Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Month in Books: September

Technically I should probably wait until tomorrow, the first day of October, to write up the month in books but I'm going out to dinner with friends tonight so I'm fairly confident that I won't be finishing another book by midnight. September turned out to be a pretty good month as far as reading goes, in that I've been walking on the treadmill most of the month instead of outside, and that means I've been finishing more books on the kindle. The treadmill may be the only time I use that thing, but it's getting a lot of use.

In order of completion, here are all the books I read in September, and what I thought about them:

1) I should have known when they marketed it with a tagline of "Hostage Girl returns snarkier than ever" that I would find Lexie Dunne's Supervillains Anonymous, the sequel to "Superheroes Anonymous", underwhelming. If all your book has going for it is a snarky narrator, and you're not really that amused or entertained by her (somewhat weak, actually) snark, then what else is there to recommend this? The plot picks up right where the last book left off, with the narrator framed for murder and thrown into supervillain prison, but even though this resolves all of the loose threads from the last book it reveals a glaring problem, too: Dunne didn't spend enough time worldbuilding in the first book. That means that all of the shocking reveals of who characters are and what their motivations are isn't all that shocking, because you had no idea those people existed or were important in the first place. I guess when you're writing about an entirely fictional universe there's a really fine line in how you put in the kind of exposition needed for worldbuilding, but if one of your plot's shocking twists is discovering that someone isn't dead, your readers should probably know that person was alive at some point and was important. So many things were revealed in this book that way that it almost felt like there was another prequel that I'd missed.

2) I have no idea how long Real Life at the White House has been sitting on my "unread books" pile, but the fact that it's out of print and that it chronicles all of the presidents but stops at Clinton suggests that it's maybe been a while. An account of daily life at the White House with a chapter for each presidential administration (starting with Washington, who started construction but never actually lived there), it was an interesting source of trivia but 400+ pages later I found myself unable to summon up enthusiasm for another discussion of rugs and wallpaper. This was comprehensive, but exhausting and ultimately tedious.

Random interesting facts:

-As a prisoner of war, Andrew Jackson once survived on acorns.

-George Washington oversaw the beginning of White House construction, but was the only president never to live in it.

-People who tell you that there are no political dynasties and inherited power structures in the United States are ill informed. The history of the presidents is riddled with cousins, fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, and in-laws.

3) Beth Revis' Across the Universe introduces us to Amy, a young girl who gives up her life on Earth to be frozen with her parents and sent on a voyage of hundreds of years to another world. Someone activates Amy's compartment 50 years too early, though, and now she finds herself in the strange society of the ship, which carries not just the sleepers but also a live cargo of people, animals, and plants for the new world. At first Amy believes she was awakened by mistake, but as someone begins thawing other sleepers and letting them drown Amy realizes that someone tried to kill her, and that person is now trying to kill all of the sleepers. Now, with few allies in a society she doesn't understand, she has to figure out how to save the rest of the sleepers and herself.

I'm not sure who recommended this to me, but I figured out the main points of the plot about halfway through, so then it was just a matter of pushing myself to finish so I could see if I was right. There are sequels, but I'm not sure I'm interested enough to read them.

4) Claudia Gray's A Thousand Pieces of You was entertaining and a decent read at the same time. It follows the story of Marguerite, the daughter of twin scientists who have invented technology to allow people to move their minds through parallel dimensions. When her father is killed by one of his assistants, Marguerite and the other assistant, Theo, chase Paul through a succession of alternate universes to take revenge. Each time she uses the Firebird, Marguerite jumps into a new version of herself in a world that's both familiar and unfamiliar, chasing a Paul who may or may not be the one responsible for her father's death after all. Is Paul her enemy? Can she trust Theo? Or is her father's death part of a greater plan that spans multiple universes and endangers all of the Marguerites, everywhere?

I really enjoyed this. It can be a little "teen girl love story" at times, but there's some decent science fiction and a lot of really strong characters. I plan to pick up the sequel, or someone can someday pick it up for me since I stuck it on my wishlist so that I'd remember to buy it later.

5) In Daniel O'Malley's The Rook, Myfanwy Thomas awakens in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves, with no idea of who she is or how she got there. Following the clues in a letter in her jacket, she discovers that she left herself letters in every jacket that she owns, because she knew that she was going to lose her memory. In fact, her memory was taken from her when one of her coworkers in the Chequy, a secret government organization protecting the British Isles from supernatural threats, tried to assassinate her. Now, she's trying to do Myfanwy's job as a Rook of the Chequy with only letters and notes from her past self to guide her, while also trying to figure out who tried to kill her and why. This was a pretty enjoyable read, and was also surprisingly funny at times.

6) Jim Grimsley's Dream Boy isn't for the faint of heart. A quick story about unexpected teenaged love between Nathan, a new freshman, and Roy, his senior next door neighbor, it hides a simmering undercurrent of violence from within Nathan's abusive home and from the other boys at their school. Parts of this book were emotionally heartbreaking and parts were shockingly brutal, but it manages to end on a feeling of hope that may not actually be there. My feelings about the book are complicated, but I'm glad I read it. At the same time, though, I continue to be depressed about the perpetual theme in gay literature that being gay always ends up being tragic somehow. I may need to go back and read Boy Meets Boy until I feel better.

7) Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fairy tale for adults, a story of wonder and magic but also of terror and consequences. Following a death, the narrator meets his neighbors, the occupants of a strange farm in the English countryside, and quickly discovers that they aren't quite what they seem and neither is the rest of the world. This was a fast read, but I enjoyed it.

8) Rich Benjamin's Searching for Whitopia takes us on a strange journey across the country to all of the tiny little outer suburban communities that are almost entirely white. These are almost all planned communities, affluent, conservative, and in almost every case swear that they are not racist. Benjamin visits the communities, lives in them, house hunts, joins their poker games and church groups, interviews their leaders, and studies who these people are and why they move there. The whole thing was fascinating, if a little dry in places. What struck me most about it was the number of people who claimed not to be racists, but just wanted to live with people just like them.

So, those are the eight books I read this month, which were mostly interesting but not very impactful.

Onward to October!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Half-Marathon Man

I am yelling one of three things in this photo:

Post half-marathon (2)

a) "I want action photos! Take some action photos!"

b) "Where are the medals? I was promised a medal!"

c) "Chocolate milk! I was told there was chocolate milk!"

This isn't really a multiple choice question, of course. I yelled all of those things. I just don't know which one, specifically, I yelled as Bernadette was taking that photo. Multiple photos were taken, I was given a medal:

Post half-marathon (1)

and there was eventually chocolate milk, both provided by the race and purchased at IGA on the way back to the hotel:

Post half-marathon (3)

Before all of that, though, there was the race.

Actually, I'll back that up even further to the drive to the race. Remember the scene in "Nightmare on Elm Street 2" when the bus goes flying past all the bus stops and then drives into the desert and everything is terrible? Our shuttle bus driver who was supposed to take us from the parking lot at the end, where we left the car, to the race start at the beginning did that, too. Maybe she didn't turn into Freddy Krueger and try to kill us all, but she definitely got lost on the way to the starting area, and I knew she was lost because Bernadette drove Cat and I to the starting area the night before.

Bernadette and Cat also spent the night before the race filling me with terror, as they explained... The Sag Wagon.

"The what?"

"The Sag Wagon. It follows along at the end of the race, and if they decide that you're in trouble or you're not going to finish in time, they put you in the Sag Wagon and drive you to the end of the race."

"Do you still get a medal?"


The Sag Wagon came up in our discussion of pacers. I've never done a race that had pacers before, but everyone was talking about them at the race expo the day before, and the race booklet had a whole section on pacers, too, explaining that there would be pacers for every ten minutes, starting at 1 hour and 40 minutes, and then there would be a 2:45, 3:00, and 3:30 pacer, and that we should seat ourselves near our expected finish time.

"So we just stand in our pacer zone?"

"No. The pacer walks in the race and they have a sign with their time on it. You have to stay near your pacer. If you get too far behind the last pacer then you go in the Sag Wagon."

Just like that? They just throw you in the wagon? There was nothing in the book called a Sag Wagon, but they did have this ominous statement on page 7: "If at anytime we deem it unsafe and need to pull a runner off the course we would hope for understanding and immediate cooperation."

It's real, I thought. The Sag Wagon is real. The book says you only get three and a half hours to finish, and then they pull you off the course, and if they pull you off the course they throw you in the Sag Wagon.

Three and a half hours is plenty of time to walk 13 miles, though, right? That's a 16 minute mile pace, and I've been doing that pace or better for a while. At my last 5K, just a couple of weeks ago, I did a 13 minute and 20 second mile pace the whole way, but that's only for three miles. I had no idea if I would be able to maintain that pace for 13 miles, especially since I'd gotten up to 11 miles in training and knew that I get slower the longer the race goes. I have the endurance to finish, and I was certain of that, but could I finish it in the amount of time given?

Now, at the last minute, I had to shift my goals. Mentally I had been preparing myself for two: finish, and don't be last. I didn't care if I was almost last, or if I took four hours. As long as there was still one person behind me, I was fine. Now, I had to finish before the 3:30 pacer, or men were going to grab me, pull me from the course, and throw me in the Sag Wagon whether I wanted to go with them or not. Failure to cooperate would result in a lifetime ban from race events, according to the book.

So, there we were in the morning, slightly off course, and mentally slightly out of balance. Still, we were there, and as ready as we were going to be.

Pre half-marathon

Cat, me, and Bernadette. I declined their offer of a tutu.

We decided that the best thing for me to do was to start with the 3 hour pacer and stay with him the whole time. Three hours would give a 13 minute and 85 second mile, which was a little slower than my fastest time, but definitely a decent finishing time and more than enough to keep me out of the Sag Wagon. Bernadette and Cat were going to stay with me, but after the first few minutes of the race I convinced them that I was fine and that they should go ahead and finish at their own pace, and they agreed and ran off. They both run fairly often, and are faster than I am, so I felt bad that I was slowing them down, and to be honest, I walk better alone.

This is the dirty secret I've been keeping since I started my journey: I don't want to walk with you. It doesn't matter how good of friends we are. To walk any kind of distance I have to put myself into my zone, and the window for that zone never seems to open with other people talking to me and forcing me to engage with them. I can still walk if the window never opens. My legs still work and move my feet in front of each other, but it's miserable and I have to force myself. I can't get into the zone where walking feels more automatic, more like autopilot and less like work, if the window never opens. Every time over the past year that someone has said, "We should walk together! Call me! I'm right by the Greenway!" I've smiled and said, "Yes, we should!" and then never called them.

And never intended to.

Sorry, friends.

I didn't want to seem ungrateful for the support, but I was really glad that they decided that it was ok to run ahead, and then I was in the race.

For the first eight miles, I managed to stay ahead of the 3 hour pacer. There were a couple of times that he got close and I sped up, and I jogged a few times on the downhills because I figured gravity could help me buy some time. There were aid stations at the odd numbered miles with Stinger gels, which I've never had before but which turned out to be kind of tasty, and Nuun energy drinks, which tasted like a mouthful of warm saliva and were disgusting. After the first one I switched to water, electrolytes be damned. Eventually, though, right after the eight mile marker, he passed me, and I wasn't able to speed up again.

That was totally ok, though, because I didn't see the 3:30 pacer anywhere. I still had the 3 hour pacer right in front of me, in visual distance, which meant that he was only a few minutes ahead. I was only a few minutes over 3 hours, and everything was going to be fine.

Until right after the tenth mile.

Right after the mile ten marker, when I was thinking, "Ten miles. That means all that's left is a 5K, and you've done a ton of 5K's. You have this. Just 5K it to the finish," I heard another person coming up on my left and made sure I was far enough over. I wasn't worried, because the 3 hour pacer was only a few minutes ahead of me. I could still see him a hundred yards ahead.

But the person next to me was the 3:30 pacer.

"Oh, shit."

The words were out before I knew I was speaking out loud. I was tired, my legs hurt, I didn't want to walk anymore, and she wasn't supposed to be there.

"You're going too fast," the lady behind me said as I sped up, just a little, somehow gaining five or six feet on the 3:30 pacer. "The 3 hour guy is right up there. You're too close to him."

"No," the 3:30 pacer said. "I've checked my watch. I'm exactly on time. He's off. People are probably going to complain about it."

"And there's no pacer after you," I said.

"No. I'm the end."

There was a slight hill up ahead. It was smaller than the hills I climb regularly on the Greenway, but I was hot and tired and ten miles into this and that hill might put me behind her. I might slow down for that hill, and then the 3:30 pacer would be ahead of me.

And then... the Sag Wagon.

For a minute, I was crushed. I was tired, and I was done. There wasn't anything left inside of me. I was past the zone, out of my window, and mentally willing my legs to keep moving, and the 3:30 pacer was right behind me. I was going to slow down going uphill, I was going to fall behind, and men were going to jerk me off the course while I wept and begged. I was not going to finish. I was not going to get a medal. All of my training and all of my work was going to be for nothing, and I would have paid a couple of hundred dollars in entry fees and hotel costs and hours of time that I would never have back just to ride in a van with all of the other people who tried really hard, but just quite make it.

And that's when I got mad.

You should skip the next three sentences if swearing offends you, but these were my next three thoughts, and they were clear, sharp, and definite.

Fuck the Sag Wagon.

Fuck that hill.

The 3:30 pacer? Fuck her.

I stopped looking back. I stopped thinking about being hot or tired. I walked.

And I finished. If you forgot what the beginning of this entry looked like, this happened:

Post half-marathon (2)

I didn't stagger over the finish line. I rocked that shit. A man called my name over a speaker as I crossed, and people cheered, and I threw my hands in the air and demanded a medal and chocolate milk.

I finished 23 minutes ahead of the 3:30 pacer:

Race results

She was at my side, and I put 23 minutes between us. I beat 4 people in my age division, and I finished ahead of 153 people in the race.

That's a hell of a long way from just finishing, and a hell of a long way from 295 pounds.

My next half marathon is in March.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

14 Months

14 months into my journey, I'm still obese. I figured I would just get that out of the way on the front end, because I don't want to dwell on it. I'm still obese, hopefully only for another month or two. I'm actually less obese than last month, because this month I am down to 225 pounds.

I'm getting so close to being overweight.

I can't wait to be overweight.

In the meantime, though, I am focused on the next week. In nine days, I'm going to do something that was pretty much incomprehensible when I started this journey, 70 pounds ago. I am going to complete a half marathon.

The Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon.

I have three and a half hours to walk 13 miles.

I'm not scared, exactly, because I know I will finish, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge what that means to me. I know that I can start at one end of a road and walk 13 miles to the other end, and that I can do it at a fairly brisk pace. I've spent a good portion of the summer doing distance training, walking an increasing number of miles each weekend, all the way up to 11. I think I was supposed to get up to 12, but my training schedule kept getting interrupted and 11 is going to have to be the longest I go before the 13. I've done 11 three times, so I know in my head that I can throw those last two miles on there. I will finish.

I've also been training on the fitness center treadmill for the past few month, working on my pacing. I set the treadmill and then walk for a couple of miles, because I want an instinctive feeling for how fast I'm moving. I want my body to have an instinctive feeling for maintaining an even pace, so I've been knocking out two to four miles of my daily steps every day on the treadmill to get my body used to how fast it needs to move.

I know I'm not going to keep that pace the entire way. I know I get slower toward the end.

I'm going to finish, though.

This will be my accomplishment. Since I started my fitness journey, I have walked in about ten 5K's. I say "about" because I have somehow lost count of how many races I have competed in, and when I dwell on that thought it is astonishing to me. I have nine bibs on my race board, but I know I did at least one race where they did not give me a bib. Possibly I did more than one, but again, I have raced so many times that I have lost track of the number of races I have participated in. I say "participated" and "I'm going to complete a half marathon" rather than "competed in" because I am not very fast. I am not competition for anyone. I may be the final finisher on this half marathon, and that's ok with me.

14 months ago I couldn't climb the stairs from my car to my office without running out of breath, and now I'm paying to go on a 13 mile hike through the woods, because my friend invited me and because I get a medal at the end.

And then I'm going to wear that medal to work.

And possibly to the grocery store.

And to bed.

Nine days from now, I'm going to lace up my shoes, take a deep breath, and walk as fast as I can for three and a half hours.

I'm not going to win, but I'm going to finish.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Month in Books: August

August tends to be a pretty busy month at work for me, which also means it tends to be a month when I don't get a lot of reading done. I look at my total every August and sigh, but then I realize that I have read more books in August than some of my friends will this entire year, so I guess there's that. I only finished five books in August, so here they are and here's what I thought about them.

1) Maureen McCormick starts Here's the Story by explaining that not only do people perpetually call her Marcia (usually three times in a row, in Jan's voice), but that people also don't understand that she lived an entire life before and after "The Brady Bunch", and is no longer a teenager. She's not bitter about it, but actually seems to feel bad for fans when they realize that she's older and not the way they remember. She also doesn't pull any punches about the life she's lived after the show, outlining in a pretty matter of fact tone her abortions, freebasing, shoplifting, descent into hoarder-dom, bipolar diagnosis, and eventually pulling herself out of it to win "Celebrity Fit Club". It's an interesting book, but pretty much the whole way through I kept going, "Oh, wow, Marcia Brady," just like one of her other disillusioned fans.

This was a leftover from my month of memoirs in July, and turned out to be one of the better memoirs I read. More than anything else, this book is about the mark that secrets can leave on a family, and how they pass from generation to generation if people are not willing to confront them and try to lay them to rest. This was also the book that people seemed most interested in if they saw me reading in public and asked what I was reading. I guess many people still feel a connection to the Brady Bunch, decades later.

2) I want to find whoever recommended Anthony Breznican's Brutal Youth to me and punch them. The story of a group of new freshmen at St. Michael the Archangel High School trying to survive their year of hazing at the hands of the senior class has some good characters and a decent story, but the hazing perpetrated by the seniors is so over the top and cartoonish that it makes it hard to take any of the rest of this book seriously.

Overall, I'm disappointed that I spent some of my Christmas gift certificates on this and that I spent some of my limited time reading it. There were good character moments, but they were buried in a terrible plot.

3) In Fame Junkies Jake Halpern explores America's obsession with fame and becoming famous. He goes to acting school, modeling conventions, a course in how to become a celebrity assistant, a home for aspiring child actors and their guardians, to casting agencies, and finally (and sadly) to a retirement home for actors. Along the way, he introduces us to agents, modeling scouts, aspiring child stars, pushy parents and to all of the psychological studies dealing with social interaction and narcissism that help to explain why we feel like we know celebrities and why so many people are willing to sacrifice everything just to be one. This was interesting, but ultimately kind of sad.

The response of people to this book, like Maureen McCormick's book up above, was interesting. If I said I was reading a book about the public's fascination with celebrities, people usually smirked, rolled their eyes, or said something about me reading garbage. If I said I was reading a book about the effects of obsession and personal narcissism, though, people tended to ask followup questions, even though the book was ultimately about both things. It made me wonder if Halpern had difficulty convincing people that he was participating in actual research and scholarship while working on this, or if they just dismissed it as Hollywood trash.

4) Brood, the sequel to Chase Novak's Breed, picks up the story of twins Alice and Adam right where the last book left off. Conceived through a radical, illegal fertility treatment in Eastern Europe, Alice and Adam watched their parents devolve into cannibalistic monsters and now, as they approach puberty, the twins greet the changes in their own bodies with growing horror. Meanwhile, around the city, the other children of former patients run wild through the parks at night, chasing, hunting, and trying to survive as a sinister drug company tracks them down. Do the children hold the secrets to youth and vitality, or are they doomed to become the same kind of monsters as their parents?

This seemed incomplete, even for a sequel, but I haven't seen a third book announced.

5) For years now we've been viewing urban disaster ruin porn of Detroit, and Mark Binelli has a chapter about that in Detroit City is the Place to Be, but he also does a really good job of going beyond that, and presenting a well researched story of the rise, fall, and possible rise again of Detroit over the course of decades. A native of the city who moved back to write this, he gives a personal touch to the locations of iconic events as he tours the current city of Detroit, walking the reader through the politics, economics, and social causes of the collapse of a great American metropolis.

The author tried to end this on an optimistic note, but he did such a good job of outlining all of the ways in which Detroit has been slowly failing for almost three quarters of a century that by the end I was starting to think that maybe some of the people were right, and we should just tear down all of the abandoned buildings and let nature take over.

Honorable Mention: I'm not counting this in my book tally, but I spent 20 minutes this month reading A Confederate Flag Turned Me Gay, a Kindle novella of the (hopefully small) gay Confederate erotica genre. My friend Rod suggested I read this, and I figured it might be worth blogging about, but it was no A Gronking to Remember. It wasn't funny. I was mostly just bored.

I'm not really sure how to wrap this up after that last book, so I guess I'll just say that I have no theme for September. I'm just reading whatever as I continue trying to get books out of the apartment.

"Whatever" will not gay Confederate flag erotica, though.

I think I've read enough of that.