Saturday, May 31, 2008

it's getting harder and harder to breathe

If you missed out on voting in the European Photo Contest semifinals, voting has been extended until 10pm CDT Sunday!

Today I drove up to Des Moines again, hoping to find inspiration to get back into the groove with my novel. I only wrote 1500 words (~6 pages), but I think I'm back into it. My favorite trick when I've lost my 'voice' is to write out the last couple of paragraphs in my notebook, and start scribbling away with pen and paper until I get to the point where the ideas are coming too fast and I feel the need to start typing again. It worked again today, although the scene was still slower to write than usual -- but it was a 'love' scene, and those are hard anyway because there are only so many ways you can write them and they all sound rather silly if you think about them at all. But I persevered and triumphed, and it should be relatively smooth sailing from here to the end (fingers crossed).

The day itself was absolutely gorgeous - 84 degrees, somewhat humid, but just the right temperature to encourage me to drive all the way up and back with my windows down and my sunroof open. This wreaks havoc with both my allergies and the dustiness of my car's interior, but I love the feel of the wind while I'm driving, so much so that I would probably get a motorcycle if I could conquer my fear of having a grisly accident and embedding a lot of asphalt in my face. You can tell you're extremely pale when three hours *in a car*, plus three or four hours sitting by a window in a cafe is enough to give you a touch of sunburn -- I'm going to have to work on my tan so that I don't look completely washed out at the SoCal wedding I have coming up in a month.

I came home to another delicious homecooked meal -- Mom made tenderloins for supper (appropriate given the type of scene I was writing today, although my characters' loins are merely tender, not breaded and fried). Tenderloins have to be one of the most amazing foods around, and yet I never see them in California -- maybe cooks out there don't like pounding out slices of pork until they are double or triple their original surface area. Or maybe cooks out there just don't know what they're missing.

After supper, we turned on CBS (of course) to discover that CBS was showing a mixed martial arts prizefight. And my parents are such ardent CBS supporters that, even though my mom doesn't like fights, and even though my dad didn't like the rules, we watched a whole fight between a couple of women. Then my dad switched the channel -- to PBS, the only other station they will watch. We watched the last part of some documentary about Cambodia, then turned back to CBS for the 10 o'clock news -- only to find that the fights continued until ~10:45. But they will not watch other news stations, so we settled in to watch the heavyweight match between Kimbo Slice and James Thompson.

Kimbo Slice had already won my heart with his ridiculous pre-match banter; James Thompson had already lost it when he entered the cage and revealed his hideously malformed cauliflower ear. I knew guys in high school with cauliflower ear, but this was something else entirely -- one commentator called it 'the alien lifeform that used to be Thompson's ear'. But I never expected what ended up happening -- Kimbo Slice won on a technical knockout because he *popped* Thompson's cauliflower ear, sending blood spurting everywhere and messing up Thompson's balance, resulting in an early end to the match. If you want to see something gross, look for a clip of that moment -- popping a cauliflower ear is apparently a really, really bad, messy idea.

So that was another day in the heartland. All y'all city kids are missing out.

Friday, May 30, 2008

for you alone

Today was a lovely day -- I had a few precious hours with Katie, who is in Des Moines for a wedding this weekend. I stole her from her husband and we went to the Cheesecake Factory, which is just as bad and annoying here as it is everywhere else; we had sickly-sweet mojitos as we discussed life for a couple of hours, frequently interrupted by a waitress who seemed to want us to leave even though the other hundred tables were empty. We also spent a lot of time browsing through the racks of Sephora, lured to our doom by the siren's call of products that claim to fix your every woe. Katie and I enjoy getting together every few months and pointing out every product we've bought in the intervening timespan and upselling each other on unnecessary cosmetics -- with the result that I walked away with a dry shampoo and a couple of samples of GoSmile, and she purchased my favorite eyeliner brush from Benefit.

But while the conversation was excellent and the hour-and-a-half drive back home was made much more fun with her company, and while we topped off the evening with the world's best takeout pizza from a convenience store in our county, the highlight was the gift she gave me when I picked her up -- a signed copy of Fabio's romance novel 'Pirate'!!! It's supposedly Fabio's romantic fantasy, brought to life by some hack of a romance novelist, and the inside is 'autographed' "To you alone - Fabio". But the previous owner of this book actually got a real autograph from Fabio at some point, making this a priceless treasure.

I started reading it tonight, and it's truly, laughably bad -- Fabio's character (Marco Glaviano, a Venetian privateer who lost his father to some 'Spanish whoresons' in the Inquisition and is hellbent on revenge) rescues some twelve-year-old girl from a Spanish attack in the Caribbean, is attracted to her innocence, and takes her to his island to raise her with his pirate band, a plethora of loose women, and his young black cheetah whom she names 'Pansy'. It's all a little creepy, since they spend far too much time dwelling on how young, pure, and innocent she is -- including a scene of Fabio's character brushing her hair. But then she is suddenly eighteen and has decided she has to marry him, at which point all hell breaks loose (and I took a break for the evening -- if I put a romance novel down before midnight, you know it's not that good).

If only I had Katie and some other friends here, Iowa would be the best place in the entire world. The months of May through September make up for the bleakness of winter, and June in Iowa is possibly the loveliest thing you can ever see. Today was a case in point -- while it stormed this morning (but not nearly enough to damage all the cars we moved last night), the clouds cleared by afternoon, and we drove back home amongst the gorgeous green splendor of an eighty-degree summer day. I left Katie's house around nine and drove the rest of the way home in perfect twilight -- the time of day when all the lightning bugs (or as non-midwesterners call them, fireflies) come out to play. If you know my affinity for sparkles and glitter, you could guess how I feel about lightning bugs -- they seem to skim over the tops of the fields as though all of the plants are twinkling in the night, as though the earth is covered in tiny winking diamonds. Granted, when you hit them with your windshield they leave a streak of luminescence that is nearly impossible to clean up, but they're gorgeous enough that I don't mind the inconvenience.

So it was great to see Katie, and I'm looking forward to spending another month here -- June is one of my favorite times to be here, with the wild roses in the ditches and the lightning bugs flitting around everywhere, so it should be good. Now if only I can finish my romance novel, I'll be in good shape.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

riding the storm out

My brother and I spent part of this evening preparing for a supposedly large storm to come through later tonight. This involved taking a multitude of vehicles into town (two miles to town over gravel roads, plus another mile of town roads that would be better off as gravel - they're disintegrating, the town can't afford to fix them, and also can't afford to gravel them instead, so you end up driving across incredibly deep potholes) - my father's shop is on the western edge of town, and is large enough inside that, if we sacrifice some machinery, we can put the family vehicles inside to protect them from hail.

What inevitably happens after preparing for a hailstorm is that you avoid all hail. So after we shuttled my Rav4, my Sunfire, Michael's Tahoe, Michael's Silverado, my grandma's car, and the car that Michael and I both used in high school up to the shop, it appears that we're not going to get any real storm at all. Sigh. However, this gives me added incentive to get around to selling my Sunfire - the fact that we usually have so many cars sitting in the driveway (Michael and I each have two, plus my mom's car, my dad's truck, and the untold plethora of cars/trucks that Michael has sitting in the far backyard) is a little ridiculous. But to steal a quote from some dude that my dad and I listened to on his Sirius 'Blue Collar Comedy' channel - 'we're not white trash, we're white clutter'. None of my cars are on blocks, and we have enough gravel/pavement to park all of them off the grass - but I still think that it's time for me and my Pontiac to part ways.

Despite the futility of our endeavors, it wasn't a bad idea. Our area has had some extensive hail damage in the past, as evidenced by the number of new roofs in town that have been paid for by hail insurance payouts. And my friend Katie remembers the time that her dad was practically dancing for joy as he watched a hailstorm destroy his crops, because the insurance payout was worth more than the effort of harvesting and selling them. Since I would *not* be dancing for joy if my Rav4 was destroyed by hail, I'd rather be safe than sorry.

I spent the rest of the day taking care of paperwork, paying bills, playing on the internet, visiting my grandma, and generally being lazy. After I collect my car tomorrow, I'm going to go to Des Moines and write for awhile - and then meet up with the aforementioned Katie, who is in town for a wedding this weekend. So whether I get any real writing done remains to be seen, but hanging out with Katie will be delightful. Unless, of course, the storm hits tomorrow morning instead, but we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

iowa wampler and the quest for the alabaster wii

After months of denying my destiny, I gave in and decided to search for a Wii. That task is easier said than done, my friend. I had hoped (selfishly and cynically) that the economy was bad enough to prevent other people from spending money so frivolously, but it appears that there are still enough people out there willing to buy a new gaming console that the Wii sells out regularly even in Des Moines. I tried several stores yesterday to no avail. But, unlike adventurers of old, I have the Internet to solve my problems -- and so rather than packing a dogsled with provisions and heading off into the wild, I went to and ordered a Wii bundle that is slated to arrive early next week.

Until then, my brother has conned me into playing Mario Kart on his friend's Nintendo 64. I'm getting somewhat better, although I was abysmal at first -- and my basic strategy now is to keep playing him until he gets motion sickness from the game, and then trounce him on the last game before he has to give up to avoid puking. I get motion sickness from games sometimes too, although Mario Kart didn't do it to me -- but it will be interesting to see if I can continue to maintain control of my stomach when I'm pretending to snowboard on the Wii.

My day was pretty uneventful; lots of stuff going on in the family that I won't bore you with here, but I did read the first part of 'How the Scots Invented the Modern World'. The book was a bestseller a couple of years ago; the basic premise is that the Scottish people were directly responsible for shaping the culture, lifestyle, government, etc. that we all enjoy today. I'm not far enough along to decide whether or not I agree with the author, but it's giving me some good ideas for the Scottish portions of my book, so it's most certainly not a waste of time.

Now that you know I'm still alive, and now that I've dispensed with my duties toward the European photo contest, I think it's time for bed! I really really need to start writing again tomorrow -- between my trip and my post-trip vacation, I haven't written anything in almost a month. Tragic! Sleep will cure many ills, though, and I can awake tomorrow ready to make some decent headway.

European Photo Contest - Semifinals - VOTING ENDS SATURDAY, 10PM CDT!

Apologies for the delay in tallying Round 2's votes; I went to Des Moines yesterday and tired myself out.

The biggest developments in Round 2 were:

1) Hamish the Highland Cow suffered a bitter defeat at the hands of Walter and Sara in s'Hertogenbosch - the deciding vote was cast by Walter's fiancee. If Walter had been sporting the beard he was wearing a couple of years ago, she may have had trouble telling them apart, but luckily she had no trouble exercising her vote. Say goodbye to Hamish!

2) Bath is well-represented in the semifinals, with its abbey and its famous bridge going up against each other. Both photos won 6-3 in their round two matchups, so it will be interesting to see which one prevails now.

3) There was a tie between the shadows over the Isle of Skye and the shot of Loch Ness (because my brother abstained from voting for either of them and requested to bring back the sheep photo); I broke it in favor of Loch Ness.

Voting for the semifinals ends Saturday night! To make it easy, you can vote in the comments on this post:

Semifinal 1:
Bath Abbey
Pulteney Bridge on the River Avon

Semifinal 2:
Loch Ness (but no monster)
Walter and Sara in s'Hertogenbosch
Vote early and vote often! Your vote could decide who will win and who will be sent to the recycling bin in disgrace.

European Photo Contest - Semifinals - Bath Abbey vs. Bath's Pulteney Bridge

Bath Abbey easily (alas) defeated Loch Lubnaig to emerge as a possible favorite from Round 2. But how will it fare against another shot from its own city?

Bath's Pulteney Bridge on the River Avon handily defeated my self-portrait at Neist Point, and seems to be coasting to victory. But will the abbey or the river win out?

European Photo Contest - Semifinals - Loch Ness vs. Walter and Sara in s'Hertogenbosch

The only tie in Round 2 was between Loch Ness and the shadows over the Isle of Skye - and I broke it in favor of the loch, since I like lochs. And monsters. And rocks. And the memory of Tammy freaking out about the Loch Ness Monster.

Walter voted against himself again, but the combined voting bloc of Walter's mom (Ellen), dad (Alan), fiancee (Julia), friend from college (Felicia), and well-wisher (my mom) managed to eke out a victory over Hamish the Highland Cow. Can Walter and I defeat the loch to make it to the finals, or will our dreams be dashed on those rocky shores?

Monday, May 26, 2008

i rode with pancho villa

Don't forget to vote in the European Photo Contest! See below; Round 2 ends at 10pm CDT on Tuesday!

Michael and I went to Des Moines today to see 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' with Aunt Becky and her scandalous fiance. If I had been in California last week, I could have seen it for free with thousands of my closest friends, since my employer bought opening-day tickets for everyone at work -- but Aunt Becky's generosity (and the fact that we were running late and couldn't stand in line) ensured that Michael and I still saw the movie for free (thanks Aunt B!)

I thought the movie was great. I haven't seen a good commie-bashing movie in a long time, so this was quite satisfying. I also love Cate Blanchett in every movie she makes, and this one was no exception (even though I wasn't quite convinced by her 'Eastern Ukrainian' accent). And while the plot had more gaping holes than 'National Treasure' (which I despised), and while Harrison Ford and co. should have died every five minutes or so from the injuries normal people would have sustained in those stunts (not that Harrison Ford is normal, given how fit he looked in his trademark outfit), I still thought that the movie was perfect early-summer entertainment, and a welcome addition to the Indiana Jones franchise. They just don't make movies like they used to. And I appreciated the homage to Sean Connery early in the movie, even though I regret that he chose to end his career on 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' rather than coming back to do this movie as well.

After the movie, Aunt Becky and Brian took us to dinner at one of their favorite Mexican restaurants in Des Moines, which was pretty good -- and a good antidote to the overdose of all-American food I had yesterday. Then we drove home, making a stop in Indianola in search of a Wii -- I've decided to take the leap and get a Wii plus the Wii Fit, but sadly they only had the Wii Fit portion and no Wii consoles. I decided to buy the Wii Fit anyway, since I'll be really annoyed if I can track down a console sometime this week and then can't find a Wii Fit anywhere.

I didn't blog yesterday because we had some thunderstorms and I unplugged my laptop to avoid a catastrophic surge. We live nowhere near the big tornado that ripped through northeast Iowa last night, but the footage of the damage is pretty intense. Thunderstorms are pretty cool, but tornadoes are just scary, since they come with relatively little warning and can do more damage than a hurricane (albeit in a much smaller area). The one yesterday had estimated winds of 185+ miles per hour and was a mile wide in places, which makes it one nasty storm.

However, we were quite safe. We spent the earlier part of the day at the Methodists' Memorial Day dinner -- we aren't Methodists, but my grandma is, so we get roped into going to those things. I had an all-American bbq pork sandwich with baked beans, cottage cheese, a deviled egg, and chocolate pie. Then we hung out at home all afternoon with Gram, Uncle Mark, Aunt Kathy, and my cousin Andrew -- Aunt Kathy actually *asked* to look at all 1496 photos I took in Europe, which shocked me, but apparently she's a trooper. Mom and Dad made another all-American supper, this one almost pure protein -- grilled bratwurst, hamburgers, and hotdogs, with baked beans and potato salad. Mmmmm. I may miss the 'civilization' of California, but I'm going to miss the easy access to delicious non-tofu protein sources that I have here.

I really need to get back to working on the book, so I should go to bed and get up early enough tomorrow that I can accomplish something worthwhile. Goodnight!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

you know i don't like you, but you want to be my friend

I had a perfect cup of tea today. When I finished brewing it and added just the right amount of milk and sugar, I sank into my father's leather chair, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and for a split second could see myself on the hills of Africa, trekking across mountains and plains to find the best possible tea. I opened my eyes and was still in Iowa, on a particularly rainy and messy day, but the tea made it all better. The tea itself was some looseleaf 'Kenyan Safari' tea that I bought when Aunt Becky showed me around some of the stores in the East Village area of Des Moines, but I did not drink it until now because my tea strainer does not fit into the teapot that I have here. But today I had an epiphany -- the tea strainer won't fit into the pot, but it will fit into the mug. And since I often only drink one mug before the pot gets cold anyway, making one cup at a time seems perfectly reasonable.

I'm so glad I had that idea; this tea is truly delicious, and while I was drinking it, I spent a few minutes thinking that if I could just sit there drinking tea for long enough, I could have the answers for what I want to do with my life. Alas, it wasn't to be; before I finished my cup, my dad and I ended up driving to Centerville to take my niece of nephew back from their other grandparent's place. So the relaxation and life-pondering got put on hold until at least tomorrow (and likely Monday or Tuesday, given that tomorrow will be packed with family stuff).

The rest of the day was pretty laid back -- my dad made brunch, which Grandma came over for. I showed her ~100 pics from my trip, and had an awkward moment when she asked me how I can 'save' my photos. It took awhile to realize she meant how can I have a physical, tangible version of the photos -- I don't think she's enamored with the idea of keeping photos on one's laptop. After she left, I took a brief nap, helped my dad with some stuff, had a conversation with my parents in which I acknowledged that I may be conservative enough that I would have a v. difficult time in academia, and then went to Centerville.

After we ate pizza, my parents, brother and I watched 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'. I can't remember ever seeing it, and I'm not sure I want to see it again -- the woman in the film annoys the hell out of me, and I feel that the story could have been told in an hour and a half instead of two hours. But I did like the entertaining, exploitative use of Indian culture to advance the plot, and watching it made me slightly homesick for India. Despite my lack of love for this particular movie, I'm still looking forward to seeing the new Indiana Jones movie, so hopefully we can mobilize in the next couple of days (since seeing it will require a trip to Des Moines, of course).

I was going to write a brooding post about my future, but I'm too tired, so I think it's time for bed. Check out the European Photo Contest below - round 2 starts now and ends Tuesday night!

European Photo Contest - Round 2 - VOTING ENDS TUESDAY, 10PM CDT!

Excellent work with Round 1 - the field of 32 has been whittled to the elite eight!

To make it slightly easier for you to vote, I've listed the rounds below - you can copy the text, paste it into the comment section for this post, and delete the photos you're not voting for. This eliminates the need (as my mother mentioned/complained about) to do comment verification for every single comment field. How great is that?

Group 1/2:
Bath Abbey
Loch Lubnaig

Group 3/4:
Pulteney Bridge on the River Avon
Self-portrait at Neist Point

Group 5/6:
Shadows over the Isle of Skye
Loch Ness (but no monster)

Group 7/8:
Hamish the Highland Cow
Walter and Sara in s'Hertogenbosch

Some groups are clearly more competitive than others, but seeding is an imperfect science, as demonstrated by the NCAA basketball tournament every year.

See below for a refresher on which photos are still in the contest. Vote early and vote often - polls close at 10pm CDT on Tuesday!

European Photo Contest - Round 2 - Bath Abbey vs. Loch Lubnaig

In the most divided group of the first round, Bath Abbey squeaked past the rest to claim victory in Group 1. Will it continue to advance, or will it suffer a defeat unknown since the days of Henry VIII and the Cromwellians?

The only tie in round one came in Group 2, between Loch Lubnaig (above) and Kilt Rock. I broke the tie in favor of Loch Lubnaig -- I liked the quiet gloom of the loch more than I liked getting close enough to the edge of the cliff to take a good picture of Kilt Rock, so Loch Lubnaig wins.

European Photo Contest - Round 2 - Bath's Pulteney Bridge vs. Self-portrait at Neist Point

The Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon in Bath won a fairly easy victory in Group 3 - but can it overcome the sympathy votes for my self-portrait?

My brother had no problem voting for wool swimming trunks over me, and the gorgeous sunset over Oban harbor got a few well-deserved votes, but the self-portrait at Neist Point emerged victorious from Group 4. Will readers' kindness keep it in the game? Or will their rational, impartial judgment win out and award victory to the bridge?

European Photo Contest - Round 2 - Isle of Skye vs. Loch Ness

The Shadows over the Isle of Skye decimated the competition in Group 5, earning six votes (compared to two for the swamp at Hastings and none for Bladud or the LOTR musical). Will they continue to advance until they cover all the lands in darkness?

Loch Ness nearly lost Group 6 to a bunch of sheep, which the Loch Ness Monster could have taken care of easily had it deigned to show itself in the water. How will it do against stiffer competition?

European Photo Contest - Round 2 - Hamish the Highland Cow vs. Walter/Sara in s'Hertogenbosch

Shockingly, Hamish beat out Walter in to advance from Group 7 - helped in no small part by Walter voting against himself with the only vote he cast in the whole round. Only Walter could pull off a strategy that bold and fearless!

In my opinion, the weakest of the four Group 8 contestants advanced, but as the only Walter photo remaining in competition, we'll see how far it gets!

Friday, May 23, 2008

love lies bleeding in my hands

I'm too tired to mess around with the photo contest tonight, so you have until 10pm CDT on Saturday if you want to vote in the first round! You also don't have to leave comments on every single one - you're welcome to post one aggregated 'ballot' as a single comment if you so choose.

Today was a nice enough day, despite the weather. I took pains to look presentable, mostly because I felt like it, but partially because we were planning to go out for dinner tonight -- and the weather gave me opportunity to wear the new silver metallic sweater I'd bought just before going to Europe, for what is hopefully the last time this season. Then, I had my triweekly call with Gyre, in which I got the dirt on what's happening at work, caught up on his life, and discussed the potential of me going back to Mountain View (currently v. high).

I was really unproductive this afternoon, although I did finish unpacking and putting things away, and I went through all of my piled-up correspondence and made a list of what I need to take care of over the next few days. My brother and I went for a brief drive around town, which was depressing as always. Then, my parents, brother and I climbed into my dad's pickup (which is hard for me to get into because it's so ridiculously tall) and went out to decorate graves for Memorial Day.

This is the first time I've been home for Memorial Day since my senior year of high school (unless Aunt Becky and I left for Australia before that? I can't remember). Where Memorial Day in California means a three-day weekend (and my freshman year of college, my dorm complex hosted a party called 'Red White and Beer', which offended my patriotic sensibilities so much that I skipped the party), Memorial Day in Iowa necessitates grave decorating. My mom's side of the family involved going to three cemeteries, and leaving flowers at the graves of her parents, grandparents, some great-grandparents, three of her uncles, and my brother-in-law Roger, who was killed rather tragically in a car accident nine years ago. I also saw some awesome names (like one of her great-grandfathers, whose first name was 'Greenbury'), and got an impromptu tour of some of the backwaters of the county.

We still have to visit my father's side of the family tomorrow, but that's easier (at least physically) because they're all in one place, in the cemetery a mile west of our house. But it's really sad to walk through cemeteries where almost no one has been remembered -- the Seymour cemetery (where most of my mom's family is buried, as well as my brother-in-law) is still v. active, and they were putting out the big Memorial Day flags when we were there, so there was a pretty respectable level of decoration on the graves. But the Confidence cemetery (where her paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were buried) is split into two segments, and their graves were in the older segment -- where almost everyone died before 1960, and many of them died before 1900. There were only a couple of other graves with flowers on them -- on many of the other graves, the stones are crumbling, the engravings are weathering away, and everything is falling into the quiet desolation that makes old cemeteries so peaceful and yet so sad.

So I felt happy at participating in familial obligations, even if it really just amounted to watching my mom place flowers on the graves of a bunch of people I'd never met. We followed the cemeteries with supper in Centerville, the next major town to our east, which is where my parents met oh so many years ago. I had a ribeye and a baked potato, helping to improve my steak reserves after the terrible drought I suffered in England. Now, even though my brother and his friend Logan are playing Nintendo in the big room on our floor (conveniently using my television, which I had never bothered to hook up, but which was one of my brother's first targets for improvement when he came back a few weeks ago), I think I'm going to go to bed!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

but anytime you can catch a sight of angel eyes, all emptiness and infinite

You have ~22 hours to vote in the European Photo Contest! Time's a'wastin' -- and it looks like Walter's parents are going to be another unstoppable voting bloc if you don't exercise your voting rights :)

Today was a lovely day in the heartland, other than the weather -- yesterday was 70+ degrees and gorgeous, while today was <60 and rainy. I exerted myself quite a bit yesterday -- the jet lag woke me up at 5:30am, and by 6:15 I decided that I should just get out of bed and start the day. I ended up showering, getting dressed (in a v. summery shirt/skirt/sandals combo), and driving to Des Moines, where I arrived around 10:30. I had a v. early lunch at Panera, then went to Borders with the intention of spending the afternoon working on my book. Instead, I bought a romance novel and read the whole thing from cover to cover before coming home, laptop unopened. I felt no guilt, however; it's nice to unwind for a couple of days after the exertions of my trip. That's probably an infuriating thing for me to say, given that most of my readers are gainfully employed and would kill to have almost three weeks to tour the UK and the Netherlands, so I apologize for any offense caused.

Today was even more slothful than yesterday -- when I woke up at 6:30, I put my facemask on to block out the evil sun, and slept until 11. I sat around in my pajamas and talked to my mom and brother (with a brief visit from my grandma), finally getting dressed around 3pm -- just in time for a brief visit from my sister and her husband. I had a nice phone conversation with Katie, who *still* calls the house rather than my cellphone -- I think she just secretly hopes that she will get to talk to my parents before talking to me. Then I hung out with my parents until dinner (steak, mashed potatoes/gravy, green beans, and some fresh asparagus -- I tried the asparagus, and the verdict is that I still hate it). We finished the evening by watching 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' in preparation for seeing the new Indiana Jones movie next week.

So it's all family all the time right now. My brother has conveniently moved home as well, and so spent most of the afternoon trying to convince me to play video games, but I nobly refrained. Or, not so nobly, since I am terrible at sports-type video games, and he wanted to play Madden NFL -- and true to my elder sister form, I will not play games with him unless I can trounce him. Poor kid.

Tomorrow I should really try to accomplish something, even if it's just as basic as painting my toenails. And that necessitates going to bed so that I can wake up and get started. Goodnight!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

European Photo Contest - Rules and First Round Voting!

I've opened the 2008 European Photo Contest! I'm v. curious to see what will win out -- will Walter dominate the competition as he did in the last photo contest? Or will a landscape pull it off? Or will something ridiculous take the prize? It's up to you - the fate of the free world (or at least these 32 pictures) rests in your hands.

For the setup, I picked 32 photos that I felt were either well-composed, illustrative of how I spent my vacation, or just too entertaining to pass up. I divided them into 8 groups at random, using's random list creator. The winner of each group will advance to the second group (elite eight); the winners of the elite eight will advance to the final four, and two pictures will ultimately battle it out for the win.

These are the rules:

1) To vote, pick which of the pictures in each group you prefer, and vote for that photo in the comments section for each group.
2) Anyone can vote; however, you're encouraged to make yourself known to me (either by signing in or using nicknames). In the event of a tie, I will count only registered voters to break the tie; if that isn't sufficient, I will break it myself.
3) Voting will close approximately two days after the opening of each round, at 10pm CDT.

So what are you waiting for? Vote now by stating your preference in the comments section for each group. First round voting closes Friday, 5/23, at 10:00pm!

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 1

The ruins of Iona's abbey (Iona, Scotland)

Weirdest sight in a public restroom - this 'artistic' display of a man apparently hanging out of the ceiling trapdoor (Ft. William, Scotland)

Windsor Castle, with the moat turned into a garden (Windsor, England)

Bath's Elizabethan abbey (Bath, England)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 2

The ruins of Kilchurn Castle (Scotland)

Kilt Rock - supposedly, the rock looks like the pleats on the back of a man's kilt (Isle of Skye, Scotland)

The shores of Loch Lubnaig (Scotland)

Brighton's Royal Pavilion - like India, only not (Brighton, England)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 3

Peat fire in a traditional Scottish cottage - once a smelly necessity, now a carcinogenic tourist trap (Scotland)

Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon (Bath, England)

Absurdly expensive (but elegantly presented) tea sandwiches in the Bath Pump Room (Bath, England)

My feet astride the hemispheres (Greenwich, England)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 4

Self-portrait at Neist Point (Scotland)

Sunset over Oban Harbor (Scotland)

Looking out over Iona's shores toward Mull (Scotland)

Worst idea ever - wool swimming shorts (Bath Fashion Museum, England)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 5

My feet, carefully avoiding the waters of Loch Ness in case Tammy is right to encourage wariness of the monster within (Scotland)

A swamp at the Battle of Hastings site, providing a symbolic link between 1066-era William de Warrenne and present-days Swamplers (Battle, England)

The 'Lord of the Rings' musical production at Theatre Royal Drury Lane (London, England)

Shadows over the Isle of Skye (Scotland)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 6

King Bladud - his statue and awesome name still reside in Bath, which he supposedly discovered several millennia ago (Bath, England)

Flowers in Hyde Park (London, England)

Sheep who luckily aren't lemmings, and apparently suffer no fear of heights (Neist Point, Scotland)

Loch Ness, with a monster possibly lurking beneath the waves (although these days, he would be more likely to get involved in shilling for the tourist trade than to eat you) (Scotland)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 7

Walter with a clashing ensemble brought on by my coral bag and his yellow jacket and puke-colored juice (Utrecht, Netherlands)

Bath's Assembly Rooms - key to many Regency romances (Bath, England)

Memorial to Archimedes' screw, the suggestive shape/movement of which gave me an idea for a romance series about a group of immortal ancient mathematicians and the people who love them (s'Hertogenbosch, Netherlands)

Hamish the Highland Cow - saved from destruction for mad cow disease, and now forced to live apart from all other cattle as a tourist attraction and required stop for all bus tours (Scotland)

European Photo Contest - Round 1 - Group 8

Shower control for a man, woman, or two small lesbians (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Walter and me with a dog statue (s'Hertogenbosch, Netherlands)

The Roman Baths, with Bath Abbey in the background (Bath, England)

A covetous seagull ready to attack my sandwich (Brighton, England)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

return to america

I am always bemused by how uncannily accurate my horoscopes seem to be on the little horoscope gadget I have installed on my Google homepage. Today's horoscope is:
The clever Gemini Sun is in your 10th House of Vocation this month and although you may be in the spotlight, it might feel awkward. You are becoming painfully aware of the personal sacrifices needed in order to keep the lights shining on your career path. Think about your limits and decide what you're willing to forgo to have financial security and professional success.

Ironically enough, I spent most of the day researching graduate programs. No firm decisions yet, but Walter would be happy to know that I don't just intend to chop off my hair and go back to work -- he told Julia, rather accurately, that in times of stress when I recognize that I need to change my life, I just cut off my hair instead. I successfully changed the hair-chopping impulse into positive action last fall when I asked for a sabbatical, which explains why my hair is longer than it has been in a v. long time, but I'm feeling the urge to chop it again. So it's in my hair's best interest if I figure out my next steps sooner rather than later.

Anyway, I made it safely back to the United States, managed to sleep almost straight through last night, and stayed awake all day today, which was critical in the war against jetlag. But I'm exhausted now, even though it's only 11:20, so I'm going to go to bed. I think I'll go to Des Moines tomorrow and work on the romance novel, but I intend to post pictures from my trip in the next couple of days! I had an absolutely awesome time, but it's good to be home, too -- my father made 'basketbobs' (steak kebabs, but grilled in a couple of large grill baskets rather than skewered, which saves time and yields the same delicious results), which were v. tasty and also significantly cheaper than the $30 dinners I was eating at Wagamama a couple of weeks ago.

Finally, happy (one day belated) birthday to Uncle Mark! I didn't blog yesterday and so missed saying it on the day of, but hopefully this belated shout-out will make up for it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Goodbye Amsterdam!

I lied...this is one last blog post from Europe. Walter and I said our
characteristcally tearless goodbyes as he put me on the bus to the
train station, where I caught the train to Amsterdam.

While walking to my gate, I passed the Hyderabad flight that we took
to India for a conference last December...and my first thought was
that I was so glad I wasn't getting on that flight. While the flight
to Memphis that I'm currently on is stuffed with some of the worst
examples of Americans abroad (including some dude whose gut and ass
were both hanging over the top of his athletic shorts, ugh), at least
I'm not on a flight full of pushy, personal-space-ignoring Indians,
with my ultimate destination being the crushing, fury-inducing chaos
of the Hyderabad airport. That sounds like vicious stereotyping on my
part, but I challenge anyone to take the Amsterdam-Hyderabad flight
and not feel the same way. One flight attendant told me on my last
India flight that the flights to India were among the least popular
for the attendants because of how demanding and willing to ignore all
announcements/regulations many of the passengers were. So while I
would love to go abroad again, I need to remember this feeling so that
I don't do something stupid and sign up for another stint in Hyderabad
anytime soon.

I'm getting on my flight, sadly stuck in coach since my charm wasn't
enough to get an upgrade. But I suppose I'll survive. By tonight I'll
be in America! And hopefully I'll never set foot on Dutch soil again

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Day Eighteen - Eindhoven, 's-Hertogenbosch, and the Sweet Master of Deception

I had a fantastic day in the Netherlands with Walter and Julia. I still am not a fan of Holland, and am quite convinced that I never will be -- I last visited under somewhat inauspicious circumstances, but even today, when I was hanging out with Walter and Julia in completely cheerful and convivial company, I still found myself realizing that I was completely apathetic about my surroundings. So while I now feel neutrally towards the Netherlands, I don't think I will ever love it as I have loved, say, India, even though the Netherlands is much cleaner, more orderly, easier to get around, and generally 'nicer'. But that goes to show how weird I am, I guess.

When I woke up, Walter made pancakes, and we had a lovely, leisurely breakfast that was a welcome relief from the full Scottish breakfasts with their sausages and eggs and other deliciously deadly proteins. We then caught a train for 's-Hertogenbosch -- you would think that I would love the Netherlands just because of their crazy names, and it's true that someplace like 's-Hertogenbosch holds a special place in my heart just due to the name alone. We did have a nice afternoon in Den Bosch, as the Dutch call it -- we walked around the town, saw the cathedral (interesting -- they have painted the Gothic ceilings, which I don't recall seeing in quite that style anywhere else), had some awesome ice cream, and stopped for coffee at a cafe before heading back to Eindhoven.

While in 's-Hertogenbosch, we discussed my romance novels, and I mentioned the plots for the next three books. While Julia comes up with some completely absurd ideas that can never be placed in a romance novel, she did come up with the title 'Sweet Master of Deception', which could be awesome -- I'll have to write a book about a spy in the near future. And I was devastated/hysterically amused when I started explaining a concept to Walter about a later series of books I would like to write, and he pointed out that I was explaining the concept using *exactly* the same dialogue as when JB Pruitt, the famous hand model (played by David Duchovny) in "Zoolander", explains to Derek and Miranda that male models are perfect assassins because they are in peak physical condition and can gain access to the most exclusive places. I won't divulge the concept for my books, but it was shocking to realize that those 80+ times that I watched "Zoolander" so engraved the movie on my consciousness that I'm reusing bits of it to fuel future writing ideas.

Poor Julia had to listen to me and Walter quote half the movie on the train back to Eindhoven, and when we got back, she excused herself to watch dinner (and make popcorn for us), while we watched "Zoolander" and laughed hysterically. Then we had dinner and hung out for a few hours, until it was time for the working people to go to bed. Now I should go to bed too, so that I can get up in the morning in time for Walter to put me on the right bus to the train station so that I can go to the airport and catch the flight back to America.

It's been an amazing trip, and ending it by seeing Walter and meeting his fiancee was perfect. I will recap properly and post tons of photos in the next few days, but it's time for bed -- when I post again, I will be in the US!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Day Seventeen, part 2 - Walter (and Amsterdam/Utrecht/Eindhoven)

I arrived in Amsterdam to grey skies and light drizzle -- and the ray of sunshine that is Walter, resplendent in a yellow GoreTex jacket that clashed horribly with the coral-colored bag that he lugged around for me. Friends and faithful fans of Walter will be pleased to hear that he hasn't changed much -- he is still bearded, he still likes to bike (there are three in his room, which I am staying in), and he is still the coolest kid around (according to Julia -- more about her in a moment).

After exchanging brief greetings, we stuffed most of my luggage in a locker in the Amsterdam airport and made our way to a train bound for Utrecht. We walked around Utrecht for a bit, and Walter said that once I've seen one Dutch town, I can just imagine that same town, rearrange the shops a bit, and I will have a picture in my mind for every other Dutch town. Fair enough, I suppose. We had lunch at Winkel van Sinkel, based mostly on the name -- the interior was this overwhelmingly-decorated monstrosity of a place, with strange orange lighting, which I enjoyed immensely. I also had a sandwich with tuna, celery, and 'dragon', which neither Walter nor I could guess a meaning for, so I like to think that the sandwich was so tasty because of the rare dragon meat included in the tuna salad. We then left Utrecht and came to Eindhoven, where Walter has been living for the past year and a half.

Once we got here, I finally got to meet Julia, Walter's fiancee. She's a lovely girl whom Walter has somehow tricked into agreeing to marry him -- it seems clear that he's getting the better end of the deal, since her apartment (four floors above his) is beautifully decorated, she occasionally cooks for him, and she's looking to work while he goes for a PhD in the US next year. Lucky devil. So we went into the center of Eindhoven for a drink, followed by a delicious dinner at a Greek restaurant, followed by hot chocolate and Diet Coke at a cafe.

Even though I can admit that hatred for Amsterdam may have been a bit influenced by the events of the trip, I can safely say that I would not want to live in the Netherlands. Having said that, however, I'm really happy that I came -- hanging out with Walter and getting to know Julia is a great end to an already-great European adventure. I'd last seen Walter at Errol's funeral in February 2006; before that was our brief rendezvous in London in August 2005; and the last significant time we spent together was when we lived together before he went to Scotland in September 2004. That's a v. long time, but I'm happy to report that we quickly picked up where we left off.

So I'm here tomorrow, and then will either spend tomorrow night in Eindhoven or go up to Amsterdam for the night so that I'm near the airport on Monday for my flight back to the US. My trip is coming to a close all too soon! But I'll blog tomorrow night, and when I'm back in the States next week, get ready for the 2008 European Photo Competition! Now, though, it's time for bed.

Day Seventeen, part 1 - Edinburgh to Amsterdam

So it turns out that the 'male' and 'two small lesbians' settings in
my shower yielded the same perfectly-warm 38-degree (celsius)
water...whereas the single female setting was a frigid 22 degrees. I'm
offended by the implications!

I'm sitting in the Edinburgh airport, waiting for my flight to
Amsterdam. I'm getting out of Scotland just in time, since it's grey
and rainy today...and I think rain in Amsterdam is quite fitting,
since I have loathed that place in the past. However, if it's anything
like my usual tendencies, I will end up falling in love with it...I
tend to be forced to recognize the benefits of things that I've
previously despised, so we will see if Amsterdam is an exception.

In other news, I still haven't figured out my life, but I'm trying.
Maybe Walter will be able to help...although since he would likely
suggest 'biker' or 'mariner,' I may not be able to act on his most
excellent counsel.

Only two more days in Europe! I'll blog tonight so that you know I
haven't been seduced and destroyed by the 'temptations' of Amsterdam.
My dad told me last night not to do anything he wouldn't do, which I
don't think actually set that many limits, so we'll see what kind of
trouble I get into.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Day Sixteen - Highlands to Edinburgh

Today was the last day of my bus tour, alas. We spent most of it on the bus, with a brief stop at Eilean Donan castle (which I considered to be a disappointment when I learned that it was reconstructed in the early 20th century, although they did a fairly faithful reproduction and it's quite lovely), and a lunch break at Loch Ness. I did not see the monster, unfortunately, but I did have a nice moment of serenity while sitting on the rocky beach looking out over the water. I also thought fondly of Tammy's irrational fear of the monster, but was still careful not to actually touch the water.

I'm not going to write a long post tonight because I need to get up v. early so that I can go to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam and Walter. The pictures I posted below will have to tide you over until I write a longer post via blackberry tomorrow night. However, I will say that my hotel experience tonight has been quite entertaining -- Kim, Darragh, Jenni, etc., would be amused to know that I'm staying in a brand-new Novotel for the second time in my life (the first being our week-long trip to Hyderabad in August 2006). And while this one is somewhat to be preferred because the staff aren't knocking on my door every five minutes to see if I want a newspaper, in other ways it's shockingly similar. The staff is all v. eager to please, but don't quite know what they're doing -- I went downstairs to ask if they have a hotel guide (like the book that tells you how much calls cost, when room service is served, etc.), and they didn't know what a guide even was, let alone whether they had one. And the room is trying so hard to be stylish that some of it, particularly the bathroom, is incomprehensible. But on the whole it's nice, twice as big as any of the other rooms I've had, and less expensive than my hotel in London, so I'm willing to put up with the endearing trainee-mode staff.

Now, after a less than stellar blog post, it's time for bed. But first, happy birthday Michael! For those of you not in the know, Michael is my brother, and he's another year older today. Whether he's another year wiser, I will leave up to him to judge. But hopefully he's out having fun tonight!

Days 12-16 pt. 2 - Scotland

The sheep on Neist Point are much more courageous (or stupid) than I am.

Self-portrait at Neist Point.

The shower in my Edinburgh hotel room has settings for 'female', 'male', and 'two small lesbians'.

Days 12-16 pt. 1 - Scotland

Loch Lubnaig (you should hear this with a proper Scottish accent)

The shores of Iona, looking across the sea to Mull.

Sunset over Oban harbor.