Thursday, July 21, 2011

The End of the Beginning

Atlantis lands at the Kennedy Space Center this morning.

I rose about 5:30 this morning and took time to fire up my iPad and open the NASA TV App in order to witness the successful landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This marked the conclusion of flight STS-135 and, moreover, the completion of the US Space Shuttle Program that has been so much a part of my life over the past 30 years.

Having missed the launch 13 days ago due to a business meeting and missed virtually every important aspect of the mission live (I was able to replay videos of everything online later, of course), I wanted to be sure to at least be in the Now for the touchdown in Florida. STS-135 replenished the International Space Station (ISS) with a year of supplies and brought back to Earth a lot of “junk” (mostly various devices that have broken over the years aboard the ISS) for analysis by various engineers to make such things better the next time.

And there will be a next time. This is not the end of anything but a single program, like Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury (and many others) before it.

I managed to catch a few interviews live with the shuttle crew members and various NASA engineers on NASA TV during the mission. One thing that always strikes me about everyone I’ve ever heard from NASA is that, unlike any other government agency I can think of except perhaps the National Parks System, the public persona of every single person working for NASA (astronauts included, of course) is upbeat, optimistic, smiling, enthusiastic about what they do, intelligent, articulate, and inspired. I want some of that. Why have I never known any work place where the employees and managers are all, apparently without exception, that way? Maybe they have personality tests and only hire happy people.

One of the first things I did when we got DSL after we built our house was watch the Space Shuttle (STS-63, I believe) dock with the Mir Space Station. I recall thinking what a wonderful world we live in, to be able to sit in the comfort of my home in the middle of what used to be a cattle pasture/cotton field and watch a chapter of human space exploration live.

One of the times in my life when I felt the most “American” (when I experienced the intimate separateness inherent in national identity) was when I was in India in January 1986. The British influence weighs heavily on much of Hindu culture and Indians enjoyed “tea time” in the morning and afternoons as if they were Londoners. Anyway, I approached a group of mostly Europeans staying at the ashram where I was practicing yoga for afternoon tea. They were discussing the latest news, arriving by newspaper, of the Challenger Disaster.

I was shocked. What a horrible event. But, what surprised me even more was how matter-of-factly the event was communicated to me as the group moved on to other topics. To them it was just another news event. To me it was a wound to my heritage. I felt the distance between their acknowledgment of the tragedy and my appreciation for the national dimensions of the event. This single moment registered with me in such a way that since then I have often tried to understand news events from foreign counties or even distant places in America as if I lived there. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the weight of happenings on those more directly connected to them than myself; taking me out of my “lifeworld” and putting me into an “intersubjectivity” to put it in the terms of a contemporary school of philosophy which I hope to blog about at some future date.

To that extent, the Space Shuttle Program taught me something. But, for the most part, it has inspired me and given me other ways to contextualize human endeavor. Space is our future, after all. No matter what cutbacks the present reality of “austerity” might bring, sooner or later we will return to manned spaceflight, to the Moon, and on to Mars. Humanity explores. That is a simple historical fact. And space, as Trekkers know so well, is the final frontier.

So what’s next? Well, for now the Russian Space Program will keep the ISS functioning with its Soyuz fleet. NASA will continue to develop the next space vehicle, which will be a multi-purpose design. China wants to place a human on the Moon. We can also expect private enterprise to play a larger role in future explorations and missions. In fact, the privatization of space might be the next step in the evolution of how we explore the Moon and journey to Mars.

It is not exactly the same today as when I was a kid. Not everyone wants to be an astronaut. But, I remember when I did and so did many of my friends. Our innocence was caught up in an adventurous period in American history, born out of the Cold War for sure, but nevertheless devoted to visions of discoveries in space and colonization of space, just as it was with the great explorers in sailing ships that ventured to our new world hundreds of years before. The Moon missions and the Space Shuttle Program that followed them captivated my imagination and served as one more example of how humankind can Be if we so choose.

About five centuries separate the adventures of Columbus from the adventures of Columbia. I don’t think we’ll have to wait 500 more years before human beings will live in space. Perhaps we must await some economic motivation or perhaps politics will provide the reason for continuing humanity’s heritage in space. (We can’t let China claim the Moon for itself now can we?) But, regardless of the rational explanation for it, at bottom we will return to space and remain in space because that is what human beings do.

As a species our faults are many but boldness is not among them. It is in the spirit of Being human that the Shuttle Program Be but another milestone in a continuum that stretches across a thousand centuries back to our decision to explore the Earth out of our East African homelands. Greater things await us. This is but "the end of the beginning" of it all.

Famous final image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked at the ISS taken about six weeks ago. It is the only image ever taken from the perspective of another spacecraft of a Shuttle docked at the ISS. One for the ages.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

10,000 - 9,992

This is the total Atlanta Braves Franchise record since 1876 after an 11-1 pounding of the Washington Nationals last night. The Braves are baseball's oldest team. Reaching 10,000 wins last night placed them in the company of the Cubs and the Giants Franchises as the only three baseball organizations to offically win 10,000 games.

Everybody of course thinks the DamnYankees would surely be a member of this club. But, they are part of
baseball's junior circuit and many of their earlier games don't count.

As a mental exercise this afternoon I connected Warren Spahn with Chipper Jones, covering the Braves continuously from 1946 in Boston up to the present in Atlanta. Here's how the lineage works. As it should be, it is mostly with pitching. Warren Spahn had a great career for the Braves but his worst season was his final one in Milwaukee in 1964. That was his also the first season for Phil Niekro even though Niekro only pitched 15 innings. A late season call-up. Nevertheless, these two Braves pitched on the same team one season.

Niekro then takes us up to 1983 after which he was released by the Braves. Now, we have to rely on a catcher to carry us along. Bruce Benedict had just an ordinary career as a ball player but he caught Phil Niekro's first win in '83 and Tom Glavine's first loss in the 1988 season. Glavine, of course, to my heart's sorrow, opted to become a New York Met in 2003. But, Chipper Jones remained on the Braves roster, of course. Here we have to leave the world of pitching/catching completely. Jones is the only constant player between now and then. So, if you connect six Braves players you can go all the way back 65 years to Boston. Who will Chipper hand this lineage off to, if anyone?

All these years and basically the Braves are a .500 ballclub. 8 losses away from their 10,000th defeat. That will put them
in company with the Philadelphia Phillies, who have a losing percentage as a Franchise. The brilliance of recent Braves seasons was preceeded and balanced by periods in Boston, though never in Milwaukee, and throughout the 1970's and 1980's in Atlanta when the Braves were one of the worst teams in baseball. Nevertheless, but for the brilliance of recent seasons we would have reached 10,000 losses sooner, maybe even before the Phillies. We only made it to .500 ourselves last season. Before then it had been 1923 since the Braves Franchise had a winning record.

Again, baseball is historic in some form or fashion almost every week you live it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jeter and Jones and What-ifs

The latest edition of Out of the Park Baseball version 12 (OOTP12) was released late this year, primarily because the OOTP guys were busy developing and introducing something called iOOTP for iPhones and iPads. At any rate, better late than never and, as usual, I have spent most of my (limited lately) free time fiddling with the game.

I have played every release of OOTP since version 5 and, as corny as it sounds, they just keep making the game better and better each year. OOTP12 comes with highly detailed and (with very few exceptions) accurate opening day rosters not only for every Major League Baseball team but for each organization’s entire minor league system as well. You can manage any minor league team in baseball in addition to your major league favorite.

There’s the usual stuff too, just more of it with many, many improvements. You can play any baseball season with real players and real schedules from 1871 up to this year. You can model player development, get scouting reports, negotiate contract extensions, sign free agents, make trades, set your line-ups, pitching rotations, bullpens, deal with injuries, as well as manage just about everything there is to manage inside an individual game of baseball. Hit and run, pitch-out, intentional walks, make pitching substitutions, decide whether or not to send a runner to the plate, and so on…and on and on.

As I have posted before, OOTP is the best value in a baseball simulation I have ever had the pleasure of being entertained by. This year former baseball pitching great Curt Schilling even chimed in on the OOTP message boards asking very detailed questions on how to do various things in the game and stating that OOTP was “the only baseball sim I’ve ever gotten addicted to.” Well, I’ve been addicted at other times to other baseball games but nothing like OOTP.

The flip side of all this is that, by now, the game has a rather steep learning curve for the newcomer. There are so many options to set as you customize the game to your tastes and there are so many details to keep up with in running a major league organization and managing a team through a long baseball season that it can all be quite intimidating. Essentially, it is best to think of OOTP as an “internet” unto itself. Just as you can browse all sorts of things online, OOTP is a self-contained virtual world of information and action; all resulting in a total immersion into what baseball is (or was – given past eras) all about.

Unfortunately, since it came out so late, I have not had as much time for OOTP as I have in past seasons. Real life keeps interfering with my play time (and blogging time for that matter). But, I did manage to do my usual dozen sims of the current season based on the actual rosters and that little exercise yielded some interesting results. The Braves won the NL East three times (whereas in last year’s OOTP they never won their division and finished second four times). Two of those three times they went to the World Series, losing both times, once to the White Sox and the other in seven games to the DamnYankees. The Braves were the wild-card team once, so they made the play-offs four out of 12 sims.

Their average season record was 86-76. Philadelphia won the NL East more often than Atlanta (seven times to three) and had an average record of 89-73. In the other two sims the New York Mets and the Florida Marlins won the division, showing that almost anything is possible given how injuries, trades, and player performances turn out. The Washington Nationals did not win the division nor did they make the play-offs in any sim.

Taking a larger view, World Series Champions in my dozen sims included St. Louis, Milwaukee, Texas, San Francisco, and the Chicago White Sox. The New York Yankees won four championships out of 12 while the Boston Red Sox won three times. According to OOTP the winner of the AL East is most likely to go all the way in 2011. For comparison purposes the DamnYankees had an average record of 88-74. The Red Sox ended up with the best overall average record in OOTP12 at 93-71. It is noteworthy that the Phillies went to the Series three times and lost all three trips.

Sim number 10 was the highlight this year as far as producing a great baseball story for the Braves. Atlanta beat out Philadelphia by one game in the regular season, after winning a one-game playoff in Philadelphia when both teams ended up tied for the NL East with 91-71 records. The Braves went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds three games to one in the NLDS, while the wild-card Phillies were edged by the Giants three to two. Atlanta took the NLCS from San Francisco in seven games before losing to the White Sox four games to two in the World Series.

But, the play-offs were almost anti-climatic compared to the great pennant race the Braves had with the Phillies. Coming in to the final four-game season ending series against Philadelphia in Atlanta the Braves needed to win three out of four to tie. It didn’t help matters when the Phillies won the first game 5-1. But, Atlanta came back and beat Philadelphia the next three games by scores of 13-2, 4-3, 6-4 to force a tie for the division. I don’t know if the actual 2011 season will turn out that close between these two teams, but this particular sim was a lot of fun to watch inning-by-inning as the Braves and Phillies battled one another throughout September.

The bottom line is that the 2011 Atlanta Braves are clearly a better team than the 2010 Atlanta Braves, at least according to the OOTP game engine.

Beyond the usual sim stuff I managed a couple of seasons of past years that interest me. I managed the 1974 Braves, 1983 Braves, and the 1996 Braves so far in OOTP12. The 1974 season is always a challenge but it is a personal favorite anyway because it was the one and only year that Buzz Capra shined as a pitcher. One of a long list of Braves what-ifs is what-if Capra had not gotten injured and continued to pitch at the level he displayed in 1974. The 1983 season is fun because you have Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss in the line-up. Of course, Phil Niekro pitched on both the 1974 and 1983 Braves teams.

1996 was the Braves at their height with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz trying to win a consecutive world championship. In history they lost the World Series to the DamnYankees. But, in OOTP I can replay that series if I want and it often turns out differently; always in a realistically feeling way, of course.

One of the improvements in OOTP12 is better ability to sim 19th century baseball, which is an aspect of the game that has only started interesting me in recent years. It still takes a lot of work to set things up. One of the limitations of OOTP is that it will not import players to their historic teams prior to 1901. It is a database limitation. So you have to manually setup the teams. Anyway, it is fun to watch Al Spalding pitch every single game and win 30 or 40 games a season. You get a better understanding of other great players like Cap Anson and John McGraw and Kid Nichols by playing around with their teams in their seasons as well.

OOTP allows you to import historic team logos and team colors to add a lot of flavor to any season. Individual games “feel” like the 19th century as the OOTP game engine adjusts itself to reflect the way the game was played in various eras of baseball. In the 19th century there were very few homeruns, lots of base stealing, and a ton of fielding errors. Back then it was not uncommon for the same ball to be used for practically the whole game. The Game Ball was literally the game’s only ball. Balls were rarely hit over fences or into stands. Games were often defensive nightmares. Also, the spitball was legal then. So, as a game continued the ball kept getting darker and it tended to bounce funny from getting a bit lop-sided after being bashed with the bat. Add to the mix that, for most of the century, players played barehanded instead of using gloves and you have all the soup necessary for all sorts of goofy errors to occur. In my OOTP sims of the era there are far more unearned runs scored than earned runs.

It is also fun to compare the individual player ratings of the 19th century with modern day ratings. The pitchers, for example, have superhuman stamina in the spitball era, pitching complete games day after day. But, modern day pitchers blow their predecessors away with “stuff” ratings, reflecting the fact that balls are thrown so much harder and faster today than in yesteryear. As far as hitters go, the ratings are surprisingly similar in terms of contact. Power is a different matter. Today’s batters, like the pitchers, have far more power and hit many more homeruns (even without steroids). Most of the batters had higher speed ratings in the 19th century, however, reflecting the base stealing nature at that time in baseball.

As I have said before, OOTP is a great way to see the history of baseball from an interactive perspective.

In truth the 19th century was not very competitive in professional baseball. Only a few seasons are worth examining very closely. 1889 and 1897 were both nail-biters for the pennant. The New York Giants beat the Boston Beaneaters by one game to win the National League pennant in 1889. But, the Beaneaters (forerunners to the modern Atlanta Braves) invented a new style of baseball in the 1890’s called “hit and run”. They perfected it in 1897 beating out the Baltimore Orioles by two games to win the pennant, though they later lost the Temple Cup that year.

Another cool new feature in OOTP12 is the Simulation Module. Essentially, this allows you to simulate any type of series between any two teams in the database. I simmed Atlanta against Philadelphia for a full 162-game season based on 2011 opening day rosters. Each sim ended with the team at or near .500, showing how evenly matched the two are. The Braves would win one sim 83-79 and the Phillies would win the next with something like an 85-77 record. Rarely did either team dominate the other. This is just one more reason to expect a close pennant race again this year between the two contenders.

Of course, players go through slumps in the OOTP game engine just as they would in real life. Which players slump and which get hot and for how long is fairly random, however, or at least different for each sim. Overall, however, you can count of Doc Halladay winning 15-20 games in any given sim. You can count on Brian McCann to bat at or near .300.

But, in no sim did something as statistically absurd happen as Dan Uggla batting .175. I think in his worst season in OOTP12 so far the Braves big off-season acquisition second baseman hit .267. Shifting to real baseball for a moment, thanks to outstanding pitching and good defense, the Braves have the third best record in baseball at the 2011 All-Star break. Fredi Gonzalez, in his first year managing Atlanta and following in Bobby Cox’s long, hall-of-fame shadow is doing a great job of handling the team in my opinion.

In real life baseball, the Braves need Uggla to step it up offensively after the All-Star break if they want to remain competitive. Chipper Jones is out for several weeks and that is a big bat to be missing from an overall mediocre (so far) offensive team. This past weekend I spent more time watching and reading about the real Braves than simming anything in OOTP. Thus far the 2011 season has been a fun one for Braves fans. No need to divert my attention to a fantasy baseball world, other than the sheer fun of discovering new features, making historic comparisons, and analyzing the possibilities for the season in OOTP.

The Braves finished up at the break with a semi-important series against the Phillies in Philadelphia. They lost two out of three games to which equates to being four games out in the loss column. There’s plenty of baseball left and the Braves need to win five more games than the Phillies from here on out. As I pointed out in my dozen 2011 sims, the Braves close out the season at home with four games with the Phillies. Is it going to be a OOTP12 sim 10 type story? I’m looking forward to what August and September will bring for Atlanta.

Finally, I don’t normally find favorable things to say about anyone in a New York Yankee uniform but I have to tip my cap to the way Derek Jeter reached the historic 3,000 hit mark this past Saturday. Going 5 for 5 and reaching 3,000 with a home run was certainly a special historic baseball moment. Doing it all through many seasons with one team is an exceptional achievement in this unfortunate era of free agency. Jeter’s story is very similar to Chipper’s for Atlanta. Both players are at or near the end of great careers. Jones himself will not reach the 3,000 hit club but the 2,500 hit club is hall-of-fame stuff, especially considering Jones is a switch hitter which puts him in the same company with the likes of Mickey Mantle.

At the other end of the career spectrum, congratulations to the great rookie Braves relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel for saving more ball games before the All-Star break than any other rookie relief pitcher in history. This stat has only been kept since 1969 so it is a modern day baseball yardstick. He’s a serious rookie of the year candidate, as is the Braves’ Freddie Freeman. (It is interesting to note that OOTP11 saw Freeman’s potential and the game engine promoted him more often than not to the Show in my sims last year. Another aspect of OOTP that I find entertaining is the way you can spot potential great talent in the various farm systems on the opening day rosters.)

OOTP12 says both Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are solid pitching prospects currently the Braves minor league system. In several sims one or both of them ended starting for the Braves in a handful of games. So, we’ll see if this great Braves pitching staff has a great feeder program. You can go a long way with just pitching and defense. Even a mediocre offense can win games. They can be the hottest team in baseball since June 1. Which is what the Atlanta Braves are at this point in the seasonal Now.

Let’s hope we are not peaking early as a team.

Every week something historic happens in baseball. It is wonderful to be able to appreciate living in historic times as a fan of a great American pastime. I was alive but don’t remember Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. I know of Jeter and Jones, however. And of Pete Rose and Bob Gibson. I saw Tom Glavine win a world series game live in 1991. I saw Henry Aaron play, though I don’t recall ever seeing him hit a home run live. But I saw the Braves turn two triple plays live, one in 1969 and the other in 1978.

Those were the only two triple plays the Braves turned during all those years in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Triple plays are rare though not as rare, say, as no-hitters in the play-offs; but I saw one of those too just last season (on TV not live). What an incredible game to tap in to. Whether inside OOTP12 or reading the actual box scores for the 2011 season, this year is turning out to be a lot of fun for me personally as a Braves fan.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beached Whale

Looking west toward Destin on our first evening there this year.

We spent most of last week on a beach near Destin, Florida. Jennifer and I have been there many times during our marriage. Just as a couple, then with both sets of parents (on different trips), then with my daughter as a child, then with my daughter and a friend as teens, we even went once with my sister and her daughter; all sorts of variations dating back before most of the high-rises and overdevelopment.

This year’s excursion held true to the fact that my daughter has taken only her cousin to Destin twice. All her other best friends have only made the trip once so far. (You don’t think it is us do you?) But this year’s friend was bright and chatty and fun to be around. The two girls were on autopilot much of the trip, Jennifer got to sit in her beach chair, drink beer, and stare.

Meanwhile, I got up early, did the coffee routine on the beach with Jennifer, went for beach walks both alone and with Jennifer before the beach crowd invaded the space. I took a morning dip in the as yet empty pool. Then I waited for the girls to wake up, checked into work now and then on the laptop, and I read a lot, usually in the heat of the afternoon, usually drinking a Harp Lager or a Heineken lite while reading.

Beach reading is always essential to packing for the trip. This year I took the latest issue of The Economist and Moby-Dick. I have read that novel once in college and again sometime within the past ten years ago or so. (I remember because I made several email posts back then to friends about how much Captain Ahab reminded me of George W. Bush just before the Bush invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was the Whale.) At any rate, I have never read Herman Melville's great work at the beach and so I made it my somewhat cliché book of choice for Beach Vacation 2011.

On the trip down Jennifer and I got to enjoy On the Beach and Are You Passionate? on the Caddy’s great sound system. The girls were obliviously watching DVDs with their head phones on. It was nice cruising down part of the way with Neil. We came back in a night journey to miss the Atlanta traffic. All traffic is lite at midnight and beyond. We got home at 3AM and still had the day before us after about five hours sleep. I prefer driving at night. There are fewer vehicles to put up with, you make better time, the passengers all sleep instead of complaining, and it is cooler temperature-wise.

Vacation goes hand in hand with often decadent eating. My hybrid-CRON diet goes out the window when I travel for entertainment. The first night Jennifer prepared our best seafood meal of the trip; large scallops and boiled shrimp, with crab salad and slaw on the side. She loves to prepare scallops and is quite good at it. Later in the week we enjoyed a fresh-made Key Lime pie, a favorite of mine. I started out full-throttle with two large pieces and a glass of milk. I slept briefly thereafter. Naps are part of the beach experience, right?

The typically expensive eat-out meals were less-seafood oriented and included stops to Destin’s Hard Rock CafĂ© and a place we traditionally eat at called Fudpuckers. Both featured fun, energetic atmospheres. We all ate heartily. My daughter and her friend did not cop an attitude the whole trip (it must have been the bountiful sun and shopping that kept spirits high) and we had lively, funny conversations.

The water was particularly rough this year. It was mostly a red flag surf, which alerts the swimmer to use extreme caution. The sea’s undertoe was fierce but my daughter had a float which she and I shared and we stayed up at the surface where the drift was much calmer. The water was wonderfully clear despite the wave action. You could see the bottom clearly down about five feet (Maybe more but, abiding the red flag, I didn’t get out too deep.) We saw schools of minnows swimming under us and around us. My daughter’s friend had a large inner-tube float that proved very practical for riding in the rough waves. Most of them were small waves, maybe 2-3 feet. But there were some larger waves too, something more akin to what one typically sees on the Atlantic side. The usually calm Gulf featured some waves as high as 5 feet if you hit them just right.

The three of us stayed out in them for a long time one morning. It was a lot of fun. Of course, once you rode a wave in (or got thrown around by it, groping for the shallow, sandy ocean bottom) getting the float back out there, indeed getting yourself, was a challenge in the frequent breakers. It was a workout but my daughter and I caught a couple of big waves nicely. She and her friend were screaming and laughing the whole time. I laughed too.

The transfer of experience from being in the actual surf on a beautiful Emerald Coast beach resort, the smell and taste of salt, the hot sun beaming down in a warm breeze, to a classic work of nineteenth century literature (one of the greatest novels ever written) about the metaphysical qualities of whaling flowed smoothly for me. Landlubber though I am, I connected with Ishmael’s journey too.

Moby-Dick is boring at times. So boring that many readers feel passionately about its dullness. Other’s will point out, as D. H. Lawrence did, that the work often overreaches its metaphysical and symbolic attempts. Lawrence wrote in his essay on the masterwork: “Melville manages to keep a real whaling ship, on a real cruise, in spite of all fantastics. A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful floundering in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surprisingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts…”

That sums it up pretty well, I think. I guess a basic question is whether Moby-Dick is relevant today or just a tedious, long-winded read. I think it holds up well and Lawrence’s comments could just have easily been written last week. The book is overblown and slow. It tries very hard to make a big symbolic deal out of the Pequod’s expedition in search of the White Whale, Ahab’s singular, powerful obsession.

But, it should be dull at times. That is part of the voyage, to be on an American whaling ship in the 1851, sailing out of cold, wintry Nantucket to the warm south Pacific. Countless months go by. Time has no meaning. The ship’s crew has to deal with everyday boredom of the same. The same endless horizon, the same routine, the same long days without catching a whale, the same difficult process of carving up the giant beast into all its valued parts and fluids. The same.

Melville offers the reader an intimate acquaintance of this vast sameness by treating us to rather lengthy descriptions of whaling operations, the comparisons of different kinds of whales, a bunch of tales about whaling, and so forth. The characters are barely involved during literally a couple of hundred of pages about whaling. It is not entirely disinteresting but it gets a tad worn after awhile, which is precisely the point. Ever been on a ship at sea for months on end? It is largely boring after awhile. Melville wants his reader to experience all of this as well as the adventure of it. The actual killing of whales and the final, climatic, confrontation with Moby-Dick himself is rather first-rate action. A real page turner. So, you have the basic, well-told adventure aspect of the book as well.

The rest is Melville’s attempts with mixed mastery of transforming the whole story into this symbolic epic about…about what exactly, I do not know. There are many, many opinions on what Moby-Dick is about. Suffice it to say that, for me, I think Melville is often intentionally ambiguous, which makes him highly relevant in literature today. Read your own impressions into the work and discover the meaning best fit for you. Which, of course, could change each time you read the novel.

The reader is practically invited to pick and choose among the many metaphysical passages of prose as to which symbols mean what. There is much more to the novel than the quest for Moby-Dick. A myriad of possible meanings await the hearty reader. Lawrence said he didn’t care what the book meant, he simply enjoyed reading it. That, too, is a summary well-put.

In a fairly well-known chapter, Melville takes the time to point out a symbolic obviousness. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. And as for the small difficulties and worrying, prospects for sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable joker. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed the free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.” (from chapter XLIX)

The first 200 pages and the last 50 or so pages are Moby-Dick at its best. Ishmael’s gloomy decision to go off to sea in order to escape the “November of his soul” and his subsequent encounter with the half-civilized, half-canibal, heavily tattooed Queequeg is a highly entertaining, sustained read. The introduction of Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are fascinating additions to the narrative.

After the lengthy section where the various aspects of the ship and sailing the ship, and the business and science of whales weighs heavily on the narrative, the novel ends spectacularly with the encounter with Moby-Dick, an artistically composed thrill-ride. Despite its apparent defects, the novel is one of my favorites and was an excellent choice for this year’s beach trip.

On our last afternoon in Destin, the girls having previously shopped away all the other afternoons while I drank and read, we all went to play putt-putt golf, a family tradition. My brother is an avid golfer. Putt-putt does it for me. I played with my grandparents at the Daytona Beach when I was a kid. I have played with my daughter every trip to Destin since she could swing a putter.

But, on the way to putt-putt I was assailed (unbelievably) by a sudden attack of shopping. Jennifer mentioned that she just had to buy this top she regretted not buying the other day. Then she informed the girls that it was near Forever 21. That sealed it, apparently. My resistance would be pointless. I would become victim to a shopping trip.

Thankfully, it was a short one, Jennifer got exactly what she was looking for, the girls got nothing, then we went off to play putt-putt in the heat of day. Mad dogs and Englishmen. The usual crazy shots resulted in the usual funny triumphs and disasters. There was no competition that I recall. No one really “won”. We just played.
Hours later, in the orange fading sun, we took pictures on the beach; another family tradition. It was tough but we got one or two good ones of my family of three. Jennifer and I are not as photogenic as we once were.

The girls were excited about the spontaneity of coming home that night. Our original plan was to leave early the next morning. But, getting home at 3AM gave us the whole next day instead of driving. I consider it always a supreme luxury to have a day or two after a vacation trip to lounge at home and enjoy the summer days.

What's a beach trip without a little putt-putt family fun?