Random Thoughts on the Olympic Trials

So, who’s been watching the USATF Olympic Track and Field Trials this week? I have. You know, when you’re injured and barely running yourself, there’s nothing quite like watching other people be super fast and in shape while pouting about your own miserable condition. Huzzah. Here are a few random observations:

  • Hurdles are for show-offs. Oooh, look at me, I run super fast. I run so super fast that it’s not enough for me to just run super fast, somebody has to put something in my way that I can jump over. Ten times. Whatever, get over yourself.
  • Steeplechase is weird. Seriously, what is this event? And why is it a different event than hurdling? So, instead of all of us jumping over different hurdles, we’re all going to jump over one, big hurdle at roughly the same time. I don’t get it. Maybe it’s special because some of them have water underneath them? But I don’t understand this, either. Do the horses get to use this course after the people are done?
  • Who put the “field” in “track and field?” I am a sports fan. I really am. But when I hear the phrase “live discus action” I roll my eyes. Hard. I mean, congrats to Lance Brooks and his companions who have made the U.S. discus team, but I can only think that sports like javelin, discus, and shot put remain in the Olympic games only for historical value. Not every sport in existence since Ancient Greece deserves a place in the games. If we’re going to keep discus, I demand a spot for jousting and caber-tossing. Maybe we could also put a guy in a pit with a tiger. Serious question: Do U.S. universities award discus scholarships?
  • Distance running is still king. My love to the speedy women and men of the sprinting distances. I am really, honestly in awe of how fast you can go. But when the race is over in under a minute, it just reminds me how much more excitement, tension, and drama I’ll get watching the marathon. The final moments of the women’s 5000 at these trials was the best excitement I’ve seen so far.
  • In spite of everything, the USATF trials are fun to watch. Much has been made in the media about the still-unsettled tie for third in the women’s 100M race. Only three women can advance to the Olympic team, but Allyson Felix and her friend and training partner Jeneba Tarmoh finished in a dead heat for third in the event finals. Even a photo finish couldn’t resolve the question, leading the New York Times to blast USATF as amateurish for not having a procedure in place to resolve the tie. In all fairness, it’s hard to anticipate a situation arising that would be so close that in-person observation and even a high-speed camera couldn’t resolve the issue. In this day and age sports have become increasingly reliant on technology, but the third-place tie mostly reminds us that however much smaller you can make the space of uncertainty, there always is a space remaining. Various options have been put forward for resolving the tie; I personally prefer a re-race to something like a coin toss, just to assuage everyone involved that the strongest athlete really is on the team. But this is a live-and-learn situation for the USATF. Rest assured, this is probably the first and last time a situation like this will happen. In the meantime, we got a lot of entertainment at the trials, a lot of publicity for the sport, and a great team for London. Looking forward to the games!

Movie Review: Brave

Last night I saw Disney/Pixar’s Brave, so I thought I’d give it a review. The story is the tale of young princess Merida, the feisty and (of course) red-haired daughter of bawdy Scottish Warrior-King Fergus and his elegant queen Elinor. From her youth, Merida shows a natural inclination to athletics and the outdoors and dislikes the more lady-like rules and pursuits imposed upon her by her mother. Elinor, however, has her eyes on the future and is exasperated by her daughter’s refusal to behave. As we discover, Merida is by tradition to be pledged in marriage to one of the first-born sons of the lords of the realm, and the young men are arriving shortly to compete for her hand. A humiliating (for Elinor) incident on the day of the betrothal games and a fight between mother and daughter lead Merida out into the forest, where she encounters an old witch. This results in some well-meaning magic that has very unintended consequences. Merida’s mother is suddenly in peril if they can’t work together to break the spell.

How you evaluate Brave largely depends on what you compare it with. Some reviews I read have a problem with the story and argue it lacks originality. If you compare it with other Pixar films, the story is certainly not as original as a Toy Story or Up, for example. As a fairy tale-type story, complete with magic and morals, the story here does borrow from well-known motifs: a witch in the forest, an enchantment, a princess whose hand is to be won. But the story does make some departures. Truly, I can’t think of a single other animated movie whose focus is a mother-daughter bond. In movies like this, mom is usually lucky if she hasn’t been killed off before the opening credits. Here, Merida and Eleanor have a chance to walk in one another’s shoes as they go on their quest, and both grow as a result. The best part of the movie for me was that it celebrates this connection, and does so effectively. I left wanting to give my mom a great big hug.

Where the movie was weak to me is in supporting characters and the development of some minor plot points. Unlike the standard Disney movie or some of the best Pixar fare, this isn’t an ensemble cast. Merida calls upon her three little brothers and her faithful horse in times of need, but she doesn’t have a true sidekick. The lords and their sons were entertaining, and I almost wished we saw more of them. Merida is understandably rebelling against a forced marriage, but she (and we) don’t really get much of a chance to see the young men’s personalities until the very end, when it turns out they aren’t so different from her after all. The film also didn’t have a well-developed villain in the Demon Bear. I like my villains with a good sense of threat and while we get a little insight into why he’s so darn cranky, to me it didn’t seem like he posed much threat to the kingdom. In fact, it seems more like the kingdom has an axe to grind against him! As far as minor plot points, I’d like to see more background for the villian’s story but also for the kingdom itself. The history between the king and the lords and, indeed, the story of how Merida’s father became king is kind of dropped suddenly into the film’s final act. I was surprised that wasn’t more fully developed, but perhaps this is fodder for a prequel somewhere down the line. Also, how did I come away from a Disney/Pixar film without one single “quotable” song?

Among all animated films, Brave reminds me most of Beauty and the Beast. There are many parallels: An enchantment that must be broken, a strong bond between parent and child, and a rebellious heroine trying to be heard in a world of tradition and masculinity. Brave lacks some of the subtlety and richness of this earlier film and of its siblings under the Pixar banner. However, it is well worth seeing. The story is familiar yet sometimes unexpected and the animation is pure art. (In one landscape scene, I actually forgot I was watching an animated film. I also spent much of the movie amazed by the texture of Merida’s hair.) I don’t often see movies in the theater, but this is one worth checking out on the big screen, and maybe again when you can get it at home.

More Vegetarian Living with Wegmans

What can I say? I can’t stay away from Wegmans while I’m visiting the East Coast. This week, I decided to see if good things really do come in small packages.

I like hummus now and then as a snack, but sometimes a whole tub is too much to get through. Hence I was intrigued by Wegmans’ Snack & Go Hummus in Red Pepper flavor. ($1.99) This snack is reasonably sized and easy to pack, including flatbread crackers and a small tub of hummus in a re-sealable pack. Nutritionally, it weighs in at 280 calories and 12 grams of fat. The hummus has a distinct red pepper flavor and a citrus tang. The crackers didn’t do it for me, though. I was surprised to find just five thin flatbreads, which didn’t come close to using up the portion of hummus. The crackers themselves looked nice, but were brittle and not filling. The next day, the leftover hummus tasted much better on Triscuits. Unless you are planning to pack this in a lunch or bring it on a hike as a snack, maybe spring for the full-size hummus and spread it on whatever you choose!

Picture from About.com

I also couldn’t pass up this sample-sized packet of Justin’s Maple Almond Nut Butter. ($.99) As a single person, peanut butter is another thing I rarely get through an entire container of before it goes bad, so I’ll only get a large size if I really like it. What appealed to me about this is the simple ingredient list: almonds, palm fruit oil, maple sugar, and sea salt. (A non-maple variety is also available, for those who hate trees or Vermont.) The taste was also simple, but delicious. The almond flavor is mellow and earthy and the maple adds a very subtle touch of sweetness. It was great on toast, but I could also imagine this spread working well on a dessert wafer or cookie. Buyer beware, though—a single 1.15 oz serving packet is 200 calories and a surprising 17g of fat. Enjoy in moderation and you’ll be fine.

Picture from Wegmans

Finally, I at last got to try Wegmans Portobella Mushroom Burgers, one of various kinds of Wegmans brand veggie burgers available. ($3.99, also in Black Bean and Southwest varieties) I’m kind of stretching the “small-item” theme here. On the one hand, these burgers come in a 2-pack, which is smaller than the normal 4-pack of frozen veggie burgers that I’m accustomed to. On the other hand, the burgers themselves are massive compared to the usual frozen fare. A single patty is a quarter pound, with a whopping 250 calories, 11 grams of fat (5g of saturated fat), and 17g of protein. Kind of makes you wonder if you’re really saving on nutrition by choosing this over a standard beef burger! On the other hand, these burgers are delicious. Made primarily of mushroom, egg, and cheese, they are thick and have a rich taste. Chunks of portobella mushroom are evident right in the burger, and the texture is amazingly meat-like. I was amazed by how it browned up in the pan and of the moist, crumbly texture on the inside. On my stovetop preparation, the center didn’t quite cook up completely, but on a grill or in the oven I bet these would be divine. Pull the burger apart and you can even see the strings of cheese woven into it. A single patty has 2.5 times the calorie count of my normal veggie burgers, so it’s no surprise that this left me full all night. Of course, the calorie count and high fat content are a little off-putting, as is the cost. This is the kind of burger I would bring out for a party or a BBQ, but that I may not keep around just for myself. Who knows, it may even make a convert out of the carnivore in your house.

Taking a Hike at Letchworth State Park

It seems I’ve been temporarily sidelined from running by a bout of tendonitis. While this is a big disappointment to me, the good news is that lower impact activities don’t aggravate my pain so I can stick to other pursuits like hiking, gym workouts, and paddling for the next couple weeks.

Yesterday, I decided to get my exercise by hiking in Letchworth State Park in New York, affectionately known as “The Grand Canyon of the East.” The park was once the estate of William Pryor Letchworth and spans over 14,000 acres in the Southern Tier of New York, bordering several towns in multiple counties. The centerpiece of the park is the deep canyon carved out over thousands of years by the Genesee River. In some places, canyon walls are 600 feet high.

More than just a hiking destination, Letchworth offers a wide variety of activities. Over 20 miles of mixed-use trails are approved for hiking, horseback riding, and biking and can be used in the winter for snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. There are ample camping facilities, a stocked trout pond, a museum, a fine dining restaurant (The Glen Iris Inn), and outfitters offer hot air ballooning and river rafting trips. As if that weren’t enough, Letchworth also hosts a variety of events throughout the year including craft shows, a Civil War re-enactment, a 5K race, concerts, and a car show. That’s a lot of things to do!

From Metromix

I, of course, only had one day to enjoy the park so I tried to make the most of it. I left mid-morning for the hour-long drive from the suburbs of Rochester. I made a pit stop in Geneseo to fuel up with a veggie sub from Aunt Cookie’s Sub Shop, a place well known to any SUNY Geneseo alums. While it probably didn’t rank highly on health value, the sub was delicious and very affordable. A hefty 6-inch sub and a small bag of chips cost me just over $4. After that, I continued on to the park through the Mt. Morris entrance. The park runs roughly north-south. I entered at the north, but most of the action in the park is at the south end. It’s a lengthy drive to get from one end of the park to another, but along the way there are many scenic vistas of the gorge to enjoy.

I hiked the Gorge Trail, Trail 1, from Upper Falls to Lower Falls and then hiked the Lower Falls trail which leads almost to the bottom of the gorge. The Gorge Trail is seven miles total one way, but the route that I took was about five miles round trip. Along the way, markers spray-painted on trees confirm you are on the right track. It can be confusing, though. At various points this trail passed through woods, across meadows, along paved roads, and up and down over 200 stone and wood stairs. The trail is pretty well kept, but some of the old stone bridges and stairs are showing their age and I did have to take a couple of detours.

The best views along the way are those of the Middle Falls, just outside and below the Glen Iris Inn. The view of Upper Falls with the railroad bridge crossing over is also neat, but I didn’t get a decent picture.

Flowers were in bloom the whole way, giving the trip some color. I also saw squirrels, chipmunks, and lots of birds. Birds of prey continuously circled the canyon looking for a meal.

The Lower Falls Trail hooks into this trail at a well-marked point. This trail is not for the faint of heart, though. Over 120 stone stairs take you down into the gorge, then you pass down a slope or more stairs to a poorly maintained stone platform, which leads you to still more stairs that finally let you out along the canyon walls to a view of the Lower Falls.

Stairs at the Middle Falls

You never really get closer to the Lower Falls than several hundred feet, and again it didn’t make for great views with my iPhone camera. However, the engineering that went into making a stone pathway and bridge along these rough walls is admirable. I can only imagine the effort!

Detail of canyon walls

Today, five miles left me exhausted and took up most of the afternoon. I wish I had gone earlier in the day or had planned my trip for a day when something else was going on in the park. Letchworth is definitely worth seeing, but the $8 per vehicle day pass is a little much for someone who is coming alone just to do some day hiking. Check it out if you have a chance, but plan your visit around other events if you can or invite a carload of friends to join you!

Book Review: Out of Oz

[Note: Spoilers about Out of Oz and the Wicked Years series may follow.]

Ah, my first book review of the summer. Out of Oz is the fourth and—allegedly—final book in the Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire. While I have read the previous three books and was a fan of the original Oz books in my youth, I don’t consider myself a rabid fan of this series. In my opinion, Maguire’s subsequent works have never quite lived up to Wicked, and this is no exception—although it does have some redeeming qualities and will probably please the dedicated fans.

The book picks up several years after where Son of a Witch left off, and an undetermined time after the closing of A Lion Among Men. In Oz, Shell, the brother of Elphaba the Wicked Witch, has installed himself as a holy emperor, Munchkinland is fighting for independence, and Elphaba’s most valuable legacies—her granddaughter Rain and the magic Grimmerie—are sought by all sides.

The story here suffers from two major shortcomings, the first of which is that it is bloated. The print version runs nearly 600 pages, and could have been told more convincingly in about 400. A reviewer from the AV Club rightly notes that this book builds upon an unfortunate and unnecessary trend in fantasy novels—the extended walkabout. Wandering can be done well if it advances the plot and produces engaging encounters and character growth. Here, the third of the book devoted to aimless wandering accomplishes little aside from alienating less dedicated readers. Sure, danger awaits the ragged cast of characters on all sides, but the extended flight from capture just didn’t work for me. I moved through this section slowly because I was so annoyed with the characters, a point I’ll return to momentarily.

Had this been a standalone book by a less-established author, I suspect an editor would have advised this section be condensed or jettisoned. Instead, it appeared to be a bit of an ego trip for Maguire, allowing him to present one last round-trip tour of Oz and to bring back many characters from the previous books for cameos. These cameos also contributed to the book’s bloat; some of the appearances made little sense, others dragged on way too long. Frankly, I couldn’t even remember who some of the characters were or what role they played in the earlier books, a sure sign that their curtain calls were not needed. Certainly, after muddling through A Lion Among Men (the weakest book in the series and one devoted to depicting the endless humiliations of Brr the Cowardly Lion), I did not need to see the parade of minor characters that pop up to taunt him again. No wonder the guy is so miserable.

This leads me to my second problem with the book, which is the lack of engaging characters. I realized a bit more than halfway through the book that it was not only overly long, it was crammed with characters who are utterly unlikable and miserable all the time. The story here clearly belongs to Rain, but it’s hard to build an engaging plot around a child character who spends the first half of the book so withdrawn and unsociable that characters repeatedly speculate that she might be mentally deficient. However, the rest of the ensemble cast around which the book resolves is equally unlikable. The three married couples—Nor and Brr, Mr. Boss and Daffy nee Sister Apothocarie, and Liir and Candle—seem to exhibit little in the way of genuine affection, and in fact they border on disdain for their partners and the rest of the group at times. The fellowship is also more or less mirthless throughout, with the exception of Dorothy (yes, that Dorothy) who seems to have had her optimism ground out of her by the end of the story. I understand a war is going on, but even Harry Potter got to stop and play quidditch once in a while instead of just moving from one damp, miserable living situation to the next.

Oz, which readers get a round-trip tour of in this final book.

Also on the character notes, a few of the book’s main characters seemed totally unnecessary and two-dimensional to me. I didn’t understand the point of Iskinaary or Candle (who, granted, is Rain’s mother but who does almost nothing of substance here), and I found Mr. Boss the most hateful character in the entire book. He does nothing but complain, inexplicably hangs around long past his usefulness, and when the death of another main character close to him finally seems to provide an opportunity to explore his depth or give him some animus, we get nothing at all. Nothing. (In fairness, other reviewers seem to enjoy Mr. Boss and Little Daffy and think they provide “comic relief.” I found their banter absolutely stale and unamusing. The fact that they just seem to vanish in the book’s final act only left me wishing they’d vanished long before.)

All that being said, the book is not without its redeeming qualities. Once Rain reaches adolescence and is forced into discovering society and romance, the story picks up steam quickly. The crucial decisions faced by Rain, her friend Tip, and Liir at the book’s climax create true tension and flesh out these characters in a satisfying way. As a writer, Maguire also deserves credit for weaving together so many loose threads and story lines from not only his own novels but also from L. Frank Baum’s Ozish lore, and doing so in a way that concludes the series nicely. The conclusion and the book’s main twist will not come as a surprise to readers of Baum’s earlier series, but as a fan of the original books I approved of the way in which this plot point was integrated. Like the best moments of the series, it took classic Oz and put a modern, unsentimental twist on it. The end for these characters are not necessarily happy—as Glinda alludes to, there are no “happy” endings in life—but they represent a path toward a well-deserved retirement. Readers who have not followed the Wicked Years series devotedly and those who prefer their fantasy a bit upbeat may wish to skip this book, but for lovers of Oz who are willing to do the work there is some reward.

Remembering Rodney King

Via CBS News

It was a big surprise yesterday to hear about the death of Rodney King, whose beating by  LAPD officers in 1991 led to a trial, to the acquittal of the police officers involved, and to subsequent race riots. I was young and living far away when all this occurred, but I remember the event as a pivotal moment. As a young, middle-class white girl in a primarily while suburb, I had no awareness of what life in this country was like for so many others. We’d learned about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King in school, surely life was great for everyone now?

Rodney King’s famous question, “can’t we all get along?” is no less relevant today than it was decades ago. Furthermore, the question is still tied to issues of race and masculinity. To break it down by gender, three-quarters of murder victims in this country are male and men are also far more likely than women to be committing violent crimes. Domestic violence remains a scourge that kills 6-7 people a day in the U.S.—the vast majority of victims being women. In terms of race, in 2005 almost half of all murder victims in the U.S. were African American males, putting young black men at a much higher risk of being victims of violence than their peers of other races. African American men are also more likely to end up in jail. Nearly 40% of male prisoners in this country are African American, a statistic that is far higher than the balance of the population. Does this reflect a “culture of violence,” or does it reflect a system of justice where the young, black, and poor often receive inadequate representation and are often not judged by juries of their “peers?”

As a white woman, it’s still tricky for me to try and walk in another person’s shoes or make judgments about what life is like for others. But I can say this: Every American should see something troubling in these statistics. Race issues are still alive and well in this country. Poverty is still alive and well in this country, and is likely feeding the problems of violence and crime in urban areas. Rodney King himself struggled with substance abuse and was unable to find steady work in the years before his passing. But King did leave a legacy and provoked a change in the justice system. Maybe his death at such a relatively young age can prompt us to again reflect on the question he asked so long ago. And maybe it can prompt us to do more.

Cross Training by Kayak

Yesterday I decided to give myself a pass on my usual Friday run. I’ve still been feeling the strain of last week’s PR, and I thought that a day off might help my hamstrings and ankle recover. Instead, I went with some friends on a kayak trip. The excursion was run through Bay Creek Paddling Center in Webster, NY and was a very affordable $16 (including boat rental!) thanks to a discounted offering through the Adirondack Mountain Club-Genesee Valley Chapter.

This was my first time in a kayak in probably four years, but I used to love kayaking before I moved to Arizona. I’ve spent time on the water in the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, and even took a memorable kayak trip on San Francisco Bay. If you’re new to kayaking or are thinking about trying it for the first time, here are some things to know:

  • On flat water, unless you’re doing something seriously wrong, your odds of capsizing are almost nil. Today’s kayaks are very stable, and the loaners that you will rent at most places are easy to maneuver. The trickiest part is getting in and out.
  • The bigger the body of water, the tougher the paddling. Beginners may want to stick to creeks, canals, and streams (which are plentiful in Upstate New York) and then build to more ambitious trips.
  • Paddling on flat water can be as hard or as easy as you make it. I enjoy a leisurely pace to explore the scenery and watch for birds and animals. Some of my friends last night seemed to think it was the Indy 500. But, you know, whatever works for you.

Not my picture; courtesy of Wikipedia

Our trip lasted about 2.25 hours and we covered 4.5 miles of back streams between Irondequoit Bay and the Ellison Park/Browncroft Blvd. area outside of Rochester. Along the way I saw one snake, a family of swans with signets, a family of Canada geese, some ducks, and a handful of herons (my personal favorite members of the avian family). Others on the trip saw an otter. I heard the splash, but was sorry to miss it. Otters are very cute.

I regrettably didn’t get to take pictures, since I left my camera phone lodged in my breast pocket and would have had to remove my life jacket to get to it. (No, I wouldn’t have died… but I would have gotten yelled at by our guides.) I do hope to go out on the water again before my time here is out, though. My shoulders and wrists are feeling the burn today, but I’d forgotten how much fun it is to get out and do something that isn’t running or a gym workout. Maybe I do need to branch out a little! I leave you with this, my post-paddle reward, a delicious meat-free version of MacGregor’s Mexican Pizza. Yum!