Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gorby Versus the Zombies

Well, it's all downhill from here -- human society has hit its cultural peak. This is the greatest thing ever, this week at least --



Found via A Fistful of Euros. It's apparently a Russian musician/group known as "ANJ." And it's fantastic.

Breaking New Ground

The Guardian recently ran a list of "Tibor Fischer's top 10 Eastern European novels" -- I'm not sure who Tibor Fischer is, but he's apparently a novelist and of Hungarian heritage, so he's got the goods in my book. In an attempt to get off the Lawrence Block habit, at least for a bit, I'm gonna try to read them all. I've already read four -- Švejk, "Omon Ra," "The Joke" and "General of the Dead Army" -- but it's years since I read even those, so I think I can approach this with a relatively fresh take.

This may be a rather nerdy and unproductive goal, but I'll take what I can get as far as self-improvement these days.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Simple Pleasures

If I found out I were to be executed tomorrow (it could happen!), my request for my final meal would, most likely, be white pizza from the seedy little joint around the corner and a bottle of red wine. Either that or beer and wings. Maybe I'd cheat and try to get both -- white pizza with wings on the side, wine with a beer chaser.

The pizza place regularly gets about 1.5 stars on yelp.com, but I love it -- it's quick, two blocks from me, and they make a good white pizza. Granted, my sole requirement for white pizza is "it has to go well with wine," and everything goes well with wine. But they satisfy that requirement. The guys running the place are stoned out of their collective gourd, which I appreciate -- like I've said, I occasionally enjoy it when people play to stereotypes. Granted, that occasionally means that they translate "extra garlic" as "give him a tub of garlic-butter dipping sauce," but I can live with that. (It's good for crust-dipping, anyway, though probably not so good on the heart.)

I was kind of bored this evening, debating whether to go out -- now, with a pizza and a bottle of wine (Little Penguin Shiraz, $7.99 at Publix -- it gets the desirable "100" score on the PPA wine ratings table), I'm one happy man.

* * *

#32 -- "The Burglar in the Library" by Lawrence Block

This is officially ludicrous, and ends now. Just pray I don't pick up one of Donald Westlake's "Dortmunder" novels. One more thing to blame on Lawrence Block: I now feel like I should take up scotch-drinking.

* * *

Brushback had a Samiam-referencing post title the other day, making me think about that band for the first time in years -- probably nearly as long as it had been since I thought about Pressure Release. Samiam were (are? they seem to be one of those bands that I'd see on a present-day flyer, and feel a moment of surprise that they were still around)(were/are: their Wikipedia page is a bit uncertain, and they still have an official webpage up, but it's slow as shit)(ok, are) one of those bands that lots of people got into, but I never really saw the appeal -- I'd buy their albums, be unimpressed, then buy the next one hoping to finally catch on.

But they had (in my books) one brief shining moment. They had a song on New Red Archives' "Hardcore Breakout" compliation, and "New Queen" still sends me just as much as it did when I first heard it, half my life ago. That song provided the soundtrack to a roadtrip across the American West, and it seemed to contain all the hope and promise (in its sound, at least -- the lyrics are kind of bitter) that life seemed to be filled with in those days. There was another song on that comp which had the same impact, Jawbreaker's "Rich," which remains one of my favorite Jawbreaker songs -- but since I loved Jawbreaker, I'm writing about Samiam rather than them today.

It's not an uncommon thing -- the phrase "one-hit wonder" is popular for a reason. But it strikes me as a bit odd that a band that left me cold 99% of the time could, that one time, hit it right with a song that I've now loved for about half my life.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, probably about the time that their major label debut came out, I took a date to see them in downtown Tucson. It was a major bummer all around -- I ran into an old friend who was kind of horribly strung out, and then Samiam's singer was wearing overalls, a fashion trend that I'd prefer to pretend never happened. They weren't very memorable, and I didn't see the girl too many times after that.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Predictable

I probably should have seen this coming: after reacquainting myself with Bernie Rhodenbarr, Noah e-mailed me to say it had inspired him to pick up one of the Burglar books ("The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams") for the first time in years, and then somehow "Ted Williams" found its way back into my hands. (I didn't read it enough in Albuquerque.) And that wasn't the end of it.

#30 -- "The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams" by Lawrence Block

#31 -- "The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart" by Lawrence Block

And you'd think that was enough, but I started "The Burglar in the Library" this morning. Everything I said before holds; these two may have been my favorite of the series, though that may be because they tackled subjects (sports cards in "Ted," old movies and Eastern Europe in "Bogart") close to my heart. The Burglar books are dangerous in two ways -- they make burglary seem like a really fun career, and worthwhile too, and they make New York seem like a city where everyone exchanges patter that would make Nick and Nora Charles jealous, and the bars are filled with witty drinkers rather than pink-polo-shirted douchebags. So when I move to New York and start breaking into apartments, Lawrence Block is to blame.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Chess King of Atlanta

I was out until three in the morning last night, which has become kind of a rarity for the Old Man of the Hills here, and had a couple of set-fast beliefs turned on their end. First off, I ended up at the Ballroom Lounge in the basement of the Highland Inn, a place I'd avoided since it opened -- I was certain, despite friends' protestations to the contrary, that I'd hate it, that it would be claustrophobic and awful. Instead, it's spacious, a bit quirky, and really pretty cool.

Then I ended up playing a game of drunken chess (like regular chess, except you're drunk) against a friend. Chess is a game that I've always thought you take up when you're tired of life -- the golf of board games. But I was completely wrapped up in the game, found myself thinking the moves through (when I've played chess in the past, it's with all the reserve and subtlety of a suicide bomber), and had a great time (and won). Am I actually a born chess player? Or have I just quieted down so much that I now come to it naturally?

* * *

#29 -- "Prague Spring" by Z.A.B. Zeman

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I've never found a really gripping book on the events, aside from a stark and impressive collection of photos put out by ... someone or other (I can't find my copy right now) some years back. And there don't appear to be any slated for the near future -- 2006 was marked by a couple great books looking back on the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but it looks like 1968's events aren't on the slate for this year.

So, this, which I've had for a while. It's a case study in the troubles of writing history as it's happening -- Zeman wrote this after the reforms but before the invasion, so a last chapter is kind of hurriedly revised to note "uh, and then the Soviets invaded. Crap." It's very adoring of Alexander Dubcek, who later learned the same lesson that subsequent reformers have -- it sucks to be the one to start the ball rolling. You can't do it without paying some heed to the conservative forces in power, and those who would support you will be upset that you aren't going far enough.

So 40 years later, "Prague Spring" reads rather incomplete. It's got some interesting bits -- insights on the Czech-Slovak relationship that I've never considered -- and some dull bits (since it's written about a Warsaw Pact nation, lots of the deadening language of Warsaw Pact theories and plans come into play). Someday someone's gonna write the book I want to read about the events of 1968, but for now I'm still waiting.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Old Friends

#28 -- "The Burglar on the Prowl" by Lawrence Block

Back in college, I spent a couple unscheduled days, broke and broken-down, in a rough part of Albuquerque. I didn't drink at the time, and most of my possessions were in the car in the mechanic's, so I stayed in my hotel room with one book: "The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams," by Lawrence Block. Having nothing else to do, I read it three straight times, cover to cover. It didn't get old.

Since then, I've always been a Bernie Rhodenbarr fan, though I haven't paid much attention in recent years. I picked this up recently for a quick read, and it's still fun. At first I found it enjoyable but not as funny as I found the books some years ago; by the end, though, I was laughing out loud pretty frequently.

If you're one of the people who likes to be able to figure out a mystery while you're reading it, you're screwed. Half the crucial characters don't appear until the end. And if you've read any of the previous novels, you'll recognize the formula (even if it's been some years).

No matter, for me at least. I had a blast, and it was fun to reacquaint myself with Bernie and the supporting characters after a decade or so. I may follow suit with the other Block series I loved, the Matthew Scudder novels. Or just go back and read "Ted Williams" three more times.

Lobster Lovers

I'm on a four-day weekend right now, which is pretty nice. When I was a kid four-day weekends would stretch before me, promising great delights, and then I'd spend all four days watching TV. I don't really watch much recreational television these days, but other than that I'm proving myself just as adept at wasting time as I was at eight.

I had a rather pleasant ethnic day yesterday, going to a little Mexican joint out on Buford Highway for lunch (finally found Mexican food that didn't taste like TV dinner, after living here for a mere nine years) followed by a trip to the Russian grocery that I occasionally frequent. At the Russian grocery, I found my new favorite beer, even if (as I suspect) it turns out to taste not that great:



My first thought was that it was lobster-flavored beer, which sounds awful, but that doesn't appear to be the case (I haven't opened it yet, so it could still surprise me!). This is great marketing all around: the name "Lobster Lovers;" the art showing a woman either sporting a giant lobster tattoo, or being attacked by a stealthy crustacean; and the slogan on the back, "Has life ever snapped at you? Grab it by the claws!" which shows that Lithuania has equaled America in goofy alcohol marketing slogans (it beats anything for Captain Morgan rum, that's for sure). That's right, it's Lithuanian, from the Rinkuškiai brewery. I'm pretty sure I've had Lithuanian beer before, but it failed to make much of an impression. I have a feeling this beer will follow suit, but at least they've got it in a memorable package.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Brnout

I'm paying jack shit attention to hockey these days -- other concerns, and the Avalanche and Thrashers have done nothing (Darcy Tucker? Ron Hainsey?) to make me giddy about the upcoming season.

But I'm always up for a good jersey, especially when it's an old Czech jersey.



This lovely ensemble is a HC Zetor Brno jersey, from the late 1980s. I've wanted one of these for a while -- a couple have gone up for auction in recent years, but I've always missed out. Until now, baby. Until now.

Brno is the Czech Republic's second city, and for a while HC Brno was the class of Czechoslovakia -- from 1955 through 1966, they won 11 out of 12 league titles. Not bad! But like another once-proud team, Dukla Jihlava -- they've fallen on hard times, and they've only been in the top Czech league once since 1992. Not good!

There have been some signs of a turnaround. Former St. Louis Blues defenseman Libor Zabransky (of course I own a Libor Zabransky jersey) has taken charge of the team, and has had them near the top of the second-highest league in recent years. But I guess (I'm relying on my poor translations) money problems persist, and despite a solid regular season in 2007-08, they failed to earn promotion to the Extraliga.



This jersey belonged to left-winger Jiri Rech, who played for Zetor Brno from 1984 through 1990. Judging by the condition of the jersey, he wore the same one just about the whole time. Click on the link (the hckometa.wz.cz website is a really cool site, by the way, for any other Czech hockey history nerds) to see him during his stint playing drums for Black Flag (Process of Weeding Out-era). He's a coach at a hockey school now, and his son's a goalie somewhere in the Czech leagues. Hokej.cz has him listed as an assistant coach for KLH Chomutov, but Chomutov's web page doesn't back that up, so I can only conclude that someone is lying.



Cool-ass number. So European.



The arms are just shredded -- I would have thought that Rech was a tough guy, but it appears he was up for about 15 penalty minutes a year. This leads me to the aforementioned conclusion -- that it was worn for several seasons -- but there's other possibilities. Perhaps someone pulled a knife on him on the ice. Perhaps the rats got to it.

I remember when old Soviet game-worn jerseys started showing up in the U.S., and collectors noted the distinctive smell. This one has that. It could have used some heavier laundering somewhere along the way, officially making my hobby even creepier.


Fiatagri, as you might have guessed, makes tractors. Actually, so does Zetor, the company that got its name on the front of the jersey. I'd surmise that Brno is/was a heavy agricultural community, but I don't think that's true. Wikipedia sheds no light. It does reveal, though, that writers Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, and Robert Musil all hail from there, which is pretty excellent.

There you have it: Brno. Smartassness aside, I love this jersey - it's my fourth (yes, fourth) Brno jersey and by far my favorite. Really gorgeous. So if you're one of the many hockey fans who will be vomiting blood as we watch the Red Wings go 82-0 this year -- join me instead as we root on HC Kometa (dunno why Zetor dropped 'em) Brno, as they hopefully return to the Czech Extraliga.

HC Kometa Brno: official hockey team of the Post-Pessimist Association, 2008-09!

As always, this jersey concept came from Tapeleg. Go visit him, and ask him why he hasn't done any of these in a while.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The West I Liked Best

#27 -- "Marking the Sparrow's Fall" by Wallace Stegner

As soon as I started reading this, I started loudly complaining that no one had ever tipped me off to Stegner's writing before, since it's right up my street. Which was a lie, of course -- "Angle of Repose" is pretty famous, and my friend Pete recommended Stegner to me a few years ago. I think I just concluded that it was probably boring.

But within the first lines of "Marking," I was saying "yes! That's it!" as he summed up in a few words something I've been struggling to say for years. This is a collection of Stegner's non-fiction writings about the western United States, and as (have I mentioned?) a child of that part of the world, it hit dead-on for me. Whenever I start rhapsodizing about the beauty of Colorado, rest assured Stegner's done it better (ok, usually about Utah).

It's more-or-less divided into three sections -- an appreciation of the West in general, environmentalism and conservation, and a sort-of combination of the two. It's done without overindulgence in sentiment and without preaching. Quite a good writer. I have two more of his books on the stack, and I'll probably get to them before too long.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Personal Waterloo

It's going to be the quest for a good pork green chili recipe. I tried it again this past weekend, with similar results to last time: tastes pretty good, too liquidy. I'm going to figure this out if it kills me (which it probably will).

The first time I ended up mixing in flour, which gave me big clumps of congealed pork fat and flour floating in the chili. Unappetizing. This time I opened the cupboard to find the flour bag full of ants. That might have given it some more consistency, but I'm not that brave an eater.

Any tips, world? Anyone just surfing by and happen to have a great pork green chili recipe to share? (If it works in a crock pot or slow cooker, bonus)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Atlanta Citizen of the Year

I meant to post this a while back -- this cracked me the hell up.

The Krog Tunnel's graffiti isn't really harmful and is even something of an attraction -- it's often creative and makes the tunnel interesting instead of dull. The stuff in the surrounding area is occasionally inspired, too.

The image of that guy sitting in a tree, waiting for people to come by with spray paint, cheers me to no end.

I was gonna walk down to the area and shoot some photos this morning, but it's July and I failed to get up before 8 a.m. So never mind. And, anyway, I shot some photos down there some years back, and (as far as I can tell) I never posted them. (If I did, I can't find them, though since my memory's shot that means nothing.)



Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Build Your Own Country

Have I ever raved about NationStates? I suspect not, but my memory is getting rather shoddy. I learned about it some years back from ICJ, and I've periodically returned for brief spells of addiction.

Basically, you set up the style of country you want, answer a few questions to give your thoughts on various social issues, and away you go. Twice a day (or less, if you prefer) you get new issues, and your rulings will gradually affect things like tax rates, civil liberties, the environment, and so on.

It's a real kick, though as I recall it has a brief play-period -- the questions start repeating themselves eventually, though maybe they've added a lot more. In any case, it always makes me laugh, and I've just started again. So come on by and say hi -- at Kloucekvania!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fuel Crisis ENDED

At the Peachtree race, there were a variety of booths for political candidates along the route -- we've got a primary election next Tuesday, so this was a pretty easy way to reach 100,000 or so.

None of them really kept my interest, except for one voluble fellow: he was enthusiastically touting the virtues of Senate candidate Rand Knight, devoting most of his spiel to one subject:

"HE CAN TURN KUDZU INTO GAS! AND HE WILL SHOW (pause) YOU (pause) HOW!!!"

Right there, cool stuff. If Atlanta's got anything in abundance, it's kudzu, and the idea of cramming it into my gas tank is extremely appealing. It sounds like I could get a year's worth of fuel for my car just on Ralph McGill alone. I figured this must be high flake value -- the name "Rand" conjures up "Atlas Shrugged" images, and, well, kudzu into gas?

The reality is far more grounded, though -- he just touts kudzu as a source for ethanol, which is hardly weird, and he seems like a pretty right-on guy, at least going by the PPA's standards. Enough so that I'll probably get out and vote for him next Tuesday. You heard it here first -- the Post-Pessimist Association's first-ever endorsement!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Independence Day

I took part in the local Peachtree Road Race 10K race yesterday. That's a bit misleading, because just by saying that I kind of imply I ran it (which would be wholly out of character). I walked it, though still managed to lose half my body weight to sweat (gained back in the following hours through a steady diet of beer and buffalo wings).

It was a pretty interesting experience -- in retrospect I want to say fun, though when I finally finished up that wasn't the first word that came to mind. This is a goddamn hot city, and very humid. Not news, I know, but it's instructive to occasionally get a reminder of just how hot and humid. Over the years I've met people who claim to find humidity invigorating, and all I can say to them is that they are sick, sick people. I'd be less bothered to find out they were into necrophilia. There's nothing good about humidity and it should be avoided at all costs.

Still, I'm glad I did it. My entire body still aches, nearly 36 hours later, but I've had a bit of a euphoric high ever since then -- everything (chicken wings! grocery stores! stop signs!) makes me really happy. I've always heard this stuff about endorphins, but this may be the first time I've experienced it.

It was also kinda cool to stroll down Peachtree Road. It's one of Atlanta's signature roads and its name gets referenced by anyone who's ever been here, but I rarely spend any time on it (its main drag is in Buckhead, a neighborhood I avoid like they hand out free cancer there). There were some cool things -- St. Philip's Cathedral, for one, was spraying out "holy water," according to a sign, which is either really funny or really freaky. Still not sure which. I was in the slow group so most of the free food was gone before I went by, alas. (though that just left more room for wings later.) There were also moments of sheer cruelty -- a local musician covering U2 at us, some guy yelling "you're halfway there!" after we crossed the two-thirds mark, and people drinking beer and watching from their balconies. Drinking beer! When I couldn't have any!

* * *

Doing the race this year, even at a slow pace, had a bit of unfortunate importance for me. I've debated whether to write about this on the blog, but it's gonna affect everything in my life for a while, so it's a bit unavoidable.

I found out about a month ago that I'm probably going to have heart surgery. I started having chest pains during stressful periods of work earlier this year, and after being referred to a cardiologist I found out that my self-diagnosis (i.e. "it's all in my head") wasn't correct -- it's believed at this point that my heart is slowly enlarging, so they want to operate on the faulty valve before it gets life-threatening.

The good news is that it's at this point a fairly common and routine procedure, and several friends have either told me of people they know who went through it and are a-ok, and one friend revealed that she'd had it herself, and is just fine. That's all made me feel a lot better. On the other hand, y'know, heart surgery. Sheesh. Not something that was on my 2008 to-do list.

Funny thing is that even before knowing about this I'd made some effort to become a healthier person: eating better, exercising more, drinking less (the latter has had the unfortunate side-effect of making this blog less interesting, I fear). And this is how my body pays me back. The last time I made a concerted effort to be healthier was in 2005 -- that culminated in me developing pneumonia, being bedridden for more than a week, and losing 30 pounds. The message is clear: healthy living = weakness. I'm taking up cocaine.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sy Hersh and the Knuckleball

A few days ago, a coworker came across the happy news that she shares a birthday with Seymour Hersh. We all agreed that was very cool -- if you've gotta share a birthday with someone, Hersh is a good, respectable choice. It prompted me to look mine up -- something that, honest to god, I don't think I'd ever done. The results are a mixed bag -- the honorable (author Neal Stephenson, composer Franz Schubert, writer Zane Grey), the suspect (Rudy Giuliani's kid, a Jesus Jones member, Justin Timberlake), and the unknown (Finnish hockey player Pavi Sald).

Sticking out are three baseball players: Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Nolan Ryan. I knew about Jackie, not about the other two. That's a pretty awesome baseball triumvirate -- I'm sure there's someone somewhere who keeps track of such things, but I'm going to go ahead and declare January 31st "Awesome Baseball Day" because it's hard to imagine that any other day produced three players that can outshine those guys.

Obviously the stars are in the right position at the end of January, so it raises the question: why am I not currently winding down a Hall of Fame baseball career? Could it be that right now I should be, say, DHing for the Toronto Blue Jays and closing in on my 650th home run, instead of drinking a beer and shirtlessly blogging? Did I err somewhere along the way, causing my life to veer off course?

I was a crappy athlete as a child, and while there were some sports where I showed occasional promise (football, hockey), baseball wasn't one of them. Poor reflexes, poor coordination, slow foot speed, and a mortal terror of getting hit by the ball don't combine to form a baseball prodigy. But there was one period in my life when I took steps -- ridiculous steps! -- to change that.

When I was 16, as I've written many times before, I was rather adrift in life. Depressed, miserable, didn't want to do anything except read horror novels. About this time -- in the period when I moved from Colorado to Arizona -- my dormant baseball love came roaring back, and I started spending every minute (that I wasn't reading horror novels) doing something to do with baseball. Watching it. Reading about it. Trying to come up with new statistics. I even read "The Hidden Game of Baseball."

In this time, fueled by aimlessness and about 67 adolescent readings of "Ball Four," I decided: I would become a knuckleball pitcher. It held a lot of appeal for me. Charlie Hough was a knuckleballer, and he didn't seem to be your standard baseball player. It didn't seem to require arm strength (in retrospect, it still required more than I had). It was quirky. And it would solve pesky questions of what I was going to do with my life.

I started practicing the knuckler -- with a tennis ball, just to add to the tragicomedy and the futility. I never mastered it. I don't know if it's even aerodynamically possible with a tennis ball. Eventually, like so many other things, I gave it up (and eventually sort of got my life together without it). And that's why you're reading this instead of watching TV and thinking "that 35-year-old knuckleballer -- he is dignified and sexually attractive at the same time."

* * *

Books! Oh, yes, I do read books when I'm not plotting to become a 36-year-old baseball rookie.

#25 -- "Three Letters From the Andes" by Patrick Leigh Fermor

As we've established, I love anything by ol' Pat, but I wonder if there was some period in British literature where he had a Stephen King-like draw and the publisher was just rushing out anything he wrote. This is beautifully written, but, um, a bit scant. It's just what it says -- three letters he wrote to his wife while on a trip in the Peruvian Andes. Very descriptive and joyful, occasionally dragged down because since they're letters, they describe things like hotel room arrangements. I'd qualify this as "for the serious fan only" -- seriously, read just about all his other books first.

#26 -- "Chain of Command" by Seymour Hersh

Oh my, see what I just did? Brought it all back home. I've long been an admirer of Hersh's investigative writing but this is the first time I've read one of his books. It's brilliant, covering the U.S. intelligence failures, infighting, and abuses since 2001. It's exhaustively researched, well-sourced, well-written. Hersh isn't given to displays of outrage and that gives a book like this more power and more gravitas. A+.