In The Nick of Time

It is not often that modern Hollywood makes a movie that forces one to think about the message and engages the audience on a deeper level than thrillers, action fare, or kids’ movies usually achieve. This weekend, Hollywood gave movie goers Arrival starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and this movie is a fantastic respite from the mindless violence of Jack Reacher, the non-stop action of Doctor Strange, or the brainless giggles of Trolls. Arrival engages the viewer on several levels, each one dependant on the next. The characters are deep, complex beings and how they interact drives a lot of the plot of this mind-bending story. It was a relief to see something on the big screen that forced me to engage more neurons than a film has required since I saw Tree Of Life. This movie is a must see if for no other reason than that.

Twelve alien space ships, shaped like kidney beans, appear suddenly around the world. When there is no communication either from the ship or from the government, people begin to riot. There are no laser battles, no fighter chases and no last minute escapes in this story. The ships just sit there. The world governments try in vain to figure out how to talk to the visitors. Finally, when all else fails, they bring in Louis Banks, a well-respected academic specializing in linguistics. But America is not the only government trying to communicate and Louise and her team must crack the code before other governments decide on a less diplomatic solution.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks, the linguist recruited by the government to try to communicate with aliens whose ships mysteriously appeared over twelve locations around the globe. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who runs the lab in which Louise works and Whitaker is Colonel Weber, the officer heading the Montana alien site. Adams is a gem in almost every role she plays. She can seamlessly go from a live action Disney Princess in Enchanted to a whistle-blowing nun in Doubt to Lois Lane in Man of Steel to an emotionally vulnerable linguist and take the viewer along with no questions. Jeremy Renner is a likeable rouge in almost every role he plays. He has a quiet, understated command to his presence that makes one feel comfortable around him and he plays that effectively in his role here. Forest Whitaker is both the benevolent leader and the bureaucratic nemesis for the two doctors who try to figure out the alien language before fear leads to violence.

The only part of the film that might bring viewers some consternation is the very hook of the film: Temporal Mechanics. This story weaves its narrative in a deceptively linear story telling fashion, while back-handedly telling the other story of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations of the film and was not too stunned to appreciate the creative way the writers and directors tried to slip one by on me. It is not often that I am surprised by a plot twist, so I really appreciate when I encounter one I didn’t see coming. Be advised, though, that the auditorium was so stunned by this one that when the credits started rolling, no one moved for several moments.

Technically speaking, Arrival is not the state of the art. In fact, photorealistic CGI has gotten so commonplace that it is expected to be good. The aliens, one of the more interesting non-humanoid designs I have seen, look as real as made-up aliens can be expected to look. Where the film excels, at least to me, is the language they developed for the aliens. Perhaps it is the literary nerd in me, but I was totally in with Louise as she tried to figure out how the aliens used a three-dimensional form of writing to communicate. Whoever came up with that, should win a technical Oscar.

Arrival is not the typical fast-paced, action-laden Hollywood blockbuster. Nor is it the emotionally draining, pull-at-your-heartstrings drama. This film is an intellectual journey into the human condition. It informs the viewer while revealing a piece of humanity and entertains all at the same time. I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this film, simply because it made me think. If you’re looking for mindless escapist fare, this film will give you a headache. If you want to think about what you’re seeing, run, don’t walk to the theater today and see Arrival.

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Hail to the Chief

Ok, I can admit when I’m wrong. I’ve never had a problem with that. So, here goes. I was wr-wr-wr-wr—wr….ahem….I was wr-wr-wr-wr-wr….(I can do this)…uh, I was….not exactly right. (apologies to the Fonz).

So, Trump won after all. I didn’t expect that. But it’s all good. At least Hillary didn’t win and that was the real issue. All my concerns about her machinations to ensure her presidency are now moot. The good news is that America has a chance to have a conservative justice to replace Scalia and any judges who retire in the next 4 years, which was one of my biggest concerns with a Clinton presidency. That, and with a Republican controlled house and senate, we should have no worries about infringements on our second amendment rights for the next four years.

For these reasons, I am happy.

But now we have the Donald as president. That is…unpredictable. Granted, Obama demonstrated that the presidency can be shackled by a recalcitrant congress, so if Trump goes too far afield, congress should be able to rein him in, but the real concern will be his mouth and how he interacts with world leaders on that stage. He is used to making multinational business deals, but politics is a bit different. Hopefully, he will surround himself with competent advisors to council him on protocols for dealing with politics on a world stage and he won’t embarrass himself or the nation.

To those who bemoan this missed opportunity to have a woman in the Oval Office: please do not take this election as a reaffirmation that America won’t allow a woman to be president. This election merely asserted that America won’t allow Hillary Clinton to be president. By all means, select a more qualified candidate next time. If she is not completely crazy and an elitist, ultra leftist/neosocialist who cannot identify with mainstream America, she has a chance. Having a vagina should NEVER be a criterion upon which a president is chosen. The president should represent his or her constituency, not describe them as deplorable when they do not agree with him or her.

I am glad I was…not exactly right. It means that our election system is not totally corrupted and run completely by the media and businesses (Soros), and that citizens can determine their governance which is as it should be. That, my friends, is democracy in action, even if we don’t agree with the outcome. I was pleasantly surprised as the election results ticked in on my browser last night. I refused to watch the media’s reports as they worked feverishly to predict and direct a Clinton win.

Speaking of the media, they have been lamenting the loss of their golden child all morning, trying to explain Hillary’s loss in terms they can understand. One pundit said it was because many more white voters went to the polls that they anticipated. Another claimed it was “Whitelash” as white voters cast ballots against Obama, rather than for Trump. Really? Now it’s racist? The media spent way too much time and energy trying to sway voters to vote for Hillary, they are having fits trying to figure out how to go on in the wake of the Trump victory. If only there was a way Americans could vote the media out of office, that would be a true victory at the polls.

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The Sweet and the Bitter of Election Day

Tuesday the 8th of November, 2016 will be a bittersweet day for many people in this country, if not the whole world. It is the date that the worst campaign in the history of this country will officially end, which is the sweet part. The bitter part is that it is also the date that we will have elected the person who will no doubt go down in history as one of the worst world leaders ever. It is not because we have been forced against our will to endorse a tyrant, but rather we have degraded the principles of liberty so much that the citizens of this country no longer know any better than to elect people based not on capability, but instead on popularity. Knowledge and logic have been supplanted by feelings.

This is not new to this election cycle, unfortunately. The election of Barack Obama was the first time a president was chosen not because of skill, knowledge, or experience, but rather because of social popularity. Obama was not elected because he was the most capable, he was elected because people thought it was time we had a black man in the White House. This election is another opportunity for the populists who want social justice to ring their bell by not electing the best candidate, but by electing the first woman to the presidency. In fact, it has become the media catch phrase as pundits tout how America will make history by electing Hillary Clinton.

The social justice warriors who gave us affirmative action and hiring quotas are now trying to staff the White House, as if the qualifications for that job are limited to the color of one’s skin or the gender to which they self-identify. A knowledge of history, or law, or economics or anything understood to be a formal education are not even mentioned in the candidate selection process. None of the candidates who ran in either primary touted their academic credentials. Very few of them mentioned their relevant experience. All of them threw out their feelings on the issues about which the media had drummed the populace into a frenzy and batted sound bites around like a litter of puppies fighting over a toy, and we the people watched with similar fascination as we decried the responses that hurt our feelings and shouted along with the ones that echoed our own beliefs.

As a society, we have become so focused on feelings, that real matters that have meaning are relegated to whispers among the like minded, too afraid to speak out in public for fear of being labeled a bigot, racist, misogynist, extremist, leftist, right-wing, birther, libtard. If we cannot discuss the serious matters facing society as a whole, how can we hope to find a leader willing to do it? We can’t. This is why our politicians have become so impotent lately. They are afraid of being on the losing side of legislation being voted on by a public who cannot be counted on to actually learn anything different from their preconceived notions and ideals and who think it is time we had a woman in the White House even if that woman is a proven manipulative, elitist liar who doesn’t even think members of her own party are worthy of consideration.

Clinton said in an interview that she wants to be the president of those who vote for her and those who vote against her. Well, that is as stupid a statement as any candidate has ever made, but nothing more can be expected from someone who has manipulated the system at every turn to ensure her victory in the election, even going so far as to have defrauded the country by negotiating back room deals, including selecting her opponent, to lock in her win, no matter the outcome of the ballot count. When Hillary is announced as the winner (and she will be) understand it will not be because of the ballots cast. It will be because she defrauded an already corrupted process and was validated by a population that wanted a woman—any woman—president. Wednesday morning, there will be no more campaign commercials and no more news time devoted to the campaigns, but we will have someone who will no doubt end up being the worst president in history sitting in the White House. Bittersweet indeed.

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Doctor Strange Casts a Powerful Spell

I never was a big fan of Doctor Strange, until now. Marvel is well into its “Phase 3” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and fans have almost universally loved every one. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man were long shots that surpassed everyone’s expectations, including mine. This week’s Doctor Strange follows suit.

Benedict Cumberpatch of Star Trek Into Darkness and Sherlock fame plays one of the country’s leading surgeons, Dr. Steven Strange, who through negligence born of his own ego, crashes his car and ruins his hands. Despite several cutting edge medical procedures, he cannot regain the full use of his hands and his career looks like it’s over. Never one to accept failure, he travels to Nepal to seek out a rumored alternative treatment, only to find out it involves mysticism, something his rational mind cannot grasp. Enter Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One, a guru who shows Strange the limits of his mind. He begs to be trained and quickly learns the art and could become one of its masters, if he can only let go of his own demons before he has to combat other worldly ones.

While I have only read a little of the comic title from which this movie is drawn, Cumberpatch is the perfect casting both physically and stylistically for the character. He is clearly one of the best actors of his age and he delivers a flawless performance as the nascent sorcerer, destined to save the world. As Dr. Strange learns to accept his injuries and work around them, the viewer gets a real sense of the loss and acceptance through Cumberpatch’s portrayal. And as he learns more of the art, his confidence grows and becomes more obvious in each interaction (read fight) with the bad guys.

Rachel McAdams plays Christine, Strange’s erstwhile love interest who serves to keep the sorcerer grounded while he deals with the astral plane. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, a sorcerer who helps Strange learn the arts and combat the bad guys and Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, the evil sorcerer bent on destroying the world.

The action is not overdone and just enough to keep the viewers riveted in their seats while the outstanding cast develops a fine plot with enough drama to emote and the occasional gut wrenching laugh Marvel is famous for.

The special effects in this film are gut wrenching, in that as the characters alter reality, they change the orientation of the world to suit their needs. Vertigo is a real risk here, especially if one sees the 3-D version, which I fully recommend. No film since Avatar is as good in 3-D as this one.

I put Doctor Strange into the top three of MCU titles, alongside Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Civil War. This is a must see even if it wasn’t critical to setting up next year’s Avengers: Infinity War (which it is, by the way). Go see it and not only that, spring for the 3-D, and that is a recommendation I have never given.

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Heaven In a Plain Wrapper

One of my favorite things about travelling is getting to find new places to eat. I always try to avoid hitting the chain places in favor of local independent eateries. Of course sometimes I will still go to Chili’s or Cheddars because it is convenient, but I try to find new places as often as possible. My trip to Colorado afforded me many opportunities to eat at new places, but tonight’s dinner location was noteworthy for its mix of good and bad.

DiCicco’s is an Italian restaurant near the Denver Airport nestled among a collection of hotels. It is in a big, uninviting building with a solid door, no windows and a patio that is loaded down with equipment and not used for seating. Upon entering the edifice, one gets a sense of entering an expensive boutique restaurant, but instead of a hostess stand, diners face a counter with a cash register, and what looks like a server stand. The hostess did not react to me for several moments until I asked where the hostess stand was. After clearing up my confusion, she asked if I wanted to sit in the bar area or the dining room. I was taken to the two-story dining room and seated in an intimate two-person booth adorned with very pretty hand-painted floral patterns on the walls. These paintings were all over the restaurant including the ceiling and vents. One wall of the dining room was a large screen showing video of Andrea Bocelli singing in a concert. I would later find out that on weekends, the videos are replaced with live entertainment in the form of a keyboardist and once a month they feature a live band.

Brandon, my waiter, was quite knowledgeable about the restaurant’s history and the menu. He seemed pleasant and nice, but he forgot my soda and took an inordinate amount to time coming back to take my order. I asked a few questions about some of the choices and settled on the cannelloni with meatballs and minestrone. I was glad I did. Unfortunately, however, the cannelloni came out before the minestrone. The soft drink glasses were quite small, necessitating several refills, of which Brandon was not as attentive as I would like.

The highlight of the dinner was the dinner. The cannelloni was the best I have had. Every bite was a bit of heaven covered in mozzarella. The meatballs, smothered in marinara, were delectable and accented the cannelloni very well. Even the minestrone, when it finally arrived, was quite good to the point I spooned every bit of the broth I could reach stopping only when my spoon came up empty. I cannot remember a more tasty Italian dinner.

If only it was served in a more accommodating environment.

This is not to say that the dining room was drab or distracting from the dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the entire interior is festooned with impressive hand-painted artwork on the walls—not canvases hanging on the walls—but rather murals covering almost all of the plaster. The problem was the fact that the impressive adornments are only on the interior of an uninviting building. The front door is solid wood with no windows. Similarly, the windows that are on the walls are plastered over. As I mentioned earlier, the building has a two-story patio that would offer diners a spectacular view of sunset over the Rocky Mountains, but the patio is closed and filled with excess equipment, which is quite unattractive.

DiCicco’s has very good food and it is worth the trip for that. The only problem is one has to get past the uninviting building to get it. If the restaurant was not one of only two in the immediate area, I might not have even bothered to enter it. The exterior is not inviting and the foyer did little to change the impression. It is only when one enters the dining room does the restaurant become somewhat promising. It is only when the food is served does the place shine, and it shines brightly.

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The Only Thing To Fear…

When I first applied for a job with my company it had another name, and the interviewer’s first question was “how do you feel about attics in the summer,” not “are you afraid of heights.” Now, both are valid concerns for a technician because techs to spend a bit of time in attics even in the summer. Techs also spend a bit of time in an elevated work position, either on a pole, or against the steel cable running between poles (we call it the strand) up to twenty-eight feet off the ground. My answer to that first question was “No problem.” I spent a lot of time in the attic in my parents’ house growing up, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. To be honest, if he had asked about heights, I would probably been just as nonchalant about it as well, since I was a bit of a climber as a child. It turns out I was wrong to be so cavalier about it. Monkey bars, laundry poles, playhouses etc. are no more than five or six feet up. Twenty-eight is a whole different perspective and your perception changes at altitude.

Today I recertified to teach technicians to climb utility poles. This is not a new thing. I have been teaching this for eleven years quite successfully. The reason I mention it is that there are two ways to get a technician up a pole: using a ladder and using gaffs. Now most people can figure out how to climb a ladder on their own. The trick of training ladders is not training people to climb, but rather all aspects of how to handle a ladder from picking it up safely, to carrying it safely, to setting it up safely and then climbing it safely. This is why there is a re-certification requirement. The other way is more involved. Gaffs are steel spikes strapped to the leg that are kicked into the wood of the utility pole as the technician climbs. Sharp steel spikes? Safety is an issue. Twenty feet up a wooden pole with no support other than a quarter-inch steel spike? Safety is an issue. In order to teach technicians how to climb, we instructors have to demonstrate that we know how to do it safely.

I was trained how to gaff in my new hire technical training in 2001. I was younger then—thirty-six, if memory serves—and smaller too. When my instructor got us all geared up and showed us how to approach and address the pole, I was non-plussed. I was still good to go when we climbed up to six feet on the pole. However, when he instructed us to continue climbing passed ten feet, it was as if the air became molasses. Each movement of my hands and feet took great effort and focus. The ground looked really far away. There didn’t seem to be as much oxygen in the air. The pole felt a lot flimsier and seemed to move back and forth a lot more. I did manage to pass the test and I was certified to climb in the course of my job, which I did several times the first month. After that, I tended to use the ladder more frequently, as most techs seem to do. In fact, for several years, my gaffs stayed stowed in my truck, never seeing the light of day.

Until I became an instructor.

Since I would be training the new techs in all aspects of their job, I had to teach them how to climb both with ladders and gaffs, which necessitated being certified not only to climb, but to teach climbing. This meant my climbing had to be textbook perfect. In that molasses-thick, oxygen-thin, skinny-pole air above ten feet, I had to be perfect. Well, this required practice, so I did. I had to tell myself that the air wasn’t really molasses, and it had plenty of oxygen, and the pole was perfectly fine for climbing. After all, part of my training was how to evaluate a pole for climbing. My perceptions were entirely in my head. Fear had taken control and made me perceive these difficulties. Besides, I had done it hundreds of times. “I can do this,” I said to myself. So I did. And I achieved my qualified safety trainer certification for both ladders and pole, as well as other aspects of workplace safety.

A few months later, I was informed that some of us were going to be certified to be expert safety trainers in the various safety disciplines, included ladder and pole. The Expert Safety Trainer (EST) is the instructor that certifies other instructors so they can, in turn, certify the technicians. I volunteered to go to pole and ladder, even though I still struggled with the molasses above ten feet. I figured the best way to handle my fear was to face it head on. Every time I addressed the pole, I relied on my training and experience to get me through, but every time I approached the pole I still felt trepidation at clipping the belt on and off the pole at the molasses heights. But something happened today that helped me get past that. We are using a new technology for fall arrest protection (keeping a person from falling off the pole if the gaffs come out of the wood) which the company is trying to distribute across the market. Once I was elevated, it occurred to me that nothing was going to make me fall, no matter what. All of the sudden, the molasses thinned. The climb didn’t seem so daunting. The air was still thin because we’re testing in Colorado Springs—more than a mile above sea level—and the air really is thin here; headache-causing, nausea-inducing thin.

Once I first achieved my EST certification, I continued to teach ladder handling regularly. The company, however, decreed that new hire technicians no longer needed to climb with gaffs, so there was no need to train them to do so. Because of this, I have not trained a pole climbing class in six years, yet I still recertify every year, just in case. Now, twenty feet seems quite comfortable as I have realized it was fear itself that made the air into molasses.

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Go West Young Man

The morning sun shines down through the leaves of the aspen between the peaks of the Rockies and I marvel at the scenery and wish I could enjoy this kind of natural beauty every day. Driving in a rented Kia Sorrento is not doing the trip justice. I need my convertible Mustang or better yet, my Shadow Aero, since the mountains tower over the road and I have to crane my neck to see them, and the road is as curvy and winding as any I have navigated. My Mustang would love to test its suspension on these roads. I lean into each turn and revel in the feeling of being pulled this way and that as a new vista appears before me after each curve and I wish I was on my motorcycle. I have no schedule to keep, no pressing matters to attend to, so I can just wander down these mountain roads till my heart’s content. I have already written several years ago about how I feel drawn to the mountains, but it is more than that. In the 1800’s, as land was plentiful and jobs back east were scarce, there was a marketing push to entice people to move out to the newly opened west that said “Go West Young Man.” As my life has been changing and presenting more challenges, I’m hearing that slogan more and more lately.

For this year’s recertification trip to Colorado, I took some vacation time and came up ahead of time to have a little mini-vacation. I was originally thinking about spending time hiking near Pike’s Peak and Colorado Springs, but then I remembered something someone told me about the Elk bugling in Estes Park. I’ve been to Pike’s Peak twice already, so, when I left the airport in Denver, I drove north to Estes Park instead of south. I booked no reservations. I researched no activities. I just drove and allowed my mind some freedom. Of course, one drawback was that, without reservations, I had no place to spend the night and since I landed at eight PM and it takes at least an hour to get out of the Denver airport, it was after 10:30 when I reached Estes Park. No place was open. I was seriously worried I would be spending the night in the car. Fortunately, I found an Econolodge that, even though it was also closed, the owner lives in the office, so he booked me a room.

I woke up early and wandered the streets in Estes Park this morning before the town woke up. None of the stores were open and several people were setting up a farmer’s market in the town square. The skies were clear blue and the air clung to a chill that made me question my decision to not bring a jacket. As I walked along the quaint main street, I even heard the bugling of an Elk. I saw a couple of them as well. They walked right in front of me as I drove down the road, just like they fully believed they had the right of way. After the stores finally opened, the people came out in droves. The roads filled up quickly, jammed with all kinds of vehicles from Jags to Beemers to motorcycles to Vespas. I figured it was time to get out of town, so I drove along one of the roads leading out of town and once I cleared all the touristy places and found nature, I was blown away by the scenery. If I never before made the connection as to why these were called the Rocky Mountains, it became clear today. The mountains are full of jagged slabs of granite, limestone and dolomite interspersed with the aspen, oak and evergreen forests. Large boulders are everywhere as are spills of smaller boulders, rocks and pebbles. It is a plethora of rocks.

Since it was getting close to lunch time, I decided to turn around and head back. I was hoping to find another hotel or B&B that was not too expensive, but the only ones I found were twice what the Econolodge charged. It seems Estes Park is a tourist town. It also seems that there is an Irish festival in town this weekend, which accounts for the scarcity of rooms and the higher rates. So I booked another night in the same place. Definitely not the nicest hotel I have stayed in, but since I only plan on sleeping there, I thought “eh.” I have to get up and out early to hike the trails if I want to see the moose and squirrel. And bear. And elk. And whatever other creature I can find.

After securing the room for another evening, I decided to tool around a little and saw a sign that said “Devil’s Gulch” and thought, hey! That sounds like a grand idea! So I drove down the road, fully expecting to see perhaps an old mining town, or a ghost town or something. I saw Glenhaven. It seems there is not a specific place called Devil’s Gulch, rather, it is an area that includes Glenhaven, which was essentially a road nestled in the mountains with about four buildings. The largest one was a B&B that I thought would be an even better place to stay than the Econolodge, but it was closed for renovation. Upon closer examination, it needed some serious renovation. Across the street was the general store offering coffee for a quarter. It was really not much more than a convenience store with a tiny deli counter. Outside the store was a large box on a pole. Inside the glass-fronted box were several books; about twelve. Above it was a sign that said Glenhaven Library. That says pretty much everything about Glenhaven. I would live there though, just for the views. Spectacular.
As I left Glenhaven it occurred to me. I hate crowds. I hate traffic. I hate the hustle and bustle of city life. I have lived in Houston for fifteen years now and the only reason I moved there was to be closer to my kids. In that time, Houston has only gotten bigger and more crowded. I want to live out where one can drive for an hour without seeing another person. I want to live where the only people I see are close friends and family, and then only on occasion. Even Estes Park is too crowded for me. It is a tourist town. I know many people come here on vacation all the time. These people book the resorts and the B&Bs and the luxury hotels. I never really appreciated that kind of vacation. When I go places, I want to immerse myself in the culture and history of the area. I want to experience the place the way the residents do, not the tourists. I want to see the natural beauty, the history, the life of a town, not some contrived entertainment designed to appeal to tourists that don’t really know the area. This is why I leave the town and drive. On that curvy little road, I spotted dozens of log cabins, ranch houses and even some mini-mansions. This made me think that maybe there are no more wide open places anymore, but these houses are spread out, so it’s not like they’re a subdivision. I could live in one.

A small creek runs alongside that road out of Estes Park and at one point, there was a small waterfall. I stopped there to get some photographs, which necessitated climbing down to the creek from the
road across a bed of large chunks of granite and limestone to get to the creek. After I shot my pics, I took several moments to just sit there and let myself be open to nature, open to God, open to whatever thoughts would come. People don’t commune with nature enough and people certainly don’t pray enough. I did both and I felt at peace there, in that moment. Perhaps the mountains are indeed calling for me to head west.

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