Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Warm Fuzzies #5: Votes for Cookies

My last Warm Fuzzy was a compliment on my baking capabilities and, somewhat unsurprisingly, this one is too.

To get into the holiday spirit—and because I felt like experimenting with cuisine that other people would be willing to eat and enjoy—I decided to bake this weekend. After some searching, I came across a curious recipe for Crispy Salted Oatmeal White Chocolate Chip Cookies. This sounded intriguing and quite delicious, so I decided to try it. (Needless to say, I did not invest in good quality white chocolate, despite the author’s insistence.)

Below is a message received from one coworker, who, as part of our lunchtime running group, received first dibs on the cookies when I sent out a message letting everyone know I had brought in treats for everyone. I don’t know what he was voting for, but if the next president of the United States has a bake-off as part of the competition, watch out Martha Stewart!*

Crunchy, tasty, airy, delicious- you have my vote. All I needed was one for the perfect after lunch desert.
Thank you.

*Ironically enough, I just discussed Martha Stewart with my two Chinese roommates and their Chinese friend. They seemed to be in awe of her, as if she were the white Oprah or something. I tactfully reminded them that Martha Stewart has been to jail, but this did not phase them. As far as they were concerned, she may as well have been Hillary Clinton. Amazing, how American Consumerism and its media-generated popularity can span the globe.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The age difference

There are a lot of differences between my life in New York City and my life in Pittsburgh. For instance, in my New York City life, I walk a lot more than in Pittsburgh, where I am forced to drive from location to location. In my New York City life, “dressing down” constitutes wearing jeans as opposed to black dress pants, whereas in Pittsburgh, the sloppy-looking T-shirt and sweatpants that I now wear to bed are my usual garb. In my New York City life, I am regarded as a single girl in her twenties who works in Hoboken, NJ and lives in Queens. In Pittsburgh, I am seen as a Woodland Hills graduate who majored in English and “some science thing” and who has “made it” to The Big Apple.

The most significant difference between my two lives, however, is the people. In New York City, all of my friends are professionals in some capacity; in Pittsburgh, the majority of my friends are still in school or are working “filler” post-graduation jobs. Moreover, while my New York City neighbors and coworkers come from all over the country and the world, very few of the people I know in Pittsburgh have ever left, nor do they ever intend to leave. People in New York City are ready to jump on the next “best opportunity,” to move, to start again. People in Pittsburgh are getting prepared to settle, to establish themselves, and to create stable lives.

Finally, there is the age difference. Every one of my New York City friends and coworkers—with the exception of one girl, who works at the desk beside me—is at the very least five years older than me. My Wiley running buddy is in his 40s, with a 3-year-old daughter, and I play volleyball with men in their 70s. Alternatively, I do not have a single Pittsburgh friend who is more than one year my senior. I never considered the implications of this age gap until I went home to Pittsburgh for Christmas and spent time with my peers en masse.

Over the last seven months, I would say I have grown accustomed to what are considered “social outings” here in New York City. Going to a bar is a social event, whether it is a late-night pub crawl or a happy hour after work. Seeing a play or a musical constitutes an outing, as does going to the ballet or the symphony. And, of course, going out to eat is probably the most common get-together of all: there are breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners, coffees, tastings, and “just going out for ice cream.”

Obviously, in Pittsburgh, these things would all be considered social outings, as well. Therefore, the New Yorker idea of an “outing” is not special by any means. However, I had a sudden revelation while attending a fellow’ high school alumni’s Hanukah party one evening. There I was, sitting out on her back porch in the cool December air at 11pm, drinking Pepsi out of a plastic bottle as everyone around me drank their glass-bottled beer. We were all lounging in rusted lawn chairs under one dim lamp nailed to the wall, and everyone was huddled around the gritty circular ashtrays on the tiny table in center of the porch, smoking and tapping off their ashes. It was at this point, as I gazed around and noticed that I was the only one wearing something other than a hoodie and sneakers, that I began to have the vague notion that, were I back in New York City, I would never ever be doing anything remotely like this. My realization didn’t make the activity good or bad, it was just surprising. Even if there were a porch available, everyone in New York would have been more dressed up, like me, and the place would have been more decorated, and there would have been other alcohol on hand besides just beer. What I realized even more, though was that the situation wouldn’t have been different just because I was in New York City; it would have been different because the crowd I hang out with now is 30 instead of 23. By default, 30 is a classier crowd. Everyone tries to look nicer and can afford to look nicer and is simply intent on acting more “adult-like.” I have gradually begun to assimilate into this 30-year-old crowd, and it was shocking to realize that my 23-year-old peers, who are all still hanging out with one another, are so different.

At 1 a.m., everyone decided to leave and play Frisbee. That was when I knew I had become different. This felt weird to me. Frisbee? At night? It was just not something that occurred as a fun activity we should go and do. (Thirty-year-olds don’t play Frisbee unless they have a dog, a child, or a team to play with—as far as I am know—and they certainly don’t play it at 1 o’clock in the morning.)

As it turned out, playing Frisbee was fun, in spite of the fact that I had to run around the parking lot in black flats that flapped on and off my feet while the rest of the boys ran in laced-up tennis shoes; still, I did the best I could, and no one seemed to mind. Afterward, we went to a local hole-in-the-wall bar where the boys paid for my drink, and the fact that I was impressed made me realize how little I think of boys my own age.

No matter his age, I am always appreciative when a man has the courtesy to pay for my drink, meal, or ticket. As a rule, though, I am almost always more surprised and impressed when someone my own age makes this gesture than when someone older does it. Perhaps I think that older gentlemen have been raised differently or assume that they will have more money and therefore will be more generous with it. Whatever the reason, I felt very aware that I was probably making more money than most of these guys, and although the majority of them were still accepting money from their parents (either in the form of tuition or room/board), I still felt impressed that they were willing to pay for my drink.

It is strange to think, however, that my Pittsburgh friends are “catching up” to my New York friends. One or two have children, now, and a few are engaged to be married. Fortunately for me, I have a good many New York friends who are single and in their 30s. Granted, several of them have been divorced and/or have children, but at least the road is not paved solely with marriage and children. And maybe there’s even room for some late night Frisbee-playing, too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Twilight Series

Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although they are independent books, the Twilight books are best reviewed as a package deal. Granted, no one would review the Harry Potter books as one complete entity, but that series is both longer and more diverse in each of its “novelesque episodes.” The Twilight books play out one singular storyline: that of Bella and Edward and the fate of their—literally—undying love.

To give a sense of the books in general, let me say this: if I were still twelve years old and desperately seeking a “someday, a boy will swoop into my life and rescue me with his undying love” kind of novel, these books—particularly the first three—would undoubtedly earn five-star ratings. Plus, I have to give Meyers credit: the novels include every form of fantastical escapism—in the way of the vampires’ and the wolves’ beauty, power, and sexuality—that any preadolescent reader with an active, “yearning” imagination would desire. (I can attest to this, because I was such a reader.) Essentially, these novels are exactly like the Christopher Pike and Amelia Atwater-Rhodes books I used to devour back in my prepubescent days. I was addicted to the sexuality, the violence, the grace, and the torment of the characters in Pike’s The Last Vampire series, and I was transfixed by the beauty and longing written into Atwater-Rhodes’ novel In the Forests of the Night, particularly because she wrote it when she was only fifteen. I was fifteen; I wanted to write a best-selling novel.

But back to Twilight. Looking at the series from this perspective, I can understand its appeal. Why this particular series has become so wildly successful, as opposed to Pike’s The Last Vampire Series or some other such thing is probably due to a dozen tiny factors. However, one of the larger ones is that a great portion of Meyers’ readership is composed of the mothers of the girls who became obsessed with these novels. The mothers then also picked up the Twilight epidemic because a) the novels are written by a Mormon mom who intentionally imbued the books with abstinence and anti-abortion messages (which might not even have been particularly obvious if Meyers’ Mormonism hadn’t been so touted by the press), and b) they mimic a genre of book that middle-aged women tend to adore: Harlequin Romances. Then, because these mothers not only approved of but also became obsessed with the novels, they were willing to indulge in and even encouraged their daughters’ infatuation. Thus, the books jumped inside two audiences’ pocketbooks, and linked audiences at that. What better way to get a mother to buy a book’s T-shirt, pencil case, poster, and magnets for her daughter than if she wants these things for herself, too?

As it is, I have sucked down all 800-odd pages of them (each!) within 48 hours of opening the covers. I’ll admit, I do like the feeling of being in junior high school again, racing through the story, and feeling that fast-paced thrill of anguished love. Meanwhile, however, I must acknowledge what I once put up with what I did not notice as a junior high school reader: predictable plot turns, stock characters, and piles of angst-ridden melodrama. These considerably insurmountable hurdles are at the heart of my complaint about the Twilight Series.

I zoomed through the first book, Twilight, in spite of the fact that I never was convinced that Bella would fall in love with Edward (or him with her, even if he was supernatural) so quickly and so completely. I zoomed through the second book also, because I wanted to know what would happen. Was this really going to be a happily-ever-after story, or would the vampiric “darkness” prevail? Then I got to the third book. By that time, I had already read over 1600 pages of “I’m-so-self-sacrificing” Bella and “I’m-so-overprotective-because-I-love-her” Edward. I needed a change. Unfortunately for me (and every other reader reading these books in direct sequence), there was no change. Sure, Meyers tried to introduce a second love interest, in the form of Jacob, but it never really stuck. Bella never really doubted herself, and therefore I, as the reader, never really doubted the outcome: I knew she would end up with Edward. Consequently, I didn’t end up rooting for the happy ending, I ended up rooting for Jacob! (Not quite what Meyers had in mind, I’m sure.) Still, I could barely even root for Jacob, because even he was unbearably predictable, in his violent mood swings and “I’m-coming-back-for-more-because-I-love-you” masochism.

The books’ plots were equally banal. I knew what would happen before Bella, Edward, or any of the characters did, whether Meyers wanted me to or not. It felt like back when I used to read Nancy Drew novels and tried to figure out the mystery before she did. Now, though, I wasn’t even trying; the plots just unfolded themselves with appalling predictability in spite of my attempts to remain ignorant. With this loss of suspense, my desire to continue reading waned. By the end of the third novel, I was so disillusioned by the quality of the writing, I had to take a break. Certainly, I still wanted to find out “what would happen,” because the whole saga was plot-driven, and the ultimate questions hadn’t been answered yet, but I simply could not bear the thought of reading any more “woe is me, I love Edward so much, how can I cause him pain, I am such a bad person, wah wah wah” from Bella. The angst seemed to have grown from sentences in Twilight, to paragraphs in New Moon, to pages in Eclipse. At this rate, I was terrified I’d find chapters of the stuff in Breaking Dawn, and if my patience were stretched that thin, I’d probably go away hating all teen fiction ever written.

After my two-book “break” (I read novels by Saramago and Perez-Reverte to cleanse my mind), I read Breaking Dawn with considerably less irritation than I might have, had I gone straight into it after reading Eclipse. Looking at the series as a whole, I think that the first and fourth books (Twilight and Breaking Dawn, respectively) were the most unique and, therefore, the most interesting. New Moon and Eclipse could probably have been condensed and combined into one novel, without much—if any—story being lost. Still though, my other criticisms stand: the plot was predictable, and the characters were stereotypical, even in the ways Meyers tried to make them dynamic. It irritated me in the last book how all of the characters could be so oblivious and slow in their realizations and problem-solving skills. It’s one thing to realize something before a character does, but it’s another thing to feel as though characters who are supposed to be very intelligent and cunning are stupider than the average reader.

So there is no real final word on these books. They’re easy reads, and very addictive in that pop-mystery/romance-novel way, particularly for the teen/pre-teen female population (and their mothers). The writing is not very “literary,” nor is it meant to be, but this should be considered when incorporating oneself into an audience of readers whose average age range and literary expectations may be lower than your own.*

From reading a spot-on, side-splitting review by Jayne Bielak, I discovered that the Twilight books were written on an approximately fourth-grade reading level. This leads me to believe that perhaps the books were targeted at the reading level of the average American. If so, be content with considering yourself above average. Leave me to do the English-major-y griping and groaning.

View all my reviews.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Coronation: Runnership

Today is the day I am true runner.

I remember the day I decided I was a true swimmer. It was a cold day in the middle of winter, one where my hair would probably freeze against my neck after I left the pool. I had practiced with the Woodland Hills Aquatic Team (aka WHAT) all summer, swimming the first long-course practices of my life and finding, to my surprise, that I actually preferred the long, uninterrupted 50-meter laps to the shorter, more customary 25-yard ones. Initially, that humongous pool had intimidated me; in my mind, only real swimmers swam in long-course pools. Still, I survived the summer and actually found myself reluctant to return to the indoor 25-yard pool when fall returned.

On this particular winter day, I went through the usual routine with WHAT: abs for half an hour, and then two-and-a-half-hours of swimming. What ended up being particularly unusual was the distance we swam: 6,500 yards. Climbing out of the pool at the end of that practice, my sense of accomplishment was unparalleled. I had completed a “real” swimmer’s practice, alongside other swimmers who had been training this way since they were eight years old. I had been at the exhausting 5,000-yard IM practice yesterday, and I would return for the 5,500 yard sprint practice tomorrow. I finally identified myself as a true swimmer.

By that same measure, it could be assumed that I would deem myself a “real” runner on the day I finished the Philadelphia half-marathon. After all, if swimming 6,500 yards makes someone a “real swimmer,” wouldn’t running 13.5 miles make someone a real runner? However, I was sure that any reasonably fit athlete would be capable of running 13.5 miles, even they paid dearly for it afterward. (One woman who came on the trip did exactly that and only finished about fifteen minutes behind me.) Plus, I didn’t feel any self-identity with the sport. If someone had asked me, I never would have termed myself a “runner.”

Today, I woke up at 8:30 a.m. Snow—leftover from the storm two days ago—still blanketed the roofs outside my window. The shiny globules and matching tap-tap-tap against my windowpanes, however, did fit with that wintry image. Rain? Tap tap tap. It was raining on top of all that snow. Fabulous. I hadn’t gone running for two days, and already yesterday I was getting antsy. (Picture me, in the Times Square Virgin Records store, doing everything in my power to keep from breaking out and dancing along with the tunes the DJ was blasting from the speakers. And yes, there is a DJ in the Virgin Records store.)

My entire plan had consisted of waking up early, putting on my running gear, and going out for an extra-long run in order to satisfy my cranky dormant muscles. However, this rain was the consistent kind that gets you thoroughly soaked, starting with your feet the minute you step out onto the snowy slushy sidewalk. I hesitated at the door, but only for a second. I was going to run, darn it. I removed my sneakers and ran back up to my room to retrieve my raincoat. I might sweat a little, but it would be better than being soaked to the bone and ill within the first five minutes.

Keys tied into my shoelaces, mp3 clipped into my ears, watch set, and I was off, dodging puddles. Yes, it was unpleasant, but shockingly I wasn’t miserable. I was just happy to be out and moving. My muscles felt ready to go, and were bit annoyed at the fact that I kept them restrained, purely so I didn’t slip on all the ice and slush and break my neck. It was slow-going, and there was wind and icy rain in my face the whole way, but I felt purely happy to be moving. No one in their right mind would even want to be outside right now, and you’re running through slush puddles in a hat and a raincoat, I thought to myself. And that was when I knew: I am a runner.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Time

If I only had the time, I would learn to play the oboe. I would pick up the piano again. I would join a flute choir.

If I only had the time, I would get in shape. I would start running twice a day, once before work and once a lunchtime. I would build up to sixty miles a week. I would strength train after work three times a week and swim at the public pool on days when my muscles needed to recover. I would train for a marathon.

If I only had the time, I would learn to cook. I would make good, healthy, delicious food all the time and take my time eating it so that I savored the flavors and planned to next time add a little more salt or a little less onion. I would experiment in the kitchen, create new recipes, bake cookies for work every other week, send homemade candy to friends on their birthdays. I would take the time to learn what those mysterious vegetables sold in my neighborhood are and how to cook them. I would expand my palate.

If I only had the time, I would write that novel I’ve been putting off. I’d sit down, flesh out the characters, spit out the three hundred pages necessary to start the process, and get down to the task of refinement. I would discard the ideas that didn’t work and try to find new ones to take their places. I would write every single day, when I got up or before going to bed. I would back up all of my files, print copies before work, proofread them on the train, on the bus, striking out line after line with a red pen. I’d look for an agent, and keep at it until I found one. I would make progress on a dream that has faded into a wish.

But now I am at a place in life where I do have the time. And suddenly I realize that the problem was never a lack of time, but a lack of will. It was a lack of priorities. Because I could have done any of these things, and I can still do any of these things if I set my mind to them and schedule my life around them. But I haven’t. And, without a “higher order” (the parent, the professor, the coach) ordering me to do so, I won’t.

Funny how we blame “time” when we really only have ourselves to blame.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: The Queen of the South

The Queen of the South The Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is a book for history-lovers. Anyone who wants the who/how/where/when/why will love the detail and precision with which every event in this book is told. Unless you truly grew up in the culture about which it is written, and know about drug runs and border crossings and vacuum-packing marijuana in bricks to stow away in speedboats, I would wager than Perez-Reverte could convince any reader that he has done his homework. And if you did grow up in that culture, perhaps that would merely strengthen this book’s case, because perhaps you would merely provide validation.

The problem is that writing a good novel isn’t just about convincing a reader that you’ve done your homework. It isn’t just including every minute detail to show that you know exactly how an operation is performed. The Queen of the South doesn’t “show off,” exactly, like some books do, but it does include more detail than I, a “what’s next!? what’s next!?” kind of reader, deem necessary

For me, all of the details get in the way. Sure, they made the book “authentic,” made the characters seem extremely knowledgeable, and helped Teresa grow as her knowledge grew, but as a reader who wanted to remain gripped in suspense, those long passages of who-did-what-where-how took me out of the “rush” of the novel. I often felt as though I were reading a history textbook, when I wanted to be watching an action movie inside my head.

The Queen of the South has definite appeal for a certain kind of reader: a patient, painstaking, detail-oriented reader who isn’t looking to necessarily be “swept away” and doesn’t mind interruptions in the flow of the story. This ability to tolerate interruptions is important because, aside from the frequently interruptive overly-detailed explanations, Perez-Reverte uses a very interruptive structure to tell his story: a seemingly dual point of view, coming firstly from an omniscient third-person narrator following Teresa Mendoza chronologically and secondly from an anonymous first-person journalist situated in “current time.” The novel would have flowed much more seamlessly without the “present-day” interruptions of the journalist, who seemed as unnecessary as he was intrusive.

All of this being said, Teresa’s story was a gripping one, and one worth being told. Perez-Reverte has a talent for creating mood in a scene while using very little in the way of “literary flourish,” and also for maintaining consistently believable, dynamic characters. Teresa’s various relationships with men and with her cellmate Patty all strike genuine and complex, even as Teresa herself reflects on them little and tries to block them from her mind.

It will be interesting to see what other work Perez-Reverte will produce after this novel.

View all my reviews.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A particularly female competition

Women are definitely more competitive than men. Men might have their sports and their video games and their egos to uphold, but when it comes down to plain, balls-out, who’s-better-than-whom, women are simply out to beat each other more often than they’re willing to get along. There is loads of evidence to prove this.

Take, for instance, the simple case of high heels. Any realistic, halfway-sane person will acknowledge that high heels are a torturous, vain, unnecessary invention created purely as a means of generating a false sense of hierarchy. Some women claim that men prefer women in high heels, that that is why they wear them. This may be true, and if it is, then shoes are one more way women use to compete for men. However, men certainly did not create high heels, whether they prefer them or not; they are simply not sadistic or impractical enough to think up such painful, unnecessary, restrictive clothing articles.

This raises the question,Why would we do this to ourselves?. To feed our competitive natures, of course. Heightening their sense of eliteness, heels cost more than flats, so if one woman is wearing high heels and another is wearing flats, the woman in heels automatically earns a higher implied socioeconomic status. What’s more, she is assumed to have more poise and grace, because in order to walk in such dangerous contraptions, she must have a greater degree of dexterity. (No one would ever presume this woman to have a greater degree of stupidity, intractability, or masochism because, after all, she is being fashionable. And one must sacrifice comfort, above all else, for fashion.)

But let us return to the premise that women wear heels simply for the purpose of attracting men. (This, in spite of the fact that: 1) most men rarely look at a woman’s footwear; 2) men hate being shorter than women—a circumstance obviously not ameliorated by heels; and 3) if a woman ever discusses her heels or displays any sort of pride or interest in them, it is 99.99% of the time in conversation with another woman—not a man.) Admittedly, just as men boast and posture to try and gain the attention of women, women do—or, for the sake of this argument, wear—a many different things in order to attract men. The general rule of thumb is that the better we look, the more—and hopefully better—men we can attract. Hence, we are again in competition with one another, not only be look better than one another for the mere sake of being one-up, but in the end (at least under this premise), we need to look better for the sake of getting the better man. This explains miniskirts, makeup, curlers/straighteners/perms/hair-dye, control-top pantyhose, pushup bras, and any number of other contraptions we use to contort our bodies.

And so, I return to my original claim. What man do you know who would spend over an hour getting ready for a date? And not only would he spend that “getting ready” time making himself clean and fresh-looking, he would try to make himself appear overall physically smaller by suppressing any extraneous flesh (e.g. the pantyhose, amongst other “suck-it-in” garments) while trying to render certain portions of himself larger (e.g. the deluxe bras, complete with extra padding in all the right places), encase his flesh in a layer of paint (or several, if you consider that you have to layer powder over foundation over concealer, not to mention blush, eye shadow, and any primers you put on so your mascara and lipstick will stay “all night long”), and perform more elaborate procedures to his hair than they do in some laboratories (first blow-dry, but make sure to apply a heat-protection product first; then straighten with one dime-sized drop of straightening serum, more for longer hair; then curl layers appropriately, spraying each with extra-volume hairspray, adding pomade and styling gel as needed). Women are clearly this competitive. They are committed. And in my opinion, they are often completely out of their minds. But of course, who am I to judge? I have bowed out of this particularly competition for almost twenty-three years now, and the result is that I am either clearly at the back of the pack or have thankfully retained my sanity. Both are possible, but I suppose neither are, as well.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Blindness

Blindness Blindness by José Saramago

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a very beautifully written book. I can imagine it as one that will be taught in modern literature classes in universities of the future, once enough time has passed for this to become a “classic.” The plainness of the language exposes the subtleties of the story, which are steeped in allegory—everything in this book seems as though it is standing for something else, from characters such as the doctor’s wife, to the mental asylum where the blind patients are interned, to the very blindness itself.

The story passes as a still-life painting, one scenic episode at a time that is both beautifully and horrifically drawn, but with the full calculated intent to evoke a particular emotion. The plot and the way in which it expands reminds me of something akin I am Legend or 28 Days Later, where society falls to ruins due to an epidemic, only this story is told from the inside out, showing the minds and emotions of the “sick” and “crazy” people. It is meant to show the instinctive downfalls of man, as he tries to obtain and keep power, how he acts civilized even as he acts “savage” and savage even as he acts “civilized.”

Blindness is a very thought-provoking book and certainly belongs on the shelves of Literature-with-a-capital-L. However, without having others with whom to discuss the book or a professor to guide me through it, my preferences tend toward the less allegorical and more straightforward novels. The sudden ending was inevitable and appropriate enough, but I couldn’t help being disappointed that the whole novel added up to exactly what it was promised from the moment the first character went blind.

View all my reviews.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What Makes a Man Attractive: Some Superficial Features

I’m not sure if it’s my age (and therefore hormones), or the fact that I’m living in a city stuffed with over 8 million people, roughly half of whom are men, or the fact that I have been around the world and back and still have not found an even temporarily suitable partner, but as of late, I have given a considerable amount of thought to what makes a man initially appealing. (Appealing to me, of course. I would not expect these parameters to extend even to my closest female friends. After all, this is why so many varieties of humans exist!)

  • A good, sharp business suit. There is something inherently charismatic about a man who has his shoulders squared, back straight, striding down the sidewalk of New York City in a clean, dark, wrinkle-free, well-fitted business suit. Perhaps it is the sense of power it implies, or the insinuation of success, and intelligence, and—I’ll admit it—wealth. However, an outfit like this also requires a good deal of effort on the part of a man (compared to what men usually have to put into their appearances, that is), so maybe the professional look appeals to me merely as a reflection of a man’s pride in his appearance. Regardless, what it looks like to me is a display of self-confidence, attention to detail, and success, and that is attractive.
  • A smooth, clean-shaven face. I suppose this characteristic goes right along with the freshly pressed business suit. Of course, the clean-shaven look is even better when paired with a strong, distinguished jawline. I think what it does is increase the impulse to reach up and touch that afce, just like in those razor, and shaving cream, and—oddly enough—gum commercials. You never see a woman caressing a man’s face when he has a beard, do you? Or even a mustache? Again, the appeal could be due to the amount time and care this shows the man took to make himself presentable, but I think the touch-ability factor is the key. Why else must women always shave their legs?
  • Athletic prowess. A man who proves himself to be skilled at a physical sport is instantly more attractive. I have proven this to myself time and time again, in every sport from swimming to basketball to volleyball to basic running—the guys I meet on these teams, in these groups, who can play these sports well have my attention. It doesn’t matter what his initial level of attractiveness is; once he demonstrates any significant amount of physical finesse and strength, a man’s attractiveness appeal immediately raises two notches. I have found myself taking second looks at guys playing on the court or swimming beside me who I would never even glace once at on the subway. The resulting visions themselves are never satisfying—the guy still looks the same—but there is this slight sense of awe that becomes magnetic about a physically fit guy who can play a sport well. This of course, would help to explain the “jocks always get the girls” stereotype.

    Of course, the more consideration I give to external features like these, the shallower I feel. However, I think it’s important for a person to know themselves, and I can’t my self-analytical tendencies. If I’m attracted to someone, I want to know why. Likewise, if I’m not attracted to them, I want to know why. They say curiosity killed the cat, but until things start to look dangerous, I’m going to continue my quest. There’s nowhere better to do so than the action-packed wildly diverse streets of New York City!

  • Sunday, November 30, 2008

    Black Friday

    The economy might be sick, but consumerism is sicker.

    Imagine yourself as one of several hundred consumers, hyped-up by the promise of spending. You are exhilarated by the annual prospect of acquiring more things than your neighbor, new things, shiny things, clean smooth soft things, things you didn’t have before. Imagine standing outside Wal-Mart in the dark cold 5 a.m. air, your pulse racing, every face around you flushed, every body jostling for position in front of the sliding glass doors, vying for a spot closest to the stockpile of 99 cent Burt’s Bees Lip Balm, 99 dollar Blackberry phones, and 799 dollar Samsung LCD TVs.

    Suddenly there is a roar. The crowd surges forward. You are carried along the sea of bodies, pushing to keep your position. (You were so close, don’t let that woman get in front of you, who cares if her bratty kid wants the Sponge Bob Mp3 player for $39.99, she can wait her place in line, she wasn’t up as late as you were, here in the cold, if you push that guy to your left maybe you can get past him, you’d have a clearer shot at the door and he looks like your annoying coworker anyway, the one who made fun of you for saying you’ve always been an enthusiastic Black Friday shopper, although this year is just ridiculous, who would have thought everyone would pick Wal-Mart sales, that’s why you’re here, because you thought people would be at Circuit City and Best Buy, stupid shoppers.) Your adrenaline soars as you inch forward, pressed between body-filled coats and hats and mittens. Everyone is shouting.

    There is a crack; many cracks, really; a shattering sound, as if all the cold bodies that had been pressed together had broken to pieces, crushing one another to shards. But no, the sound is coming from ahead. You look up to see the frontrunners in the crowd lurch forward into the store! You squint as you are mashed against the back of the man in front of you. What has happened? Only as you are pushed over broken glass, through the entrance, do you realize: the mob has acted overeagerly. You have broken through. You are inside Wal-Mart.

    And then you stumble over the body.

    “Wal-Mart worker dies in rush; two killed at toy store”

    Summary: A horde of shoppers “bum-rushed” a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, breaking down the doors. A 34-year-old male employee from Queens was trampled to death. A 28-year-old pregnant woman and three other workers were also injured. Customers angrily resisted leaving the store and tried to keep shopping as officials announced they were closing the store, insisting, “they had been waiting on (sic) line since Thursday.”

    Meanwhile, in Palm Desert, California, an argument arose between two teenage girls in the electronics section of Toys ‘R Us. A gun was pulled, and two men died. Thank you Amendment Number Two.

    This is the sort of capitalism that makes me embarrassed to be live in consumerist America.

    Escape from NYC: A story of collapse

    Last weekend’s excursion to Philadelphia was my first time out of New York City since August, when I “officially moved here.” It would be hard to describe a weekend in which I ran a half marathon as relaxing, but if not “relaxing,” I would describe the experience of being out of crowded, chaotic NYC and in bright, orderly Philadelphia, at the very least, “refreshing.”

    This week, spending Thanksgiving in Allentown with my cousin and my elder cousin Kim was my second time out of the city. We arrived on Wednesday night; ate a random assortment of cranberry bread, peanuts, spinach quiche, green beans and butter cookies that had been prepared by my grandmother; played two games of Chinese checkers; and then dispersed to our various sleeping arrangements: Kim slept on an inflatable bedroll and sleeping bag on the floor, and I took the couch (which, I might add, was a glorious improvement over my 5’7” rock-hard futon. I feel asleep instantly).

    The next morning, I woke up exhausted. It was as though I had just run the half marathon the day before, instead of half a week ago. I wasn’t sore; I just felt as though every muscle and every bone in my body had turned into lead. If my grandmother hadn’t already been awake, bustling around and hovering over me demanding my breakfast order, I probably would have gotten up, gone to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, curled back up on the couch, and gone back to sleep. Even more shockingly, it was 8:00 a.m.—almost two hours past when I usually wake up for work on a Thursday morning.

    I have never believed that New York City is a particularly exhausting place to live, or at least not for someone as capable and competent as me. I don’t feel particularly tired as I go about my business, or worn down, or battered. When I first arrived, I was certainly challenged by the tasks of navigating through masses of people on the streets, pushing my way onto subways, and forging into and out of crowded stores. However, I assumed I would become accustomed to (and more adept at) them, and I have. Granted, I still detest shopping, but I hated that activity to begin with, so doing it with an extra million people in my way—standing in front of me in the dressing room and checkout lines, grabbing stuff off of the shelves before I can get to it, blocking every available aisle with shopping carts—is understandably less pleasant. However, I don’t cringe before crossing the street headlong into a mass of people anymore, nor am I nearly as hesitant to pack myself body-to-body into a Manhattan-bound express train at 7:30 a.m. It’s not pleasant, but I’m not scared to do it, either.

    Even so, despite all of my “adjustments” to city life, my bodily collapse on Thanksgiving morning gave me a new consideration for the toll that living in NYC may be taking. The way my body reacted mimicked exactly how it used to react when I would come home from college after first-semester finals. I would arrive home, blink at my family, eat a snack, and collapse into bed, only to awake the next morning feeling more tired than I had felt all semester.

    But this isn’t the end of finals week. This is real life.

    After a weekend of consideration, I concluded one possible reason for this instant, seemingly inexplicable exhaustion. In NYC, a person has to constantly have their guard up. On the sidewalk, in the subway, on the bus, in the park, at the beach—everywhere, you are constantly surrounded by people and must be aware of others’ presence. Must be prepared to be accosted by beggars and buskers asking for money. Must be ready to stay on your feet when jostled by passerbyers. Must be aware of and ready to protect your valuables, “just in case.” Once you leave the city, once you are, for one instant, alone, your body releases that defensive hold. Then, suddenly, you realize the debt that is created by the energy that you have demanded to keep constant watch over yourself and your surroundings. That is when the exhaustion comes: when the guard goes down. That is the only time the body can afford such a collapse.

    Which leads to the inevitable questions: If I have only been here a few short months and have already needed to “collapse,” how will I fare over the span of several years? How does anyone manage? Is it a sign I should not be here, that I won’t make it? Or do I merely need to grow a thicker skin? And can I?

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    In Gear

    Do I look like a runner? I felt reasonably convincing, at least until I stepped out of the hotel....

    Monday, November 24, 2008

    You know you ran a badass half-marathon when:

    1. The race began before sunup
    2. Due to weather conditions, the wheeled participations elected to race the Rothman 8k, instead
    3. It was too cold for the starter horn (so the starter counted down over the microphone instead, “3, 2, 1….”
    4. You couldn’t feel your hands, feet, or lips…before you’d even taken a single step
    5. You could have clothed a homeless shelter in the amount of layers people shed along the race route
    6. The water station cups had shards of ice floating in them
    7. Instead of cheering you on, the staff members along the race route were warning you about black ice
    8. The sweat on people’s bodies turned to frost
    9. The post-race beverage of choice was hot chicken broth (Gatorade, eat your heart out)
    10. You walked back to your hotel wrapped in a sheet of aluminum foil to stay warm…and so did everyone else

    Saturday, November 22, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: A Mercy

    A Mercy A Mercy by Toni Morrison

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars
    NY Times is correct in comparing A Mercy to Morrison's previous renowned work, Beloved. Both deal with slave life: the backstories of slaves; the relationships between slaves and owners and mothers and daughters; the realities of being owned and being free in 17th century America. Like Beloved, A Mercy grapples with abandonment as its central theme.

    However, A Mercy is a much more grounded novel than Beloved in that the reader is not guessing throughout the novel how much is real and how much is fantastical. A Mercy keeps the reader up to speed with the real-time thoughts and actions and memories of its characters as they tell the story in their unique voices: the trader-turned-slaveowner Jacob; his purchased wife Rebekka; Florens, the young slave girl sold to Jacob by her mother; the other slave laborers of Jacob's household Sorrow and Lina, and even Florens' mother, who narrates the final chapter.

    Morrison once again proves to be a master of voice, as she differentiates all of these characters, not merely by the superficial details with which she imbues them, but by the ways in which they speak their parts of the narrative so distinctly. In such a short book, Morrison brings the reader from a state of confusion in the opening pages--who is speaking? what is happening? should I understand what they are talking about?--to a state of pleased recognition as the same narrators recur and are readily identified by their vocal nuances.

    A Mercy might be shorter than Beloved, Morrison's unwavering style makes it just as emotionally and historically packed. It is a novel to be unloaded, both in style and content. Morrison continues to mark herself as a novelist who will be taught alongside Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston

    View all my reviews.

    Thursday, November 20, 2008


    Taken from the recently reviewed Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver:

    “I’ve about decided that’s the main thing that separates happy people from the other people: the feeling that you’re a practical item, with a use, like a sweater or a socket wrench.”

    Boss #1 returned from his conference today, where he has been since last Wednesday, and suddenly I have a whole new flurry of assignments to do, invoices to fill out, and mailings to send. It’s almost relieving to have to think again.

    Can stress be like medicine? I think I now understand the college students who wrote their term papers “better” under the pressure of those few hours right before the assignment was due. I find that I function better when people expect me to be productive, to turn in work, to give them what they ask for. It doesn’t matter what these things are—an email, a fax, a list, an analytic report—just these expectations make me feel useful.

    It’s when I get an inane assignment that no one really cares about, one that takes little-to-no brainpower and that is of absolutely no consequence to anyone that both my mind and my body begin shutting down. I literally begin to fall asleep as I try to accomplish the task. Either that, or else I begin to panic. What am I doing here? Am I settling for this job? For this life? Shouldn’t I be aspiring for higher purposes? Aren’t I meant to be doing better things? Is this what I really want? Will this get me to what I really want?

    Feeling functional and at least the slightest bit important is soothing; it is pacifying. That is the key to a happy employee, I think. Every company could be full of satisfied, productive employees if only that company made each and every one of them feel 1) essential to the company and 2) capable of contributing to their position. I am sure the most successful companies out there take this to heart. However, as I make this observation, I wonder if I am meant for the management-type position everyone is supposed to aspire to. After all, if I want to be given tasks to complete, I can’t be the giver of those tasks, can I? And being a manager means relying on other people to get work done. Heaven knows I abhor doing that.

    Where oh where is this life is this going to lead?

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Animal Dreams

    Animal Dreams Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars
    Animal Dreams

    Yet another Kingsolver masterpiece. Had I discovered this novel first (instead of Prodigal Summer), it may have been my favorite. The landscape is scenic in a tangible way; the characters are familiar yet intriguing; and the internal conflicts mesh with the external in a fluid way that makes the story come full circle and yet flow outward, into both the future and the past.

    One thing I have noticed from having read all of Kingsolver’s work, now, is that she takes a keen interest in Native Americans. The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and now Animal Dreams all deal directly with Native American life, tribes, and conflicts. Consequently, they all deal with a sense of belonging and a sense of self on the part of the protagonists, at the same time. Furthermore, Kingsolver delves into childhood in every single one of her books, along with the process of maturing—which, I believe, is why so many people laude The Poisonwood Bible as her most notable work. Yet, the delicacy and insight with which she writes about this subject is present in every one of her novels; The Poisonwood Bible simply uses “growing up” as its structure, while the rest of her novels weave the concept and process into their framework as texture and support for everything else that happens.

    Sense of self is key to every Kingsolver novel, and Animal Dreams does not disappoint.

    Codi Noline returns to her hometown feeling more homeless than ever and must confront the fact that her sense of groundlessness is more self-imposed than any external force causing it. I can relate to this struggle, which is perhaps why I loved this book so much; yet I also feel that most people can relate to Codi’s feelings of aloneness and isolationism and search for selfhood, or at least find memories of these feelings in themselves.

    Bottom line: Kingsolver is worth reading, and Animal Dreams would be a good starting novel for anyone in need of initiation to her material.

    View all my reviews.

    Snapshot Book Review: Election

    Election Election by Tom Perrotta

    My review

    rating: 2 of 5 stars
    In spite of having read the insubstantial description on the back, I expected more out of this novel. Why? Because of the author. The funny part is that the subject matter ended up being about the same as it was in the last two books I read and loved by him, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher: loyalty, marriage, friendship between sexes, competition, selfhood. However, Election belongs on the Young Adult shelves of the local library, not in the general fiction section alongside his other adult novels. I have read other novels that address teenage protagonists and high school settings but that are written with an adult level of language and understanding in mind. Election is not such a novel. Had I read this during one of my reading binges back in junior high school, I most likely would have adored it. The content would have been just "adult" enough to appease my more mature sensibilities, but the "easy reading" factor would have allowed me to fly through it the way I needed to back then. Reading it now, however, I want to linger over passages and to think a little more deeply, even as I crave plotlines and characters that keep me plowing forward through a novel. Election does not allow me to linger at all, since every few paragraph the POV changes to a different character, none of whom spend much time at all reflecting on their surroundings, other characters, or dilemmas to which readers (like me) might relate. The dilemmas are certainly there, but they are entirely written into the plot (even if they are the results of characters' traits, such as Tracy's cutthroatness or Tammy's vengence).

    As a young adult book, Election deserves at least three stars. However, for my own enjoyment purposes and for the purposes of recommending it to other readers I know and respect, two stars will suffice.

    View all my reviews.

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    How to Share a Tootsi Pop

    1. Procure a Tootsi Pop, still fully assembled with stick and wrapper.
    2. Wrap the still-packaged head of the lollipop in a sheet of paper, bringing the corners of the paper down around the stick. Twist to seal.
    3. Smash the double-wrapped head of the lollipop onto an unoccupied subway seat several times.
    4. Carefully unwrap the paper from around the lollipop, catching all broken shards of candy inside the paper. Hand this to your friend.
    5. Remove the wrapper from what remains of the head of the lollipop. Consume remaining shards of candy and Tootsi Roll as desired.

    The Fine Print: Instructions have been derived from a demonstration performed by two adolescent African-American males on a Queens-bound F train. Writer will not be held accountable for reactions from other passengers, sugar-related injuries, or other unforeseen circumstances. Results may vary. See demonstrators for details.

    Snapshot Book Review: Matters of Faith

    Matters of Faith Matters of Faith by Kristy Kiernan

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars
    It would be tempting to write this book off as one of many “just another” novels. With family drama as the structure and religion as the conflict, it would be easy to shelve this book right alongside an Anita Shreve “failing marriage” novel or a Jodi Piccoult “my child is dying/arrested/pregnant” novel. Husband/wife, mother/son, and father/daughter relationships always generate complicated, interesting stories; the problem is that most of them have already been told this way using this mother’s voice.

    Still, what I find particularly interesting is that when Kiernan chooses to switch POV so that the son, Marshall, is telling the story, she keeps the POV in the third person (whereas the rest of the novel is told in the first person, from the mother Chloe’s POV). However, no one other than creative writers or English majors are likely to notice, much less appreciate this tactic. It keeps readers somewhat removed from Marshall and his account of the story, at arm’s length, which allows them to judge him the way every other character is judging him throughout the story. Conversely, readers are in the story with Chloe and therefore cannot help but empathize with her plights, even if they may disapprove of her emotions or her actions.

    What is particular and interesting to this book is the way Kiernan addresses faith and religion separately, yet in parallel. Some of her characters can separate the two and some cannot, but she as the author draws a clearly divisive line between faith and religion and thus allows her readers to explore both simultaneously and objectively, while in the context of a family drama.

    This is no work of literature in either the formal or the artistic sense, but it is a fun, fast, mildly thought-provoking read and certainly a nice addition to the literary conversation surrounding faith and religion.

    View all my reviews.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Dancing Girls

    Dancing Girls Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood

    My review

    rating: 2 of 5 stars
    The only thing that saves this from the one-star category is the fact that I can imagine my creative writing professors at Rochester assigning these short stories, because they are right in line with all of the ones I read for class. I would read and become a bit excited near the end of the first third of the story, hoping with a bit of anticipation that now, after this confusion and meandering, everything will add up and lead to something beautiful or horrendous or at least meaningful. But after finishing the second third of the story, I finally realize that no, the first third was exactly what was going to happen throughout, and I would be destined to finish the story without finding any purpose to it at all, but I would finish it anyway, because I had already invested time and energy in the first two-thirds, and darn it, if there was some surprise at the end that made everything make sense, I didn't want to be such a lazy reader that I would miss it.

    But I rarely missed anything. And so, after trying four or five stories in Dancing Girls, I returned it to the library. I'll look for a novel the next time I decide to delve into Atwood.

    View all my reviews.

    Snapshot Book Review: MVP

    MVP: A Novel MVP: A Novel by James Boice

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars
    This is one of those books you read for the artistry of its construction: they vivid yet impersonal style of the language, the POV shifts, the abstract-concreteness of it. This is the kind of book that I imagine my sophomore year Creative Writing Seminar Professor choosing, to go along with all of those stories that were so thought-provoking and had such poignant language, but that I didn’t quite “get.” Yet what makes Boice’s novel unusual is its here-and-now, popular culture subject: the life of a (fictional) professional basketball player.

    This subject has probably been done a number of times by a number of authors. I would wager that it has been glorified to the extreme on one end, and written to evoke sympathy bordering on tears on the other. Yet MVP does neither of those, or else it does both: it shows the ostentatiousness of a professional athlete’s lifestyle and expectations from life, as well as the simplicity of a child’s dreams and how difficult it is to live those dreams out. You hate the protagonist even while you are pitying him. In any work of modern art, I find that ambivalence is the key to artistry, and so this is a work of “modern” fiction.

    I wish I could find an English teacher or school board willing to try teaching this book to kids in inner-city high schools. Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are great and certainly well written, but this would probably be my choice of material to teach because not only would there be good writing to model and interesting themes to pursue, but the kids might actually find something in this novel they can relate to. Even I, a suburban white girl, found something to relate to in Gilbert’s struggles for selfhood and self-ownership, and the fact that I can imagine many of my former jerk-off classmates actually becoming interested within the first chapter makes me keen to try my theory. However, my efforts would probably end in MVP landing on the banned book list and me landing out the door on my tush. Sex and drug use is not skirted in this novel, nor should it be for the subject it is addressing and the stare-in-the-face manner it uses to tackle that subject. I believe high school juniors and seniors would be up to the task of facing these references and descriptions, with which they are most likely already familiar. Sadly for me—and for most high schoolers out there—school administrations will never agree.

    View all my reviews.

    Feeling Old in your Youth

    The first time you book a ticket, go to an airport, collect one boarding pass (yours), check a bag (yours), and fly to another city with just a sweatshirt over your shoulders and a backpack at your feet, you start to feel old. You use the term “mature” because now you are capable of travelling alone, and this brings you one step closer to being adultlike. You call yourself “independent” because God help you if anyone sees how young, and helpless, and trembly you feel inside.

    When you old your first salaried paycheck, and you realize that the term “benefits” really means Price Tags That Make Regular Living Almost Affordable Instead of Impossible, you feel a little older. You realize that there is so much more your parents handled with while you were growing up, so much more that you didn’t know about or ever conceive of, that it seems astonishing anyone would ever decide to have a child. It disgusts you to realize how sheltered and protected you were in those moments when you felt so invincible, so self-sufficient, so autonomous. You smirk at teenagers with their all-knowing eye rolls and confident struts. Even in the vastness of your newly discovered ignorance, you feel so much smarter than them. So much older.

    Then girls you went to high school with start posting Facebook pictures of their newborns, and you’re caught somewhere between feeling very old and very young: old because your peers are now mothers, will be wheeling strollers in a supermarket, will wash baby socks and spit-up bibs, will carry diaper bags instead of purses; young because you’re still browsing Facebook and because they bothered to put these pictures up there, right next to the ones of their ex-boyfriend shoving one ping-pong ball up each nostril in front of several other bleary-eyed boys laughing over the rims of their red plastic cups in the background. Still, you have officially joined the ranks of Women, because no one who gives birth to a baby can still be called a “girl,” can she?

    And then your best friend tells you she’s engaged. And you start talking about reception venues and bridesmaid dresses and what old friends deserve invitations to the wedding. And that’s when you really feel old. Because she’s the first, and she won’t be the last, and even your sister is already nineteen and has been dating her boyfriend for over four years. It doesn’t matter that you have never had a boyfriend or that you can remember each and every date you have been on with utmost clarity; your friends and family members are going to be leaving this lifestyle of call-me-on-the-weekend-to-catch-up, getting married, having children, buying houses. You’re twenty-two, nearly twenty-three, and you can already see the unit called family morphing into this new being, and the definition of the word friendship changing to “maybe I’ll see you in six months when you come into town for my baby shower.” Is this what you envisioned when you were eight and dreamed of living the lives of your babysitters? Is this what you wanted back when you couldn’t wait to grow up?

    You can vote. You can drink. You can watch all the R-rated movies you like; you can even watch X-rated movies, if that’s your thing. If you live in a city, you have no reason to rent a car, so that’s no milestone. The things you are waiting for now are things you would rather forget are going to happen: wrinkles, joint pain, memory loss, stock market investing. But you’re twenty-two! You have your whole life ahead of you! But that’s what they said when you were sixteen, and when you were eighteen…. When is it no longer your whole life and only a part of your life that’s left?

    Not Quite a New Yorker

    In some ways, I feel very much like I am on my way to becoming A New Yorker. I am now perfectly willing to elbow my way down the sidewalk, and I am not put off if I have to squeeze onto a subway car in the middle of rush hour. Twenty-thousand bright lights and flashing billboards no longer make me feel as though I’m going to have a seizure (although I will admit to squinting, particularly when I emerge from the subway at ten o’clock at night), and brushing off the crazy bums soliciting my spare change is becoming a more routine annoyance than a pity-inducing spectacle. I know—at least vaguely—where each of the subway lines run, and I have finally figured out how to walk north, south, east, and west via the logically numbered street grid which is downtown Manhattan. (I am not nearly so good at navigating Queens, but I have found walking and subway routes to the grocery stores and libraries, which are my number one priorities.)

    Likewise, my lack of “impressed-ness” by this city is another sign that I am no longer “just a visitor.” My friends Andy and Kelly came to visit this weekend, so of course, because they were from Out of Town, we met in Times Square. Kelly and I saw Aveune Q on Broadway and then met Andy on the flashing red steps of the billboard island at the intersection of 46th St and Broadway. Every time we would emerge onto the street, Kelly would cover her eyes, pleading, “Overstimulation! Too many people! Too much!” When we collected Andy and started looking for a place to eat, I continually caught him standing at the street corners as we waited for the light to turn, staring up at the buildings and lights with an awed, this-is-what-the-other-half-lives-like expression on his face. He is currently attending graduate school in The Middle of Nowhere, New Hampshire (otherwise known as Dartmouth); Kelly is living in the Siding-Covered Suburbs of Dallas, TX. Together, their reactions to what is my new “home” showed me exactly how much and to what I have become accustomed: crowdedness, noise, dirt, lights. People. Granted, as I told Kelly, I don’t go to Times Square on a regular basis. Tourists go to Times Square; regular people who live in New York go to their jobs and to apartments, and to anywhere that is not nearly such a gaudy, polluted, money-snatching person-pit. However, those things which so impressed them barely even registered on my radar until, noticing their reactions, I began seeing my surroundings through their “outsider eyes.”

    Yet, their visit also made me realize that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, remotely close to being A New Yorker. (Yet.) My first indication was the fact that in spite of having lived in they city for five months, I had no idea where to suggest that we eat dinner. Over these past five months, I have not had the money or social connections to go out to eat much, if at all. Plus, within this short time frame, I have lived in three different communities (Upper West Side, Harlem, and Woodside) and worked for two different companies (Time in midtown and Wiley in Hoboken). One may think this means I should be more familiar with more areas of the city, but to the contrary—I have been so busy moving and readjusting all the time that I have not become well acquainted with any one area or its eateries. Moreover, I do most of my own cooking. I know where the grocery stores are in Columbia and Queens, but that’s about it.

    The second sign that I fail to qualify as A New Yorker was the fact that I got us lost. Not “lost” in the sense that we didn’t know where we were, but we were between 7th and Broadway, and instead of going to 5th Ave, as I had intended, we ended up on 8th instead. It was a simply mistake, but was one that indicates how much effort I still put into thinking, “Okay, the numbers are going up, so that is north. Therefore, because I am at 7th, I want to go east, because the avenues go down going east, and I am trying to get to 5th.” I have struggled with my sense of direction since the moment I arrived here, and it is embarrassingly clear that I will continue to do so, especially now that I am working and not spending my time wandering the city in search of work.

    The third sign that I am not A New Yorker—and judging from this sign, I may never be one—is that by the stroke of midnight, I am ready for bed. Even on a Saturday night with two friends in town, I was growing tired around 10 p.m. By the time Kelly and I made it back to Queens, it was close to midnight—time for the party to start, by New York standards—and I was ready to pass out. This could be attributable to any number of things: the thirteen miles I ran that morning, the fact that I get up at 6:30 a.m. every day of the week, the rock-hard futon that I currently use as a bed. However, the bottom line is that I do need sleep, and living in the city that never sleeps, I anticipate this as a sign of having trouble not only fitting in, but of simply surviving.

    Wednesday, November 5, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Little Children

    Little Children Little Children by Tom Perrotta

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars
    Little Children

    While reading The Abstinence Teacher already had me scouring the library catalogue for more Perrotta material, I chose Little Children on the recommendation of my good friend Mike, and it too proved to be an emotional page-turner. Like with The Abstinence Teacher, I wasn’t sure who I was “rooting for,” whether I condoned Todd and Sarah’s affair or condemned it, which characters I was supposed to like and which I was supposed to despise. If there was ever an author who could write about morally ambiguous topics impartially, Perrotta is that author.

    The danger in being impartial is in seeming unfeeling and distant, but Perrotta’s writing is none of these. In Little Children, you immediately lean in close to see Todd—the stay-at-home dad who just won’t transform from his college football playing “boy” self into the lawyer “man” self his wife expects. You squint to get a better look at Sarah—the not-quite mom who always forgets her daughter’s snacks and wants to wear a red bikini to the swimming pool. You feel as much simultaneous compassion and contempt for the child molester as for the brutish father who keeps harassing him.

    Little Children is a thoughtfully constructed novel that questions the concepts of marriage, family, loyalty, and love. Perhaps I am in the stage of my life when these ideas seem most relevant to begin considering, but I think even those who have the most stable marriages or haven’t even yet considered marriage can find a piece of plot and a character trait to relate to. That is what Perrotta is good at: making his characters people you know.

    View all my reviews.

    Sunday, November 2, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Bodily Harm

    Bodily Harm Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

    My review

    rating: 2 of 5 stars
    Once again, Margaret Atwood's style saves this book from what I would consider to be a complete failure. Her ability to make you, the reader, see the characters, to feel as though you know them as well (or as little) as they know each other and to feel the emotions they feel toward one another is her strength as a writer, and she does not fail to exploit that strength in Bodily Harm. However, the way the novel is structured around the book lends itself to a jerky-feeling reading, leaving the reader feeling disgruntled and ready to debark as if on a turbulent plane, rather than compelled to continue by that ravenous desire to know What Happens.

    Also, the book was too political. This is not to say it was pushing a particular political agenda, or even that I prefer books with non-political themes/plots. I just feel that this particular book wasn't so much about the details of the politics as about the "broad scope" and theme concerning what was happening in the Caribbean when Rennie (the protagonist, a Canadian journalist) arrives for her visit. It is fine to write about such themes, and Atwood is often successful--as with The Handmaid's Tale for instance--but this particular book needed the details in order to tell the story, and by omitting them for the sake of focusing the reader's attention on the "broader picture," Atwood lost a good deal of my attention and interest, primarily because I couldn't easily piece together everything that was happening in both background and foreground of the novel.

    All that being said, Atwood is still one of my preferred authors, and Bodily Harm is another testament to her ability to create full-fledged characters you are convinced you might meet someday. I am not sure any of Atwood's other books will ever live up to my esteem for The Handmaid's Tale, but I am encouraged to keep looking.

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    Thursday, October 30, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen

    Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Fairy Tales from Around the World by Corinna Sargood

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars
    I both liked and disliked this book for the same reason: I have heard most of these stories before. What I like is that I am proud to have heard them before; I heard (or rather, “read”) them in my Myth and Fairy Tales class at Rochester, and in encountering so many of them again, I experienced a wave of nostalgia. Reading these stories reminded me of why I enjoyed that class so much: it was because in their foreignness, they take tales that seem so familiar and “American” and make you, the reader/listener, wonder whether or not the roots of the tales were from another time and another culture, or whether the roots of the tales are even more basic than that: whether they merely reflect lessons, morals, and basic human desires that are common across cultures and time. Or perhaps the different versions show how the lessons and morals change over time, or how their packaging changes. That was what I loved about that class, and reading this book took me straight back to that academic love of literature.

    Of course, I couldn’t help but dislike the book for exactly the same reason: I had heard it all before. Perhaps if I had never taken that course at Rochester, I would be absolutely enthralled by this book. I do love fairy tales, and I love seeing different perspectives and different versions of the same fairy tale. Although these all had odd names and seemingly odd origins, many of them incorporated the fairy tales we know best: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel; even Rumplestiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk showed traces in these stories.

    For those interested in foreign culture and fairy tales, this is definitely a worthwhile read. I can understand why an author such as Angela Carter would take it upon herself to edit such a novel. She is one to embrace the peculiar and the foreign. It will be a wonder if Margaret Atwood does not do something similar, in time.

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    Highs and Lows in the Working World

    8:37 a.m. I open Outlook to find a follow-up email from a non-Wiley member of yesterday's meeting…with minutes attached. The entire subway ride to work, I had been thinking about how I wanted to be the first to follow up about the meeting, to thank everyone for coming and complementing everyone on how informative it had been. So much for that. I grit my teeth and thank everyone anyway. Better to be polite, as planned, than to have my 2nd boss (henceforth to be referred to as Boss #2) ask me to do it later, anyway. My first boss (Boss #1) would probably have asked me to do it yesterday, already, so I should count my blessings.

    9:10 a.m. I mistakenly type "meting" instead of "meeting" on an email and then send it to 75 members of a neuroscience journal's editorial board. Boss #1, who I cc'ed on the email, catches the typo and informs of the mistake, correcting not only that error but also how I have worded several paragraphs and ordered the information. I want break my hand and then punch myself in the face with it.

    9:35 a.m. I figure out how to get one number from one cell in one Excel spreadsheet to link to a different cell on a second Excel spreadsheet by using a formula, rather than copying and pasting. This discovery, if applied properly, could save me unfathomable amounts of time in the future. I celebrate by boiling myself a second cup of tea.

    10:15 a.m. A secretary from the corporate division calls and informs me that room 8-068—coincidentally the room that has typically been used for all regularly scheduled Current Protocol meetings, for which I am now responsible, long before I ever arrived at Wiley—has now been commandeered and must be surrendered by all individuals who have not reserved it strictly for its videoconferencing capabilities. Thus, I am being asked to cancel and rebook all twelve meetings I have scheduled in that room over the next eight months. "Just go in 8-067," I am told, which would be an easy switch if it didn't involve first cancelling 8-068, then rebooking 8-067, then fixing the calendar in Outlook, then reissuing invitations to all invitees correcting the location . . . for every single event. And of course, this is assuming room 8-067 is even available in all twelve instances, which it is most likely not.
    The woman on the phone can hear the frustration in my voice as I ask if we couldn't just stay there, at least for such-and-such a meeting, and her response is a whimper-y no, no one's allowed, please don't be angry, she's just the messenger. I spend the entire rest of my morning juggling calendars and emails, and I still only manage to move three events out of that room by lunchtime. I am beginning to think that maybe the corporate division arranged this plot to try and make me quit, until Damian mentions it on our noon-thirty running group outing. I still do not feel consoled.

    12:30 p.m. Our little running group heads out for a jog. It's cold, windy, and raining. If I lengthen my stride, I am running too fast for the group and cannot hear the conversation, never mind participate in it, but when I shorten my stride, I can feel the bad habit of trotting setting in. I settle for running at the front of the group, for which our self-appointed coach calls me the group's "pacer." I could feel good about this, if it weren't for the fact that I know I am the slowest runner on the entire Harrier running team, out in Central Park. I try to think about what fun it will be to play open-gym volleyball at the public gym in Chelsea after work, instead.

    1:15 p.m. An email is awaiting me from one journal’s Editor-in-Chief, informing me that I have missed sending an invitation to one of his journal's board members. This is not the case, but there is no easy way to explain this. I spend the next hour-plus trying my best to appease him, his assistants, and Boss #1 so that everyone is assured that everyone will be attending their function. I would like to throw every single guest list on my desk into the trash bin, along with my computer and perhaps a few extra piles of mysterious papers that exist on my desk, for good measure. Why must everyone always be informed of everything?

    3:40 p.m. I finally finish the Excel report I have been trying to create for Boss #2 for over a week. She is actually in her office, so I make the harrowing six-foot trek from my cubicle to her desk to show her what I have generated and to ask what she would like to have changed. She seems enthusiastic about what I have created, even as she suggests changes, and then we start to rehash yesterday's eReader meeting. She tells me her tentative vision for the project, and then adds that I'd be the perfect person to see it through. I am almost doing backflips as I leave her office, when she says “Oh by the way, thank you for following up with those gentlemen from yesterday. It’s the polite thing to do, but I just got so busy….” I actually do a backflip this time, at least in my mind. On days like this, a little positive reinforcement can go a long way.

    Monday, October 27, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Say You're One of Them

    Say You're One of Them Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

    My review

    rating: 3 of 5 stars
    I decided to read this book because of popular review. People loved it. Time loved it. Essence loved it. Entertainment Weekly loved it. Maybe I should have checked my sources--all owned by Time Inc. (duh)--but I figured that a book generating this much positive press would be worth reading.

    I won't go back on this opinion--it was worth reading. It was as about worth reading as most other books I have read: nothing spectacular, but not a waste of my time, either. What seemed wasteful in Akpan's book was the way that the lengthiest stories were the least effective. Perhaps it was their length that diluted them; perhaps if they had been shortened to the size and style of the stories that impacted me the most, that left me what felt like a taste of experience or shock, they would have felt like less of a chore to read.

    On the positive end, the longer stories gave me more of a sense of the character narrating them. "Fattening for Gabon" and "Luxurious Hearses" are both 136 pages, and I had the clearest pictures of Kotchikpa and Jubril respectively by the end of each of their stories. This is only logical, however, since at the end of a full-length novel, you fully expect to know the characters, or else you will have lost interest by page 150. I also felt I understood Jigana, the eldest son and narrator in "An Ex-mas Feast" quite well despite its shorter 34-page length. This is probably because the story did not attempt to accomplish much aside from depicting family dymanics, and told from a very distinctive point of view, this can create a story in and of itself.

    My favorite story was the book's title story, "My Parents' Bedroom," in which Monique's mother tells her, "When they ask, say you're one of them." For someone like me who finds titling works of writing incredibly hard, I found this a stroke of brilliance. The title fits the story collection perfectly. Meanwhile, this story had the most impact on me, not just because of its violence--the other stories certainly contained violence--but because of the narrator's ability to withhold understanding of what was occurring around her so that I, the reader, also did not know until she had figured it out. And what she cannot understand, I cannot understand, as if I am her age, living inside of her. Usually I hate being confused at the actions of other characters in the story. But here, "not knowing" only makes sense, and it makes the story come alive.

    Short stories are a tough genre, and Akpan does indeed deserve acolades for his endeavors. I just need to remember, in the future, not to read books on recommendation from the press. I am almost always, in some capacity or other, disappointed.

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    Saturday, October 25, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: The Abstinence Teacher

    The Abstinence Teacher The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars
    At last! A novel that makes me want to seek out other novels by this same author! A novel that doesn't have me wondering--in the last 25, or 50, or 100 pages--why it won't just end already. A novel that keeps me up past midnight, complete with drooping eyelids and that foreboding "you'll be sorry tomorrow morning" feeling. And, perhaps most importantly for a book titled "The Abstinence Teacher," a novel with a balanced viewpoint.

    After I had read the first two "sections" of the novel, each written from the point of view of one of the book's two main characters Ruth and Tim, I was completely confused. It's not that this was a confusing book and I didn't know what was going on, but I didn't know how to feel about what was going on. The Christians who were causing Ruth to lose her job didn't seem 100% fabulous from Tim's point of view, even though they had saved him from his destructive life, but they didn't sem 100% evil and crazy from Ruth's perspective, either, in spite of the lawsuit being brought against her for insinuating that masturbation is a common practice. Somehow, Perrotta actually had me rooting for both characters--and I was okay with that!

    What I fear is that caused me to love this book so much was the degree to which I related to its characters. No, I am not a forty-year-old Sex Ed. teacher or a Born-again ex-junkie; I have never been divorced, nor have I been remarried, and I do not have any teenaged children, as Ruth and Tim do. However, when it comes to physical intimacy, I have been living on the equivalent of a tundra, so I know what it's like to feel sexually frustrated. I know what it's like to self-judge and criticize your ow reactions when you are feeling the way Ruth feels about wanting but not finding A Man. I also know quite well what it is like to go through religious conversion and back again, to feel conviction and doubt grapple with one another. These are the struggles I latched onto in The Abstinence Teacher, what made his characters seem so true and sympathetic.

    Furthermore, the writing was simply efficient. It wasn't notably beautiful, but it wasn't meant to be. Perrotta told the story with as little excessive floweriness as possible. And of course, I will always be in awe of a perfectly executed ending, which he somehow managed against all odds.

    These are the reasons I am returning straightaway to the library to check out another book by Perrotta. I hope I will not be disappointed.

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    Friday, October 24, 2008

    Warm Fuzzies #4: More-ish Cookies

    Warm Fuzzies #4: More-ish cookies

    Maybe I really should give up on publishing and go to culinary school.

    Several weeks ago, I baked cookies to thank my mentor, a young British chap named Damian, for "showing me the ropes" and basically helping me learn the basics of the job he had vacated and into which I had been catapulted without instructions manual. The cookies were oatmeal raisin, and they went over quite well--so well in fact, that Damian, in his packaging ignorant manner, asked me where I had bought them. (I had delivered them to the office kitchen in a shoebox lined in cling-wrap, with a handwritten "help yourself in honor of Damian" -type sign propped in front.)

    About two weeks later, I needed Damian's help shelving a journal: I simply could not find where to place it. Most of the journals my boss, Joe, received, were located on one particular set of shelves in front of my cubicle-mate, Sarah's, desk, but this one was not there. Obviously, having held my position for over a year, Damian would know where other issues of this journal were hidden, so I decided to pay him a visit at his cubicle across the office.

    Upon my describing the predicament and showing him the journal, Damian informed me that it was filed in front of Sarah’s desk. I, in turn, informed him that I had just spent five minutes staring at the journals arranged on those shelves, and this journal was most definitely not among them. He insisted otherwise and suggested we “go have a look.”

    On the way to the shelves, he asked if I would like to make a bet. He had probably only asked in jest, but I was so frustrated by my inability to do even the simplest task without his help—filing a journal, for heaven’s sake!—that I said sure; what were we betting? He had no suggestions, so I made the terms: if the journal’s companions were there, I would bake him more cookies. If they weren’t, he had to come running with the lunchtime group more regularly. (I went a few times a week, mostly for the companionship, and I like Damian’s company, so I wanted him to come along.)

    Of course, the journal was there.

    Thus, I found myself rolling sweet sticky balls of dough in cinnamon and sugar, baking snickerdoodles the following Sunday afternoon. I didn’t know what kind of cookies Damian would want, so I just guessed at what I thought might be popular and easy to make, and went with my intuition. Yesterday, I received the sweetest confirmation that my intuition was, indeed, accurate.

    Good Lord,
    These are simply some of the most more-ish cookies ever devised by man. I will be enormously fat by the end of the week,

    I wrote back, however, asking: what does more-ish mean? I did assure him, however, that it being Thursday and with only one day left in the week, he still looked trim and spry to me.

    I do love baking for people.

    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    Snapshot Book Review: Blink

    Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

    My review

    rating: 4 of 5 stars
    While the overarching theme of this book carries through, there is literally at least one topic in this book that should appeal to every reader. I found myself thinking of a different friend or family member at every chapter, thinking of how much they would appreciate a certain passage or vignette. My mom might be interested in the portion about clients who refuse to sue doctors whom they liked; while I and my BCS friends would devour the portion detailing the way ventromedial patients' lack of response to Damasio's gambling task mimics addicts' disconnect between knowledge and action. My formerly nationally-ranked tennis-playing friend Ben might actually read this book if I told him it contained a man's detailed analysis of Andre Agassi's forehand; and I would send this book to the brother, Travis, of one of my college friends, Tom, to give him hints on making his improv performances more successful.

    No matter what your interest is, no matter what you think of the claim of this book--that is, "thin slicing"--you will find this book interesting. That is because Gladwell takes topics that are potentially inaccessible to the general public, such as neuroscience, art history, and physics, and turns them into stories. He then breaks the stories apart and explains each portion in order to use it to further his argument--that we can and should use "thin slicing" to our benefit rather than assuming it is beyond our control.

    Blink fails only in that it does not succeed in making good on its promise to make its readers better at thin-slicing. The book gives us a name for those unconscious, snap judgements and decisions we make. That, Gladwell tells us, is the first step: becoming aware. He then describes ways in which other people have refined their abilities at thin-slicing, as well as ways in which thin-slicing has inhibited people's performance. However, the book ends short of telling us how we can accomplish the former and avoid the latter.

    Personally, I am grateful that Blink did not become a step-by-step self-help book on becoming a better thin-slicer. I would be happy just to be cognizant of what thin-slicing is. However, at the outset of the book, this was not what I was led to believe would be the outcome of my having read Blink. Thus, as a reader, I feel that Gladwell did not make good on his promise, and therefore I cannot consider this a five-star book.

    Still, it is highly entertaining. Anyone who liked Freakenomics will like this book equally well, or perhaps more, since I feel that it appeals to an even wider audience. Believe it or not, it was an even faster read.

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