding right between Frank and I. At one point I said, “I was thinking about putting a wreath on the front of my bike for the ride, but I thought it would be too gay”. Lou said, “Honey, you can never be too gay”. Far be it from me to argue with a lady on a motorcycle dressed in leather.

We also talked with a young couple in front of us, a man and woman (never sure if they were married or just a couple) whose license plate read “2 YUTES”. A great joke if you’ve seen “My Cousin Vinny“, and a fun point of conversation if you haven’t.

We walked up and down the rows of bikes, admiring the unusual and the antique. One guy at the front of our line was riding a perfectly restored 1950′s Triumph, which looked like it had just been driven out of the showroom. We saw several original Indian and Victory cycles as well. And there were the oddballs, like the bright yellow touring bike with a fully enclosed, air-conditioned sidecar attached to it. In perfectly matching yellow, of course.

Parking lot after parking lot of motorcycles pulled out, and at last it was our turn. Police motorcycle escorted us out as we joined into the long streams of two-wheeled power driving to the freeway. As we drove along the streets, I realized that we were, in fact, a parade! People were lining the streets, waving, taking pictures, and cheering us on. I got all sheepish and happy, and though I felt like an idiot doing it, I waved back with a gloved hand to everyone that waved at me. And I made sure to keep a smile plastered on my face for all the photographers.

Down the street, up the ramp onto I-95, which was completely closed in one direction for the run. We got up to about 70 mph briefly, before slowing down to a more constant 10 to 20 mph as we merged onto I-595 and began heading west to Markham Park. All along the freeway route, the crowds were present. Every time we went under an overpass, the entire bridge was lined with people waving, cheering, and snapping pictures. I’m sure, of course, that some of them were thinking, “Damn motorcycle riders, closing down the freeway…” but this being a holiday charity event, I did not dwell on that possibility.

There was a fair amount of stopping and starting (“a lot of clutch work”, Lou said to me at one point) and for the most of the drive, I never got out of second gear. But it was hard to be in a bad mood, and the weather was gorgeous. Lou and Maggie had a large sack of candy with them, and every time we’d get near a group of children watching along the sides, they’d toss out handfuls of candy. I made a mental note to be sure to do that next year. Maybe I can mount a candy bucket right on the handlebars…

Around noon, we pulled into the park, donated our toys, and strode around the festival. As you’d expect, there were dozens of food vendors, many folks selling various motorcycle gear, clothing, and customizations, and lots of live music. The Charlie Daniels Band played, and a bit later I think it was David Cassidy. Also a local bluegrass/rockabilly group that was quite good. I ate burgers and several fresh corn dogs; Frank ate those in addition to a giant ear of roasted corn which he ate right out of the husk, which had been dipped in dripping butter.

After we’d visited every booth, picked up a few souvenirs and some magnetic “Watch For Motorcycles” bumper stickers for our cars, we decided to head home. We were stuffed with food, tired, and getting sleepy. As we walked back to our bikes, I tried to take some panoramic pictures that could capture just how many parked motorcycles were there. It just wasn’t possible. They stretched about as far as I could see in all directions. A cop walking nearby told us she there were something like 20,000 motorcycles, and “I have no idea how many people, but it’s a lot”.

Once we got home, the tired took over, and we took long naps. And realized we’d never exchanged phone numbers with Lou and Maggie, which is a damn shame, because they seemed like really nice girls to go riding with. And further realized that we were still exhausted, but couldn’t wait to do it again.

The Toys in the Sun Run is definitely going to be an annual tradition for me, no question. And next time I’m planning on decking my bike out a bit, and donating a good deal more toys. So if you’re in South Florida next December, be sure to wave as I drive past. Or, if you’ve got a motorcycle… come join!

Merry Christmas!

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The Millenium Trilogy

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008). 600 pages, Vintage Crime / Black Lizard.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson (2009). 630 pages, Vintage.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (2010). 576 pages, Knopf.

OK, so I finally understand what all the fuss is about. I know who Lisbeth Salander is. I understand why Daniel Craig was cast as Mikael Blomkvist. I see why these three novels have been on the bestseller list for… well, forever now. I get why there’s an obsession as to what may or may not be sitting on Stieg Larsson’s hard drive after his death, and why his family is fighting over the rights to publish his final novel – which might not even exist. I understand why friends of mine have read all three books back-to-back in one obsessive weekend.

In short, these books actually are as gripping and involving as everyone has been telling me they are. I admit it.

Collectively, these three books are known as “The Millennium Trilogy” (even though I keep thinking of them as “The Girl Who” books). The name comes from the fictional magazine “Millennium” that the main character (as well as several other characters in the book) works for. “Millennium”, the magazine, is a hard-hitting, expose magazine that practices real, true journalism – the investigative kind. Nothing like “Millennium” exists in the United States that I know of, although every now and then Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker might publish articles of the type described in the book.

So what are the plots? Well, all three books are taught mystery-thrillers, so I’m not going to spoil anybody’s fun by giving away too much. Briefly:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first of the three books. Mikeal Blomkvist, a co-founder and reporter for Millennium magazine in Stockholm, Sweden, has just been convicted of libel. He wrote and published a scathing article taking down a corrupt businessman, but his sources didn’t come through, and he was not able to prove his case. (off to the side comment: I do wish there was an addendum to this book that explained a bit about the Swedish legal system, because what Mikeal is convicted of not only would not be a crime of any sort in the United States, it wouldn’t even make it as a civil lawsuit). Mikael is sentenced to 90 days in jail, and takes a leave of absence from his position at Millennium.

At the same time, we follow the life and exploits of 23-year-old Lisbeth Salander, a researcher and computer hacker of considerable skills. Unfortunately for her – and a secret to almost everyone she knows – Lisbeth is a ward of the state, having been declared mentally incompetent when she was 12 years old. The details of why are very murky, yet highly suspicious. As such, she has an assigned “guardian” who controls her money and citizenship status. Even more unfortunately for Salander, her current guardian is a sadistic rapist who uses his position of power to control her in the worst way. She plots revenge…

These two characters and storylines intersect when Mikeal accepts an offer from an eccentric millionaire to solve the case of his neice’s murder – a murder which occured 40 years ago, a murder where no body was ever found. Through a series of interesting-yet-unlikely twists (as with any thriller), Mikeal ends up hiring Lisbeth as his research partner in solving the murder. But of course, it’s not as simple as that, and together they uncover a deadly conspiracy that has links to both of them…

The Girl Who Played With Fire starts a year after the end of the previous book. Mikeal’s reputation and position at Millennium have been restored after the events of the previous book. Right now, he’s working with an up-and-coming new writer on an article that will expose the sex-slave trade in Sweden. He’s got ironclad sources, and has identified police officers and government officials who not only had their hands in the till – they were also making use of underage and abused prostitutes. But weeks before the article goes to press, someone murders both the article’s writer and the writer’s wife. And the main suspect is… Lisbeth Salander.

Because, as we follow in a simultaneous storyline, Lisbeth’s guardian has decided to seek revenge for the come-uppence he received from her during the first book. And in doing so, he’s called in favors from some very, very unscrupulous types. One thing leads to another, and as it turns out, those same unscrupulous types have their own very good reasons from wanting Lisbeth Salander either dead or locked away forever in a mental institution.

So, while Mikeal attempts to solve the murder of his friends – knowing full well Lisbeth could not have committed the crime – Lisbeth must hunt down the people who want her dead, even while she herself is being hunted by the police for murder. As the novel ends, Lisbeth is seriously wounded, and one mystery has morphed into another, much bigger one.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest picks up immediately where the previous book left off, literally an hour or so later. Lisbeth is in the hospital, recovering from near-fatal wounds. The man who tried to kill her, who is also seriously wounded, lies just a few doors down in the same hospital. And some shadowy figures who were behind the scenes in the previous book move into the foreground here. Because they want both Lisbeth and her failed killer dead.

Meanwhile, Mikeal, having rescued Lisbeth at the end of the previous book, works tirelessly on her upcoming trial. He brings in his own sister – a lawyer who specializes in women’s rights – to represent his friend in court. But the conspiracy that Mikeal and Lisbeth are unravelling reaches deep into the walls of Sweden’s security police (their equivalent of the CIA), and there are people there who will stop at nothing to make sure the case never gets solved.

The first book can be read as a standalone thriller. But I warn you – the second and third have to be read together, as they are pretty much Volume 1 and Volume 2 of a single, continuous story. I can’t imagine how annoying it must have been for folks who read The Girl Who Played With Fire and then had to wait a year for the third book to come out. Luckily, if you haven’t read any of these books yet, you won’t have that problem. Just be sure to get the 2nd and 3rd one at the same time!

Kindle notes: All three books are formatted well, and don’t have any noticeable typos or layout errors. The second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, is the only one of the three that does not have a linked table of contents, a strange omission since the other two have quite nice ones.

I was impressed with several characters and concepts in these books, aside from the complex conspiracies and thrilling mysteries. One example is the details of crimes and policing in another country. For example, the entire concept of “guardianship” that causes so much trouble for Lisbeth in all three books? As far as I know, we don’t have anything even remotely like that in our country. In fact, I’ve never even heard of such a thing, and I wonder how in the world it got started in Sweden.

Another is the sensible attitude towards extra-marital affairs, and sex in general. In all three books, Mikeal conducts an ongoing affair with the editor of his magazine. What’s unusual is that this goes on with the knowledge and understanding of the woman’s husband! Years ago, the couple reached an understanding, and every now and then she goes off and spends the night with Mikel. Her husbands tells her to have a good time, and he’ll see her tomorrow. They have a happy, long-lasting marriage, and the other two have a happy, long-lasting affair. It struck me as the most sensible approach I’ve ever encountered to this situation. Sometimes people really do fall in love with more than one person, and just accepting it as such makes it so much easier on everyone involved. Europeans are so much more sensible about sex matters than us puritanical Americans…

And lastly, I’m impressed with the devotion to the craft of investigative journalism as practiced at Millennium magazine. Of all the fictional things described in the book, this is the one I most wish was real. Every single reporter at Millennium really, truly believes in truthful, unbiased reporting of hard, cold facts. They will not cozy up to anyone in power, and consider it their sacred duty to expose any and all failings they encounter. They protect their sources even upon threat of death, and never give up, no matter what. If such a magazine actually existed in the real world – if such reporters and journalists actually existed in the real world – then the world itself would be a better place by far.

So if you’re looking for exciting, globe-spanning, tightly plotted, suspenseful, and thrilling mysteries with a large dose of spies and international conspiracies thrown in for good measure, then I urge you to run out and get all three of these books.

Because you won’t be able to stop at just one.

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Apple iPad 64GB with Wi-Fi + 3G

Apple iPad 64GB with Wi-Fi + 3G

I actually got my iPad in the first week of May 2010, and I’ve been using it on and off ever since. So why write a review now? Well, two reasons. One, I haven’t touched this blog in months (it’s been a busy summer), and Two, the release of first the iPhone 4 and then the new MacBook Air helped to provide me a framework to hang a review onto.

I’ll be the first to admit that I fall easily and quickly into the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field. Pretty much whenever Apple releases a new product, I’m waiting outside the Apple Store the next day to get my hands on it. I update my computers just about every year, and I’ve updated my iPhone three out of the four times that Apple has announced new models.

So it’s not like I was exactly unbiased when the iPad was announced at the beginning of this year. I was immediately impressed. The iPad seemed to be everything that every previous “tablet” had not been; thin, light, responsive, and with a user interface that was expressly designed to touch. That interacts with your fingers. That responds to sweeping gestures and finger movements. That looked like something that almost literally seemed sent back in time from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

The iPad eventually shipped in April, but I waited until May when the 3G version arrived on the scene. Previously, I would not have cared about 3GWiFi is fine by me – but I started a new job in February, where we don’t have WiFi in the office. (Not only do we not have WiFi, but apparently, we will never have WiFi. It’s considered too much of a security risk). So, I wanted one that I could use at work to check my personal email, etc.

On May 3rd, my 64GB iPad with WiFi and 3G connectivity arrived, along with the Apple flip cover. I had it set up and working within a few minutes. And for the first few days, I was enthralled. But… after a few days… I stopped bringing it to work. And then I stopped checking email on it. And then I cancelled the 3G coverage. Then I stopped updating my music and photos and videos on it. And then I removed all the music, photos, and videos from it.

Now, the only thing I use it for is to read comic books and use a few recipe applications.

I think my six-month odyssey with the iPad says a lot about what’s wrong (as well as what’s right) with the iPad. The current version is the epitome of the early adopter syndrome. It’s got a lot of neat features, and it’s a great idea… but it’s just not fully baked or ready for prime time yet. And almost every problem with the iPad lies solely in its software and how Apple treats it.

The first thing that quickly annoyed me about the iPad is that you just can’t use it by itself. You’ve got to have a computer to physically connect it to. Now, this has never bothered me much with an old-style iPod, but with this? I don’t get it. The thing has screaming fast WiFi built right in. Why on earth do I need to physically connect it to a computer in order to get my stuff on it? Or to update its operating system? Or to activate the damn thing?

My very first disappointment was thus right out of the box: I turned it on, and it says “Connect to iTunes”. I thought, “You gotta be kidding me. This is an $800 computer in its own right. What the hell do you mean, ‘connect it to iTunes’?” During the first couple of weeks, I was thinking this would be a perfect computer for my Mom. Except… Apple really won’t allow you to use it as a “computer”. They insist that you use it as a giant iPod.

The second thing – which annoyed me more and more as time went on – was the locked down aspect of it. And I think this flows from the same decision, that of Apple forcing the iPad to operate as a peripheral and not as a standalone. They treat it the same way they treat the iPhone: Everything that goes onto the iPad has to be curated through the iTunes App Store. The most aggravating symptom of this is the lack of a Flash Player plug-in.

I don’t give a rat’s hairy ass what Steve Jobs thinks of Adobe and Flash; the fact of the matter is that web site after web site requires Flash. And one night, after hitting three web sites in a row that showed me empty pages with a “Please install the Flash plug-in”, I gave up on web surfing using the iPad and switched back to a laptop. What’s acceptable on a small device that’s also a telephone is simply not acceptable on a much larger device that is not a telephone.

Why is the iPad locked down like this? All the arguments that Apple uses to protect the iPhone don’t apply here. The iPad is not a telephone. It can’t make 911 calls. It’s got a giant battery. And it’s not a toy.

Third thing: I became increasingly disillusioned with the App Store. And occasionally downright angry. It took forever for any decent magazine apps to show up, and when they did (Wired!) they were extremely expensive and didn’t (and still don’t) support subscriptions. And with Wired, I first started to get really ticked at Apple’s condescending, parental approach.

“This applications contains material not suitable for people under the age of 17,” the iPad admonishes me every time I update the application. Or any other application that’s not made for a six-year old. Excuse me? I don’t recall setting any parental controls on this thing. Oh, that’s right, I didn’t. Thanks, Apple, for treating every single one of your users as if they are either a prude or a watchful parent. I don’t have kids, there are no kids in my house, and if any visit, they sure as hell aren’t touching my iPad. So shut up, OK?

The iPad would be absolutely great for some pornographic or adult applications. It would be great for adult-themed or raunchy games. But Apple won’t let you sully its clean little tablet with anything smutty. Hey, you bought it from them, so it’s up to them to make sure that it never gets used for anything unseemly. Right?

The fourth thing is that the screen? It’s really not that great. Seriously. And the fifth thing is that it’s pretty heavy.

I had expected that I would use the iPad as my new eBook reader. The first app I installed was the Kindle App from Amazon (the Apple reading application, iBooks and its related iBookstore, are complete non-starters. Don’t even bother with them). Within seconds, I was synced up with a book I was reading on my Kindle, right to the very same page. But… it didn’t look as good. Sure, the iPad is bright and colorful. Unfortunately, it’s also kinda fuzzy. The resolution, at a mere 1024 x 768, just isn’t high enough for reading text clearly. It’s also not high enough for watching even a 720P HD video. And it’s not even widescreen.

And it’s just plain too heavy. I tried reading a book on it, but after five minutes, I had to find something to prop it up with. A pound and half doesn’t sound like much, but compared to an 8 ounce Kindle? Yeah, it gets heavy fast. Keep in mind that the iPad weighs around the same as a hardcover book, rather than a lightweight magazine.

The screen’s lack of clarity and the general heftiness of the iPad combine to make it not a very good “reading in bed” machine at all. Yeah, it lights up on its own (in that the screen is backlit), but that doesn’t make up for it.

Then the iPhone 4 came out, and I saw how sharp and clear a color screen could actually look. At 326 dots per inch (higher than a classic laser printer), text on the new iPhone looks like it’s on printed paper. Printed paper that is colorful and backlit. Put the iPhone 4 next to the iPad, and the iPad screen no longer looks kinda fuzzy – it looks downright sad.

Then the Kindle 3 came out, with its high contrast screen, months-long battery life, and super light weight. And I saw how lightweight a reading device can be, and how nice it is on the eyes to read a crisp, non-backlit white eInk screen.

So, with the iPhone 4 and Kindle 3 in hand, the only thing I still use the iPad for is reading comic books. That’s it. The comic book applications on the iPad are great. I have the Marvel, DC, Image, and Comixology apps all installed, and I’ve read over a hundred issues of various comic books on it. Paying $1.99 for each issue is a much better bargain than the printed ones, and I get immediate gratification by buying them on the spot.

The only reason I haven’t sold the iPad is because of the comic book support. That’s it. But $800 for a comic book reader? If I had known that was the only thing I’d finally be using it for, I never would have bought the thing.

So my iPad sits off in a corner on its charger. Not doing much. I really think Apple made some terrible mistakes with this device, but the market doesn’t seem to agree with me: iPads fly off the shelves, and as of this writing, Apple has sold over 3 million of them.

Maybe, when they upgrade the operating system next month to support multitasking, I’ll give it another whirl. But I don’t have much enthusiasm for it. The iPad already seems like yesterdays’ technology.

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The Passion of the Ripper

The Passion of the Ripper by Nicholas Nicastro (2010). 196 pages, CreateSpace/Kinder Shore Books.

I went through a period of my life when I was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper murders of the 1880s. In my early teens, I got hooked on Sherlock Holmes. I read all 4 novels and 52 short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, then read them again, and then read a few of the various pastiche novels that were coming out in the mid-70′s. And because the Ripper murders occurred at about the same time Sherlock Holmes was practicing in London, I became interested in them as well.

To me, Jack the Ripper was the anti-Holmes. He was real, while Holmes was fictional. The Ripper was evil, while Holmes was good. The Ripper murders were never solved. Holmes, on the other hand, was never without a solution.

And I can’t deny that being a teenage boy who loved monsters and horror movies, the tale of a creepy killer prowling the fog-bound streets of London, slicing prostitutes to pieces and then sneaking away in the night, was like candy. I read my share of Ripper books – all non-fiction – during that time as well. A few of them are even still on my shelves, like The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow – which includes lots of photos taken at the time, including a very disturbing full-body shot of Mary Kelly, the last and most completely dismembered Ripper victim.

Jack the Ripper seems not to have made that much of an impact in fiction, however. Maybe because the actual murders were so grisly… maybe because the case was never firmly or officially solved… I don’t know. There was, famously, Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Lodger, a creepy take on the Ripper case. And although kind of off course, I have a special fondness for Time After Time, the 1979 Nicholas Meyer film where Jack the Ripper steals H.G. Well’s Time Machine and travels forward to 1979… where, he discovers, he fits right in.

But here’s a new novel that delivers a great new take on Jack the Ripper, Nicholas Nicastro’s The Passion of the Ripper. Right from the very first page, I knew it was going to be good. Here’s the opening paragraph, which to me perfectly sets the tone and scene: London. 1888. The Whitechapel district…

The guts of London are laid out as if on a surgeon’s table. The narrow streets surge with pedestrians, tramps, carters and children flitting on mud-flecked lets – denizens of the great coal-gray smudgery piss-pot. Slip down through the smog, over hovels with garbage strewn across tar-papered roofs, down to the locals at their windows. Marionette arms test stiff laundry wings. The sound wafts up, the snap of umber linen on the wet, but no on rises above the cornices.

The first part of the book – approximately 3/4 of the total – covers the Ripper murders. And the murderer himself. Because this is no whodunnit. We know, quite early on, exactly who the Ripper is. The twist here, however, is that we get inside the Ripper’s head. We visit his past, his upbringing, his family, his training… what led him to become the heartless murderer that reaches out across history? For this is a take on the Ripper that speaks to the Hannibal Lector generation, those of us fascinated with profiling our serial killers. The Passion of the Ripper is a psychological take on Jack the Ripper, one that is unlike any I’ve encountered before.

And although I’m certainly no Ripperologist – merely someone who’s familiar with the murders and the setting – this novel reads and feels as if everything is rooted in fact. All the details are correct. The chronology is spot-on. The victims are rendered true to life. Even the Ripper here is based on an actual real-life suspect, a man whom the investigating officer became convinced years later was, in fact, the actual murderer.

The character of the Ripper here is so good, that I found myself getting a bit bored with the prattlings of Mary Kelley, and wishing we’d get back to the Ripper. Perhaps that’s why I felt the strongest part of the book is the last part – Part 2, the final quarter or so of the book.

In Part 2, we see what became of the Ripper in the years after the murders. And, in a great showcase of thriller writing, a satisfying ending is delivered. One that leaves the reader nodding and smiling, secure that justice was served in the end. An ending that, as it turns out, threads the needle between fact and fiction almost perfectly.

Maybe Jack the Ripper got his just reward after all? By the end of The Passion of the Ripper, you might think so.

This is a short but powerful novel, a perfect read for a few hours during this hot summer. I highly recommend it.

And if you have a Kindle, it’s a marvelous bargain at just $4.99. The Kindle version is well-formatted, with bold text done correctly throughout, and both a forward and afterward by the author. It lacks an active table of contents – but I suspect from the structure of the book itself that the printed version might not have one either.

Finally, I should point out that in all fairness, I’m acquainted with the author. However, as Nick well knows, if I don’t like something that one of my friends has created, I usually just keep my mouth shut about it. That is definitely not the case here. I’ll be recommending The Passion of the Ripper to anyone who’s looking for a great book to read – because that is exactly what this is.

And since Nick is a friend, I have to end this by saying that if you do end up reading and enjoying this book, you should definitely check out his other historical novels, which you can find at his website NicastroBooks  (http://www.nicastrobooks.com/novels.htm).

It’s a hot summer out there, folks. You can help save the planet and your sanity by reading as much as possible during it.

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Clearing the Netfix Queue

Netflix is great. I love being able to rent movies for as long as I want, and being able to pick from such a diverse selection. But occasionally (and I know I’m not the only one who does this) I just don’t get around to watching that rental. For a long time. You know what I mean. The movie sounds interesting, you put it in your queue, but when it arrives, it’s not something you want to watch right this minute…

In my case, I toss the little red packet onto a director’s chair – the designated area for “to watch” items – sure that I will watch it the next day. Most of the time I do. But sometimes… sometimes they sit there for a while. It’s not that I don’t want to watch the movie… I just don’t want to watch it right this minute, you know…

A month goes by. Movies that I am much more interested in watching pile up in the queue. I should just send the film back, right? I can always rent it again some other time. But I don’t. Another month goes by. Now, once again, I’ve come to another movie that I want to watch, just (you guessed it) not right now – and now I have two movies that I’m not watching right away, taking up two spots of my precious Netflix queue.

I think that it is situations like this that keep Netflix in business, actually. All this time I’m paying my $14.95 a month, as two disks sit unwatched. Oh, and the disks in questions are Blu-Ray, so it’s an extra dollar for them.

Then I start to feel guilty. What if there is someone out there who is desparate to see the movie that I have? What if it is their favorite movie of all time, but they can’t see it. They’ve been waiting for weeks. Hoping, praying that the moron who’s had that film rented for months now will finally return it. Yes, I know that’s not the way Netflix actually works. But guilt is guilt.

So this weekend, I decided: Enough is enough. I’m going to watch both of these movies this weekend, dammit, and then send them back. One on Friday night, one on Saturday night. And finally, I did just that.

Julie & Julia (2009). 123 minutes, Columbia Pictures. Directed by Nora Ephron.

This is a delightful, funny, heartwarming, and charming movie. I resisted it for quite a while. Saying to me, “Hey, it’s Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in a Nora Ephron fim about female empowerment, romance, and fulfillment in two different centuries!” is not a way to get me into a theater. “Hey, it’s about a blogger!” is also not a way to get me into a theater. After all, I’m a blogger myself, and I have to think that watching a movie about me working on my blog would be only slightly less boring that watching an experimental film about bread rising.

But this film is about Julia Child. And I love Julia Child. Or at least, I love her cookbook. I’ve had Mastering the Art of French Cooking as one of my basic cooking books for years. It’s the go-to source for all of the basic techniques of food creation. In my opinion, you can just remove the word “French” from the title of the book. Almost everything in the book is the basics of how to cook good food. Julia teachs how to hold a knife. How to slice every kind of vegetable. How to prepare every type of meat. What the various types of basic sauces are, and how to make them.

I’ve absorbed so much of what Julia teaches in the book, that when I describe a recipe that I’ve created or tweaked on my own, I will frame it in terms of techniques from the book. “Well, first, you start with a basic Julia Child White Sauce, the cream version that’s in the Sauces chapter, and then…”

Julie and Julia is a story of two different people in two different centuries, linked together across time by a love of cooking and writing. The “Julie” of the story is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a modern-day woman just turning thirty. She lives in a small Queens (New York City) apartment with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), and works at a grinding government cubicle job, answering phone calls from angry members of the public. She’s foundering in life; her dreams of being a writer are slowly fading away, and she feels increasingly that only the strength of her loving husband keeps her going. She needs a change. She needs a project. And so, in late 2002, she decides that her project will consist of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the period of exactly one year. And she will write a blog about the entire process, and how it changes her life.

The “Julia” in the story is, of course, Julia Child. The film begins in 1949 as Julia and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in France, to begin a four-year assignment there. While Paul is busy at his new job, Julia tries desperately to find something to keep her busy. She begins taking French lessons. She tries her hand at learning how to make hats. She learns how to get around Paris, and enjoys shopping and the markets. Every night, she and Paul eat a fabulous French dinner at a different restaurant. One night, Paul tells her to do whatever it is that she likes most. “I like to eat!” she says. And right then and there, she decides to enter culinary school and become a chef.

Although Julie and Julia never meet, their stories parallel each other. The film works by cutting back and forth every ten minutes or so between the two characters and the two different time periods. Julia Child becomes a chef, and then, with the help of two other female French chefs, decides to write the ultimate English language book of how to cook in the French style. We watch her struggles and triumphs over the decade it takes to bring the book to life and finally see it published to glowing reviews. We pass through a variety of different diplomatic posts for the Childs, until the McCarthy era puts an end to their style of open and casual diplomacy.

Back in 2002, we watch Julie Powell as she works her way through Julia’s book, now in its 47th printing. Her daily blog postings become more and more famous. The New York Times writes an article about her efforts. And Judith Jones – the still-living publisher who approved Julia Child’s book nearly fifty years ago – schedules a visit to see how she’s doing.

The whole movie is done in a bright, cheery, almost whimsical style that suits the story matter perfectly. Meryl Streep, always wonderful, is awesome as Julia Child. Although the modern parts of the movie are fine and dandy for what they are, it’s the period pieces set in France of the 1950′s that are the heart of this film. I also have to give a special shout-out to Jane Lynch (currently famous as evil cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester on Glee), who plays Julia’s sister Dorothy to perfection.

It’s a happy movie, and I won’t keep you in suspense: It has a happy ending. Julie Powell ends up turning her blog into a book, which becomes this movie. And Julia Child does get her french cooking book published, which becomes a best-seller, leading to her becoming a TV star on the long-running cooking show The French Chef.

9 (2009). 79 minutes, Focus Features. Directed by Shane Acker.

My second feature of the weekend was a much, much different kind of film. 9 is a computer-animated fable that takes place after an apocalypse has apparently destroyed every living plant and animal on the face of the Earth, including all of humanity. The only “living” things are nine rag doll things, created by a dying scientist in an attempt to ensure that life will continue. Each doll has a hand-written number on its back, in the order they were created. To the last one, 9, he has left instructions and a special device that, he hopes, can restore life to the planet. But he dies before he can give 9 the instructions on what he’s supposed to do next…

And so 9 comes to life in a dead world, his first sight the dead scientist’s body lying on the floor in front of him. Soon, he meets up with the other eight rag doll things that were brought to live by the scientist as well. Who are being chased and captured by some bizarre robot that has the skull of a dog for a head. And there’s this little green disk thing that glows with these odd symbols and –

You know, I’ll just stop right there with the plot summary, because it doesn’t matter. 9 is quite enjoyable when taken at the level of “Wow! Does this look cool!!” But taken on the level of narrative or characters or plot – no way, man. Just forget it. 9 is probably the best-looking film I’ve seen in a long time that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I’m actually serious when I say it’s fun to watch – I certainly watched the whole movie, and didn’t feel bored or cheated at all. But it really is just sort of a moving art piece.

The set design and artwork on 9 is stunning. The look of the devastated alternative steampunk future world is beautifully desolate. The odd creations concocted by the Brain Machine to go chase and… uh… kill, I guess… the rag dolls are a joy to watch. But when the movie was over, I thought “Huh. That would’ve made a really great short film”.

And lo and behold, a look at the extras on the disk reveal that, in fact, 9 was a short animated film originally, and was later expanded into a full-length feature. The original short film is included here as well. I watched the short. It had everything that was cool in the feature, without the meaningless plot and expensive voiceover actors. I can see immediately how it must’ve impressed the hell out of anyone who saw it.

But. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone wanted to turn such an excellent little short work into a puzzling feature length film. I started putting together possible scenarios in my head: Did the studio want the talents of creator Shane Acker, but the only way to get him was to agree to make a feature-length version of his short? Did he have an even stranger idea that they turned down in lieu of this one? Did they look at District 9 and say “Hey! We should take some other science fiction short film and turn it into a feature too!” Did they approve the entire concept while stoned? Inquiring minds want to know!

Enough about that. Summing up my weekend double feature: Julie & Julia is a near-perfect little film with both comedic and historical elements that should appeal to just about everyone. 9 is a odd but artistic experimental film that will probably appeal to die-hard science fiction fans and/or animation buffs only.

And now, my Netflix queue is clear and I’m ready for further punishment. If only I could remember what’s coming in the mail next…

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