Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Travels with Grandma

I've started a small auxilliary blog to detail my traveling. You can check it out here:
Travels with Grandma.

I just posted a Trip Report (TM) of our recent short break in Germany. The break was short, but the posts are not, so you might want to print the sucker out for later reading enjoyment.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Weekend Reading

What will I be reading this weekend? Come on, guess. I bet you can figure it out.

Yes, I, along with a billion other kids and kids-at-heart around the world will be stuck into the next installment in the Harry Pottery series: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I am especially excited because I won't have to wait for the book to arrive from Peter and I are disdainful and distrustful of the "localization" of the HP books into American English for the US market. So, we'd order our copy from the British Amazon and then pay exorbinant shipping costs to get it about 2 days after everyone else.

My plan for Saturday is simple. I managed to reserve a copy at one of the few bookstores that is not doing the late-night opening thing. I'm not that pushed about it - it's not like I'm young enough to stay up all night reading anymore. I have to do a 5 mile Long Run and my route just happens to end smack dab in the middle of Dun Laoghaire, just down the block from the bookstore. Yep, I'm going to be sweaty and gross but I don't care. I want to get my paws on that book.

I plan to take the bus home, even though I might disgust fellow passengers. (Maybe not - Dubliners on the bus have pretty strong stomachs. Sweat is probably the least disgusting bodily fluid you'll encounter on the bus.) I wouldn't mind walking, but I never mastered the read-and-walk move, so the bus it is for me. I must get into the book before Peter. Possession is, after all, 9/10 of the law.

So, what is it about the Harry Potter series that can turn the most mild-mannered of readers into wild-eyed, book-addicted freaks? It's the perfect creation and realization of another world. JK Rowling has created this place that is easy to believe in, even though it is completely unreal. The writing isn't always as crisp as it could be, but the characters and the setting are so well-done, I can forgive just about anything.

Let's contrast this for a moment with Dan Brown, he of the mind-bogglingly sales-succcessful Davinci Code. Dan Brown's got plot. He's a master of plot. His downfall (besides that fact that he is far too pleased with his own cleverness) is his disgustingly one dimensional characters. It's a weird paradox. You don't care about his people, but you keep reading because want to see how Dan is going to solve the riddle. It's like an action movie - it's all about the explosions and the movement.

JK Rowling writes a mean plot too, but her books are more than just a relentless race through a series of events. Her characters jump off the page with heart and personality. Her settings ooze into your consciousness and make you wish you could creep through the dark halls of Hogwarts. The books have also grown along with their characters. Contrast the first book with the fourth or fifth books. It's been great to watch the characters grow up and the books have become correspondingly more dark and complicated.

Don't bother calling me this weekend. I'm not answering the phone. Unless it's Harry.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Picture of Tenacity

When my brother Shane was in high school, he and a friend of his decided that the definitive image of futility (or maybe it was desperation) was a bum, sitting beneath an underpass in the rain, trying to cut his hair with the smooth metal edge of a wooden ruler. A rather vivid and apt description, don't you think?

I was thinking about such things today as I was doing my long run - 7 miles this week although it was such a good day and I felt so fresh that I did 8. I was thinking about the definitive image of tenacity. It's something I actually saw, albeit on television, when I was a kid. You might remember it. The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the first time in Olympic history that there was a women's marathon.

About 15 minutes after Joan Benoit won the race, a woman staggered through the tunnel onto the track. She looked like she was having some sort of terrible stroke or something. Her body was twisted, the pain was all over her face. She couldn't even stand up straight and she had to stop a few times, as if pulling herself together. But she kept going - one foot in front of the other - waving off all medical assistance. She didn't want to be disqualified. She just wanted to finish the race.

I had to look up the woman's name - Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss from Switzerland. To my 12 year-old's eyes, she was the picture of tenacity, of pure stubbornness channeled into achieving a goal. It was an impressive and awesome sight. I figured that finishing a marathon was the ultimate in human achievement. If you could run a marathon, if you could finish especially when you were suffering near-debilitating pain, then you could do anything.

Twenty-one years later, I've finished two marathons and am training for my third. I don't have the child-me's guileless belief that a marathoner can do anything. I know my limits. There are plenty of things I can't do. I can't fly an airplane or a helicopter, believe me, I've tried. I don't have a jump shot. I don't think I'll ever master the delicacy of meringuing eggs. I can't draw, paint or sing. I can't fire a gun, change people's behavior or save the world.

But I can keep putting one foot in front of the other. Whether it's writing a book a paragraph at a time or hauling my butt up a steep hill. There's something simple and pure about allowing a single-minded stubbornness to push you to finish something important that you've started.

As I was finishing up my run, the song playing was by a friend of mine's band, Pike 27. One line stood out - "can't turn back when you've gone this far" - and I kept that in the back of my head as I climbed the last hill on my route. I'll never win a race, but as long as I finish what I start, my job is done.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Famous Faces

British and Irish television is a lot different than American television. I'm not saying it's a 100% improvement over American television, but it's at least 75% better. Despite the crappy reality television shows ("Celebrity Love Island") and overly melodramatic soaps ("Coronation Street"), you have a lot of decent choices on any given television night. The British and Irish seem to have taken the principle of reality television (showing real-life people in unique or empathy-inspiring situations) and taken it down a slightly more measured and learned path.

One of the best examples of this (and my newest favorite show) is on BBC1 on Sunday nights - "Famous Faces". The premise is intriquing. Rolf Harris rounds up 3 contemporary British artists and arranges for them to create a portrait of someone famous in British life. I'm not talking Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie famous. I'm talking former Cabinet ministers or old British television personality level of famousness. Real-people famous, is how I think about it. It's one of those situations where if the person was behind you in the supermarket, you might find them familiar but mightn't necessarily be able to place the face with a name.

The format is simple. The painters get a 5-hour long sitting with the Famous Face in question. At the end of the sitting, they can take photographs of the subject. The Face doesn't get to have a peak at the paintings at all. The painters then have 2 weeks to work on the painting in their own studios. After that, the painters and the paintings are brought to the Face, who makes the decision on which one he or she is going to keep.

At twenty-five minutes long, the show is well-paced and by the end, you're also dying to see how the paintings turned out and which one The Face will keep. The show fascinates me on several different levels.

Human interaction. I love seeing that painters at the start. They are all nervous and twitty, wondering who's going to be their Famous Face. They look like kindegarteners on the first day of school. But when the initial introduction is done and they take up seats behind their canvasses, they are transformed into consummate professionals. It's neat to watch their nervousness give way to contentment and competence when they're in their millieu.

Individual perspectives. Each of the three painters sits with the same Face. They're each seeing the same person. But when you see the finished products, you realize that they each saw something entirely different. Although each painting is recognizably of The Face, the painters present it in a different way.

Insight into the artisitc process. I love listening to the painters talk about the finished products and how they got from the 5-hour sitting to the completed portrait. Invariably, they use the sitting to just create studies and then go for a whole different approach when they get back to the sanctity of the studio. I am fascinated by the choices they make - to scrape down an entire canvas and start over, to use a particular angle to highlight an aspect of the face, to use certain background colors to bring out different colors in the subject.

My perception of beauty. This has been the best, and most unexpected, outcome for me of watching this show - a change in my preception of beauty in general and of aging in particular. I can see that aging doesn't have to be the horrible plastic-surgery-requiring travesty that the Western popular media makes it out to be. Two of the most beautiful portraits I've seen were done of Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary for Northern Ireland. You'd call her strong and smart and tough but you'd probably never call her beautiful. The portaits done of her caught her intelligence but also her humor. They made her wrinkles suit her, and her wry and matter-of-fact way of dealing with life. I've noticed recently that I'm starting to look a bit wrinkly around the eyes and although I'll probably still smother Oil of Olay on the suspected areas, I don't fear the aging process quite so much. There is something to the whole character aspect of it.

My only disappointment with "Famous Faces" is that the series is done for awhile. I did hear that they will be bringing some of the portraits on tour to Belfast in August and September and I've already begun lobbying for a field trip.