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Halfway There

It’s a little hard for me to believe that I’m already halfway through my graduate school program. When classes began a year ago, graduation seemed very far away, although that could have been in part a level of nervousness. After all, it had been 18 years since I completed my undergraduate degree. And while I design online courses for a living, the idea of shifting to a fully online format for school was also a bit daunting. So, with that in mind… what have I learned so far?

Graduate school was a good idea. Of the six classes I’ve taken, I’d say that four of them were well-worth the money. I’ve learned a lot about cataloging and researching, adding to the skill sets that I already possessed. I also increased my knowledge of Access databases and SQL queries immensely, neither of which I knew very much about. Strictly from a “gaining knowledge” standpoint, those four classes have been automatic successes. As for the two other classes… well, honestly, if I was someone fresh out of my undergraduate degree and without any real-world/job-market experience, these would have probably been a lot more beneficial. So there’s certainly no anger or disappointment when it comes to those two remaining courses; they just weren’t helpful to me because they covered ground that I had already tackled or experienced on my own.

Something’s got to give. I knew, going into this, that I’d lose some free time. But somehow, it was still a bit of a surprise on just how much free time I ended up giving up. Usually at least one day on the weekend is devoured by schoolwork, for example. I’ve been reading a lot less, unfortunately, as well as finding it much more difficult to keep up with the few television shows I watch. I also had to scratch my plans to run the Nations Triathlon in DC next month; I have not made it to the pool at all this year to swim laps. (A full marathon is, needless to say, right out.)

Organization is key. I know, this is a library and information science degree, I should already know that. But in this case, I mean more along the lines of tracking my assignments. I create a master calendar with all of my assignments for the semester in the first week, highlight graded assignments in red so I don’t miss them, and then delete items as they’re finished. Additionally, I put the current week’s assignments in an app on my phone that I check off as they’re finished. It might sound like overkill (since I do have a syllabus for each class) but it makes a big difference in getting everything done.

schedule

I really do work harder now that I’m older. I will be the first to admit that I did not focus as much as I should have in my first two years of my undergraduate degree. (Spring 1991 and Fall 1992 in particular.) I buckled down after that and improved my grades a great deal, putting a lot more work into my classes. Well, that was apparently child’s play compared to the amount of effort I put into classes now. Sure, it’s graduate school so it should require more effort, but being in my 40s I find myself caring that much more about my assignments and getting them not just completed, but excellent. And honestly, at times I’m a little perplexed that not all of my fellow students are in the same boat. (Then I remember being in my 20s and I’m not that surprised. And there are some people who are almost 20 years younger than me who are even more driven and determined than I am, for that matter.)

Vacation is the best thing ever. I hadn’t realized just how important the three week break in December was, until I didn’t have any sort of break between my spring and summer classes. (Or as WSU refers to them, my Winter and my Spring/Summer classes.) There was definitely a little bit of burnout as a result; having a lot of the month of August off has helped a great deal in that regard now, but it was certainly a difficult May and June thanks to not having any real break.

And so, with all that in mind, classes officially kick off today. Six down, six to go. To use a running metaphor, this is the point in the marathon where you can start counting down the miles, because it’s no longer terrifying to do so. I can’t see the finish line yet, and won’t for a while, but at least I know it’s out there.

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

Escape #001 (Excerpts)

October 22, 2012; 4:20pm
Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC

Escape #001.01

Escape #001.03

Escape #001.11

Escape #001.13

Escape #001.15

(Full set)

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 17)

Back from Bogota
As hinted a few months ago, I went on a work trip to another country… namely, Colombia (in the city of Bogota). Because it was a work trip the majority of it involved watching training at a government-run facility and being driven between the facility and the hotel in an armored van. But! I did get some sight-seeing in on the weekend, including a trip to botanical gardens, a huge park, a hop up to the peak of Monserrate in a cable car to see the sun set over the city, and (best of all) a bicycle trip around the city for three hours. All in all, a lot of fun and a place I’d have almost certainly never gone to otherwise.

Bruuuuuuuuuce!
I’ve heard for years and years (you probably have too) that Bruce Springsteen puts on some of the best concerts out there. My friend John A. back in his heyday used to hit multiple stops of a Springsteen tour as it went up and down the East Coast. And now, having seen him perform on the Wrecking Ball Tour at Nationals Park in Washington DC? I get it. I totally get it. It’s funny because while I like Springsteen I am by no means an uber-fan. I don’t have half of his albums. I don’t know the words to a lot of the songs. Heck, I didn’t know half of the songs he played. But it didn’t matter. He performs every song from start to finish like it’s the last song of the night and therefore has to put all his energy into it. Just an amazing performance, and when your concert runs over three hours (who needs an opening act when you’re on stage that long?) you need to be at the top of your game. Kylie Minogue’s Aphrodite Tour might still be my all-time favorite concert, but I think this will be a close second.

Aimee Mann’s Charmer
If I remember the chronology correctly, it was right after hearing Aimee Mann’s solo music courtesy the Magnolia soundtrack (and then ordering a copy of Bachelor No. 2 online) that my friend Felicity helpfully pointed me to her earlier two solo albums. By that point I’ve been hooked. But with her last album being a little disappointing, I found myself a tiny bit wary about her new album Charmer. Then I heard the title track courtesy a hysterical video co-starring Laura Linney (seriously, I just about lost it I was laughing so hard), and NPR streamed the album leading up to the release, and all was forgiven. Sure, the second half of the album isn’t as great as the first half, but the 1-2-3-4-5 punch of Charmer, Disappeared, Labrador, Crazy Town, and Soon Enough is strong enough that the second half could have been static and I’d still be happy. (In a rarity, the bonus track I got from buying via Amazon—Brother’s Keeper—is a real bonus and just as good as the first half of the album.) In a year with a lot of disappointing albums from returning artists, this one did just what it needed to.

Adele’s Skyfall
Not to be a cliche, but I’m an Adele fan. I also like big brassy James Bond theme songs (and not just those by Shirley Bassey, but those are at the top of the list). So when I heard that Adele was performing the theme for Skyfall, I was tentatively hopeful. Could this be it? The heir to Bassey’s Goldfinger theme? As it turns out… yes. Thanks, Adele. This is just what I needed.

Double-Digit Milegage
After far too many months off due to injuries, I returned to running recently. And last weekend, I got back up into the double-digit distances again with a 12-miler. I got to run it with most of my running buddies (Ben, John, Stephanie, Steve) and not only was the company great, but I felt fantastic afterwards. No marathons on the horizon (I’m playing it safe, probably won’t go higher than 14mi for a while) but it’s nice to know that this amount is once more available.

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

A Perk of Early Morning Running

In addition to my Saturday morning running date with my buds most weekends, for the past year and a half I’ve also been running with some of them before work twice a week down on the National Mall. When I lived in Arlington it was a quick hop over to meet them and back. Now that I’m in Takoma, it’s a little bit farther and there’s a new twist where instead of going home I pop over to the gym and shower there before heading the rest of the way to work.

There are a few reasons why I do this even though it’s not necessarily that convenient. First, the company is great; I love catching up with Ben and Steve and John; we hear about each other’s weekends, chat about television shows and movies, even have the occasional political discourse. Second, having a preset time to meet means that it gets me out of the bed and exercising, something that when I’m on my own is much easier to put off and/or skip entirely.

And third?

Well, the view is occasionally spectacular.

(I keep telling myself I need to bring an actual camera with me this time of year. The mid-point of our run is down at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, and the view towards the Washington Monument with the newly-restored Reflecting Pool has been jaw-dropping as of late. Until then, this quick cameraphone shot is better than nothing.)

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

Whoops

Well, this is mortifying.

Turns out there's a "messages" section of LJ. And it turns out that two years ago, three different people sent me a message through that system. Which I never saw until today. Whoops.

Well now, don't I feel slightly ridiculous?

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 16)

Back to Swimming
Despite swimming being “highly recommended” as exercise while recovering from my stress fracture, the last time I’d actually gone to the pool was back in January. Happily, Charlie gave me the nudge that I needed to finally start moving forward again, and we’ve been hitting the pool 2-3 times a week before work. My overall speed isn’t where it should be, but that’s what happens when you take six months off, right? All in all, though, it’s felt great to finally get back to the pool and start swimming some laps. My mile time might need some improvement, but I’m also glad that I can swim a mile without stopping again.

Ceiling Fan
There are a lot of things that I love about our condo, but one of the few things that has driven me crazy since day one was that there’s no air-return on the upper level (where the living room/kitchen area is located). With an 11-foot ceiling, that’s meant that hot air easily travels up there and then just stays put. We’d bought a fan to turn on when it gets too warm as an emergency measure, but this month we finally sprung to have a ceiling fan installed. I’m not going to lie, the installation was problematic and actually took two appointments with an electrician (plus someone to then repair drywall and re-paint) but now that it’s done? It’s fantastic. It’s been a transformative shift to our upstairs. Just having the air moving has made all the difference, and the fan itself looks great to boot. (Amusingly, when I first turned it on, for about five minutes it blasted hot air down at me, to the point that I almost started to majorly freak out. Later it hit me that it was finally getting all that trapped heat out of the top of the room that a fan on the floor would never touch.)

The End of Physical Therapy
I actually really enjoyed my PT sessions, which I often joked stood for “personal trainer” rather than “physical therapy.” Jackie definitely worked me over good each week, and she’s pretty great to boot. But I won’t deny that I’m glad it’s over, because it means that the long saga of the stress fracture appears to be finally over. I got a six-mile run under my belt towards the end of July, and finishing it with no problems was a huge relief. Of course, in an effort to remind me not to be too cocky, I then went and broke my little toe at the end of the month by stubbing it on a chaise lounge, so I’m back off running for the month of August. Ah well!

Rediscovering Debbie Dreschler
Debbie Dreschler’s two graphic novels from back in the day—Daddy’s Girl and Summer of Love—were hard to read. Not because they were badly created (they weren’t) but because the subject matter was rather disturbing and emotionally raw in places. Since Summer of Love Dreschler more or less vanished off of the comic book scene, so I was pleased as punch to recently discover her website and her blog. Her website shows the professional illustration work she’s been producing since then, and it looks great. Even better, she’s also got some adorable greeting cards for sale. (I might have bought a set.) Her blog has been serving up some sketchbook drawings of hers involving local wildlife, and all I can say is that she just gets better and better with time. (Debbie Dreschler: a fine wine of cartooning.)

Much-Needed Vacation
We went on a short vacation near the end of the month to Lost River, West Virginia, where we did… absolutely nothing. It was marvelous. Lots of sitting by the pool reading books (E.M Forster’s Howards End and the amusingly-named Showcase Presents: Showcase Vol. 1 were both read, plus another large chunk of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar), some swimming, a massage, and eating all sorts of foods that are perhaps not great for me. But it was vacation, we got to relax, and the only schedule we had to worry about was when we’d scheduled our massages and what time our dinner reservation one night was set for. (And when I say “worry” I mean “we didn’t worry one iota.”) Any trip where you can accidentally break a toe and still think, “What a great time” is a good one.

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

A Year Later

This Thursday is the one-year anniversary of Charlie and I buying a home together. It’s a little hard to believe it’s been that long; the continuing sensation of time moving faster as I get older instead of slower, I guess. But looking back, I feel like we’ve gotten so much accomplished in that year. Merging possessions with someone else is almost never an easy process, and there was a lot of “what do we keep / what do we get rid of / what goes into storage?” and that certainly takes time.

We’ve made a couple of small improvements to our home. We had new carpeting put in on the stairs, which looks so much nicer than what was there before it’s not even funny. We’ve had a much-needed ceiling fan installed upstairs (although the installation is temporarily wired right now; they’ll finish the job next week). The upstairs has Charlie’s movie posters hung, and down the stairs is some of my original comic art that I’ve purchased over the years. (We might put one or two more pieces up, but that’s still to be determined.) The downstairs is more or less completely done. And we’ve got a cute little jungle of plants out on the porch.

It’s great to have just a few small things left at this point. Now that most of the stuff that we’re hanging on the walls has been placed, we need to put the rest of the art and vintage posters down into the storage unit, which means making some space for it. I went down there yesterday and spent a while going through my boxes of books that I’d placed there last year, and finally hauled out five boxes worth of material that’s going away. On the one hand it’s sad to see them go—as a book collector getting rid of any of them is always painful—but they’ve been gathering dust for a year now and it’s time to admit to myself that they’ll probably continue to sit there, untouched, for many years to come. So, time to find new homes for them via eBay and the like. And it’s not like I don’t still have a zillion other books still in our home and in my office, after all.

More importantly, I feel like our neighborhood really is our home. I do genuinely love living in Takoma, even with the twice-as-long commute. We have some truly fantastic neighbors. There are some great stores (both food and merchandise) that I enjoy going to. I’d wager that in the last year I’ve missed maybe 5 of our weekly Takoma Park Farmer’s Market Sundays. I’ve been volunteering with the local Friends of the Library group. I’ve got easy access to some good bike trails (Sligo Creek, Rock Creek, Metropolitan Branch) and last week with the help of Charlie I’ve finally gotten back into a routine of going to the Takoma Aquatic Center (a whopping four blocks away) for lap swimming.

And of course, the quiet aspect of the neighborhood is still a big charm. When we first moved I described our neighborhood as “small town living in a big city” and I think that’s still quite apt. Live can be as busy or as quiet as we need it to be.

Who knows? Maybe one of these days we’ll finally have a housewarming. I feel like that moment is getting closer… honest!

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

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Storm Damage Photos

Just a couple of glimpses of what my neighborhood looks like, after Friday night’s storms… Sadly, these are somewhat typical for the area. (We were quite lucky. No power loss or damage.)


This is actually one of the less-bad examples. As you can see if you look on the right-hand side, the tree actually snapped right through the trunk. Happily, when it came crashing down it did NOT hit anyone’s house or car. (There are a lot of totaled cars in the area.) This is about three blocks away from our home.


This one happened just a block and a half down the street; the tree when it came down managed to straddled three properties; it started in what we’ll call property #3, destroyed the fence between it and property #2, and stretched across all of property #2 to even extend into the right-hand side of property #1. This tree took out power lines with it (ack) and completely blocked the driveway (and even walkway) of property #2, where Alice and Tony live. Ugh. And unlike the previous photo…


…this one wasn’t just the trunk snapping. As you can see here, the entire root system came up with it. Yikes. Still, at the end of the day, a hole in the yard and a destroyed fence is much better than a smashed house or car. (And since then, chainsaws have cut up the portions of the tree blocking the driveways to properties #1-2, so that’s good. Still no power as of this morning though.)

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

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Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 15)

I tried a little experiment where for each week of the month I added an item to the list, with the fifth slot reserved for any particularly fantastic week. Bizarrely, several of entries for this month ended up involving travel in some way, but it’s strictly coincidence. Anyway, with that in mind…

Moonrise Kingdom
I enjoy Wes Anderson’s movies (which reminds me that I still need to finally see Bottlerocket and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou one of these days), so seeing Moonrise Kingdom was a given. Bill Murray’s and Jason Schwartzman’s presences were almost a given, but it was nice to see him working with a lot of new-to-Anderson actors; Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton were all great, but the kid actors stole the film over and over again. Just a charming film from start to finish, with an ever-increasing level of insanity as it progresses. By far my favorite film of 2012 to date. Also, for about two days I wanted to live on an island off the coast of Rhode Island. (Fortunately sanity reasserted itself quickly.)

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
Guy Delisle’s travel graphic novels are fantastic; he’s a cartoonist who’s in the past written about taking trips for work to China (Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China) and North Korea (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea), as well as—thanks to his wife’s job at Doctors Without Borders—living for a year in Burma (Burma Chronicles). Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City places Delisle and his family in East Jerusalem as his wife works in Gaza and Palestine. I love Delisle’s comedic tone mixed with moments of serious reflection, and Delisle does a nice job of making you feel you are there with him thanks to little details like trying to find playgrounds for the children, or going through security whenever he returns to the country after a business trip. There are a few moments that are head-scratchers (how did he not know what Yom Kippur was before moving to Jerusalem?) but on the whole I’m enjoying it a great deal. I’m reading just small chunks at a time to make it last longer; it’s been four years since Burma Chronicles so I want this experience to stretch out as much as possible.

Silverdocs 2012
It’s taken me 10 years, but this time I finally made it—briefly—to Silverdocs. Silverdocs is the AFI’s documentary film festival, held at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. Every time I’ve heard about it, I’ve wanted to go, and every time it comes and goes without my presence. This year with Silver Spring just around the corner, Charlie and I finally made it up to the festival at the end to catch a showing of Beauty is Embarrassing, which is about artist Wayne White. (You’re probably most familiar with him via his design on a lot of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse; in fact he even voiced several of the puppets, like Randy and Dirty Dog.) The documentary was fun (and I hadn’t made connections until seeing the film to some of the other people and projects he’d worked on, like the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight, Tonight, or his collaborations with people like Gary Panter and Mimi Pond), although the Q&A afterwards was dreadful and we should have left as soon as it ended. But still, it was a blast to finally make a showing, and I am now determined next year to see a lot more. (I might even take a day or two off from work and go whole-hog and spend a day or two seeing the documentaries, workload willing.) It was a good time.

This American Life #467: Americans in China
Oh look! Another travel story. (Well, sort of.) This episode of This American Life (one of my favorite radio programs, although I primarily listen to it via the podcast) spotlights Americans living in China, with two main stories. The first story about a Chinese-American man who grew up in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents, then moved as an adult to China, was good… but it was the second story that really grabbed me. It was about Michael Meyer (no, not that one), a writer who lives in Manchuria in a tiny town called Wasteland. It was a fascinating story about living in a remote, rural community as an American, and I was entranced for its entire 17 minute portion. Meyer does a great job of dipping you into that culture and making you feel like you’re there, which is exactly what I want from my travel writing. It turns out it’s part of a book that will be published later this year titled In Manchuria: Life on a Rice Farm in China’s Northeast. I will absolutely be buying this book.

Potential Work Trip To Somewhere I’ve Never Been
No details yet, because I don’t want to jinx it (and because it could easily not happen in the blink of an eye) but if everything lines up just right, I get to go on a work trip at the end of August to a country and continent I’ve never visited before. Fingers crossed!

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

Matching Sets

I’ve always found a row of matching books, lined up just so, to be extremely aesthetically pleasing. A small part of me enjoys it because of the completest gene in me (although over the years I’ve managed to beat that down a great deal), but there’s also something about the overall design sense with the series of matching spines that makes me think, “Yes, yes, that looks lovely.”

It doesn’t have to be overly ornate. For example, I’ve always liked Small Beer Press’s Peapod Classics line (which sadly only had three books and then appears to have stalled out), and not just because they’ve selected good books for the line. The cover design is simple but effective, and having Kevin Huizenga provide the cover art is an added bonus.

And to be fair, it’s not even just books. DVDs, magazines with spines, anything with a nice design sense has always been appreciated. It’s why I’ve found the Criterion Collection’s shifting from one font to another to be frustrating (and I’m not even a big Criterion geek), and why other publications have managed to stick around in my home because they look so good.

I say all this because as a big ol’ comics geek, it’s always pained me to see some truly hideous design work on what should be two of the nicest lines in comics; DC Comics’ Archive Editions, and Marvel’s Masterworks. These lines reprint the company’s oldest and most classic comics; the original runs of books like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. We’re talking about superhero comic royalty. How bad are they designed? I own exactly zero of these books.

The original Marvel Masterworks design was ghastly; a fake marble background with a foil stamped frame in the center and the artwork crammed into that small portion. They’re ugly, and while the redesign a while ago shifted to a black and silver look that isn’t as bad, it’s still not terribly attractive. The artwork is larger, so that’s good at least, but it’s still not an attractive or eye-catching look.

 

I’m not letting DC Comics off the hook here with their Archive Editions, though. They’re also uninspiring; a single image of a character (or sometimes a group of characters), the inverted triangle and circle, and a pin stripe background. Once again, there’s a lot of space wasted here. It’s not energetic or exciting, and they don’t make me want to buy them at all.

Kurt Busiek (via Dan McDaid) recently pointed out online where Jon Morris presented his ideas for a redesign of the DC Archive Editions. The entire post is here but I’ll just show you one or two of his (many) mock-ups.

These are already so much better it’s not even funny. I love the big image on the top, with room for four additional smaller ones. (Sure, the images in these mock-ups could use some brightness and contrast touch-ups, but you get the idea.) The books have room for creator names, what they reprint, additional material, and even two more images on the back. And when lined up on the bookshelf?

Well, be still my beating heart. Quite frankly? If DC announced they were redesigning the Archive Editions to look like this (plus a small, initial-orders only printing of the original design for any new ones for people who want a complete set – Marvel does this for theirs, which is a nice touch), I’d start buying the new editions. As these are expensive books, it’s probably just as well that DC shows no signs of doing so.

The sad thing is that DC does have a nice design for their black and white, low-cost Showcase Presents books. It’s simple but effective; a small band up along the top, room for an entire cover on the front, and they look nice when lined up, as seen on the top two rows on the photo below.

Wall of Comic Goodness [365portraits: 242]

And who knows? Maybe someday they’ll redesign the Archive Editions line and I will finally spring for them. My bookshelves are sad that we aren’t getting them, because they sure would look nice. My wallet, on the other hand is just fine with that.

Originally published at gregmce.com. Please leave any comments there.

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