Near my house is a bike shop, where on weekends riders gather with their aerodynamic helmets and shiny, tight spandex to embark on long, planned treks. I ride alone.
See what I did there. That short second sentence holds more weight than the long first sentence, which makes the short sentence resound like a proclamation. And it also makes me sound like a jerk. I’ll let others weigh in on that possibility because it’s impossible to assess that sort of thing about oneself. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone announce, I’m a jerk. Not in any serious way at least. I suppose I simply prefer to carve my own path.
I have considered finding out about the planned trips and showing up to ride along. I might enjoy that. But one giant obstacle stands in my way: I’ve never seriously considered buying a spandex suit. And I don’t know if I can show up, ready to ride, with my jean shorts and tee shirt. I doubt that anyone would outright shun me. But I’m fairly certain I’d attract a few sneers. At the very least, they wouldn’t take me seriously. Right?
Perhaps there’s some middle ground I can seek out. I welcome your suggestions. Until then, I’ll leave my house when I want, turn where the wind takes me, and enjoy the scenery, pondering all the while whether I’m a stupid jerk.
Iron Man Rusted Out
If I read a dog of a book, I won’t write about it. Books are hard enough to sell without bloggers piling on. But I don’t have any problem trashing the waste of celluloid that is Iron Man 3 because this little post won’t register a blip.
This first two Iron Man installments were briskly paced and suspenseful and well written, so my hopes were high. But this most recent effort is a mess.
I’m going to give away surprises, dumb as they may be, so fair warning.
Iron Man this time around suffers from insomnia and panic attacks. Why, I’m not sure. To humanize him? His banter and witty asides accomplished this pretty well in the first two movies. Okay, so he suffers panic and post-traumatic stress; let’s see where this goes. As it turns out, his attacks come only during down times! Let the guy freak out in the middle of a battle.
Speaking of banter, this time it’s overdone and poorly written and nearly always forced. The rare instance where the banter is even remotely endearing is when Tony Stark (Iron Man) bluntly says goodbye to a boy who has saved his ass. The kid expects the usual adult advice, but Stark pretty much tells him to stop feeling sorry himself. The moment is ruined at the end, however, when Stark arranges to have the kid’s garage souped up with tools and gadgets and a new car that he won’t be able to drive for a few years. It’s a touching gesture, but only until you recall that the kid’s father left him six years ago. The kid needs guidance and time, not some rich guy’s charity.
The bad guys are pretty bad, but it’s hard to understand why they’re so indestructible. They begin as regular old humans but their DNA is manipulated and they rapidly evolve, but they become iron sturdy for some reason—and also superheated, on command no less. You never quite know what their superpower is.
In terms of Iron Man’s superpowers, he can now control the iron suit remotely. Why would he ever suit up and risk his life if he can do this? And we find out by the end that he’s built an army of these suits and sics them on the bad guys, which makes for an unevenly matched battle and effectively drains the drama. All we have left is the individual battles, and I’m okay with that. But even here, the good guys use some ultimate swipes or press some backup remote thing, which makes you wonder why they didn’t simply use those backup things in the first place. And why Iron Man decides to don or slip out of his iron suit is mostly incomprehensible—other than when he has to charge the suit. I’ll buy that. But why does he need to charge the suit if he has all these reserve suits that come out in the end?
The special effects are okay. But when the rest of the movie is dumb, the effects become only mildly entertaining.
The only true highlight: Ben Kingsley. His role could easily be a forgettable one, but he ranges from sinister to amusing to clueless. The guy is brilliant.
So how much money has this movie made? Save yours.
For decades I’ve been hearing about Ball Four, a raunchy, unflinching firsthand look at the 1969 baseball season through the eyes of knuckleball pitcher Jim Bouton, who played that year for the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros.
Though I didn’t find the book nearly as raunchy as I expected. Or hoped? Sure, the players partake in unsavory activity, and their language is coarse, but the outrage over the publication of the book was more a reflection of 1969 than anything revealed in the book. Baseball back then had a reputation to uphold. But that reputation is so shattered today that the escapades described in the book seem quaint.
Particularly outdated are the many references to salary, which was paltry. Players had little leverage, they were treated unfairly, but the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction, with obscene multimillion dollar salaries, that the old system comes off as refreshing. For instance, Bouton describes how he had to fight the Seattle Pilots for $88 they charged him for banging up a door.
Bouton doesn’t offer any deep insights, but this is a book well worth reading because (a) it’s hilarious; (b) it offers a realistic behind-the-curtain glimpse at what it’s like to have to perform in the national spotlight; and (c) it’s brutally honest, about egos and flaws and aspirations. I can understand how some players and managers might have gotten upset over what Bouton had written.
As I plowed through the 467 pages of Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin, I wondered if readers who are not fans of the Boss would enjoy this book as much as I did. I’m still not sure, but I think so. The writing is excellent, the insights are deep and earned, and the balance is even. Carlin had access to Springsteen but was free to write what he wanted. The result is a compelling story of a driven neighborhood guy with talent up the wazoo and his own unique set of issues.
Sometimes when the unattractive underbelly of a person is revealed, the warts taint the reader’s admiration, which happened when I read bios of Kurt Vonnegut and Frank Sinatra. By the end, I’d had enough of those guys. But with Bruce, the flaws, thorny as they are at times, only serve to highlight Springsteen’s unwavering commitment to his music. It’s downright inspiring.
Here’s what I mean. Usually when I read biographies, I’m intrigued by turning points. If Paul had never met John, that’s that. No Beatles. No pandemonium. They may have enjoyed moderate success as musicians in clubs or wherever. But with Springsteen, you get the overwhelming impression that key turning points didn’t matter. If this producer had not given him some break, then some other one would. I’m not talking about fate or karma or anything of that nature. I’m referring to drive and talent and an original voice, meaning lyrical too, that must be heard. Someone could argue that he still needed certain conditions in order to thrive. For instance, his mother took out a loan to buy Springsteen his first guitar. She took out a loan! But I would counter that his insistence was more critical. He wore her down. And if she hadn’t relented, he would have gotten the guitar through other means.
A couple of examples of his single-mindedness. About a year after the success of his seminal album Born to Run, he’s standing outside a bar, unable to scrounge from his pocket the $3 cover charge. He’s so immersed in composing and performing that mundane concerns over money barely faze him. Typically, when he finishes a show, he’d rather move on to the next city than to lounge around. Lounging around means he’s one step removed from the music.
Reading the two pages about his speech at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, is worth the price of the book. The speech reminds me of the kind of graduation speech we never hear but should.
If you’ve never been to a Springsteen concert—first of all, what’s wrong with you?—you may wonder if this biographer’s praise of his performances is overblown. I’d suggest you find out for yourself. Go to a concert. Become a convert. Then you’ll want to read this book. If you are a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If not, what’s wrong with you?
I can’t stop thinking about this irony. One week ago today, a young man was strolling freely through crowds at the Boston Marathon, hell-bent on hurting and killing innocent bystanders. And now, this same man is receiving the best medical attention in the world from the same citizens he intended to harm. Even if he ultimately has no important information to impart to investigators, doctors and nurses will continue to do their utmost to care for this young man. I suspect they have torn feelings, but I imagine them returning to the same thought: We are not going to allow you to define who we are.
I’m not a flashy flag-waving, barnstorming, blasting pledge of allegiance kind of guy because frankly that kind of extreme behavior is too often accompanied by paranoia, or ignorance of history and context, but my patriotism runs deep. And I’m proud of the way the people of Boston this past week represented the best of America.
We will not let the worst in others define who we are.
How I spent day 1 of Retirement 2.0.
Coffee and pastry at Panera, then about two hours of writing there.
My goal for today: To golf. In April. Which has always been an impossibility, unless I wanted to play hooky. Which I did not. Almost didn’t happen. Forecast looked bleak. But rain held. I got out for nine. And the sun even made an appearance.
This is my chance, finally, to get all the explosively shitty shots out of my system early so that by the end of the summer, the shots will be improved to mildly shitty. Though I did hit a high soft shot with a five iron from 170 yards out that plopped gently onto the green. A beautiful thing.
Sorry if this post is not as literary or deep as you’ve come to expect from this blog, ahem. And thanks for your indulgence.
It’s Sunday night, and instead of preparing a lesson plan or study guide for the upcoming week, and instead of ironing a shirt and making a sandwich, I’m writing this. Because I find myself newly retired.
The first retirement didn’t quite take, I guess. At the beginning of the year, I subbed an entire quarter for a great group of kids at Fremd HS, my home for the last 31 years. And on Friday, I finished a 12-week stint at a new school, Lake Park HS. New to me. Different culture, different rules, but not much different. Another great group of students.
As I was reading Mary Schmich’s column in the Trib this morning, I already felt of tug of what I will miss on Monday morning. (For the record, I won’t miss the alarm blaring.) Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and wonderful person, cites a study that examines how difficult it is to envision our future selves. We believe that how we are today will remain more or less intact in 10 or 20 years. Which is an illusion. And on Monday morning, we would have talked about this for a few minutes, because I usually share my thoughts on what I’ve been reading. I would have asked how they had changed in just the last couple of years. I might have asked them to guess how my personality had changed since high school. Sitting here at my kitchen table, I can imagine which students would have offered guesses and which ones would have simply smiled attentively and which ones would have been distracted by a classmate or phone or thoughts about the weekend. The classroom is a vibrant place, and I will miss these rich and real exchanges.
Then I might have mentioned another book I was perusing this weekend, the photos of Vivian Maier, whom I’ve mentioned before. (Look her up; hers is an amazing story.) She has a series of photos of pedestrians in downtown Chicago, and it’s remarkable how many of them are reading the newspaper. I might have asked students if there’s anything they do today that binds them together like a newspaper once did. And I might ask them, What if Maier took photos of them, now, what would they one day look back on and miss? And all this would have related perhaps to the discussion about their future selves.
None of this, by the way, would relate to the lesson of the day, to the material that would help them pass the exalted A.P. exam in May. But we would get to the lesson. We really would. But those first few minutes, in my estimation, would be just as important. Maybe more so.
On their last study guide, I added an open letter to students because I usually find myself at a loss for words on the final day. Here’s the letter, which I hope offers a glimpse of their spirit:
I’ve enjoyed our time together. When people ask me about “young people today,” they expect me to say you’re spoiled or distracted or lazy. But I don’t see much of that. (Okay, maybe a little. And put those stupid cell phones away.) To the contrary, what I see is this: generosity, kindness, ambition, intelligence, wit, optimism. In fact, you are so determined to forge a solid future for yourselves, maybe because you have been handed such a mess (sorry), that you will endure inhumane school schedules and dutifully oblige test after test thrown in your direction with little complaint. I think a little complaining is in order.
I’m not going to give you any advice, because you probably wouldn’t listen anyway. But here is my hope. I hope you will find a way to temper your ambition and drive in such a way that you achieve your goals but still have time to enjoy today. Because today is pretty darn good. Today is yours.
I won’t be able to check your AP scores, but I’d like to know how you did. If you feel inclined, email me an update this summer. Or if you’d like to read my updates on the state of the world, a very skewed view, you can read my blog at tonyromanoauthor.com.
Be good. Do good.
Each year, the Society of Midland Authors recognizes the best books published in the Midwest. And they’ve been doing this for nearly 60 years. This year, I was honored to be one of the judges in the fiction category. There were numerous worthy entries, and other judges may have selected different titles, but there’s no question that these four winners are among the best books published this year.
The World of a Few Minutes Ago
Why have I never heard of Jack Driscoll before now? This is a remarkable collection of short stories full of characters struggling to navigate the world. The characters remind me of the ones you might find in a Raymond Carver story, but Driscoll imbues them with more nuance. And his endings are more satisfying than Carver’s—which is great praise because I love those Carver stories. Probably a more apt comparison might be with Ethan Canin, another guy who knows a little about writing. It came as no surprise when I discovered that Driscoll also writes poetry. The language in these stories is rich and precise and always moving.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
This book might be the most ambitious of the four. The novel spans only a few years in the life of the narrator, who becomes an unwitting custodian of an imprisoned man. But the scope seems much grander, as haunting as some Shakespearian drama. I think this is Dybek’s first novel, so you can expect to hear much more from him.
The Lighthouse Road
This is another ambitious book, the action shifting from one generation to another. I hesitate to call this a historical novel because it’s driven mainly by character, but this feels historical because the details are so precise, and the language seems to emerge from some deep place, as if the author immersed himself so completely with the past that the very language he uses evokes the rhythm of how people actually spoke in Minnesota in the 1890s and the 1920s. I love this book, which turns out to be a book about the indelible ties that bind families. The ending is earned and poignant and wholly satisfying.
Are You Happy Now?
This is a Chicago book through and through, written by a Chicago guy who knows the city well. The characters are endearing, the setting is gritty and evocative, the plot is engaging—a real page-turner. Of all the books, this one, for me, evoked the most emotion by the end. I was really rooting for this down-on-his-luck publisher searching for his big break, only to find that maybe other outcomes might be more important. Oh, and it’s mainly a love story!
Click here for a list of winners in other categories.
I usually don’t get away for spring break, but last week my wife and I went to Arizona. From one city to the other, you feel as though you’re in a different state. Phoenix strikes me as fairly urban, Fountain Hills feels like one giant resort. And then there’s Sedona, rich in red rock beauty and full of people searching for higher meaning, which is ironic because the views are so breathtaking. In me, they invited simply awe.
When I got home, I realized how many storefronts I passed and how many conversations I overheard about higher meaning. I didn’t have the inclination to stop last week, but I wish I would have, because now I have a few questions.
1. If I want to try astral projection, should I wear a seatbelt?
2. Is there an expiration date on magic crystals and amulets?
3. Why aren’t aura photos used at airport security checkpoints?
4. I think I may have entered the infamous Sedona hills vortex while hiking. Is it possible that in some alternate universe I’m still hiking? And if so, can I get that alternate self to work for me so that my real self can continue to hike?
5. Can tarot cards predict who will win Dancing with the Stars?
6. Should I get an “energy reading” every 3000 miles, or should I get one more frequently because I’m over 50?
7. Is there something about warm climate that ignites new age thinking? Or does new age thinking reach a boiling point that requires escape to temperate climates?
8. If I practice goddess worship, do I need to check with my wife first?
9. If in a past life I was a prince, what the heck happened?
10. If during my short stay in Sedona I merely breathed in the clean air and took in the magnificence of the red rock formations and felt restored and uplifted and didn’t partake in any new age activities, did I miss out? Or, to put it another way, if an Arizona spruce falls in the vortex and there’s no one there to feel the vortex vibe, does the vibe exist? Contrarily, what if no vortex exists, but someone yearns to believe in it? Could this person sell magic crystals based on such yearning? And how do you price out one magic crystal versus another?
If anyone has answers, I’d love to hear them.
I just finished The Universe Within by Neil Shubin and I’m about halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean.
These are excellent companion books. Dip into one for a while, then dive into the other. They’re both well written in a conversational tone and often read like good mysteries. Unveiled in these books are the big who-dun-its: the mysteries of life. From how the universe likely began and how it will end to who discovered DNA. In school, I was never drawn in much by my science classes. I’m fairly certain this was due mainly to my inadequacies and flighty attention, but I do wonder: had I been handed books such as these then, would I have been a more engaged student? Probably not. More likely, I was a mope who needed a lifetime to become this curious.
I still struggle to picture how DNA protein G combines with C, and T with A, but Kean does a nice job of creating wonder about how scientists discovered this. For example, Gregor Mendel had nervous breakdowns during tests in school, yet he persevered at matters that were more important to him: understanding the expression of dominant and recessive traits. Another giant in the field, Sturtevant, blew off homework altogether. Darwin hated math. Fruit fly scientists apparently have a great sense of humor, naming their flies after their attributes: “Male coitus interruptus mutants spend just ten minutes having sex (the norm is twenty).” And Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, a nun who invented Preparation H, was discouraged from pursuing science at all, but her research methods helped inspire other DNA researchers.
In Shubin’s book, you’ll learn why today is longer than yesterday. Why the size of Jupiter and its distance from Earth helped to create life here. Why and how changes in the universe affected the evolution of our bodies. This is a mind-dazzling book that I can’t recommend highly enough. I need to read it again. And again. When people casually maintain that we’re all connected, they don’t quite understand the extent of their claim. Shubin lays this all out, puzzle piece by puzzle piece. My mind is still reeling.