Saturday, December 29, 2007

More About Restfulness and Bed

Well, it appears that teenagers need more than nine hours of sleep daily. Between studying and socializing, computers and homework, jobs and family obligations, how in the world can that much sleep occur?

Wait a minute: doesn't that sound familiar to adults as well?

Check out the NPR article "Helping Teens Make Peace with Sleep" (NPR Morning Edition, January 18, 2007) to get a few tips for the sleepy among you. Adults also can learn a lot about this phenomenon called sleep.

As you are reading, take notes of information previously stated in this blog, including restful rooms and habits. Being rested is the key to health and success, so do your best to keep healthy and rested.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Getting it All Done in Bed

The next time you want to indulge yourself, give yourself permission to spend the day, or at least part of the day, in bed.

Now, that doesn't mean you get nothing done. Surf — er, research with your laptop computer. (I did that just this morning, thanks to a laptop and wireless Internet, both beautiful modern conveniences.) Balance the checkbook while reclining in bed. Spend time with that book you meant to finish. If you have a television in the bedroom (perish the thought!), pop in a movie. Whatever you can do seated, do it in bed.

Or maybe just catch up on some sleep.

Do the math: when do you get to bed? When do you actually fall asleep? And at what ungodly hour do you awaken to the alarm clock? Healthy adults are supposed to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and odds are you don't get nearly that much.

Despite its prevalence in today's society, that perpetually drowsy and yawning constitution is not healthy or normal.

Or safe, either: driving under the influence of exhaustion can cause traffic accidents just as handily as NyQuil- or tequila-impaired driving. Probably even worse — tired drivers want to just get to their destination and are apt to soldier on despite their impairment.

When you arise from the treat of spending the day in bed, remove all of the distractions from the bedroom. "Distractions" include computers and television sets, work papers, newspapers, school books and video games. A book or two on the nightstand might be essential, but don't turn your bedroom into a study hall or research lab.

If distractions absolutely must reside in the bedroom with you, make sure they're tucked behind closed doors of closets, armoires or shelving units. Sleep experts note that the more distractions are placed in bedrooms, the harder it is for people to sleep in them.

A treat of spending the morning in bed with your laptop or school books should remain a treat — and by definitions, treats are special, rare gems. Work at a desk, where work belongs. Remember: bedrooms are for beds and living rooms are for living.

Friday, December 21, 2007

'A Visit From St. Nicholas' (a.k.a. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas

The year I read this poem to my nieces and nephews, all huddled together under the covers in the room upstairs, they asked for it a second time.

I don't think it was my stellar performance (though, I have to say, I did rock). I think it's because they knew the longer I read, the longer they could stay awake on Christmas Eve.

I also believe it is such an icon, a lot of people haven't really read it, or listened to it in years.

So, with no further ado, on the eve of the winter solstice, here it is, in its entirety (courtesy In the words of the poet Clement Clarke Moore, Happy Christmas!

A Visit from Saint Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

by Clement Clarke Moore, courtesy

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sea Monsters, Part Two — Aaaah!

As discussed in an earlier blog, I am convinced sea monsters exist.

National Geographic has confirmed their existence. Take a gander at the prehistoric frilled shark that surfaced near Japan earlier this year.

Or at these "7-foot-long paddlefish." (Are those TEETH?)

I'm not sure what disturbs me more: the fact that a prehistoric shark exists or the fact that other things in my brain thought to be extinct or fictional might very well exist, too.

My friend Carole has the talent of influencing Hollywood: very soon after she reads a book, the movie studios put it on celluloid. I'd prefer that talent to my dubious ability to bring to life whatever is in my imagination. I read a lot of Stephen King as a youngster, so just imagine what is in there.

So if we start seeing more monsters leaping out of the ocean, I apologize in advance.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From the "Litigious Society" File

You really must visit Wacky Warning Labels Web site and see the award-winning entries.

Sponsored by the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch, the contest features honest-to-goodness warning labels on items sold, used and distributed in the United States.

Check it and and decide for yourself if you're going to laugh or cry.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Remaining "Other"

"Woman suicide attacker," "woman president," "woman trucker" — what's wrong with these nouns?

What's wrong is this: to describe a woman doing some things, taking some actions, being in some roles, the speaker or writer has to identify the sex of the person. No one has trouble imagining a man as a soldier, a cab driver or a chef — or president of the United States of America — yet only "pink collar jobs" need no preface of "woman."

If you doubt this logic, check out the Reuters article in the Washington Post ("Woman suicide attacker and car bomb kill 26," December 7, 2007). The bomber's identity as a woman was as important as her act, and the headline and lead prove it. Headlines never read "Man suicide bomber."

It reminds me of that awful scene in the movie "A Time to Kill," when the white lawyer is describing the awful acts against the child. "Can you picture her? Can you?" he asks the white jurors, some of whom have tears running down their faces. "Now, imagine she's black."

Their eyes flew open. They didn't naturally imagine a black child.

Any more than some people can imagine a woman being a trucker, serial killer, president of a country, baseball team owner, stunt car driver....

When someone has to use the word "woman" before a title, it just means that we haven't come far enough, baby.

Until we vote for a presidential candidate because she is qualified, rather than because she will "make history," we still have a long, long way to go.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Banned Book Week Update: Penguins

When it comes to banned or challenged books, my first question seems to be, "What is all the fuss about?" I have to find out myself.

The story of And Tango Makes Three was intriguing: two male chinstrap penguins lived together as a couple and tried to hatch an egg together. When the penguin-keeper gave them an egg, they hatched it together and raised the chick together.

Charming for fiction. Unbelievable for real life. But it was real: Roy and Silo were two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who chose to cohabitate. During their years together, the tried to hatch stones (because both were male and could not lay eggs). The penguin-keeper gave them a real egg to try to hatch — which they did.

So, I decided to read the book to see what the fuss was about.

It was written simply and directly, and the illustrations were adorable and charming. (My personal favorite drawing was the "aerial" view of the egg-warming penguin in the nest.) It was fact-based, and at the end are the details about the true story. There was even a little joke in there for adults relating to the word "Tango."

I also read a couple of Web sites that included entries stating some bloggers' objections to the book and research on same-sex pairing in the animal kingdom.

Perhaps if I shared the detractors' ideology, I would understand their objections better. However, I read no endorsement of any penguin instincts described in the book, whether it was exhibited by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

In the end, all I did was read a story about two penguins in the Central Park Zoo who hatched an egg and raised a chick, and the story and illustrations were cute. The fact that Roy and Silo were both male didn't seem to make much of a difference to them, so it didn't make a difference to me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

This is Your Brain on Exercise

With winds reaching 25 miles per hour this morning and the temperature peaking in the low 30s, I couldn't bring myself to run at dawn. Instead, I promised myself a trip to the gym with David this evening.

As I stood in the spray of the shower, I could see why people depended on coffee. Most mornings, I don't find my way to the shower until I've put in five miles on the road. By then, I'm alert — or I'd be under the wheels of a car driven by an inattentive driver on a cell phone. I wouldn't say I'm annoyingly perky, but I am aware of my surroundings and functioning at a higher level than I would be without prior stimulation.

Apparently I can thank my regular exercise regimen for this alertness, as well as for the possibility of long-term mental and brain health ("Rx for the Brain: Move," The Washington Post, December 4, 2007).

John J. Ratey, a Harvard Medical School professor, will attest to that very thing in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which will be published in January 2008.

Anyone who has taken a walk can attest to the magic and restorative nature of a little exercise. Do it as a regular activity and see how much you benefit.

Keep doing the word puzzles, Sudoku, word games and puzzles. Just throw a little exercise into the deal. Work out to your heart's content, but don't feel you have to overdo it — you don't have to run a marathon to be fit. Take a walk around the lake. Play basketball in the driveway. Kick a soccer ball around.

Remember: your brain is a part of your body, a living organism. Treat it like you love it. Chances are, you'll live to remember your happy days with loved ones in the park.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Without Further Ado, I Give You Pablo Neruda

Tonight I Can Write

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, "The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance."

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

by Pablo Neruda
From I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems, copyright 2007.

A bonus: listen to the soundtrack of the motion picture "The Postman (Il Postino)" to hear various works of Pablo Neruda read by familiar voices, including Andy Garcia (reciting the poem above), Glenn Close, William Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Miranda Richardson and Sting. It's officially on my Christmas list!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Radio Lab

Just by chance last summer, I stumbled across a radio show that fascinated me: Radio Lab at WNYC. I would like to describe it, but I know I will fail miserably. The shows cover science, art, music, brains, love, sleep — the list goes on.

My first exposure was the shows "Morality" and "Who Am I?" where I learned about phantom limbs, morality, lying, cheating and brain development. As a result, I pick up the book Phantoms in the Brain, where I learned about physical and mental interaction, where people who are completely paralyzed swear they have just lifted their arms. (Okay, it was David's Christmas present, but it was still a very good book. Ask David.)

I just listened to the segment on "Zoos," which I found fascinating. It was about the establishment of "natural" zoos, jaguar preservation, feedings at zoos and children's perceptions.... (One person was anti-zoo, as am I, and the other likes zoos, so it was about as fair as can be.)

So go right now to Radio Lab and listen or download the shows. Subscribe to the podcasts and start learning while being wildly entertained. You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ode to a Tiny Muffin

tiny muffin at Red Hot & Blue
served by Olga

you are tiny
and you are a muffin

round and perfect
you cry out for adoration

Rachael loves you

Pete adores you, even
on his birthday

and I, oh, I

I write you an ode

my tiny muffin

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce! Part Two!

Yes, he was as fabulous as ever. Though I couldn't understand a word he said (is the sound at the Verizon Center that muddy all the time?), he was incredible.

Before the concert, I thought Magic was good. (Okay, fabulous: as though "Radio Nowhere" could be anything short of phenomenal with its powerful start and sustained energy.) Then I listened to Bruce and the E Street Band perform the album live, and the songs came to life for me.

The next day, as the album played quietly on my computer as I worked, I felt the songs. Even when I wasn't really paying attention, they were there and they were beautiful and haunting and lyrical and fun and sad and all of the above.

I hope the young woman who was seeing him for the first time had the same great experience. She nearly vibrated with excitement as she waited for the train to arrive. I remember my first time, when I thought Born in the USA was "a good album." After the 4-hour concert, I was exhausted and thrilled and knew I'd never be the same. After watching him close out the tour a couple of days later, that was confirmed.

I've become very blasé in my old age. I have come to expect little from concerts by, ahem, experienced musicians. I've seen many of the acts of my youth turn old and stale — or maybe I expected them to be the same as they were a couple of decades ago. That is no more fair than expecting myself to remain the same lo these many years later. The only constant is the favorable evolution of The Boss, and I look forward to his next effort. I'm not in a hurry, but I will welcome it.

Rumor has it he's going to swing through town again in the spring. I hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Well, despite all efforts by corrupt ticket scalp— er, brokers, I've managed to get tickets to the Springsteen concert.

Thank the gods for Leslie, who, in her quest for tickets on the night of her choice, haunted the Verizon Center until she got them.

Her second choice tickets are my first. I don't care where they are, as long as they're in the venue. David has binoculars. Even if he didn't, I wouldn't care.

However, this might be my last Bruce concert, if the ticket problems continue. I'm not inclined to go to most concerts these days. I don't want to stand in line (electronically or in person) at the ticket seller's place of business just to find out all tickets have all "sold out" in a half-hour. I don't purchase from brokers who sell them for an arm and a leg. And with tickets costing about $100 each (including the horrifically expensive "service charges"), I'm inclined to just listen to the CDs and sing along in the privacy, comfort and convenience of my own living room.

I'll still try to go see The Boss with the E Street Band. I'll still frequent the smaller venues like The Birchmere to see my favorite performers, like Eddie from Ohio and Betty. I know concerts will never be like they were in college, where $30 bought me a ticket and a t-shirt for Aerosmith, Phil Collins, Journey and Bruce in some of the world's most renown venues.

But today's concerts are too expensive at best and unattainable at worst. Life is too short to spend fighting for concert tickets.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

What We Miss With Current Airport Security

Remember when we used to be able to actually meet people at the gates of airports? Here is what we would have seen.

Thanks to The Writer's Almanac for letting me look ahead to find this wonderful poem!

Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he'd just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she'd been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn't look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you're lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman's middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.

by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

1408, Redux

First thing to remember: the short story is not the screenplay.

The short story is not bad, but it's not as good as the movie.

King's story was creepy in its own way, and it deserved to be made into a movie. However, the screenplay makes Mike into a real character, one the viewer wants to get to know better: a writer whose own tortured soul was mixed with the unrelenting evil of the hotel room. The movie wasn't perfect: it could have been a little shorter, and the hotel room scene went beyond the point of exhausting to making me wish it was just over, for the love of Pete (and not in a good way). Having said that, I wouldn't really opt to change much.

I also preferred the way the movie ended to the story's ending. (Important tip: don't watch the alternate endings on the DVD. There's a reason they weren't chosen as the final ending.)

I am thrilled that the producers chose the actors they did for the movie. King's descriptions do not jive with the actors, but I preferred the actors to those described in the story.

If I had to choose only one, watch the movie and skip the story. You lose nothing by seeing only the movie, which captured the good parts of the story. And if you are going to do both, watch the movie first.

However, skim through the other stories in Everything's Eventual and let me know if you think King has started getting reigned in (by himself or an editor) or if he still is the 1,000 pound gorilla who isn't edited enough. I read a couple of the other stories, and they're not bad — but life is too short (and there are too many good books) to read "not bad."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Banned Book Week Update: Scary!

In honor of 2007 Banned Book Week, I read Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

And boy, were they scary! Some of them were remixes of urban legends, which should be old news and schmaltzy. Au contraire. They were very well-edited, and I made the mistake of reading them when I was alone. I returned the book to the library the next day so it wouldn't scare me. (Had it not been a library book, I'd have put it in the freezer.) The cover of the book alone should have been a warning.....

I have been on a scary story kick lately.

I am reading Heart-Shaped Box, a chapter a night, aloud with David. Scary from the first chapter, people. Lois warned me, so I was prepared and got myself a reading buddy. My advice: don't read it alone. David and I are nine chapters in, so I'll let you know how it evolves.

I can recommend The Nature of Monsters, a book about an apothecary in 1700s England who wanted to prove maternal imprinting on unborn children. The story is very much a period piece, and it's creepy enough around the edges that when the creepiness works itself into the center of the story, it's shocking and intense. If you are a fan of Britannia, absolutely read this book — but check it out from the library. Unless you're a huge fan of Britain, you might not want to keep this one.

I also read Benefits, a feminist science fiction book that is scary in its own right. Click here to read the review.

I plan to read the short story "1408" from Everything's Eventual, a Stephen King short story collection. I have stopped reading recent King works because I find his work very "insider," as though if I was a true fan I'd know the story without having to read it (Lisey's Story) or gory beyond belief from the first page (The Cell). However, after seeing the movie "1408," I have every intention of finding out how true the fantastic screenplay is to the short story. The movie is vintage King: smart, intense, a little over-the-top but in a way that brings the audience along rather than drown the poor souls. I'll let you know what I think about the story.

Finally, I have another novel in my book stack that sounds creepy: Mistress of the Art of Death.

However, I might have to take a break from the creepy and read something lighter. Any suggestions? Leave me a comment!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Explicit Means Never Having to Ask, "What the &$%#@?"

I'm hip. Okay: I am a hipster doofus.

Be that as it may, I don't get shocked by strong language.

If anything, I think it can be used very effectively under the best circumstances. A couple of years ago, I took twice as long to recover from a fall that occurred in front of a 2-year-old because I couldn't say the only word that would make it all better. (Had she not been there, I'd have cursed a blue streak and probably wouldn't have had to go to the doctor because my knee wouldn't have felt as shattered after that much swearing.)

I've never been a big swearer, though I was ridiculous as a teen. Once, I tried writing an emotional story in which the strongest language the grief-stricken characters could use was, "Shoot!" As that sentence came out of my pen, I knew I wasn't ready to write that story, or any story that required realistic language.

Can one write without using swear words? In some contexts, yes. In fact, using foul language in some circumstances shows a lack of creativity. In other circumstances, there are no other words. The true test of a good writer is to know the difference.

This being said, I'm not opposed to purchasing albums with "explicit" lyrics. I'm a fan of Uncle Kracker, and one of his "explicit" albums has a single song on it with some pretty strong language. I just skip that song if I'm in the office or if I don't want another audience member to hear it. (I don't want to be on this planet when Conor tells his mom he learned that word from Aunt Kwis!)

Fergie, on the other hand, has songs so laced with profanity it's impossible to listen to them without blushing. I didn't understand why Yahoo! Video had what was titled the "Oh Snap!" version of "London Bridges" until I heard the other version. I almost got why the other word (replace "nap" with "hit") was there. It was the exclamation at the end that was totally unnecessary: the word popularly referred to as the F-bomb coupled with the term for female dogs.

killed the song for me. I couldn't comfortably play the song for Nikki, David's 17-year-old daughter, or my 15-year-old friend Corinne. "Honey, it's okay for men to dismiss confident women with profanity and disrespect. Here, let's listen to it together." Yep, that would play.

The other popular songs had a little profanity in them, but nothing that was distressing — wait, there's that phrase she tossed out in "Glamorous" that I don't like. And what's the line in "Fergalicious" that always makes me wince?

So, I did something I never had done before: I purchased the "clean" versions of a couple of Fergie songs from iTunes. At first I told myself it was so I could listen to the album comfortably in mixed company. Then I realized the truth: I myself could do without the gratuitous language.

Now, when an album is labeled explicit, I am going to have to think long and hard about whether I want to listen to it. I respect an artist's freedom of expression, but I don't have to listen to it if I find its value more gratuitous than appropriate.

If I have to ask, "How explicit?" I'd better step away from the CD rack — 'cause if you have to ask, you shouldn't be buying it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not Every Good Poem is a Puppy Poem....

.... but it is good.

Thanks to Bob for sharing the poem (which also was on The Writer's Almanac). The poem is fabulous, but a little startling. Tell me what you think — post your comments to this blog!

The God Who Loves You

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you'd be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week--
Three fine houses sold to deserving families--
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you'd have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you're living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don't want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day's disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You'd have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you're used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You're spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven't written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you've witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you've chosen.

- by Carl Dennis from the book Practical Gods

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hannah Montana Saves the Day in Kansas City!

Anyone who has tried to purchase tickets to the hottest shows lately has felt the sting. Bruce Springsteen, Hannah Montana — how can these tickets sell out in such a short time? Who's behind it?

Well, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is looking into it, as are lawmakers in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and Ticketmaster is going to court against RMG Technologies, accused of writing software benefitting ticket brokers — plus putting a good faith effort into ticket availability.

Now, let's see a little more action on that front around the nation's capitol. When the average Joe or Josephine can't get in to see "Spamalot," Springsteen, "Wicked" or Hannah Montana, there's a rat involved — especially when scalped tickets spring up the same day for exponentially more money.

If scalping is illegal, how can these companies sell their tickets at exorbitant prices? I see ads for them all over. I know that the most expensive Springsteen ticket at the Verizon Center was less than $100. Add in processing fees and it's still so much less than the advertised price in the Arts section of the Post. Is anyone paying attention?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The '80s Live On In Us All

This afternoon, I watched The Legwarmers perform. I had heard tell by a fan or two that the group was a lot of fun, and my curiosity was piqued. I had seen a photo of the band, so my Skept-o-Meter™ was on high. Did the group's authenticity end with the headband and skinny tie?

(Go ahead, check out the Web site. I will wait.)

See what I mean? It could go either way.

Well, I am here to tell you that everyone in the audience was singing along and bobbing heads to the music, from those who came of age in the 1980s to those who have to listen to "classic rock" stations to get their Van Halen on. We couldn't keep our feet still, nor our fannies. We clapped, we sang, we danced. I myself nearly lept into the fray of dancing bodies when "Love Shack" started, but I was carrying a library book and figured Mike was a little busy actually running the festival to tend to the library's book.

The performance was a lot of fun, and I can recommend this group to anyone who wants a rockin' good time with songs of their youth. (Or, as Mike put it, "PROM!" — because every single person of a particular generation heard those songs in similar settings.)

I also noticed a phenomenon: older people rocking out. Now, before you berate me as ageist, let me explain: these people were dancing with their second and third generation friends and family members, so they were not teens. When someone completely gray is on the verge of an impromptu air guitar solo performance during "You Give Love A Bad Name," he is much older now than he was when the song was first released. ("He" because women don't do air guitar.) (In public, that is.)

When I think of grandparents, I think of my father — and when I see people who remind me of my father, I do not think "David Lee Roth" (or even the pensioner Mick Jagger). "Grandparents" I grew up with were the fans of Benny Goodman, Montovani, the stuff of which "elevator music" is made. My dad, may he rest in peace, was of a different generation. Those of his generation would no sooner rock out in an air guitar solo than remove their trousers (on purpose) on the dance floor.

So, needless to say, I have to think differently when I think of people old enough to be grandparents. I guess I have to think of my friend Beth, who could be a grandmother any time, with her children in their 20s. My friend Carole with two teenagers could be a grandmother in the next decade — though Collin and Corinne won't really want to date with Aunt Chris accompanying them on every date through their graduate school years. (No, I'm not protective.)

Long story short, my generation is getting to the point where I have to view its members differently. My contemporaries are getting older.

Waaaaaaait a minute: what does that say about me?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Howl Against Censorship

Half a decade ago, Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl was considered obscene. Publishing it was a criminal act, and reading it was even worse.

Fifty years ago last week, an American judge ruled that it was a "work of literary and social merit."

Listen to the late poet read his famous poem, and listen to some of the best minds of his generation discussing it and the situation surrounding it.

For those of you who are not familiar with this poem, a recommendation: it is not work- or child-friendly, so listen accordingly. But do listen. Howl helped launch and define the Beat movement in poetry and is revolutionary in its own right.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Banned Book Week: September 29 - October 6

As a child, I was a voracious reader. I left the children's section of the library at a very young age (and am making up for it now by reading youth and juvenile fiction — let that be a lesson to you, young reader!).

My parents never really told me what I could read, although my dad thought I was a little young at age 7 to understand "pregnant lips" in Sonnets from the Portuguese (though I suspect it's because my questions embarrassed him). I always showed my library books to my mom, who, when I was 11, did tell me she thought I should wait until I was older to read Helter Skelter.

Because of that freedom, I cannot imagine someone else telling me what I should be allowed to read.

Public libraries are the great equalizer, giving people access to many books, periodicals — and, through them, ideas. It's not up to the library to police its readers, but up to the readers (or, in the case of young readers, their parents) to determine what they themselves will read.

In short: if you don't like it, don't read it — and don't tell me what I can read. And by banning books from the public library, "concerned citizens" are doing just that.

Intellectual freedom is not something only the wealthy may attain because they can afford to buy the books banned from the libraries. And despite arguments to the contrary, most rational people can tell the difference between Heather Has Two Mommies and Hustler magazine.

The argument that public funds should not be used to purchase "objectionable material" is ludicrous. I've read government budgets. Talk about obscene! Pork barrel projects alone are more objectionable than And Tango Makes Three. A close look at the content of your local government budget or capital improvements program report can shock you more than Are you There, God? It's Me, Margaret.

I'm not even keen on computer filters that prevent people from accessing Web sites. Sensitive filters prevent access to important and perfectly tame materials, kind of like the e-mail filter that "junked" my e-mail to Carole because I used the word "love." (Really.) Library computers should be in a very public place in plain sight of librarians and other library patrons — who, if someone goes somewhere inappropriate and starts watching live, er, "things you wouldn't watch in front of your grandmother," will object and the offender will be stopped.

If you think your fellow patrons will be silent, just remember: these are the same people who have tried to ban Go Ask Alice and everything Harry Potter.

The week of September 29 through October 6 is Banned Book Week, and the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom suggests people all read one or more of the books on the Top 10 Banned Books list.

I read The Chocolate War when I was a young adult, and I was amazed at its power. I also read three books that were bumped from this year's list: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye.

I plan to visit my library tomorrow to check out one of the books on this year's list — or on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-2000. Hopefully I'll have to put the book on hold because it's been checked out already.

Friday, October 5, 2007

It's Out! Why Didn't You Tell Me?

You know life has gotten way too hectic when you're surprised to discover Bruce Springsteen released his CD already and you don't have it yet.

Oh, I show a little restraint. I don't haunt the NJ record stores on release days. I don't sleep in line to get show tickets (not that I haven't seriously considered it, but employment and comfort have their attractions) (or David hasn't offered). I don't own every single one of his albums. But I make an effort to pay attention to the happenings of The Boss and the E Street Band.

And on this week, I was too preoccupied to realize the date.

I was out taking photos when the band's tickets went on sale (see employment reference above), so by the time I got on the horn, I was out of luck. I knew it was a long shot; after all, Belfast sold out in less than a half hour, so what hope did I have of getting a ticket on the East Coast? I was in good company: most of my fellow Brucians had multiple lines going and also were shut out. I know of only one person who actually got tickets, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what he promised to the Dark Lord for those tickets.

So, on my way out to see Karen tomorrow, I'll stop by my Borders to pick up the CD (and chew them out for not notifying me that my pre-ordered disc was in the store!).

And I will find solace in the last Bruce concert I saw: The Rising, September 2002. It was incredible. I also will find solace in the memory of seeing him close the "Born in the USA" tour, the evening when I became a believer. After all, how good could he be if he was that popular? (As you can tell, I don't find the general populace very discerning in many instances.) However, that evening with Bruce in Los Angeles, I realized that no matter who else I saw in concert in the future, no show could top The Boss.

So I will enjoy his new album and, in November, call the only person I know who got tickets to the local show. And wonder if maybe a trip to Barcelona is in my future. I have a passport, airfare is cheap and maybe the Spaniards haven't gotten the fever yet....

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How the Small Screen Keeps Shrinking

The real estate of a television screen is pretty precious these days.

The last time I checked, there was a station identification logo in the bottom right of the screen (known in the biz as a bug) plus a banner at the bottom of the screen telling you what you were watching and what was coming up next. A few times during a show, the bottom of the screen would come to life with characters of upcoming shows moving around and staring at you — and, if you were lucky, a little NASCAR action with race cars darting about the bottom third of the screen. (Those NASCAR moments are called snipes, by the way.)

All this while the show you tried to watch was actually playing. In the background.

At first, it was network television. Then even the cable networks started doing it.

That was one of the things that made it easy to give up television.

Apparently, this is not only an ongoing trend, but one that promises to become both more entrenched and invasive (“As the Fall Season Arrives, TV Screens Get More Cluttered,” New York Times, September 24, 2007).

Watching television during my pedicure this afternoon allowed me to witness this debacle first-hand. On CNN, there was a news scroll across the bottom of the screen. On top of that was a financial display with odd sets of numbers. Layer three was the station identification logo and the speaker’s name (newscaster, guest, whomever). Then on layer four was the title of the news piece being discussed — and stacked on that was a rectangle with the name of the speaker, if the screen was replaced with a video clip.

When the newscaster was speaking, the upper right of the screen was dedicated to a smaller screen with live video or still photos of the news story being covered.

The pièce de résistance was the closed captioning that covered the top of the screen with three rows of badly spelled copy, presumably what the newscasters were saying. (The volume was off, so I cannot be certain.)

And I wonder why anyone bothers to watch television anymore. There is not enough screen for the program.

Commercials, on the other hand, seem to get the entire screen. Commercials seem to tell viewers how dirty and smelly they or their homes are, or how other viewers have lost weight, so you can, too — and here’s how.

Television programmers honestly think we need that kind of frantic pace on a television channel. The “next generation” of consumer, teens and young adults, are very used to it, they say.

These same programmers seem to forget who earns the paycheck in the household. The ‘tween watching “That’s So Raven” does not have the purchasing power — unless they really think the typical 11-year-old is buying the cars and the Viagra and the feminine hygiene products and laundry soap being sold between programs.

I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, the printed page has a lot less frantic activity. (Usually. Unless the reader is really tired, then all bets are off as to what the page will look like.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Poetry in Government

Here is a great example of poetry used by the government.

This was installed in Riverbend Park by the Fairfax County Park Authority.

The poem is delightful, and I've reprinted it below for your reading ease. Much thanks to Matthew Kaiser and Judy Pedersen of the Fairfax County Park Authority — and my fellow hiker Lois, who has friends in the right places.

Creatures of the Seep

Beneath the rock ledges
And rotting leaf litter,
Live many a bizarre
And strange little critter.
Some that are snail-like,
And some that are shrimpy,
But to survive they must be strong
And not too wimpy.
The petaltail dragonfly larva
Hides in the mud,
Waiting to capture
The little shrimp-like scud.
The planaria’s head
Is shaped like an arrow,
And it’s body is wormlike
And very narrow.
The springsnail lives
On leaves that are decaying,
And salamanders walk underwater
While hunting and preying.

- by Anna and Marty Smith
(Riverbend Park manager and his daughter)

(Image courtesy Fairfax County Park Authority)

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Stranger and Lost

Please read this story in the Washington Post (Random Acts, 9/18/07).

You'll know which one I mean when you read it.

When I read these kinds of inspirational stories, where someone gives not only her shirt but her shoes as well, it makes me strive to be a better person.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Everything But the Vatican

I encountered a new co-worker the other day who seemed nice enough.

Then I read her blog.

Wow, she’s not very nice to my co-workers. Her grammar is awful, too. She also announces when she has written something when she is naked.

These transgressions are not truly crimes (of law, though grammar violations should have more serious consequences than just my derision). Everyone can misspell, use incorrect grammar and be mean. I just didn’t expect to have it sent to me by Google.

You see, Google has this great service: the company will comb blogs and Web sites for keywords upon request, and return with one or more hits whenever the keywords are found. I have four such searches conducted by Google every day: one for work and three for subjects of interest to me. Work is sent to my work e-mail and the rest are sent home.

You, my readers of this and my other blogs, have benefited from this: many news stories I post are from those very sources. This excellent resource allows me to save some time while remaining surprisingly well-informed.

And now it allows me to read what at least one co-worker thinks.

I sent the link to a couple interested parties of authority in the workplace. If they saw nothing wrong with it, no harm, no foul. I also was possibly shooting myself in the foot: I blog. If the Big Boss decided there is to be a blog policy, well, that wouldn’t necessarily bode well for me.

However, I have a few things this other blogger doesn’t.

First, I have a little smarts: I don’t put information in that makes me spot-on recognizable, such as my last name and workplace. I doubt she blogs under her real name (if so, her parents are very cruel), but I do know where she works and for how long.

Secondly, my boss has seen my blog. More than once. In fact, I hope he has checked out the puppy haikus.

Thirdly, I don’t write about work. I love my blogable job (and does anyone else think there should be a second "g" in that word?), but no one would believe half of what I write about it, anyway. It would sound nearly as fantastic as a Dan Brown novel, with people who are too beautiful and too smart and perfect for real life, not to mention close Vatican ties. And it stars Tom Hanks — so how believable is it?

So, really, I can’t blog about work with any credibility.

But I can plug reading and libraries, animals, poetry, pedicures, fitness and common sense (á la Chris), beg drivers to stay out of my left lane on the highway and pray that I’m not enough of a celebrity to get anywhere near 15 minutes of fame. It’s fleeting and fickle, fame and public adoration, so I’ll just skip it all and live a life of obscurity.

That is, until the Coen Brothers, George Clooney and/or Amy Heckerling read my blog and hire me to write for her/him/them, adding to his/her/their fame and/or fortune — then, well, who am I to refuse her/him/them such talent? (With as much ambiguity in that last sentence and way too many slashes, I'm sure my opportunity is shot. At least, I hope it is. Oh, well, see previous reference to "fleeting and fickle." At least I got it over with quickly and relatively painlessly before I got used to it.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Puppy Poetry

Despite the fact that poets are reputed to wear black, mope and be terminally and eternally depressed, at times we also can frolic. (Well, as much as one can while wearing black.)

So, here is puppy poetry — just for Vicky.

Haikus are not just for cats. Actually, a haiku is very good for the dog, whose attention span is rumored to be somewhat limited. (Hey, don't shoot the messenger!)

In honor of the pup, and without further ado, here is a dog haiku:

I am your best friend,
Now, always, and especially
When you are eating.

So, pet the dog at Yuckles and chuckle about your best furry friend. Read a few to the dog — she'll probably find 'em funny, too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Buddy, Can You Spare An Eye?

I think I'm in a little over my head. And that's with the stack of books starting at chest height.

My reading list is getting almost dangerous. Between the two Isaacsons (not counting his newest), a couple of Alboms (yes, I'm hooked on the "Brad Pitt" of the book world, thanks to Carole for her criticism and phraseology!), another Gaiman and a book of women poets from antiquity to the present, I'm going to be a little busy for a while. And we won't even get into the newest releases in a new stack next to the Fall for the Book authors.

Or the All Fairfax Reads book.

And how about The Red Tent, which I have shared with three people, put a fourth copy on a communal bookshelf and have promised to discuss with at least two other people?

Or the new-to-me copy of Benefits, the feminist science fiction from college I finally found? Or the two — no, three novels on the living room chest?

Really, I am in over my head. I need to give up my day job to get some reading done. Or give up sleeping. If I didn't have to worry about a house payment, the decision would be a no-brainer. (Wait, which would I sacrifice again? Sleep or the job? Or both?)

So, please, save me from myself. If you see me wandering into my Borders (it is "my Borders," with as much as my paycheck that stays there when I leave with my new stack), stop me. If you see me balancing books precariously in my arms as I step blindly out of Yesterday's Rose, don't believe me when I say they're all for the lunchroom. The public library isn't safe by any means: those books are free! (Fines not included.) Intervention isn't a bad idea.

But instead, I'd prefer a second set of eyes so I can catch up on my reading.

Until then, look for me behind the towering stack of books on my table. I'll see you on the other side of the page.

Friday, September 7, 2007

What About That Quick Brown Fox, Anyway?

Nowadays, my fingers fly over the keyboard, hitting the letters they seek (for the most part). Bystanders think I am just playing, so they stand behind me, peering over my shoulder as my words appear on the monitor. They look at my hands at work, the monitor, then me, and mutter, “Wow.”

The dubious and obviously unbelievable skill of typing pretty darned fast was a long time coming. In fact, it nearly cost me a failing grade in, of all places, summer school.

At age 13, I took two summer school courses at the high school I would attend that September. I loved school so, for me, summer school was a bonus. We wore sandals and shorts and felt the heat of the day emerge while we were in the cool shelter of the classroom. I planned to take fun classes to let me begin developing skills I wanted to have: typing and gymnastics. The latter was no more than a late wish to be graceful; athletic and perky, I never felt sure-footed, particularly next to my sister the dancer.

Typing, on the other hand, was a necessary skill for a budding writer. Poems and stories emerged from my hands through pencils and pens, and landed soundly on the page. However, Papa Hemingway and Slyvia Plath, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King all sat in front of a typewriter, so I figured all writers had to learn the skill. Plus, every campus newspaper required typed copy. I had to learn.

I had seen keyboards before, and typing guides, but they remained as much a mystery as shorthand scribbles (another skill I was convinced that, no matter how much I could use, would evade me my whole life). If I survived typing, shorthand would be the next monolith to fall. How convenient both skills would be to a journalist!

On the first day of typing class, the room filled with teenagers I had known for my entire academic career. The girls came in clutches, finding seats in groups of three or four. The boys lingered in the halls, filling in the gaps when the tardy bell rang. None of my closest friends had been interested in joining the world of typists in the years before “keyboarding” was foisted upon preschoolers. I wound up sitting on the fringes of a group of cheerleaders. I was the “smart girl,” and those who might be in need of my tutoring casually took the seats around me. They relaxed noticeably, knowing they would not have to pay attention because I would be there to tell them and teach them. Having been the “smart girl” since kindergarten, when I was whisked off the playground and plopped into a first grade classroom for my habit of reading aloud to my fellow students, I understood the benefits I derived from tutoring. However, I would have much rather preferred Beth or April sitting next to me; they would have needed nothing from me but my smile.

In the days of typewriters, a single stroke might mean the difference between a clean term paper and starting the page over. Teachers were strict: no eraser marks or correction tape. Later, dabs of Wite-Out could save a soul as long as the liquid was applied lightly and the typist was patient enough to wait until it dried. Wet Wite-Out made a keystroke look like a footprint in wet sand: sunken, deep and (on the page) permanent. In those days, typing was a risk, and I wanted to avoid the pitfalls to which I watched others succumb.

When the teacher pulled down the typing screen, I studied it carefully. Letters were jumbled about in an apparent random order. What was the ”a” doing next to the “s”? Later, I was told typewriter keyboard setup was changed soon after typewriters first were manufactured because typists using the first setup typed too quickly. It makes sense: it was the only way to comprehend the bizarre letter arrangement.

My first day in typing class was spent trying to not understand why ASDF were together. The exercises were slow and laborious, and my fingers, unused to that cramped space, refused to stay on their own keys. My fingers worked in unison, and lightly. Typing a semicolon repeatedly put a few Ls on the page as well. Striking the F made my other fingers want to leap off the keyboard to support that poor index finger. There was a war going on at the ends of my hands, and the good folks at IBM were losing. If any finger could hit the D strongly, I mused, why restrain the perfectly willing middle finger to the task? Give everyone a chance!

I learned the answer soon, when the second row was introduced. If the pinky wasn’t anchored to the A, all hell would break loose on the keyboard. And at least A was at the end of its row — the semicolon pinky has no wall to help mark its boundaries. Even such a simple word as “the” posed a risk, what with its letters residing on two different rows. Then three. Oh, heavens, V and B sounded alike in the air, then someone put them side by side on a typewriter — whose idea of a joke was that, anyway? Go ahead, try to type “vacuum” or “buoy” without a slip-up, I dare you. Then, when numbers and their shift-symbols were introduced, I would lay awake at night and try to make my fingers remember who needed to reach for a 2 and whose job it was to see if a 1 was up there, or if we had to remember the L instead.

In the end, I got it all down, but I was slow to committing my fingers to a letter. When I sped up, my fingers were like the legs of a newborn fawn: wobbly and all over the place. The teacher was sympathetic. He knew I was capable, just cautious. He gave me ample opportunities to practice, and he was generous with his time and tips.

Despite this, coupled with my burning desire to succeed, I could score no higher than 16 words per minute. With a score like that, I never would be a writer! I never would be a journalist! I would — have to practice, I resigned myself. It was not the most successful summer on record: in gymnastics, I discovered I still could not execute a cartwheel. I could have used a slam-dunk in typing, but it was not to be the case.

Not until my second full-time job in journalism were my typing skills put to the test. A stringer would dictate his stories over the telephone, and when no one else was in the small office, the task fell to me. The previous 10 years of typing practice set the stage for the coming of age. In no time, I was typing at the speed of his speech with few errors, if any. True he knew how to dictate, pausing every few words or phrases for the typist to catch up, but an incompetent typist still could not survive. Yet I did, and beautifully.

Soon, all stringer calls were routed to my desk, the desk of the excellent typist, and my success afforded me more practice. Now, mistakes occurred not because of my inexperience, but because my fingers were too fast for the typewriter (then, later, the computer keyboard). It took a while, but in time and with practice I finally learned to type accurately and quickly, and to wow the audience at home by my prowess at the keyboard.

Today, the idea of transmitting information instantly via e-mail or even that lately outmoded method of facsimile, coupled with keyboarding for infants, have rendered the “typist” nearly obsolete. Now everyone thinks herself or himself a typist — an idea I hope will fade soon. Frankly, between that and the myth that “talent” of writing and design are relayed in a computer program, I fear for the future of communication. While everyone can type, and hence write, not everyone can do it well, or even do it professionally.

However, no matter the future of typing, writing or even creating, I can honestly say typing taught me one unforgettable lesson: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Fall for the Book September 23-28

Plan to spend time in Fairfax for Fall for the Book September 23-28! There are fabulous authors and incredibly fun events planned for the festival.

Visit the Fall for the Book Web site for information, and plot your visit carefully so you don't miss anything. I hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Neruda and Rowling Pay Homage to Socks

I think one of humanity's biggest flaws is that we underestimate the value of comfort. Professor Dumbledore had it right he imagined what he would see in the Mirror of Erised:
"I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks." Harry stared. "One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a pair. People will insist on giving me books."
I could go on to discuss how many times Ms. Rowling's socks made me cry, but I will resist. (Instead, e-mail me and we will chat.)

So, without further ado, let's see what Pablo Neruda writes about socks.

Ode to My Socks

Maru Mori brought me
a pair
of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet
into them
as though into
with threads of
and goatskin.
Violent socks,
my feet were
two fish made
of wool,
two long sharks
sea-blue, shot
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons:
my feet
were honored
in this way
They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

I resisted
the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere
as schoolboys
as learned men
sacred texts,
I resisted
the mad impulse
to put them
into a golden
and each day give them
and pieces of pink melon.
Like exploreres
in the jungle who hand
over the very rare
green deer
to the spit
and eat it
with remorse,
I stretched out
my feet
and pulled on
the magnificent
and then my shoes.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter.

by Pablo Neruda
translated by Robert Bly

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Watching What I Say

I want to be brilliant and pithy and clever, but I am at a loss.

I want to comment on young Miss Lauren Upton's answer during the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant. I do. However, I find myself covering my face when I hear her speak, and it's impossible to type in that position.

We all have our bad days. (Mine was Monday.) Some days we are the windshield, some days we are the bug. However, I'm horrified about two things:

1. For a pageant contestant, this kind of question is what she does.
2. Despite throwing South Africa and "the Iraq" in her answer about why one-fifth of Americans cannot find our own country on a map, she still came in third.

I bet, at times, my attempts to do my job come out sounding like "the Iraq." My job involves answering a barrage of questions with non sequiturs and weird setups, most of which have literally nothing to do with my job or my responsibilities. However, after this long, I should be able to think on my feet, right? Those who win the Stump Chris Contest deserve their one-year supply of Rice-a-Roni (the San Franciso treat) and are enshrined in a booklet I read from time to time to humble and amuse myself.

May I always listen to the questions and may my audience never record my faux pas.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cleaning Up Poetry

How do today's poets view domesticity? Find the answer in Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework by Pamela Gemin.

Check out the NPR interview (which is what drew me to this book) and read a couple of the poems on the NPR Web site, including one of my favorites that asks the eternal question, "What's the use?"

Here's one of the poems from the book that was featured by The Writer's Almanac:

When Our Women Go Crazy

When our women go crazy, they're scared there won't be
enough meat in the house. They keep asking
but how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough?
Mother to daughter, it's always the same
questions. The sisters and aunts recognize symptoms:
she thinks there's no food, same as Mommy
before they sent her away to that place,
and she thinks if she goes, the men will eat
whatever they find right out of the saucepans.
When our women are sane, they can tomatoes
and simmer big pots of soup for the freezer.
They are satisfied arranging spice tins
on cupboard shelves lined with clean paper.
They save all the leftovers under tight lids
and only throw them away when they're rotten.
Their refrigerators are always immaculate and full,
which is also the case when our women are crazy.

by Julia Kasdorf

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund

There is no amount of money that can bring someone back from the dead. There is no amount of money that can take away the pain of that loss.

Families of those killed or injured this past spring at Virginia Tech are as aware of that as others who have suffered that kind of loss.

And yet some of them are saying, “Show me the money.”

On August 15, Tech representatives announced the school's intent to distribute the entire amount of the privately donated $7.1 million Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund to the families of those who were killed and to the survivors. Even uninjured students who were in Norris Hall classrooms where the shootings occurred may choose to receive free tuition for their remaining years at Tech or receive a one-time payment of cash.

Many intended recipients have stated they think they are entitled to more than the fund will provide.

Thomas J. Fadoul Jr., a Vienna, Va., lawyer who claims to represent the families of nearly two dozen students killed at Tech, is quoted in a July 18 Washington Post article saying relatives of those slain at Tech “…are entitled to ‘at least what the 9/11 people got’” (Va. Tech Relatives Seeking Payment; Attorney Says State Should Create a Fund, July 18, 2007).

I am sickened and so very disappointed.

These grieving people and their representatives appear to be using the tragedy of the terrorist attacks to set the bar for compensation.

In fact, Fadoul says his clients believe the generosity of the people of the nation, even the world, to contribute money toward those in need after the tragedy, is not enough for them. They want more, and someone will pay.

Who will pay? More innocents — possibly even the people suffering the loss.

If Tech has to shoulder the burden for any kind of financial payout, future Tech students could see their tuition increase not because the commonwealth has not supported their schools, but because the families and survivors want cash to assuage their wounds.

If the Virginia legislators set up a separate fund with state monies, all residents of the commonwealth will be required to contribute. Virginia residents whose families were affected by the shooting could themselves pay into a fund from which they receive monies.

The point is, money is not free. When “someone pays,” we all pay: increased insurance costs, higher tuition, tax dollars routed from one fund to another, increased tax obligations levied on all Virginians.

We are a litigious society. A few years ago, I was acquainted with a European woman in the U.S. on a work visa. She sued her boss for sexual harassment. She didn’t say a word to him or his supervisor to address the issue at hand, but went straight to court because, she said, that is how she saw things were done around here.

What a damning observation.

During my daily run, I have heard George Mason University testing its emergency announcement system. I can imagine universities around the world are doing the same, particularly before students return to campus for the fall semester. The April shooting has highlighted possible needs to increase security measures, identified shortcomings in the current student emergency notification system and helped both administrators and students figure out how to make such measures work.

Those who want Tech to “pay” should be able to see how everyone is paying — and making changes to try to prevent this kind of horror from happening again. There are no guarantees in life, but we must always attempt to do our best to protect ourselves and our charges against the evil and insanity of the world around us. If any additional money is collected or taxes and fees levied, let it be for this.

I am not among the 32 families who lost their children or spouses or the 27 families whose members suffered injuries. I am so very sorry for their losses. I cannot imagine their grief, their sadness. I wasn't in the classroom with bullets flying around me. I cannot imagine the fear, the loss of innocence and feelings of safety.

But demanding more money is not going to assuage the grief and fear. Press the issue of campus safety, work toward a solution on the issue — but don’t demand more money because someone else got more.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Yeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrr Out!

Well, there's good news on the America Online front. Oh, not from AOL, but from Wells Fargo Bank.

Having given up on the fax, Mom waited a few extra days to see if the letter would be delivered. When it wasn't, she decided to go for the jugular: the credit card. In a matter of minutes, it was put to rest.

The Wells Fargo customer service representative was patient and a good listener. She asked Mom when the first call was made to AOL, when subsequent calls were made and, most importantly, what AOL did.

I imagine credit card companies get these kinds of calls all the time from cranky customers — and I imagine many of the calls are received with little support and enthusiasm. Being in customer service, I have heard some great stories myself. If this woman has been on the job longer than a week, she's heard some doozies: sad stories of people who don't want to pay and will make up any story to get out of it. She also knows when a story rings true, as Mom's did.

This attentive rep was indignant on Mom's behalf. "The first customer service rep wouldn't take the death certificate? Oh, that's unacceptable," she exclaimed. "And when was that call?"

"May," Mom said, "and I spent an hour and a half trying to figure out the passwords."

"Well, that's when the payments stop," she explained. "We will credit your account for those months, and we will write them a letter telling them that. And the next payment — well, you won't have another payment."

My call from Mom came literally minutes after she decided to call the card company. "Chrissy, it's done. Can you believe it?"

That is customer service, and that is how I expect my mom to be treated.

Take that, AOL!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

"Customer Service" -- NOT in AOL's Vocabulary

When the Internet boom started back in the 1990s, America Online was there with easy-to-use tools, round-the-clock service, community building and more. It felt like everyone was on AOL.

And maybe they were. I know I was, as was my dad. I decamped before the new millennium for a local company. Dad, however, stayed, as did Mom.

Now Dad is no longer with us, may he rest in peace — but his AOL account is. And that, my friends, is the trouble.

Mom, whose user name is on the account, decided this past May to cancel the AOL account. Dial-up was painfully slow, she planned to purchase a new computer and she wanted a fresh start. So she called AOL customer service, who asked for Dad's mother's middle name for customer identification. Mom knew it, but not how to spell it, and despite the assistance the customer service rep gave her to help her guess that (and another password) correctly, she was not able to give a satisfactory answer. After 90 minutes, she was in tears.

"All I want to do is cancel my late husband's account!" she exclaimed. "Can't I send you his death certificate?" The rep was sorry, but without the password, Mom was unable to conduct business on the account.

When I heard about that transaction, I was incensed. My next trip to Los Angeles began with a call to AOL. I bypassed the whole "mother's middle name" crap and went straight for the rep. When I explained the situation and Mom's first encounter, the second rep was very apologetic and promised to fax a form to Mom within 48 hours and would cancel the account within 48 hours after receiving the completed form. I hung up, thinking, "Wow, and all that without Nana's middle name. Waaaait, that was too easy. Let's see what happens Monday."

So, 48 hours later, when the form had failed to arrive, I called back and spoke to yet a third rep. It appears the 48 hours was only "work" hours, and despite AOL's 24-hour customer service, business faxing was not conducted on weekends. So Rep #3 promised to fax the form "or mail the form to the billing address on the account in three to five days."

Mail? That was news to me. I wasn't taking any chances. "Or? Why not and?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"Oh, you want both," he sighed.

"Well, considering the unreliability of AOL's fax service, um, yeah, I absolutely want it by mail," I responded, trying with little success to mask my frustration. "So, you will fax and mail it to my mother? The fax will be within 48 hours and the mailed form will be within five days?"

Rep #3 confirmed that schedule.

"And within 48 hours after that, the account will be closed?" I clarified.

"Yes, within 30 days," he added. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Wow, more new information. "Wait, 30 days?" I asked.

"Yes, once we receive the form, the account will be cancelled within 30 days," he explained. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

I couldn't stand another moment of this lousy conversation where nothing akin to "customer service" was being offered to my family, so I responded curtly, "No, thank you. Simply doing what you have said you would in the time frame you have noted will be sufficient. Thank you." I should have asked if that was 30 business days (which translates to six weeks, not counting holidays).

Well, that was five working days ago (or seven "AOL 24-hour telephone or e-mail customer service" days). Not only has the fax not arrived (and yes, we tested the fax machine to make sure it was working properly), the letter also has not arrived. Twice I attempted to cancel the account online, but with Dad gone, so went the super secret password required for online transactions (which is different than the super secret password for telephone service).

When Monday dawns, Mom or I will be on the phone with the credit card company, explaining how we do not wish to continue to pay AOL for a service we have been unable to cancel.

I am very angry at the first rep who took advantage of a grieving widow and refused to tell her how to cancel the account.

I am very angry at the second rep who didn't explain clearly what a "day" is for a 24-hour company and did not get the form faxed.

I am further angry with the third rep who again didn't manage to get the form sent on time.

I know AOL is a multi-billion-dollar mega-corporation with oodles of "customer service" reps who handle hundreds of calls a day. That is the reason I left them in 1996 and turned instead to a company up the road from me, where a tech who lived in my neighborhood stopped by my house on a snowy day to help me install the software needed to start my Internet service. "Service" means something else entirely to a company such as AOL or J.C. Penney, the latter of which didn't bother to post my payment in time and couldn't manage to clear the mistaken late fee that grew for months (until my last call was turned over to "collections" — which, strangely enough, could make a late fee disappear, as well as cancel the account, all in a single call received after normal business hours in my time zone).

Maybe it's the Little Mary Sunshine in me (that AOL is slowly strangling with this horrible treatment), but when someone calls my place of business, it's personal. I confirm a fax is sent, I put the letter in the mailbox, I follow up with a telephone call. Everyone else in my organization does the same. If there's a whiff of a customer's request falling through the cracks, we find out who and why — and trust me, it does not happen again. In Fairfax, customer service still means something.

What a shame that with AOL, it does not.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Charles Simic, New Poet Laureate

In celebration of our new U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic, here's a poem for you:


Green Buddhas
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.

Now, go read some of his other poems, and consider attending the 2007 National Book Festival to see him read and discuss his work!

"Watermelon" is from Return to a Place Lit By a Glass of Milk by Charles Simic. Published by George Braziller. Copyright © 1974.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Hair by Any Other Name Would Not Smell as Sweet

The next time I say, “It’s just hair,” you have my permission to laugh aloud at me.

This week, I had a bad haircut. Not just a bad haircut, the more I think about it. It was the worst haircut I’ve had in years. (Alicia might disagree because she hasn’t been too thrilled with my hair stylists for a while.)

I’ve had bad haircuts: bangs an inch long (cut on the eve of the worst flu I’d had in a decade and a week after starting a new job), uneven layers (both on the same side and on opposite sides of my face), a short haircut that frightened the cat (Mao sniffed my head for days trying to figure out where all that hair went). Each time I swore I’d invest in my head.

The next time, I would instead just swear. I am a little embarrassed to admit it: I might not have returned to the exact scene of the crime, but I often wound up right around the corner.

That’s the entire reason I grew my hair so long for such a long time: I feared a haircut. Any haircut. A trim put me in a panic. It also is unabashedly the reason I no longer wear bangs (see bad bang reference above). When in the stylist’s chair, I sit petrified and thin-lipped, pleading with the licensed professional to not cut more than an inch. I look stern and unapproachable, not even reaching the level of comfort to try a little small talk with the poor scissor wielder.

You would think with that kind of fear, I would pull a John Edwards and lay out a hefty sum for an excellent cut. You’d think. However, until two days ago, I was a firm believer in Hair Cuttery. I told myself experienced stylists cut hair in those shops. Could an $11 haircut be a quality cut, like they showed in their ads? Was there truth in advertising? Could I discover a gem in a cheap salon? Could I risk it?

I decided to take the risk.

At my local Hair Cuttery, I found a couple of stylists who gave good cut. When they left, I found others who wold do a serviceable cut. I even found one who talked to me before the shampoo, and I thought I found A Keeper.

Then a few months ago, the layering went awry: chunky, fell forward at an odd angle, a little heavier than it should be. I thought I just needed to dry it a little differently.

The next cut seemed to emphasize the weird layering, but I thought it was me. I went back later that evening to have the stylist re-cut it, and it helped — or at least that’s what I told myself.

Just a few days ago, I did it again. The length was too short and the layering was too chunky. I went back an hour later, as the stylist suggested (well, she suggested I return if needed the next day or even later in the week). This time, however, it helped even less than before and I exited the shop with a bad shag bordering on a mullet.

It was exactly what I had feared: Another Haircut Gone Awry. However, my friends proved their loyalty: nary a whisper against the terror on my head. Kathy said it was cute (even after I announced my pending trip to fix it). Shelby complimented how it accentuated my face. Even as I admitted my folly, Rachael simply nodded, saying only that I would enjoy my trip to her favorite spa (and never once uttering the words "damage control").

The stylist who was assigned said damage control managed to pull off a miracle. Oh, it's not over by a long shot: I will need another cut or two to rid my (now much shorter) locks of the damage. However, I am grateful that I no longer cringe when passing a mirror (too afraid to see what my mop looks like after minutes of inattention). Even Alicia likes it, and she's a tough cookie. (David, too — he may love me no matter the state of my hair, but he recognizes a horrific hair cut when he sees one.)

It may be “only hair,” but it’s my hair, and it’s how I see myself. I don’t have to be Rapunzel, but I have to like what I see — and thanks to Than at Comfort and Joy, I have a chance of liking my reflection tomorrow morning after my run.

And that’s saying something.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Natasha Trethewey: Native Pulitzer

Natasha Trethewey will blow your socks off. Listen to the Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. Then go purchase the book Native Guard: Poems, this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.

Native Guard: Poems also is available at the Fairfax County Public Library (or the library of your choice, I'm sure, for you non-Fairfacians)— so check it out, then go buy it. Just please read it.

What are you still doing here? Go listen to the interview. You will literally exclaim aloud at the terrible beauty of the poems and the grace with which she reads them and responds to them. The stories she tells are touching and compelling.

Have I steered you wrong yet about poetry?

And if you aren't sure what you're missing, here's one she reads on Fresh Air — but you get it only if you promise to go listen, then borrow or purchase her book (like I did even before I got my hands on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — that's how good it is).

What is Evidence

Not the fleeing bruises she'd cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she'd pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she'd steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document — its seal
and smeared signature — fading already,
the edge wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body — splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal — her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.

Now. Go listen to Fresh Air and read her book. You can thank me later.