Friday, September 30, 2011

Bike Tour Atlanta, Part 2

As I mentioned in the first part of this series about my excellent bike tour of Atlanta, Georgia, biking was the perfect way to experience all the best parts of the city.

My personal guide Robyn was kind enough to send me this set of photos that she took. The first one is me riding towards the state capitol, then a couple of me in front of some of the city's impressive pop-culture graffiti art.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Atlanta Rocks: A Personal Bike Tour, Part 1

I attended a conference of about 170 marketers from The Nature Conservancy (of which I am one) a couple of weeks ago. The conference was really interesting and fun, and I made lots of connections to people in my network. It was held at Chateau Elan Winery (made famous in this video and lampooned on Family Guy) about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, a town that Kim Basinger once invested in with a since-failed plan to turn it into a movie-making locale.

Anyway, I intended to do more networking with a four-hour bike ride organized as part of the conference. But when I arrived downtown at the funky Bicycle Tours of Atlanta (pictured above to the left), I was the only one to show, which made for a great personal tour by my guide Robyn.

I'll take us through several sites of Atlanta, which I always thought of as a cold-hard batch of skyscrapers plopped down along Interstate 95 somewhere between North Carolina, New Orleans, and Florida, over the course of my next several blog posts.

One of my favorite stops was Oakland Cemetary, where legendary golfer Bobby Jones is buried. My favorite site there, however, was Margaret Mitchell's grave (pictured to the right). She basically supplied me with everything I've ever known about Atlanta through her classic novel Gone With the Wind. We also later biked past the spot downtown where her life was cut tragically short by a car that hit her as she crossed the street.

Finally, for now, we stopped in the lovely Central Park-like Piedmont Park, with its wide expanses of recreation areas and beautiful views of the skyline (pictured to the right).

Exploring cities I've never been to on bike is by far the best way to experience them. Why more people haven't discovered this travel trick is beyond me, and I wish my 20 or so colleagues who had signed up for this trip would have joined me. Then again, because they didn't show, I got to see many more sites.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Classic Reads: A Farewell to Arms Introduces Us to Hemingway's "Lost Generation"

The is the second in a series of posts about classic books that I, as an English literature undergrad major, really need to read or re-read to make my life complete. 
A beautifully described story combined with a depressing ending is pretty much par for the course for the nearly unmatchable Ernest Hemingway. And A Farewell to Arms, described by his mentor Gertrude Stein as his best novel, is no exception.

The story, at its essence, is about how war, and really society in general, "kills you in the end." This is especially true of the World War I generation of which Hemingway writes about, and he argues that those who fought in it became a generation of cynics. Hemingway, having served as an ambulance driver in the Italian army, bases a lot of the social commentary on his own wartime experiences, including the nearly-unheard-of-at-the-time unmarried love affair between American Frederic Henry and British nurse Catherine Barkley.

While serving on ambulance duty in the Italian army, Frederic is caught in the line of mortar shrapnel, which turns his legs to "hamburger." While he recovers in Catherine's care in Milan, they take carriage rides in the park, attend horse races, and dine in street-side cafes. Right before he leaves to return to duty, Catherine informs Frederic she's pregnant but refuses to marry him.

With morale sinking and a once-winnable battle looking more hopeless, Frederic's best friend Rinaldi contracts syphilis. And it gets worse. Retreating, their vehicle gets stuck and they have to hide in barns, dodge Austrian patrols, and even avoid trigger-happy Italian sentries on their own side. Finally, Frederic is grabbed by an italian military policeman and accused of being a spy. Sitting in prison and awaiting execution, he determines the war is over for him and he should say his "farewell to arms."

While the guards are busy executing another prisoner, Frederic is able to escape and swim down an icy river. He can't find Catherine in Milan but eventually reunites with her and they escape to the mountains of Montreux, Switzerland. They play chess, cards, go skiing, and take long walks, discussing what they will do at the end of the war. But then the baby is delivered dead and Catherine soon dies as well, in Frederic's arms. The story ends with him walking through the streets, aimless and broken.

This is clearly one of the greatest novels of all time. However, it's only my second-favorite of Hemingway's "lost generation" novels. The Sun Also Rises is in my top three novels, along with The Great Gatsby and On the Road.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers Win the Super Bowl This Time?

It was a heartbreaking ending last year, losing to the Packers in a thrilling Super Bowl. But good things appear to be on the horizon for my Pittsburgh Steelers, who are picked as the team to beat by one of my favorite sports opinion blogs, ESPN's Grantland. It all starts in about 24 hours, with Game 1 against the fierce rival Baltimore Ravens.

You know, the team that always manages to be in the playoff hunt every year? Them? They're our favorites. The Steelers were 12-4 with a Pythagorean expectation of 12.1 wins despite missing Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games and an offensive line for the entire season. They made it to the Super Bowl with Troy Polamalu at 60 percent and even less of an offensive line, and while they got outplayed by the Packers, they were competitive in the process.
We can keep this very brief: If you want to know why they're our Super Bowl pick, look at the schedule that the gods have gifted these Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens will be a weaker team, so the division won't be as tough. They get four games against the NFC West and four more against the AFC South, which looks weaker by the day. (Peyton Manning might be back in time for their Week 3 matchup, but he certainly won't be 100 percent.) And while they have to play the Patriots at home, their other first-place matchup comes against the Chiefs. That has 13 wins written all over it, and if the Steelers win 13 games, they're going to have the no. 1 seed in the AFC. That gives them a better shot of making it to the Super Bowl than any other team in football. And that's why they're the favorites.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Love and Other Drugs Takes Gyllenhaal High, Hathaway Low

Love and Other Drugs comes at you in waves. There are parts that are funny, parts that are unbelievably cheesy, parts that are questionably written and acted, and parts that are really powerful.

I was won over particularly by the strong (the "powerful part") ending. But it was sometimes a struggle to get there over the course of this off-and-on relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal (whose previous highlights are pretty high in Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, and Jarhead) and Anne Hathaway.

The film is definitely one of the better ones ever made as far as exposing the way the pharmaceutical industry works. It's also probably the best one to ever educate an audience about the very-serious Parkinson's disease. So those are both pretty noble traits.

On the flip side, the fact that it required a lead actress who would be naked a lot of time probably narrowed the candidate field down quite a bit. Hathaway is annoying and really kind of unlikeable most of the time. Someone you could build up sympathy for might have made this an Academy Award-type contender.

Gyllenhaal is his usual excellent, whip-smart, and handsome self as a man making his way up Pfizer's corporate ladder. He masquerades as a shallow drug salesman before being uncovered as an actual human being, and a good one at that. Oliver Platt as a fellow drug salesman and Hank Azaria as a Viagra-gobbling big-time doctor are also just right for their roles.

I think the fact that I'm so torn between liking this movie and hating it means it gets a perfectly mediocre rating of ...

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

J. Mascis Rocks the Kennedy Center

Dinosaur Jr.'s guitar master J. Mascis stumbled into the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage tonight for a free, after-work, hour-long "acoustic" solo set that relied on a nice dose of effects that ratcheted up the sound to almost-daring levels for such an august locale.

The show was composed of classic songs from the 80s and 90s, with the best bits of Mascis' 2000s output. Max, Fran, and I and the other attendees (hipsters, art supporters, and intrigued but ultimately confused and sometimes-sleeping tourists) were treated to upbeat tunes almost the whole way through. That was until J. had to throw in the extended proggy "Alone" that featured a mix of sweet pickings and amazing tones out of his guitar that sounded like thunder and creepy door squeakings.

And then he walked out, simply saying that was all the time he had. The setlist:

The Wagon (Green Mind - 1991)
Missed It (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
Circle (Edie Brickell cover)
Crumble (Beyond - 2007)
"There's an Ocean" ?
Get Me (Where You Been - 1993)
Not the Same (Where You Been - 1993)
Listen to Me (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
Not Enough (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
A song that was, I think, from 2007's Beyond
Quest (Dinosaur - 1985)
A classic from maybe Green Mind that I can't remember the name of
Little Fury Things (You're Living All Over Me - 1987)
Alone (The John Peel Sessions - 2003)

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tribes and Soldiers Weave a Thrilling Story in Lost in Shangri-La

I recently was convinced to read Lost in Shangri-La after seeing author Mitchell Zuckoff eloquently explain the story's true WWII adventure as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Apparently I'm not the only one impressed. Amazon has named it the top book of 2011. I don't often read war books, but this one really captured my imagination. Twenty-four officers went on a joy ride in 1945 on a plane called the Gremlin Special into an area named Shangri-La, on the island of Dutch New Guinea in Indonesia, to bear witness to reports of cannibalistic tribes living in a nearly inaccessible valley untouched by modernity.

Only three survive the eventual crash, and one happens to be a gorgeous movie-star-like WAC named Margaret Hastings (pictured above), from Owego, New York. Hastings, John McCollom, and Kenneth Decker trek through treacherous terrain from the mountaintop crash with life-threatening injuries, until they make it to an open clearing, where they are in plain sight of warring tribes who spare the strange white visitors only because they think they are gods of some sort.

The sometimes treacherous, but more often touching, dynamics of the warriors, dressed in penis gourdes, and the American crew develop over the seven weeks of the story. They finally leave the valley after military medics and other rescuers parachute in to dress their wounds, get them food, and develop a wild plan to airlift them out by having a plane fly past and grab a separate glider plan by a hook and a rope.

Many years later, interviews with the natives reveal that they remember their visitors from back in the spring of '45 through stories passed down from generations. Shangri-La was soon commercialized to a small degree after the media exposure to the adventure. Missionaries went in, and a town of about 10,000 people sprung up. It is described now as littered with trash and filled with tribe members often wandering around lost begging the few tourists for cigarettes.

This is a quick read and well worth any time invested, especially for anyone interested in the few pockets of primitive people still remaining in the world. Zuckoff probably could have added a little more of the story of the tribes, but there is a lot here. And his reporter-like accounting and structure display a natural storyteller's talent.

**** out of ***** stars

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Classic Reads: The Scarlet Letter Explores Sin in 1800s New England

The is the first in a (hopefully) long series of posts about classic books that I, as an English literature undergrad major, really need to read or re-read to make my life complete.

One of the things about Nathaniel Hawthorne, like with other authors such as William Faulkner and James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, is that it never feels like there's enough time in life. Ernest Hemingway is short and to the point. So is F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But Hawthorne fills his writing with diversions into the deep thoughts of his characters and interruptions in story flow for his own speculations on motives and the narrator's interactions with the reader, like an 1800s version of TV's The Office.

But beneath all of Hawthorne's quirks, The Scarlet Letter is one heck of a story, especially considering he wrote it in Salem, Massachusetts (amazingly over the course of a few short months). Home to the Salem Witch Trials a century-and-a-half earlier, this feels like the reflection of a past that still haunts the town and the Boston region at the time of publication in 1850.

Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a bright red "A" on her breast at all times for being convicted of adultery for having a daughter in her husband's long absence. Minister Arthur Dimmesdale, one of the Puritan leaders prosecuting her, is the secret father of her illegitimate child.

Also in the public square watching Hester admit her sins that day is Roger Chillingsworth, the old man married to Hester who has been away exploring the western wilderness for years. Exacerbating the townfolk's impressions of her as a witch, her daughter Pearl is a wild and undisciplined child who appears to be an evil spirit unfit for Christian society.

Chillingsworth follows the proceedings from afar until he intentionally becomes Dimmesdale's roommate, suspecting the priest of being his wife's lover. Dimmesdale, meanwhile, becomes weaker and weaker with guilt over the situation, oddly appearing stronger and stronger in his fervent sermons to his congregation.

Seven years after her public condemnation, Hester and Pearl are walking through the woods when they come upon Dimmesdale. The priest says, "Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter on your bosom! Mine burns in secret!" Hester informs him that Chillingsworth, his roommate, is her estranged husband, and is cruelly making Dimmesdale's living hell far worse. She convinces him to make one more sermon and then escape to Europe to live with her and Pearl.

Dimmesdale admits his adultery to his congregation, exposes Chillingsworth's sinister nature, then collapses to his death. Chillingsworth dies a hunched and shriveled man within the year, leaving a fortune to Pearl, who takes her mother to Europe. Hester lives the rest of her life in better stead, but never does remove the "A" from her chest and is buried back in Salem with a gravestone labeled only with a red "A."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Date Night Not a Match with Funny

Well, I just keep seeing really bad movies lately. Does Netflix have any good new releases?

You would think Tina Fey and Steve Carell would have a pretty difficult time making a stinker. Especially when they also lure Marky Mark Wahlberg, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Common, Ray Liotta, Mila Kunis, James Franco, and Leighton Meester.

Somehow Date Night raked in some pretty good box-office cash and critics didn't totally blast it. I guess the action side of the movie made a lot of people happy. Action isn't my forte, and when this movie is funny, it's really only kinda funny.

Carell and Fey play an accountant and a real-estate agent who lead a typical married life in the Jersey suburbs. When they decide to go out into Manhattan for a date, Carell steals somebody's reservation at a hot restaurant called Claw (where they answer the phones: "Claw. You're welcome"). Then a case of mistaken identity sets in and the couple has to replicate Carell's spy-action performance in Get Smart.

This could have been so much more than a big payday for two of TV's biggest laugh makers.

** out of ***** stars