Sunday, November 30, 2008

High Expectations for Chelsea's High Line

I USED TO WORK VERY CLOSE to the High Line, the venerable elevated railway that used to serve industries along the West Side of Manhattan. I had been dimly aware, as the involuntary end of my employment there approached, of efforts to transform the route into a park. There was a ceremony at the High Line in '07, before I left that job, presumably to celebrate the start of restorative work or the unveiling of plans, I don't recall exactly which. But the city was definitely moving forward in getting it ready to share with the people at large.

I was reminded of these efforts by a story in today's New York Times on the continuing work on the Line, as well as real estate projects around it, in what writer Amy Cortese calls "some of the most ambitious development in the city in years." In the middle of a fierce economic downturn, New York City is forging ahead with a public-works project to rededicate a utility route to civic good. Well done.

I used to walk around the High Line neighborhood during idle times at that job, soaking in the old architecture, marveling at the cobblestones still paving the streets in some spots of the Meatpacking District, admiring the boutiques and galleries that inhabit former commercial spaces. As time and developers claim the decades-old brick-and-iron edifices that face Jersey, the chance to glimpse them from the height of the High Line is one I greatly anticipate.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mid-Thanksgiving Weekend Update (not with Dennis Miller)

SO FAR, I'M HALFWAY THROUGH the four days of 0ur American binge-weekend of commerce and calories — and occasional thankfulness — and I've only indulged in half of that equation. The vast bulk of Thursday was spent over at my parents' house: helping Mom with food prep, burrowing with my Dad through dips and a cheese ball while watching two subpar football games, and tapping out an abortive blog post that ended up in the scraps pile with the other pieces of half-baked TextEdit compost. Also, I did laundry. The most effective multitasking I've done all week. The weather was cool, but not painfully so, and the skies clear and favorable to both travelers and Macy's parade-goers alike. Weather's not usually a hitch for a Thanksgiving journey to my parents'; they live one town away, a distance I could walk if pressed. And ought to have, considering the amount of full-fat dairy products alone that my Dad and I packed away.

I drifted home happy to have shared another Turkey Day with my parents, and crashed early under the sedative influence of a lovingly prepared meal. I didn't even get the chance to read. Just out like a light. I'd like to say that not having to go into work the next day accelerated my drop into the lotus-perfumed arms of Morpheus, but that's a whole other post or series of same.

I made a weak try at rising early to hit the gym on Friday morning. Wasn't gonna happen. I was still paying a sleep debt from a very late Wednesday night at the poker game, and I knew if I didn't pay it off then, I'd drag my sleep–wake cycle far off kilter over the rest of the weekend, and firmly screw myself Monday morning. Why fight nature? I set the clock a couple of hours forward, wound up awakening about 15 minutes before it anyway, and got my ass in gear.

After a couple of hours' cleaning in preparation for the Christmas party I'll host a week from today, I mixed up a protein-berry smoothie and rolled over to the gym shortly before noon. I'd come to the conclusion that hitting the gym first thing in the morning, without any sort of meal beforehand, was the reason why I'd been losing steam short of a session's end. I'd also noticed that the smoothie, when consumed after a workout, tended to make me sleepy. I blame this on the blizzard of simple carbs in the smoothie: nearly a cup of frozen berries, a banana, and a quarter-cup of 100% cranberry juice, to say nothing of what might be in the two scoops of protein powder (actually, I have this number: 6 g carbs).

This was particularly the case after a gym visit in which I'd just been on a treadmill or elliptical trainer for a half-hour, with no major muscle-tissue teardown. I'd be getting dressed for work after downing this and feel like getting back into bed. And I'd read a study recently that declared immediate post-workout nutrition to be counterproductive for all except competitive athletes, powerlifters, and other such folks who routinely burn 2,000 calories per gym trip. Not me by a longshot.

So I decided to compromise and bring the smoothie with me to drink during a workout. This has been working much better, and I don't get to work thinking I need a Costanza drawer in my desk for a nap. This is what I did yesterday, and I teetered into the gym, bag and keys (with membership tag) in one hand, big plastic cup brimming with purple sludge in the other, hoping the path to the squat rack was clear.

Usually I lift weights first thing in the morning, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, as close to the opening of the facility as I can get.

Now, this is more or less the type of squat rack we have at the gym:
Rather than use this for movements like squats, overhead shoulder presses, deadlifts, and other compound exercises during which you might want a nice, sturdy piece of steel onto which to drop the weight on a final, exhausting set, some speciments will use the heavy-duty bar (the Olympic bar that you find on these things alone weighs 45 lb.) to do curls. Without any other weight. While folks itching to squat grit their teeth and wait for this jerkass to be done. Simplest solution, as with many sources of stress in life, is avoidance. Getting into the gym at the open accomplishes this.

Not so yesterday. I feared that, at noontime on a weekday with most folks home from work, I'd run upstairs to the weight floor to find the joint jammed with bleary-eyed Thanksgiving binge victims expiating their guilt one curl at a time (of course, in the squat rack). I'd brought my iPod just in case I had to call an audible and burn 30 minutes on a piece of aerobic equipment while the scrum upstairs emptied out, though my schedule had Friday as a weight-training day, and I prefer to hold to the schedule if at all possible.

But I was lucky; the many cars in the parking lot belonged to the folks populating the treadmills and trainers, not the Cybex or Hammer Strength machines upstairs . . . and what few folks were busying themselves with their muscles were nowhere near the squat rack. Perfect.

November was a spotty month for me. I hit a low in job satisfaction, and also caught a cold, both of which screwed up my gym attendance, nutrition, and weight loss. But I found my footing again this last weekend, and thus far I'd been putting up good numbers. Even when your ass is dragging, I've found, if you can just keep going back to the gym for a couple of down days, it'll be a lot easier to get fully back into a program when your health returns or a dark mood passes. (And exercise is itself a fine antidepressant.) The squat is the foundation of the routine I do (the 5x5 beginner's routine), and after stalling out at 45 lb. of plates on the bar (for a total of 90 lb.), I'd been feeling strong enough to continue the advancement.

This week was fantastic. I broke through the 45-lb. weight to do five sets of five with 50 lb. on Monday. I ate more carefully and got more and better sleep. Wednesday morning, I entered the century club by adding 55 lb. to the 45-lb. bar, with which I was again able to hit the specified five sets of five reps. The kicker was yesterday, when, despite the Thursday binge, I racked up 60 lb., and still managed to complete final set with good form, albeit quite slowly. Even though I hit a temporary wall on the bench press later that day, I was still happy to have inched forward with the foundation exercise of the Stronglifts routine. Not sure if I can exceed that on Monday, but I'll have had two rest days to heal and prepare. So cross your fingers.

I returned to my parents' house for dinner that night, but I didn't go anywhere near a mall. I used to go out on Black Fridays. Not anymore. I don't need anything like that level of stress. People go feral that day and are best handled at the length of a cattle prod. Nothing I might need isn't already available elsewhere, either within walking distance of my apartment, or via the Web. Aside from the short trips to the gym and my parents' place, I put few miles on the car, or on my mental odometer.

Today, I've got a list of items I can find at local strip malls or grocery stores, rather than the mega-palaces of commerce straining at their rivets in Paramus. These are mostly things I need for the party next weekend: a nice scented soap, a few extra Pottery Barn mugs f0r my caffeine-craving guests, a couple of the giftcards I'll need for the grab bag I always have at the affair, and the envelopes in which I'll place 'em. I can even dodge the parking problem, because one of these places is within walking distance of my workplace, so I can stash the car and tromp down to the stores without jockeying with folks over spots. Insane.

That's how things stand as we cruise toward noon on Saturday, as a clear blue sky filters through the evergreens outside my window, and retailers gnaw the nails from their fingers hoping for sales salvation this weekend. I may venture over to the gym for a bit of treadmill and college football, before ticking off some more to-do's from the party prep list. A haircut would also be a good idea, which would take me no further than crossing the street outside that selfsame window. Other than that, and a bundle of leftovers awaiting me in the fridge, I plan to take the second half of this weekend at a delightfully slow pace.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Street Finds Its Own Uses for Things

WILLIAM GIBSON'S SUMMARY APHORISM of the cyberpunk ethic is proven to be true in the present with each passing day. News has filtered down, from the rustling pages of academe to the popular media, that athletes are experimenting with that Maginot Line of flagging virility, Viagra, to boost performance in other places than the sack. Because the drug relaxes blood vessels and thus permits enhanced blood flow, athletes reason that this will allow more oxygenated blood to reach muscles — a boon when competing far above sea level.

Some in the world of competitive sport never stop trying to find the performance magic bullet, no matter how small the effect, preferably an undetectable one, and sometimes one that's actually safe to take. Viagra originated as a solution to pulmonary hypertension, but its mode of action — via nitric oxide on blood vessels — is not restricted to the lungs. (Just ask Bob Dole or Ron Jeremy.) Over-the-counter nutritional supplements have used nitric oxide to increase blood flow to muscles for some time, presumably in subclinical doses relative to a Viagra pill.

So my question is, who first came up with the idea to apply a prescription dose of nitric oxide to an otherwise healthy person? Not all athletes fit the jock stereotype. The elite know very well what their food and nutritional supplements contain and do to their systems, and rightly so for such an investment of time, money, and effort. On the college or even high school level, however, I wonder if coaching staffs or even parents might be way these pills arrive in the players' hands. And for professional players, it's easy to say the guy needed the Viagra for its traditional use. Think how much is at stake. What's the off chance of a side effect or being found out compared with getting into a bowl game or the playoffs?

Just goes to show you that one person's finished product is another's prototype.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I'm Not Riding With This Valkyrie

I REREAD WILLIAM SHIRER'S The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich every year. Compelling, conclusive, and frightening, it reminds me of the extremes to which humans can push themselves. Not just in evil, but in resisting it. Possibly the most riveting story in the massive book is that of Operation Valkyrie, the failed, final, and most nearly successful assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler. Its leader and direct instigator: Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a count and General Staff member, who smuggled the bomb into Hitler's conference room at the remote Wolf's Lair forward command center.

Despite being a Nazi and part of its war machine, von Stauffenberg has been memorialized in Germany for his attempt to decapitate the Third Reich. When plans for a movie of the July 20 plot were announced, it caught the interest of the German people, along with my own. I enjoyed Downfall (Der Untergang), the first German-language film to recreate the last days of the Bunker in Berlin, and as I said, I find the unfolding — and unraveling — of Valkyrie to be dramatic and tragic.

So I was hugely disappointed to learn, early on, that von Stauffenberg would be portayed in this American production by Mister Hollywood, Tom Cruise. Many Germans were appalled as well, though somewhat more for Cruise's Scientology, which is rightly viewed in Germany as the cult that it is.

Tonight, I saw a trailer for Valkyrie, and I lost any tiny shred of hope that I might be able to soldier through in the hopes of watching the July 20 drama on screen no matter who was playing the Count. He didn't even speak with a British accent, which was often the default for American and British actors who needed to play WWII Germans without embarrasing themselves by speaking in ersatz Deutsch. Nope, what we've got coming out of Cruise, dressed in his General Staff uniform and flanked by a thousand fluttering Reich banners, is pure Cruise-ish American. I'd fully expect Cruise's von Stauffenberg to be confronted, during his final hour, by an injured and vengeful Hitler, yelling, "Sie können die Wahrheit nicht annehmen!" Whatever disbelief I might have been able to suspend came crashing down like the Valkyrie plot itself.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why I'm So Alone in This World

SIMPLE REASON. I'm reading Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 11, 2001, by Steve Coll. It's said to be on President-elect Barack Obama's nightstand these days, so I thought it worth checking out. Thus far it very much has been. Charlie Wilson, titular character of the recent book and film, is mentioned in the upcoming pages, according to the index, and I look forward to seeing whether my impression of him as an exacerbating cause of increased Islamist radicalism is based in any reality.

But here's the explanation for the header. The first chapter of the book recounts the 1979 siege of the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, by a huge mob of locals, inflamed by the same jihadist spirit that had just possessed students in Tehran to storm our embassy there and take both its staff, and the Carter presidency, hostage. The chapter begins when one American embassy worker is smoked out of his office by the mob when they torch the building. The revolutionaries rough him up, then drive him out of the embassy for a drumhead trial for crimes against the Prophet.

Am I the only one who finds irony in the captive American's last name: Putscher?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Royal Navy 2, Pirates Naught

FOLLOWING ON THE HEELS OF a report on NPR of the life of a Somali pirate — in which the reporter took considerable risk, and moral license, to interview one of the many seagoing thieves plaguing the critical sea lane through the Gulf of Aden — comes news that a British warship, aided by Russian vessels, finally took some hard action against these scum. From Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog:
For years, Somali pirates have terrorized the waters of East Africa, with only the occasional spasm of opposition. But now, NATO has begun to patrol the area in force. And the pirates are starting to get smacked back. On Tuesday, the British Royal Navy "repelled a pirate attack on a Danish cargo ship off the coast of Yemen, shooting dead two men," the BBC reports.
The pirates were given a chance to surrender, but after they fired small arms at the HMS Cumberland, the British sailors returned fire and dropped a pair of them.

Years ago, I recall reading a New York Times Sunday magazine article by Jack Hitt about modern-day pirates. I recall being surprised at how prevalent the problem had become. As evidenced by the first link in the quote above, Somalia's coast is now a hot zone for such crime.

I have no sympathies for the dead pirates, and I think it's about time such a clear signal was sent that this shit won't fly. One of the commenters to the article had the same thought I did: that the naval powers of the world should begin dispatching WW II–style Q-ships to begin throwing the Fear into these scum. I had an ambiguous reaction to the NPR report; though it was fascinating, I still felt like the world would've been better served had the story ended with the reporter emptying the pirate's skull with a shotgun. But that's a violation of journalistic trust, and let's face it, several of my favorite books were written by, or in collaboration with, Mafiosi. Still, if you look at the list of previous stories on the topic beneath the story behind the first link in the quote, this is clearly not a new problem, with over 100 incidents this year. Well, there are two pirates who won't be joining the next raid.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Obi-Wan Dances Back, Declares It To Be On

I'M NOT SO MUCH OF an ultra-orthodox Star Wars geek anymore that I can't do some creative speculation into the film. Used to be, though. Used to get indignant even at the thought of other science fiction franchises. The blinders eventually dropped off somewhere at the end of high school in 1987 when (a) while watching the original Star Trek to generate MST3K-style comebacks, I got into that show too; and (b) I began seeing the one girl who'd started hanging with me and my guy-friends, and her sister, in bathing suits more often, and my priorities realigned themselves somewhat. Some things just have a way of educatin' a man.

More jaded now than educated, I sometimes look back on that old film and wonder. Today it was Obi-Wan Kenobi's confrontation in the cantina with those two slags who threaten Luke. (Yes, I know these two slags' Extended Universe names. No, I am not going to use them.) A couple of months ago, I viewed Yojimbo, one of George Lucas's sources for Star Wars. Ben's rather one-sided bar fight had its birth in Yojimbo, right down to the severed arm. Toshiro Mifune walks away from that fight with a wry comment to the town coffin-maker about his services being needed. Obi-Wan, however, merely looks around grimly to ensure the fight is done, then snuffs the saber and helps Luke up off his ass.

I was thinking. Obi-Wan's no slouch as a Jedi Master. He's already Force-tricked a Stormtrooper into letting Luke and the Droids cruise through a DWI. Setting aside Lucas's hard-on to include scenes from like 10 Kurosawa and John Ford films in a two-hour skiffy romp, Ben easily could've used the Force on these two alien clowns and chilled their latex asses out before resuming his job interview with Chewie. The only two on-film Force-resistant creatures we'll meet — also on Tatooine, oddly enough — won't show up until later in the re-edit of Ep 4 (Jabba) and, years later, in the much-maligned Ep I (Watto). Everyone else? Fair game for the mind trick.

So that leaves two possibilities for why Ben didn't chose a softer way of resolving this conflict. First, he may have figured, we're going to be here for a while, and the longer we are, the greater the odds that Blondie over here is gonna step in shit with one of these freaks. I might as well make a statement now to disabuse them of the thought of fucking with us.

Second, and this is, if even less Jedi-like, my favorite. At this point, the details of Ben's 20-ish years of exile on Tatooine hadn't been frantically scribbled in yet by a million Extended Universe monkeys. (And me, in fact.) As far as we know, other than checking up on young Skywalker often enough for Luke to recognize his last name as that of a "strange old hermit," Ben hasn't been doing squadootch. Can't use the Force in any meaningful way; no sense in attracting the Emperor's attention, nor that of his chief flunky, whose midichlorian-packed kid happens to live down the road a piece. Tusken Raiders could be frightened off with a dime-store duck call, and he had nothing even a retarded Jawa would want to steal. Lonely days in the Jundland Wastes, endless nights under now-forbidden stars, a long damn way from a lifetime of adventure.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, hard-fighting General in the Clone Wars, wise and reserved Master on the Jedi Council, who bested two Sith Lords and a batshit four-armed kill-bot in combat during his prime, had a 20-year case of Force blueballs when he walked down those dusty steps into the cantina. When those two slapdicks got in Luke's face, it was like Ben's birthday and the Wookiee Life Day rolled into one bright gift.

Ben could've guided them away with a Force-ful suggestion. He didn't. He wanted that fight.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Networks Call Election for Obama

"And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.

"From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain."

Tolkien, The Return of the King

The Most Satisfying Thing I'll Do All Day . . .

. . . ASSUMING SCARLETT JOHANNSON AND SALMA HAYEK don't stop by without enough money for the pizza they ordered:

As important as an Obama/Biden victory is — which you may research further here and here if you're not convinced — far more important is that you do get out and vote for all the candidates and issues in your precinct. Throughout the prehistory and history of this country, millions died to win and defend the right that some will cast cynically aside today. It's not just that you lose your license to bitch about the result by doing so. It's that you do those who sacrificed their lives to provide you with that right a grave disservice.

So be a good citizen and vote. And to editorialize again, be a good American, and vote Obama.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Long-Distance Runners Linked by Radio

I DON'T RUN OR EVEN JOG, but I do appreciate the tradition of the New York Marathon. It highlights the role of the Five Boroughs as the place where people of the world can live, work, and even sweat side by side. Oddly, I prefer to monitor it over the radio, usually over WCBS 880. The unity of coverage—from course-side reporters, the traffic chopper, commentators at the start and finish, even CBS employees running the race—reminds me that there's a clear line of heritage between this teamwork and the global links that CBS established 70 years ago between correspondents across America and Europe to document the march of Nazism across the Continent.

We think of something like today's Marathon coverage as a routine link of technology, but whether it's a simple radio signal streaming through my little portable, a remote broadcast from the WFMU Record Fair, or a debate spanning three continents on NPR, I marvel at the phenomenon. Maybe that's why I prefer the audio coverage; like the Marathon, it's got a tradition and a heritage. Even amid Internet radio streams and increasing corporate concentration of frequency ownership, they still all stem from vibrations in the air and signals along the wire. It would be sad to overlook the wonder behind the technology.