Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I’m a chronic list-maker. To-do lists, shopping lists, reading lists . . . if it can be listed, I have probably put it in a column with bullets. It is because of my analytical nature that I am addicted to making lists: they provide the perfect format for organizing thoughts lineraly. And furthermore, if things don't come out as orderly as you like, you can always filter the list and sort according to what is linear and orderly (or alphabetical or chronological . . . assuming you are working in Excel).

I’m also a chronic thinker. I analyze and over-analyze and re-analyze things that happen or are about to happen or have happened. I’ve gotten considerably better at not allowing my thoughts to influence my immediate actions, emotions, and therefore relationships with people, but given an idle moment and lack of reading material, the thoughts come crashing in. (Russell Peters has a particularly amusing skit about this.)

I often write my lists during times when I have nothing to do but sit and think. I recently came across one such list, which I had written when sitting in a place where one has nothing to do but sit and think: church. As a teenager, all I did in church was scribble in the white margins of the bulletin with the pinkie-sized pencils they kept in the pew. (I say pencils—plural—because often I would have to go through several of them in one service, particularly if no one had bothered to sharpen their tips since the week before.) I wrote about anything I could conjure in my mind: short story ideas, letters to my friends, offbeat limericks, and of course, lists.

The list I discovered recently was written on the back of a page of then-being-anointed deacons, from 2003. It’s actually a pair of lists concerning a topic that, at the time, was forefront in my mind: Reasons I would make a ___ girlfriend.

Reasons I would make a terrible girlfriend

  1. I am a worrywart.
  2. I don’t show affection well.
  3. I’m not hot.
  4. I tend to be serious and thoughtful rather than bubbly and spontaneous.
  5. I have very little spare time.
  6. I have never had the experience of being anyone’s girlfriend.
Reasons I would make a good girlfriend
  1. I am not a flirt.
  2. I put all my effort into things that matter to me.
  3. I am faithful and honest.
  4. I love writing to people. (Although if you don’t like to read….)
  5. I have no “skeletons in the closet” (i.e. ex-boyfriends).
It’s mind-boggling to think how far I’ve come this! I want to put my arm around my old self, give her a hug, and tell her not to worry about (or believe!) most of these things. Yet some of them (I must admit) I still agree with, even if they don’t necessarily pertain to being a good or bad girlfriend. I am more serious and thoughtful than bubbly and spontaneous. And I don’t leave much spare time in my schedule. (This was even more true back when I wrote this list, to be sure!) And, to date, I still have not yet had the experience of “being a girlfriend.” However, I’m not sure these are reasons I would make a bad girlfriend. (Side note: I am particularly amused that my first list gives reasons I would make a “terrible” girlfriend, while the second list gives reasons I would make only a “good” girlfriend. I suppose I did not believe I could possibly qualify as "great" . . . .)

So, for the revised lists:

Reasons I might make a pretty poor girlfriend

  1. I overthink everything.
  2. I admittedly fulfill the overly talkative female stereotype.
  3. I keep myself very busy.
  4. I am a tad OCD about cleanliness.
  5. I am not small enough to be “cuddly.” (The traditional “big man, small woman” dichotomy helps guys feel manly and powerful—why else do 6’4” men marry 5’-nothing women?—and if any guy tries to tell me this isn’t true, he is LYING.)
Reasons I might make a pretty great girlfriend
  1. I am loyal, honest, and I commit myself to making people I care about happy.
  2. I love sports. Especially playing them.
  3. I like cooking. And baking. And feeding people.
  4. I am very good at “keeping in touch.” Give me a means of communication and I will use it.
Now, off to make the list of ingredients I need for my New Year's Eve dish, and the list of outfits I might wear, and the list of what I need to clean when my guest A___ leaves (like the kitchen floor!!!). . . .

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pittsburgh is a NATURAL City

Having lived in Pittsburgh all my life, I never stopped to consider any of its communities outside of a purely pragmatic standpoint. The mall was located in Monroeville. The movie theatre was in the Waterfront. The bowling alleys were in North Versailles (pronounced, of course, "ver-sales"). This Christmas, however, as I explored the 'burgh with a friend who hails not only from L.A.--where she is currently earning her master's degree--but from Singapore (her home country), I began to realize that the communities around Pittsburgh have distinctly "natural" sounding names.

Consider, for instance, the many animal-themed communities we have:

  • Turtle Creek
  • Squirrel Hill
  • Fox Chapel
Then, consider all of these forestry-inspired communities:
  • Oakland
  • White Oak
  • Shadyside
  • Forest Hills
  • Edgewood
Incredible, huh? And it only took me five years of living away from the city to make this realization!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Push

Push Push by Sapphire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love "voice books": novels with strong, unique first-person narrators. The most impressive "voice books" I have read to date come from African-American authors such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. Sapphire adds another notable book to this collection, with Push.

What strikes me as particularly genuine--and therefore impressive--is the way that Precious, the narrator, depicts other characters in the novel. Her parents, in particular are awful, despicable people who treat her horrifically, and yet she does not seem to harbor a burning hatred or festering resentment against them. As you are repulsed by what you watch happening to Precious, her way of narrating the events and her reactions to them make you not only feel compassion for her, but also for the people doing these things to her. Somehow, she manages to come through as determined instead of hardened, and this is quite an accomplishment to depict in a fictional first-person narrator.

What's more, Precious' voice and writing style improve as the book progresses. An interesting linguistic/literary task would be to take this book and analyze the progression from a linguistic standpoint, to judge exactly what progress she was making and within what timeframe in relation to the events of the novel.

However, what prevents this book from being a 5-star book is the fact that it does not seamlessly incorporate Precious' first-person narration as written by Sapphire with her own "written narration" as she learns to write. I'm not quite sure how this could have been accomplished more efficiently, but forcing the reader to decipher, "Okay, is this Precious the 'mind' narrating here, or is it Precious the 'writer'?" breaks up the rhythm and flow of the novel, especially because although the tone and story remained consistent between the "Precious the mind" and "Precious the writer," the quality and literary merit of the two were not identical and became more and more difficult to decipher as the novel went along. Yet they were never allowed to completely blend: indicating that Precious still had a long road ahead of her, which was obviously very appropriate to the book, but it didn't bring the novel full-circle to the fact that she was narrating--and perhaps writing?--it from the start.

I hope to see the movie adaptation of this, primarily to see how Precious and Blue Rain are represented cinematically. I am also curious to see just how graphic Hollywood will be with all of the sexual issues, especially as they pertain to both parents.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, December 18, 2009

Epic Long Run #2

In answer to what I am sure you are already wondering, no, you did not miss reading about “Epic Long Run #1.” The fact is that I never posted about it. However, as I have now completed my second “epic” long run, I suppose I must mention the first.

Different criteria will qualify a particular long run as “epic” but the most common qualifiers are extreme weather conditions. These, in fact, are what I am using to qualify my first two Epic Runs. Epic Long Run #1 was a 12-mile nighttime run (or, in actuality, an 11.5 mile run, much to my chagrin) through ceaseless downpour. I ran from my apartment in Woodside, over the Queensborough Bridge, across Manhattan, and then one loop around Central Park. Travelling home on the subway, I made my own personal puddle on the floor and received some very pleasant looks from fellow passangers. Nothing like a nice wet rider to stare at!

Today’s Epic Long Run (#2) was a fine, frigid 19 ° F run along the same route, only with a return trip on the pavement, as opposed to on the subway. Just cold enough to burn the skin right off my face and freeze my fingertips to the point of excrutiating pain! Nike really should think about making gloves with specially-insulated fingertips. And why didn’t Apple make its iTouch glove-friendly?!

The Beginnings of a Winter Running List of From a “Beginner” Winter Runner:

  • Run In The Sun. You need to utilize as many heat sources as possible, and as wintry as it may seem outside, your fingers really will thank you for that extra .001 ° of heat.
  • Grease up. Most long-distance runners already know the value of Body Glide, but that’s because chafing happens all year. Slathering your face with Vaseline? That’s a wintertime-only practice. Thank you childhood sledding excursions for that little bit of innovation!
  • Layer. Tightly. I used to be a proponent of looser, “easier to move in” clothing such as hoodless sweatshirts and cuffed sweatpants. However, since your core heats you up when you run, it makes sense to keep that heat as close as possible. Don’t add bulkier layers to stay warmer, just add “better” ones—and more of them.

Lastly, here is a map of today’s route. I had intended just to loop around the reservoir in Central Park, but then I was feeling pretty good at E92nd street, so I just decided to complete the full perimeter of Central Park. After all, next week is 16 miles in horribly HILLY Pittsburgh, so I need to lay all the groundwork I can. . . .

Monday, December 14, 2009

Not-so-Dutch Apple Pie


  • 8 c peeled, pared, sliced tart baking apples (slightly < 3 pounds apples; Granny Smith are best)
  • 1 c golden raisins
  • 1 c sugar
  • 2 T all purpose flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1/4 t salt
  • generous 1/2 t grated lemon rind
  • 3 t fresh lemon juice
  • 2 T butter
  • Pastry dough for a double pie crust
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 T water
  • 1/2 c heavy or whipping cream

Roll out half of pastry dough and place in a 9-inch pie pan.

Combine apple slices, raisins, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Mix sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and lemon rind separately, and then add to fruit mixture. Turn into pie plate. Dot with butter.

Preheat oven to 425° F. Roll out remaining pastry dough. Cut into strips and layer lattice-style on top of apples. Crimp with bottom crust edge to seal. Mix egg yolk with water and brush over top crust. Pour whipping cream through various slits in the top.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on rack. Serve warm or room temperature.

Reviews from the workplace:

  • Thanks for the pie, it was delicious and it hit the spot!
  • Amazingly delicious! I would never have thought to put raisins in, and I really enjoyed the flavor and texture they added.
  • 5 start awesomeness,,,loved the raisins
  • OMG, it is awesome. I could eat the whole thing myself!
Adapted from Dutch Apple Pie Recipe at Terri’s Kitchen

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Relation[ship] Equation

Relationships—particularly romantic ones—are unarguably complicated. From start to finish, no two relationships are the same, and therefore it is close to impossible to draw any sweeping conclusions about the “general” nature of relationships or how any one person would react in a given situation.

However, in spite of all this, we still make some global assumptions, particularly concerning gender roles. For instance, it is typically (although not always!) assumed that, whether or not he is in a serious relationship, a guy will be willing to have sex with a girl he finds attractive. Whether you want to use evolution or personal experience to argue this case, guys simply say “yes” more often than not.

Another common assumption is that the girl will wait for the guy to make the advance (to talk to her, ask her out on a date, etc.). Again, this could be chalked up to our biological programming, or we could count on anecdotal data to provide evidence. Either way, these assumptions have to come from somewhere, whether or not they are accurate in 100% of all cases.

Still, with all of these assumptions we can make concerning gender and romance, what I would like to know is this: what determines a capital-R Relationship? That is, what are the deciding factors for a guy? Because the deciding factors for a girl a extremely obvious:

Physical Intimacy + Emotional Intimacy = Relationship

If you have these two components, you are undeniably on your way into a relationship. (And if that’s not what you want, you’d better start working in a subtraction clause!)

Guys, on the other hand, are a lot trickier. They don’t add physical and emotional intimacy together the way girls do, because even though they may be hooking up with a girl and trading innermost secrets, they don’t necessarily put two and two together. Still, it would seem that both components are indeed required for a relationship; yet, other components are necessary as well. The question is, what else is there?

One would think that with all of the male friends I have had over my lifetime, (and with all of the girls they have dated!), I would have figured this out by now. But the advent of their Relationships is never clear-cut enough for me to identify, “So that is what happened to make them date that girl!”

And, of course, the ambiguity of “official titles” never helps these matters. What is a Relationship anyway? When does one realize he or she has Feelings, and then how is he or she supposed to Act on them? Frankly, I cannot imagine how silly someone must feel asking, “Would you like to be my “girl/boyfriend?” Yet how many other ways can this title obtained? Perhaps in some cases it can just be assumed. Ah, how I reveal my ignorance in these matters….

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Lit

Lit: A Memoir Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is difficult to judge an author's work independently of his or her previous work. Having read Karr's previous two memoirs, The Liar's Club and Cherry, one cannot help but use them as measures by which to compare this third memoir. In terms of writing quality, Karr does not disappoint. She is nothing if not brutally honest, with a wry, self-deprecating wit that can turn on nearly anyone around her barring, perhaps, her son. Unlike her other novels, however, Lit is less of a "story" story and more of a personal confession--it seems as though it was written as an explanation to her son rather than as a story to her readers. This is not necessarily a shortcoming, except that in places, despite her continual brutal honesty and fresh wording (for Karr never has trite ways of telling anything), the tale gets to seem a bit long-winded.

Perhaps this is my own bias against religious reformation stories getting in the way of enjoying a perfectly good memoir, but when I find myself wishing to skip parts of a book, it makes me wonder if those parts are necessary to its telling. To Karr's credit, however, every moment is heartfelt, and this "reformation" is the truest-sounding I have ever read. (Because who undergoes religious reformation without digging in their heels, insisting "this is bullshit," and perpetually looking over their shoulder? I refuse to think otherwise, and Karr's experience seems to mirror my convictions.)

My other misgiving about the book was its ending--again a bit sentimental and "long" for Karr's ordinarily poignant and to-the-point style--but I will chalk it up again to the fact that she seemed to be writing the entire thing as a sort of "letter" to her son.

Overall, certainly a piece worth reading, particularly for fans of Karr's previous two memoirs. Karr continues to distinguish herself as a phenomenal writer, and were I not to compare this to her own work, it would certainly be a five-star piece.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fume Hoods and Transitive Verbs

I hate being needy. Or, rather, I hate feeling dependent. It’s one thing to feel comforted or to be taken care of—that’s nice. However, what I don't like is feeling incompetent. Consequently, this makes my not-being-a-lab-scientist and not-being-a-statistician-or-analyst terribly frustrating, considering the duties I have taken on at work. It is difficult enough to speak intelligently with an award-winning bacteria researcher or a renowned immunologist, never mind then having to turn the information from those conversations into articles simple and interesting enough for laypeople to read.

This is what I do for Beyond the Bench, the blog on our Current Protocols website. As I delve into topics for each blog article, I find myself reaching out to every friend and coworker I know who either works or has worked in a lab, asking about everything from what rights rats have to what a blastema is. Yes, this is research, but it is also a clear indication—even merely to myself—of how little I know about science--or any topic, really. (Because even after I write each article, I would have to reread it in order to recall any of the information I wrote in it. How about that for short-term memory?!)

Meanwhile, my job seems to be ever-sliding toward some sort of number-crunching mania. Unfortunately, neither high school nor college prepared me even slightly in the way of Excel manipulation, so as I struggle along, my lifelines consist of:

  • a few in-house numerical whizzes whom I try never to bother because a) they are probably more swamped with number-related projects than I am, and b) because, quite honestly, I am ashamed to admit my own incompetency
  • one hometown friend who is a computer genius, but whom I feel horribly guilty for taking such advantage of, since I feel virtually useless in return
  • one brilliant cousin who is also an Excel guru but of whose generosity I also feel guilty of abusing, even if he is family
  • Google, which—in spite of its awesome power—does not always have the answer (thus leading me to grovel at the feet of one of my formerly mentioned options)

This is not to say I am completely useless. On a rare occasion, someone will have an essay they need to have looked over or a resume proofread. More often than not, however, the people who ask me to do these things are not the same people I ask for help--thus, leaving me feeling just as guilty and indebted as ever. (Because as much as I would like to believe in karma, I simply cannot help feeling that I owe people favors who do me favors. Even if I don't necessarily want people feeling that they owe me when I can help them with something like an essay. It's hypocritical, I know.)

The other day, however, I did have the good fortune of finally giving back to someone who had helped me. The interaction started with my usual neediness: I contacted a friend online to find out how exactly a fume hood works in a laboratory. (I'm writing about laboratory efficiency for my next CP blog article, but since I don't work in a laboratory, I figured it would be easiest to ask someone who does. This particular friend, R___, works in a research lab at Harvard.)

A little while later, after he had finished answering my questions, R___ returned to ask me, "What's a transitive verb?" At first, I was so surprised to see the question, I nearly didn't give a proper answer. Then, I was so eager to answer, I almost gave too much information. Finally! Someone was asking me a question I could help them with! I quickly supplied a definition, an example, and a counterexample in quick succession. And what was even more exciting? He actually seemed interested! A scientist was interested in the definition of a transitive verb! Wonders will never cease.

Meanwhile, already at 9 a.m. my day was complete: I had returned a favor and proven myself not only useful, but also knowledgeable. I might not have a Ph.D. in physics, and I may not (yet?) know how to manipulte the WOMBAT bibliometric template in Excel, but hey, I can define a transitive verb, and I can define it well!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A win's a win!

Here are the results from the Treesdale Turkey Trot. Although it was a rather small race--fewer than 200 people total--I guess it still counts that I won my age group, right? My third race win ever!

Total Time: 23:13

Pace: 7:29 (yikes! that's practically my half-marathon pace....)

Age Group Place (female 20-24): 1 of 4

Overall Place: 28 of 175

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What I disappointing ending. First of all, the word that epitomizes this book is "dreary." The characters spend the first two-thirds of it wandering around, wallowing in self-pity, and getting on one another's nerves. The Nagini attack scene was stimulating, but it was such a sporadic event amidst all the general doom and gloom that marked the majority of the book, it actually seemed out of place.

Then, of course, it was painfully predictable that Harry would have to make some sort of self-sacrificing move that would, in turn, save him at the hand of his woefully uninformed foe, Voldemort (because aren't the villains always too arrogant and therefore stupid for their own good?). The epic battle scene at the end actually had me laughing out loud when Kreacher came galloping in with all the other elves--the text read something like, "they charged in, stabbing all of the ankles and knees they could reach." How could I take language like that seriously?

And of course the wand would choose Harry as its true master. Personally I thought it would be most interesting if Draco Malfoy entered back into the equation somehow, concerning the wand's ownership and allegiance, but Harry was the most noble and beloved character, and therefore most deserving of every accolade.

Honestly, after Snape's memory was revealed in the penseive (another high point in the novel, I thought), the remainder of the book dragged out. Most superfluous of all was the Epilogue. Had Rowling thrown in any more couples with their children, she could have started a new series right there in that chapter. Won't Scholastic be thrilled if that was her intention all along!

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Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I may have said in one of my earlier reviews, each of these books can be captured with one apt adjective. Unfortunately, the adjective for this book is "predictable."

The major argument against my assessment will be the fact that this book is "necessary to set up HP #7." However, I think this was a shortcoming on Rowling's part. After all, she wrote all of the other books as stand-alone, complete stories in their own right. I see no reason why this book should have been any different.

Which, of course, leads me to my disappointment with the book's predictability. One of my favorite features of the HP books has been their unpredictable endings; Rowlings always writes her novels in such a way that no reader, no matter how closely they follow the details of the story, can fully predict the conclusions. Being a close reader myself, this gave me something to look forward to in each book, because making predictions--and being delighted when they are turned upside down--is one of my favorite things about reading. The Half-Blood Prince, however, came out exactly as I expected. Of course Draco was bad, but not bad enough to actually kill Dumbledore. Of course Dumbledore had to die. Of course the Horocrux had to be a fake, after Harry and Dumbledore went through all that heartache to get it.

The novel was by no means boring, but ultimately, it left me disappointed. Then again, however, Rowlings certainly obliged her readers to follow through the end of the series, because if they didn't read #7, they'd never find out of Snape had really betrayed Dumbledore or not....

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Running in Pittsburgh

My first "long run" was supposed to happen this weekend. Never having lived here as a "runner," I've only ever driven distances longer than one mile within the city of PIttsburgh; therefore, I actually had to map out a 10-mile run around my neighborhood using the same online resources I would use in any foreign city. In the end, I came up with this route:

However, I encountered a few snags, in my attempt to follow it.

  1. There isn't a road in Pittsburgh (or at least in the communities around me) that stretches for longer than half a mile before it goes up or down a hill. Truly. I was tired before I had even gotten three miles out.
  2. I was also sore from the Turkey Trot the day before, which, although it had only been 3 miles long, I had run at a 7 min/mile pace. Proof that I am not a sprinter.
  3. I got lost about 4 miles out, when trying to find Thompson Run Road. When at last I thought I had it, I ended up walking up this mountain of a hill, only to dead end at the top at a buddhist temple.

Meanwhile, it was snowing and hailing and sleeting intermittently throughout this whole thing. Needless to say, I only ran about halfway out before getting lost, and I walked nearly the whole way home. Talk about a failure of a long run.

The day before that attempt, I competed in the YMCA Turkey Trot. I ran it as more of a sprint and less of a trot, seeing as there were 2,416 runners in total, and I had no interest in finishing 2,416th. I came in 124th overall, and placed 6th* out of 428 women in my age group (20-29). My finishing time, disappointingly, was 21:41. For some reason, I cannot seem to break 7:00 per mile. It's terribly frustrating!

I failed again two days later, when I raced in the Treesdale Turkey Trot. This time, I finished in 23:33--considerably slower than in the YMCA race, and this time well over 7:00/mile. Unfortunately, since the race was not timed by chip, I never found out how I placed. There were only about 200 runners in the entire event, though, so my placement couldn't have been too bad!

NOTE: I came in 30 seconds behind a girl I actually know: she was the cross country and long-distance track star of my graduating class. Talk about weird life turns--for someone like me, who picked up running all of two years ago, to consider someone like that a "running rival! See full race results here."

Return to Pittsburgh

Every time I come home to Pittsburgh, I am struck by how much things have both changed and stayed the same. My high school football team is still going to regional playoffs; meanwhile the district has opened a charter school. The Waterfront shopping district still has that movie theatre and those few restaurants where my friends and I would go back in high school; now, however, the area has morphed into a sprawling self-contained metropolis complete with riverside condos and a gas station.

The same goes for the people who live in Pittsburgh: many of their lives have drastically changed, but yet they are still very much the same people I knew when I left Pittsburgh. My family provides one example: my sister is now in her junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. She started out applying to prestigious musical conservatories around the country to sing opera and is now preparing to apply to graduate school in order to become a physical therapist. Yet she is still the same energetic, enthusiastic, endearing sister I have always known, who tries to make me “dress up more” and wants me to dance to hip hop music with her in every room of the house at every hour of the day.

My mother and father are also the same . . . but different. They are both working far more than they ever worked while I lived at home—three jobs apiece during tax season, when my dad works for the U.S. Postal Service, Aramark, and H&R Block, and my mom works for University of Pittsburgh Press, UPMC Rehab Services, and (also) H&R Block. Otherwise, however, they are merely aging versions of their endlessly patient, good-humored selves.

Where the most drastic changes have occurred, I think—and therefore the scariest changes—are with my friends. These are the people I grew up with: my neighbors, my classmates, my high school crushes. Seeing them take what I consider to be enormous steps in life is both a little bit scary and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s scary because I know that I am nowhere near taking on these sorts of gigantic responsibilities. It’s heartbreaking because such huge changes, ultimately, cannot help but wrench our life paths in separate directions.

One of my best friends recently got married. In her case, I was already realizing the differences of “married life” and “married priorities” well before she was married, because even a year before the wedding, she and her now-husband were already hanging out primarily with other couples, a number of whom were already married. My visit this break merely confirmed what I already knew: that one’s definition of “family” ends up defining one’s definition of “friends.” Unfortunately, that means married people hang out with married people, and single people . . . .

Case in point: another one of my friends found out he was a father last year, moved in with his girlfriend, and committed himself to raising her already-three-year-old son as well as his own newborn daughter. Now, he no longer talks to any of his former friends, many of whom are still single, and all of whom are childless. The worst part is that this friend pool includes me. And as sad as this might make me I do understand, because even if I call him once, twice, ten times, his children will probably need his attention, and when you have kids, your kids come first. When you’re single and childless . . . all you have to worry about is you.

The third huge life-altering change I witnessed while I was home in Pittsburgh was a purchase: one of my friends bought a house. We’re approximately 23 years old, and this guy feels settled enough to buy a house. Meanwhile, I can’t even decide if I want to live in Queens, New Jersey, or China. Talk about being in different places in life!

Like always, one of the questions I was most frequently asked was, “Are you coming back?” Of course I said yes, I’d be back already at Christmastime, but then the questioner would revise their question. No, no, they would say, do you think you’ll ever move back? To Pittsburgh.

While I usually give the same noncommittal, “maybe, but I can’t see why,” type of response, my answer lately has felt more and more certain. Over the years, as I witness more changes in lives of those around me, I feel less and less compulsion to come back. If I could have frozen time right when I graduated high school and then left, gone to college, done my stint in New York City, gallivanted around the world, and then returned to things exactly as I had left them here in Pittsburgh, I might feel a stronger compulsion to stay. But I don’t fit here anymore. This space, in this portion of my life has changed shapes, and it no longer calls to me the same way it did when I first left. Every time I come back to Pittsburgh, it feels vaguely like I’m trying to force my life back into that original shape, even though I recognize that so much has changed. And it hurts to try to make things like they once were, because that’s an impossible feat, and one that always results in disappointment. It’s just that the place feels the same, and the people are the same. But everything has changed. Including me. So I doubt I’ll ever really be back. But, as they say, never say never.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Crank Dat

Learning the dance to "Crank Dat" in my parents' kitchen with my sister.... Yes, it is already a happy thanksgiving.

Instructional video here >>>

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Call Me by Your Name: A Novel Call Me by Your Name: A Novel by Andre Aciman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An emotionally packed, intensely obsessive, stream-of-consciousness story set against the backdrop of a summertime vacation in Italy. It is a love story akin to Brokeback Mountain (or what should be known as Annie Proulx's short story "Close Range"), only with the added dilemma of age differences and inevitable end-of-summer separation factoring into the mix.

Aciman writes the story from inside Elio's head with such conviction, that anyone with the slightest obsessive compulsion will be swept away into his absolute need for Oliver. The push and pull of his yearning, the "I-am-perfect-for-him" mixed with "I'll never be anything in his eyes" moments that happen nearly simultaneously are so poignant that we're in his fifteen-year-old head. Yes, it gets exhausting to go back and forth and over and over the same thing so much, but not necessarily because it is so repetitive as a reader, but because it feels so repetitive to be this character. As a reader, we are convinced we have become him, have adopted his obsessions and his insecurities. And in this way, Aciman carries us along for the duration of the story--all the way to its appropriately unsatisfactory ending.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone has something in their lives that they struggle to control. We all have that friend who can’t attend a party without puking or passing out (or both). We all know someone who can’t pass up that extra portion of dessert (or who can’t ever bring themselves to eat it), and let us not forget our colleague who cannot last two hours without stepping outside to have a cigarette.

Now, do not mistake me: I am not saying that people cannot control issues. I am merely saying that every person has an issue in their life that they struggle to control. I am convinced that this is true for every person—that we all have at least one such issue—and so the trick, for an inquisitive person such as myself, is to identify that issue. In a number of cases—depending on the issue or the person—this can be incredibly challenging.

For instance, who thinks of “trust” as a matter of control? Yet, some people cannot help but to trust everyone they meet. This is obviously very different from alcoholism or drug abuse, but it can also be very damaging and is just as much about lack or loss of control; the person cannot seem to control who they trust, and therefore sustain psychological injury as a result.

Likewise, what about exercise? Some people claim to have an “exercise addiction,” and others jealously mutter that they wish they were addicted to exercise. But what if exercising consumes your life? If working out is all you do, if your entire schedule consists of running; if the only friends you have are your lifting buddies; if all you own are swim suits, track pants, sneakers, and an IPod, are you still maintaining control over that pastime, or has it become an addiction just as consumptive as, say, alcohol or shopping?

Which brings me back to my original conclusion: that everyone struggles with some sort of control issue, no matter how obscure. I am slightly obsessed with discovering what that is for people in my life; I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it is a matter of trust, to let others know what is (or at least feels) “out of control” in your life. Perhaps I want them to trust me enough to let me in on that vulnerable detail?

Yet, oddly enough, some of the people I trust most in my life are the people who seem most “in control” of their lives. For instance, I don’t think my mother will ever let me glimpse whatever her “control issue” is . . . if she has one. She is probably the only person who makes me doubt my theory (although my friend R___ in Boston and E___ in Pittsburgh are also in the running for those least likely to let their infallible armors of self control falter). I admire these people hopelessly, but not knowing their “one vice” drive me a bit insane, because as much as I idolize them, I am a realist—no one is perfect. I call these people perfect, I see them as perfect, but in my innermost mind, I cannot believe them to be absolutely perfect. Meanwhile, though, I will envy their façade of control . . . and do my best to emulate them.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

They were wrong about the diamonds

Dogs still might be a man’s best friend, but diamonds were never a woman’s.

Diamonds can’t cure headaches. Diamonds can’t lower fevers. And they certainly can't ease monthly weeklong pain so women can eat, sleep, and go about their daily working lives.

Motrin are a girl’s best friend. And if you think otherwise, just check her purse. You ain't findin' no diamonds in there.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Dope

Dope Dope by Sara Gran

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This starts out reading like a docudrama and ends up mystery--which is actually what saves it from being trite and, ultimately, boring. Gran does little to make her protagonist stand out from other drug addict-thief characters we have read about before, those who have come clean, those who doubt their ability to stay clean, those who crave the drug and those determined not to go back. In this way, Josephine's character fails to stimulate the mind or imagination. The characters she meets are what drive the book, until the plot eventually takes over. Then, the mystery of finding Nadine involves the reader as much as it involves Josephine, until a dramatic twist hurtles the reader through to the end.

I have to admit that the ultimate ending left me immediately disappointed. Afterward, though, I stopped and reconsidered my reasons for feeling disappointed: 1) I--just like every other Disney-raised American--had been hoping for a happy ending. We always want our protagonists to succeed. They are extensions of ourselves, after all. And this, for what it was, was not a happy ending. Then, 2) it wasn't much of an ending. It wasn't conclusive. And I hate untidy endings. I don't like endings to be too neat, either--that's just as easy a way out for an author as providing not enough detail--but "not knowing" is antagonizing! However, the lack of definitive ending really did suit this book, when I stop and think about it. Thematically, it suited the situation both specifically and at large: drugs, betrayal, hopelessness, the cyclic nature of relationships and habits.

So for all of the issues I may have had with the book and its ending, I have to give Gran her dues. It was a quick and authentic-feeling read.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Teaching--a real possibility

Yes, most of you have heard me swear up and down that I will never become a teacher. Mostly, I make this proclamation as a retort to the, "What are you going to do with that English degree, teach?" jab, but honestly, I never did think I would seriously consider teaching for two primary reasons:

  1. I have very little patience for children. In fact, I don't even really like children very much. I discovered this “lack of like” fairly early on, during the various babysitting stints I undertook in my adolescence. I don't dislike kids, per se, but I do not have that "oh my goodness, how wonderful, how precious, how joyful to be in their presence" feeling that so many people seem to get from being around a child. This, of course, becomes even more problematic when said child is being troublesome or obstinate, because reasoning with a child--as we all know--can be somewhat difficult, and I like to treat problems with nothing if not reason and rationality.
  2. I like to receive credit for my own work. Call this selfish, call is egotistical, but I like my own congratulations. Teachers are never congratulated for how well their students do. The teachers actually are the ones who are expected to offer the congratulations; they are the ones who compliment their students for doing so well. Meanwhile, the students should be the ones offering congratulations and thanks to their teachers for doing such a tremendous job forming them into the talented, smart human beings they have become. But no, few--if any—students come out grateful. So the occupation of teaching, on the whole, does not seem very appealing.

However. What is and always has been true is that I love to fix writing: my writing, my friends' writing, my peers' writing, any writing. I love to improve it, to play with the language until it says precisely what I want it to say (or, alternatively, until it says what I think the author wants it to say). My love for this has never wavered, and I have had the chance to practice it in multiple ways: editing my friends' and family members' letters/essays/etc., working as a writing tutor in college, and even looking over correspondences for my current bosses, on occasion.

Moreover, I have had a recent experience that makes me think that perhaps--just perhaps--the whole teaching thing might not be so bad. Granted, this experience involved teaching a physical skill (swimming) to an adult (the student is older than me) who wanted to learn the subject very badly (he practiced obsessively, asked loads of questions, and would have taken lessons every day if I had had the time to give them). Consequently, watching him progress and improve was so immensely gratifying, I didn't even need the reassurances that eventually came from my friends and family. (e.g. "He's already learning flip turns?! That's amazing! You must be an great teacher!") This experience also reminds me of swimming lessons I gave many summers ago: I taught a pair of twins all four strokes, helped a five-year-old learn how to float, and got a ten-year old girl who started out petrified of water to eventually jump off of the diving board . . . every day for the rest of the summer.

This brings me to an event that occurred two nights ago. I was lying in bed falling asleep when my roommate L___ knocked at my door. Usually, she and my other roommate B___ stick together and leave me out of the loop, but this time B___ wasn't home, so I got up and went to see what L___ needed. She was writing a letter asking her boss to apply for a FY 2010 work visa (she's Chinese), and wanted my help making sure everything sounded okay.

For whatever reason, although I was nearly asleep, with my hair askew and my eyes swollen half-shut, I felt invigorated by the task and sat down to help her with great gusto. As I went through each sentence, I asked her to explain the situation and all of its intricacies so that they could be made clear in the letter. Along the way, I taught her various English tips and tricks (e.g. "less" is for things that comes in amounts and cannot be counted, like water, "fewer" is for things which can be counted, like grains of rice). By the end, she had a clearer, more professional letter, she felt more confident, and I felt both proud and accomplished.

This is the sort of experience I want to have every day. Or, rather, this is the feeling I want to have every day: I want to feel accomplished. I want to feel that I improved something, that I helped someone, and that I got to work with language. Is this what will happen in teaching? Maybe. Every day? Doubtful. But teaching may be a gateway into other things I want to do, like travel, or learn another language, or interact with another culture. So if anyone knows of any outstanding ESL programs. . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: A User's Guide to the Brain

A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain by John J. Ratey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The idea for this book was excellent: take all of the intricate, ground-breaking information in neuroscience and psychology, simpify it as much as possible to educate every-day readers, and add a "how to" component to show the information's practicality, importance, and usefulness. Coming from an author and clinician as well established as John Ratey (he works at Harvard), I expected nothing less than an intelligent, compelling book.

A User's Guide reads like a condensed version of my freshman year cousework in Brain & Cognitive Sciences. Ratey provides explanations of each basic neuroscience concept (e.g. synapses, "use it or lose it," plasticity, etc.) as he goes through his material, all of which are essential to understanding and being convinced of his argument that we can change the neuroanatomy and therefore functionality of our own brains. However, Ratey may as well have physically taken his book and bashed his readers over the head with it repeatedly, because that is what he does with every point he makes. Instead of providing one paragraph of neuroscience explanation and then a follow-up paragraph or two about how this anatomy or functionality works in practical terms and/or how it can be manipulated by a "user," he spends pages going over and over each concept in every synonamous way he can conceive. By the end of the first chapter, I was less convinced of his argument that people can change their own brains by "thinking right" and more convinced that he was trying to create a memorization aid for neuroscience students.

Ultimately, I got so fed up with the repetition that I quit the book. (A reader can only skip so many paragraphs, after all, before deciding to "skip" the remainder of the book.) I am sure there are other books out there on this same topic that are more entertaining and less tiresome. Ratey seems like he knows his stuff, and--as I am already familiar with the material--he seems to explain it well. However, as good as his explanations might be, there IS something to be said for too much of a good thing. And A User's Guide was definitely too much.

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

REAL Nike 10k Human Race Results

Race LengthFinishing Time Average PaceOverall Place Gender Place (All Women) Age Group Place (F20-24)
10k (~6.2 miles)45:25 7:18/mile124/347815/18152/?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nike Human Race 10k Results

Finishing time: 45:25

I can't really determine any comparison data yet (how I did in relation to other runners) because Nike doesn't seem to have that capability on their website, but guess I'll keep checking back to see if they make any updates/improvements. The 10th female NYC race finisher (the race happened in cities worldwide) finished in 43-something, so I don't feel TOO badly about my time. I just don't think I like these shorter distances!

On another note, Nike did some interesting things regarding this race that I think shows the difference between a NYRR-sponsored race and a race sponsored by a specific company. The shirts that were distributed, for instance, were very good quality--made by Nike, obviously--but it turned out that the shirt acted as the race bib; therefore, every single person running the race looked identical. On one hand, this did spark a slight feeling of camaraderie, as it felt more like a giant team running together in a race rather than individuals trying to beat one another. On the other hand, a race is filled with all sorts of unique individuals, and the uniqueness (I feel) is always well portrayed by everyone's varying choices of running attire. This uniqueness was lost, however, since we were all wearing the same shirt.

Another point of interest is how often they had water posts: every mile! It seemed overkill to me, but then again, I'm the girl who ran the first 12 miles of her marathon without stopping at any water stations, so maybe I tend to operate with less hydration than most.

I think the post-race tents were well put together, particularly because Nike was going to provide live results right there--something every runner desires to see as quickly as possible after the race. However, I don't think they were well prepared to accommodate the full 5,000 participants. There was only one food station handing out bottled water, Vitamin Water, pretzels, and granola bars, and as it was arranged as a tent rather than a "gauntlet," there was major congestion as well as a lack of accessible supplies for all of the runners.

All in all, I don't think I much like running the 10k distance. Half marathons are more my style; I find them more enjoyable, at any rate. Still, 5k and 10k races are probably good for my pace training, so I'll try to treat them as that and nothing more. It gets tough, though, when I see runners zooming by me...!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sweet Turnips w/Carrot Shavings & Caramelized Onions


  • 1-2 turnips
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 large carrot
  • sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • honey
  • allspice
  • cayenne pepper
  • vegetable stock (~1/4 cup)

Cut turnip into finger-sized pieces. Steam for ~3 min.

Cut onion into rings. Caramelize in pan with salt/sugar/pepper to taste.

Make sauce: veggie stock, cornstarch (to thicken), honey, allspice, cayenne pepper, salt

Heat sauce on stove over low heat. Using a peeler, shave in carrot and boil sauce until thickened. Add turnip and onion and heat until warm.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Sarah's Key

Sarah's Key Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first half of this novel was written superbly. The tension between the 1940s story of ten-year-old Sarah, a Jewish French girl rounded up by the French police with her family in a little-spoken-of Nazi initiative and the 20th century story of Julia's investigation into the roundup (called Vel' d'Hiv') was well-balanced, with each increasing gradually in fervor to keep the reader properly intrigued with both as they each progressed in parallel. However, once the two stories finally coincided--Julia discovered her husband's family's link to the Vel' d'Hiv' in Sarah's story--it seemed that the book had reached its pinnacle. Julia's continued obsession with Sarah and finding her--and later her predecessor--dominated the remainder of the book, offering no suspense for the reader, who knew she would eventually find answers to her questions and was forced to wallow along with her in her misery over her failing marriage and the saddness she repeatedly professed feeling over her topic of research. At the end, Rosnay attempts to give the reader a sense of rebirth and reconcilliation, but the novel was so drawn out from midway on, it's just a relief to finally be finished--which is never a good way for a reader to feel.

Ultimately, the truest and most compelling character was Julia's daughter Zoe, who played an important but not dominating role throughout the novel as a sort of FOIL or mirror for the modern-day Sarah.

Rosnay proved herself to be a feeling, emotional, compelling writer. Hopefully with her next work, she'll have better editorial guidance to help her hone her material.

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Snapshot Book Review: The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book offers a wonderful glimpse of the genuine "family dynamic" between a childless aunt and her mentally ill sister's teenage son and adolescent daughter. The characters are quirky but so well fleshed-out that you as the reader cannot help feeling as much compassion for them as if they were real people.

Hattie lacks life direction and does a brilliant, unsentimental job of relaying her self-doubts to the reader. Logan struggles with his mother Min's sickness and his responsibility for his younger sister Thebes in his very fifteen-year-old way, and Thebes is such a lovably bizarre girl that one cannot help but laugh out loud at many of her antics.

Toews treats all of these characters with consistency despite their quirks and their development throughout the novel, a commendable feat for an author writing any story, never mind a story concerning a spontaneous road trip to find a mentally ill woman's estranged husband.

Readers in all walks of life are likely to appreciate different aspects of this book, but all equally so, and none less than I did. I hope to read more equally ipressive works by Toews, regardless of what the NY Times has to say. (Although I will admit the one point in the book that did irk me a bit was Hattie's complete disregard for money--and the lack of consequences for all the characters' frivilous spending. In the real world, people have to worry about money. But I blame Toews' editor; he/she should have caught that.

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Me "to a T"

My friend R___ passed this comic along to me. It really does depict me "to a t," spreadsheet and all. I actually have this list on my hard drive....

Monday, October 19, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

The Woman Who Walked into Doors The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love the fact that this novel progressed from the good to the bad. For a story about alcoholism and abuse (more abuse than alcoholism), I find this progression logical and effective, yet rarely followed.

Also effective was Doyle's first-person narration from the POV of the abused wife. It was fascinating to read from inside Paula's head rather than as a 3rd party observer watching her life. There is a sense of frustration looking at a situation of abuse--real or fictional--but the frustration is experienced very differently when seen from inside the abusive relationship than from outside looking into it.

For as short as it was, I found Doyle's novel to be unnecessarily repetitive in several places. Obviously the repetition served a purpose many times, but there were some instances where I just felt "ok you've already been over this three times, I do not need to hear it again." As a reader, I would just skim-skip those parts, looking for the next piece of relevant action. E.g. I promise! I promise! I promise! I never really did figure out who was saying that. Was it Charlo promising not to do it again? I don't think so. Was it Paula promising not to do whatever it was that had provoked Charlo to hit her? Most likely, but that wasn't very clear, and therefore not very effective, either, especially because it was always followed by different content. "Don't hit my mammy!" would sometimes be sprinkled in the "I promise!' tirade, and afterwards Paula may talk about being afraid of Charlo, or she may talk about loving him and needing him and being unable to live without him. I usually skipped those entire sections, my eyes and mind hungering for the next piece of new information. These were things I already knew from what I had read and "witnessed" throughout the book, and although I understand that I was supposed to be inside Paula's mind, I simply did not need to hear them again.

All in all, a powerful book. I don't know how much Charlo's murder of the young woman added to the novel other than an additional unanswerable question for Paula to worry over in her mind, but perhaps a second reading would bring some of these issues into clearer perspective. It's a short enough, quick enough read, that I just might.

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Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter, #5) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The best of the bunch so far, if the wordiest and most easily edited-down. The characters are starting to show glimmers of person-ness, in spite of Harry's incessant griping and grousing, and I'm almost starting to care what happens to them. It's a pity it took ~5000 pages to get me to this point, but if in another 2000 pages Rowling leaves me with the yearning for more story (which of course doesn't exist), I may have to concede that the long literary journey was worthwhile.

Stay tuned.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hoboken Medical Center 2009 5k Race Results

Race LengthFinishing Time Average PaceOverall Place Gender Place (All Women) Age Group Place (F20-24)
5k (~3 miles)21:36 6:57/mile53/4299/2032/12

I’m Down . . . er . . . Back!

Hello! Sorry for not having posted in ages. For the last two weeks, I have been dog-sitting at an apartment that—believe it or not—does not have Internet. (Shocking, I know, especially in this day and age, and even more so because the tenants lived on the Upper East Side!) It has been quite the adventure, of which several incidents are worth recounting.

Before I recount these incidents, however, I must mention (perhaps for the second time, as I probably wrote about this when I cat-sat at D___’s apartment) that one learns quite a bit about a person—or in this case a couple—by staying in his/her apartment. And even more surprisingly, what a person doesn’t own is almost as revealing as what they do own. For instance, because I work with and know one of the men, T___, for whom I dog-sat, it didn’t shock me to find his (and his partner’s) apartment to be tastefully furnished in a very “antique” and artful sort of way. It wasn’t tremendously shocking to me that they owned a giant CD collection of show tunes and classical orchestral music, and I was wholly unsurprised that their closets were filled with what I would consider “dress clothes.” (Sweaters were the least “dressy” apparel available, with button-down shirts and suit jackets being the most predominant tops in their wardrobe.)

What did surprise me was the absence of a) hand towels (even in the kitchen; I ended up using a bath towel to dry dishes until I finally borrowed a dish towel from a colleague at work), b) hand soap (I had to open the only bar I could find, which was one of those free ones from a hotel, hidden in an urn on top of the toilet along with matches and other random odds and ends), and c) excess food. (Even I, when leaving a place for several weeks, leave behind things like a random onion, dried pasta, and baking ingredients like flour, brown sugar, etc. Either they managed to eat all of this up before they left, or they really keep none of this on hand!) I’m not entirely sure what this “says,” per se, about these gentlemen, but it was curious to find these items lacking.

Now, for the list of noteworthy incidents that occurred during my stay:

  • First off, I have to explain that this dog—his name is Caesar—is not only well trained (he knows the commands sit and shake, and he poops twice a day like clockwork) and well mannered (he rarely barks, he doesn’t jump up on newcomers, and he completely ignores most other dogs when passing them on the street), he’s smart. Stores on the Upper East Side (UES) apparently give out treats to their local canine residents, and Caesar knows exactly where these places are. Being a newcomer to the UES, I obviously had no idea that any store handed out treats, never mind a wine & liquor store or a women’s clothing boutique. Caesar knew, though, and very literally dragged me to each and every one of these venues multiple times.
  • Prior last week, I had never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fact, the only NYC art museum I had been to was the MoMA, which I visited last year in order to see the Van Gough exhibit with my cousin K___. However, before he left, T___ provided me with not one but three invitations to exclusive art exhibitions, one at the Whitney and two at the Met. I unfortunately couldn’t attend the one at the Whitney (it was for the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit, which I would still like to see), but I did attend both of the events at the Met. The first was a sort of meet-and-greet for the exhibit American Stories. They opened the entire exhibition for guests’ perusal and then set up the balcony around the great hall (which is also the main entrance to the museum) as a lounge area, complete with open bar and appetizers. This was what I would call an “old money” event; everyone in attendance (excepting me, my guest M___, and maybe one other couple I saw wearing jeans and cowboy boots) was probably only slightly younger than my grandparents. Truly, the quantity of white hair was stunning.

    The second event was a curator-guided tour of photographer Robert Frank’s exhibition The Americans. For me, this was a much more worthwhile affair, because although the appetizers were considerably less appealing (fried little balls of weird breaded meat and pretzel twists served at The Americans, as opposed to delicious crispy toasts, olives, pickles, and spreads, plus cocktail peanut mix to go with drinks at American Stories), the curator imparted ten times more knowledge than I ever could have gained from reading the little plaques on the walls beside Frank’s photos, and his animation and enthusiasm made me much more interested in the exhibit than I otherwise would have been. Quite honestly, even after he imparted all of his knowledge about the photography and his awe of Frank, I still wasn’t that impressed by the photos. I feel that if I were to go out on the street and take 90% of the photos he took and try to submit them somewhere important, I’d be chucked out on my behind, followed by derisive laughter and a slammed door. If I was lucky, I’d get a bit of constructive criticism about how I shouldn’t have made this image nearly so gray (all the images were in black and white) or should have brought that subject into focus (several of the pictures, in my opinion, either brought too many of the items in the picture into focus or else left the whole thing too blurry). However, I’m certainly no photography expert, and this work is revered as great stuff, so I’m glad I got to see it, in any case.

  • To bring the dog back into the picture, two more incidents involved him. The first also involved another animal: a bird. One of my instructions, left by T___, was to keep the door to their little downstairs balcony open while I was away so Caesar could go outside if he wanted. I happen to like the apartment to be on the cooler side, so while the weather was still in the 50s and 60s, I left that balcony open the entire time, even while I was home. One night (or actually it was about two o’clock in the morning) I woke up to some scuffling on the floor. Leaning my head over the side of the bed, I muttered, “Caesar, what are you doing?” Suddenly, I saw (and heard) a gray blur—which Caesar was bearing down upon—flutter up before dropping back onto the floor.

    I wear glasses, so I still had no idea what was going on, but from the sound and blurry appearance, it looked like Caesar was chasing a bird. “Is that a bird?” I murmured sleepily, not willing to believe it as I groped around for my glasses. Finally, with my vision intact, I swung myself out of bed and, crooning to Caesar (“good boy, okay, let go, all right, back up now, good boy”), I got a look at what he had been attacking. Sure enough, it was a little bird, now lying dead and bleeding upon the floor.

    There’s not much more to say except that I cleaned it up and did my best to get all of the feathers swept outside (that bird lost a lot of feathers in the skirmish!), but I am still wondering: how in the world did a bird get into the apartment without my noticing? My experience with birds trapped indoors is that they fly around and crash into things trying to get back out. This bird, instead, flew close enough to the ground to be attacked by a dog. One might guess that perhaps it was injured and crawled into the apartment, but the bedroom is on the second floor, in which case it would have had to hop up the steps to get to where I was sleeping in order for Caesar to wrestle it to oblivion right beside the bed. Also, he could have dragged it up the stairs, but I highly doubt that such a small bird would have survived this dog’s massive maw clamping down around it and hauling it all the way from the first to the second floor, especially enough to make a fly-away attempt that I, a blind-without-glasses human, would recognize upon awaking in a sleepy stupor.

    The mystery remains.

  • The other event doesn’t so much involve Caesar as it involves the fact that I was afraid it involved Caesar. What happened was this: one afternoon, I arrived home from walking Caesar in the park. My friend R___ was visiting, and we sat down in the living room to discuss where to eat lunch. Caesar, having scarfed down his three scoops of post-walk food in two minutes flat, wanted to play fetch, and we were tossing him a ball as we chatted and used my laptop to steal local unsecured internet and find a good local sushi restaurant. I ordinarily sit in the armchair when I am in the living room, but since I needed to use my laptop, I was sitting in the high-backed chair next to the wall outlet, which happens to face the armchair. As I looked up at R___, who was sitting in the armchair, I suddenly noticed an odd white cottony lump by his right knee. Focusing my attention there, I gasped. There was a huge hole chewed into the seat cushion of the armchair!

    For the rest of the stay, I was terrified Caesar had done chewed apart the cushion while I was out, and I monitored the chair daily. No additional stuffing seemed to be coming out of the chair, so if he had chewed that hole, he seemed to be content. Had I done something wrong one day to make him discontented enough to chew this chair? Would his owners be mad when they got back? R___ suggested flipping the cushion, but I could never do that; they’d obviously find out at some point, and then I’d look guilty and untrustworthy: if Caesar had chewed it while I was there, they’d know I had somehow mistreated their dog, and if the chair had already been like that, they’d know that if something had actually gone wrong while they were away, I’d have tried to cover it up.

    Ultimately, it turns out that the chair had been chewed before I ever arrived, possibly before they ever even owned Caesar. I was a little embarrassed to have been so worried, but my sense of relief more than made up for it. And at least I told them; I can check that guilt complex off my list.

  • Last but not least is the most traumatic event of my stay: falling down a spiral staircase. The apartment is built vertically, with the living room, kitchen, and bathroom on the first floor, and a spiral staircase leading up loft-style to a bedroom and second bathroom on the second floor. (There is actually a loft-style third floor storage space with a very low ceiling, too, but I didn’t go up there.) As, I presume, with all spiral staircases, these steps were very steep and windy, and every time I ascended or descended them, I would think to myself, “Go slow. Be careful. These are really dangerous.” It wasn’t as though I could do much else anyway—it’s nearly impossible to run up or down a spiral staircase—but I always had a sense of foreboding on those stairs; it just felt inevitable that I would fall on them. And, of course I did.

    I was coming down one morning, with the dog following me—if you think it’s difficult to go up or down spiral stairs to begin with, try it with a dog right behind you—and right on the forth step, boom! That was it. I wasn’t rushing; I wasn’t carrying a load of items; I wasn’t even drunk. I was just coming down the stairs at 6:10 a.m. to get ready to walk Caesar, and there I went, down the stairs. Thank the lord for railings, because my one leg went between two of the rails while my other folded under me as I slid down on my back. After sitting there a moment in that childlike “do I cry now?” sort of shock, I disentangled myself, picked up a few of the items I had been carrying that had landed on the steps, and hobbled down the remaining stairs. I picked up my remaining belongings and continued with my routine, determined that crying would be completely useless and that I wasn’t really that hurt, until I went to put on my shoes. Lifting up my right pant leg, I saw why my ankle was hurting so much: there was a huge gash up the side of it, and blood was dripping onto my sock. At that point, I did a little bit of gasping and moaning to appease my sense of injury, after which I hobbled around to the bathrooms and inspected the vanities.

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any Band Aids, so I folded up a paper towel and tucked it into my sock. Then, I laced up my sneakers, stuck another paper towel in my pocket, and headed out the door with Caesar. After all, whether I’m bleeding or not, a dog has to poop.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: I'm Down

I'm Down: a memoir I'm Down: a memoir by Mishna Wolff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was exactly what a memoir about a white girl growing up with a father who is convinced he is black should be. And if I need to describe what that is, you obviously need to read this book!

Growing up as a white girl in a 60-40 black/white school, I recognized and appreciated the forthrightness of the way Wolff presented language and culture in this book. I also recognized the identity struggles Mishna faced growing up being white amidst a black community but then having to unlearn her black tendencies and nuances to fit in with her white classmates when she transferred to a private school. What is she? What does she want to be? And does it matter?

This was a cringing, laugh-out-loud, smile-and-grimace-at-the-truth kind of book, and more like it need to be written. Its only shortcoming, ironically enough, is its presentation. If I were to walk through a bookstore, I never would have chosen this book based on its cover. It's a pop-y, bubble gum looking cover that actually comes off as rather abrasive and does not invite me to open it at all. If I were somehow drawn to open it, I then would have encountered photos that imply the chronology of a biography--another turnoff to a creative nonfiction memoir lover like myself. Yet this book was the furthest thing from a silly lark or a stuffy biography that there could be.

I highly recommend it to anyone who has experienced living in a mixed racial setting and all of the tensions and humors that go along with it.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

BBC Best-loved Books

This list was in a note on Facebook, and I couldn’t help but make a posting out of it. When I first read the note, the list had no title, and I presumed these were supposed to be “proper readings,” considering that Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens show up several times apiece. Consequently, I was appalled to find so many of the Harry Potter books, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Princess Diaries on the list and surprised to see a number of Dahl’s books on there, as well.

However, after a little sleuthing, I found that these books were taken from a “best-loved books” list voted upon by BBC readers in April 2003. This makes entries like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and His Dark Materials more understandable (and, in my opinion, justifiable, in terms of the former). Yet, even if this were a “proper” Best Books list, I would have been glad to find so many newer books on it and not so much stuffy old “required reading material” that the mysterious They seem to qualify as classic literature.

Below I have indicated the books I have read by striking them in bold. I have made a few ***starred*** comments here and there after books I was unable/unwilling to finish as well as movies I have seen. I have also underlined those books that would have made it onto my “best-loved” list.

Note: The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of these 100 books listed here. How sad, considering that already 4 on the list are J.K. Rowlings books!

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens ***Does it count if I started it?***
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck***Also started this one....***
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson***Yeah, only if Muppets Treasure Island counts***
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett***But how is A Little Princess not on here?!***
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King***Started this one too***
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky***And The Brothers Karamazov. And The Idiot. And Notes From Underground. And more.***
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett***On my list I believe***
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl **Really, almost anything by Dahl deserves “best-loved” status. I wish Fantastic Mr. Fox had made the list.***
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo***Saw it...***
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez***On my list***
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie***No, but I started the Satanic Verses and plowed my way through about 2/3***

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: The Republic of Love

The Republic of Love The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of very few books I have read that I feel realistically addresses the quirky, elusive, shocking, and sometimes painful subject of love. Perhaps it was the way Shields manipulated viewpoint by allowing the story to be told alternately by both Tom and Fay. Perhaps I loved the fact that the entire first half of the book led up to the meeting of these two protagonists, and that the background knowledge gained about the characters this way allowed their "love at first site" encounter to seem more the result of life circumstances (and an aversion to loneliness) than some sort of romantic ideal. Perhaps I loved the way Shields illustrated other couples' relationship through both Fay's and Tom's eyes. Or perhaps I simply loved Shields' refusal to make the ignorant bliss of courtship as ignorant or blissful as lovers wish it were.

This book was full of realism, and because I believed in its characters, because I understood and related to their their doubts and disappointments, I stayed with them through the slow, lumbering building of the story--which, in the end, was rewarding.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Case Against Organized Religion

Argument One: Catholicism

In Catholicism, Communion is not communal. First, there is a special Catholic name for it: the Eucharist. Second, only Catholics are permitted to participate. If you practice any other religion, from Methodism to Buddhism, regardless of how faithful you may be, you are not permitted to share in the sacrament of Communion with Catholics. Their reasoning is as follows:

"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). For this reason, it is normally impossible for non-Catholic Christians to receive Holy Communion, for to do so would be to proclaim a unity to exist that, regrettably, does not.
While Catholics are Christians, then, Christians are not Catholics and, therefore, are subject to exclusion in spite of shared faith. Jesus might have said “do this in memory of me,” but Catholics seem to have taken his words to mean do this to demonstrate your higher status of Christianity.

The issue of Communion is especially irksome to me because, growing up, I spent five years attending two different Catholic grade schools. As a Presbyterian girl with a Jewish last name, I was treated the same at both schools: attending mass with all of my fellow students was obligatory, but when it came time for the most revered part of the service, I had to scrunch up my knees and let all of my classmates file past while I sat in the pew, enduring their questioning, sometimes accusatory looks. Whenever I asked my religion teachers why I couldn’t take Communion, too—after all, I had been taking it in my church since first grade—I was always told it was because I wasn’t Catholic. For some reason, this always sounded like, “Because you’re not good enough.”

(Finally, my fourth grade religion teacher told me that it was because Catholics believed the priest actually turned bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; everyone else—i.e. Protestants like me—believed it was only symbolic. When she told me that, I nearly laughed. There was no way my friends actually thought they were eating flesh and blood every week—they’d be vomiting all over the church!)

Argument Two: Judaism

My last name is Jewish, so every time I am introduced to someone, the very first thing they ask—and always in a presumptive-sounding tone—is, “Oh so you’re Jewish then, right?” I’m never quite sure what to say to that question, because the answer I give really depends upon whom I am talking to.

Some people define Jewish-ness by a person’s practiced religion. Do I go to synagogue? No. Do I celebrate Rosh Hashanah or Purim or Pesach? Well, I celebrated all of these growing up, and Pesach (Passover) is one of my favorite holidays, but unless I am invited by a friend, I do not celebrate any of these holidays on my own. Therefore, by this definition, no, I am not Jewish.

Some people define Jewish-ness history and heritage. My last name is Jewish because father is Jewish, and therefore I have Jewish blood and Jewish relatives. I grew up celebrating the major Jewish holidays with him and still try to celebrate Pesach every year. So, by this definition, I could be considered half-Jewish (but only half, since my mother is Presbyterian, and we still celebrate all of the Christian holidays with her).

However, the official Orthodox definition of a Jew is someone whose mother is Jewish. By this definition, I am not at all Jewish. No matter what name I have; who my father or grandfather or great-grandfather were; what I believe or how I live, I will never be Jewish.

I find this kind of exclusion unacceptable. Yes, Jews were/are God’s chosen people.

"For you are a holy people to YHWH your God, and God has chosen you to be his treasured people from all the nations that are on the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2,)
However, I don’t think this gives them the right to exclude others from God’s community, especially just because of birthright. Yes, many denominations of Judaism accept converts, but this still doesn’t discount the manner of thinking that a “pure” Jew is born of a Jewish mother and that only Jewish men and Jewish women should be married—not just for spiritual compatibility, but to ensure that the “tribe” remains pure and not sullied by outsiders.

I realize that I have used a lot of provocative language here, but I would like to justify it with one early experience that made me feel the very “dirty outsider-ness” I am describing. My family had gone to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with another Jewish family (my father was friends with the mother), and before we arrived, I was warned that the son of that family, J___, who was my age, had become extremely religious over the last few years. At the time, I think I was in seventh or eighth grade, and we only usually saw their family every two or three years, so I didn't know much about J___ to begin with. I guessed that “very religious” meant looking especially pious during prayer time or murmuring blessings before every bite of food. I was completely unprepared for what actually occurred.

When we arrived, we were heartily greeted by the mother, father, and daughter of the family. Other relatives were there, too—two uncles, an aunt, and a grandfather—and we had hugs and kisses all around. Then J___, their son, came out of the kitchen. He was somberly dressed and stayed hovering in the doorway, well behind his mother, who had snatched up her camera and was trying to get our family to pose together for, “Just a quick photo—you all look so nice!” After eyeing us and nodding his greeting, he disappeared back into the kitchen. His mother got her picture and then bustled after him to finish up the food.

Soon after, we sat down to eat. I don’t know if the adults seated us by age because they assumed we would have more to talk about or just because they all wanted to sit together, but J___, his siter, my sister, and I all sat clustered at one end of the table—ironically enough, with their grandfather seated at the head. We passed the food clockwise, and I was sitting to J’s left, so I had to hand things to him, but every time I tried, he either ignored me or busied himself with something else. Soon I realized that he was doing this intentionally, because as soon as I the dish down on the table, he would pick it up. It became even more obvious once we had started eating, when he explicitly asked his grandfather to pass the butter--which was significantly closer to me than to his grandfather--to him.

Finally, I decided to force him to stop playing the game: I asked him to pass me the salt. Reluctantly, he picked it up and brought it toward me. At the last minute, he lowered his hand to set it on the table by my plate. I darted in and grabbed the shaker. At the moment my hand closed around the glass, he snatched his hand away like I had burned him. The look in his eyes was something between terror, disgust, and . . . tiredness? I wasn’t sure what I saw there. All I knew was that he was going to all this trouble just to avoid touching me, and that made me feel . . . well, untouchable.

Later that night, I saw him hug his mom and shake hands with my father. So what was wrong with me? On the way home my mother explained that because he was living the Orthodox lifestyle, he was prohibited from touching any female he was not closely related to—and that meant me. I suppose, I thought, I should feel special. This probably has to do with temptation and purity. But all I really felt was dirty and female and not Jewish.

So this is my case against organized religion. The arguments are quite personal, so I am sure there are many other logical, spiritual, and personal arguments for organized religion. However, the exclusion religions foster—which I have directly experienced—turns them into something I cannot, at least at this point in my life, support. For now, I’ll just work on what I personally believe and live as morally as I am able. And if that ends up condemning me to hell, then I’m not sure I wanted to spend eternity with that sort of God in the first place.