Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Books and Movies of 2010

My book list for 2010 is on LibraryThing. I read 38 books, but the thing that strikes me is that I read four books in common with my wife (The Imperfectionists, Tinkers, Freedom, and Half a Life). I'll be picking apart the list next month.

The movie list for 2010 is on IMDb. I watched 35 films, four of which I was in the theater (Up in the Air, Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Inception).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

College Reminisce: Imagine All the People

My class at RPI had about a thousand students, so I met a lot of people in college. It would have been hard not to. A handful of these classmates became very good friends, and I'm grateful. However, here are four RPI people who weren't my classmates, but who helped make my college experience that much more memorable.

Linda Strunk

Linda was the editor in chief of the school magazine ("The Engineer") when I joined that publication my freshman year. I was blown away by her amazing energy. She pushed people only as hard as she would push herself, but she really pushed herself hard. Not only was she hands-on, and detail-oriented, but she was an able manager and delegator. I learned that she had really good grades despite a demanding extra-curricular schedule. Her life outside of school was spent in pursuit of achievement, whether it was the classical guitar, or a coveted internship in Japan. To this day when I think about people with "drive", I think about Linda.

Randy Rumpf

During my work in the school magazine, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and getting to know Randy, an in-house graphics illustrator for the school. He was part of a very small staff in a far off building from the main campus. My visits there were business oriented at first, but Randy's easy charm and welcoming manner made me stay. He had great stories about the school, and life beyond school. His artwork and illustrations graced many of RPI's brochures, posters and signs, and the pride he took from his work was a great example to me.

Trish Doyle

Trish was one of the counselors at RPI's Career Development Center. She was one of the people who helped me with getting into a co-op program, a short-term job (six months) that emphasizes classroom learning. When I returned to school, I joined a group that worked with Trish to promote the co-op program on-campus. Trish was a delightful person to know, and became one of my favorite RPI people. She was always great company and she made "the institute" a nicer place, especially in my junior and senior years.

Ephraim Glinert

Professor Glinert taught "Computer Fundamentals" my freshman year, and he has the distinction of introducing me to UNIX, a computer operating system that I have used professionally in every job since I graduated. I don't remember why I was visiting him at his office, but I do remember him turning to his terminal, and logging in to check on something. The system he used seemed so much faster and sleeker than the system we freshmen used. "This is UNIX," he said. "You'll be lucky once you get on this; it's nicer than MTS." He was right.

I'm attending my 20th college reunion this month, so I'm posting some college memories.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

College Reminisce: BOHICA

Rensselaer kicked my young academic ass.

I was a high-flying, straight-A student in high school. I took great pride in my grades. I was always on the honor roll. I did very well in math and science. My SATs were nothing to brag about (below 1200!), but I'm convinced my class rank (top five) coupled with the academic rigor of my high school got me into Rensselaer.

I remember how cocky I was that I had taken calculus my senior year of high school, but in the first week of math at RPI, the teaching assistant derived in one afternoon's recitation everything that I had learned in my entire year of high school calculus. I had one thought when that recitation finished: this was going to be hard.

I thought I had developed good study habits in high school. I thought I understood time management. I thought I worked hard. My grades in college said "there's room for improvement." Instead of A's and B's in my tests, I started receiving C's and D's. I was prone to procrastination. I didn't fail or drop out, but I felt under water nearly all the time.

My sharpest memory of the difficulty of our courses comes from my first finals week. The freshman dorms were quiet with nervous last-minute studying. Every now and then, someone would open their window and let out a primal scream, which would be answered by further screaming as people began to crack under the pressure of cramming a semester's worth of material in one evening. I discovered coffee during this period.

Even after feeling the relief from completing one final, you couldn't rest because another was scheduled the next day. In our dorm, someone bounded out of his room and announced "it's BOHICA time!" Here it comes again, indeed.

The rest of my college academic experience followed a similar arc. Difficult courses, precious few moments of relief, and the constant sense that I was always behind. By sophomore year, I began to accept that I wasn't going to make the Dean's List every semester. By junior year, I began to embrace the mantra that "D" stood for diploma. By senior year, I justified not finishing projects with the grim calculation that project work didn't "count as much" as the final exam.

I did eventually graduate. After a summer and an extra semester, I put together enough classes and passing grades to get a diploma. Just to be sure, however, I rummaged around my attic to find my college transcript. It turns out that I was on the Dean's List four times, and I only had 3 D's and one "incomplete" (for that class in which I skipped the project). My final GPA was a respectable 2.72.

Seeing the transcript makes me sigh with relief even now. I still drink coffee, but I haven't had to scream or think about BOHICA since graduating.

I'm attending my 20th college reunion this month, so I'm posting some college memories.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

College Reminisce: Deciding

When I think about what pushed me to attend college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), I think about a brief conversation I had with Jack Raslowsky, who was my high school soccer coach. I wanted some of his advice on how to decide where to go to college. I had just received an acceptance letter from RPI, but I had already received an acceptance to Stevens Institute of Technology.

Stevens was a college I had been thinking about since freshman year in high school. Stevens was in Hoboken, right next door to where I lived in Jersey City, NJ. Stevens had a computer science program, and I thought it was cool that they required incoming freshmen to purchase a computer.

Both RPI and Stevens were technical schools, but the big difference to me was that one was close to home, and the other wasn't. One was the comfortable nearby choice, and the other was a far away unknown. I don't remember how it came out exactly, but Jack told me that you could learn more about yourself by going away, by leaving home. This advice rang around in my head for probably a few days. It had a certain appeal.

Eventually I asked my parents to take me up to RPI. It was a relatively short trip (three hours) up to Troy, New York. As we climbed up the hill through campus, I remember thinking how unique it looked. It didn't hurt that the weather was perfect. All around me were students, talking at the corner, carrying books, walking to class, lying on the wide lawn outside the student union. I marveled at the gorgeous buildings. I was energized being there, my mind expanding with the possibilities.

By the time we began the long drive home, I felt the sheer excitement of having made a decision. I was going to Rensselaer.

I'm attending my 20th college reunion this month, so I'm posting some college memories.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wedding Days

I have had the pleasure of going to a good number of weddings. Probably at least ten. Each one was special, and a delight to be at. Old friends from home. Old friends from college. I have been to both coasts (twice to California), and one place in between (Houston, TX). I have been in the wedding party, sitting in the "green room" waiting for things to start. More often I have been a guest, roaming the reception halls, waiting for the couple to arrive.

I've missed weddings too. There have been weddings of friends that I wish I had been invited to, and there have been weddings that I couldn't attend. There was even one wedding that I didn't even muster the common courtesy of responding, and I kick myself over that faux pas.

Some friends and acquaintances on my side and my wife's side remain single, and I not-so-secretly wish to attend their weddings, if that day arrives. I also have relatives and in-laws with young adults, and they might get married one day. Maybe I'll get to their wedding, as one of those B-list guests.

This weekend, I'm attending my youngest brother's wedding. I can't wait.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Dad the Barber


I'm bald, so my trips to the barber shop are buzz cuts (3-metal). No fuss, no muss. But back in my hair days, back when I was growing up, I had hair, and the person who cut that hair was my father, my Dad.

Was it the expense of cutting hair for three boys that led my Dad to this? If so, I certainly wasn't aware of it. What I was aware of, and what I most remember was discomfort. Other boys were talking about trips to the barber shop. Even my Dad got his hair cut at a barber. Me? My "old man" was my barber.

During the summers, when I most needed a hair cut, Dad would cut my hair outside ("al fresco hair cutting?"). There we were, in our backyard, people walking by, watching my hair getting cut. It felt mildly embarrassing. For a smock, to cover me during the hair cut, Dad would use a garbage bag. He would cut out slots so we could "wear" it over our head.

My first trip to a barber other than my Dad was in college. I had no idea how to talk to a barber. "Uh, make it shorter?" I had no clue about blocking versus tapering, buzz versus styled. I felt a mild frustration: my Dad didn't prepare me! Of course, over time, I learned the lingo, and developed a rapport with these barbers.

My Dad and I didn't have much of a hair cutting rapport. He was "the strong and silent" type when I was growing up. But to make talk, he'd always ask after my friends. I wouldn't be surprised if I offered only vague responses. When I think back now, I imagine how the answer to that one question would have changed over the years, from grade school, through high school, and yes, even through college.

A whole young lifetime has gone now. Him quietly cutting my hair. Me growing up.

I worry now whether I ever properly showed my gratitude. Parents do things for kids without them even knowing the effort behind it. I know this now as a father. From the food on their plate, to the clothes on their backs, a child can take it all for granted. They should.

Thank you, Dad, for all those hair cuts when I was growing up. You know I don't need them anymore, but sometimes I wish I did.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Law & Order": At Least We'll Have Repeats

The "original" Law & Order is being canceled by NBC. This is the hour-long cops and lawyers television show which takes place in New York City. The first half-hour focuses on the cops chasing the bad guys (the crime is almost always murder), and the second half-hour focuses on the prosecutors who try to put them behind bars. The show has been on the air for twenty years, a feat of endurance that has given it the nickname "the mother ship" for those in the television business.

I'll miss Law & Order, but I wasn't a regular viewer of the current show (featuring Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache). I primarily watch Law & Order on syndication (TNT), where I root for episodes with Benjamin Bratt and Jerry Orbach.

Part of the joy of watching repeats is the comfortable familiarity. In the first minute of a Law & Order repeat, my wife and I will see who can identify the episode the fastest. In a show with over 400 episodes, we are frequently stumped. However, even when we know who the perpetrator is, it's still entertaining watching the cops finally grabbing them, and the prosecutors (almost always Sam Waterston, who plays ADA Jack McCoy) finally "nailing" them.

Since the show has run for so long, the list of supporting cast is very long. If you pull up IMDb's "full credits" page for Law & Order, be prepared to spend lots of time scrolling! And because of its longevity, the repeats often feature a star or two (notable to me: Edie Falco, who went on to play Carmella Soprano on "The Sopranos"; Sam Rockwell, who recently starred in Moon; Laura Linney, who was in "Mystic River"; and Denis O'Hare, who had that great opening scene in "Michael Clayton").

It's replacement? Law & Order: Los Angeles. I love LA, but it's not New York City. New York's neighborhoods are more dense, and closer together. For the LA series, I would think that the cops will spend more time driving to get to the scene of the crime (Los Angeles is over 490 square miles). I also have this suspicion that the LA version will feature more car and helicopter chases, at which point I may as well be watching "Cops".

That said, one of my favorite L & O episodes is a three-part show (Season 7, Episodes 15, 16, 17) in which the cops and prosecutors have to cross the country to nab a suspect in Los Angeles. Hollywood lawyers versus New York lawyers (with Carey Lowell playing Jack's assistant district attorney). The cops are gleeful fish out of water: Jerry Orbach hitting golf balls, and Bratt's character getting hit on by an attractive movie producer, played by Lauren Graham.

Is it too soon to ask the screenwriters to create the "Los Angeles cops visit New York City" episode?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Middle of Parenthood

My daughter Mia turned nine years old a few days ago.

My wife jokingly said "we only have another nine years to go!" I smiled. In another nine years, Mia will turn 18, technically an adult. Do I really have that little time left with my daughter as a "child"?

Sometimes I find myself staring at her. How did that little baby we had nine years ago become this big girl? I look long and hard at her face, picking out my features, my wife's features. I watch her while she reads or plays video games or sits at the computer, and I think I can see her adult demeanor. I hear Mia talking and I think I can hear her all grown up. I hold her hand, and I imagine it the size of mine.

Mia has an interest in the adult world. We drive by the middle school and high school. When we go into town, we point out where Jenn went to college. She's been to my office. There's a very interesting future waiting for her, and she seems up for it.

Maybe this is the middle of parenthood. A fond remembrance of the baby she was, but an eagerness for the adult she will become. Nine more years. It almost seems too short.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Discovering Sudoku

I first noticed Sudoku puzzles a few years ago. My father had started doing them. When he would visit, he'd find the unfinished Sudoku puzzle in my newspaper, and work on it. One time I remember him bringing a book or magazine full of Sudoku puzzles, and he would diligently work on them. He looked content solving them.

Somehow I stayed away. I didn't "get" how to solve Sudoku. Or maybe it was the Dad factor, as in "my Dad does old-school Sudoku, but I prefer new-school Wii."

Earlier this year, I bought one of those PennyPress puzzle magazines. My daughter had wanted to do some Word Seek puzzles. She asked me about some of the harder puzzles in the magazine, and I went to the PennyPress' website for some help. While meandering the site, I eventually found "How to Solve Sudoku" (PDF).

I was somewhat surprised that there was a logic to figuring out Sudoku. All this time watching my Dad, I thought it was largely guess work. I was wrong! I skimmed the document, fascinated that there were names for the "deductions" used to solve Sudoku (things like "X-Wing", "Locked Candidate", and "Naked Pair"). The descriptions for how to solve the puzzles plus the charts got me excited, and I downloaded a Sudoku game for my iPod.

The first puzzle took me almost an hour to do, but after finishing, I knew I had found a new habit. It's a satisfying feeling solving a Sudoku puzzle. I "get it" now. My brain feels like it's been exercised. I sent an e-mail to my Dad, telling him about my recent discovery with Sudoku, and he was glad.

Of late, I've taken to solving my newspaper's Sudoku puzzle. Solving these on paper is a delight, but they do get progressively harder, the most difficult being on Friday. I'll have to remember to save that one for my Dad next time he visits.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Best Movies Watched in 2009

I watched 47 movies in 2009.

My favorite movie from 2009 was District 9, followed by The Wrestler and The Hurt Locker. All three I saw in the theater. My favorite movie on DVD? The Dark Knight.

Thanks to my daughter, I plunged into some great animated movies, including Kung Fu Panda, The Iron Giant, Madagascar, and Monster House. All of these feature child-friendly entertainment with plenty of "only adults will laugh" humor.

One other movie deserves special mention: It Might Get Loud. This is a loving documentary about playing guitar, featuring three quite famous guitarists: Jack White (of The White Stripes), The Edge (of U2), and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin). Watching Page play the air guitar is worth the price of renting this superb film. Each of the three meditate on playing, on creativity, on their motivations. It's a special film: go see it.

Best Books Read in 2009

My Previous Best Books: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008.

I read 37 books last year. I attribute the increase due to my current project, which has me on an airplane pretty regularly, reading some genre fiction.

My favorite non-fiction book from last year was Tube: The Invention of Television. I've always had a fascination for television, and how it works. This was my first book on the history of TV, and it was fascinating. I did follow up this book with Defining Vision (Joel Brinkley), which provided a recent history on the "invention" of high-definition television.

Honorable non-fiction mentions: God Is Not Great (Christopher Hichens), Three Weeks in October (Charles Moose), Fatal Vision (Joe McGinniss). (The last two got me started on the "true crime" genre.)

My favorite fiction book from last year is between The Dying Earth (Jack Vance) and The Blue Hour (T. Jefferson Parker).

I've already written about why The Dying Earth captured my imagination. The Blue Hour is your basic police procedural. The detective in charge is a woman named Merci Rayborn. She's assigned a new partner, Tim Hess, and they have to investigate a string of grisly crime scenes and abductions. I really enjoyed the characters in this book. Merci jumps off the page as a law enforcer with a too-gruff personality. Tim's just perfect as the old cop who mentors her. I felt swept up in this basic cops-chasing-bad-guys book.

Honorable fiction mentions: Shoedog (George Pelecanos), The Assistants (Robin Lynn Williams), Diary of a Mad Old Man (Junichiro Tanizaki), The Enemy (Lee Child). (The last one was recommended to me by my youngest brother, and it starts me off on the Jack Reacher series.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Books and Movies from 2009

A belated Happy New Year, although it feels old to me already. I did something different with my book and movie lists from 2009. They're now on Library Thing and IMDb, respectively. I watched 47 movies, and I read 37 books in 2009. I'll have my Best Of Lists in a few days, I hope!