Saturday, August 29, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ultimately, this novel seemed more an excuse to incorporate a lot of magical math tricks into a narrative than the character study it should have been. As a reader, I never fully committed to believing in or caring for Root, the housekeeper, or the professor, and I thus lacked that driving force that compels a reader to find out "what's next." The housekeeper (and narrator) told the story so matter-of-fact-ly that I could never see or feel her as a true and honest character; the professor exhibited no potential for growth or change; and enough insight was never provided into Root's character to understand or empathize with what motivated him.

As I read, I wondered: am I supposed to see a love of math develop throughout this book? If so, whose: the housekeeper's (who gives us her personal accounts of increasing fascination with the subject) or Root's (who in the end becomes a math teacher)? By the end of the novel, I still could not answer that question, and although in some instances this may not be an important enough question to answer, I felt that in this case it was one of the novel's failings.

Also, in terms of plot development, Ogawa never explains the loyalty between the sister-in-law and the professor. She is so protective of him, but the story behind this is never explained. I think having included this backstory at some point in the novel--perhaps about 2/3 of the way through, so as to keep some suspense compelling the reader forward--would have added depth to both characters and thus to the novel.

In my mother's reading club, the #1 fan of this book was a math teacher, and I can honestly say that I understand why a math teacher would enjoy it. Maybe if a comparable novel were written about a language professor, I would have been enamored of it, too. However, since the subject matter alone is not enough to enthrall me, I was left with an overall feeling of disappointment. Ogawa demonstrated clear potential with all of his characters and poignant situations into which he placed them, but he never let them become real enough to earn "novel" status.

Note:I must allow that because there is no translator acknowledgement on the cover, I did not realize this was a translation until after I had finished it. Whether this is an unfair judgement or not, I am certain I would have read this book differently if I had known it was a translation. How this would have affected my reading, exactly, I cannot quite say, but I know I give certain allowances to authors when their work is being translated that I do not give to authors whose native tongue is English.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an outstanding book! Drawing from the genres of travel writing, anthropology, a memoir, an argumentative case study, a character study, and a plain good story, this book weaves together a conglomeration of characters and their stories that would not work nearly so well were it not for McDougall's tireless enthusiasm, friendly and amiable writing style, and personal connection with his subject matter.

Whether you are a seriously competitive runner or a once-every-two-months jogger, whether you've dreamed of running a marathon or already completed five, this book will revolutionize the way you think about running as not only a sport, but as a lifestyle, a mentality, and even as a destiny. It might give you "conspiracy theory paranoia" (clearly Nike did not endorse this book), and it might inspire you to go vegan. And it even might make you want to go for a run . . . just after you find out who wins the race.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Triathlon Aspirations

The way you should listen to your body when your knee starts aching or you feel a twinge in your back, I should have listened to my bike. After all, when you're an athlete, the bike and the body are just two more pieces of "equipment," right?

Two weekends ago, in preparation for the NYRR Queens Sprint Triathlon, I took my bike for a tune-up. I had noticed that the front wheel looked a little wobbly, and I couldn't remember the last time it had been inspected by anyone who knows anything about bikes, so I decided this would be a good idea. After all, the last thing I needed would be to get to the start line and to have my old rusting mountain bike fall apart on me, and besides, any little tweak that would make my lumbering monstrosity of a bike go faster would help.

When I got the bike back from the shop, I rode it around the neighborhood like I usually do, to go to the grocery store and to the library. I noticed that when I was in the very first, "most-difficult-to-pedal” gear, it seemed unusually difficult to get the bike started. Really, it felt as if the brakes were still intact. However, if I switched the gears, the problem went away, so I just assumed that maybe the gears needed a little “practice” and decided to try shifting them around a bit as I rode. The problem didn’t go away, but it seemed to lessen slightly, so I let it alone. I didn’t think I’d be using that gear much, anyway, so I’d deal with the issue later, after my race.

On the morning of the race (Sunday, August 23rd), I arrived at 5:30a.m. for body-marking—this is where volunteers write your race number on of your both biceps and your age number on the back of your left calf. Then, at 5:45, I wheeled my bike up to the transition area. A volunteer in an obnoxious orange-and-yellow construction vest tapped both handlebars and said,

“You need to go get a cap on that.”

A what? I looked down at my right handlebar and discovered , after bending and peering a bit, that I could actually see into the handlebar. It was hollow! Apparently my left handlebar was completely covered, but the right one, for whatever reason, had a giant hole in its center.

Nodding stupidly, I ambled off in the direction of the bike mechanic's tent. Two young guys and a man slightly younger than my father stood around a folding table under the tent. They didn't look much like mechanics, since the only things on their table were gel packs and caffeine pills, and their hands weren't even greasy, but I figured this was my best shot. Approaching the youngest-looking one, I pointed at my handlebar and asked,

“Do you guys have a cap for this?”

As I expected, they didn’t, but they also thought it was ridiculous I had been asked to find one, considering that my handlebar was fully covered in rubber and, therefore, wasn’t dangerous. Plus, this wasn't a "serious" race.

”We just need to find something to stuff in there,” the youngest guy said, “something black.”

What they came up with was a piece of a black trash bag the older man had in his car. Luckily for me it passed inspection, and I made it successfully into the transition area.

The first part of the race, the 400m swim, took place in the Flushing-Meadows Pool. It had been opened up to its full 50m length, and we were instructed to swim snake-like through 8 of the lanes (up 1, down 2, etc.) one swimmer after the other. Each swimmer would start 10 sec apart, so the fastest swimmers got to start first. This worked out wonderfully for me, and I was not only the 8th person in the pool, but I was the 3rd out. It was an exhilarating swim.

With my heart racing, I hurried down a flight of stairs and over the grass to where my bike and gear were waiting. Shirt on; shorts on; watch and sunglasses on. I was trembling from so much adrenaline that I nearly fell over trying to get my feet into my socks and shoes. Then, with my helmet strapped under my chin, off I went with my bike, jogging it out of the transition area.

When I got to the mount line, I swung my right leg over the seat, put my foot to the pedal, and zoomed off on the 10-miles course. Or, rather, that is how I envisioned it. What actually happened was that the moment I pushed down on the pedal, a horrible vibration rattled up through the seat and a no matter how hard I pushed, the pedal barely budged. I got my other foot on and pressed with all my might, but the pedals were barely rotating. Wheeling myself off to the side, I dismounted and zeroed in on the back of my bike. I was certain the brakes had to be stuck against my back wheel--nothing else could be making that sound or sensation. Yet, much to my shock and dismay, neither brake pad was remotely close to the wheel.

Thinking that perhaps the pads had disengaged themselves with my dismount, I climbed back on and tried pedaling again. The same buzzing/whining/vibrating ensued. Maybe it's a gear thing, I thought. Heck, what did I know? I got back off the bike and tried inspecting the chain. My only other guess was that the chain could be caught between gears, since this is the only other bike problem I have encountered in my life. I tried to lift the chain off of one gear and to coax it onto another, wheeling my bike along the curb. By now, my hands were irrevocably stained with grease, and even as I got back onto my bike, I knew it was futile. The thing just wouldn't go any faster. I forced my legs in slow circles. What was I going to do? I had just had one of the most impressive untrained-for swims of my life, I had paid nearly $100 to do this first-life-experience, and now my bike was going to drop out of the race?

Well, the thing hadn't fallen apart yet, and so long as it didn't, I was going to finish. To officially receive a time, I had until 10a.m. to complete the course, so choking down tears of frustrating, I gritted my teeth and began the endless process of reassuring every single volunteer along the route that I was "fine" and not injured or sick unwell in any way. I must have been moving so slowly, it was no wonder they were worried. In one of my least-impressive moments, I was even passed by someone riding a folding bike (the kind with the tiny wheels that can be disassembled and stowed in a gym bag or backpack). If nothing else, it was a lesson in tenacity and humility.

Luckily, I had the run afterwards to redeem myself. For all of those bikers who passed me, I was able to at least gain back a little yardage on about a handful of them in the run. By yet another miraculous bodily feat, I managed to pull out a ~7:15/mile pace in the 5k, which was really shocking considering all I had just gone through, but I truly believe my body operates on a sliding temperature scale, and the closer to an ideal 60-70 degree day it is, the better it runs.

In any event, the bottom line is that I'm now completely torn about what to do. Part of me says, Never again! Who wants to participate in a sport where you have to depend on equipment?! But another, more adamant part of me says, Look at how well you did in two of the three major parts of that race! Third in the swim? Only two MEN beat you! And 23rd in the run--out of everyone! Transitions notwithstanding, imagine how well you might do if you had a decent bike and actually trained in the biking part. And then there's that little whispering voice that keeps insisting, And just think: if you ever got good enough in triathlons, really really good, and enjoyed them, and had a lot of time on your hands--if you never get married and never have kids--maybe someday you could do an Ironman....

Now, if you're still intent on seeing my 311th placement among the 369 finishers, you can have a look here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Campbell Apartment

The Campbell Apartment is the name of a band that probably won't be around much longer, considering that its lead singer just moved to San Francisco. Still, I wanted to post their awesome video for your enjoyment . . . and also to flout the fact that I am friends with a rock star! Can you pick him out of the group?

Hint: He's not the lead singer (although I have met that guy, too, on many occasions, and even attended his birthday party).

The video: "St Louis"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Surprising Results from OkCupid

Some people may call it desperation. Some people may call it being practical. I prefer to call it an experiment.

I did not join okcupid with the hope of meeting the love of my life. In fact, I didn’t even join it to go on dates. To the contrary, I just wanted to know what all the online dating hype was about. In the past several months, I have had several friends highly recommend I try this method of “meeting people” (people being Men), and so I finally acquiesced and set up a profile for myself. I figured the worst that could happen was that either nothing notable would happen or I’d dislike what I saw, and then I’d simply be no further along than when I started.

Setting up the profile was simple—the equivalent of signing up for facebook, really. You upload some photos (although I’ll admit I was a bit more concerned about what I uploaded here—what impression was I trying to give?), write a mini personal ad (i.e. “describe yourself”), answer a few questions about your interests, and then wait for responses. To help the site “match” you with other people, you then answer a series of questions that first asks you your opinion, then asks what you would like your Perfect Match to answer, and then asks you to rate how important that other answer is to you. You wouldn’t think it, but this is a pretty challenging exercise if you try to take it seriously!

I’ve been signed up on the site now for a few weeks. I’ve had a few Inbox conversations (the equivalent of email, only hosted on the site) with a few strangers. I’ve accepted and rejected a few people who have “matched” and “winked at” me. I have not gone on any dates. I have not fallen in love.

What I have discovered, though, is something very surprising—something I did not expect to learn about myself from this experience. I never considered myself someone who had biases toward or against particular types of men. When anyone asks if I have a “type,” my only answers are, “tall please,” and, “just not overly bulky.” However, I’ve always found all different types of guys attractive, and because when I meet and get to know someone, their age/height/ethnicity cease to matter, I simply thought those things never mattered.

As it turns out, when I’m “shopping” for guys—as opposed to learning who they are with time and interaction—I do have unconscious opinions and biases. I never would have realized this but for the fact that as I scrolled through the men on okcupid, I found myself making instant judgments about them based on very few factors…and the judgments I was making surprised me.

The three factors that determined whether or not I would read the rest of someone’s profile were (in no particular order): age, height, and picture. Age: had to be over 22 and under 30. Height: over 5’10”. Picture: …here’s where things got really surprising. I discovered that in spite of my best efforts to be an unbiased, unprejudiced person, when it comes to instant judgments about the attractiveness of certain ethnicities, I still have them.

As a result, white guys have an indisputable advantage. I guess we instinctively feel at ease with (or least threatened by?) what is most similar to ourselves, so I must admit that I was more inclined to find white guys attractive than any other ethnicity. (Although this is not to say there wasn’t a plethora of unpleasant-looking Caucasian gentlemen on the site, either—notably more than there were attractive ones, truth be told.)

My second “preference” is for Eastern Asian men. Not all East-Asian men by any means—there is no such thing as a generalization on this subject—but some Asian men, particularly if they are athletic and tall, can be attractive. Perhaps I am more accustomed to being around Asians because of my most recent group of friends and roommates, and this is why I find them more appealing on the site, but I grew up surrounded by very few Asians, so I am not sure this is necessarily the reason. (Perhaps there is no reason—although my scientific mind is disinclined to accept this answer.)

For whatever reason, I do not find Middle Asian/Middle Eastern men (i.e. Pakistani, Indian, etc.) appealing. I am not sure why, but when their pictures appeared on this site, I immediately passed over them.

I did the same for Hispanic men. Of course, Hispanic men tend to be short, which does not work in their favor even if I were inclined to find their faces attractive in the first place.

And then there are African-American men. I will be the first to say I find Usher one of the hottest men on the planet. However, as I scanned the faces and profiles on this site, I must say that I honestly did not stop at many African-American profiles. And this was not due to feelings of repulsion or any lack of attraction; rather, I have to admit that what I felt was a sense of intimidation. I'm not entirely sure where this comes from--perhaps it is from my experience growing up and the community that surrounded me throughout my years of public school education. However, it's hard for me to believe I could feel intimidated just from looking at photographs. It's not as though all of these guys were posing like thugs.

Ultimately, all I can say from having explored the online dating community is that I learned a heck of a lot more about myself than I ever expected. I'm not sure what I was expecting in the first place, but it certainly wasn't to uncover biases I never believed I had. I still do believe that being open to knowing a person and "shopping" for one are completely different mindsets, and with that in mind, I am still convinced that I would NOT care what race or age or height my imaginary future boyfriend would be. However, if forced to create him from scratch, I guess I would be forced to have a "type" after all. And if forced to pick him from an online lineup, one thing is for sure: he will not have sloppy grammar.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Yet Another Stalker Story

I've been known for having "stalkers." In college, it started with coffee shop workers and then progressed to military wanna-be's, lifeguards, and then more coffee shop workers. My pre-college record didn't bode much better: I was first pursued in 1st grade by a boy who chased me around the classroom trying to kiss me, gave me a purple jeweled necklace at my birthday party, and was ultimately one of the reasons my mother chose to pull me out of public school when he pulled his pants down in class. The next suitor to try his luck was an 8th grade nerd who lived in another school district and persisted in calling me to talk about his dog for hours on end.

Needless to say, my friends all found these stories hilarious, but as the patterns haven't changed much, the hilarity has turned exhausting. Upon arriving in NYC, I was pursued by a boy 2 years chronologically and at least 10 years mentally my junior. Eventually I shook him off, only to experience a handful of other random unpleasant encounters, including one that occurred this past weekend:

First, I must set the scene: I was lying on my Garfield bedsheet (very sexy, I know) with my cousin K___ at Brighton Beach, innocuously reading a book about the Holocaust when I heard a man's voice very close to my head.

"You are so beautiful."

Because the voice was so close, I instinctively turned to look and see where it was coming from.

"I look at you and I see beautiful woman."

Right there, crouched not five inches from my head, was this deeply tanned hispanic man, probably in his late 30s, wearing cutoff jean shorts, visibly leering at me through his sunglasses.

"I am ___," he told me (I was so flustered by his sudden appearance, I never caught his name), "may I know your name?" He held out his hand. Not knowing what to do, I shook it lamely.


"What?" He leaned closer.


"What?" Closer. I resisted the urge to squirm away.


"Ah, well, Al-lee-son, my friend and I go to buy something. Then I come back to talk to you."

"Uh, no, that's okay." I wave my hand at him. "I might not be here." He seemed to ignore me.

"I will come back and talk to you." He went away.

Now, on a beach full of hundreds and hundreds of people--beautiful women of all shapes and sizes, single women sitting on fancy beach towels in scanty bikinis by themselves--why in the world did this man stop and talk to me??? And moreover, true to his word, he came back.

"I am back, Al-lee-son. I have bought beer. Would you like a beer?"

"Um, no. You should just take that beer back to your friend."

"We will talk? May I know you?"

That was the line that did it, I think: May I know you?

"No, I don't think so. Have a nice day."

Finally, he walked off. K___ turned to me, having been silent during all of these exchanges. She smiled, knowing how much I hate to be rude, even to strangers, and then she said something I expect only to hear out of the mouth of my sister.

"Good girl."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Rosario Tijeras

Rosario Tijeras Rosario Tijeras by Jorge Franco Ramos
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am more willing to accept this book as a translation, but ultimately, the language did not quite fit the novel. Its constructions and vocabulary were too simplistic for the deep emotions it was trying to convey, and therefore it came across as not presenting anything new or unique: it was just a story of unrequited love. The main characters--at least the narrator and Rosario--were complex and interesting enough to remain engaging throughout the novel, but the actual story of Rosario and the narrator's love for her was not new or innovative enough to deserve any praise.

The format of the book was both untraditional and appropriate--interweaving the narrator's present-day hospital waiting room thoughts with his memories that told the actual story of his life with Rosario--but the lack of break between them sometimes made the narration confusing and forced me to go back and reread the transition (or lack thereof) so I was certain I had entered a new timeframe. This is jarring and disruptive in any book and detracts from the ideal immersive reading experience.

To its credit, however, it was a short and quick read. I wish I knew Spanish, because I would be very inclined to read the novel in its native language. Alternatively, I would also be interested in reading it translated by a different translator, because I am sure this would also affect the interpretation. What a fascinating job that would be!

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Floating Bridesmaid

I understand that another person’s wedding is in no way about me. NO matter how well I know the bride, no matter what my role is in the wedding, no one is focusing on me. And in last weekend’s wedding, things occurred just this way, with me in the background and the bride and groom in the spotlight. Unfortunately, the aunt with the seizure stole a bit of their glory, but Emily and Jake still remained the stars of the show: they were the most elegantly dressed, the most radiant couple, the most attended-to, the most complimented. She was the happiest bride, and he was the proudest groom.

But we’re all very self-centered individuals, and no matter how much we remind ourselves to think of others first, everything does ultimately end up being about us, even if only in our own minds. All anyone has to do to be reminded of this self-centeredness is to watcdh the bridesmaids get ready. Sure, we helped Emily get into her dress and made sure she ate breakfast, but then it was all, “Can you fix my hair?” “Can you repaint my nails…for the seventh time?” Everyone fusses over their appearance until the very last minute as though their walk down the aisle is the one that will be most-remembered. Yes, it is a group effort, and there is sharing and cooperation, but all of it is done at one person’s gain and another’s expense. (Poor M___, who volunteered to come do hair when R___ broke her finger at the rehearsal dinner never even had time to get dressed. She was still in her pajamas fifteen minutes before the ceremony, curling G___’s hair!)

For my part, I couldn’t stop obsessing about the toast. I’d never been to a traditional wedding before, so I’d never heard one given. Moreover, a lot of people would be there who I needed to impress, not least of whom were my best friend the bride and her to-be husband, the groom. Plus, my father would undoubtedly be critical—he always was of oral presentations—and my mother and sister would be anticipating nothing short of a literary masterpiece. And this wasn’t even counting the various mutual friends E___ (the bride) and I shared who would be in the audience with their families. In short, my reputation was on the line.

After much consideration, I decided to take notes on the full speech I had written and give the toast that way. I am very opposed to reading anything straight from paper, so this was a fair compromise, and in the end it worked out pretty well. Of course afterward, when I sat down, I asked my family what they thought.

“If I have one criticism,” my father said, “it’s ‘um…um…um….’”

I blushed a little and thought to myself, well, at least I didn’t say ‘like’ too much. My sister, of course, gushed, but she would have loved anything I had said, no matter how poignant or dull. I had no real measure of how things had gone until later, when my date, M___, pulled me aside.

“I’ve been to a lot of weddings,” he told me, “so I’ve heard a lot of toasts. And I have to say, Allison, that really is one of the best ones I’ve ever heard. It was really wonderful. Really well said.”

That right there made up for all manner of criticism from my father. What lacked the most was any comment from the bride or groom, but they were busy, and I didn’t really expect them to pay me any mind, considering that this was their day; they should attend to whomever they pleased.

Soon after we ate, I made a point to mingle with my various acquaintances. I knew several people and their families on E___’s side of the room, so I wandered about to say hello. At one table, several of the mother’s called me over, so I left my friend and went to their section of the table.

“You look lovely,” one mother said. “Absolutely stunning,” another agreed. “And you just floated down that aisle,” the first one told me. “We were all stretching our necks, going ‘Where are her feet?’” They all laughed. “All the other girls were like ‘step, step, step,’” she imitated with her hand, “but you just floated!” Several other women murmured agreement. I blushed, mumbled something semi-gracious, and made my escape back to my table. When I relayed the odd exchange to my family, my mom nodded knowingly. “You did,” she told me. “You really were very graceful. It looked just like you were floating.” How about that!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How to Please Everyone All the Time

  1. Operate at 110% twenty-eight hours-a-day.
  2. Read minds. Everyone’s. React accordingly.
  3. Never ever complain. This is an important one. You must go about your duties cheerfully, because everyone must think that you live to please them. This makes them happy or, if not happy, at least satisfied.
  4. Don’t boast, either. Don’t tell people what or how much you are doing, because they don’t want to know—they just want to see the results as those results apply to and assist them. (This is true of even the most selfless person, if your end-goal is purely to make them happy.)
  5. Listen more, talk less. Unless you are particularly witty—but don’t be witty at the expense of the person you are talking to. In that case, it would be good to use your wit against someone they dislike. On the whole, however, it is better to play the role of the interested and sympathetic listener.
  6. Think ahead. Have it done before they ask.
  7. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, forget you ever heard of the word “no.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Snapshot Book Review: Emma

Emma (Penguin Classics) Emma by Jane Austen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a "classic", this book is acceptable. I managed to read it without falling asleep, and some of Emma's capers were rather amusing. However, I believe I enjoyed Austen's Persuasion more than this novel. Plus, I am a bit averse to tidy everyone's-happy endings, and this has nothing if not that. Needless to say, I believe it teachers the proper lessons in a more interesting way than, say, a self-improvement book or a book of Christian morality, and Austen always does a good job making you the reader feel as though you are privy to some of the most highly entertaining English gossip of the 1800s.
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Snapshot Book Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading the first Harry Potter book, I was not compelled to continue with the series. However, after many assertions from various friends that "things get good in the 3rd one!" I decided to give Potter another try. Needless to say, my initial perception of the books did not change much. They are cute, fun, fast reads. They are very imaginative, and clearly in a way that is appreciated by a majority of readers. However, the quality of Rowling's writing is just . . . not good.

As a writer, reader, English major, and pseudo-linguist, I cannot help but criticize several essential aspects of J.K. Rowling's writing style. For one thing, for all the imagination she displays, Rowling does not trust her own readers' imaginations. If she did, she would not need to have two modifiers for every noun and verb she writes. Harry always has to look curiously. Hermione has to ask thoughtfully. Every physical attribute and emotion has to be described in the most elaborate terms, and yet with plain, simple, easily understood language. (Still, to be fair, these books would make fabulous vocabulary builders for gradeschool children.)

My second gripe, beyond Rowling's overuse of modifiers, is the flatness of her characters. Truly, not one of them changes. Perhaps hidden information is revealed about some of them (e.g. Sirus Black), but not one of them undergoes any sort of personal learning or transformative experience. Additionally, all of them are drawn from such stock, cliche character types, I cannot even suspend my disbelief far enough to care about or relate to any of them on a personal level. The closest I may ever come is to Hermione's perfectionism and goody-two-shoes nature, but she is so true to that very stereotype, and the instances when she breaks from her stereotype are so predictable, that I do not even relate to her. It makes for a slightly more boring, much less compelling book.

Oddly enough, I may end up reading the remaining books in the series, merely in order to have a common ground with so many other readers. Also, in part, I may read them for the same reason I read the Twilight series: to see what the hype was all about. But based on my sample size of (now) two books, I stick to my original assertion: in terms of style and quality, these books are no more advanced than Stephanie Myers' creations.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tomato Heist!

So first they run over it with their car. Spanish neighbors, black car, small driveway, tomato plant on the back sidewalk--you do the math. It was a gruesome sight: the poor plant was bent completely in half, its stake snapped and half of the soil spilt all over the ground. What's more, the plastic pot was completely cracked.

You'd think that would be enough for them. But no, they're not satisfied until the thing is completely stripped bare. Somehow, despite my blue, pink, and purple thumbs (read: not green), I managed to nurse the thing back to some state of plant-type existence. I lodged what was left of the stake into what little soil I could salvage, tied it up with some spare shoelaces, and put it protectively further behind the garage-shed that sits behind our apartment. Some of its leaves turned yellow and started curling in on themselves. Many of these turned brown and brittle. But this trooper plant prevailed, because although its stem was literally torn to shreds, it bore three or four tiny little yellow flowers--potential tomatoes!

And, in fact, one little flower grew to be a big, red, ripe tomato. Just yesterday, when I checked on my plant, I thought to myself, "I will give that tomato just one or two more days to fully mature. It deserves that, having persevered so long." So I went to bed, happily dreaming of the many ways I would enjoy that first (and perhaps only) tomato.

Today, upon arriving home from work, I decided I would check on the progress of my dreamy tomato. I felt certain that after such a hot day, surely a little water would help to plump the thing up and make the plant happy, so I took my water bottle and trekked out behind the house to see how things stood. Well, I found the plant standing, but something was very obviously missing. My tomato was gone!

Not a shred of foul play remained: not a drop of tomato juice, a sliver of red skin, nothing. The tomato had, without a doubt, been plucked from its vine and whisked away, and is likely now the prisoner of some jealous, evil, tomato-coveting fiend. I am very saddened by this event, but one thing is for sure: next summer, I am planting all my vegetables in the front yard. It'll be a bit more obvious when they have to hop our little front-lawn fence to get at my tomatoes then!

Shoe Shopping

I typically do not go shoe shopping if I can avoid it. With size 11 feet (size 9 in men’s), finding sub-three-inch heels with narrow backs that won’t give me blisters is an exercise I tend to fail at. However, recent circumstances threw me back into the melee that is the shoe world, and I have an observation: at least here in America, the shoe industry has turned itself into a machine. Truly! There are four levels to this industry (all of which I traversed before finally finding an acceptable, hopefully-blister-free pair of sandals):

  • DSW. Here, what you see is what you get. If the size isn’t on the shelf, they don’t have it; there is no “checking in the back” and anxious waiting time. However, there is also no human element to this experience (or, on the bright side, human interference, if you prefer not to have some salesman/woman ogling you as you squeeze your feet into pair after pair of shoes and wobble about the store). No one will offer to call another store if they don’t have your size, and no one will recommend you an alternative pair of shoes. Furthermore, I would bet that if you stacked all of the shoes displayed in these warehouse rows onto pretty department store pedestals (see #4), a) a greater variety of shoes would be available, and b) the store would sell more shoes to shoppers’ spontaneous, “Look! How pretty!” reaction.

    * Smaller versions of this design include Payless and Foot Locker.

  • Outlet-boutique hybrids. (e.g. Shoemania) These stores offer cramped rows of single shoes, and when you find the one you want, you alert one of the uniformed attendants walking around in headsets. They are supposed to alert someone in the storeroom, procure your shoes, and you balance precariously in that aisle, dodging other customers as you remove your current pair of dilapidated shoes and try to fit into the new pair—all while maneuvering your bags and the shoebox (or boxes if you are trying on more than one pair of shoes) out of everyone’s way. The pros: more shoes displayed but at warehouse-style prices. The con: these workers do not attend to you personally, as they would in a department store. Thus, if you need a different size or even just to return a pair you don’t want, the amount of time it takes to flag down “your guy” can border on absurd.

  • Boutiques. As is implied in their name, these stores are typically smaller and therefore offer a smaller but more tailored selection of shoes. Want a Nine West shoe? Go to a Nine West boutique! Aldo and Bakers have quite successful franchises, as well. These shoes are usually displayed considerably more attractively than in the previous two examples, and an attendant will wait on you when you visit these stores. However, most boutiques do not carry obscure sizes (alas, 11 is included in “obscure”), so extremely large- and small-footed people rarely have success here. Moreover, these shoes at these venues are often the most expensive.

  • Department Stores. This to me seems like the “original” shoe store, as it is where I looked for most of my shoes from childhood onward. Here, salespeople attend to you personally, retrieving the shoe you found on a shelf of pedestal around the showroom floor and waiting to either help you pay for your successful find or to remove the unwanted pair once you deem them unfitting. Again, the wait time for retrieval can be lengthy, depending how many salespeople are on the floor and how crowded the department is, but at least here you can recline in a seat and actually sit down to try the shoes on. (This is another perk of the boutique arrangement, as well.) Prices are generally higher than at warehouses, but a good sale can beat any boutique price handily!

During my recent shopping experience, what shocked me the most was how McDonald’s-esque everything has become. Scanning a barcode, keying a shoe number into a touchpad, and wearing headsets to communicate with the stockroom do seem like very efficient means of conducting shoe sales, but in the end, the wait time to retrieve shoes from a back room—whether at a boutique or a department store—does not seem any shorter than what I remember as a child, when everyone still used the old-fashioned “I’ll go look on the shelves in the back” method. And as much as I hate being fussed over by salespeople, it’s almost more frustrating to be forced to pass up a nice shoe just because the store couldn’t afford to add a size 11 to their small stockpile of boxes underneath.

As much as I hate to admit it, my mother may sometimes be right: there is something to the “old” way of doing things.