"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fat Camp

This isn't the place we rented, but it looked
something like this.
Back in July, my extended family met in Vail for our sort-of-annual meeting of the minds. I was the first sibling to arrive, with my wife and childrens, which meant that every time any of the other five sibs and their broods arrived, I was obligated to help unpack their automobiles and lug their stuff into the house. We had rented a three-story chalet (four, including the basement garage) with about seventeen bedrooms and a steep stairway up from the garage to the third floor. I was winded before I ever finished emptying my own car, and by the time the last group arrived and people were assisted up to their dormitories, I could barely breathe.

I of course know that the altitude in the mountains makes it more difficult to suck in the air you need. But I live in Denver, so it's not like I was coming from sea level to the Continental Divide. And I've visited Vail--and higher altitudes--enough times to know what it feels like to perform a bit of strenuous exercise at those heights. This just wasn't normal.

Now, I'm a relatively healthy guy for my age (not that I'm that old); my doctor has told me so...a couple of years ago. And before you jump to any conclusions about my succumbing to altitude sickness or the Rocky Mountain Tree Beetle Disease or something, I'll just tell you that I was getting fat.

Last spring, when I took my nine weeks of paternity leave, most of my time was spent holding an infant or sitting at this very computer or both. Oh, and eating. I don't know how much weight I gained, but it was lots, and that was on top of the sympathy weight I gained during the pregnancy.

So I whined more than usual about my weight, and when we got home from Vail, my supportive wifey broke out the South Beach Diet book and planned our meals for the next two weeks. I weighed myself the night before we were to start this journey. Just after I had my last Dairy Queen Blizzard, with my clothes on, no shoes. The scale said 237.8 pounds.

Here's the family around last May. The girls don't look too happy.
The wife is pretty in her haircut. Xander's not paying attention.
And I just look just unhealthy. I have jowls, I think.

The next morning, I took my daily constitutional, stripped, and weighed 233.4. I hadn't even started the diet yet. Will power itself helped me lose 4.4 pounds. What progress! (Okay, so 233.4 was my real starting weight.)

South Beach is like Atkins: it's all about the carbs. I guess. I didn't really read the book, but I trusted what my wife was doing.

These are South Beach-approved
quiche cups, which real men do not
eat, unless provoked.
No bread. No pasta. No sugar. No fruit. No starches. No taste. (Just kidding.) The most trying part was giving up bread. I love me some good bread.

I ate eggs every morning. With bacon or sausage. Salad for lunch, sometimes with chicken and cheese, always with ranch. Different meats and veggies for dinner. May blended up some cauliflower that was supposed to be like mashed potatoes, but with the butter and cheese it was almost better. I'm fairly certain the book says to watch your fat content, like choosing fat free mayo or at least lite ranch, but I can't stand fat free dairy and any food that can't spell "light" correctly is not welcome in my fridge.

And that's what I ate for about two weeks. Meat, cheese, eggs, vegetables, diet soda. I snacked on cheese sticks, sugar free Jello, and beef jerky (which, along with cauliflower and mushrooms and squash and peppers, I ate because I had to eat something, and which, like most of the above, I learned to nearly like). I even had a burger wrapped in lettuce at Red Robin (though I'm never doing that again; what's the point?)

I was really hungry most of the time. But after a week, I had lost just over eight pounds, which is more than one pound per day, and which I thought was decent progress. After two weeks, the diet book says you're allowed to partake of a few starches, whole grain bread and rice, and fruits.

Then I went on vacation. Utah to visit family. California to a writer's conference. I tried to stick to the diet. But even with the more lax limitations, it's difficult to restrict your diet when you're crashing with family or in hotels in a strange city. When I returned home and weighed myself again, I was back to 229.6, not even four pounds less than when I started.

I couldn't go back to square one. I wanted to eat bread again. I needed to eat bread again. But for the most part, I stuck to the plan and saw the pounds slowly melt away every morning as I sweated them out on the treadmill. Then I noticed that I was able to run farther and faster, that the weight that I was carrying had been slowing me down more than I knew, and I started to feel better every morning. Then school started, and that induced stress-related weight loss; and soccer started, so I was able to basically work out twice a day.

 A month after I started the whole thing, I was down to 219.6, and in my head (I rely heavily on estimation math) that's fifteen pounds in two weeks because half of that month I was on vacation. At some point around this time I set a goal to get down to 205 pounds. It's arbitrary, sure, but I thought it might be asking too much to reach an even 200. I told myself that when I make 205, I would stop obsessing and stop weighing myself every day and start eating what I wanted again. I bought two 12-packs of Pitch Black grape Mountain Dew to drink when I reached my goal, and told my wife we were going to the Cheesecake Factory and I was ordering red velvet cheesecake as my reward.

My clothes started to fit better. The gut was still there, but it no longer protruded from my waist line, causing my shirt buttons to strain and my belt to work overtime. In fact, I moved to the last notch--first notch?--whichever notch means you're almost too skinny for your belt. My wedding suit fit again.

By the end of the second full month, even with a couple trips to all-you-can-eat Texas de Brazil, I was at 207.6. Those last five pounds were killing me. I could have just stopped eating for a couple of days, but I was not going to let the quest do me in like that. I watched what I ate, stayed away from the bagels and donuts sometimes brought in to school, but for a couple of weeks, my weight plateaued and hovered and I couldn't get rid of those last few pounds.

Then, one morning a couple of days ago, two months and ten days in, I weighed 204.2. That's not exactly 30 pounds lost, but it's close enough for me.

I've already ripped through most of one twelve pack of Dew (gotta cut back now just because it's keeping me up at night) and I've had my victory date at the Cheesecake Factory, where I ate two baskets of bread before my meal and red velvet cheesecake. Yum.

I'll weigh myself again in a few weeks to see if my gorging is just putting me right back where I started. But I don't think it'll be that bad. I've lost much of my craving for sweets, and now I know I can live without starches and bread. If I need to diet again, I know I can. And that feels pretty cool.
I grew a goatee because I thought it would make me seem younger.
But it grew out all white and grey and stuff. Sigh.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Attack of the Mutant Ninja Squirrels (feat. Guest Artist)

Inspired by Charlie "The Skunk Whisperer" at Notice Your World, I've been meaning to write this up for a while now. I decided his drawings would better illustrate my story than any stock photo stolen from the web, so I've asked him to guest-art my blog today. 

He's also recently published his novel, The Crystal Bridge. For only 3.99$, you should check it out, though you won't find any drawings of rabid rodents.

Mature trees shade most of our backyard. Beds of roses and tulips and peonies line the fencing covered in clinging vines. After a rainy week, our yard tends more toward jungle, but that's the way we like it, hidden away back here in our neighborhood that will never be called gentrified.

That is, until the nuclear mutant squirrels attacked.

The first year we moved in, we ordered expensive, special new windows installed. With windows that weren't 300 years old and sliding out of the frames, our home was considerably warmer. But soon after we had them installed, we had a problem. One day a loaf of bread had been left out on the counter, and my wife and I returned home to find the bag had been torn open and bread crumbs left in a trail across the kitchen. Upon closer inspection, I observed small paw prints along the counter as well, as if a large rat had strolled through some mud then scurried through the house after having a whole grain snack. Worried that we now had rodents in the house, we searched for other signs. That's when we noticed the kitchen window.


We usually left the small window over the sink cracked open maybe two inches. This was the point of entry and egress. The brand new screen was chewed through. The rodent had come in, scampered about the kitchen counter, gorging itself on our 5-grain bread, and when it heard us coming, it must have dashed out the way it came in. The most curious part of this adventure is that in order to get into a position to gnaw into the metal screen, this pest would have to get onto the narrow brick ledge outside the small window, which is located a good five feet directly above a deep window well, which is located at least four feet away from the latticework of our back patio. It would take more than one giant leap for this fellow to make it to the window in the first place.

Now, we knew it was a squirrel because of the other mutant squirrel incidents since we'd moved in. We used to have plastic garbage cans with plastic lids anchored by the handles when you carried them. You know these. It's not lightweight hardware, but our neighborhood ninja squirrels could chew through those lids to get at the treasure inside. We replaced those lids once, then, after there were fresh holes in the new lids, resorted to the noisy, yet infiltration-proof, metal garbage cans.

Also, our first summer was warm inside the house until we got the swamp cooler working. I only had to replace the pump and thread a new 50-foot plastic hose across the roof and down to the water spigot to cool us off nicely every evening. Sometime later that summer, I noticed that there was a lot of water coming down the rain gutter when it hadn't rained for days. The squirrels had decided they were thirsty and masticated on the plastic hose until they divined water. I replaced that hose twice before installing a copper hose instead. Of course, that copper hose burst when I didn't remove it soon enough before the first freeze and I had to do it all over the next year.

But these incidents pale in comparison to the Christmas Assault of '07.

Our living room is decked out each year with Christmas cheer. We have a gas fireplace we don't use because I'm afraid to turn it on, but it's a nifty, stone hearth and mantel with a kind of bench in front where we hang stockings and place nativity scenes and stack presents. The tree was in front of the living room window that year, carefully trimmed and brightly lit to impress the neighbors.

On Christmas morning, my wife said she heard a noise in the chimney, which is kind of funny to say on Christmas. Like Santa got stuck and it's our fault millions of kids had to cancel Christmas. But I heard it, too, and assumed it was just a bird that got stuck. That had happened to me years before, and eventually the bird got itself out. I forgot about the noise.

Later that day, I went into the living room to get a Hershey's Kiss from the plastic candy cane dispenser one of my students gave me that year. It had garnished the hearth for a couple of weeks. I hadn't opened it yet but thought I could use a little Christmas chocolate at this time. I waded through the boxes and wrapping paper left over from morning presents, and I perceived that it had been opened. This aggravated me slightly. I had been saving it for just such an occasion, and along comes May, my wife (no Baby Xander at this time and my two girls were in California like every Christmas), and blithely attacks my own hard-earned chocolate. And I say "attack" because I was in the process of discerning that there were Hershey's Kisses wrappers all over the floor. Red and green and silver foil littered the area. Along with pieces of chocolate. Gnawed, bitten, spoiled Kisses all over the floor, mixed in with the gift-giving debris in the room.

At the same time that I realized the plastic candy cane had been chewed--not twisted--open, I called out in a slow drawl, beginning angry, ending confused: "!Maaaaaay?"

She was the one who noticed the fireplace was open. The glass doors closing off the actual fireplace had a habit of opening with a draft in the house, so that was my immediate conclusion. But the chocolate fragments around us demanded a different explanation. We both recalled the incident with the teenage mutant ninja squirrel in the kitchen and agreed that this was probably the same culprit, or at least a close relative. He must have taken off back up the chimney when he heard me coming.

Satisfied with the inference, but still annoyed that I now had no Hershey's Kisses, I pulled out the vacuum in order to suck up the evidence en mass rather than pick up each piece of tainted chocolate and foil individually. I gathered the vacuum extensions together and elongated the end for easy reaching, then turned it on. At the noise of the suction, a small mammal leaped from our fake plastic tree behind the chair in the corner and flew across the room, landing in the Christmas tree.

This startled me and I threw the vacuum extensions up like a baseball bat trying to hit a wild fastball. The squirrel scampered up and down the tree, shaking the branches, knocking shiny things to the floor. It was Christmas Vacation havoc until I turned off the vacuum. Then came the silence. The nuclear mutant squirrel was hidden. He wasn't going anywhere. May suggested we close all the doors in the house, which was great because in my mind that squirrel had already been throughout the house and found the best hiding place under our bed. So we quickly limited it's route. May grabbed a broom to whack it with, and I opened the front door so we could guide it outside. The last place it was going was back up the chimney where it came from.

We were now unsure that the squirrel was still in the Christmas tree, but we were fairly certain it hadn't scurried into another part of the house. I brandished the sucking extension as my own weapon and turned the vacuum back on to scare it. It was still in the Christmas tree, and now it leaped back to the corner where it was hiding in the first place. The continued noise didn't draw it out, so I turned off the vacuum again. I could see it there, crouched on the window sill behind the tree in the corner, probably scared to death now and wasn't going to move again to save itself.

I turned the vacuum on again. May raised her broom  and swiped at it as it jumped across the main window sill now, toward the open front door. This is one smart squirrel because he saw his opening and took it. Out into the snow and cold  it went and we slammed the door behind it.

Our only consolation is that it probably died shortly thereafter from exposure and chocolate.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Worst Movies Ever...sort of

I'm participating in the Worst Movies Ever blogfest sponsored by sci-fi author Alex Cavanaugh. And I've decided to implicate myself, as I happen to own every movie on this list. That is to say, I've watched each of them multiple times and take pleasure from each of them in at least some minor way. But essentially, they are flawed. And I think it's more interesting to talk about why these relatively entertaining movies are bad than trying to re-explain why Howard the Duck or Battlefield Earth flopped.

Thus, in no apparent order except alphabetical because that's how they appear on my DVD shelf:

Avatar

It sure is a fun movie to watch in 3D (which I'm never going to experience again) and it certainly changed the movie industry, but few people seem to want to discuss that it's recycled, predictable plot is Fern Gully with giant fairies instead of miniature ones? I half expect Christain Slater to make a cameo. James Cameron's unforgivable story telling cheat is summed up in one word: unobtainium.
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

This was the first movie I saw after being out of the country for two years on a church mission and not seeing any movies at all during that time. The Excellent Adventure was such a strange, hilarious delight that I was giddy with anticipation at seeing the sequel. Unfortunately, Bogus Journey is an insipid, dull, and worst of all, unfunny movie. And I don't even have words to convey my revulsion for the ugly, ill-advised idea that is Station, the technologically savvy alien from heaven.

Borat

Maybe it's because I only saw this movie a couple of years after it's original release, but I don't think it is as funny as it was made out to be. I think Sacha Baron Cohen is pretty clever for thinking up the character and conceit in the first place, and I like the beginning about Borat's home country where the satire is aimed at concepts and culture rather than real, individual persons. But maybe it isn't enough to carry a feature film. Or maybe I didn't laugh much because I had already seen the best parts since it was so ubiquitous for a while there. But then, I don't think real-life exercises in humiliation are entertaining, even if the humiliated person might really deserve it, which is why I don't watch reality TV shows. And what in the world is funny about the naked part? What don't I get?

Dune

Take one of the best science fiction novels of all time and make a movie out of it. How can you miss? (See: Battlefield Earth, above.) I think the real problem isn't about what was cut from the novel. Movies cut up novels every day, and that doesn't necessarily make the movie worse. The problem is the voice-over. All that heavy, whispering, over-dramatic thinking doesn't make for satisfying drama. Frank Herbert does it in the novel (a style I don't much like, anyway), but David Lynch should have (and, worse, really could have) found a better way to dramatize it. (If it's true that Lynch was offered the chance to direct Return of the Jedi, imagine what would have happened to the Ewoks if he'd done that instead of Dune.)

The Fifth Element

You name what's worse: Milla Jovovich "acting," the name Leeloo, Gary Oldman's Texan accent, Gary Oldman's hairpiece, Gary Oldman's buck teeth, ancient eeevil in a hunk of rock, or Chris Tucker.
The Running Man

With a Stephen King concept ahead of it's time (take that, Hunger Games!), tasty satire of the excesses of game show TV (take that, Reality TV!), and Richard Dawson's demented, power hungry host (take that, Family Feud!), this could have been major. Enter Schwarzenegger and every bad 80's action movie cliche you can think of, including one-liner groaners ("Here's Subzero. Now, plain zero.") and even a hero-kisses-the-girl-for-no-reason moment at the end.

Star Trek: Nemesis

My main problem with this movie is that it should have been a different movie. With all the possibilities available for a great Next Generation story, they choose a story that maaaaybe should have been an episode in season six. And this is what followed Insurrection, the most low-key Star Trek movie, where what's at stake? About 13 people on a planet no one cares about. Anyway, the Doctor Who writers can come up with truly menacing and universal disasters on a weekly basis. Why couldn't the last TNG movie be about something bigger? They did the Borg. Where's the movie about Q? Data deserves a better curtain call.

Van Helsing

I don't even remember much about this movie. Which should tell you something. Something about badly drawn vampires and a silly Frankenstein monster on the loose and laughable, messy special effects. I think I own it because it's got Kate Beckinsale in a corset, and I guess that's enough for me.
The X Files: I Want to Believe

Whywhywhy was this movie about a psychic, child molesting priest instead of alien invasion conspiracy theory? As a huge fan of the series, this story held absolutely no interest for me. Even the revelation that Mulder and Scully ended up together after all. Who cares, if they're not going out to discover the truth about the aliens, which is still out there?


Is it a coincidence that nearly all of these movies have a science fiction bent? I suppose I could list a number of romantic comedies that are thoughtless copies of one another. But that's been done. At least these movies attempt to tell a different story. Except for Avatar.

Here's a long list of other blogs to visit and read about bad movies, if you're so inclined.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Striking Colorado Gold

Corny title aside, this weekend I was at the Colorado Gold Writer's Conference here in Denver. It was brought to you by the letter L and the number 13 and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

So here I am blogging about it instead of writing. Instead of putting the finishing touches on Trendy Poseurs Go Home.

This was much grander than the conference I went to in San Francisco in July. There, it was about 50 people, in a small conference room at a Best Western. I didn't even have to check in when I arrived. I could have just walked in and pretended I belonged. Who needs to register and pay? Not that that conference wasn't worth it. I ended up with a pitch that worked well enough to convince three agents to request partials of my Trendy Poseurs manuscript.

I was pleased with that outcome. I am still awaiting responses from two of those agents. One has already responded. Just two days before the Gold Conference, I received a gracious email that said they thought I was a great writer and they discussed my submission at length. However, considering the current trend of publishing YA fiction mainly for girls (i.e. Twilight and the millions of copycats), they could't see a market for my boy-centered story. As rejections go, it could have been much worse.

So going in to this past weekend, I felt pretty swell about my writing skills and hoped to garner more positivity through communion with like-minded people. The conference included hundreds of people at a snazzy hotel and offered a variety of workshops all day Friday and Saturday, and half a day on Sunday. I tried to concentrate on the courses that would give me valuable information about publishing, querying, agents, editors, and the like.

Then the last class I went into on Friday turned my mood a little sour. It was about writing for reluctant readers, which basically means teenage boys, and the presenter was a guy who'd published a YA novel about six years ago but hasn't been able to get published since. His advice: lower the age of your male teenage protagonist, give him a girl sidekick, and add something paranormal. This all came from his agent who wants him to get published again. And it's good advice, I guess. I mean, who am I to say it isn't. Agents know what sells, right?

The Saturday schedule included a pitch session with the agent of your choice. Fortuitously, it turned out, I received an email last Wednesday that said the agent I chose had cancelled, so I was rescheduled with someone else from the same agency and offered a second pitch with anyone else who had an opening. I was a little irritated until I realized that I would now have two pitches instead of one, and that was better. Duh.

See? Boys read.
But by Saturday, I wasn't at my peak form of awesomeness. What was I to do about my 18-year-old protagonist with a love interest and an internal conflict? I couldn't do much in the intervening hours, so I relied on the pitch that moved me forward before and got two immediate requests to see my manuscript. Both of them told me they are always looking for "boy books," despite what it seems that no one buys or even publishes them. Because obviously they are out there, and many agents and publishers are tired of the YA paranormal dance of the vampires and angels and Loch Ness Monster love triangles. Cool for me, then. (If you're interested in this issue, read this article: "Boys and Reading: Is There any Hope?" by author Robert Lipsyte.)

One request was for thirty pages, which was great. I could do that immediately. The other was for the entire manuscript. Which puts a crimp in my neck because I haven't found the time to rewrite the ending that needed to be done after the July conference.

That's pretty much the conference for me. I sat in a helpful class about time management, not because it taught me anything I didn't know, but because they made me sit right there and write out goals and a weekly schedule, stuff I would never do on my own. I've decided I have to write for an hour or more every night, no matter what time I get home, even from late night soccer games. And Saturday night, writer Bernard Cornwell gave a rousing, funny speech that was mostly interesting due to his British accent and timely use of a couple of swears. And Sunday morning there was a good hour where a successful agent gave some specific, practical advice on what turns her off of a manuscript in the first pages.

I also met a couple of people who are part of a critique group in my area and hopefully they can help me get cruising on my Ghosts and Aliens story that stalled out back in June or July. Altogether, successful weekend.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Honor Among Thieves

I usually like to write my own stuff, or at least write wordy responses to stuff other people write, but today I feel the need to just pass this one along, with minimal commentary.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, "In Honor of Teachers," Charles Blow writes about the contradiction that even though teachers are vilified more and more these days, most of us want to recruit good students to become teachers. I am a teacher these days and I have a hard time recommending that any of my students pursue the profession. And I teach honors and IB courses. One student, possibly one of the brightest students I've ever had, recently asked me about what it's like as an English major in college. I told her it's awesome and that she would be great at it, but the problem is that once you're done, you have three options: teach, attend grad school in some other area, or just go get a job somewhere and impress random people with your knowledge of Beowulf or Victorian feminist literature. And then she told me something like, "Well, I definitely don't want to be a teacher." I completely understood.

For a decade, teachers have been on the losing side of the blame game. Now state and federal laws denigrate the millions of professionals who raise our children every day. But I see articles like this and it gives me a little hope. Smart people know what's the what.

So go read that article. Maybe my own contradictory feelings about teaching will be more evident. I don't know.

But first I want to say two quick things about Blow's story of his most inspirational teacher. First, I hope most people don't go around thinking that these days teachers can just randomly place a student in a "slow" class. There are procedures and laws, and really nothing like what might called the "slow" classes of yesteryear.

And finally, I realize that what Blow describes is an elementary class, but if I were to show my students that I care about them by putting my arm around them, I'd be sued before you could spell U-N-I-O-N.

So, I went to Google images as I always do to find some funny or compelling image
that I could use under this post, and I started with a search for "teacher's union."
Nearly every single image or caption was negative. Including this one.
It said something like, "Teacher's unions throwing their weight around."
 It's neither compelling nor funny to me.
(It's a little bit funny.)