Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas and the Blizzard

It's great news that the Holiday season is over. I don't want to give you an impression that I detest the festivities that are associated with the end of the year, but I am glad that the irritating TV commercials and the excruciating Xmas songs are about a year away from us. I do like, however, the camaraderie and the familial occasions the Holiday seasons bring. This year I spent the Christmas with my girlfriend's family in Alabama and it was great fun - good food, good beer, fantastic weather, and a chance to spend some quality time with my girlfriend. Sadly, I won't be able to see my parents this year for the New Year's because I have to work.

I had been waiting for this vacation for quite some time and I was very excited the last few days preceding the trip. However, the Mother Nature played a nasty part in the proceedings and made sure that my outbound trip was as difficult as can be. As you know, the Northwest suffered its worst winter storm in over a hundred years. About ten days prior to my departure, the storm came and the city shut down immediately. These kind of storms are a rare occasion, apparently, and the city is not prepared for it. The temperatures remained low and it continued to snow on and off for a week. Needless to say, the roads were covered in ice and with drivers unable to manouever their Subarus.

Then I found out that there was another big system expected in the area for the weekend of the Sunday I was to leave. The storm came and everything shut down once again - flights were cancelled, roads were closed ... utter chaos. My flight was cancelled - no surprise there - but I managed to find a seat on a flight leaving on Monday. All in all I was to lose only way day. Not too bad, right?

Well, it continued to snow on Sunday night and there was a foot of snow on the roads around the Portland area. A friend I am staying with was going to give me a ride, but the car didn't even make it out of the driveway. So, I picked up my bag and started walking to the bus stop. I had a good 4-5 hours before my flight. Severely underdressed, I walked on the road covered with snow almost up to my knees with my luggage. I was waiting at the bus stop when a lady told me that the buses were taking the snow route. We walked together to the main road. In about 10-15 minutes the bus arrived. I was actually relieved.

The bus was going about 10 mph, passing by cars and other buses stuck on side streets of this part of Portland, which is very hilly. As we were halfway to downtown, the chains broke. Great. Luckily, though, there was another bus behind us. This new bus dropped me off at the intersection with the lightrail that would take me to the airport. When I got there, a representative from the transportation authority of the city told me that the line going to the airport wasn't working. I was to take the only train that's working up to a certain point, then take the shuttle. So far, so good.

I waited in the cold, with tens of other people, for an hour and a half  for the packed train to come. We all squeezed in like sardines. As the train stopped at various stops, you could see the disappointed faces of the passengers waiting on the platform when they saw the packed train. All in all, it took about 30-45 minutes to the station where the shuttle buses were waiting.

I got off - with the majority of the passengers - and proceeded to the rather long line for the bus. It was colder in this part of town. I estimated that I would get on the second bus. Two buses came and stopped about 10 yards from us. A lady from the City got on and started talking to the driver. Here we are, freezing our backsides numb, and they are talking away. that wasn't the worst part though. When their little chit-chat was over, the bus started moving and drove to the end of the line thinking it was the front. You can only imagine what happened then - people shouting, obscenities flying about, Yours Truly running across the tracks, snow up to his knees ... I can't really describe how I felt, but it wasn't pretty. Besides, by this point, I had lost feeling in my feet.

Anyway, after another hour or so, two more buses came and I managed to climb my way over people to get on the second one. I was running late - only half an hour before departure - but  I knew my flight was delayed. When I got to the airport, I learned that my flight was cancelled. Great. As the check-in lady was trying to put me on another flight, news came that they reinstated my original flight. Good news. However, there was no timeline. I didn't care. I just wanted to get out of Portland. I was going to miss my connection to Mobile. She told me that all the other flights to Mobile and surrounding airports were fully booked - I might get stuck in Houston for a couple of days. I still wanted to go.

There were two more delayed flights to Houston before mine and the first one departed a few minutes after I got through security. Then they started boarding the second flight. On the departures boards, my flight was listed as "delayed indefinitely". So, I went to the Powell's bookstore at the airport - very poor - and when I came back with Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" - horrible - I saw that the line by the gate was small but the flight was still there. I decided to try my luck again for my connecting flight. When I approached the gate I saw that it was the same lady from before. She took a look at my boarding pass and told me to get on this flight and sit wherever I wanted. What?! Lo and behold, I got on the plane and picked a random seat - they wouldn't let me sit in First Class - and off we went. I couldn't believe my luck, especially when I found out next day that all the flights out of Portland after ours were cancelled.

We arrived at Houston and went straight to the customer service desk. There was a long line and I waited a good two hours before talking to an agent. Actually, things went very smoothly and he confirmed for the first flight to Mobile next morning. He also told me that, because my flight out of Portland was cancelled, my return flight was automatically cancelled too. I had no idea. He sorted that out too. I went to a very dirty and dilapidated hotel at the airport and slept for five hours before waking up next morning for my flight. Needless to say, that flight was delayed too.

I got in to Mobile around noon. My drama wasn't over though ... they lost my bag. Luckily, it was coming on the next flight.

It was a bad flying experience, though I am aware that mine wasn't as bad as some other people's. It was worth it, though - when I saw my girl, everything vanished.


Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Secret World of Neal Stephenson

For the last couple of weeks or so, I have been traversing the truly science-fiction world of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Describing the plot of this mammoth book is a futile attempt for a meager blogger like Yours Truly ... but I'll try anyway. It is set in two different periods: World War II and the late '90s. In the WW2 parts, which occupy the bulk of the narrative, we have three main threads of stories: a Math genius, is drafted into the military, and is assigned to break the secret codes of the Germans and then the Japanese; a Midwestern marine sergeant is sent all over the globe for stupefyingly mysterious missions; and a Japanese Judo fighter given the task to dig a vault in the jungles of Philippines. In the present-day story a start-up IT company is about to strike a deal that would enable them to build a data haven in the fictional kingdom of Kinakuta and control the data transactions in the South East Asia.

It is an audacious book and more often than not you begin to wonder if it is at all going anywhere. I have roughly a hundred pages left to go and I continue asking myself the same question, even though a lot of the connections have been made between the storylines. This was also evident in Stephenson's latest book, Anathem, but I have a feeling that Cryptonomicon will not leave me with a sense of void once I'm done with it. In fact, this rather chaotic undertaking is mystifyingly beautiful and elegant. It is a laudable achievement of Stephenson that at no point in this 1100-plus-pages novel I found myself bored or distracted. In fact, I sort of wish it wouldn't end. Oh, well. I think I will go and finish it off tonight ...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Back to the Lists

The end is nigh, my brethren, because we are back with the Top 10 albums of the year. This year I will skip the movie list, because I haven't been doing so well on my current movies - and neither have the filmmakers. So, without further ado, I present you with the following list of my Top 10 albums of 2008.

1- Watershed by Opeth
Oh, yeah, after multiple listens I can safely declare without any hesitation that the latest by the Swedish band is the best album released in 2008. Like its predecessor, this album has a million brilliant ideas, yet it manages to be anything but convoluted. It will take a few more months to see if this is actually even better than Ghost Reveries (2006). Best song: "Hessian Peel"

2- Death Magnetic by Metallica
I was considering making this the album of the year, but I realized that there was a little bit of a hype on my part that got me a little carried away. However, if Opeth had released their album in another year, Death Magnetic would have been a shoo-in. Best song: "Broken, Beat & Scarred"

3- A Sense of Purpose by In Flames
Despite the fanboy backlash against their new sound, the second best Swedish album of the year is a collection of ferocious, infectious, and brilliant tracks. Yes, it sounds even more polished than Come Clarity (2006), but after giving it a couple of spins, it is endlessly rewarding. Best song: "Alias"

4- The Formation of Damnation by Testament
Let's get this statement out of the way first: Testament were/are the most underrated thrash metal band of all time. Fact. This is a comeback album unlike Death Magnetic in the sense that this is definitely a back-to-roots effort - it could have easily come out in mid-80s. Best song: "More Than Meets the Eye"

5- Nil Recurring by Porcupine Tree
More of a companion piece to last year's Fear of a Blank Planet, this 4-song mini-album manages to be more cohesive and affecting than the said album. With "Normal" - itself a companion to the song "Sentimental" - Steve Wilson and his company released, in my opinion, the best song of the year. Listen and weep. Best song: "Normal"

6- Rock and Awe by Young Heart Attack
Here comes my fanboy attack: it is a lot slower and more polished than their debut. However, there is no denying the quality of the songwriting on offer here. The vocals are somewhat subdued, but now in a world without Wolfmother, we desperately need this band. Best song: "Munki"

7- Twilight of the Thunder God by Amon Amarth
Continuing with my Swedish obsession, this true-to-blood Viking metal band is coming up with a better album every other year. Could it be another Opeth incident? How they manage to be catchy and this heavy without resorting to DragonForce cheese is an amazing feat in itself. Best song: "Twilight of the Thunder God"

8- Bedlam in Goliath by The Mars Volta
Perhaps their most down-to-Earth album. This time the infusion of rock and jazz is not as traditionally progressive sounding as before, but the album is still a rocking good listen overall. However it lacks a killer tune. Hence its lower position. Best song: "Ilyena"

9- Folklore & Superstition by Black Stone Cherry
Another solid effort by the Kentucky rockers. It has the energy and production value to be comparable to any great Rock'n'Roll album of the last decade. What lacks, though, is a song that defines the album. Best song: "Reverend Wrinkle"

10- ObZen by Meshuggah
What's with all the Swedes? I can assure you that the Swedish Recording Artists Industry (if such a thing exists) is not paying me for this list! If you're looking for insanely talented musicians with a sick sense of song arrangements, look no further. Also, if you really like your drumming, then this is definitely for you too. Best song: "Bleed"

And the rest:

Inflikted by Cavalera Conspiracy
Slania by Eluveitie
Hymns in the Key of 666 by Hellsongs
XV by King's X
Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace by The Offspring