Monday, December 27, 2010

Career Change! I Am Going to Be an NFL Announcer.

I am not really a football person, which I blame on my father for not really being a Sports Dad*, but I am reasonably entertained by it despite never really being 100% sure about what's going on. It's a little bit like going to a really weird art "happening" where there are a lot of armless baby dolls hanging from the ceiling and one bicycle in the corner and then some guy runs into the room naked and starts shrieking, and you're there like "WTF" but everyone else seems to be in a really good mood and that kind of puts you in a good mood because it's nice to see people so happy In Times Like These and you walk out and your friends are like "so how was it" and you can't help but say it was really fun. Football is mostly like that for me, but it helps that I do enjoy sports where huge men in barely adequate padding collide violently in the name of shoving an object around. The problem with this corollary however is that I try to apply hockey logic to what I'm looking at in football, and let me tell you that this is an exercise in futility.

I'm also reasonably convinced that Rich is some kind of wizard, because he's always saying things like "they're going to send that guy over there and then this other guy is going to throw it to this other guy and then they will hand it off and then run it around that dude on the other team and then they will get a down" and it happens which is really exciting for me in the way children are excited by the Quarter In Your Ear trick. He also got me the Football for Dummies book which was probably pretty informative but was unfortunately written by Howie Long, who seemed to be operating on a "this is a girl book, and girls are mildly retarded and don't understand sports" theory, so I kind of made some disparaging comments about that stupid-ass haircut he has and mailed the book via BookMooch to some chick in Germany who wanted to learn about American football for some reason**. That gesture was very sweet but ultimately a failure, so I was kind of freaking out because I was like "I have to learn to enjoy football or I will spend every Sunday-Monday wanting to kill myself out of sheer boredom." The New England Surge swooped in to my rescue. Arena football is basically all red-zone play, so I got an up close crash course (literally; we had front row season tickets and caught a couple players) in football, after which the Surge promptly failed to pay their bills in somewhat spectacular fashion and folded. Oops. But I had the knowledge. Ever since then I've been filling in the blanks, and now I know what's going on a good 80% of the time and have even moved on to random trivia like how Hines Ward has a smile like fucking Pacman and Brett Favre is kind of an enormous doucheface***.

So anyway, I've been watching more football than usual this season, and I've decided that I should totally be an NFL announcer. This whole academia thing is kind of a Thank You Sir May I Have Another situation (I actually mispelled that as "Thank You Sire" which adds a whole other level of grovelling to the scene and I think makes it more accurate) and I'm basically going to make like four dollars every year until I die because I am too bossy to write irritating tripe like Fareed "Here Are a Bunch of Well-Researched Facts and No Conclusions" Zakaria pumps out and thus will have book royalties of about fourteen cents to back up that extravagant professorial salary. If I go into announcing, I won't have to go broke getting myself a Ph.D**** and I will be able to make a seriously awesome living by eating a massive plate of beans before gametime and pointing my ass at a microphone.

See, I've observed that these people do not actually do a lot of talking about what is going on and that when they do, it's the most ridiculous irrelevant drivel ever sent out on the airwaves. Said drivel seems to fall into one of two categories - babbling about the play that just happened, or openly jacking it over the player of the moment. A particular favorite of mine was the other day during the Packers/Giants game when a fumble resulted in some pretty great hot potato recovery action. There was a ref literally right on the sideline with such a great view that he directly blocked the camera angle from one direction. The call was made - ball stayed in - and the announcers immediately started talking about how they would accept the ref's decision.


Guys, no shit you're going to accept his goddamn decision. He's the ref. You are retired players who managed to avoid concussing yourself into illiteracy. You are not in this. How about talking about the Packers' and Giants' fumble recovery rates? How about talking about receiver stats? How about QB picks? No? Seriously, what is even the point of you?

So I'm going to be an NFL announcer, not only because I am charming and attractive but also because my scant handful of what I will now be calling "color commentary factoids" about Troy Polamalu's hair and Manning's Manningface. I believe this will also help the lucky network that gets me corner the market on "female sports fans" who they tend to regard in much the same way they do unicorns. I plan to capture this market by being a female talking about sports without asking people about their fucking feelings on the damn field and also by reminding the programming people that women do in fact like sports and don't just fantasize about spraying the goddamn Febreze around after their husbands' filthy, filthy football parties*****, so maybe we should get some ads that don't treat women like vapid cleaning devices to be hauled out after the game. I would also start a campaign against the scourge that is pink team gear, because pink team gear is stupid, that's why. Want to support your team? Wear their goddamn colors. You don't see me supporting my country by wearing a pink tee shirt with the Presidential seal in darker pink and white on it, do you? No, I wear a fucking obnoxious extravaganza of red, white and blue with a taxidermied bald eagle hat like a true patriot.

Then, if I ran out of factoids, I could just start talking about whatever came to mind. I'd probably go with talking smack about the fans, because who doesn't like mocking fans? Weirdos, that's who. Have you seen the shit people show up to these games in? It's a judger's dream. And all of this would STILL be more interesting than the dreck currently airing.

The big question, of course, is whether I'd be able to make the transition to the pre- and postgame shows, and I think the answer is OBVIOUSLY yes. My secret weapon would be wardrobe critique. My theory is that all of these guys are being dressed by someone else, and thus cannot possibly be 100% confident that they are wearing the Right Outfit. There are two reasons I believe this. First of all, anyone who spends as much time as these ex-players and coaches spend in team-wear, be it a jersey or other gear, finds their wardrobe gradually consumed by teamlogonalia, all socially acceptable clothing being slowly devoured by tee shirts. Secondly, I refuse to believe that a man who once had the sheer balls to wear a sweater that said "BEARS" across it in public, repeatedly, would ever be able to assemble the relatively natty outfits Ditka sports on air. Once you go to a sweater that self-righteously tacky, you never go back. In any case, I plan to leap with bared fangs on this weakness the second someone disagrees with me. "I disagree, Jimmy the Shark is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Minnesota Vikings." "Yeah, well you look like you cut your hair with a Flowbee and your pocket square is a fucking mess." There is no counter argument for that shit. They would simply have to admit that I was right and let me win forever.

And then I will punch Frank Caliendo in the face.

* Though he made up for it in many ways, including teaching me how to change the oil in my car, being willing to light expired road flares with me for no reason during family holiday gatherings and reading a frankly absurd number of Nancy Drew books with me when I was a kid.

** I don't think Germans will ever not confuse me.

*** Not sure I actually needed football knowledge for that. If Brette Favre's vocal cords exploded in a gory, Sawesque extravaganza of chaos, I'm not sure I could even muster human sympathy at this point. See also: Lebron James, Curt Schilling.

**** Downside: no crazy robes and ridiculous hat. This is significant.

***** I pride myself on being filthier than my husband.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Don't Waste Enough Time on the Internet? Read These Blogs!

It's the weekend after Christmas, so I'm kind of catching up and relearning skills like Making It To Frank* On A Routine Basis and Not Having Panic Attacks About Phantom Due Dates. One of the things I have on my catch up list is posting something about various friends' and wish-they-were-my-friends' blogs. This way, you can read my FRIENDS' blogs and hopefully transfer ideas about content to ME so you'll be reading one of these and thinking "boy, look at all this awesome hilarity that Josie posted for my benefit!" And then I'll feel better about the blogger Tourettes that I suffer from.

Here Comes the Boogey-Mom
My friend Erin started this blog after her long-dormant writing bug came back with a vengeance. She's just starting out, but there have already been stories about Boston Terriers (and other dogs), her adorable children and the challenges of parenting, Johnny Cash, monsters, and witches. That seems like a pretty good deal for a fledgling effort, PLUS Erin is a great writer and knows the difference between they're, there and their, so already I'm gonna say you're ahead of about 95% of the Internet. Based on my knowledge of Erin, I am going to guess that other topics will eventually include fashion, bats, literature, and art, along with more about the kids and Gosh the Boston Terrier.

On Cardamom and Cast Iron
This is Celia's blog, and look, I can't really offer you a lot of blogs written by wizards, but I think that Celia is a pretty good substitute. Celia posts about her family and their travels (as a Navy family, they have lots of those), and about her cooking. This is where the wizarding comes in. Celia is always talking to me about how she's whipping some kind of of magical concoction, oh and by the way it's vegan or vegetarian or gluten free and oh PS, she started with some kind of insane French recipe that was like 97% animal products and gluten, but she makes it healthy and delicious. Look, I don't know how she does it, so I assumed magic about seven years ago, and that's been working out really well for me so far. The pictures alone are worth a click, and the recipes are always great.

Scrittore Creativo
The Lucy has a blog! She started it in the middle of her MFA and then discovered that blogging consistently during a grad program while also trying to avoid neglecting home and hearth is actually really hard, but now that she is DONE WITH HER MFA HOORAY, she has rebooted the blog. She does really excellent movie reviews, amongst other things, which is great for me since apparently I really like reading movie reviews but never ever going to movies. Yes, it is weird, and no, I cannot explain it. In any case, Lucy also posts about entertainment in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area as well. I can vouch for Lucy's great taste, so this is a great guide.

The Bloggess
I discovered The Bloggess when I read a story about a Christmas miracle that happened on her blog. ...No, really. She was offering 20 $30 gift certificates to people who didn't have money for the holidays, and when they quickly got snapped up, people suddenly started offering to donate as well. $42,000 later, she had coordinated Christmas for hundreds of donors and giftees. How cool is that? I liked her style and kept reading older posts, and man, she is funny. You will laugh your ass off. It's just as valid a workout program as those idiotic balance ball shoes1

*I always think that everyone knows this, yet I always have someone pop up all "ARE YOU CHEATING ON RICH WHAT IS GOING ON" and I have to explain that my marriage is not in fact falling apart. Frank is my trainer, and he is awesome and everyone should go to him because he has some kind of voodoo magic that makes you love him even though he is kind of maybe evil. Also he has a tire you get to hit with a sledgehammer. It is like adult recess except with Frank and Diane supervising and no map tag.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Guerlain Owns My Soul

You probably know Guerlain because they sold a bottle of Shalimar perfume to every woman on the face of the planet at one point, and you vaguely remember some female relative or friend wearing it. My designated relative was my Aunt Cheryl, who is the epitome of glamour and probably to blame for some of my susceptibility to fabulous packaging when it comes to cosmetics. Here's the bottle you probably saw.
You just smelled the woman who wore this, didn't you?

Luckily, only the suspicion that anything my Aunt the glamourpuss would wear cost $1M Adult Dollars kept me from haranguing my parents for a bottle of this stuff. I was dealing in Teenager Dollars Earned at the Greendale Mall Popcorn Stand at the time, so I was in that weird phase where $20 still seems like a fair amount, but you also kind of get that it's not, unlike early childhood when you're like "I have $6, which means I can buy the whole ice cream truck. I am the richest person alive." You know, the more I think about this, the more it might have been better for all involved if I had worn down my parents and gotten a bottle of Shalimar, since I went through first a Love's Baby Soft phase and then a CKOne phase, the latter of which was less a "spritz, spritz, go" process than a bathing experience. I eventually moved on to Dior's J'Adore, which was less offensive generally but I still used in a volume one might consider more appropriate for stunning cattle. Sanity wasn't truly mustered until I moved to DC and discovered Sephora and Demeter perfumes, which are very subtle fragrances that smell like everything from "Wet Garden" to "Gin and Tonic." Now I have several perfumes I use - Lolita Lempicka's Fleur de Corail, Marc Jacobs Daisy, Miss Dior Cherie, Aquolina's Pink Sugar, Demeter's Salt Air, Michael Kors' Very Hollywood - which I like but Rich hates because (cuteness alert, danger) he "likes when I wear the same one because then when I'm not there my comforter smells like me." (Awesome husband for the win!)

So okay ANYWAY the actual point of this was not to give you a detailed history of my perfume wearing history - though I bet a post about vetting perfumes would be interesting...hmm - but rather to explain that the hold Guerlain's Shalimar had on me as a young woman has now transferred easily to their totally spectacular eyeliners that I am addicted to partly because they are amazing cosmetics and partly because they look like I robbed Greta Garbo's vanity. The first one I got was their Terracotta Loose Kohl Powder in brown.
This stuff is magical. Admittedly, I can see how it might make some hesitant, because it gets applied right on the waterline of your lower eyelid with the little stick - you just tap it on - but it's so worth getting over that hump, because it gives you the perfect smoky line for day or night. The brown is just the right color for the day/night switch, though the black would probably be nice if you were getting ready to go out for the night. But you even care how good the makeup is? Look at that goddamn packaging! You own this and you're instantly a makeup professional, even if you can't put on foundation with two hands and a mirror. It is instant glamour for your dresser. It just sits there saying "this woman wears satin gowns for every occasion and smokes from a jeweled cigarette holder but never ever gets cancer because there is too much glamour in her system for it to take hold."

I've been totally obsessed with this stuff since I got it about a year ago on a recommendation from Apocalypstick Now. I am a total pusher, too...people will be like "hey, I need eyeshadow, any ideas?" and I'll respond with something like "sure, get Eyeshadow X but what you REALLY need is Guerlain Terracotta Kohl Eyeliner because it is magical." Probably bad.

A couple days ago, my Mom called me and she was like "hey, I'm getting a Sephora card as a gift, does thee think that I should get something else to complete the gift?" I, being a genius (okay, mostly a pusher), said "you should get a nice eyeliner, since [REDACTED] is an eyeliner master, plus it's a nice small item." Since my Mom isn't a big makeup person, I offered to find a couple options for her to pick from. WELL.
Yeah, Guerlain has a new formulation of eyeliner, and once again, it is effing magnificent. Needless to say, I ordered a tube of this Khôl Kajal* liner for myself, because what do you do around Christmastime but buy yourself stuff**? Again, it's a beautiful smooth product that goes on well and stays put without irritating your eyes, and once again, who cares, because it looks like magic! This one actually reminds me of another Aunt, my Aunt Karen, who went to Egypt with me and my Dad and who cheerfully obsessed with me over how the gorgeous ladies in their abayas did their eye makeup (hardcore, perfect smoky eyes everywhere). Kohl seems the obvious answer, but these women clearly had their ninja certification in application and probably didn't need slick packages like this to produce their looks.

I am such a sucker for packaging, man. Luckily, these products are also excellent cosmetics, rather than just nice packages, because I have definitely bought snazzy looking packages that turned out to be cheap crap. You should all go out and buy yourself some***!

* NB: I went to Sephora's website to check the name of this product, and I noticed that my "previously viewed products" section looks like a shopping list for a drag queen rave. There are five kinds of glitter, fake eyelashes, and random lipsticks (purple) on there. I think maybe Sephora is something I should not have.

** I am kidding, but unfortunately this DOES seem to be A Thing. All of these ads about "getting a little something for yourself" creep and gross me out. Feel however you want about Christmas - too much Jesus, not enough Jesus, too commercial, pointless, whatever - but it is a gift GIVING holiday. Gift giving is not the same as buying crap for yourself. I don't think I should have to explain this.

*** That's right, even you men. Guyliner is a thing now, didn't you hear?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Light" is Found in Twilight and Bud Light - Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

My friend Val was on Facebook going through the same guilt cycle all of us Late To The Party/Brain Cell Having Twilight readers go through. For those not familiar, it goes something like this:
  1. Twilight enters your universe. Someone gives you a copy, or throws it down in disgust in shared living space, whatever. You pick it up.
  2. (OPTIONAL) Allow it to sit, gathering dust and being shunned, for several days/weeks/months.
  3. Have minor hissy fit along the lines of "oh WHATEVER, I'll just get it over with so I can get this crap out of the house."
  4. Read entire book in three hours.
  5. Deny having read book or change subject when it comes up for four days to a week and a half.
  6. Finally snap and moan to your friends, "WHY did I read it all? Why why why?" in the kind of tone usually reserved for eating an entire bucket of Halloween candy after a slow kid-traffic year.
  7. Realize that all of your friends have gone through this same shame spiral.
It's a real problem, but the good thing is that based on the Law of Probability alone, your chances of being the only person in your friend group who has gone through this are extremely slim. If somehow you manage to be the only person who has read it, you should immediately buy a Cosby sweater and get a mustache tattooed on the side of your finger, claim you read it ironically, and commit yourself to full hipsterdom for about two years (minimum).

So I hopped on Val's Facebook to be like "yeah, Mom left her book club copy laying around when I was on spring break in Florida and I couldn't resist," but then I had a stroke of brilliance and wrote:
It's because they're like cold Bud Light on a hot summer day. You know you're wasting your life drinking/reading them but they go down so fast and before you know it you've pounded down all the books/a thirty rack in four hours.
I kind of threw that out and then clicked away, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized...oh my God, Twilight IS Bud Light. Think about it.

Full disclosure: Just looking at that aluminum bottle makes me want to drink it. Those aluminum bottles are proof God loves us and wants us to be happy with our sub-zero, 0 Kelvin beer. Even though I KNOW it's Bud Light in there, the glorious cold beverageness promised by those cans gets me past the grossness of Bud Light. That is POWER.

They both, as established previously, are satisfying in a very abstract, objective way that has nothing to do with their actual beer- or literatureness. They're both shallow, cheap, American-made minor crimes against humanity. When indulging in either, you know you should be consuming something of much better quality from Europe or Russia or something, but these are available and much easier to consume. Both items sacrifice taste for cheap thrills, be those thrills the ability to drink more beer for less calories or sub-romance-novel writing featuring abusive teen relationships. Both names involve the word "light" despite being the monikers of clear forces of darkness.

What does this mean?

I can only assume that it is part of a massive conspiracy aimed at speeding up the complete decay of culture in America and someday the world. Luckily, most people outside America have the sense to turn their noses up at both of these items, so the evil plot is encountering resistance, but I think the signs are clear, people: we must resist the Evil Forces of Dumb by reading good books* and drinking good beer**. DO NOT AFFORD THE IDIOCRACY A SINGLE INCH!!

* If you need help, start with The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. You want the translation with the black cat sitting in front of a red sunset.

** Support your local microbrew!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I May Be Neurotic and Snotty, but at Least My Brain Stem is Functional.

I have a lot of martini related issues. A martini, without a qualifier, is gin-based. When you order a martini, someone should bring you gin in a glass with a whisper of vermouth and some olives. When you start adding qualifiers, then you have different things - "vodka" for instance, is a qualifier. Random mixtures of crap in obscene colors served in martini glasses are not martinis, they're not "-tinis," they're just random crap in martini glasses (alternately: sins against alcohol). This never ceases to bother me, and I know that this is a consequence of being a crotchety old person but I just can't shake it.

However, I may have found a coping mechanism.

Yes, that is a video of someone explaining how to make a "Disaronno and Ginger Ale on the Rocks." No, it is not more complicated than "pour the Disaronno over ice, then pour the ginger ale over it."

So now, every time I get fussy about people knowing how to put together a proper martini, I'm just going to think to myself, "at least I can figure out how to pour shit over ice." And then I will remember that there are a lot of simple-ass people out there, and adjust my expectations accordingly.

A how-to for "Disaronno and Ginger Ale on the Rocks." Good lord.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

My Mom gave me this book to read, along with a rave review. There are lots of good things to commend it, but there are also a few issues that can make for a jarring read.

Daughter of Fortune is about a woman who leaves Chile in pursuit of her lover, but ultimately finds her independence and makes her own life in the western United States. After escaping a regimented and formal life in the upper eschelons of Chilean society, Eliza is free to define not only herself but her understanding of family. The story is full of colorful characters and compelling. The story is a beautiful demonstration of the blending of cultures into America's famous melting pot, not only through Eliza's adventures but the parallel journey of her friend Tai Chi'en, a Chinese physician who helps smuggle Eliza to the United States.

The author has said that this book reflects her own struggle to understand feminism's role in her life, and there's a lot of value in reading about that development, even though I personally find the end result problematic. Eliza spends much of the book driven by her pursuit of her lover, Joaquin Andieta, dominated by the mental snapshot she has of him back in Chile. As she makes her way through the world, her dependence on his image begins to wane, but he remains a primary driver throughout the work.


Tao Chi'en has his own gender attachments, and spends much of the book thinking about his be-pedestaled dead wife, who is clearly a woman he saw as perfect in life, but has taken on an almost saintly glow after her death. Eliza winds up with Tao in the end, and this is where I think the feminst perspective takes a hit. Though the book has tracked Eliza's progress from being defined by the man in her life to being independent enough to make her way in the world alone, she winds up reattaching herself to a man who we know idealizes the women in his life excessively and is deeply attached to normative gender roles (for example, he pointedly searches for a wife with bound feet in the section about his life). I do not believe that feminism means the end of marriage or the abandonment of love, but to have Eliza wind up with someone so invested in the same gender expectations that kept her so dependent on and driven by men creates a problem for Allende's feminist credentials.


The other thing I found strange and jarring was the clinical quality Allende gave to the romantic scenes. It was a little bit like reading a doctor's account of a gynecological exam - very matter of fact and very physiological. This wouldn't be nearly as problematic were the rest of the writing so lush and beautiful. Allende's descriptions of Chile, the western US and China relay the feeling of the places with lyrical accounts, and her characters are full and well-developed. Why they have such unsexy sex is a bit of a mystery to me, and was quite jarring to read.

In the end, I'd call this the beach-book version of Gabriel García Márquez, which might sound like a slight but is not intended as such. García Márquez can take a lot of effort to read, and though it's some of the most worthwhile effort you can expend in literature, sometimes you just want a similar flavor in a lighter version. This would be a particularly good choice for people interested in the gold-inspired westward expansion in the US, as it provides an interesting look at the chaos of that era.

Monday, December 13, 2010

I Will Not Google My Symptoms. I Will Not Google My Symptoms. I Will Not...

I was in the shower a week or so ago, doing my breast exam like a good doobie (though apparently not like a perfect doobie because I understand from several well dressed ladies that the new protocol is to do this lying down) when I felt a bump in my armpitular region. Needless to say, I immediately decided I had cancer and was going to die, possibly before the end of the weekend. I got out of the shower and went to show Rich my Bump of Death and he said "looks like a spider bite." I decided that sounded better than instant cancer, so I rolled with that. My girl Joanne also suggested it was a swollen lymph node, which was even BETTER because I'd been sick and have chronic battles with my lymph nodes, so I was like "ha ha! Obviously!" I made an appointment with my doctor to check it out anyway.

Between making the appointment and actually going to the doctor, I got all curious (and procrastinatey) and did the worst thing you can possibly do: I Googled. OH my God you guys, never ever Google "bump in armpit" or even "swollen lymph node." I know that everyone knows that using the Internet for diagnoses is a terrible idea, but I also have yet to meet the person who can resist the siren call of WebMD. All the information! Is right there! On the Internet! Oh, except pretty much none of it applies to you, and all of it is horrifying. I am particularly awesome at Googling symptoms like "cough" and "chest congestion." This is demented for two reasons. First of all, I KNOW I just have my annual flu/cold/sinus thing, and Google is not going to change that. Second of all, even if it does say I have something different, I'm going to treat it the same way I treat it every year: with tissues, TheraFlu, cough drops and my neti pot. The bump thing, however, was a whole other ball of wax. I decided I had four different kinds of cancer AND bubonic plague.

I got to the doctor the next day, and she took one look at it and said "you have a little folliculitis," (WARNING: do not Google) which is doctor-speak for "you somehow managed to screw up shaving and get bacteria in one of your pores." High five, self. The prescription was "keep it clean and dry and get better at shaving." SO SAD.

Things I learned:
  1. Never Google symptoms, no matter how curious you are or how hard you're trying to avoid writing a paper.
  2. You can be bad at shaving.
  3. I am bad at shaving.
  4. The Internet cannot be trusted.
I am passing along this wisdom to you so you can avoid the same panic. As far as the shaving thing goes, I guess the best I can do is admit that I usually shave randomly and quickly, and that's probably the issue. Don't shave like a crazy person!

Friday, December 10, 2010

TRUE LIFE: I Can't Pour Things

I feel like I'm a reasonably competent human being, but every now and then some fuse blows out in my brain and incompetence rules the day. This happens EVERY. TIME. when I try to pour things. This is something most people master in their infancy. I have special teapots that are spillproof that I rely on like the elderly rely on their oxygen tanks. The lid for one of these teapots broke recently, and I just stood in the kitchen over its shattered remains silently wigging out until Rich was like "did you bleed out over there or what?" I was busy contemplating my life without a pourable teapot and deciding whether I should just kill myself or try to duct tape glass together.

Let me give you an example.
I really like tea, and particularly chai, so I usually make a pot's worth. Here's how it works.
You buy delicious, delicious chai from World Spice Market, and you put it in water for 3-4 minutes. Then you add in some black tea (I use Assam not only because it is delicious but also because it sounds like a magic word) and let the whole thing go for another three minutes. Then the trouble comes.

After everything is nice and steeped, you have to strain it before adding in milk. This should require nothing more than the original pot, a strainer and some kind of receptacle. I wind up pouring from the original pot, through the strainer, into a BIG bowl so I cannot possibly spill, and then wind up frantically pouring the strained chai back into the pot like it's hot lava, because apparently deep in my heart I equate speed with accurate pouring. After the milk/chai mixture gets up to drinking temperature, I now have to attempt to get this stuff into a mug. This is the typical result.
Pictured: DISASTER

This is also usually when the cat shows up. I suspect it is because he sees disaster as something of a specialty of his and doesn't like me horning in on his turf.
Exhibit A

Now, a mug is much smaller than a mixing bowl, so I proceed to use the most deranged method possible to get this chai in the mug. I should probably just lap it out of the pot, but I'm a little worried that it would be the last straw for Rich and he'd be like "you are too weird to be married to" and then I would have to live in a box or something. I usually go with pouring it into a large bowl, then scooping it out of the bowl with a measuring cup and into a teapot, which I THEN use to pour the chai into the mug.

Is there some kind of training I can take for this? I often fantasize about taking one of those knife skills courses at Assabet VoTech but I think "pouring stuff" is something people master in infancy and thus not something they offer courses in. This is seriously so shameful...but fascinating, you know? I have pretty good hand-eye coordination and my manual dexterity is actually way above average, and yet you give me something to pour and it's like my hands have been lopped off at the wrist. Why would this happen? I can't believe I'm seriously asking this, but does anyone have any suggestions on how to not spill things all over creation?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

She's Come Undone, by Wally Lamb

I was in about middle school when this book came out, and it was one of the earlier Oprah's Book Club books. I still remember the buzz surrounding it, and I wanted desperately to read it. At that point, I'd read pretty much everything in the house - age appropriate or not - and blazed through lots of the Worcester Public Library's holdings, so I was thrilled when a copy appeared in the house. And then my Mom forbid me to read it.

I'm not sure, in retrospect, whether or not she was right to do so. I don't think it's clearly one way or the other. She's Come Undone is about death and rape and weight and being really messed up and trying to get away from all of that and failing. It's also about realizing that you crushed the few relationships that could have saved you, and about salvaging some of them. I think Mom probably wanted me to postpone reading it because she was afraid I would be upset by all of this, but the reason I'm glad I read it later in life is because I can get so much more out of it now. If I'd read it in middle school, some parts of it might have freaked me out, but I think it's more likely that I simply would have missed a lot of the beauty in the book.

Lamb is great at showing the beauty of error, and I think that's an important skill in writing because it helps you appreciate the full scope of human nature. Dolores Price is a powerful character. Her path through life is really a gradual wearing-down of her resistance to people and to love. What I particularly appreciated was the kind of odd family she eventually collects. It's a wonderful portrait of how rich friendship can be. The funny thing about this is that my Mom is the one who taught me that we have to love the people in our lives fiercely, and that our friends can be as close as family.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

When last I was hanging out with Elizabeth Kostova, I was sleeping with my lights on for fear that Vlad Dracula would come in the night and murder me horrifically, yet I was strangely excited to find her latest, The Swan Thieves, on the racks at the bookstore in South Station in Boston. The woman is a hell of a writer.

Kostova returns to her talent for writing incredible atmospheric tension in Swan Thieves. In it, a psychiatrist takes on a non-verbal, mysterious patient after the patient attacks a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The attack is the culmination of a long period of strange behavior, and the psychiatrist - an amateur artist himself - goes to great lengths to solve the puzzle of his client's case. I'm reasonably sure that some of said lengths are completely unethical, but as the book is an exploration of madness and art, I think I can probably let it go. The mystery winds up as a commentary on the nature of creativity and the world of the mind, and it's beautiful work.

My one complaint, which is a holdover from The Historian, is that Kostova has some difficulty with writing from a male perspective. As a friend at work pointed out, her male characters notice things and speak about certain things in a way that feels unnatural to a male character (or at least to a straight male character). In the introductory chapter, I assumed that the narrator was a woman, only to discover in the second that it was a man. This wasn't necessarily because of overt gender typing (i.e. "all sensitive painter/psychiatrists must be women") but rather from the feel of the character's tone and focus of their worldview. It's a little bit hard to describe. Her male characters also describe other men in a way that denotes some form of physical and romantic attraction - I don't profess to know the minds of men, but I'm assuming that most of the straight men of the world (which Kostova's Swan Thieves protagonist certainly is) don't notice the lustrous hair or shining blue eyes of various men they meet, or if they do, it's probably not the first thing they go for. It just makes the read a little jarring, and in this case, it's in the service of a romantic entanglement that lends very little to the narrative.

This is a great book, and I'm glad I found it in paperback - The Historian nearly gave me carpal tunnel. The writing is top notch, and as always, Kostova's research and background are top of the line. You wouldn't think these qualities would be so important to a work of fiction, but the depth and interest that the added work contributes is really quite exceptional. A good one for the holidays!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why I Do Not Now and Will Not in the Future Care About Dancing With the Stars

A brief history:
  • John McCain makes a bizarre running mate choice in the Governor of Alaska, who is a staunch supporter of abstinence only sex ed, amongst other things.
  • Said running mate's young, unmarried daughter gets pregnant, chaos ensues.
  • Said Young Unmarried Daughter actually handles situation quite gracefully, despite some mayhem in the form of an engagement to the baby's father.
  • John McCain loses race, but Running Mate's public persona resonates with a certain swath of Americans.
  • Running Mate becomes ubiquitous, picks up numerous public appearances, quits governorship, halfway commandeers a grassroots movement, and refuses to ever shut up.
  • Young Unmarried Daughter becomes abstinence advocate (????????) and winds up on Dancing With The Stars.
  • Everyone loses their shit.


I know you hate the Running Mate, and I know her presence in the audience is irritating as shit. I am APPALLED by the fact that Running Mate has this kind of media presence when everyone knows she's going to be running in 2012. I am horrified that 27% of people in a polling group think she can lead the country, because every single media appearance she has ever put in has indicated that ZERO percent of people should think she can lead the country. I am disgusted by her "real Americans" rhetoric and think it's the least American thing I've heard in a long time.

I know her daughter is untalented and hasn't improved and just straight up does not deserve to be in the finale. I know that it's annoying that some psychotic Tea Party people have for some reason decided that voting this kid the winner of a fucking reality TV show is going to prove something to liberals OTHER than "we are willing to waste the shit out of our time." I don't get it either. I get that it's irritating and I get why you would want to retaliate by flooding the phone lines and whatever the hell. I am tired of seeing incompetence rewarded, too.

The thing is, I've been trying lately to come up with answers for my questions and my frustrations, because I've spent too much time getting upset about things and then having that upsettedness linger because all I did was bitch. I've thought a lot about Running Mate, and I've decided that a.) the best way to make her go away is to ignore her - not watching her shows, not typing her name, not clicking links to news stories about her, not paying attention to her, and b.) that I'm not going to worry about her, because at this point 73% of the people polled know she's a jackass, and that's probably enough to keep her away from the White House. I'm going to find someone better, and I'm going to volunteer on their campaign. I'm going to work for what I think is a better alternative, rather than obsessing about the worst case scenario.

So instead of voting against that Failed 2008 Vice Presidential Candidate's Daughter, I am going to write a letter to my Representatives and my Senators about why I think the TSA is overreaching and setting a dangerous precedent. I'm going to read up on economic developments. I'm going to call the White House and tell them I want DADT repealed. I'm going to read up on viable energy policy, maybe sign some petitions. I'm going to let my representatives know I want consequences for the financial sector's outrageous shenanigans. I'm going to think about the America I want to live in, and figure out how to get there.

I spent this election season prying people out of their houses with crowbars to get them to participate in the election in ANY form, but people are spending hours and massive effort freaking out about a failed candidate's kid possibly winning a TV show. This is a serious time in our country, and it requires active citizenship. I am going to be following through with the latter, and I hope you will too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wonder Woman Christmas Stocking

A friend of mine at work asked me if I knew how to knit a Christmas stocking, and I said "Christmas stockings are just giant socks...AND I LOVE SOCKS," which is actually a lie because I would spend my entire hippie-dippy life barefoot if that was an option [Aside: isn't that odd, considering the well documented shoe thing?], but I do love making socks. So without further ado, I present a simple, adorable stocking pattern for all your holiday knitting needs!

You will need:
Worsted weight yarn in a main color and an accent color - I'm using red and white in this pattern, but you can choose whatever colors you want. I like Red Heart SuperSaver yarn because it's cheap but plentiful, not splitty, washable, and easy to find at Michael's and other craft stores.
Size 8 double pointed knitting needles
A yarn needle

Start by knitting a gauge. I hate knitting a gauge, so much so that I will put off projects because I get bogged down in thinking about how I really hate knitting gauges, but you have to do it because a.) we all have to overcome our neuroses sometime, and b.) it will keep you from having a mutant stocking that looks like Sloth from the Goonies is coming over. You should come up with a swatch where 16 stitches and 24 rows equals about 4 inches. To adjust, change needle size.

Game Plan (and Advice From Mom)
This stocking is knit from the top down. When you get to the bottom of the leg, you'll be splitting off a heel flap, then picking up stitches on the side to continue along the foot. The heel flap feels weird. This is where the Mom advice comes in. Every now and then, I call my Mom and I'm like "MOM, what the hell, this stupid pattern is WRONG, there's no way I'm actually supposed to do that but it keeps saying I have to!" and Mom is all "sometimes you just have to follow the pattern." This is not unlike the time I got yelled at in Home Ec for marveling over the fact that these weird pieces of fabric were turning into a stuffed animal. It will work out. Sometimes you just have to follow the pattern.

Cast on 61 stitches (sts) over four needles with your main color. This is your leg. (See notes at bottom for personalization options.) Knit as long a leg as you would like - some people like long, drapey stockings, some like shorter ones. I'd probably go for about a foot. Now we're going to work the decrease rows.

DECREASE ROW: K1, SSK*, knit to the last three sts of the round, then k2tog, k1. This will give you 59 stitches. Keep working this row until you're down to 53 stitches.

*SSK = slip, slip knit. This means you slip 2 stitches just as they are, then you insert your left hand needle from left to right to knit the 2 stitches together. ("Just follow the pattern.") This is the purlside version of knitting two together.

HEEL DIVISION: K27 and slide to holder. If you want to have a different color heel, switch colors here. We will now be working flat for a while, and only on the remaining 26 stitches.
Row 1:
Row 2:
Sl 1, k25.
Rows 3-18: Repeat rows 1 and 2, purling on WS and slipping 1, knitting across for RS.

HEEL TURN: (MAJOR pattern following area here! Yes, you are actually supposed to be turning in the middle of the row.)
Row 1: sl1, k14, SSK, k1, turn.
Row 2: sl1, p5, p2tog, p1, turn.
Row 3: sl1, k6, SSK, k1, turn.
Row 4: sl1, p7, p2tog, p1, turn.
Row 5: sl1, k8, SSK, k1, turn.

Continue until you have 16 sts.

GUSSET: (If you switched colors before, now is the time to switch back.) Knit across your 16 heel stitches. With the same needle, pick up and knit across 9 of your slipped stitches along the right side of the heel flap. Knit your 27 stitches from your holder. Pick up and knit 9 stitches from the left side of the heel flap, and knit 8 stitches from your first needle to even everything out. You should now have 61 stitches and be ready to start your gusset.

Row 1 & ALL WS Rows: P across.
Row 2: K14, k2 tog, k 29, SSK, k14.
Row 4: K13, k2 tog, k29, SSK, k13.
Row 6: K12, k2 tog, k29, SSK, k12.
Row 8: K11, k2 tog, k29, SSK, k11.
Row 10: K10, k2 tog, k29, SSK, k10.
Row 12: K9, k2 tog, k29, SSK, k9—49 sts rem.

Tada! You now have something that looks somewhat like half a sock. The hard part is over!

Knit for about 6.5" from the edge of your heel flap, then decrease one stitch in the next row, leaving you with a nice, even 48 stitches. If you want your toe to be a different color, switch colors now! I actually like to even up my stitches so I have 12 on each needle at this point. Then you're going to begin your toe decrease, which is very simple:

Odd Rows: (1st needle)k1, k2tog, knit to end; (2nd needle) knit to last three stitches, SSK, k1; (3rd needle) k1, k2tog, knit to end; (4th needle) knit to last three, SSK, k1
Row 2 & All WS Rows: P across.
Continue these two rows until you have 16 stitches left.

Now you can finish the work and close up the toe. I like to load the stitches onto one needle (one from the left needle, then one from the right, left, right, left, right, alternating) and then knit them together and weave in the ends. I think this gives the cleanest seam, but you can also stitch them up with a needle if you prefer.

You may want to add a cuff to the top of your stocking. You can do this one of two ways - pick up 65 stitches (65, not 61, so that it can fold over) at the top of the stocking, and purl in the round for about 3 inches, then cast off loosely. You can also cast on 65 stitches, knit the 3 inches, cast off, and then whipstitch the cuff onto the stocking.

You can also make a hanger with a simple i-cord. Pick up four stitches from the edge of the stocking, and knit across those stitches for as long as you would like your hanger to be. JUST KNIT, DO NOT REVERSE AFTER EACH ROW. Crossing the yarn behind each row pulls the stitches into a cord as you go. When you're done, cast off and sew the end onto the start of the hanger.

You may also want to add initials or other decor to your stocking. My favorite alphabet can be found here, and I've included a bonus chart below.

Enjoy!! Ask questions in the comments if you have any.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Teleprompter, Teleprompter, in the Hall, Who is the Truest of Them All?

I'd like to talk a little bit about teleprompters.
Last week, Judge Alex Ferrer asked his Facebook fans who their favorite public speaker was. Yes, I am a Facebook fan of Judge Alex. I really like crappy court shows, all right? In any case, one of the responses read as follows:
Reagan makes the list because he spoke from the heart with passion and he loved this country and made us all feel good about being Americans. He gave us hope that we could do anything we put our minds to. He was not afraid to call evil, evil. He did this without having to rely on teleprompters because it came from his core beliefs. Our current president speaks really well, but only with a teleprompter. Without it, he rivals Bush in ineffective speaking.
First of all, some perspective on the Reagan issue in particular:
Reagan was a media phenom, and he was well versed in the use of a teleprompter. That doesn't detract from or add to his policies or his speeches. It just means he was very good at using an increasingly important tool in any President's communications repertoire. Dwight Eisenhower was the first President to use one (though he did not do so prolifically), and pretty much every other President since has used a teleprompter for their prepared remarks. I originally wanted to include pictures of each President since Eisenhower using a teleprompter, but a.) it seems that the Internet is so obsessed with Obama's teleprompter use that any search including the word returns 95% images or political cartoons about Obama, and b.) though it would be cool, I am only willing to spend so much time pleading with the Internet to surrender a picture of Jimmy Carter using a teleprompter, particularly given the preceding point. Instead, I can give you a script from LBJ's, and pictures of both Bushes using them.
LBJ's teleprompter script
The hysteria over Obama's teleprompter use has always seemed exceptionally strange to me, given what teleprompters actually do. Maybe it's more important to talk about what they don't do - teleprompters are not magical speech generators. Prepared remarks can be loaded into a teleprompter, which then can be used in a couple ways, depending on the skills of the reader and the amount of prep time available. If the speaker has time to memorize most of their speech, then they use the teleprompter more like a stage director than a script, for prompts and checks rather than a direct read. If not - and this is likely the case with most modern Presidents - then the speaker may read more directly. Using a teleprompter doesn't make the remarks any more or less prepared.
George W. Bush and his teleprompter
Major Presidential addresses are prepared ahead of time, and for good reason. These addresses have national and global importance and it's important to consider their content ahead of time. Advance preparation also helps the speaker get more comfortable with the address, which in turn improves their delivery. Everyone has a different style, but in my experience, political speakers use notes more than most other speakers because of the particular type of rhetoric usually employed and the probability of figures, foreign names or other details likely to occur.
Does Obama use a teleprompter too often? Possibly. There have been several stories about him trying to wean himself off of it and not having that much success with the process. That being said, I do not believe his success as a speaker is contingent on the teleprompter. He is slower and more contemplative when he's speaking without it, but that too seems fairly natural to me, considering he is operating in a world viewed through the lens of a media system that is hypercritical of any speaker. I would want my words to be rightly understood, too, and a teleprompter is one way to get as close to a guarantee on that front as possible.

Simply put, teleprompters are an important tool in any President or public speaker's arsenal as they work to communicate effectively to a massive audience. To waste time complaining over a public speaker's use of an important technology is to take precious time away from actual issues, no matter how they are technically presented.

Friday, November 19, 2010

This Friday, Everyone Gets a Bonus Kitten!

I got really busy this week and didn't front load my postings as much as I would have liked - a couple posts ran long and I have a few more still in the can that grew unexpectedly - but since it's Friday and Fridays are great, here's an adorable video.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Temporary Safety

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin, 1775

On September 11th, 2001, all the natural privileges that we have enjoyed as a nation shook to their cores. We have been blessed with a uniquely defensible geographical location, enough good will to protect us from many potential challengers, and the strength to try to spread the best of our politics and defend the world's weakest where we could. We haven't been perfect and we haven't always had the best intentions, but we tried, and that along with natural defenses of the blessings of liberty granted to us at the country's inception. It is easy to feel invincible when you have all of this on your side, and shocked when you realize you may not be as strong as you once thought.

It is natural to be fearful under these circumstances. On September 12th, there was a bomb scare at American University, and we spent much of the day half dressed in the parking lot across Wisconsin Avenue, wondering and worrying about what was going on and if the people who had brought down the Twin Towers could be coming for us. I still remember my friend Colin's tee shirt that day - a white Hanes undershirt with an American flag drawn on it in permanent marker. I would probably have sacrificed a lot of essential liberty for temporary safety that day. It was terrifying and unreal, and most of us hadn't even begun to deal with what had happened the day before. There's no way to quickly wrap your brain around a situation that could convince people leaping to the sidewalk from tens of stories up was better than what was behind and above them. There's no real way to be an 18 year old and think rationally about things when your Mom is calling you to beg you to come home and there are fighter jets going overhead every 15 minutes. There's no way to stand in front of the Pentagon and tell yourself that this is just one day, and it will get better.

We're almost ten years from September 11th now, and we're still scared, which I think is all right. I think something fundamental snapped in us that day, and we haven't been addressing it. When I think about how it might be made better, I often come back around to thinking the single best thing we could do for the American psyche would be to assign everyone a psychologist and give them a year off to work it out. No, it's not the continuing hurt that's of such concern - it's that we're still jettisoning liberty left, right and center for the sake of temporary safety. Even worse, we're not even getting temporary safety. We're just giving away our liberty.

I have never understood the TSA. Let me back up - I've never understood the DHS, because adding bureaucracy over the top of bureaucracies that are not cooperating in order to MAKE them cooperate sounds like pouring lighter fluid on a fire that won't stop burning your house down, but the TSA and the policies that govern it have always been the most confusing and aggravating part of the DHS. I am not sure where one would go to find a more reactive, convoluted approach to security. I am unconvinced that the TSA has even a modicum of proactive thought in its collective hivemind to foil a single terrorist, which I feel has been borne out by the "gee, that was lucky" captures of the last couple terrorist arrests.

Let me first say that the aviation industry was not one without use for security reform. There could have been some adjustments to policy and some development of streamlined, cross-the-board security standards. That being said, the TSA has not provided these reforms, and in fact has crippled an industry already sagging under the weight of its antiquated business model. It clamped down on one of the few sectors of aviation that was booming in 2001 - civil aviation - and had the entertaining but ultimately problematic effect of adding more expenses to the industry while also giving them a government crutch to lean on when they should have been examining said business plan.

Part of the shock of September 11th was the new mode of violence. Terrorists hijacked planes that had easily accessible cabin doors, no security personnel on board, and unprepared passengers. Work Friend Joe pointed out quite correctly that with the addition of locking, fireproof, bulletproof doors on the cockpits, about 90% of the problem is solved right off the bat. Locking down that area removes the possibility that the plane can be used as a guided missile. He also pointed out that if anyone tried to hijack a plane with a knife or box cutter or any kind of smallish blade, the entire plane would be pigpiled on that person in about four seconds, limiting viable hijacking options to explosives, which could be detected by more sophisticated trace-detection portal machines (or "puffer" machine; unfortunately these machines as they currently exist are oversensitive to dust and humidity and have been discontinued, though it seems that further research and development would be in everyone's interest), or guns, which are also reasonably easily detected. Any security measures you add on top of the locked door is more or less gravy.

Minor discursis: I have no idea why the TSA would ever have to go through my luggage. They have x-ray scanners for luggage and can see everything in there, plus I can't access it if it's under the plane. This is, quite simply, bullshit, and whenever I get one of those tags in my luggage saying they've rooted through my stuff, I get irate.

I'm not one to minimize the very real threat of terrorism. What I will say is that the fundamental nature of terrorist actions requires that the actors constantly look for new ways to subvert a security system to cause mass terror, and that makes constant vigilance from our law enforcement and security professionals one hundred times more important than added bureaucracy and invasive techniques that treat regular citizens who merely want to fly somewhere like criminals. The approaches to airport security that have been adopted since 9/11 have been of two primary types - reinvigoration of traditional techniques, and new, mostly technological developments. (I should note here that I refer to traditional counter-terrorism techniques as well; counter-terrorism is in no way a new thing.) By and large, it's been the traditional techniques that have nabbed the big terrorist threats. Let's take this article from the Heritage Foundation as a blueprint. Of the 19 cases listed, the vast majority were cracked with by police departments or by the FBI, organizations in place well before the creation of the DHS.

If the object is to keep terrorists off of our planes, it is clear that the TSA is not the organ achieving that goal. Should people be allowed to wander freely onto planes? Of course not. But given the TSA's proven ineffectiveness at proactively stopping terrorists, it seems ridiculous to give them free rein to move into more invasive techniques on the premise that they know what they're doing.

More specifically, it is unconscionable for a United States authority to demand that American citizens should have to give up control over their body in order to get on a plane. The Founding Fathers were concerned with our liberty, and political theorists throughout history have stressed the importance of our having control over our personal property. Our most fundamental property is our body - if we have nothing else, we have our physical being. We have the right to control it, and not to have it exposed by others at their whim.
We're getting a lot of promises right now: it won't cause cancer, images won't be saved, the photos will be blurry...except all of those are being refuted already. The image above is from a CBS news article discussing the potential health risks of these backscatter machines, one of which produced the image above. We have already had reports of people saving images from the machines.

The alternative to this? An aggressive patdown that includes a groin check. Something that's sexual assault if the person doing it isn't wearing a uniform.

At what point do we admit that the terrorists of 2001 have won? We have seen the TSA adopt techniques time and again that are reactive instead of proactive, while the traditional counter-terrorism bureaus keep doing what they're good at and actually catching the bad guys. The transparent catching up of the TSA with the terrorists would embolden me, were I a terrorist. Catch a shoe bomber = everyone's shoes come off. Catch an underwear bomber = groin check. Catch someone with liquid explosives = no liquids before security. Plane crashes into a building = no small aircraft taking off near DC. Looking for what terrorists have done before denotes a serious confusion about how terrorism works.

I hope that the outrage that has been building will convince the DHS that the techniques they are employing in this fight degrade us as humans and as citizens. It encourages an atmosphere of fear that encourages us to cede our rights with worrying speed, and I am not sure how much longer we can stand to do that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

I read this book for my Science Fiction and World Politics class, which is great not only because it's an excellent class with a very cool professor, but also because it's expanding my sci fi reading repetoire. As some of you may know, my friend Rose invited me to start a small press with her, which she wanted to focus on science fiction and fantasy books, and though I agreed to work on the project, I accepted with an "I don't really read/like much sci fi and fantasy" caveat. It's turned out to be a great experience, particularly because Rose and our partner-in-crime Dr. Bill are very well versed in the genre(s?) and have been very good about recommending things to me. Between my World Politics course and the press, I'm getting a much better background in science fiction and deepening my appreciation therefore.

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is the story of things going wrong. The book begins in a pocket of relative safety in a post-apocalyptic world. Lauren Olamina lives with her family and neighbors in a walled community, surrounded by chaos of every kind, but mostly human danger. Olamina's life is made more difficult by her powers of hyperempathy, which make her feel other peoples' pain in an environment where violence is commonplace. One night, the community is attacked and most of its inhabitants, including Olamina's family, are killed. Olamina escapes into the night with a couple of survivors, and they head north in hopes of finding some safety, and for Olamina, a place to begin her religion, Earthseed. The section of the book where the group travels, slowly accumulating companions, is reminiscent of a light version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, where the travel and the road itself help convey the desperation of their situation. However, unlike McCarthy's work, Butler leaves more room for good people on her road, and Olamina's group is able to find some unthreatening people to band together. [NB: Saying there is more room for good in any post-apocalyptic travelcentric book than McCarthy's The Road is a little bit like saying someone who jaywalks is a less-hardened criminal than Charles Manson. I wrote about The Road a while back.] As they make progress, Olamina's companions begin to see the value in her Earthseed teachings.

I don't want to spoil the ending, because this is an excellent book that you should pick up on your next swing by Barnes & Noble. Butler's writing is gorgeous, and both characters and philosophical concepts are well rendered. Though the progress of Earthseed breaks off at a certain point (there is another book in the series which presumably expands on the concepts), Earthseed is a wonderful entry point into considerations about religion and philosophy and how they become practice.

I also enjoyed this book as an exercise in testing my worldview. The main character in this book is black, as are several others. Their race comes up several times, and each time I felt slightly jarred because I find that I do presume that most characters are white - not consciously, but the series of "oh yeah" moments I encountered demonstrated that it's something I do. I think this is probably pretty standard. After all, when we discuss literature, the relatability of characters often comes up quickly and remains central to the discussion; we insert our identities into what we're reading. In Parable of the Sower, the protagonist's blackness matters in the way she approaches the world and the way the world relates to her. Olamina's race is not necessarily a dominating theme in the work, but it does lend a different feeling to the overall effect. I found this book to be exceptionally good at bringing up the weight of the differences between races in a way that is neither perjorative nor congratulatory, but a way that IS inescapable, and demands that the reader consider what effects the characters' races have on them.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For the Love of the Game: Concussions and the Nature of Sport

The NFL is talking about concussions and what to do about them again. This comes up in every high-contact sport on a pretty frequent basis and it's a worthwhile conversation not only because concussions are bad generally, but also because it cuts to the core of sports in general. To discuss concussions is to discuss the way sports have been, are now and will be in the future, and this is a topic that we've been dancing around for a long time.

Football is a violent sport, and collision is a fundamental part of the game. This is plenty of reason for studying what happens to the human body while playing the sport, and the verdict has been pretty much unanimous - it's damaging in the extreme. I don't think that's a reason to stop playing the sport. For me, the appeal of sports in general is twofold; the benefit comes from the spirit of competition and the experience of testing and watching people stretch the limits of physical ability. This is why sports that are more contingent on equipment than physicality, like NASCAR or shooting, don't usually do much for me. The oldest and most enduring sports are those predicated on the exploration of the human body, and team sports add the element of the mind, demanding that the individual athlete read and react to his teammates' bodies. Football qua football is certainly a phenomenal test of the human body, drawing on fine motor skills, sheer brute force, mental focus and speed.

If we're assuming that sport's goal is success through the use of one's body, we then need to ask how purely dependent on the human body these sports are. If we adopt the aforementioned view because it is true of the world's oldest sports, it stands to reason that there's also something added to the formula by human sport in the context of nature - performing on natural surfaces and environments, with simple implements that could reasonably be found in nature. Though the latter implements might have been refined over time, it's the rudimentary nature that adds something to the quality of sport. However, refinements matter. The human body developed in the context of nature, and it seems natural that the body should develop in a way that helps it deal with the challenges presented by the natural world. When you change dirt and grass to Astroturf, you add speed and slip. When you change baseball bats from wood to aluminum, you add power, give and accuracy. With every equipment and surface development, you change the body mechanics involved, demand different performance from your body and change the way the game is played. The more changes you make, the further you go from the origins of sport - our human bodies against other human bodies and the natural world.

You can't really discuss alterations of athletes and their sports without talking about steroids and growth hormones. At this point, these substances are at best an open secret. Given my explanation of why I like or don't like certain sports, I'm sure it's not hard to figure out that I disapprove of steroid use, but in arguing about it with various friends of mine over the years, it was my friend Scott who had the best argument for steroid use, and I think it is particularly relevant here. He pointed out that professional athletes are paid to be the best in their respective sports, and for that reason, they have access to the best trainers, the best nutritionists, the best workout equipment, the best medical staffs and an unlimited amount of time to capitalize on those resources. His argument logically followed that steroids, as known performance enhancers, should not only be allowed but would have to be taken by any player who took his paycheck seriously. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but the argument highlights another important element of human development in sports - these athletes have access to everything possible to transform them into supermen. [NB: As high schools feed into colleges and colleges into pro leagues, it follows that these methods trickle down as ascendant athletes work to be as prepared as possible to move quickly through the ranks.] Regardless of the ethics of performance enhancing drugs, it's reasonably easy to say that they take the human body beyond its natural limits, whether by adding a foreign chemical or by increasing the amount of a hormone already found in the body. The same could be said of the trainers, equipment, nutritionists and focus of professional athletes.

We can now see alterations to the natural stage for sports and to the athletic human body itself. This means that we are - right now, at this moment - playing sports faster, harder, and in the case of contact sports, more violently than they have been played at any point in history. The human body is startlingly good at protecting itself, as evidenced by our ability to heal, our reflexes, our senses and more amorphous qualities like our ability to feel fear and pain. Still, these defenses have been developed in conjunction with nature, and as we change our physical abilities in an unnatural way, we test the limits of these protections. When we also change the playing field, the balance is shifted even further from a rough natural equilibrium.

It bears wondering why we would want to pervert human nature and the playing field this way, and I think there are basically two answers for the modern athlete. The easy one is that eternal whipping boy of pro sports: the money. Paid as extravagantly as most professional athletes are, the incentive is there to ignore the hazards and to consistently push harder, faster, higher. The more complicated answer is the same as it always has been: the love of the game. Anyone who has fallen in love with a sport knows the incredible feeling of victory wrung from every cell of your body, or of watching another human being perform a miracle with nothing but their body. Sports inspire us because they are the human body - our shared human experience - held up to the light. When you love the game, you will always be reaching for that next miracle, whatever it takes. My glasses might have a rosy tint to them here, but I think that this love of the game and its experience make the money factor possible. Without the intensity of sports to draw us in, there would be no money with which to pay these athletes, nor pay for the facilities or the equipment or any of the other accouterments that provide financial motivation. Whether directly or indirectly, it's the love of the game that keeps sports moving towards these changes.

It would be dishonest to pretend that sports have only developed new ways to be dangerous, when safety equipment and rule changes have developed as well. However, this can contribute to additional danger. Just as the mental component of team sports is essential, so is the mind of the individual athlete. When encased in modern safety equipment, it's easy to feel invincible. These materials are lightweight but incredibly solid, and this can encourage athletes to take additional risks. Safety equipment often offsets the immediate, catastrophic damages that are the stuff of nightmares, like dramatically broken bones, deep cuts or severed muscles, but its protections can encourage athletes to take risks that open the door to more insidious injuries, like concussions and other internal injuries. Just as performance enhancing drugs can develop your muscles beyond what your bones and tendons can handle, safety equipment can encourage you to take risks beyond what your body may be able to handle. This illusion of safety can be just as damaging as the increases in speed and strength that technology and evolution have created.

So where does this leave us? Does the NFL have a duty to its players to keep them safe? To be honest, I think that there is an assumed risk in contact sports that professional athletes can certainly be expected to understand and take seriously. The main problem is that I don't think it's as simple as figuring out if it's their job to keep their guys from getting concussed into an early grave. For the immediate future, I think it would be wise for players to use the concussion helmets that are available and avoid the hits that are more of a concussion promise than a threat. That's fine. But it doesn't begin to answer the larger questions about the nature of football as a sport, or even of what a sport is. It's tempting to get bogged down in the current manifestations of these questions - this happens in politics, business, economics, you name it - but if we don't stop to consider what sport is and should be, then one day the ephemeral concerns will drop away and we'll see what a shell we've been left with. These are questions worth asking...for the love of the game.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Some Things to Remember

There are some things that are very obvious yet always bear mentioning. There are several that have come up again and again this election season and will probably come up many more times, because they're easy to forget when things are scary and unsure. They're worth mentioning because politics and governance aren't about winning in the moment, but about discussion over time. Politics occupy a strange place in our minds and lives - we love facts and we love proof, but politics is and always has been a matter of discussion. It's not even a matter of opinion, which in many ways would be easier. It's a discussion that humans have been having as long as we have written records and probably long before. I've had a hard time getting to a point where I can fully realize this and stop worrying about finding solutions to political problems that are so definitive that they will end the discussion once and for all. It's been hard because I am a child of the Enlightenment, and I want to believe that we can prove everything beyond a shadow of a doubt, with the magic of SCIENCE and the magic of PROGRESS. We can prove a lot of things, but politics is not something you prove, nor is it something you solve. It's something you discuss. With that in mind, here are a couple things to consider.

1. You will not die.
Politics is tied up with rhetoric, and much of our current rhetoric is guided by the media. The media has bills to pay, and drama sells. As a result, most issues presented through the media are given the same treatment as those local news blurbs about how your melon-baller could kill you dead. It's important to remember that no matter what happens - be it the collapse of the economy, representatives you hate being elected, bills you don't like being passed, whatever - you will probably not die. No matter how bad it gets, we're going to keep waking up in houses next to each other and seeing each other in public and living in communities together. This means that we're going to have to deal with what comes together. For me personally, this means maintaining communication and keeping it as civil as possible. You can disagree - and do so vehemently - but it doesn't change the fact that we're in it together whether or not we like it.

2. There is no final answer to politics, nor one final answer to ephemeral political issues of today.
Political questions don't go away. The question of slavery changes to the question of race relations in American society. Women's suffrage turns into a question of gender equity. The formation of a government shifts to the question of how to apply that framework to a growing and changing society. Politics deals with power and with the basic but complicated work of living together. There is no perfect balance for this - there are simply too many people, under our government and under others'. To stop discussing politics would be to arrive at totalitarianism, and history has shown us that even that doesn't last forever. There's no escaping the discussion of politics, and I don't even know that you should want to. As far as more contemporary questions, there's no real solution or endpoint there, either. If the Second Amendment was overturned and firearms outlawed, would we simply stop talking about that Amendment, or those firearms? Of course not. No law is a definitive proof, and even natural law requires extension to be put into use. The discussion is what matters, and it's the closest thing to an answer you can realistically hope for.

3. Very few political views are precise opposites.
Personally, I think the greatest danger in modern politics is the conflation of differing views with polar opposites. I refer again to the media at large here - particularly with the rise of what I'd call Opinion As News Media - where everything is packaged for easy and quick digestion. That's just incorrect. The abortion debate springs immediately to mind, thanks to the chosen banners of each side. Pro-life is certainly more emotional, but it's fundamentally silly as applied if you think about it for more than 10 seconds. It's the bottom line, to be sure, but it also sets the debate disingenuously. People who support abortion rights don't hate life. Most people who support abortion rights don't think abortions are awesome or weightless or even morally neutral. There's more than one life involved with a pregnancy, and that does matter. It's emotional and it's complicated, and the only way to even get close to any kind of detente is by being realistic and specific about how we think and feel.

4. Most people are not evil.
Some people are, most people aren't. I pretty much hated everything about the Bush Presidency, but I never doubted that George W. Bush wanted and thought he was doing the best things for America. I'm not thrilled with a lot of things about the Obama Presidency, but I think he wants and thinks he's doing the best things for America. There will never be a public figure - Presidential or otherwise - that every single American citizen will agree with. That doesn't mean that the people you don't like are bad people or that they're evil or that they hate America. It just means you disagree. This seems obvious, but a lot of us, and particularly the people in the media, are given to hyperbole when we are het up about an issue. You can disagree and even think people are assholes, but reducing people to caricatures of themselves with fangs and a shriveled black heart doesn't do anything for you or for the conversation. We can do better than that.

5. Being American is not contingent on agreeing with your neighbor.

Since the election, I've had a couple people tell me flat out or hint at the idea that I am unAmerican because I still support the President and I vote Democrat. Some of this has been People Being Wrong On The Internet! and some of it has been weird people eavesdropping on my phone conversation WITH MY MOM on the green line who then feel it is their business to give me shit about voting for Deval Patrick, which...what the HELL, guy?, but in every case, it's both infuriating and sad. This country is built on people disagreeing with each other and reaping the benefits of those disagreements. It's a long process, and it's a hard thing to get through, but I think what we've come out with is a pretty great government, even if it's having some issues with practice right now. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and bear in mind that we're all in this together and we're all Americans...and it's our job to set it right again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

At Home: a Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson for so many reasons: his cantankerous old-man-itude, his wonder about everything, his excellent research, his terrific sense of humor...the list goes on. His list of publications reads like a catalogue of the curious mind, and this latest book is no exception. In At Home, he explores the ins and outs of the components of a home, which in turn bring in the entire experience of social life. The slight case of stream-of-consciousness-itis from which it suffers is easily balanced out by the fascinating selection of information that he has chosen. (Even this weakness becomes negligible if not compared to another work in the Bryson canon, the masterful and beautifully organized Short History of Nearly Everything.)

Bryson rightly points out that “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” He then takes us through a tour of his home and the history that shaped it. It can be challenging to figure out how history is shaped by political and social trends, and even more so to figure out how less significant things develop, like the use of beds or forks. As Bryson explains, however, these things are all inter-related. Most of the developments of the past several centuries have served two purposes: to make life more comfortable and to denote wealth to outsiders. In many ways, it is precisely that simple, but the broader implications of that reality is a bit more complex.

Bryson takes us through the histories of public exhibitions, building materials, architectural trends, hygenic practices, social developments, and many more sections of family life, and the information he packs in is staggering. It's a bit hard to explain how it all fits together because that's the entire point of the book, but luckily, it's a lot like one of those magic eye paintings, where all of a sudden, the picture becomes clear from the right perspective. The connections of each set of information to its respective room are not always as clear as they could be, but the substance is engaging enough that I doubt you'll mind. If nothing else, this is a fascinating collection of miscellany, and well worth your time.