Sunday, May 1, 2016

All the Books I Read in April

I noticed at the end of this month that I've read quite a bit less this year than I did last year, and wasn't sure why until I realized that my parents didn't come visit this spring. Usually when they come down we are sequestered in a cabin with limited internet, and I read a ton of books because when we're not out doing something we're mostly just hanging out around the cabin doing nothing. Without that week off, I'm behind where I was last year, but I'm hopeful that I can catch up by the end of the year.

While we wait until January 1 to find out if I'm right, let's look at what I read in April:

1) Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws was a very interesting, but very dense, read. I really enjoyed this exploration of gender identity and depiction in horror movies, but it was very slow reading, and a few times I had to look up words to know what she was talking about, so I guess it was also intellectually challenging. It was almost like reading a textbook, but it still managed to be at least a little fun, and Clover's genuine appreciation of these types of movies shines through even when her language is really dry.

The only drawback I have is that she could have used some additional examples sometimes. She used one particular scene in Videodrome as an example in every chapter, sometimes multiple times in a chapter. Even if that one scene is evidence that every single one of her arguments is correct, surely there are others that also prove them. I do sort of want to see that movie, though, except that James Woods is in it and I've never really liked him much.

2) In Christopher Golden's Dead Ringers, your friends are not what they seem, and neither are you. Tess calls her ex-husband, Nick, to yell at him for ignoring her when they bumped into each other on the sidewalk, but Nick is out of town. Frank is attacked in his home and chained up in the basement by a man with his face, a man who starts wearing Frank's clothes and going to Frank's job. Tess' best friend is suddenly mistaken for a hot new artist, because the artist looks exactly like her. Who are these doppelgangers, and how are they linked to Tess and her friends? And are they the real danger, or is it the blind homeless man with the coat full of shadows who is stalking them across the city of Boston?

This starts out a little slow, gets a little creepy, but then kind of fizzles back to being a little slow. It also featured what was probably intended to be a shocking twist ending, but by that point I was kind of like, "Oh, wait. When did that happen?" and then couldn't be bothered to turn back a few pages to see what I missed.

3) I ordered The Queen of Lies for my Kindle because my friend Mike wrote it and I wanted to be supportive, and I'm glad I did because I also enjoyed it. A detailed fantasy novel starring a failed alcoholic mage, an assassin priest, a princess, and a cast of other characters, it accomplishes a lot of world-building without being boring. I was a little surprised by the sudden hot gay sex in the middle (mostly because I was on the treadmill at the fitness center and was like, "Holy shit, can the girl next to me see my Kindle from her treadmill?"), but it was also nice to have that show up in a fantasy novel that wasn't marketed as a "queer lit" book. There was also some straight people sex, too, if that's what you're looking for, but it was pretty entertaining regardless of the sex, too, in case that's not what you're looking for.

I guess I'm just saying, "This was good, I liked it, but maybe don't read it where people can see what you're reading in a couple of parts."

4) Sam Munson's The War Against the Assholes introduces Mike Wood, a not especially smart football playing Catholic school student with a clearly defined moral code. When a classmate he never speaks to gives him a small book of card tricks, Wood finds himself drawn into a clandestine world of magic, with tricks, secret meeting rooms, and amazing feats. He also discovers that there is a formal school of magic, training young wizards. Unfortunately the formal school is also part of a war to wipe out the unschooled magicians, the side that Wood has found himself on, and he finds himself drawn into a war against the assholes and their rules.

The further I get from finishing this book, the less I like it. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't really all that great, either. More than anything, it felt kind of incomplete. Characters are never really fleshed out, so their actions don't always make sense. Major events happen without being shown, and the author spends way more time telling us how horrible the bad guys are than actually showing it, so they don't really carry any sense of menace.

5) Adam Christopher's Made to Kill takes us to mid-1960's LA, at a time when the great experiment of robots performing menial labor has come and gone. Humans distrusted the metal men, and they were all phased out of existence except for Raymond Electromatic and Ada, the giant computer that monitors and maintains him. As the last robot on earth, Raymond supports himself and Ada as a licensed private detective, and also as a hit man, two worlds that collide when a young woman with dark eyes and a bag full of gold bars steps into his office. She wants Raymond to find and dispose of an actor, but someone else also wants Raymond to dispose of her. Can he unravel the knot of who she is and what she wants as he pursues her through shady meetings at Hollywood nightclubs, Russian mobsters, radioactive movie stars, and a diabolical plan that may destroy Raymond as well?

This was an interesting blend of crime noir and science fiction, but it didn't always seem to hang together. Still, I enjoyed it enough to think about picking up the eventual sequels that I assume are coming, since Amazon says it's a trilogy.

6) Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts was creepy and disturbing, and a very good read.

Merry is eight years old, and her family is in trouble. Her father was laid off after two decades working a factory job, and is slowly becoming devoutly, obsessively religious as her skeptic mother tries to support the family of four on a bank teller's salary. Meanwhile, Merry's sister, Marjorie, starts to exhibit strange behavior: hearing voices, telling stories, acting out, and then spiraling into bizarre physical behavior. When medical treatment can't help her, Marjorie's father and his priest reach a disturbing conclusion: Marjorie is possessed, and must be exorcised. As bad as that sounds, there's a possible opportunity for the family to pull themselves out of their disastrous financial situation while still helping Marjorie. Fifteen years later, Rachel, a bestselling author, is interviewing Merry. Rachel wants to write a book about "The Possessed", the six episode reality show that Merry's family starred in. She wants to explore what happened to Marjorie, what happened to the family, and how Merry ended up as the only survivor.

I really liked that this book was unclear about a lot of things, even whether or not the ending really happened the way Merry remembers it. Tremblay uses his unreliable narrator, Merry, in the best possible way, leaving the reader with an unsettling story of a family in some sort of crisis, but maybe not the kind that it seems like they're in.

Coming up in May: All biographies and memoirs! Hopefully I'll be able to read them faster than I normally do.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

They said it was "refreshing"

Ever since I embarked on my adventures in gelatin cooking my friends have reacted in two ways:

1) They try to help, by sending Jello molds, giving me other Jello cookbooks they've found, and linking to articles about it online. My mom is even planning a day trip to The Jello Museum when I'm in New York in June.

2) They scorn. It's understandable. Some of the Jello recipes are not delicious, and worthy of scorn.

It was in the mixed spirit of helpfulness and scorn together that two of my friends have shared this Buzzfeed post of vintage recipes with me in the last two weeks. I read it and laughed, until I realized that I've made number 18. I didn't ever come back here to tell people what happened to the Velveeta Fudge after I made it and took it to the office, because I wanted to preserve the Christmas miracle of actually making fudge that was suitable for giving to other people, but now that Christmas is over I can tell the horrible truth:

The Velveeta fudge disintegrated.

That's not even the best word for it. That kind of makes you think of a dry, crumble into dust, but what happened to the fudge was so much... oily-er. We were keeping the Velveeta fudge in the office fridge when no one was eating it, because it was made from cheese-like food, and we didn't think it should sit out. Despite that, it started to get oily. Then it started to get oily and somehow spongy at the same time, as if the oil was draining out of it, slowly weakening the substance of the fudge. Eventually, the fudge seemed on the verge of dissolving entirely, and I threw it away.

Let's never speak of it again.

I made fudge at Christmas and everything was fine.

Anyway, realizing that I'd already started down this 24 step pathway to culinary hell, I wondered what else I could make, and landed on #6: 7UP Milk.

This sounded disgusting, but maybe things tasted differently whenever this was published. After all, 7UP has changed a little, and way more people drink skim milk now than whole milk that the milkman brings in bottles and leaves on the doorstep, but I decided to give it a try. To be as authentic as possible, I got whole milk, and non-diet 7UP. I looked for throwback 7UP, or 7UP from Mexico, since either of those would be made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup, but had no luck locating it. I found Sprite, but again, I was trying for authenticity, so I did the best I could.

7up and milk 1

The recipe said to use equal parts milk and 7UP, and to pour the 7UP into the milk without stirring, so I did.

7up and milk 2

It still looked and smelled like milk, but I noticed something a little odd when I picked up the glass to smell it: none of the bubbles on top moved. They had transformed into semi-solid milk foam.

7up and milk 3

Maybe it still tastes ok, I thought. The recipe says it's refreshing.

It's not refreshing. Have you ever wanted your milk to somehow be thick yet fizzy at the same time? I swallowed the first sip, just to get the full taste.

It tastes like milk that's right on the verge of turning sour.

I took a second slip, and realized what it tasted like while it was still in my mouth.

I immediately spit it into the sink and poured out the rest.

I do not feel refreshed.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Gallon of Pickles

I've been eating a gallon of pickles for the entire month of April.

I didn't lose a bet or enter a competitive eating contest. This has nothing to do with Lent. I've been eating a gallon of pickles because I made them, and I made a gallon of pickles because I halved a recipe that would have made two gallons.

Let me explain.

As I mentioned before, after the Asheville Half Marathon Bernadette and I didn't want to go back to our room and lay down, because we were (probably rightly) afraid that our limbs would immediately contract and stiffen, and we might never walk again without terrible pains, like the Little Mermaid in the original version of that story. We couldn't rent bikes, because "it's not bicycle season" at the Biltmore in March (to everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn... including bicycles), so we drove to Mount Mitchell and climbed it.

Mount Mitchell 2

More correctly, we climbed about ten minutes of it. We drove the rest of the way, because we'd just completed a half marathon. Still, we made it to the top, where we faced views that were extremely similar to the ones I saw last time I climbed a mountain after a half marathon:

Mount Mitchell 1

Mount Mitchell 3

Mount Mitchell 4

Mount Mitchell 6

Breathtaking, right?

Views aside, though, we did learn that there's a mountain called Big Butt:

Big Butt

"Hey, Sir Mixalot, what's your favorite mountain?"

"Son, I like Big Butt, and I cannot lie."

We then climbed back down the mountain and returned to the hotel with the kind of appetite normally reserved for Hungry Hungry Hippos, and headed to the nearest restaurant we could walk to that might have gluten free menu options. Arriving at Cedric's Tavern, which is named after the Vanderbilts' dog:

Biltmore Estate 2

we got a table, got a drink, ordered, and prayed that food would arrive before we had to eat another patron just to survive the night.

"Hey," our server asked, "Would you guys like some pickles?"

At that particular moment in time, I might have eaten an orange if someone offered me one.

"Sure!" seemed so much more polite than "OH, GOD, PLEASE PUT FOOD IN MY MOUTH."

He appeared moments later with a mason jar full of pickle spears, which Bernadette eyed dubiously.

"They smell like dill. Are they dill?"

"Let me try one."

They weren't dill.

"Are they dill?"

"They're like a cross between bread and butter and dill? Sort of sweet, but there's a hint of dill, and something else?"

"Ooooh, let me try."

Three minutes later our waiter brought us a second jar of pickle spears. Five minutes later, he brought the recipe with the third jar of pickle spears and an order of deviled eggs, which I also inhaled.

Pickle recipe

I have no memory of my dinner (possibly a sandwich?) but days later I was still thinking about those pickles, so I decided to make some.

Finding and washing pickling cucumbers was the easy part:


Sourcing juniper berries in Knoxville, on the other hand, was a nightmare. I ended up finding them in the spice section at Whole Foods, and now I can never have children, because if I did they might want to go to college someday and I can't afford to send them there since I spent their college fund on juniper berries at Whole Foods. Still, I found them, and convinced myself to buy them, and then I filled a gallon jar with cucumbers, onions, spices, and expensive juniper berries from Whole Foods:

Cucumbers (2)

And then I poured the brine over it.

The recipe said I had to wait 24 hours before eating them. It really should say 48 hours, because they've gotten better and better the longer they've sat in the refrigerator. The recipe also said that they would only keep in the refrigerator for a month, so all of April has been a race against time, and a series of dinners that look like this:

Sandwich and pickles

These pickles are so good, but there are so many of them. I keep eating them and eating them, but there are still somehow pickles left in the jar. This many pickles:

Pickle jar

Now, it's the end of the month, and I can't eat the rest of the gallon of pickles, because the recipe says not to and I don't want to die.

But they're so delicious that death by pickles might not be a horrible way to go.

Friday, April 1, 2016

All the Books I Read in March

One of my friends suggested that "a really cool April Fool's joke" would be saying I didn't read any books in March.

"Because, you know, you write that list of books you read, and people would be like, 'Joel didn't read anything!' and then you could be like, 'April Fool's!'"

Two things:

1) Past a certain age, I don't think April Fool's is funny any more. Mostly it's just mean spirited and annoying. For the record, I believe it stops being funny for anyone after the age of 18, but your mileage may vary.

2) Nobody who knows me is going to believe that I went a whole month without reading any books.

With that said, I did read some books in March! More than I read in February, so go me!

1) Claudia Gray's Ten Thousand Skies Above You returns us to the dimension-hopping world of A Thousand Pieces of You. A few months have gone by since Marguerite rescued her scientist father, who helped perfect interdimensional travel, from an enemy from another universe. Unfortunately, the aftermath of those events leads Paul, her boyfriend and her parents' assistant, to journey into parallel dimensions again to find a cure for his best friend Theo, who was poisoned by their enemy, Wyatt Conley. When Paul doesn't return, Marguerite and Paul attempt to rescue him but discover that he is splintered, his essence scattered into several of his parallel selves by Conley. Now, Marguerite is forced to work with the enemy to save Paul, traveling to worlds at war, on the brink of disaster, and returning to ones she visited in the past. Through it all she wonders if she can save Paul and Theo, if it will be worth the price, and if her own world will survive.

I liked this, but the first book was self-contained, and this one ends right on a cliffhanger. It's a good cliffhanger, but still a cliffhanger, and I get annoyed by those if the next book is not immediately available.

2) About 20 pages into The Melody Lingers On, I realized that it's a Lifetime movie. All Mary Higgins Clark books are. Don't get me wrong, because you know I love me some Lifetime movies, but let's just call this like it is. There's always a beautiful single woman, menaced by forces beyond her control. There are often children involved, and usually a death or two along the way. The beautiful single woman might also fall in love, but she might not be able to trust the man she's falling in love with, because he may or may not be connected to the danger she's in. In the end, the particulars don't really matter, because they're all the same book. Entertaining, but forgettable.

3) In Kill The Boy Band The Ruperts, assembled on a British reality TV show, are the biggest boy band in the world, and the narrator and her friends, a quartet of teenage fangirls, just wanted to meet them. That was the whole plan, but somehow they ended up with Rupert P., the most useless Rupert, tied to a chair in their hotel room. Now, with the hotel surrounded by Rupert fangirls, the rest of the Ruperts roaming the halls, the hotel bar crowded with Rupert celebrity girlfriends, and the police closing in, the friendships are unraveling, the secrets are spilling out, and the girls aren't sure if they love the Ruperts or if they hate them. All they do know is that they have to figure it out fast, because time is running out and oh, by the way, someone just murdered Rupert P. while he was tied up in their room.

This was darkly funny, but there are definitely things in here that could offend people, and I laughed way more times than I should have at fat-shaming, homophobia, misogyny, and other things that I know aren't supposed to be funny.

4) Truman Capote never intended to publish Summer Crossing, but when the manuscript was found in a set of papers in 2005, his estate decided to go ahead and publish it anyway. The story of 17 year old Grady McNeil, whose parents leave her for the summer in their Manhattan townhouse while they travel to Europe for the summer, is interesting, but I feel like Capote would have gone back and added to what is basically the bare bones of a novel had he intended this for release.

5) I don't usually read Meg Cabot but someone in one of my job-related Facebook groups mentioned Size 12 Is Not Fat because the protagonist, Heather Wells, is an assistant hall director. Wells, a former teen pop star, was dropped by her record company and then had her money stolen by her momager, and ends up as an assistant hall director to pay her college tuition while she copes with loss through eating. She also has to cope with the sudden death of two students in her residence hall, both of whom were sweet young girls with a mysterious new boyfriend, and both of whom plunge down the elevator shaft to their deaths. Is a killer stalking the halls, or were the girls casualties of freshman elevator surfing? Is Heather in danger for investigating, or is everyone right that she just misses attention? And why does her boyband member ex keep showing up to talk to her?

Some of this is very accurate. Anyone who ever worked in a housing or residence life job has had to deal with replacing a popular supervisor who hired all your student staff, listening to the constant refrains of "Justine never made us do that" or "Justine always let us". On the other hand, the constant correction of "Ooops, I said dorm when I meant residence hall" by the narrator (it felt like she said it twenty times in the first twenty pages) gets old and grating pretty quickly. As for the rest, I'm not sure if I'll pick up the other books in the series. Some of this was interesting, but some of it was pretty tedious.

6) Hey, speaking of Lifetime movies, I enjoyed the Lifetime miniseries (which turns out to have been a BBC miniseries that Lifetime got the rights to air in the US) of And Then There Were None so much that I decided to read the book, to compare them. It turns out that the miniseries was really well done and followed the book pretty closely, but the book left the crimes that the ten people were accused of a little more ambiguous in some cases. For those who didn't see it or read the book, eight people are invited to a dinner party on an isolated island, but they arrive at the large house to find two servants and no host. During dinner, a mysterious voice booms into the dining room, accusing each of them of murder. After dinner, they immediately start to die, one by one. Is the killer one of them, or the mysterious Mr. Owen who invited them? And can they escape before the killer comes for them, too? This was a very good read, and makes me want to read more Agatha Christie, which I somehow never have.

Amusing side note: I bought an older, used copy, which was published under the title Ten Little Indians. I made a joke about it on Twitter, and then my friend Jackie informed me that the original published title was even more offensive.

I guess that's our lesson in book history for the day.

Friday, March 25, 2016

"God damn it, Tubbs!"

It took less than twenty days for me to wish death on a cat that doesn't actually exist.

On March 5, my friend Summer posted this article about a cellphone game where you collect cats, "Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector", on her Facebook page. A few of us commented, and while reading the article I realized that a few of my other friends had Tweeted screenshots from this game. It sounded stupid, but it also sounded amusing, so I downloaded the game.

Seventeen days later, as several of us in the office were gathering for lunch, I used a minute of waiting time to check on my cats, and blurted, "God damn it, Tubbs!", because this happened again:

Neko Atsume 3

Tubbs, the large cat in the lower left, ate all of the cat food again.

I wish Tubbs would get hit by a car and die.

Games on my cellphone tend not to last very long. I've downloaded several, when I hear about something that sounds interesting. Candy Crush and Blossom Blast both got deleted the minute I reached a level where I could not progress in the game without spending money. Plague, Inc. lasted the longest. I got about halfway through, playing it without spending any money, but when I got to a point where I could no longer make progress, I deleted.

I spent $4 on Neko Atsume the first afternoon that I played it. I haven't spent any other money since then, and refuse to do so.

I spent my money on expanding my yard, so that I could put more things in it. In this game, you have a yard, and you put things in the yard to make cats come. You don't see the cats come or go; you just open the game and they are there or not there. If they're there and it's one you haven't seen before, you take a photo, and save it into your album of cat photos.

I have taken 45 photos of cats that don't actually exist.

Some of the cats are very ordinary:

Neko Atsume 7

They just look like regular cats, playing in the yard. Some of the cats, though, are more exotic:

Neko Atsume 1

That's Xerxes IX. He only comes to your yard if you have that little green cushion that he's sitting on out for a cat to play with.

Bob the Cat, the dapper little fellow with the walking stick and the hiking outfit:

Neko Atsume 6

only comes to the yard if you have that giant cat jungle gym. That thing takes up the space of two objects, so setting it out just to get Bob the Cat to come by is a bit of a sacrifice, although other, more common cats will also come and play on it. It's also expensive, and that's where Tubbs earns my scorn.

Each cat that visits leaves behind some fish. Silver fish aren't worth a lot, but gold fish are. (500 silver fish can be converted into 10 gold fish. That's how worthless silver fish are.) You can use the fish to buy different objects, which makes different cats come. After the cats come enough times, they leave a memento, which signifies that the cat loves you. Cats that have left you a memento also leave more fish each time they visit, so you want the cats that don't actually exist to love you and to visit often. Xerxes IX, for example, leaves me about 40 silver fish each time he comes. Snowball leaves about 5.

More fish means more objects means rarer cats means more fish means even more objects, in a neverending cycle. I need the fish to earn the hanging mouse toy that Senor Don Gato shows up to stab:

Neko Atsume 4

or the baseball for Joe DiMeowgio and the stump for Mr. Meowgi:

Neko Atsume 2

or the incredibly expensive glass vase that Guy Furry shows up to make ice cream sundaes in:

More Neko Atsume

but sometimes I can't afford to buy those things, because sometimes I have to spend my fish on cat food, because Goddamned Tubbs shows up to eat it all. It would be one thing if Tubbs left behind enough fish to buy more food, but he never does, no matter what kind of food you leave out. He also only shows up when you're almost out of food. Most of the food comes in servings of three, and the expanded yard only has space to set out two servings at a time. You have to have food out, or no cats come. The minute I set out that last serving of food, Tubbs always shows up to hoover it, and then I have to buy more to refill the food bowl.

I hate Tubbs so much, which is why I yelled about him in the hallway the other day. My coworker looked at me, eyebrows raised.

"My cats."

"I can't believe you're playing that."

Yeah, me either.

Monday, March 14, 2016

I Drank the Peeps Milk

A few weeks ago, my friend Rod posted an article about Peeps Milk. Actually, several of my friends posted about it, but Rod posted the first one that I saw, so he gets the credit. I immediately went on a quest to find the Peeps Milk, because I was curious.

Several of my friends greeted this curiosity with horror.

Many people assumed the Peeps Milk would be horrible. Some compared the Peeps Milk to harbingers of the apocalypse, while others talked about the death of culture. I have bad news for you, friends: Peeps Milk is American culture. Taking a natural product generated by force from captive animals caged in an industrialized setting, pouring high fructose corn syrup generated by governmental agricultural subsidies into it, then flavoring it with chemicals before packaging it in bright colors and selling it at the average child's eye level in the grocery store? The only thing more American than that would be if every carton had a tiny American flag attached to the side.

I spent a few weeks trying to find the Peeps Milk. Some of the initial articles were slightly unclear about where to locate it, in that they suggested it was exclusive to Walmart. It turns out that only the orange flavor is exclusive to Walmart, but I went to four Walmarts nine times in less than ten days before I realized that. Have you ever been to that many Walmarts in that short a time span? Toward the end of last week I started to feel like Rooney Mara in the cemetery in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, shuddering and whispering, "You have no idea what I've seen," and I decided to give up.

And that's all it took. Yesterday morning I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from the half marathon, and there it was:

Peeps milk 2

Peeps Milk.

Peeps Milk as far as the eye could see.

I looked up to the heavens, hands out, eyes opened. I was like Miss Sofia in "The Color Purple" talking about that day at the store. I knew that there is a God, and that one day I would come home. I searched for the Peeps Milk, and right when I was about to give up, there it was.

Peeps milk 1

Thank you, Jesus.

In the interests of convincing my friends that Peeps Milk is actually a symbol of American Culture, I decided to place it in a cultured setting, and busted out the Make Your Own Museum kit that's been sitting on my bookshelves since I got it in college for some reason.

I started with the Strawberry Crème Peeps Milk:

Peeps milk 4

I was immediately shocked that it wasn't bright pink. I was expecting it to look like a liquefied Peep, but instead it just looks like a slightly tinted regular milk. I also expected it to taste like strawberries, or at least like strawberry milk usually tastes, and I was wrong there as well. It has a hint of strawberries. It has a hint of milk. It also has a hint of... something. After an entire glass, I couldn't figure out exactly what I was tasting, and decided to eat the Peep on the plate as a palate cleanser and then switch flavors.

I moved on to the Egg Nog Peeps Milk:

Peeps milk 5

It looked like egg nog. It smelled like egg nog. The ingredient list suggested that it was some version of egg nog, but it has the consistency of whole milk. It's very thin egg nog, and doesn't have even the slightest hint of nutmeg, so it's not very good eggnog. I'm going to have to repurpose this, because I'm not going to drink any more of it. Egg nog French toast might be good, or maybe a bread pudding. I ate the egg-shaped Peep, again as a palate cleanser, and switched to the last flavor.

I couldn't find a Peep that looked like the one on the Chocolate Marshmallow Peeps Milk carton, so the milk stands alone:

Peeps milk 3

After drinking it, I figured out what the weird underflavor in the Strawberry Crème milk was: marshmallow flavoring. This is chocolate milk with a strong dose of artificial marshmallow, and that's the same thing they did with the strawberry. This is what makes it Peeps-flavored instead of just regular flavored milk. It's not terrible. It's just a surprise.

So, the final verdict on the Peeps Milk is that the Strawberry and Chocolate flavors are drinkable, if you like flavored milk and the taste of marshmallows. Nobody should drink the Egg Nog flavor.

I have no verdict on the Orange Crème flavor, because I cannot bring myself to visit Walmart again to look for it at this time.

Even I have limits.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Use your glutes, ladies!"

"Use your glutes, ladies!"

A woman in red arm sleeves screamed this somewhere around mile five Saturday, at approximately the same time that my internal monologue was saying, "Half marathons are bullshit. This sucks. We're never doing this again." She can be forgiven for saying "ladies" because, for most of the race, I was the only man at the back, surrounded on all sides by women.

Mile five was the fifth mile out of six and a half miles of continuous uphill walking. Three times in the first seven miles one of the race volunteers said, "You're past the worst part! It's all flat and downhill from here on out!" Two of those times were lies.

Let's back the story up a little bit, though.

On Thursday, I drove to Asheville to meet up with my friend Bernadatte, so that we could participate in the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate. We signed up for this kind of impulsively last year, at the expo for the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon. If you haven't done a big race before, the expo is an event the day before when vendors come, and you pick up your rack pack, and everyone gets really excited. Last year we were so excited to be at a half marathon together that signing up for another before I'd even walked my first one seemed like a great idea, and we registered on the spot.

Our trip didn't get off to the best start. We were supposed to meet up to climb Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina and the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River:

Mount Mitchell 9

but there was a closed road in the middle of the park where the mountain is:

Mount Mitchell 4

and after three attempts at navigating around it only to have my car redirect me back to the same stretch of closed road I texted Bernadette that I was giving up and going to hang around the hotel. As part of impulsively deciding to do this race, we also decided to stay on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate, which turned out to be a smart choice for two reasons:

First, it was so peaceful and restful. We went for a walk the day before the race, covering a few miles of the course, and everything was very calm:

Biltmore Estate 1

Biltmore Estate 12

and really pretty.

Biltmore Estate 6

Biltmore Estate 2

Biltmore Estate 3

Biltmore Estate 5

We could also walk to the winery, where I purchased enough bottles of wine for them to give me a box to carry them all, because that is a totally normal thing that adults who live alone do.

Biltmore Estate 8

We walked all of this because the Biltmore was not yet renting bicycles for the season.

"We're trying to have some tomorrow!"

What's there to try? You have a bicycle barn, full of bikes, marked on the map. Unlock it and let the bicycles out, and the problem's solved.

Anyway, the other reason staying on the grounds was a good idea was that we got to wake up in the morning and walk right out to the race a half hour before start time. We had time to have breakfast, pose for photos:

Race day

and didn't have to get up at five AM to sit on a shuttle bus and then stand around for an hour.

We got up at five anyway, because we are crazy people.

I went into the race with doubts, because there was no pacer for the time I expected to finish in. The pacer is a person with a sign who is going to finish in the time printed on their sign. You can use them as your guide to figure out if you are keeping your pace, or need to speed up, and in my other half marathon they had them for every fifteen minutes up until 3 hours and 30 minutes. When you start the race, you find your pacer, and that way people who are faster don't have to push their way around you to get going. With that in mind, I went hopefully searching for the 3:00 pacer, but couldn't locate one.

"I'm the last pacer," 2:45 told me.

"There's no one after you?"

"The sweeper, at 3:30."

The sweeper lets you know that you will not finish in time. If the sweeper passes you, you get pulled off the course and you do not receive a medal. I talked about this last time I wrote about a half marathon, but I'll say it again: the sweeper is failure. You must stay ahead of the sweeper.

This filled me with terror. I'm sort of conscious of my own pace, but I know I get slower the longer we go on, because I get tired. That means my pace starts changing, and it's hard for me to tell because I'm mentally fraying at that point. Everybody before 2:45 got to know where they were plus or minus 15 minutes, but 2:45 to 3:30 was a 45 minute no man's land, where you might be on the verge of succeeding or might get swept up by the sag wagon at any moment.

Since we stayed at the hotel, and got to roll into the race right before the start, I only had ten minutes to agonize over this, which may have been to our advantage, because the gun was going off and the race was starting before I could really psych myself out.

Mile three marked the first lie from a race volunteer: "It flattens out right up ahead."

Mile four was where I realized I wasn't replenishing calories fast enough, and jammed three cubes of Shot Bloks into my mouth because I was lightheaded for a second. Personal recommendation: avoid the strawberry flavor, which is distilled not from strawberries but instead from dust and sadness.

Somewhere in that first few uphill miles a table offered us Girl Scout cookies, which was a charming idea. Unfortunately a milkless Girl Scout cookie when you're panting from several miles of uphill walking is petty much like rubbing your tongue with delicious sandpaper.

I mentioned mile five at the beginning of this. At that point I was among a crew of older ladies who all know each other and race together. They wore matching shirts and all walked at more or less the same speed, except for Judy, who was way ahead. One of the ladies explained to the other lady how much she does and doesn't like Judy, who is faster than all of them.

"I've never liked Judy. I don't dislike her. I've just never liked her."

It sure as hell sounds like you don't like her, but I don't know your life.

Just after mile six one of the volunteers told us that we were past the worst of the hills and the rest of the race would be downhill. I believed he was lying, like the two lying liars before him, but it turned out that he was true.

Just before the mile seven mark we were joined on the path by the staff of the Biltmore House, who were walking from the staff parking lots to the house for their workday. They were very nice, and very supportive.

Miles seven to ten are kind of a blur for me. They were very pretty, with waterfalls and shaded paths and such, and mostly downhill. Eventually the course joined the route Bernadette and I had walked the day before, and I was comforted by the familiar.

At mile ten, we were encouraged onward by Lady Biltmore, who I had met the day before at the expo:

Biltmore Estate 9

and who I saw again at the end of the race:

Asheville Half Marathon 6

There was a sign at the water station by her that informed us that anyone passing mile ten later than 2:10 into the race was going to be pulled off the course. No one pulled us off at that point, so I knew I was still faster than 3:30, but I had no idea at that point how fast or slow I was moving.

At mile 11 I fell into some kind of mental fugue. I have no memory whatsoever of seeing the mile 12 marker. Mile 11 is the last one I remember seeing, and then, all of a sudden, when I was coming toward the finish line, I saw the 2:45 pacer directly in front of me.

Asheville Half Marathon 1

See that little white square toward the right side of the picture? That's her 2:45 sign. And that's me directly next to her.

My initial thought was that I was hallucinating.

My second thought was that she got tired.

"Are you still on pace?" I loudly demanded. "Are you still 2:45?"

She held up her wrist watch. "Yes."

I have no idea how this happened. I should have stayed with her, but I was exhausted. Even though the finish was downhill and Bernadette was screaming at me to run, I was too dazed. Instead, I became a princess.

I'm serious.

I walked that last minute to the finish line giving my best pageant wave and thanking everyone on both sides of the course.

Asheville Half Marathon 3

"Thank you! Thank you so much!"

Asheville Half Marathon 2

"Thank you!"

As I crossed the finish line the announcer said my name:

Asheville Half Marathon 7

and I screamed, "That's me!"

I may not have won the race, but I sure as hell acted like I did.

I finished at 2:46 clock time, and chip time of 2:44. My chip time on the last half marathon was 3:07. I somehow took over twenty minutes off of my time. That's almost two miles, because the stats also say I was averaging a pace between 12 and 13 minute miles.

I just barely made it out of the bottom fourth of finishers, but I still finished:

Asheville Half Marathon 4

and I did it ahead of 300 other people.