Travel Thursday: Island of the Manly Men

I yawned as I lay on the grass, looking at the girl with the cat in her arms. Here on the Isle of Man, the cats were tailless–though just as bring-the-allergies–but that was just where the weirdness began.
I shuddered whenever I thought about what might have happened had I entered the motorcycle race; I’d be recuperating in a hospital bed, or lying in the morgue, instead of a redhead’s front lawn.
The first week of June brought the Tourist Trophy Motor Classic, renown around the world as the most dangerous motorcycle race, averaging four fatalities a year. Good thing I wasn’t much of a motorcycle enthusiast, so instead I waited a few days so I could go over the race course on a more usual and much less dangerous man-powered bike.
The sun was now in my eyes, so I had to roll over, catching a different view of the south end of the island. I knew the closest town was Port St. Mary, but if she expected me to remember words like Rhenwyllan and the Bay ny Carrickey, whatever the hell that meant, she way overestimated me.
As though reading my thoughts–not an impossibility in this place–she got off her porch swing and went inside. Now that I was alone, I replayed the ride in my mind.
The start and finish points of the race where right in the middle of Douglas, and from there it was a few miles southeast on A5 before making a sharp turn northwest on Al. The terrain rose ever so subtly, skirting the largest hills on the island, easily visible to the north. Halfway down that road I passed a camp, and a few of the bikers tried to keep pace with me, but I easily outdistanced them and then turned north just before St. Johns, which was itself just before the west coast giant, Peel. Now I was on the A3, in a valley between a few coastal hills to my left and the bigger ones on the right, with a plantation thrown in here and there. I could feel the ground below me climb steeper, though not nearly enough to tax the huge muscles I’d built up when playing soccer and never lost. But not long after that came a slight descent, so I practically coasted into the town of Kirk Michael. I could see the ocean now as the road turned slightly east instead of due north, making for a long curve up to Ballaugh. From there, still on the A3, it was a straight north-east-east line, past a wildlife park, until passing Sulby, where it became due east until I hit the east coast again at the port of Ramsay.
At this point the course designers could have made a leisurely run down the coast on A2, but instead opted to give the race competitors a view of the highest point on the island, a peak called Snaefell, right in the middle of the most desolate land. To this point I’d had no difficulties of any kind, but I also knew I was now entering the bad country that was the cause of most of the accidents and fatalities in the race. I would also be going from sea level to 600 meters in a very short distance, all the while having to watch the roads for any possible problems.
Much to my surprise I made it to Snaefell in a very short amount of time, and again I had no problems climbing on the A18, though my thighs were feeling the first twinges of burning. Emily had been on her daily walk up to the peak; she later claimed it was the only way to stay in shape on the island. Just then she was huffing and puffing from her climb, lovely bosom heaving with each breath and straining against the sweaty fabric of her shirt. We were heading in opposite directions, and she saw me first. Even from a distance she could see what incredible legs I had (so she told me later); she whistled unconsciously and waved as I passed by.
Trying to divide my time between precautionary looks at the road and more appreciative glances at the scenery, I fell under the spell of this fine example of nature’s bounty. The view made me slow down and turn my head back to get a longer look at this bountiful female, whom I couldn’t help but notice had turned her head as well.
I had experienced many things in life and been warned about a lot of others. One of the most important lessons, something I used over and over again, was to never underestimate the stupidity of sheep.
But what the hell where sheep doing here? This was mountain terrain, pure rock without a blade of grass. I tried to avoid them as they spilled onto the road, knowing the whole time it was much too late. Hoping there would be no more, I moved off the road, but the front wheel immediately found a ditch that sent me flying, clipping my ankle on the cliff face. As I rolled over, first in the air and then on impact, I was spared any further injury, and wanted to prove my Superman-ness to the redhead, so I stood up quickly with the momentum my body had built up. I took one step toward my bike. . . and promptly keeled over from the pain, the ankle much worse than I’d thought.
Emily, feeling immensely guilty despite the fact they weren’t her sheep, took it upon herself to completely rehabilitate me, starting by getting me off the most remote place on the island. Somehow she’d managed to snag a ride, the bike wheeling along on the side as I held on to it through the open window. In no time we were back in Douglas, where she quickly made arrangements, picking up my things from the hotel and then literally shoving me–and my new crutches–onto the steam train that took tourists on the scenic twenty-four mile trip down to Port Erin on the southwestern edge of land. From there it had been a bus to the place where the A5 joined the A31, with us doing the last leg on foot, even bad ones.
But now, a couple of weeks later, my ankle felt as good as new, thanks to her particular brand of healing, and I was more than ready to get some exercise. Ankle still too tender for pedaling, I figured I’d stick with walking, and since Man was such a small island–thirty three miles long and twelve wide maximum–I could walk as much as a quarter of the island on a long day.
But not today. Emily was waiting. . .
As I got up I saw the design on the front gate, the national symbol, one that was not only apt for the country but also for me at the moment. It showed three legs connected to a center, each running in a different direction, but always forming a circle. The words said: Quocunque Jeceris Stabit: “Whichever way you throw me, I stand.” It was one of the many reasons the people here were so loveable. . . at least in small doses. Despite how one writer had described it–”eighty thousand alcoholics clinging to a rock”–right now it felt like a paradise. . . not in the physical sense; there were certainly no apple trees growing in the lush grass of a jungle. It was also not a paradise for the mind; in fact, if I gave it much thought, it could become boring. The only way I could describe it would be as a paradise for the soul, a place to cleanse oneself from the nasty world surrounding the island. The locals often thought of it as a place with no crime, along with lengthy dissertations on the values of hard work, righteousness, and unfortunately a few votes for reinstating the birch, a subject I did not care to discuss and told me I would not actually live here. Aside from those scary quirks, I was hard pressed to think of another place in the entire world where so many people endorsed such wholesome values. . . while not running for office, of course.
Then I wondered what they would think of the special way in which Emily had healed me these past few weeks. . .


Book Reviews: Triumphant, Psychological, Naughty

Is This Seat Taken?
A short tome describing some people—a few famous, most not—who achieved success, mostly in business, at an advanced age. Basically a paean to perseverance—or stubbornness—it gives the history of each person’s struggles and ultimate triumphs.
I wonder if this was intended to be a textbook, for at the end of each chapter there are “takeaways,” as though addressing points that are going to be on a test. I should have thoroughly enjoyed this book, but there’s something that’s keeping me from loving it, and I can’t put my finger on it. 2.5/5

Huntress Moon/Blood Moon
For fans of Criminal Minds, here’s a story told in two parts where the criminal—your mileage may vary on that word for her—is far more interesting than the pursuer. It’s truly amazing how a story with so little action can be so thrilling, from a psychological viewpoint.
At its most basic, a former member of the BAU, still in the FBI and station in San Francisco, is on the hunt for that rarest of birds, a female serial killer. When it’s found out she’s actually the only survivor of a more common serial killer many years before, the psychological profiling really gets cooking, and is what makes these two books really fascinating. As an added bonus, that old case is what made the FBI agent, a kid at the time, pursue this career. There’s also plenty of interesting—on all sides of the moral spectrum—characters throughout; I wouldn’t mind reading more about the female member of the FBI team, for I feel she could have her own series, or at least have some stories told from her point of view, she’s so well-drawn and enchanting.
Reviewers like to say you can enjoy the second book without having to read the first, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I accidentally started on the second one first, and quickly wondered why all this description of previous events was being told rather than shown. Once I checked and saw I had the wrong order, things fell in to place, especially the relationship between the two protagonists.
My only beef—more of a pet peeve—is when the FBI agents attempt to speak Spanish; maybe the point is to show they’re not very fluent, but it’s still irritating to find the wrong tense and gender so often. But that’s hardly anything to cry about in what is really a captivating story. 4/5

Naughty Girl’s Guide to Las Vegas
Exactly as described: a list of naughty things for girls to do in Vegas. Hotels, lingerie shops, topless pools, strips clubs, dominatrixes, and classes of all kinds are covered here. Gets a little repetitive, as there are only so many ways to describe racy material. Can be useful for men wanting to but gifts for their sweeties, as in gift cards or classes. 3.5/5


Travel Thursday: A Night in Vienna

Watching a horse show, especially the most famous horse show in the world, was one thing, but watching their rehearsal wasn’t as big a deal, no matter how hard she sold it.
Everyone kept telling me how privileged I was to be able to watch this, so often that I had to struggle to keep from telling them to stuff a sock in it. Luckily the thought of dinner with the horse babe kept me quiet, knowing she’d blow me off if I caused a scene in this stuffiest of all stuffy places.
Finally it was over, and though she’d changed out of her jodhpurs she didn’t look any less hot for it. Dinner was quick and uneventful, and since it was spring it was not a very cold night, so she suggested we go for a walk downtown.
Though I’d been in Vienna many times–it was either my second or third favorite city in the world, depending on time of year–this was her town, so I allowed her to lead the way along the Ringstrasse, the large and long boulevard that circled the town under different guises. In front of us now was the Opera House, but we turned our backs to it and walked the other way, chuckling as I recalled the news story of marijuana growing in the street dividers. . .
Conversation was held to a minimum as we walked hand in hand, trying not to look out of place among the crowd, which was dressed a lot more formally, probably on the way to said opera house. When we did speak, it was the surroundings which dominated the topics; passing the statue of Goethe, for instance, got us into a light-hearted discussion about Faust and his improbable story, and of course I had to tell her how many ships her face had launched, even if that was by a different author. Seeing the Burg Garten led to commentary about the flowers we could see through the gates. Then the statue of Mozart came into view, and that dominated the talk for a while.
Around us the window-shopping crowds swarmed in all possible directions, with gypsy musicians, clowns, and other street performers here and there; I managed to guide her away from the flame-throwing jugglers, since I could see they weren’t very good. Eventually we were once again walking by the Imperial Palace, where the riding school was located, when we saw Mozart coming toward us. Considering all we’d seen as we strolled the streets, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but then he stopped to chat for a while, asking about our favorite songs of his. Buying into the premise that this really was Mozart, I had some fun making him both surprised and angry at some of my choices, saying that some of his best stuff was left out of my repertoire.
But finally I’d had enough of humoring this lunatic, so I told him that he could have done a much better job on both the opening of the third act in The Barber of Seville and the overture of The Magic Flute. Mozart was so aghast that we managed to escape before he recovered.
I found her giggling uncontrollably, allowing me to throw her a “What?” in an injured tone.
“You dare presume to tell the great Mozart how to write music?”
“Someone has to. I’ll bet I can beat him at billards too.”
From there we passed by the rest of the Palace, the Museums, Parliament, City Hall, and the National Theater until I suddenly stopped in my tracks at the sight in front of me. “That’s funny; I thought I was in Vienna, not Athens.”
She merely smirked as I looked around in every direction, feeling the cold and somewhat cleaner air of Vienna rather than Athens. But still, there was no denying there was a Greek temple in front of us.
Just to rub it in she walked up to it and read the inscription. “Temple of Theseus, built in 1823. Every detail exact as the original in Athens.”
Giving her the full ham, I let out a loud sigh of relief. “For a moment I thought we’d walked through a hole in time and space or something like that.”
Smile. “You’ve been watching too much Star Trek.”
I made her regret that by discussing every episode I could remember for the next hour. . .


Book Reviews: All Kinds of Genres

Secret Kindness Agents
Like the previous book I read in this category, this is a fascinating account of how given the right incentive and drive you can get teenagers to do something that will benefit not just them, but those around them. Written by their teacher, who came up with most of the objectives and plans, but it’s especially intriguing when the kids come up with the ideas themselves. Wish it had been longer, but what there is here is gold. 5/5

The Cana Mystery
In a previous review I mentioned that the very next book I picked up–electronically–also involved Saint Malachy’s Prophesy of the Popes; this is it. It concerns the Jars of Cana, which supposedly–being an atheist, I haven’t read much of the Bible–is where Jesus turned water into wine. Everyone’s looking for a message hidden in them, of course.
As usual in these stories, the rich powerful bad guys will do anything they can to get their way, so there’s a lot of killing, especially innocents, which never fails to annoy me. From an archaeology story it becomes a chase story, through numerous places in Egypt before ending up in Malta.
There was one part I particularly enjoyed: having studied the Battle of Milvian Bridge, it was intriguing to read a more personal–though of course fictional–account of the behind-the-scenes that led up to Constantine marching into Rome, rather than the cut-and-dried military history. Particularly captivating was Maxentius, the unpopular ruler of Rome at the time, being told that the enemy of Rome would fall in the battle; it never occurred to him that HE might be the enemy of Rome.
All in all, a good but not great thriller to wile away some hours. 3.5/5

A Spacious Life
I try to not have expectations, but I couldn’t help think this wasn’t going to be for me. . . or else I was setting myself up for a happy surprise. Thankfully the latter happened. Stories from an attractive lady growing up in Australia while trying to become a better person through Buddhism. I assume she is showing these examples of what worked for her in building such a spiritual life in order for the reader to do the same, but a lot of them seem difficult for the ordinary Joe to attain. . . which I guess is a roundabout way of saying this woman is pretty special. The greatest thing about this book is her sense of humor, especially when self-deprecating; the best way to put it is she entertains me as she’s enlightening me, even if I can never hope to attain her spirituality. 4/5

Star Trek: Shadow of the Machine
There are some things to like here, but not that many. I expected this to be like the episode “Family” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in a lot of ways it is, as all three threads–Kirk, Spock, Sulu–dealt with family. I wish I could say what made me not like this as much as I thought I would, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it; perhaps I am comparing it too much to the STTNG episode. The most intriguing parts were Kirk’s family in Iowa. 3/5


Travel Thursday: Do You Mean Ya Armenia?

I was usually good at remembering where I was when I awoke, not an easy thing when you consider how much I travel. It was the plane descending, hopefully on purpose, that told me where I was, but even then I had to remember where I was going.
I wouldn’t get much time in Armenia, as it was really only a stop on the way to bigger things, but I still thought about taking a detour to the UCLA archaeological site, and really, how long could that take, this being such a small country? The Bruin diggers had found a perfectly preserved 5,500-year-old shoe in a cave; that was sure to peak some extra female interest in the find, I grinned to myself, especially since it was technically leather. . . if old, rather distressed leather. Though I did get a laugh when I found they couldn’t figure out if it had been made for a man or a woman.
Just for the heck of it, my mind reviewed the archaeological evidence, though I knew I should be thinking about my job instead. Knowing organic materials didn’t usually preserve well in this part of the world, due to high content of salts and fungi in the soil as well as dramatic fluctuations in temperature and humidity, I thought that made the condition of the footgear–I’d seen pictures–all the more remarkable.
Luckily the plane landed before I could berate myself for becoming so excited about a shoe. . .
Being around the world from El Lay, exactly twelve time zones away, I knew it would take a while getting used to Armenian standard time. . . except I didn’t have the time for that right now, so it was important not to go to bed until tonight. Since I’d napped on the plane, I thought I could make it, but on the other hand I hoped to be sleepy then. Figuring I’d better do things expected from a tourist, I made my way–known from a previous trip–to the American embassy, where I registered in case something went sideways. I wasn’t allowed to leave without getting the usual lecture to stay away from the drugs, Armenia being a stop on hash and opium’s trip from Afghanistan to Europe, but I seemed to do a good enough job of pretending to pay attention to satisfy the lecturer.
“So where does one go to get a burger around here?”
The Marines grinned as the diplomat told me my best bet was Mr. Pig, but that Wheel Club was the place for other American food.
“This is where State earn their money!” I crowed, leaving everyone in a laughing mood. I followed an American tourist out of the building, and just for fun and practice I kept right behind him as he took things to another level, taking photos of everything and everyone as he made it to Azatutian–or Opera–Square. I’d been told people in this country would be flattered that you wanted to take their portrait, though probably not so much here in Yerevan, where the locals had to laugh at you wanting a photo of a total stranger, if he’d asked first.
So I got my burger–luckily it was in the same direction as my fun spy time–then went back to the hotel, crashing and not waking till next morning, which was just as perfect as I could have ever imagined, or planned.
Thanks to the wonders of email, I already had a breakfast date, with an old friend from El Lay who’d moved back to her parents’ homeland to hit it rich, so she claimed. Unfortunately she invited me to her place, where as soon as she opened the door and gave me a hug she announced breakfast was served. I’d need to take her at her word as I examined the bowl she placed in front of him.
“Don’t be a wuss,” she smirked, proving she’d remembered American dialect perfectly well. “Eat up.”
“I never eat something without knowing what it is. . . and sometimes not even then.”
Finally she remembered what a picky eater I was, but couldn’t back down now. “You’ve been all over the world, eaten many things you wish you hadn’t, so don’t invite danger from an angry cook.” When I still didn’t look convinced, she breathed a sigh of exasperation right into his face. “C’mon, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?”
“That’s classified.”
“Ha! Your past is even murkier than I imagined.”
I grimaced. “That’s a quality shared by this soup.”
So I left her place a couple of minutes later, without getting hit but also without breakfast; I considered that an equitable solution. After all, there were many places I could have brekky, and just to prove it to her, even if she wasn’t there, I stopped at a place on the same block as her apartment building and enjoyed a very American morning repast, full of bacon and eggs and orange juice, though I skipped the local milk.
After that I walked back toward the hotel, waiting for a green light in the perfect spot to gaze upon the massive monument in Victory Park called Mother Armenia. Between the buildings it looked quite arresting, on a hilltop overlooking the center of Yerevan. I couldn’t remember if I’d shot it before, but figured it could wait till I had my big camera with me.
A few hours later I did indeed have my better photographing device out, shooting wildly at an admittedly awesome-looking Mt. Ararat, which dominated the skyline much like Rainier did in Seattle, yet somehow even more so. According to my internet scouting, clear days weren’t all the common here, with Yerevan suffering the same inversion problems as El Lay, being located in a bowl and encircled by hills. I’d figured I’d have to be content with the view I’d gotten as the plane landed, but if I were any type of superstitious I’d take this as a good sign.
As my brain had a tendency to do–more often than I’d like–it hijacked the train of thought onto another rail, this time reminding me of a story from World War Two, when a group of German mountaineers was square-pegged into a military unit that found them fighting in the area. . . and when the battle was over, there was Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus. Not content to just scale the mountain, they proudly planted their divisional flags and the German national flag on top, taking photos that quickly made their way back to the Nazi propaganda boys, who trumpeted the accomplishment like they’d found a cure for cancer or some such.
One person who’d seen right through it was Hitler himself, hard at “work” on the Battle of Stalingrad, reportedly annoyed to see his elite mountain troops caught on camera goofing off. And knowing how the Soviets felt about the Germans, if was no surprise when they reclaimed the area and made scaling Mount Elbrus to take down the German flags and plant their own their top priority.
Grinning at the arrogance and ridiculousness of puny human beings, I had my driver take a circuitous route back to Yerevan, just to see if there were any angles of the huge-looking mountain I missed. After a few shots of the Mother monument as promised, as well as a street filled with carpets for sale draped over old cars in such a way that simply begged to be photo’ed, I made my way back to the hotel to make sure I was presentable–enough–to take my old buddy out “somewhere nice, for a change,” to quote her. I wasn’t dumb enough to remind her the only comparison was her apartment, so I figured that as long as I found something my stomach could tolerate on the menu, the night would be fine.
It sure looked like it when I got to her place and she answered the door in a flaming red fuck me dress, so hot I almost didn’t hear her say, “There you are! You’re late!”
I smiled down at her cleavage to say, “There you are, too,” which made her smile knowingly. . .


Book Review: And Give Up Showbiz?

This is the story of not so much the stereotypical lawyer as it is the prototypical, the one who showed them all how to do it. At one time Fred Levin held the records for money awarded for the wrongful death of a housewife, wrongful death of a wage earner, wrongful death of a child, wrongful death of an African American, and the highest personal injury verdict in Florida, most of these verdicts in one of the most conservative areas of the country. Not only does he come off as a hero in this book, there’s also a piece that says all the bad press lawyers have received as sharks and ambulance chasers are propaganda of big business, the ones who have to pay out big when there’s a win like these. While there’s some truth to needing to keep corporations accountable, and those large conglomerates are usually behind propositions to limit huge awards, it comes off as self-serving here, which limits the believability. There is a telling line: “When he inadvertently does good for others, he does very well for himself.” So yes, getting a portion of the money awarded certainly made him rich.
The best stories are about the cases won against corporations, even if they weren’t Fred’s; Pinto and Silkwood are the most significant, and set the stage for Fred’s later “heroics.” The best note on his legal strategies is about destroying the entire defense case with the opening statement. He also pioneered the use of structured settlements.
But he wasn’t just a lawyer; the biggest laugh in the book is when he’s a manager for a boxer, whose father says there’s no person in the boxing world more ethical than Fred, “which, in retrospect, probably didn’t say much.”
The stories told make this book enjoyable, but what makes it effective is the subject’s willingness to admit his mistakes, especially in his relationships, including his family. It’s incredibly fascinating despite itself. . .