Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Since I actually became a fan of the Harry Potter books (I was late to that game), I haven't watched the movies as critically as I used to. I enjoyed the sixth movie very much. On reflection, it's missing a lot of the most important stuff from the book (many memories concerning Voldemort, for example). But I still liked it. I love the mix of normal teenage stuff and life-or-death danger.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Adventures of various kinds

Last Friday, we woke up to a hot air balloon coming our way:

We often see them in the sky north of us, but they almost never come south. This one went almost directly over our house and then, to avoid power lines, went west and landed in a small park down the road.

The kids and I drove the half mile or so to watch them take it down, and I learned a little about flying hot air balloons from one of the ground crew. (Now that must be a pretty boring job--following a hot air balloon in a van and trying to figure out where it's going to land.) Did you know there's no steering? Just up and down. Wind currents change direction at different elevations, so they steer by going up or down and seeing where the wind takes them. Interesting. And kind of scary. (Maybe they have a way of knowing which direction the wind is going. I don't know.)

That was our morning adventure. Friday's nighttime adventure was attending a star party at Craters of the Moon National Monument. Viewing conditions were perfect--no moon and no clouds, and it's far enough away from major cities that there's very little light pollution. A bunch of amateur astronomers brought their telescopes and let everyone look through them. We saw Jupiter and her moons (are planets she?), a ring Nebula, Andromeda, a few twin stars, like Polaris and the Cub Scout star, so named because one's yellow and one's blue (I didn't know there were twin stars that orbit around each other), and some other stuff. It was also cool just to sit back and look up. Beautiful.

The next morning, we explored Craters of the Moon for a while. It's a pretty weird place, full of only recently solidified volcanic rock. (Not recent like last week, but recent compared to the rest of the earth. Of course, Hawaii's volcanoes are even younger and some are still erupting, and Craters of the Moon certainly can't beat that. But driving a few hours and seeing volcanic stuff is a pretty good deal.)

Also, there were caves. This one was tiny (the picture was taken from the entrance) and it looked like a stone tent from the outside:

But other caves were pretty huge inside, and we could get far enough away from the entrance that we couldn't see any light from outside. I find caves slightly terrifying, but Jon talked me into going into every one of them, even though I wasn't wearing the best cave-exploring foot apparel:

We had three adults and eight kids, the youngest two of which were four years old, and everyone did great. (I think I was the biggest baby, and I just kept my mouth shut most of the time. No need to frighten the young people by thinking out loud.) Jon would be so much more adventurous without me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

S'mores in the kitchen

We didn't get around to making s'mores while camping, so Erin made them over the gas burner in the kitchen:

Better late than never!

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The trailer for the new Sherlock Holmes movie first reminded me of that movie from the '80s, Young Sherlock Holmes, which my family loved and watched many times. (I should mention that sometimes the movies we loved were loved just because my grandpa happened to tape them off the Disney Channel, so it was a matter of access rather than quality of the movie. From what I can remember, Young Sherlock Holmes was pretty good, but I haven't seen it since I was a teenager.) And then it reminded me that I'd never read a Sherlock Holmes story or book, although I've tried to make my son read them. This seemed like something I ought to remedy.

I decided to start with the first novel in which Sherlock Holmes appeared, published in 1897. For the most part, I thought it was delightful, but I was surprised and amused (and a little taken aback) that the background story of the crime was a highly imaginative tale about the crazy Utah Mormons, complete with harems, strict doctrine enforced by a violent and secretive death squad, and a "quote" borrowed from Heber C. Kimball (if I remember correctly), wherein he refers to his wives as heifers. I can see how the odd practices of 19th century Mormons could inspire such a colorful account. And I can also see how I should read Sherlock Holmes stories in the future, maybe kinda like I've read Dan Brown's novels--don't take it too seriously!

G-Force (2009)

Certainly my expectations were not high, so maybe this means nothing, but I liked G-Force. Will Arnett and Tracy Morgan are among those actors who can say just about anything and it will sound funny to me. But besides that, it was a fun movie. (Again, though, my expectations were pretty low, because the last kid movie I saw was excruciating.)

Henry Poole is Here (2008)

In spite of a wishy-washy ending, this is a delightful little movie. I generally like Luke Wilson, who plays a guy depressed for unknown (until later) reasons. He's the new guy in the neighborhood and just wants to be left alone, but curious and well-meaning neighbors invade his life when someone notices an image of Jesus in the new stucco on his house. I liked it a lot and just wish the end had stuck to the movie's guns a little more clearly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is a fantastic book. I think it might be my favorite book this year, even though I'm not a runner. It's right up there with The Omnivore's Dilemma and Mountains Beyond Mountains. It has inspired Jon to start running barefoot, and the kids have run with him a few to several times (depending on which kid). Unfortunately, it has only inspired me to want to go barefoot all the time, which is not practical in these parts (it's about 20 degrees outside right now). I do have plans to become a runner, though. Check back with me in a year.

My non-running aside, though, I think everyone should read this book. It's full of riveting information and also funny and easy to read. I loved it!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Born to Run

Thursday night I heard Christopher McDougall speak and read from his book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen at Dreamchasers in Driggs. Thanks to Jeanne of Dark Horse Books for getting the word out on short notice!

Before the reading started, I milled around and learned about Dreamchasers owner Lisa Smith-Batchen's ultramarathon runs such as the 135-mile run through Death Valley. I think the extreme distance runs are intriguing and it's great that she has done that and lives here.

Chris McDougall's reading was very entertaining, as he discussed similar ultramarathons and a wondrous cast of characters, the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, and the physiology of barefoot running.

Hearing about ultramarathons is really intriguing but in a way that's awe-inspiring and distant. Since I'm still working my way up to my first 10 km run, hearing about 50- and 100-mile runs up and down remote mountains is tough to comprehend. For me the most motivational part was Chris's story of dealing with constant injuries on even relatively short runs, yet after age 40 finally figuring out what he needed to do and running 50 miles without pain. And that involved taking his shoes off. He related some studies that found the more money runners spend on shoes, the more injuries they have. And there are a few college track coaches who have their runners train barefoot (including one sponsored by Nike).

The talk was subtly motivational. I don't think I quite wanted to admit to myself that I had to try running barefoot for some (for me) nontrivial distance. A couple of years ago I read about people running barefoot and it just sounded like more "extreme" craziness. But the way Chris described it made so much sense I had to find out if it would work for me. He specifically likes running on pavement, which I avoid even with shoes on! How could that work?

The next day I had a chance to do it, so without overthinking it, I just went and did it. I knew I needed to go at least a mile just to get in the swing of things. It was about 4 in the afternoon, and the paved county road was hot, but not so hot as to be squishy. I figured if I never did it again, at least I would have tried it.

The run was fun! I had to pay more attention to the ground and deal with poky rocks and so on, but I loved it. It was a breeze, maybe the easiest running I've done, and it just felt great. At around one mile, I started to feel a blister forming on one foot, and considered calling it good but wanted to do more like my usual 5 km distance so it'd be an easy comparison. I ended up going about 3 miles, and toward the end ran on some fairly big blisters that made for an interesting experience as the road kept feeling hotter and hotter. But despite that it was a great experience that had me laughing several times and I knew I'd be (1) needing to take it easy for a few days and (2) doing it again.

I'm sure it would've been smarter to start slower, especially since I don't walk outside barefoot much at all. But it was great to impulsively try it and just find out for myself that it felt great on my feet-as-equipment and the only problem was the blisters. A "mere flesh wound" which I've had wearing regular shoes or hiking boots on occasion as well, so not any big disincentive.

The New York Times recently published the article Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants that talks about the seemingly fake controversy around barefoot running, drummed up by athletic shoe makers. The satirical post Barefoot Running: An Opposing View is a fun response to the naysayers. Because anyone who doesn't want to run barefoot doesn't have to anyway! Who cares?

Since I usually run on sharp gravel roads right by our house, barefoot isn't an option unless I go somewhere else or get a whole lot tougher feet than I have now. Plenty of people say it's not really about naked barefoot vs. cushioned running shoes as a binary decision. There's a lot more discussion about this on the web than I would've guessed. I'm already prodding Erin to get me a pair of Vibram Five Fingers for Christmas which should be a good concession to the terrain here.

When Lisa heard I didn't have the money on me to buy the book, she borrowed the money from someone else to lend me, even though she'd never met me before, so I was able to buy the book and get it autographed! Thanks, Lisa. Chris was a nice guy to talk to and I've already finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't think readers need to be runners to enjoy it since it was a very engaging story in any case.

There's tons more in the book: food, mountains, narcotraficantes, biology, history, prehistory, competition, cooperation, and sex differences in running endurance that I didn't know about. Apparently the fastest women never beat even middling men in short races, or even marathons. But in races over 50 miles, women routinely win over men by large margins.

The biggest lesson seems to be: relax and have fun. Which is hard to argue with.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I gave this a fighting chance--I read almost half of it. But it reminded me of Water for Elephants, and since finishing that book brought me no satisfaction, I decided to quit. I have pretty much the same complaints: boring writing, boring characters, boring plot. I did learn some interesting facts about the leper colony on Moloka'i, but I could spend ten minutes on Wikipedia and learn that stuff and be way more interested. I'm getting kind of angry that these boringly written books exist. I don't get it. (I was reading this for a book club, and even though I didn't finish the book, I think I'll go, just to lend some spice to the discussion. It won't be the first time. But I think I'll look at it more closely before I go, so I can complain more concretely.)

I have to take one thing back. The plot is not boring. If I were to read this as an outline, it would sound great. But somehow, the book was boring. I didn't care what was going to happen. Just thought I'd better add that.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket

The Composer Is Dead is hilarious and educational. What can be better than that? It introduces the instruments in an orchestra through an investigator's attempts to solve the murder of a composer. There's a picture book and CD, whereon Lemony Snicket reads the story accompanied by original orchestral music. Seriously, it's hilarious. I love it.

It's entirely possible that if you don't appreciate the humor in A Series of Unfortunate Events, you won't like this much. Here's a video with Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey, the composer, which is making me laugh right now.