29 July 2011

Qaptain Qwerty Book Club

Not too long ago, some famous talk show host, whose first name starts with the letter "O", had her final show.  I never watch that show but understand she used to have a book club on the show.  I was wondering if I can start a Qaptain Qwerty Book Club to fill the void, now that the show with the influential lady is no longer around.

My reading habit has gone through a major change lately.  I used to read 99% science fiction, either Star Wars or Star Trek.  Occasionally I would pick something else other than those two "Stars".  At some point I got sick of reading about how great the Mandalorians are, that they are not mere bounty hunters with tons of deadly gadgets on them.  I just cannot get over the fact that they are just mercenaries and would fight for whoever paying them.  So out went Star Wars.  I don't have too much of a problem with Star Trek until I came across some book with the Q character.  Even though Q is not in that many stories, the whole idea turned me off Star Trek.

For a while I got into the mystery genre and followed Agatha Christie and others, usually via audiobooks.  I hungrily tore through the Millennium trilogy, even though it was quaint reading about Netscape and Eudora computer programs in this day and age.  One day I decided to go easy on my eyes and would read only books of the large-print format.  The selection is not as large but I went with whatever authors I recognize or are prolific.  To that end, I briefly got into Janet Evanovich but she lost me on the second book of the Bounty Huntress series, when she spent some time writing about shopping as a therapy.  Maybe that's what got me into sci-fi.  I need to read about fantastic stuff, not ordinary life angst.  In the same vein, story about overworked workers, be it police detectives or filing clerks, seriously turned me off.  Luckily, one day just by chance I picked up a book by Bernard Cornwell, one from the Saxon series.  Life was hard, no creature comforts, might make right, men with weapons go around killing and looting, but no one ever have to write effing reports for managers to read.  Sure, the monks often transcribe parchments by hand, but the monks are the bad guys and sometimes get killed.

Cornwell's works are considered historical fiction.  He creates characters out of thin air, or loosely based on real people, and insert them into real historical events.  Or at least as real as it was recorded.  You know how the victors usually get to write history.  It is nice how he plainly point out at the end of the book who are fictitious and who are real.  Or how he unfairly makes some historical figures wimpy or bad.  It is amusing to learn that in the Saxon world, if you are over 40 years old, you are considered old.  Also, women of 15 or so, what we would consider teenage by 2011 standard, are ripe for marriage.  I am from Viet Nam and know that women got married early, or at least 50 years ago, and maybe still do, but after 30+ years in the U.S. I sorta forgot the tidbit.

Cornwell's Saxon series has only a few books and I flew through them in a short amount of time, whether they are large-print or not.  He also has a series about a soldier named Richard Sharpe.  The first Sharpe novel that I managed to find was "Sharpe's Trafalgar" and took place mostly on the open sea.  The first few chapters of the book described much about life of the travelers who pay the cheapest tickets.  I could not help thinking back to my journey out of Viet Nam.  Sharpe knew someone high on the social echelon and got invited to dinner with the captain, but at times he had to eat things that are barely edible.  At least he ate.  I don't remember if I ate at all.  I clearly recall the water smell terribly, whether because it was just scooped right off the river where the boat was docked, or because the plastic container was new.  The water did have that weird smell when plastic is new.  I vaguely recall eating some kind of sliced bread, or maybe it was just some form of bread.  I do not remember eating much, but I doubt I could have survived without food for the multi-day journey.  I think it was 8 days.  There was not much room where I sat but some rich teenagers with long legs just spread themselves all over.  I recall one time going up to the top level and took in some fresh breath of air.  At least once I went to use the restroom, at the back of boat.  The rest is just a blur.  Scary when life imitates arts.

15 July 2011

Farewell to Donnell

It seems my back yard is not the only place I did not visit often enough.  Today, after picking up the bib and T-shirt for tomorrow's 4-mile Central Park Conservancy Run at the NYRR office on 89th Street, I went looking for a book for my son's summer reading.  He will go to Bay Academy in September and they already sent him a reading assignment for the summer.  I figured I know my NYPL pretty well and would just visit some library in the area.  I could have gone to the Yorkville Branch, at 79th St. and Third Avenue, since it was the closest library to the NYRR office.  However, for exercising purpose, I walked along Fifth Avenue from the Apple Store to the NYRR office and would rather walk back the same way and do my library search from there.  Donnell Library Center on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues would then be the best choice.  Much to my surprise, the library was closed for good!  I just met some visiting distant relatives at MOMA a few weeks ago but I did not notice the library at all.  Further research later in the evening revealed that the Donnell Library Center was actually closed in August 2008.  That means for almost three years I never went by that place.  Either that or I forgot being there in the past three years!

Years ago when I still read Vietnamese literature, Donnell was the place to be.  As far as I know, Donnell had the best collection of Vietnamese books in the NYPL system.  It was from the Donnell collection that I read "Ngọn Cỏ Gió Đùa", which my late father often mentioned as the only novel he ever read.  He was the oldest child in a big family and had much to help the family.  He was very interested in futbol and did not care much about literature, but he did read that one book, by Hồ Biểu Chánh.  Much to my surprise, the book was really just a re-packaged version of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables".  Different setting of old-time Viet Nam during some war, but same story.

Also thanks to Donnell that I got to read the classic Chinese lit "Water Margin", translated into Vietnamese as "Thủy Hử", of course.  My Chinese is too poor to be pitched against the Chinese version and English version somehow just would not cut it for me.  I might have read a few other Viet books but "NCGĐ" and "TH" are the two I recall in recent memories.  While we are on the topic of Viet lit, one disappointment I have about it is that there seems to be no impartial books out there.  Maybe I have not read enough, but the few I came across are either for or against the topic at hand, especially when it comes to modern Viet history.  They are more like propaganda materials, for or against the Communist regime, or other topics.  It was like reading The New York Post, where every Jew is a hero and everyone else in the Middle East are referred to by some negative adjectives.

My memory is failing me now but I think I used to go to Donnell's media center to watch videotapes or listened to music at the many cubicles set aside for such consumption.  Those were the days before the advent of YouTube and the Internet.  Certain pieces of music or movies would be available only at some media center, some physical place you have to be at to enjoy the work.  It is entirely possible that I am confusing Donnell's Media Center with NYU Bobst Library's.  I used to take advantage of the shared resources between The Cooper Union and NYU.

My #1 blog fan used to work near Donnell, I wonder if she has any special memories about it...

14 July 2011

No Lemon, Yes Melon

If someone tells you he is environmentally conscious, would you assume he grows his own fruits and vegetable in a backyard garden?  If that is the requirement, then I am not much of a green person, but I really am.  I walk or use public transportation, instead of drive, most of the time.  I recycle and re-use everyday.  I turn off TVs, lights, computers, etc. when they are not in use.  But gardening so far has always eludes me.  My first attempt at gardening was many years ago when I lived in Long Island City.  The group Astoria Residents Recycling Our Waste (ARROW) just turned a vacant lot into a Green Thumb park, with a section set aside for gardening.  I helped setup the plots and got one assigned to me.  I lived just two blocks away from the new park but weeks then months pass and I never planted anything in the plot.  If there was any plot thickening, it was just weeds taking advantage of my absence.

Years later I have my own house with a backyard.  Long periods of time would go by and I would not spend any time in the backyard.  Last year I decided to maintain a compost bin, even though I did not know what I would do with the stuff once they are made.  From a friend in ARROW I got two more containers for composting and spent more time in the backyard turning and messing around with the bins.  By chance someone my wife knows has some extra melon buds (?) to give away.  The things would normally go to my in-laws but this year they already dedicated their front yard to growing string beans.  I do not recall what got into me but I decided to take a shot at growing them melons.

I do not have much soil area in the back yard so I grew one in a large pot while others went into the soil elsewhere.  Maybe in the future I will share my un-handyman's trellis but this time I just want to show off the potted melon.  As shown in the first two photos, the melon plant has grown large and spreading all over.  The tall photo is a Photoshop composite of three photos.  I may not have properly merged the photos together, but you get the idea.  I just water it everyday and guide its vines so it won't end up in the neighbor's yard.   By the way, I actually used some of the compost, made mostly from last year's autumn leaves, in a pot to support the melon vines as they spread onto cement floor.

I have not read up much about growing melons and just play by ears, so to speak.  I know these things like to climb but never having grown them before I was amazed to see first-hand how the process is done.  The vines themselves have sticky hair to cling on whatever they come across.  Then there are these other things that crawl ahead and coil around poles and such for support.  I definitely need to read up on melons to know the proper terms.

In case you wonder what's with the title of the blog post, it is a variation of the phrase NO MELON NO LEMON, which spells the same from left to right and from right to left.  I love palindromes and cannot pass the chance of using them, but in this case since I grow melons, it is NO LEMON YES MELON.  Of course the phrase is not a palindrome any more.

04 July 2011

Run Charlie Brown Run

After about a month off from running, this weekend I am back.  The left foot had a spot, around mid-foot on the arch, that was very painful to the touch, so I took the doctor's advice to give it some time to rest.  I switched to cycling and it was not very satisfying, but better than nothing.  I was supposed to take the whole month of June off, but June 1 was National Running Day, so I ran a short route on that day then began the hiatus on June 2.  I resumed running on July 3 so that was about right for a 30-day break.

It was the weekend so it was tempting to put in a long run, longer than my usual five miles anyway.  Luckily, the reasonable side of me resisted the temptation and I ran just my old, daily five miles.  I picked the Dyker Height route because it involves a hill at the midway point, where I would turn around and head back.  The route goes through residential areas only and has no long stretch with no traffic.  At every corner is a either a stop sign or a traffic light, something to stop for and look before crossing, so for the whole month cycling I didn't use this route.  As I headed home, the sky darkened and by the time I got breakfast it was raining lightly.  No problem, the bagel shop where I got breakfast had a picnic table on the side of the building, with a window awning just enough to cover me.  It was a nice way to celebrate my return to running - my favorite breakfast of toasted bagel with cream cheese, in the quiet rain.

The next day, Independence Day (July 4th), I finally joined the Holiday Marathons people in Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx.  In this day and age of pre-registration and sold-out races, the Holiday Marathons (HM) series is a welcomed breath of fresh air.  While the typical organized races, whether through Active.com or NYRR, charge $20 and up, the HM series only ask for a $10 donation.  You do not get a souvenir T-shirt or official time but there is refreshment at the beginning and at the end of the race.  It is really just one loop of 6.56 miles.  Run one loop and you have about 10K, 2 loops then you have a Half-Marathon, and 4 times get you a Full Marathon.  Again, no medal or any prize whatsoever, but if your goal is to run one of those distance, it can be done without any requirements.  The course is a trail most of the time, so it was muddy or bumpy in places, somewhat of an obstacle course and not your typical road races.  The volunteers were helpful, the crowd was small enough for me to actually see the person singing the National Anthem, and there was a small cheering section.  For a donation of $10, it was a bargain.

The run was great except I unknowingly cheated myself out of a few miles.  I am totally unfamiliar with Van Cortlandt Park and the race course.  Knowing my slower pace, I put myself in the back of the pack at the beginning of the race.  I simply followed the big crowd of people in front of me but eventually there were just a few people, like two, one in the front and one in the back, around me on the race course.  As usual, I ran without my near-sighted glasses but could see the road fine.  Every now and then I would see the orange streamer hanging on trees as route markers.  At forks in the road there were white arrows on the ground to point me in the right direction.  Unfortunately, when I got out of the trail and back on the edge of parade ground, I automatically thought that was it, that I would just go around the perimeter of the parade ground.  I totally missed the arrow pointing back to the woods.  I was supposed to follow some path that intersect the Henry Hudson Parkway then make a U-turn back to the parade ground.  Even on my wrong course, I made an early left turn but realized quickly and resumed the course, still the wrong, shorter course, but I was not aware of it.  I did notice someone running downhill from the woods onto the perimeter of the parade ground, but I thought it was just someone running a longer route.  I imagined there were veterans of the area who knew other longer route.  As I approached the finish line, some fast runners were passing me and I simply thought they were on their second loop.  Some people are just that fast!  As I logged my time, I was amazed how much faster I was.  My pace was less than 10 minutes per mile.  I found it hard to believe, what with me just came off a month-long break.  While cooling down after the race I saw people who I knew on DailyMile.com coming in.  I know they are fast runners, much faster than me.  A long subway ride home later, I decided to review the race route to find out where I made the shortcut.  The Garmin map at http://thejuly4thmarathon.com/the-course/ is hard to see but opening it in Google Earth helped a lot.  I found my early left turn and then the right turn that I missed.  I still enjoyed the run and felt good afterward.