Books of 2013, #17: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Jesus, what tripe. This is a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person’s mystery is. It’s chock full of badly fleshed stock characters, entirely too many un-shocking developments that Flynn clearly sees as revelatory, and runs out of steam well before it runs out of pages. There is not a single “surprise” in the book that isn’t telegraphed WAY WAY WAY in advance, and that any halfway intelligent reader will see coming.

I’m reminded of something Dorothy Parker said: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

The only upside is that I now have a CLEAR CHOICE for “worst book read this year,” whereas before it was a tossup between The Night Circus and Empire State — neither are even in the same league of awfulness as Flynn, so congrats for that.

Books of 2013, #16: How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees

Look. I’m not quite sure what to say about this, other than it’s brilliant. There’s a lot going on here that has nothing to do with pencils, but also a shocking and unironic amount that is, clearly, 100% about pencils. It’s weird, and very hard to describe.

It’s short, fun, and perfectly apes the sort of mid-century trade guides that you may have encountered in your youth with something that’s not quite a wink and not quite sincerity while being a bit of both. I mostly read it because Rees was on the JoCo Cruise, and seemed remarkably funny — plus, possessed of a completely nonironic enjoyment and knowledge of pencils and pencil history. I’m still not sure what inspired him to do this book, but I can say it was fun to read.

Also, owing to a post-cruise email dialog with Rees and my own nerdery, I now have distinct preferences when it comes to pencils. Make of this what you will.

Oh, one other MS150 thing

Faced with the choice, we decided this was a measure of safety and not in any way creepy:

Sniper smaller

It may not be immediately clear what I’m talking about. Let me help.

Sniper cropped

Yup. The world we live in.

Still Standing: After the MS150

Or sitting, or whatever. I rode the 100 on Saturday, and 66 on Sunday. I rolled into Austin at about 1:00 yesterday afternoon — inadvertently well ahead of most of my team, from whom I’d gotten separated. I lost too much time stopping on the long Saturday ride, so on Sunday I only hit one official rest stop to refill my water bottles; that turns out to be the secret to getting in ahead of everybody else.

It was: intense and amazing. I said as the weekend approached that I didn’t think I’d do it again if I did well this time around; training and preparation took so much time this spring that we missed or gave short shrift lots of activities we’d have liked to do. I’m not exactly sure when I changed my mind about that, but it was somewhere between Erin’s cheers at the century finish line and the intense team greeting we made a point to give all of our teammates when they arrived at our tent. This, it should be noted, is not universal — I didn’t hear anybody else making NEARLY as much noise when their folks came in, on either day. I think plenty of people end up on teams that are really just shared logistics at camp and little else, but the core of the Karbach team trained together all spring, and drank beer together, and as a result we really felt like a true TEAM. There’s even talk of doing more rides together this summer, which is something I’m absolutely going to do.

I should note that it’s not just me who had a change of heart about future MS150s; the Intrepid and Awesome Mrs Heathen (2013 Cheer Champion) was pretty clearly on board by sometime Saturday night, and probably for the same reaosns; on both days, she was enthusiastically helping to welcome our riders — an activity that extended well into Sunday afternoon, since we didn’t leave until about 5. It felt good to stay, and cheer, and encourage, and high-five, and just bask in the afterglow of the ride.

TL;DR? Was it hard? Yeah. I rode my bike to freakin’ AUSTIN. Was it worth it? You bet your ass.

Despite all this feel-good tomfoolery, do I have some snarky comments for you? OH YES:

  • Helpful hint: Check out what certain jersey patterns mean before you decide to use them for your whole team, especially if they’re not all made of monster climbers.

  • I’m no hardcore biker — I’m old and heavy and slow — but I also ride a pretty normal bike. By which I mean it’s only considered expensive when compared to Wal-Mart bikes. It’s a good bike, and it’s a nice bike, but it’s not super-fancy or anything. Buying a high-end tool when you’re a beginner runs the risk of making you look like an ass. ProTip: You don’t look like a jerk if you have to walk up a hill, unless the bike you’re pushing up the hill you couldn’t climb otherwise is $8,500 worth of carbon fiber race bike.

  • Oh, Austin, you’re adorable. Your tour course pylon placement can best be described as idiosyncratic. I’m all about you staying weird, but don’t you think “in a straight line” has some advantages vs. “all over the goddamn road?”

  • As long as we’re snarking on Austin: the signs insisting that MS150 riders ride only in the 2-foot bike lanes (that were filled with debris) had all the charm, authority, and effectiveness of a hall monitor whining about tardiness on the last day of school. There were 13,000 of us; the ROAD was our bike line.

So Here I Go

Tomorrow morning at the absurdly early hour of 6:45AM, I’ll start the MS 150. If you haven’t ridden it, you are probably unaware that there are three starting points, resulting in three different distances for the first day. I feel strong, and the weather is good, so I’m planning on doing the full 100 mile route tomorrow.

Wish me luck.

I will, after the ride, reach out personally to each of you who have donated so generously in my name. I’m incredibly lucky to count such a generous and supportive group as my friends. I am amazed and gobsmacked by the level of support you’ve given me; at last count, over $2,500 has been donated to NMSS under my banner. That’s incredible. It’s a nice bit of good news, at least, at the end of a bleak and trying week — and it’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ride. With 13,000 other riders telling simliar stories of their friends’ generosity, it’s likely the final fundraising total will be more than $15,000,000 — and that’s over and above the cost of the event.

I mentioned this on Facebook yesterday, but I want to note it again, here: If you donated in my name with a particular victim of multiple sclerosis in mind, please share their name with me, by email or in a comment here; first names only are fine if privacy is a concern. I may need a boost on that 100 mile ride tomorrow, so I have written the names shared with me so far on my race bib. This ride is for all victims of MS, but my ride is for these people dear to my own friends in particular.

Thanks again.

(Here comes the final pitch: If you’ve been putting off donating, it’s not too late. Consider giving “to” the Karbach team generally instead of to me (we need a bit more then $6K to meet our team goal), or pick a name from that list that’s below the $400 minimum — riders who don’t reach it will have to pay it themselves, in addition to the hundreds it costs to enter the ride.)

Books of 2013, #15: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace

First, seriously: Fuck you, depression.

To think what else Wallace might’ve written had he stuck around is to court despair. I read and loved Infinite Jest a few years ago, but have kind of stayed away from the rest of his pile in an only half-conscious desire to ration what little material Wallace left behind. That’s probably a mistake.

In this book of essays, he’s at the top of his game. It’s like watching Jordan play basketball: nobody else was even engaged in the same activity. He’s just that good. The topics vary wildly:

  • there’s a personal memoir of tennis and weather;
  • a discussion of the relationship between television, irony, and (then-) modern fiction in America;
  • a screamingly funny travel piece about visiting the Illinois state fair;
  • a fascinating discussion of poststructuralism and the so-called “death of the author” in literary theory;
  • one of the best “behind the scenes” film articles I’ve ever read, about David Lynch shooting Lost Highway;
  • a lengthy discussion of the realities of professional tennis as they relate to then-rising pro Michael Joyce; and, finally,
  • the eponymous piece about “managed fun” aboard a 7-day luxury Caribbean cruise.

It was, predictably, the final essay that pushed me to read this book now; “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” would be great even with no personal experience, but reading it after having done such a cruise makes it even more clear how perfectly right all his observations were.

This guy really had no peers at all. Even if some of the topics above strike you as banal, or as overly academic — the poststructuralism bit ran in the Harvard Review initially; it’s deep water — I assure you they’re captivating when Wallace gets ahold of them. Reading him is an exercise, for me at least, of muttering “Holy Shit!” every few minutes at yet another brilliant turn of phrase or previously unconsidered insight. The words are delicious, and the essays just get better upon reflection or rereading. This is what great writing looks like.

Books of 2013: #14: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

I feel like it’s kind of unfair to do this, but this is that rare book where a pithy summary isn’t unfair: this is a GenX treatment of superheroes in print, told from a variety of points of view. If that idea appeals, you’d love this book. If not, well, keep walking, because it’s not for you.

You’ve got your soon-to-escape superpowered madman, you’ve got your reconstituted super-team, and you’ve got your mysteriously missing and presumed dead Superman analogue. The ingredients aren’t what makes this inventive; it’s the storytelling that I enjoyed the most.

Plus, there’s a bit more going on here than just that — it’s definitely self-aware, which adds to the fun. Grossman slyly references other books, both in genre (the hat tips to Watchmen are frequent, plus it’s impossible to write about costumed heroes without references to comic antecedents) and out (there are nods to his twin brother Lev‘s well-received novel The Magicians).

It’s a well-crafted little book, and one I found FAR more interesting than I expected. I’m definitely on board for his next book, which is said to draw more on his “day job”: Grossman is a video game designer by trade, and has some seriously solid — even classic — titles on his C.V., including System Shock, Deus Ex, and the last big game played here at Heathen HQ, Dishonored.

That silly thing Chet’s doing: The FINAL WEEK

Ok, Heathen Nation, here we are. Five days from now, I’ll be on my bike on the way to Austin. I think I’ve trained enough to make it; I’ve logged over 1,000 miles on my bike in these last few months, and deferred no end of amusing invitations that conflicted with training rides. I’ve even lost a pants size, which is pretty cool.

What I haven’t done, though, is meet my fundraising goal. I was super humbled months ago when, thanks to you, I met my minimum donation level in a matter of hours. That’s really incredible, and I can’t thank you early adopters enough. I was even more staggered when, in the hours and days that followed, I rose to the top of the list on my team thanks to the 20+ folks who gave so generously in my name. Now I want us to hit it out of the park this week.

When so many of you responded so quickly, I raised my goal from the rider minimum of $400 to a more lofty but do-able $2,000. We’re very, very close to that right now. I think, though, that we can do even better. One of the reasons I decided to ride this year actually had nothing to do with MS (though obviously it’s a great cause): I want my TEAM, Karbach Brewing, to make a big splash on per-rider donations in this, their first year fielding a team.

Karbach have been super supportive of community efforts in town, and especially bike-related events. They’re a great group of friendly people who happen to make some really awesome beer, and I think they deserve to have a great first year with the MS150.

So my ask now is actually a little more complicated than it was before. I’ll make my personal goal, no problem. I’d love it if you’d help me obliterate that arbitrary number. That’s a little selfish, sure, but I like being #1. It’d be cool to reach $2,500 or even $3,000.

As an alternative, though, you could go here and choose one of our riders who has not yet met their $400 minimum. Riders are expected to raise or donate that amount, so folks who haven’t reached that level will have to go out of pocket to meet their quota — even after the fairly high MS150 registration fees and team fees. That would kinda suck, so even if you’ve given to me this year, consider dropping another $25 on one of the folks who needs it on my team. That’ll help them, and it’ll help the Karbach Team get closer to our team goal of $40,000.

Thanks again to all of you. You’re awesome. I’m really, seriously humbled by how many of you jumped on this so quickly. It inspires me, and God knows I’ll need that next Saturday; I haven’t ridden 100 miles since Reagan was president.

Of Mad Men and Football

Sunday’s big premiere of Mad Men‘s sixth season included what, in a lesser show, might’ve been a throwaway line about the 1968 Cotton Bowl, featuring the Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the Texas A&M Aggies. In Tide history, this game is significant because the opposing coach was Gene Stallings — one of Bear’s former players, and a man who would eventually be a championship-winning head coach at Alabama himself. Alabama lost that game, but Bear was happy enough about his protege’s win that he carried Stallings off the field.

Of course, since this is Matt Weiner, we know there are no accidents. There’s lots to unpack about referencing that game in this context, and some of it may seem like a stretch, but I think the bits about Don being analogous to Bear are probably foreshadowing for plotlines later in the season. Go read the article, though.

Dear PayChex: You’re Doing It Wrong

Some elaborate new update to their employee back-end just showed me this warning:

Screen Shot 2013 04 09 at 4 30 40 PM

Seriously. If closing a browser window can fuck up my account, I really don’t have much faith in you chuckleheads holding on to all sorts of personal information safely.

Oh, and apparently it’s nearly all fucking FLASH. WTF?

Here’s a shocker.

In a recent study of airline performance, United came in dead last. This represents a bit of a reversal, since pre-merger Continental was frequently at the top of these studies — or, at least, sharing top billing with Southwest (who are still on top in terms of customer complaints per 100,000 passengers — 0.25 vs. United’s 4.24).

It’s a nasty irony that the 1999 story of onetime basket-case Continental’s resurrection and triumph was called From Worst to First.

Congratulations, we guess, to the management team that’s managed to bring this full circle!

What racing yachts look like now.

We had a great time on NerdCruise on the sailing excursion in St Maarten, wherein we got to crew a no-shit America’s Cup champion boat. The Stars and Stripes is the boat that Dennis Connor used to redeem himself in the sailing world; it’s also the last of the 12-meter monohull boats to win the Cup — which is to say, the racing boats of her era don’t look all that different from the day sailers you see at your local marina.

Times change. Nowadays, the race uses very, very different boats, with spectacular results. While the 12-meter class tooled around at 12-15 knots, the new catamaran multihull designs can nearly triple that.

Have a look at Oracle Team USA‘s craft.

(h/t: @hedrives)