Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I feel as though the past three years have been one exercise in packing after another: how to fit lamps, tables, books, and clothes into one van; how to make a list of everything I use in my daily life; how to discriminate between things I regularly use and things I own that just give me options. As if I didn’t already have enough decision-making to do in my life, I now have to sort through a lifetime of possessions in order to decide what I intend to use for the next nine months.

That skirt is cute, but will I have any reason to wear it? Maybe I should take another T-shirt, instead. I’d love to read that book, but will I have the time? Class readings need to take precedent, and if I take that book along, it might tempt me to neglect my work. How much stationary should I pack? I could always just use plain paper, but I really like writing letters on stationary. Will it get cold before Thanksgiving? Should I take a coat and forego the third pair of flip flops?

The stress of packing is the fear of forgetting that One Last Thing. You know you’ll be in the car, having already driven an hour or two from home, and suddenly realize that in order to swim every Thursday like you had planned, you are going to need a bathing suit. Or if you wear contacts, and you are about to pull out of the driveway when you suddenly realize that you probably cannot last for three months (until Thanksgiving) without your glasses, so your dad screeches to a halt and you go charging into the garage and up the stairs for that One Last Thing.

I am trying to pack my One Last Thing. But too much other stuff is getting in the way.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nick naming

This summer, I played in a recreational volleyball league with a group of friends from high school. Every Thursday, Andy, Ryan, Jared, Mark, Bri (not from WH—Ryan met her at Pitt), and I met at a gym on Polish Hill and competed other volleyball teams in the league. Last year, we didn’t do very well, but this year our team made the second-seed ranking. Therefore, we made it to playoffs, which took place last night.

I was the first to arrive for the game, so I played with one of the random basketballs lying around the gym for a while and then started stretching. Gradually, everyone began to trickle in, marked by various degrees of excitement. Bri looked a little frazzled, having just come from moving into a new apartment. Jared strutted in with his usual, slightly-arrogant, easy-going confidence, followed by Mark, who was hunched forward in his purposeful loping style, game-ready, with his hair pulled back into a ponytail and strapped down by a sweatband, already looking overly intense. Last to arrive were Andy and Ryan. Andy was brimming with energy and being very much his “team captain” self: high-fiving everyone and asking if we were ready “to do this shit.” Ryan, on the other hand, had competing priorities in mind. He had brought along a spectator.

I got up from stretching, and he introduced me.

“Hey, Ali. This is Kat.”

The girl was of moderate height, with an athletic build. (My initial impression was that she might have been a soccer player.) She had straight yellowy-blond hair that fell to her shoulders and a lot of freckles, yet her skin was almost as tan as mine. Her smile was easy and kind-looking; she reminded me a lot of my childhood friend Leslie. I took her extended hand.

“Hi. Nice to meet you, Kat.”

“Hi . . . Ali?”

Ryan and I both began stuttering.

“Allison—” he started.

“It’s Allison,” I echoed, “but some of my friends call me Ali.”

“Oh, okay. Allison.”

“Ali, Allison; it doesn’t matter.”

It’s odd; I have never been introduced as “Ali” before. Granted, Ryan didn’t exactly introduce me as that; he just spoke without thinking. The fact that he did spontaneously call me “Ali” (and not “Allison”), however, and the fact that I did not even notice until someone else pointed it out made me consider who else calls me by that nickname.

My sister Amy, Ben, Emily, Andy, and Vicky are the ones who immediately come to mind when I try to envision (or “enhear”?) people saying my nickname, but Ryan obviously calls me “Ali,” too, and I would not have thought of him, had someone else not noticed. Just as odd is considering all of the people who do not call me “Ali”: both Kellys, Jared, Mark, my parents.

Nicknames are often considered terms of endearment, but if that were true, then shouldn’t my parents should have been the first to call me “Ali”? Moreover, if nicknames indicate some sort of emotional intimacy, someone such as Ryan—who, although we are friends, I doubt considers me near and dear to his heart—would not call me by that nickname. I have certainly never told anyone to call me “Ali.” Why, then, do certain people call me “Ali,” while others do not?

A certain level of friendly familiarity is definitely necessary to call someone by a nickname. My boss at Pitt, for example, would never call me “Ali.” She, however, explicitly told me to call her “Corrie” (her name is “Corrine”). Honestly, I still struggle with using that nickname when I address her. The first-name basis is not a problem, but writing “Dear Corrie,” in the line of an e-mail just feels too casual, too familiar, too much like writing “Dear Emmy” or “Dear Vicky.”

Being called by a nickname also has a lot to do with the person doing the naming, too. Ben and Emily and even my sister Amy are all affectionate, easy-going kinds of people. It goes well with their natures to use nicknames. Alternatively, Mark—as I mentioned before—is a rather intense kind of individual. It would actually strike me as bizarre if he were to call me anything other than my full name.

As I grow older, I wonder if my nickname will persevere. My guess is that it will only stay around as long as those who already call me by it are around. After all, say I meet the man of my dreams within the next ten years and get married at twenty-eight or thirty. Would I really want my husband to call me “Ali?”

Or wouldn’t I even notice?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The urge to write

It’s like a knot in your back: you twist and stretch and knead those parts that you can reach, but the ache persists.

It’s like feeling aimlessly hungry. “There’s nothing to eat,” you declare, staring at your full cupboards and stuffed refrigerator.

It’s a restlessness of the mind, an urge to create.

I was walking to work this morning through the streets of Oakland. The sky was whitish-gray, hovering just above the building tops. It smelled like rain. I instantly wanted to write about how fresh and thick that smell was, how it reminded me of damp leaves and the exhaust that comes out of a laundry room. I arrived at work and sat down at my computer, but now I cannot write.

The other day, I was at Vicky’s house with a whole host of friends. I did my part to socialize, but mostly I was watching everyone else interact. Amy would curl up to Dee or Ben the way a cat winds its way through your legs; she has that same soft, deliberate touch. Vicky competed at Trouble like an eight-year-old, convinced that ones are the hardest numbers to roll, punching the air with excitement whenever one of her red pegs sent someone “home.” Everyone smoked their cigarettes differently. Andy was the most professional-looking, jutting out his lower lip so that the smoke streamed up in a vertical column beside his head and made a sort of “thought halo” above him. Brooke would turn her head to exhale, pursing her lips to that side so that the smoke ended up nearly behind her. Ben blew his smoke out sloppily, engulfing his conversation partner in a big amorphous cloud. I wanted to write about all of these observations, to link them together and imbue them with meaning. But by the time I arrived home, my purpose was gone. All I had were a lot of mental snapshots and a dull pencil.

I have so much to write about and yet so little to say.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Love: a metamorphosis through literary quotations

  • Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. Ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?—Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • ‘Love’ is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.—Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
  • And why am I so necessary to you, my friend? What good have I done you? I am only devoted to you with my whole soul, I love you warmly, intensely, with my whole heart.—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk
  • I keep thinking about this river somewhere with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, to drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.—Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
  • “Do you think that people can just come into our lives for a moment and love us, and we love them back, and they change our whole lives, and then they just disappear?”
    “That’s all that ever happens.”—Nancy Whiteley, “Orbiting Izzy”
  • Monday, August 20, 2007

    Impatience: more from the Family Weekend

    “Are you really going to drink that?” My sister stared at the full mug of tea in my hands.

    “Um, yeah.” I squeezed out a teaspoonful of honey and started stirring it into the tea.

    “Al-ieeee.” She widened her eyes meaningfully. The look was half-pleading, half-annoyed.

    “Chill out.” I looked across the table. “Look, mom isn’t even done with her cereal yet.”

    We were talking under our breaths, sitting at my grandparents’ kitchen table. My mom, grandma, and grandpa sat around the other side. My dad was in the bathroom, “readying” himself for the five-hour drive home. With enough “preparation,” we would hopefully not have to stop for more than one bathroom break.

    Meanwhile, it was taking all of Amy’s self-control not to run out the door, jump into the car, and drive away without the rest of us.

    I had to give my sister credit—she had been awfully patient all weekend. We had arrived Thursday afternoon, just in time to help my aunt and uncle clean out my grandparents’ garage, make lunch, dissemble furniture, cook dinner, and wrestle mattresses into our various sleeping arrangements. (Amy and I slept on the living room floor, my parents slept in the guest room on the mattress left over from a disassembled bed, and my aunt slept on some chair cushions on the kitchen floor.)

    The next day, Friday, was Moving Day: we all woke up at seven o’clock, ate breakfast, and started moving things onto the auctioneer’s truck. I was suffering from a massively sore throat, so my morning mood was petulant, at best. My sister had to bear the brunt of my groanings, since we were doing most of the household activities (i.e. dish duty, cleaning out the attic, etc.) in order to avoid the rest of our testy family. Moving alone is stressful enough; moving involving your extended family is enough to make a person crazy.

    Friday night, I came down with a fever. It was bad enough that Amy and I had been consigned to sleeping in the stuffy attic—my grandmother and mother both agreed that the air conditioner in the living room had contributed to my sore throat and, therefore, I should no longer sleep there—but I was so disoriented by the fever that every time I woke up and tried to go downstairs to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, I stumbled about, knocking over furniture and boxes (what little was left up there), and frankly making quite a racket, thanks to the attic’s hardwood floors. Amy was tremendously considerate that night, offering to find me Aspirin downstairs, getting me a blanket from my parents’ room, not complaining at all every time I woke her up. Still, the next morning I woke up feeling like death.

    Saturday was our family reunion. Considering the night I had just had, I didn’t know whether I wanted to try to attend at all. However, I knew I was expected to be there and that my mother—in particular—would be extremely disappointed if I didn’t go. She, Amy, and I were supposed to play a flute trio, so I agreed to come late, after I took a nap. This meant that poor Amy had to go to the reunion and contend with our crazy extended family all by herself for the first two hours of the picnic—as if her patience hadn’t already been exercised enough.

    Everything considered—my illness, our crazy stressed-out family (including my often-overbearing aunt, persnickety grandfather, depressed grandmother, and frustrated cousin)—Amy had dealt with the weekend awfully well. However, every good thing comes to an end, and Sunday morning at 9:05 a.m., she had reached the end of her patience. We were supposed to have left by 9 a.m.

    “Come on, Ali,” she muttered as I sipped my tea. “Mom’s done.”
    “She still has to go to the bathroom, blow her nose, clear her dishes, all that stuff. Calm down. Fifteen extra minutes is not going to kill you.”

    I knew she knew this, and yet it didn’t make her any less frustrated. The funny part was, I knew exactly how she was feeling. It makes me feel old to say “when I was her age,” but I remember being eighteen and stuck somewhere with our family while absolutely itching to be somewhere else. As each minute passed, you become more and more desperate to leave. I could see Amy’s desperation increasing exponentially with every passing minute. The faster we could get home, the faster Amy could go see Dan.

    Obviously, a fifteen-minute delay would not kill her. In fact, those fifteen minutes would probably be spent doing nothing more significant than just sitting there at Dan’s house, maybe watching TV. And yet, when you are eighteen, every minute you are not getting closer to your destination, you seem to be getting farther away.

    I dumped out the rest of my tea.

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    Lifeguarding Woes

    I found a rat in the pool filter this morning. There were so many leaves in the filter, filling it with so many grays and browns, I almost grabbed the rat right into my hand. I haven’t shrieked like that in a long time.

    It was almost as bad as the day that a six-year-old little brat pooped in the pool. Her entire family left, and I didn’t even know it had happened until another elderly lady came up and told me that her granddaughter had seen this girl pooping in the deep end. In the deep end! Now, every time I see her and her family approaching the pool, I smile “hello” and mutter something evil under my breath to whomever happens to be sitting nearby. I shouldn’t bother, since it doesn’t do any good, but I just feel so justified.

    To Successfully Remove a Rat From a Filter: 1) Put on at least one latex glove (for the hand performing the operation). 2) Remove tweezers from the first aid kit. 3) Maneuver the rat with the tweezers until you can grasp its tail firmly between the tweezers (because the rat will not fully fit between the tweezer prongs). 4) Sling the rat onto the filter cover. 5) Carry the filter cover to the trash and dump carefully.

    To Successfully Remove a Child’s Poop from the Deep End of the Pool: 1) Make said child swim back down there and scoop it out.

    Just kidding. That method would probably make it disintegrate, and then you’d really have a mess on your hands. Patience and a good dose of humor are the only remedies for this situation. And, of course, the pool vacuum and a good deal of soda ash.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Eating food

    The food formula is simple: you eat food, it gives you energy. On the most basic level, food equals survival. In some climates, you eat more food to stay warm and, thus, survive. Athletes eat certain kinds of food to help their bodies perform certain kinds of functions more efficiently. What goes in comes out. Period.

    However, food—and particularly eating—has become significantly more complicated. We, as social and emotional human beings, have made it this way. Take the example of social etiquette: Every time two or more people gather, there is almost always food and/or drink involved. This is true even when the activity being performed has absolutely no relation to food or drink. You go to church to worship God; yet, there is always a coffee hour after every Sunday service. You go to amusement parks to ride rides and play carnival games. Yet, there are probably as many concession stands as there are games and rides combined. You can buy beer and French fries at a bowling alley. You eat popcorn while watching movies. Even just getting together to play cards with friends requires you (the host) to provide—at the very least—beverages, probably also snacks, and all of your attendees will more than likely feel compelled to bring wine or some sort of baked item to show goodwill toward their host. Arriving empty-handed is a social taboo, so we fill our hands with food.

    Literally filling our hands with food on these eating occasions is another way to be socially accepted. If you are Italian, Greek, or Jewish, you will inherently know this. Eat a lot around these families, and everyone will love you. Be stingy with your portion sizes, and they will be offended. Even in the high school cafeteria, if you are a normal-sized individual and eat a lot, people usually stand in awe of you. “How can you eat so much? That’s amazing.” It’s like they express jealousy, only it’s friendlier. No one understands joining someone for lunch if you don’t want to eat with them. “What? You’re not having anything? Here, have some of this.” People don’t like eating alone.

    Unless, of course, they are recovering from some sort of emotional trauma. Then, eating alone is comforting, and food becomes the panacea. “My boyfriend just broke up with me, and I feel like shit. I will never feel good again. Although five slices of chocolate cake might fix this temporarily, maybe with a few scoops of ice cream on top.” “I had a bad day at work. There’s no way I’m cooking. Anyone know the number for Domino’s?”

    We even use food as a reward when our decision to eat counteracts what we are rewarding ourselves for. “I just ran two miles; I deserve another cookie for dessert.” Or watch the football team after they get out of practice. Eighty percent don’t go home and eat a sandwich. “God, practice was hard. Let’s go to Burger King.”

    Really, food and eating are ingrained in nearly every facet of our lives. It is a pleasant activity, and doing it makes other activities more pleasant (because when you are socially accepted, you are having a better time). Therefore, it should be no surprise that we make other activities resemble eating. After all, if eating is pleasurable, it would therefore be logical for other activities resembling eating to be pleasurable. One such eating-type activity is making out.

    Now, by making out, I don’t mean simply kissing. Kissing someone requires involves puckering your lips and smushing them against another person’s cheek/lips. In no way does this resemble eating. Making out, involves opening one’s mouth. Pay attention the next time you watch a movie. It literally looks as if two people who are making out are trying to consume one another. Try to imagine (or remember) how it feels to make out. Don’t you feel like you’re trying to eat your partner? The more you can get of them inside your mouth, the better. Moreover, there are other adventurous mouth-moves that can accompany making out such as licking and biting—all things we do when we eat.

    Coincidence? You decide.

    Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    A Weekend With Family

    We always play cards at my grandparents’ house: either pinochle, canasta, or hand-and-foot. Pinochle is everyone’s favorite, so ever since my sister and I were old enough to understand the game, pinochle has been the game of choice.

    As with most card games, everyone has their own variation on the rules. My grandparents grew up playing the high-scoring, card-passing version of pinochle referred to as “airplane.” This version relies a bit more on luck-of-the-draw and melding (getting certain card combinations worth points before the hand is played) than on counting cards and playing one’s hand strategically. Consequently, my dad—a notorious card-counter, who is bored by any game that relies on luck—hates this version of the game. However, because my grandparents refuse to learn to play any other way, he grudgingly acquiesces every time we sit down to play in Allentown.

    “Can we play at least one game of cards tonight?”

    That would be my sister. We—comprised of Amy, my mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather (my mom’s parents), my aunt, and me—are all sitting at a little round table in my grandparents’ cozy kitchen, finishing dessert. A small round fan buzzes on the floor, and spoons clink against ceramic mugs as we scoop out the last of our Oreo ice cream. It has been a long day of disassembling antique sewing machines, dismantling headboards from bedframes, and maneuvering furniture down narrow stairways. The house is in organized disarray, everything ready to be loaded onto the auctioneer’s truck tomorrow.

    “Of course,” my grandmother replies. “Just after we clean up these dishes.” We will most likely be me and my sister. They don’t have a dishwasher, so I immediately look for the dishrag. This will be my fourth set of dirty dishes, today.

    “Nana,” my aunt begins in her I’ve-been-patient-all-day-but-you’re-wearing-me-thin voice, “I think we need to finish going through things in the basement tonight, first.”

    “Why?” my mom chimes in. “The auctioneer isn’t taking that stuff.”

    “Yes, but we’re moving it out in two weeks,” my aunt argues. It needs to be packed. Two weeks isn’t a very long time.”

    They argued, my aunt won out, and while my sister and I washed and dried dishes, my grandmother was trooped down to the basement to sort through phone books, cookie cutters, old photographs, canning jars, and who knows what other odds-and-ends. Before the things were packed away into empty liquor boxes, my sister and I were each given a pie plate. (My grandmother had seven of them.)

    Finally, at ten o’clock, we returned to the kitchen table to play cards (minus my aunt, who decided to take a shower, instead). Dad dealt, and once everyone had organized their cards, my grandfather spoke up.

    “What’s trump?”

    “Popop, nobody bid yet.” The winner of the bid (which is basically betting on a minimum amount of points your team will score) decides which suit is trump. I’m still determining how many point’s worth of meld I have. “Trump wasn’t called.”

    “I’ll say seventy-five.” My mother starts the bidding. My grandmother wins and calls spades trump. She, my mother, and my sister all pass to one another (they’re on the same team). Now, we can lay down our meld.

    “What’s trump?” My grandfather is carefully laying down his marriage in diamonds.

    “Spades.” My dad’s in a bad mood because he thinks making double marriages worth thirty points is cheating. In “regular” pinochle, they’re only worth four. “Those are the rules, though,” my grandmother claims as she puts her double marriage back into her hand. This is why my dad doesn’t like airplane.

    Since my grandmother won the bid, she plays the first card. According to airplane rules, the first card played must be an ace of trump. She leads the next two tricks with two more aces of spades.

    “Is that trump?” My grandfather fishes a king of spades out of his hand to follow suit. (In pinochle, if you have the suit that is “asked” by the first card of the trick, you must play it.) I can feel my dad roll his eyes without even looking at him.

    “Yes, Popop.”

    A few tricks later, the lead is mine. I choose to play diamonds. Amy is out of diamonds, but since she doesn’t have any spades, she plays a heart.

    “Is hearts trump?”

    “Spades, Popop.” I collect the trick and lead with another diamond.

    Finally, no one has any trump left except for my grandmother, so she collects everyone’s remaining cards. We count up the points from the hand, shuffle the cards, and start dealing again. My mom keeps score in her neat handwriting on a small gray tablet.

    “Three-sixty-four to one-eighty-eight,” she announces.

    “Wow, we really cleaned up, didn’t we?” My grandmother glows with pleasure.

    “If I had called hearts, what would you have passed me?” my dad asks me. He always wants to discuss the could’ve/would’ve/should’ve of hands, once they are over. I tell him what hearts I had.

    “Man, I should’ve kept going.” He means he should have bid higher in order to call trump. “That would’ve given me a double book” (i.e. meld worth 150 points).

    Everyone seems to have their cards in order. It’s Amy’s turn to bid, and she passes.

    “Something out of the ordinary,” my dad remarks. Amy starts fuming. When she was little, she never bid. We called her a coward for it, and still do today.

    “Excuse me, I do bid,” she snaps back.

    “Yes, Amy does bid, now,” my mom offers in support, ever the peacemaker.

    “Let’s go, let’s go.” My grandmother is used to playing fast.

    I open the bid. “Seventy-five.”

    My grandfather looks at his cards.

    “What’s trump?”

    Wednesday, August 8, 2007

    Days Off

    I have come to develop an immense appreciation for days off.

    The last day off I had was actually fairly recently. On Sunday, I was supposed to lifeguard but it rained all day. Thus, instead of working, I virtually “vegged out” all day long. I hung out at Ben’s house listening to music on his computer, watching The Fugitive (hence, my recent review of the movie), and eating food, mostly while lying on a bed/couch/etc. Talk about lazy.

    Today, I actually took off of work at the LRDC lab, because I was supposed to go to the WARP tour concert with Ben*. However, as things usually result with him, plans fell through, and we didn’t go. Staying home turned out for the best, though, because I have been more productive today than I have probably been all summer long.

    Shockingly, I woke up sans-alarm clock at 8 a.m. Once I ate and woke up completly, I walked down to Turtle Creek to retrieve my dad's car from where he parks it at the Post Office. Upon my return, I vacuumed the entire house (because my room needed it badly, and I had to drag the vacuum cleaner through the entire house, anyway, so I figured I’d do my family a favor). Then, after reorganizing things on my bedroom floor (and clearing some of them out of the room entirely), I scrubbed down the bathroom my sister and I share. Next, I made chocolate Rice Crispy Treats for this coming weekend’s family reunion. I intended to go swimming after that, and even made it all the way to the pool. However, fifteen laps after I got in, it started thundering. So much for today’s exercise. When I got home, I organized some material online (pictures, etc.) and signed up for the GREs (now, if only I would start studying for them…). Lastly, I began planning a final summer get-together for my Pittsburgh friends—an event which needs to be planned way in advance so that any of them will come. And I still have a third of the day left!

    I feel like I’m already an adult, using my day off to “take care of” things that would otherwise go undone. Logically, I should be able to do any or all of these activities in the hours after I get home from work. However, just like I’ve always seen my parents do, when I get home from work, all I want to do is take a shower, eat, read or watch a movie, or maybe see friends. If I’m really motivated, I’ll go out and exercise. What I do not want to do, however, is housework. As a child, I never understood why parents would use the weekends to do so much busywork. Why did they have to cut the lawn or weed the garden or dust the bedrooms when there was so much fun to be had? I now understand. Is this a sign of getting old or getting wise?

    Excuse me; I need to go clean the four-week pile of mail off my desk.

    *Despite my frequent mention of him in this blog entry, Ben and I actually do not see one another all that often.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    From Fugitives to Freakenomics

    It is about time I wrote a “media review,” considering I just saw a phenomenal movie and have also recently finished reading a number of books. I will begin with the movie.

    Because I am a Reader and not a Television Watcher, I have seen significantly fewer movies than most of my media-savvy peers. For example, I only just saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie a few months ago, during my stay in England. (My American friend/housemate Carl showed it in his room in honor of the new Turtles movie that had just come out. He and several other people were about to go see it in theaters, but he wanted to see the first and second “originals,” first.) Apparently, Turtles was a “classic” for everyone my age while we grew up—the original Turtles movie came out in 1990—and, subsequently, one I missed. Needless to say, I have “missed” a good number of movies throughout my life, and various people have taken a personal interest in seeing that these gaps in my media-awareness are sufficiently filled. One such person is my friend Ben.

    One evening two summers ago, the two of us were discussing movies after having finished watching Cruel Intentions—apparently another “adolescent classic” that I had missed during junior high school. Actually, we were playing one of our more frequent games: “what-movies-has-Allison-not-seen.” Obviously, I was losing. Finally, we pulled out a movie guide my dad had bought several years ago and started flipping through, with Ben pointing out “great movies” that I “had to see.” Determinedly, he wrote down a list of 5 to “get me started:” L.A. Confidential (which I have yet to see); Terms of Endearment; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Platoon; and the one I finally saw last night, The Fugitive.

    I’m ordinarily not a big action-movie fan. I tend to like movies that are more “brainteasers,” dramas, or comedies. (Some examples of what I’d consider a “brainteaser” movie are Unusual Suspects, Momento, and The Butterfly Effect.) However, The Fugitive might have just qualified as my favorite action movie.

    Essentially, the plotline is not very complicated and very action-oriented: Harrison Ford—playing Dr. Richard Kimble—is unjustly convicted of murdering his wife. On the way to prison, the armored truck containing Dr. Kimble and other convicts crashes, and Kimble is set free. He goes on the run, with Tommy Lee Jones (who gives an outstanding performance as the chief investigator Marshal Gerard) intent upon hunting him down.

    What I really like about this movie is the fact that it is not only an action movie, but also somewhat of a “brainteaser” or “mystery movie” as well. It is a “smart” action movie. A substantial part of the plot involves Richard Kimble trying to figure out who murdered his wife and why. However, Kimble not only solves this mystery, he also leads the authorities to the evidence he discovers and culprits he catches without being caught, himself. The setup and execution of this complicated plot involves a good bit of genius on the parts of the screenwriters. Thus, since I named the primary actors in this film (Ford and Jones), I must also name these worthy screenwriters: Roy Huggins, David Twohy, Jeb Stuart, and David Twohy.

    I am always on the look-out for intelligent writers, and recently I have been reading a plethora of work from one such writer, Chuck Palahniuk. If you have read any single book by Palahniuk, it was probably Fight Club, and if you haven’t read the book, you have probably seen or at least heard of the movie. I never read that particular book, but about a year ago, a friend from Rochester mentioned to me that Palahniuk was one of his favorite writers and that I should try reading his novel Invisible Monsters. That summer, I did check out Monsters from the local library. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, but I did not pursue reading any more of his work until recently, when I came across another person—a friend of my sister’s, in fact—who named Palahniuk as one of her favorite writers. She suggested a few titles to me, and I ordered them from the library.

    Palahniuk has a very unique style. His writing tends to mix horror with satire, yielding books that are as intriguing as they are bizarre. He almost always writes in the first person, with arresting, often disturbed protagonists telling the story. In Lullaby, my first Palahniuk novel of the summer, the narrator is a newspaper reporter covering sudden infant death syndrome. During his investigations, he discovers that it is caused by a culling song—a magical incantation that has been written into children’s poetry books—and can be used to kill virtually anyone to whom the song is read. However, a real estate agent who sells haunted houses (without telling the buyers that they are haunted, of course, so that she can quickly resell them) also knows about this culling song and uses it to her advantage. Thus, a battle ensues, both internally and externally: how should the song be used? Should it be used? Who should have the right and responsibility to use it?

    Lullaby examines the ideas that knowledge is power and with power comes responsibility. It pits social responsibility against humans’ addictive desire for power and control over one another—in this case, the power over life and death. Meanwhile, amongst all of these philosophical question, Palahniuk mixes in a variety of wacky characters (aside from the narrator and the real estate agent, who are bizarre enough) including a necrophiliac, a witchcraft-practicing secretary, and a hippie animal rights activist.

    My next Palahniuk book of the summer was entitled Choke. Again, this novel grapples with the idea of power, particularly power over life and death. The narrator/protagonist of the story is a medical school dropout who fakes choking to death in multiple restaurants every night in order to enlist monetary support from his rescuers—who do this to uphold their moral self-images, he claims—so that he can keep his mother alive in a nursing home. However, he refuses to invest in a feeding tube to help her health improve, because he resents her for wielding power over his childhood. (This resentment is developed by a series of flashbacks in which he is a foster child and his mother randomly appears and kidnaps him from his foster parents.) Meanwhile, the narrator attempts—but fails—to achieve sexual gratification by coupling with members of sex addiction support groups. Thus, throughout the novel, the reader is never quite sure whether the narrator is a sex addict himself, or whether he is just futilely searching for a sense of fulfillment in the absolutely wrong places.

    As a reader, I was also never quite sure what the “main” purpose of the novel was. That is, I was never quite sure what “overall storyline” I should be following. While the title of the novel implies that its premise centers on the narrator’s nightly choking escapades, surprisingly little time is dedicated to this aspect of the story. Most of the narration deals with the narrator’s mother (both in the hospital and within flashbacks), the narrator’s friend and roommate (a prior sex addict who obsessively collects rocks in lieu of indulging his sexual addictions), and the narrator’s various sexual encounters. Also—and this may sound impossible, but it is how I felt reading the book—the narrator seems impassive and frantic at the same time, as if he is paranoid while also being emotionally numb. How Palahniuk achieved this combination is a mystery to me, and although I didn’t care for this novel as much as Monsters and Lullaby, I was still impressed by it.

    My final Palahniuk novel of this summer was called Survivor. This story is told by the alleged “sole survivor” of a religious cult. It sets up the story with the narrator explaining that he is on an airplane destined to crash and is telling his life story to the plane’s “black box” (the indestructible part of the plane that records all activity up until the point of impact). The rest of the story culminates to this moment in the narrator’s life. Again, as with most of his novels, Survivor grapples with concepts of power over others and power over life/death. The narrator sets up a false suicide hotline so that people contemplating suicide or even just having a bad day call him. Then, he encourages them to kill themselves. Meanwhile, he is expected to kill himself, because the colony of the cult to which he belonged all killed themselves, and so every member of this colony existing in the “outside world” are expected to kill themselves, too. Eventually, he is believed to be the last survivor of this cult, a position which elevates him to celebrity status until his surviving brother and Fertility, the sister of a boy whom the narrator encouraged to commit suicide early in the novel, arrive to “save him from himself.” What I found most interesting in this novel is the way it explores the many ways in which humans can slowly kill themselves without acknowledging or even necessarily intending self-destruction. Is there really a difference between blowing your brains out, asking your brother to bash your face in with a rock, or taking steroids while starving your body, undergoing ultraviolet tanning, and shooting your face full of Botox to fulfill an “ideal image”?

    The latest book I finished (yesterday, in fact) is called Freakenomics by Levitt and Derber. Let me begin by saying that I have never taken an economics class, nor have I ever been remotely intrigued by the field. However, this book was recommended to me by a variety of people relatively recently, so I figured I should check it out. It is the least economic-y economics book I have ever read. Honestly, I think (without being able to directly reference the book) that the entire thing was written without citing one single numerical statistic. Basically, the book shows that by using concrete data (i.e. numbers generated by real-world circumstances), you can find an answer to even the most bizarre questions. Take the title of a few chapters as examples: “Why do Drug Dealers still live with their Mothers?” “What do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?” “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” My personal favorite had the least interesting-sounding name: “Where have all the criminals gone?” (The answer is, they were never born. Crime went down not because of an improving economy or improved police forces, but because abortion was legalized in the famous case Roe vs. Wade. Fifteen years later, all of the babies who would have been born into circumstances that would have led them to lives of criminality were…nonexistent. Or, as pro-life activists would claim, dead.)

    I’ve never been much of a nonfiction buff, but if there is a nonfiction book worth investing time in, this one is it. It almost makes me want to study economics. Almost.

    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    Why I need a cell phone

    I have never disputed the argument that “in this day and age,” I really do need a cellular phone. Case in point:

    Two nights ago, my nearest and dearest friend (and also next-door-neighbor) Emily arrived home from her family trip to Boston. She came to my house around 11p.m., and we sat in my kitchen talking until almost 2a.m. During that time, we made plans to drive to the North Side the following night so I could meet some of her friends from school (she goes to Washington and Jefferson College). The catch was that she had to waitress at the country club where she works that night before we could go, so she didn’t know exactly what time we would leave. She estimated that she would be let off anytime between 9 and 11p.m.

    That day, I was scheduled to work until 3p.m. Then, I had a doctor’s appointment, and on the way home, I picked up Ben from his house. He had called me that day, and we were planning to go running together. The last few times we have gone running (this happens only sporadically, you see), he has had other plans almost immediately after we finished our two miles. Therefore, I did not anticipate spending the rest of the day with him. However, he had a new rap artist he wanted me to hear and a comedy DVD he wanted me to see, so we took our sweaty selves back to his house and set up in the den with food, beverage, and entertainment for the next several hours.

    When the DVD had finished playing, it was around 7:30p.m. Knowing Emily, I estimated that even if she was let off of work at 9p.m., she would need at least forty-five minutes to an hour to come home, change, eat dinner, and putz around as she always insists on doing before we ever go anywhere. Therefore, I figured that if I left by 9:30p.m., I would have ample time to get home, take a shower, and be ready to go by the time she called me to leave.

    Around 9:20p.m., Ben’s phone rang. It had been ringing on and off all evening from the other room, and he finally just got up and retrieved it so that it would be within reach when he needed to answer it (since he didn’t bother when it was in the other room). He fished it out of his pocket and answered. “Oh, hi!” As I detected the surprise in his voice, my heart sank. It was Emily. “Where are you? I’ve been home since eight o’clock looking for you!” Funny that she thought to call Ben, considering the previous night I had ranted about how all of my recent efforts to get together with him had come to sour ends.

    As I got ready to leave, Ben pointed out the painfully obvious reality of the situation: “See, if you had a cell phone, she could have just called you when she got off work. Then this wouldn’t have been a problem.” Yeah, thanks for the advice.

    Then, yesterday while I was at work, I e-mailed with a man who is supposed to be selling me a flash drive off of craigslist (a website that is virtually one big network of classified ads). I arranged to meet him at a location in Oakland near where I work the following afternoon (today). My plan was to call him before I left my house, take a bus to Oakland, and wait for him at the landmark until noon—the time when we arranged to meet.

    Because of cell phones, this endeavor was a failure from the outset. When I called his cell phone from my house at 11a.m., no one picked up. I left a message but realized while I was leaving it that he had no way to get in contact with me. “I’d leave you my number,” I found myself saying, “but I actually can’t because I don’t have a cell phone. Hope to see you at twelve!”

    As I sat on the steps of our meeting point, I realized that I had no idea who I was looking for, nor did he have any idea what I looked like. Thinking that maybe now he would answer his phone, I went across the street to the University of Pittsburgh Student Union and tried using a pay phone to call him. Much to my frustration, however, the pay phone would not take my money and, therefore, would not let me make the call. I waited until quarter after twelve before giving up and walking to work.

    Upon arrival at my office, I tried phoning him again, but to no avail. Then, when I checked my e-mail, I came upon a message from him. Apparently, he had written to me yesterday telling me that his child had dropped his cell phone in the pool and to try calling his house. Apparently it was too late for that, however, because when I called his house, the woman who answered (presumably his wife?) said he was not home. She didn’t know if he had driven to Oakland or not.

    As I recount this second story, I am beginning to realize that it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had a cell phone or not. He didn’t have his, so there was no way he could have called me when he arrived at our meeting place to determine my identity or specific location. Furthermore, I did what any logical person would have done in my cell phone-less position and tried to use a pay phone. Yet, the call could obviously not go through because his cell phone was out of order.

    All of this being said, I am still proud to be a “cell phone hold-out.” I don’t know anyone—aside from my mother—my age or otherwise who does not have a cell phone. I have seen how dependent people have become on these little commodities (no one can make plans anymore without including the disclaimer, “I’ll call you”) and how annoying they can be (Ben must have gotten at least eight phone calls while we were hanging out, seven callers who would never have called had there been any risk of his parents answering instead of him). I do find various circumstances in which having a cell phone would be very handy—the incident with Emily the other night being one of them—but these sporadic occurrences never seem worth paying $40-a-month-plus-tax. Nor do I need one more thing to carry around. My wallet, keys, checkbook, calendar, sunglasses, Tylenol, notebook, and pen are more than enough.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2007

    Why America is fat

    I have probably already discussed this. In fact, I know I wrote that initially upon arriving home, I simply couldn’t understand why we had so much food in our house. Here’s the reason: in America, we want everything here and now. This means that when we want food, it had better be in the kitchen, because we are not getting in our cars to drive to the grocery store just for some decent food. And this means we buy processed food. A lot of it.

    If I compare the amount of processed food in my own family’s cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer to the amount of unprocessed food, the ratio is staggering. We have two humidity drawers full of fruits and vegetables, maybe a few bananas on the counter, a box of white rice (which I will count as unprocessed for the sake of this argument) in the front of the pantry, and a bag of brown rice in the back. If past counts (which technically it doesn’t), we have a few boxes and bags of that, too. Meanwhile, our refrigerator is full of yogurt cups, preservative-laden lunchmeats, fake shaker-style parmesan cheese, pickles, Juicy Juice, diet cola, and more condiments than you can shake a stick at. Our cupboards—not to mention the rest of the pantry—are stuffed with multiple varieties of crackers, pretzels, cereal, microwavable popcorn, peanuts (with or without salt), preservative-laden pre-sliced sandwich bread, boxed cookies, unopened condiments (I guess we like every food to have its topping) and every canned product imaginable: canned tomatoes, canned corn, canned beans, canned soup, canned soup stock, canned pineapple (sliced, diced, or crushed), canned tuna, canned gravy, and even an age-old can of spam (although I guess it should be considered a “tin”).

    Any my family eats healthily (comparatively, of course). We grow our own string beans out back, and my mother even has a little herb garden with parsley and lemongrass. We are not people who stop for Burger King just because we don’t want to cook every other night. The closest we come to buying frozen TV dinners is Boca burgers, and that’s just because I don’t like red meat. We don’t have an inordinate amount of sweets in the house, nor do we even have a single bag of potato chips. But our amount of processed food is overwhelming. And considering the amount of time it takes to tear open a bag or grind the lid off of a can and dump the contents into a pot (or better yet, a microwavable bowl), the time we take to prepare that food it likely incomparable to what it would take to prepare a meal from “scratch.”

    Despite making all of these observations, I am completely guilty of practicing American-style consumption. When I get home from work at 8:30pm on weekends, I don’t want to start cooking a “healthy” meal. I’m much more inclined to pull out a box of crackers and some lunchmeat than to wash, peel, and chop up fresh vegetables for a salad or defrost a chicken breast and start the grill. It’s not as if Ritz crackers and turkey slices are equally as satisfying, either. They’re just there, and the temptation factor is too great.

    Buying my own groceries in England, I found that it was actually cheaper to buy unprocessed foods. Not fruits and vegetables, granted—those were always more expensive than the canned kind—but a bag of uncooked basmati rice would last me several weeks, whereas a box of crackers costing the same amount might last me two nights, at most. I could buy a bag of dried chick peas for the same price as two bars of chocolate. Preparing and eating them—sure, that took more time. But it was healthier and cheaper, and since I had the time, why not?

    It’s not that Americans don’t have the time. If anything, they should have more time, considering all of their “time-saving” devices. It’s that we’re an impatient people. We want our gratification now, and if we can’t have it now, someone needs to make up a way to get it to us quicker, darn it. That’s what everyone in this country works for. That’s called Progress. And in the realm of the food industry, Progress is making us fat.


    I had a revelation while standing at the bus stop (for half an hour after the bus was scheduled to arrive, I might add) yesterday afternoon. I was standing at the curb, watching all of cars and vans and trucks drive by. Whenever the traffic light stopped them, I could peer into the front of each car. With almost every single car, the only occupant was the driver, with an occasional single rider in the passenger seat. Meanwhile, every car I saw could have seated a minimum of four people.

    Then it hit me: why can’t everyone ride-share? I don’t mean neighbors or coworkers; I mean picking up hitchhikers, total strangers who need to go in the same direction you are already driving. I guarantee that at least 90% of those cars could have taken me at least halfway closer to home than I was while standing at that corner in Oakland. Even a few blocks would have been helpful, because when my ride planned to turn in another direction, I could have simply gotten out of the car. Furthermore, all of those cars were going in the same direction. Imagine if all of the drivers had all been inside one vehicle?

    I suppose that is the idea of buses: to allow people going in the same direction to share the same vehicle. However, as Americans, we are loath to give up our cars and the freedom they provide. Yet, if we all shared rides, imagine how many fewer cars we would need. Imagine the gas—and therefore money—we could save. Imagine the pollution that would be prevented. At the very least, imagine a world with no more rush hour!

    I guess living in Europe has made me a huge advocate of mass transit. It is simply more efficient in terms of moving many people with fewer vehicles on the road. It is comparatively cheaper, and it makes people less lazy—your destination is almost never five feet away from your bus stop; it usually requires walking at least a block or so. No one riding a bus or train ever experiences “road rage,” nor are passengers generally impatient unless their bus/train is late. On a bus, you are not constantly waiting for a light to change or trying to switch lanes to pass a slower vehicle. In fact, although a bus may reach your destination in a greater amount of time than it would take to drive to the same location, you actually save time by being able to multitask on a bus. (Although, some people do try that while driving their cars. Hence, why many states have outlawed talking on cell phones while driving. Reading, however…not advisable, even if it is legal. And what about “interactive” reading? That’s called texting, probably a more dangerous activity than actually talking on a cell phone.)

    Also, through the influence of many of my friends, I am becoming—if not a full-fledged activist—at least more environmentally aware. While I am not to the point at which I would completely change my lifestyle for the sake of environmental conservation (I need my air-conditioning!), I don’t mind doing what I can, especially when it causes no inconvenience to me. Case in point: ride the bus and carpool whenever possible.

    Besides, like I am sure you know, I am the queen of multitasking. How would I ever get all of my reading done if I were driving a car for 50% of my day?