Yes, same graphics.  Didn’t redesign. For reasons that will become apparent later, this will be a short week around here – as well. I have some time off coming, and intend to make good on my decision to rearrange my work habits. Like many people, I’ve found that Sunday is the start of the work week, and I don’t really mind – I like doing all these things. It’s starting to bleed into Saturday, though. When you think about doing stuff on Saturday so you can free up time for the Sunday work, things are getting a bit askew.

Then again, this was the Sunday thing:


Hello, stranger. Meet the Challenger, the “largest and most powerful operating steam locomotive” in the world. It rolled through town this weekend, and thanks to a friend’s tip I got a chance to tour the beauty and do a vid for Got to sit in the engineer’s seat and touch the controls, which brought back a memory of sitting in the tractor cab of my uncle’s barn, and turning it on. (It made it a few yards out of the barn before he hopped on and stopped it.) The controls were archaic and inscrutible. The train's out of control, the engineer's dead - go ahead, figure out how to stop it:  

My interest in these machines is mostly aesthetic, to sound all academic and/or high-falutin’ – it’s fascinating to learn how they work, but I’m drawn to the way they look and why, and what that said about the era. I suppose that’s un-guy-like, but I’d rather look the exterior of a supermodel than her MRI results, too. Lucky for me, we were able to tour the restored passenger cars as well. Spacious and comfortable and solid. As Gelernter noted in “1939,” things used to have heft. They had weight. Phones, fridge doors, cars – the world had a solidity you don’t find in the plastic era. The chairs in the passenger cars felt like they were built to withstand the bulk of a Gildersleeve dropped from nine feet. The cars felt familiar, since I’d taken many such refurbished models on East Coast Amtrak runs, but the colors were original, and the 70s encrustations of Amtrak utterly absent. The view from the stairs leading down from the observation dome:



In other news: Yes, I eat at Taco Bell. There are times when a man has no time, and simply needs to refill. Saturday afternoon I learned something interesting: once your order is made and entered in the machine, it cannot be withdrawn. I changed my mind and asked if I could have the Fresca Soft Chicken Taco – could have asked for the Taco Chicken Soft Fresca, or the Soft Fresca Taco Chicken, doesn’t matter – and the clerk sadly shook her head. “I can’t change it.” What she meant was “I have no idea how to change it,” or “I havce no desire to call over a manager and have her change it, because as you can see she’s over there yelling on a cell phone.” I accepted the situation and moved down the line, and saw this:

How could it possibly be sold out? Everything at Taco Bell consists of the same nine items rearranged into new combinations. Nothing is ever SOLD OUT at a fast food restaurant. It’s like entering confession and having the priest tell you he’s out of Hail Marys.

Now: Coffee shop next to a book store. Every time I tour the bookstore I have the same philistine’s reaction: too many damn books. Heaps and stacks and piles of them, all representing a year or two of someone’s life – or an afternoon, in the case of Dean Koontz – and each one is meticulously designed and generously blurbed. The novels  are “stunning” or “extraordinary” or “remarkable,” and the women’s books are always recognizable as such because the covers take place at the same Cape Cod beach, and the characters are usually barefoot and shown only from the shin down  - this is meant to appeal to the widest popular audience, perhaps, since no matter how wide your waist might be, you still probably have reasonable shins. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I cannot possibly imagine reading a book that deals entirely with relationships. There has to be something else. Like ebola, or rockets.

Nowadays I read mostly history and non-fiction, since most popular fiction gets on my nerves; I have no patience for the globe-spanning adventure novel where six parties are in hectic, desperate competition to learn the secret of James Polk’s Diary, and I am tired of Nazis as well. The sheer number of plots and secret weapons and hidden protocols is just amazing, really; the Germans really were quite busy. Not an idle moment, those lads. Of course, the truth was a bit less impressive – just reading “Agent Zigzag” gives you a feel for the languor and drunkenness and general aimless stupidity that characterized so much of the Reich. They weren’t all Prussian aristocrats with monocles standing in front of a roaring fire while the Wagner played,  spitting out orders to cowering superiors.

I ended up buying a Walter Mosley novel, taking great care not to by one of the experimental numbers. Stick with Easy Rawlins, and you’re safe. While travelling last month I read a mystery whose cover promised many twists and turns, and sure enough, it had many twists and turns. Strap yourself in, it's a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride! - USA Today. I'm tempted to write a thriller about a rollercoaster ride just to see how it gets blurbed. Nothing compares in recent memory to "Agent Zigzag." The blurb  – by Alex Beam, a fine writer with whom I crossed swords a few years back, but a man who knows good work – called it simply “the greatest book ever written,” and while I suspect this was a cheerful obvious exaggeration, he’s right. 


What’s it about, you ask? A low-level crook ends up in jail in WW2, on the Jersey Islands; the Nazis invade; he gets shipped to a camp in France, volunteers to spy for the Germans, goes back to England, and offers to be a double agent.

Then it gets odd. Oh: true story. The twists, the characters, and the series of payoffs that conclude the book are stunning, extraordinary and remarkable. (Note to USA Today: royalty payments for those words will be in the mail tomorrow.) The bare facts are sufficiently compelling, but the writing has the same buoyant charm as its protagonist. There’s another new book on the same subject, too – I just saw it. Gave it a look. Earnest but leagues below “Agent Zigzag” – the author must have had a Salieri moment when he leafed through his competition.

Weekend movies: Watched “American Gangster.” Your basic crime-lord drama, “based on a true story.” (Loosely. I do not recommend googling the main characters before watching the movie.) Like all movies of its genre, it uses the pop music of its period to lend a good-time spirit to the up-and-coming phase of the protagonist’s life. Because everyone in the past was always listening to music. It’s like making a movie about young Napoleon with a constant soundtrack of fifes and violins.

The last scene shows the drug lord – no, kingpin; drug lords are usually Colombian, right?  - played by Denzel Washington leaving jail, forgotten, broke, an uncertain future ahead. A little googling showed that he’s still around – and he runs a Foundation. His daughter, who entered the witness protection probram, has awebsite. For children. Whose parents are in jail. I don’t know about you, but Daddy Be Good just breaks my heart.

Speaking of crime and punishment:

The first portion of the long-promised Lance Lawson archive is up – fifty strips, all previously published at Fifty! The “100 Mysteries” project also has its own site, here.