Friday, August 22, 2008

Olympic observations

I'm a little pressed for time lately—which may have something to do with the amount of Olympic competition I've been watching—so today's entry is a bit stream-of-consciousness, just things I've been wondering about while watching the Olympics.

On watching track events: I can't imagine working and training years and years and years, as many of these athletes do, and then having something go wrong (clipped hurdle, botched baton pass) in your event. How must it feel to be so close to achieving your dream, and then make a mistake? It's one thing to perform your best and lose, but to not even perform your best? I lost sleep before and after a simple state competition, overthinking every mistake; how much worse could it be for these Olympic athletes? I can't imagine. I guess the Olympics are a high reward, high risk event.

On watching gymnastics: Conversely, what must it be like to be 18 (like Nastia Liukin), or even 16 (like Shawn Johnson), and achieve your lifelong dream? I can only imagine how gratifying it would be to work hard, perform well, and win a gold, but then what? There's still three-quarters of your life to live. What do you find to do next? You can't really do the same thing but better, you've already got gold. So now what? Not a problem I'll ever have.

Also, if the Chinese did falsify birth records for some of their gymnastics competitors: Why? Did you really think you could get away with it? I guess if you head an authoritarian state, you probably did, but did you think about the loss of face if the truth came out? How terribly embarassing. I guess they did it (if they did it, which they probably did, if you looked at some of those girls) for the same reasons some athletes start doping: they just wanted to win too badly. I don't understand it, though; even if you win, wouldn't it feel hollow, because you cheated? And when you get found out ... ask Marion Jones whether it was worth it, when she only had those gold medals for only a few years.

On watching beach volleyball: Beach volleyball is awesome. How do they move so fast on the sand? How do they dig some of those spikes? How do they manage to return almost every serve? I love volleyball, even though I'm slow and can't jump high.

I wish I were tall.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My office soundtrack

As I was driving in my car last night, contemplating what I could possibly write about today, a song came on the radio. One of my favorites, in fact, and I realized that while I've blogged about many of my favorite obsessions (writing, taekwondo, cats, quilting), I've overlooked the one that permeates almost everything I do: music. Part of that is because it's summer, when I don't have regular rehearsals and I give my flute a rest. But part of that is because "listening to music" is my default mode, so it's a given, almost beneath my notice. It's like air—I don't think about it, I just inhale it.

I have to have music when I write, even if I'm trying to explain something complex, like quantum physics. (That was an actual assignment once, writing about Nobel physicist Richard Feynman and trying to simplify his life's work for a middle-school audience.) I have my CD collection loaded into iTunes, over 2600 songs, and I usually listen to it on shuffle. I have everything from classic rock to pop, from the 1960s (the Beatles, Hendrix) through the 70s (Elton John, Boston), 80s (Billy Joel, Eurythmics), 90s (Sarah McLachlan, Indigo Girls), and into the 21st century (Coldplay, Kelly Clarkson). Being slightly anal-retentive, sometimes I listen to the list alphabetically ("Abacab" through "Ziggy Stardust") or even by order of song length ("Miracle Cure" from Tommy, 12 seconds, through Elton's live "Burn Down the Mission," 18 minutes.) I have a special fondness for progressive rock bands of the 70s (Genesis, Rush) and piano-based rock (and if you don't think piano can rock, I suggest you check out Ben Folds). Also, because I lived in London from 1998-2002, I have a fondness for some British artists who aren't big names over here (Robbie Williams, Stereophonics).

Most of the time, the music is background as I work. But sometimes I have to stop, turn up the music, and just listen. It always puts me in a better mood and I resume writing with more energy. Some songs get an automatic (loud) replay; my current obsession is Keane, one of those lesser-known Brit bands (who also happen to play piano-based rock); their lead singer has an angel's pure tenor. They do kind of remind me of some of those old progressive rock bands; they might be a wee bit pretentious, but the music makes me forgive all:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: B is for ...


This episode's choice has been inspired by the upcoming Democratic and Republican political conventions. "Bombastic" is a fun adjective whose definitions include "pompous or overly wordy" and "high-sounding but with little meaning." I'm sure we'll hear plenty of bombastic speeches in Denver and St. Paul. Since many politicians are also pompous "stuffed shirts," calling them "bombastic" is doubly appropriate, since the word comes from the Old French bombace, or "cotton stuffing."

Now, as a word nerd, I do sometimes encounter blank looks when I bring out one of my favorite five-dollar-words in casual conversation. Usually this did not happen when I was living in London. My British friends might make fun of me for saying "pants" instead of "trousers" (forget might—they ruthlessly "took the mickey" out of me), but they wouldn't blink an eye at "officious" or "bombastic." But one time the band I belonged to was performing at the military base where we rehearsed. A Canadian band was visiting, and after the dual-band gig, we sat around and socialized a bit. ("Socialized" in band-speak means "drank alcoholic beverages.") I'm not sure how the subject came up (maybe talking about shared Detroit-Windsor TV experiences), but I mentioned Detroit's former king of TV news, Bill Bonds*, and applied the adjective "bombastic." One of the Canadians looked at me in astonishment and echoed, "Bombastic? Why the fancy word?" Well, duh. I explained that I could have said "pompous, ostentatious, and self-satisfied," but why use three words when one will do? I'm sure my withering scorn would have made a bigger impression on him if he had been sober, but I wasn't about to apologize for my vocabulary. As Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized, "Bare lists of words are found suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind." (Thanks to A.Word.A.Day for the very appropriate quote. If you haven't subscribed yet, you really should.)

*If you want a better idea of Bonds' character (he was eventually fired for a DUI), view this very R-rated attempt at a promo here, surely one of the inspirations for Will Ferrell's "Anchorman."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Photo of the Week--8/11/08

This was a rare opportunity: a perfect sunny day in England! We took a trip to Cornwall (the southwest corner of England) in August of 1999 and were lucky enough to have beautiful weather on out trip to Tintagel Castle, reputedly the birthplace of King Arthur. There's hardly anything left—a few walls and grass-covered foundations—but the setting is spectacular. Here you can see where the Atlantic is winning, wearing away some of the headland and cutting off the newer parts of the castle from the original. It's gorgeous and glorious in this shot, but maybe not so much on a gray wintry day.