Friday, December 31, 2010

The November Trip, Part 2: Los Angeles

After the conference in San Diego ended, I took a train up to Los Angeles, to visit my friend A___. I got off at Union Station (there seems to be one of these in every city), took the metro red line to North Hollywood, and waited for D___, A___’s boyfriend to get off of work so he could come pick me up.

Prior to arriving in LA, I had two preconceived ideas: that I would like the city, and that I would dislike D___. I assumed that I would like LA because what is there not to like about California? It’s 60-70 degrees and sunny all year long; near the ocean; and one of the entertainment Meccas of America. However, I failed to remember one significant fact that was repeated to me again and again: it is impossible to get around without a car.

Having developed a love of public transportation (and a corresponding aversion to driving) ever since studying abroad, I end up feeling limited by—and therefore resentful of—any city that requires a car to get around. I must have somehow believed that LA wasn’t really one of these cities. That is, until I arrived. LA not only requires a car, but it also makes it impossible to escape cars even when you are not driving one. Virtually every residential street seems to be one or two blocks away from a major road (i.e. a road that spans four lanes or more and is full with bumper-to-bumper traffic—which essentially describes every road in LA).

Before this trip, I thought I knew what traffic was. In Pittsburgh, traffic was taking 45 minutes to travel a distance that should have been covered in 15. Then I moved to New York City, where traffic was streets full of taxis all swerving and rear-ending one another to get around buses, through red lights, and over bridges. Traffic meant taking two hours to go twenty miles. However, I discovered that I never really knew the definition of traffic until I arrived in LA.

Gridlock is a way of life in LA—headlights shine directly into taillights at every conceivable hour of the day. We sat in traffic when D___ picked me up at 5:30pm, when we went out to dinner at 9pm, when we drove home from seeing Harry Potter at 11:30pm, and again on the way to the airport at 2pm. (There might have been some open road at 5am, but I never woke up early enough to check.) All in all, the inescapable feeling of being on a highway no matter where you are, combined with the frustration of endless traffic give the city a busy, congested feel that is very different from NYC. Instead of confronting countless people, you are confronting countless cars, which feels much more impersonal, but no less stressful. All in all, I wasn’t crazy about LA.

My feelings about LA surprised me, but not nearly as much as my feelings about D___. Prior to meeting him, all I had heard was how untrustworthy and inconsiderate he was. Honestly, if I were the one dating D___, I’d have broken up with him a long time ago. He didn’t manage to improve my opinion when he arrived to pick me up from the metro station, either, since he didn’t offer to help me with any of my luggage. (Not that I couldn’t handle it myself—I had carried it this far, after all—but it seems like something respectful to do for anyone, male or female, familiar or not.)

Once we got into the car, I was anticipating a tense, silent ride. However, D___ turned out to be a perfectly adept conversationalist; we talked about work, living in CA versus NY, sports, and of course, A___. By the time we got to UCLA, I was almost disappointed that our ride was over, because I knew as soon as we picked up A___, the dynamic would change. As I expected, as soon A___ entered the picture, she and I did most of the talking, and D___ just drove. However, this car ride and our subsequent interactions made me reconsider why A___ was still with this guy, and why she started dating him in the first place. Despite the past and future horror stories that would come to be told about D___, this interaction was enough to give him a second chance in my book.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The November Trip, Part 1B: The Frenchman

It began at dinner.

Most of the meals I ate during the Society for Neuroscience conference were in one of two hotel meeting rooms, where we ate the same salad with the same dressing, followed a main course with the same side of oily asparagus, all washed down by the same glass of water or iced tea. Thankfully, this particular dinner was celebrating one journal’s 30th anniversary, and so the venue was a real commercial restaurant where we would (presumably) be served considerably more exciting food.

Tables inside the restaurant were arranged to seat six, so the marketing manager and I sat down together at one table (we usually sat together at these events) and were eventually joined by three other gentlemen. The two gentlemen across from me were Korean and Japanese, respectively, and the man to my left was French. While we made a valiant effort to shout across our appetizers to one another, the Korean man, the Japanese man, and I eventually gave up at attempting to hold a conversation and settled for those sitting closer: for them, this meant the marketing manager; for me, this meant the Frenchman.

Although we had asked that the board members not bring guests, this Frenchman—let’s call him “Alex”—was just that: a guest. He had no official affiliation with the journal, or even with our publishing company. Consequently, instead of being a graying, wrinkled old scientist, Alex turned out to be a 30-something world traveler. He worked as a scientist and had his own lab, but he spent more time travelling to other labs around the world to consult on various scientific projects.

Throughout the dinner, we chatted about our various travelling experiences. I mentioned my study-abroad trip to England and told him of my twenty-four-hour excursion in Paris. He described his work in countries all over the world and told me he would be visiting New York City in early 2011. I enthusiastically told him that he should email me before he comes, and I will offer suggestions for what to see and where to eat. He thanked me graciously, and we finished the meal with further discussion of our jobs and our travels.

After dessert was served and everyone seemed to be starting on their final glass of wine (these scientists could drink!), I pulled my purse from under the table and extracted a business card for Alex. “My email address is on here,” I told him, “So just email me before you come and I’ll send you suggestions and stuff.”

This was when it happened. I don’t know what it was about that business card (it was plain white with simple black lettering, so basically as boring as possible), but his eyes lit up and he clutched it as though someone had just handed him a $100 bill. He thanked me as he stood and inserted it into his jacket pocket, reiterating his excitement to come to New York . . . and then he sat down in his chair and pulled it right up so that our knees were nearly touching. “Perhaps we will see each other when I come,” he added.

That should have been my red flag. I had mentioned having a boyfriend throughout dinner, but always in a broad way in a larger conversation. The marketing manager had been talking about football, and I had mentioned my boyfriend likes the Cowboys. A few of us were discussing Americanized Chinese food, and I had mentioned a restaurant that my boyfriend and I had yet to try, near our apartment, that had several rabbit dishes on the menu. I had not, however, brought R___ up in direct conversation with Alex. So, it was possible that he had missed those other comments. Or, alternatively, perhaps he simply wanted to see a familiar face in a foreign land, and so he now perceived me to be his “New York contact.” I could not fault him for that. If I went to France or Greece or China, I would much prefer to have a native show me the sites, whether friend or acquaintance.

So, as I tend to do, I gave Alex the benefit of the doubt and went with the latter presumption that he was just hoping for a local tour guide for his trip to New York City. We chatted a bit longer, with me inching my chair away little by little, and finally I got up in order to say my goodbyes. After I had shaken a number of strangers’ hands and given my regards to both my boss and the journal’s editor-in-chief, I grabbed my purse and slipped out the door. Even though I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, I felt that it was in my better interest not to say any special good-byes to Alex.

I had made it about halfway down the street when I sensed someone on the sidewalk behind me. Again, I consciously decided that it could be any board member who had left at the same time as me, and since all of the hotels were in approximately the same area, it made sense that we were walking the same direction. This assumption was ruined, however, when the steps behind me quickened and an arm was suddenly thrown over my shoulder.

“Where are you going?”

I shrugged off Alex’s arm and continued my brisk pace. “Back to my hotel.”

“Oh but it is so ear-ly.”

“I’m kind of tired. Still on East Coast time—you know. And I have to get up early for a breakfast tomorrow, so I’m just going back.”

“But you are so young! Come have a drink.”

“No, I really do have to get up early tomorrow.”

He sighed. “I will walk with you back to your hotel, then. Where are you staying?”

It turns out he was staying in the exact same hotel as me, right beside the conference center. I was terrified that he was going to try to walk me all the way to my door, but thankfully we were staying in different towers, so we parted ways at the entrance. Heaving a sigh of relief, I locked my door, turned out the lights, and fell asleep imaging how I would recount this story with maximum hilarity for my friends the following day.

The next morning, I woke up and checked my work email account, just to make sure no one had sent me anything urgent. There, in the sent box, was a message from Alex.

I am still working in my computer and I was thinking of you...It was a very pleasant dinner and I hope that you will have more time to discuss today evening about life, arts and more.

I deliberated on how to respond for the entire half hour it took me to get ready for the editorial board breakfast I was about to attend, and in the end I shut the lid of my computer without writing anything. I did have dinner plans, and going out for a drink after dinner (his second proposition in that email) was not a good idea, because it offered me no “out”—that is, no tactful way to say, “Sorry, gotta go.” I decided that if I saw him during the day (which was unlikely, considering that 40,000 people were attending this conference), I would just tell him that I had not checked my email.

The next morning, I wrote him a reply, apologizing for not seeing his email the day before and suggesting coffee between the end of the conference and the dinner I was scheduled to attend. When I checked my email later that morning, I had not received a reply, but just before noon, Alex showed up at our company booth.

“I leave today,” he told me, “So I am not free for drinks.” We shook hands, and he said that he would hopefully see me in New York.

But that was not the end. Over the next few days, I received two more emails, one of which I thought summarized the experience most appropriately:

I hope everything is fine for you. I don't know yet when I will come back in New York but I hope before next summer... My thoughts flashed back to the last time we met when I tried to chat you up! It was fun but not a real success....

There went my wistful hope that ours had been an innocent interaction. Upon recounting the incident to various friends, I was advised not to reply, and so I have not. I guess this means I’ll have to befriend someone else if I want a native tour guide in Paris, perhaps a Frenchwoman. . . .

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Brave

The Brave: A NovelThe Brave: A Novel by Nicholas Evans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I typically don't care for books set in Hollywood. The Brave, however, proves to be an exception. It is set in the west, both in the desert and in LA, and Evans provides just enough detail to "put the reader there" without delving into flowing, poetic descriptions of the landscape (which, often feel, detract from any compelling movement a book may have).

The settings in this novel create the tone, but the characters are who drive it. Contrasting the Tommy growing up as a younger brother, a son, and a victim with the grown-up Tom who has become a writer, a divorcee, and a dad was a stroke of brilliance on Evans' part. It allows him to tell two separate yet related stories simultaneously, while keeping the reader engaged in each. We care about Tommy, and we care about Tom, and we continue to read to find out how one develops and why the other has become who he is.

The Brave is a masterful story that speculates on how the roles of father, brother, and son can all converge in one person, and what makes a boy into a man.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Once Upon a ShopRite

If you want to people-watch without having to do much work, go grocery shopping in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. This is the time when anyone with a day job, from laborers to business professionals, get into their cars and drive to the local supermarket to “stock up” for the week. Spend five minutes in the store, and you’ll see shopping carts filled to the brim with everything from cereal, to spare ribs, to bottled water, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might even spot a shopping cart full of white bread.

That’s right: white bread.

This past Saturday, while I was standing in line behind a couple speaking Spanish, a woman holding a baby, a family of four pushing two overloaded shopping carts, and an old man holding a can of soup, I saw, in the line next to me, a couple behind a shopping cart completely filled with loaves of white bread. And not just plain white bread, but the day-old kind, marked with those bright orange ninety-nine-cent stickers. They must have had over thirty loaves of bread in that shopping cart.

Now, what could a person do with an entire cart full of day-old white bread?
  • Make stuffing for the entire Salvation Army. Twice.
  • Build a cheap gingerbread house . . . or an entire ginger-neighborhood.
  • Insulate a dog house.
  • Feed a lot of pigeons.
  • Create a collection of stylish coasters.
  • Leave a nice long breadcrumb trail from NYC to Boston, or DC, or maybe even all the way to Chicago!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The November Trip, Part 1A: Riding the Elevator

As I mentioned in the last post, I struggled with feeling “equal” and "grown up" at the Society for Neuroscience conference.  Part of it was my inexperience compared to both the publishing staff as well as the scientists, but another big part of it was my age--specifically the fact that the majority of the attendees I saw face-to-face were retirement-aged men.  The following is an appropriate illustration of my struggle.

[I am in my hotel, standing in the back corner of the elevator riding up to my room.  There are seven other people in the elevator with me, all of them having just entered on the lobby level.  Buttons 5, 12, 18, 20, and 23 are lit, and the elevator is rising to let people off.]

Awful lot of people in here.

Yeah, well gotta expect that, with forty thousand people, or however many attended this thing.

[Elevator dings.  Two people get off.]

[Looking at me]
You’re all tucked away in that corner back here.

Yeah, I’m getting off last.  Trying to stay out of the way.

[Elevator dings.  Another person gets off.]

[Looking at the elevator button console.]
You 23?

Mmmm hmmm.

[Elevator dings.  Doors start to open.  MAN 2 moves to get off, then looks over his shoulder at me.]

That’s funny.  I would have taken you for eighteen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The November Trip, Part 1: San Diego

For the past two years, I have arranged meetings and events at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference for Boss #1. I reserve rooms, choose menus, invite editorial boards, and create reports to be discussed at these meetings, all without ever seeing how the meetings actually operate. This year, after considerable petitioning on my own behalf, I was finally granted permission to attend the conference and experience the fruits of my labor. Thus, I packed a bag, boarded a plane, and set off for San Diego.

Unfortunately, because this was a work trip, I did not get to explore as much of San Diego as I would have liked. I did manage to eat at a few impressive establishments, run along the marina, and take walks around the downtown area, but the majority of my time was spent in the convention center or in a nearby hotel. However, travelling is all about new experiences, and I certainly had some of those.

Boss #1 is an oenophile (i.e. a wine lover and connoisseur) and therefore had me arrange for both red and white wine to be served at every one of his board meetings, with the exception of breakfasts. Consequently, within a forty-eight hour timeframe, I ate four different meals at which wine was served, plus two additional receptions.

Ordinarily I would decline this much alcohol, free or not. I don’t much care for the taste of alcohol, and I definitely don’t care for drinking around strangers. However, sitting around with strangers who are at least two if not three times as old as me and who only know me as “Boss #1’s Assistant,” I felt almost required to drink. I wanted to seem like more of a peer and less of a minion, and partaking of the “adult-like” portion of the meal—the alcohol—seemed one subtle way to do that.

Thus, I embarked on the tricky task of drinking enough to fit in while remaining completely sober. For an inexperienced drinker like me, this was a definite challenge. However, with eight occasions on which to practice (the four board meetings and two receptions I mentioned earlier, plus two dinners out with colleagues), I mastered my tolerance quickly.

Another trial-by-fire learning experience was determining which silverware to use. I am reasonably confident in my basic etiquette skills: put your napkin on your lap; wait until everyone is served to begin eating; don’t sip/slurp/spit your food, etc. However, I am unaccustomed to sitting down at meals where there are two or three forks, a couple of spoons, and a various assortment of cups. While I doubt that anyone was scrutinizing my eating habits, I know that my boss considers himself to be very cultured and refined, so I didn’t want to make him look bad by proxy.

One trick I remembered was to eat “outside in,” but at our very first meeting, the marketing director (whom I knew and therefore stuck to throughout the conference) claimed that the salad fork was the one above the plate. I followed his lead, but at the next meeting paid close attention to which utensils Boss #1 was using for which courses. As you may already know, it turns out I was right: the salad fork is the one farthest to the left. The dessert fork is the one above the plate.

After learning to “drink responsibly” and “eat properly,” I spent the remainder of the conference selling books, hunting for topics for books, and talking to scientists about writing books. Then, I had the pleasure of leaving work behind and reading a book on my two-hour train trip to Los Angeles. . . .

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Things I Take for Granted

We all take things for granted. Usually, the universe has elbow us sharply in the ribs before we look around and realize, "Gee, this part of my life is actually really great! Why didn't I appreciate it before?" Sometimes, we are lucky, though, and the reminder is a little gentler. We walk outside and smell crisp fall leaves or taste an exquisite piece of dark chocolate, and suddenly everything becomes more vivid, and we realize we have been dreamwalking through our lives.

For instance, I take living in-and-near NYC completely for granted. In fact, I ignore it on a daily basis. On a recent bicycle ride along the Hudson, I had one of those "Zen" moments in which I suddenly thought, "Gosh I am lucky to be living here. People travel from all over the world to see this place, and I don't even really look at it."

Things I take for granted include (but are not limited to):

  • A breathtaking panoramic view of the NYC skyline from the sidewalk immediately behind my office. Also visible approximately 4 blocks from my apartment.
  • Living within 0.5 miles of a state park. In such a cosmopolitan location, and for an active person like myself, this is truly a blessing.
  • Walking only 10-15 minutes to reach a major grocery store. Sure, it would be nice to drive when I am stuck carrying a gallon of milk, a carton of orange juice, a sack of flour, and twelve different canned goods, but I would trade mandatory driving for mandatory walking any day of the week. Even in the rain.
  • Commuting for only 25 minutes by public transit or 45 minutes walking to and from work. Some people spend three times that just sitting in traffic. I am spoiled.
  • The availability of virtually any kind of food, on any day of the week, at any time of day. And I love foreign food.
  • Easy, available, fast transportation to nearby cities. You can choose from at least five different bus companies to travel to Washington DC, Philadelphia, or Boston; you can take a passenger train to virtually any state in New England; and you can fly to pretty much anywhere in the world from La Guardia, John F. Kennedy, or Newark airport!
  • The opportunity to meet world-class athletes face-to-face. I have met swimmers who are training for and/or have completed the English Channel swim, internationally competitive cyclists, and Ironman finishers. Nowhere else in the world would I find such a concentrated group of amazing athletes living, training, and interacting with every-day people like me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Pocket Classics)Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's hard to believe that writing a bunch of useless crap is better than writing nothing at all. In fact, I find it nearly impossible. I want everything I do to have purpose, to have a use. I am efficient. I am economical. I am a perfectionist. If all of my writing consists of stream-of-consciousness ranting, what am I really accomplishing? Maybe I am just confirming the fact that I am incapable of writing anything worthwhile.

All of these thoughts and qualities are what have prevented me from writing anything other than the occasional letter or blog post for the past three years. What's more, the longer I go without writing anything creative, the more I doubt that I can do it. Maybe my past works were flukes. Maybe I've lost my skill to be a captivating writer. Maybe blog writing has eliminated my "writing endurance," and I cannot pursue anything that does not give instant gratification and/or feedback.

Writing Down the Bones directly addresses these types of fears, which keep Type A personalities like me from writing. The book is an instructional manual for "letting go" in order to recapture and harness one's creative self, which sounds too "Zen" to be useful, but which is actually essential to being a productive writer.
I intend to buy this book as a "writer reference manual" so that I can read passages for reassurance and inspiration whenever my "inner critic" tells me my writing sucks and I shouldn't waste my time. Other self-sabotaging writers should consider doing the same.

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Snapshot Book Review: Too Late to Say Goodbye

Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and BetrayalToo Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal by Ann Rule

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Way too journalistic.  I kept waiting for the storytelling to start, but eventually I just became too impatient and traded it back in to the library.

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Comcast Rant

Back when I had basic internet service, life was good. Comcast hooked up my modem, I bought a wireless router, and life went on. But then my boyfriend moved in, and he wanted cable TV. Now, although I do not own a television set, I have nothing against tv itself. Just because I have no personal motivation to in front of any screen other than the one on my laptop, I knew that if he was going to stay living with me, we were going to get a television and the cable service (to watch Sunday and Monday night football) to go with it.

As long as he bought the television set and paid for the cable, I had no problem with any of this. I even researched the various cable options for him. Granted, I was a little shocked when I arrived home one day to find a 46” HDTV sitting on the floor in the living room, but seeing as I didn’t have to buy the thing, I was not too perturbed. As expected, once the television arrived, R___ asked me to call and order cable service with the sports package option. Thus, with virtually no idea of how many hours of life were about to be needlessly lost from this simple action, I called Comcast and ordered the service.

Signing up for cable television was simple. The Comcast rep I spoke with told me—no, promised me—that we would get our cable box by Wednesday. I asked several times to be sure, because this seemed like awfully fast service delivery, since I was calling on a Monday; however, I assumed that they must be shipping it FedEx or UPS, and if they used next-day or overnight delivery, then perhaps it really would arrive in two days. Which was crucial, you understand, because the first football game of the season was happening on Thursday—and R___ wanted to watch it.

Tuesday came and went with no cable box. Wednesday passed the same way. By Thursday night, we were still staring at a blank, black television. Thus, I made my first “complaint” call to Comcast. As it turns out, I had been misled. The Comcast rep had actually meant that the cable box would be delivered next Wednesday, in spite of my insistence that the box arrive “in time for the first football of the game of the season.” Consequently, not only did R___ miss the first game of the season, but he missed all of the Sunday and Monday night games, as well. Needless to say, he was not a happy camper.

Finally, the box arrived, and we sat down to set it up. In addition to assuring me it would arrive by Wednesday, the original Comcast rep had convinced me that we would be able to set up the cable box ourselves. “Honestly,” he told me, “it’s senseless for you to pay $25 just to have one of our guys come out there for five minutes.” This sounded logical enough to me, and I’m all in favor of saving $25..

As you may have predicted, many hours and several tangled-up chords later, R___ and I were tired, frustrated, and still without cable. This led to my second night-long telephone call with Comcast. The rep I got this time seemed to barely speak English and, unsurprisingly, failed to successfully walk me through the installation. After issuing me seemingly identical instructions three or four times, she declared that a technician would need to come out and install it for us. Since I had been initially told that we could install it ourselves, I insisted that we not be charged for this visit—to which the rep agreed.

Because one of us had to be home in order to have the technician come install the cable box, we did not get cable service until several days later. When the technician finally arrived and set everything up, he informed us that the reason we weren’t able to get things set up ourselves was that a chord was missing from the materials that had been mailed to us. Furthermore, he informed us that because we have an HDTV, we needed a special HDMI cable box; the standard cable box we had received would only produce grainy, pixilated images. Now, this truly mystifies me. In this day and age, with so many people possessing Blue Ray players and HDTVs, why would cable companies not ask this sort of question when people sign up for service? The HDMI box even costs more, you would think it would be to their advantage!.

Once again, I called Comcast and was told that I would not be able to trade in the cable box by mail; I would need to go to a Comcast Center in order to make the swap. No sooner did I hang up the phone, when the bill arrived, showing charges for a full month of cable service. The technician had only just come one day prior, meaning that we had obviously not had cable service all month. Thus, I rang up Comcast yet again. On this call, I nearly yelled at the representative when she informed me that that we were charged from the day I ordered cable service, rather than from the day we actually began seeing pictures on our television. The rep promised a credit on our next bill, so I paid the current bill in full and began to make plans to trade in the cable box.

Of course, nothing concerning Comcast can be easy, and trading in the cable box was no exception. First of all, the closest Comcast center was over 2 miles away—an easy trip for anyone who has a car or a cheap bicycle. In my case, I was forced to take the light rail (public transportation) and then walk a quarter mile to reach the center. Before I even laid eyes on the entrance, I ran into a line of people that extended down the block. Yes, one person standing in line (or “on line” as they say here in NY and NJ), this is the line for the Comcast center. And yes, the center closes in one hour.

The most appropriate ending to this story would be my getting all the way to the front doors, only to have the closed in my face. Fortunately, I did make it inside and managed to swap my cable box for an HDMI box. Unfortunately, once I brought the thing home and unwrapped all of the chords, I found—lo and behond—there were no instructions. There were plenty of “order this additional service” fliers, but not one helpful word of guidance. Thus, I called Comcast once again.

This time, the rep directed to a manual on the internet (which, mind you, being a resourceful consumer, I had already tried to find myself), and walked me through a number of convoluted steps that were not even detailed on the internet manual. At the end of it all, I was told to leave the television on for 45 minutes, after which all of the channels would magically appear. Thankfully, this is exactly what happened.

As you may have anticipated, however, this is not the end of the story. When the next bill arrived, not only was there no credit for the un-received cable service, there was also a mysterious $14.30 charge for a “converter.” With no footnote indicating what a “converter” was, I called Comcast yet one more time. On this call, I demanded that the rep put apply the credit to my current bill while I waited on the phone line. This seemed failsafe, until I was informed that only one of the credits would go through. The mistaken cable charges were credited successfully, but credit for the $14.30 “converter”—which apparently was the charge for the technician who we were promised would work free of charge—would not go through.

Tired of fighting, I finally chalked the $14.30 up to a “peace of mind” charge, and hung up the phone. However, I recently checked out my next bill online, and guess what I found? Another $14.30 “converter” charge!

Time to start researching Verizon’s services . . . .

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: A Thousand Cuts

A Thousand CutsA Thousand Cuts by Simon Lelic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Thousand Cuts provides a compelling exploration into the politics of school administration, the psychology of bullying, and the barriers that sexism creates. The story is intriguing not so much because of a fast-moving or explosive plot but, because Lelic writes her novel as a character study told more like a mystery novel.

Detective Inspector Lucia May is intent upon uncovering the "real" story of a school shooting-suicide by a nerdy history teacher. As she delves deeper and deeper, she encounters extreme opposition from both the school and her own superiors and finds herself beginning to sympathize with the killer.

Told as a mixture of first-person testimonies and third-person narration, this novel flows easily between the two styles and builds a riveting story that tackles complicated topics with insight and poise. In a decade that has been rife with school violence, this novel emerges as one of the gems.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Veronica Decides to Die

Veronika Decides to DieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read about a third of the way through this book before deciding that finishing it wasn't worth my time. I wasn't as wild about The Alchemist as most other people I know who read it, but this novel is just intolerable. The plot and character development seem predictable to the point of being trite: Veronica tries to commit suicide because she sees life as static and aimless, fails, and gradually finds motivation to live again. Meanwhile she meets what are supposed to be quirky, interesting characters at the mental institution, all of which should make the reader question the idea of what sanity actually is.

However, I found the narration of this novel flat and tedious, its contents repetitive. How many times can we hear Veronica's dismal, boring outlook on life? And who decides to commit suicide out of apathy? It does not seem realistic, in my mind, nor does it make for a compelling novel.

If you want to read about a mental institution and to question sanity, pick up One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. It will be a much more worthy investment of your time and attention.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

You know you’ve left NYC when...

  • You buy a cup of tea at a gas station.
  • You get in line—not on line—to pay for your tea. (Although if you own a smartphone, you could be online in line. Wouldn’t it sound silly to be online on line?)
  • The guy in line next to you at the gas station announces he’s having blueberry coffee and a burger . . . for breakfast.
  • The friend of the guy in line next to you helpfully points out, “She’s having tea! That girl’s having tea,” and the burger-for-breakfast guy then turns to you and asks if you like tea.

A New Yorker would have actively ignored you...and his retarded friend. Then again, in New York you wouldn’t be buying tea at a gas station, and you would have been getting on line to pay for it. Nevertheless, whether you’re on the PA turnpike or in a NYC coffee shop, you'll still let your dad pay for the tea—but only if he offers, of course.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking Back

Coming home to Pittsburgh and seeing people from my past always puts me in a nostalgic mood. Inevitably, I end up paging through old photo albums, exploring nooks and crannies in my bedroom, and, of course, pulling out my old yearbooks. The longer I am out of high school, the more surprised I am every time I return to some of these signatures. Some of the messages are so over-the-top, it is hard to believe anyone was able to take them seriously.

Yearbooks also have superlatives, so here are some “superlative awards” for the best (and worst) signatures:
  • Most generic signature: You're a wonderful person and I am glad I had the opportunity to meet you. You are so talented, and on top of that you're one of the nicest girls I know. Thank you for making high school wonderful. Good luck with life after Woody High. Keep in touch!--LS
  • Most blatant admission of fault: Like I said on the back of the senior pic, after all our personal hardships I finally grew up and we ended on a high note. Thanks for all the good times. Good luck cause I know you'll crush in life.--MJ
  • Most unexpected source of nice words: You are undoubtedly one of the most intelligent people EVER! Not only that, but you work so hard for it. I don't think that anyone can claim that they have earned every good grade they've gotten like you can. (A___ and I def. can't.) Anyways, I have total confidence that you will be successful in everything you do in life and I hope you have that same confidence in yourself. You are destined to be amazing, enjoy your journey there. (You're the first person that I feel the need not to write "Good luck," because I know you don't need it!)--EB
  • Most memories packed into one signature: Truly, what would I have done without you this year? You were my living journal. I miss all the walks to school, but somehow we made it up and got all of our horrible teenage emotions reconciled. I love talking to you and pondering life. You are my neighbor and one of my best friends, and what more could I ask for? Sorry for always being late, but I have to stop and smell the flowers, you know? Maybe one day I'll be on time...but then it wouldn't be classic E___ :) From Barbies to Witch to mud pies and board games, feeding Twinkie, Junior High soap operas, block parties, driving and prom parental woes, sister troubles and being "half the brain" of the school--paper doesn't do us justice. Thank you for always editing my papers, stop biting your nails, you think way too much, and keep those sarcastic comments :) Never stop caring, Ali, always have hope. And I promise you many letters :)--EH
  • Most "sounds-like-the-writer" signature: Wow do you think I can fill this huge void. Well I guess I'm not going to try. Haha. I love you babe. However, I still haven't figured out why it is recipricated (stet). Hehe. I like that one ur the absolute last person I thought that I could say is my best friend when highschool (stet) ends and I'm sure that is grammatically wrong. I will never forget all our times. I do truly believe that ur are the person I've grown closest w/. Ur the best quality of person I've ever known. I'm gonna laugh if you marry somebody besides me because it's gonna be that laugh where I'm losing it and it's not actually funny. I have the sweetest deal ever w/you. I'm allowed to cheat, not cheat, w/e you wanna call it. I wouldn't do it anyway. I'm sorry for all the times I "forgot" about you. It's odd that I wrote this much. I'm stopping w/I love you. P.S. Probably see you all summer so no goodbyes.--BG
  • Most ridiculous signature: Screw your mom for prom. We have always been the writers, the intellectuals, the ones I hope don't stick our heads in ovens like most of the other great writers. I expect nothing but the best from you, I don't think time will seperate (stet) us much when we see each other after years of being away, it will be like no time at all. We have always and will always be connected at the eyebrow.--AL

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Perseverance, Heart, Adrenaline, and . . . Inertia (i.e. Rock'n'Roll Philly Half Marathon)

If there was ever a race I did not want to run, this was it. Originally, back in June, I signed up for the Philadelphia Rock'n'Roll Half Marathon thinking that it would serve as a good barometer for how well my training was going for the NYC Marathon. The full marathon was scheduled for early November, so the half marathon, which would take place in mid-September, would occur right around week 10 (out of 16) in my training. By that point, 13.1 miles should be a breeze.

Alas, this is not how things worked out. About halfway through my marathon training, I suffered an injury to my left thigh. This brought my training to a screeching halt. Not only could I not run for three weeks, but every step I took for that first week-and-a-half put me in excruciating pain. Unfortunately, living in New York City (or, in actuality, Jersey City--but a cosmopolitan location either way) is not conducive to bed rest. Literally every form of transportation requires walking, whether this means to the grocery store, to the subway, to work, or just down the three flights of stairs out of my apartment building. Thus, with the help of some anti-inflammatory drug prescribed to me by the othopedic surgeon I visited, I gritted my teeth and carried on.

Not one to give up without a fight, I attempted to run during week two of my recovery with minimal success. I couldn't even manage half a mile without pain forcing me to stop. Once I reached week three of not running, I eeked out two paltry three-and-a-half mile runs without crippling myself. It was progress, but it certainly wasn't enough.

The half marathon was to occur that Sunday (September 18th), and even by Thursday, I still hadn't decided what to do. Even if I could handle the pain, I was in no condition to run 13 miles. Swimming for an hour three days-a-week is no substitute for consistent multiple-mile runs. Yet, with the full marathon looming ever larger in the distance, I needed to know what my body could handle. If I could complete the half marathon, then maybe there was still a chance I could re-start my training in time to be adequately prepared for 26.2 miles in November.

So I went for it. I rode the bus ticket to Philadelphia, stayed overnight with my cousin and his wife, and, at 8 a.m. on Sunday, November 18th, set out on my 13.1 mile test.

And I made it. My goal was to run for the entire race and try to finish in under 2 hours, and I did. I can offer no plausible explanation for how I accomplished this other than through perseverance, heart, adrenaline, and inertia. Perseverance because I made it through the pain and exhaustion; heart because I am a competitor at the core; adrenaline because nothing can offer that boost of motivation and determination like being surrounded by thousands of runners; and inertia because sometimes it's easiest to just keep going.

It was painful, it was exhausting, and it offered me only the very faintest sliver of hope that I might be able to start training again for the marathon. Still, if I can summon the same degree of determination, with a little bit of luck and a considerable dose of healing, I still might be able to compete in the NYC Marathon.

Regardless of my finishing time, the Rock'n'Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon was one of my most challenging and, therefore, impressive athletic accomplishments. I proved to myself that perfect training isn't everything, that heart and determination can get me through a lot, too. So regardless of if I race in November or not, it's my heart and determination that will carry me through whatever challenge I tackle next.

Race LengthFinishing TimeAverage PaceOverall PlaceGender Place (All Women) Age Group Place (F20-29)
13.1 miles1:43:577.55/mile 1974/15411452/8641 68/966

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Private Life

Private LifePrivate Life by Jane Smiley

I just could not get into this book--even though I read it halfway through! It never created any suspense or the slightest mystery, and the only reason I read as far as I did was because of the author's good name in literature. I liked A Thousand Acres and I liked Moo but Private Life moves too slowly.

That being said, I would expect Jane Austen fans to like this novel. It is set closer to that time period, and just had the same sort of impatient feeling as when I was reading Emma: "Hurry up and get on with the plot!"

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Slap

The SlapThe Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent both for content and for narrative design. The pivotal event comes early in the book, but its significance is never lost as its consequences unravel differently for each character who bears witness. The differences between the perspectives, beliefs, and lifestyles of each character are enhanced by Tsiolkas' decision to narrate each chapter from a different character's perspective. By the end of a chapter, that narrating character's motives and reactions become apparent, as he or she seems sympathetic in the eyes of the reader, even if the reader may not agree with that character's choices or worldview.

A wonderful telling of the intricacies and nuances of relationships and loyalties between friends and relatives alike.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best

Growing up, I always wanted to be “the best.” Whatever I did, whether it was sports or music or school, I had to be better than everyone else around me.

This is not to say I was completely unrealistic. I knew I’d probably never become a WNBA star, but I at least wanted to have the best foul shot on my team (even if we did lose every game of every season we ever played). I never aspired to become a concert pianist, but I still had to stay ahead of my sister, who was getting better year after year. And maybe I wasn’t going to be dubbed the next Albert Einstein, but as long as I got better grades than everyone else in my classes, those qualified me as “best” in my book.

The older I got and the more my world expanded, however, the more people I met who were better at the things I did. This revelation was made particularly salient when I went to college. There, I discovered that “hard working” will never truly mean “smart,” and no matter how much I studied, there were some subjects that I would never master. Also, I had to train for two summers just to walk onto the swim team. This forced me to face a situation where I would likely be the worst at something; I would have to work extra-hard just to meet the most basic requirements of the team.

Then I moved to New York City and discovered, once-and-for-all, that there is not and will never be anyone who is “the best” at anything, because you will always meet someone who can one-up you. You think running ten miles is an admirable accomplishment until you meet people who run half-marathons. Then you run 13.1 miles, and then people are talking about having run 26.2. You think once you run a marathon, you will have achieved some sort of unique life accomplishment . . . until you meet former Olympic triathletes and Ironman competitors and English Channel swimmers. That’s when you realize that there is always going to be someone (or more likely several someones) who have done more, gone farther, finished faster.

This realization leaves only the barometer of yourself. Race yourself. Beat the clock. Unfortunately, I am discovering that even living up to that bar may prove impossible. What athletics I do now pale in comparison to the time, energy, and effort I put into college swimming. So how do you feel good about yourself when you fall short of your own abilities? Are you supposed to be satisfied with a lower bar? Change your priorities? “Grow up?”

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: SuperFreakonomics

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceSuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

by Steven D. Levitt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just as good as its predecessor, SuperFreakonomics is an easy, engaging, fascinating read. It makes economics interesting and provides the "why" to questions most people probably never think to ask.

One diversion (and improvement) this book takes from the Freakonomics is the association of two unalike things: a street prostitute and a department store santa or Al Gore and Mt Pinatubo, just to take two examples from the table of contents. Using these similes to arouse reader interest is a subtle literary tactic that gives variation to the standard Q&A format this book could easily take.

With the success of this follow-up, I can imagine these books becoming a series. If they do, I will certainly read it!

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Alcohol Acceptance

I’ve never felt comfortable around alcohol. I’ve been called judgmental, but I don’t think that is true. I don’t look down on others who drink; I just don’t feel comfortable in their presence.

Much of my discomfort, I believe, is due to my childhood experience. I grew up in a household where having a drink signified a special occasion. My parents rarely drank, and when they did, it marked a holiday or some other celebratory event. My mother never drank (and still doesn’t drink) more than half a glass of wine at a time, and my dad might have two or maybe three glasses of wine, at best. Beer was a rare and unusual guest in our refrigerator, since no one in my family drank it, and although we had a nearly-full liquor cabinet, it probably hasn’t been touched since before my sister or I were born.

To me, this makes the idea of having a casual beer with dinner or drinking a glass of whiskey before bed almost outrageous. The practice seems a caricature of American life: something shown on television or in the movies, but not an activity undertaken by people in real life.

Then, of course, I grew up. First, I went to college, where alcohol was illegal for most students, yet consumed in excess. Here, drinking still marked a special occasion—it was just occasion of drinking. Which, of course, was celebrated almost every night. The quantity and frequency with which it was consumed didn’t make me feel any more comfortable around alcohol; actually, it made me even less comfortable.

I really did try to engage in “college life”: I attended various parties and attempted to participate. I played beer pong, so long as my partner drank the beer, and some friends even let me play flip-cup with water. These instances were, however, rare. Most parties were just loud, rowdy, drunken stupid debauchery. I had no desire to act foolish or out-of-control in the company of other foolish teenagers . . . so suffice to say, I rarely had a good time.

Then, I graduated and moved to New York City. Here, drinking is equally ubiquitous, but people regard the activity much more casually. Attending happy hour is the most popular and acceptable way to be social, and no one looks at you twice whether you are sipping your first glass of wine or polishing off your fourth mixed drink.

It is in this atmosphere, and under the pressure to be “social,” that I have begun to relax my attitude toward alcohol. In doing so, I have confirmed that I really don’t like the taste of alcohol. I will only drink wine that tastes like juice (i.e. Manischewitz, Sangria, or Riesling), beer that tastes like pop (i.e. hard cider…or “hardly alcohol” as some might say), or shots that taste like candy (excepting tequila, which I will admit to enjoying).

Furthermore, I may have relaxed my attitude toward alcohol, but that has made me no more relaxed about the act of drinking. I still find regular nightly drinks to be an odd phenomenon (and regard the possibility of the drinker’s dependency with suspicion), and I feel no more comfortable around drunken friends or colleagues now than I felt around drunken friends or acquaintances in college. Since I have permitted myself a happy hour or two, though, I have found much more acceptance and camaraderie with my “adult” friends and colleagues than I ever felt with my fellow college students. And that is worth the two hours and $20 spent . . . whether I’m comfortable or not.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For me, Margaret Atwood is a very hit-or-miss writer.  I loved Oryx and Crake, but I was less impressed with its sequel, The Year of the Flood.  The Handmaid's Tale would probably make my top 25 favorite books, and I adored The Penelopiad, but neither Bodily Harm nor Dancing Girls thrilled me much.  In spite of having won the Man Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin ended up on my "Atwood flub" list.

The various plot lines contained within the book are, independently, riveting.  The characters are very well drawn and appropriate for the time period when the novel takes place.  However, when rolled altogether, The Blind Assassin is not a compelling novel.

In some novels, it is okay to know what happens at the end of the story at the beginning of the novel.  (I.e. a character dies, someone is murdered, a couple breaks up.)  These novels are constructed to explain what caused the ultimate outcome, shown to the reader at the very beginning, and they maintain suspense because by leading the reader in a variety of possible directions.  The Blind Assassin fails in this attempt, because you feel suspicious of the dead character, Laura, from the start.  You see her instantly as someone who would be inclined to take her life and become less and less interested in why she chooses to do this because, by her very eccentric nature, it's inevitable.

The idea of multiple converging stories-within-stories is a good one, but in my opinion, was executed poorly in this novel.  I had little trouble following the story "Blind Assassin" within Atwood's larger novel and keeping it separate in my mind, but I saw little relevance to having it embedded within the story Iris was telling, about her sister--even if Laura (the sister) wrote it.  Personally, I would have preferred to read a completely independent book that contained only that story, because I enjoyed its lack of exposition more than the sections of the novel written in present time.

Just so you (the uninformed reader) are not confused, the novel was set up like this:  the frame of the novel is present-day, when Iris (the narrator) is old, and Laura (her sister) is already dead.  Iris sets out to tell the story of why/how Laura died, which takes place starting in the sisters' childhood and is the first meta-story within the novel.  Then, interspersed throughout Iris' narration is a fictional (?) story Laura wrote about a pair of lovers, called "The Blind Assassin."  This is the second meta-story.  In Laura's story, the male lover tells the female lover an ongoing fictional story about a blind assassin, which creates a third meta-story:  a story, within a story, within a story.

As I said:  good idea, poor execution.  I got bored with Iris present-day life and the overabundance of exposition that went into her telling of hers and Laura's childhoods.  So much so, in fact, that I skipped the last five or ten pages of the novel in order to start a new one.  I had known the result of the story from the first fifteen pages, and nothing new was going to be revealed to me in the last fifteen.  I did not feel particularly concerned with what happened to Iris, so I just quit reading.

Atwood is admittedly a skilled novelist, able to juggle more than one storyline at a time.  Hopefully her next novel will prove more captivating than this one.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Iron Heart

Iron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back from the DeadIron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back from the Dead by Brian Boyle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The fact that this story is true is its saving grace. That a human could go from being a coma patient to finishing an Ironman competition is incredible. As an athlete, I see Boyle's story as nothing short of miraculous inspiration. However, as a book, Iron Heart stinks. Boyle is clearly not a writer, and while I respect the fact that he did not employ someone else to write his story for him, he must have at least had some sort of ghost writer helping him along--which doesn't speak well for that individual. The writing is simplistic, which in some cases could be effective; here, however, it makes the story sound flat. In spite of the horrific details Boyle presents about his condition and prognoses, the reader never feels a sense of horror or urgency at all, anywhere throughout the book.

Perhaps this is because of Boyle's incurably optimistic, sunny attitude. He portrays himself as a survivor (which he is!), but his tireless optimism shines through even his descriptions of the most (seemingly) hopeless events. Even when he tries to describe himself as feeling "down," those period only last a paragraph or too, and then he's back to blinking for the sake of his parents, or walking to prove the doubters wrong, or biking to keep his sponsors.

I don't discredit Boyle's experience or personal trials at all. However, I am disappointed by the presentation of what should be such a mind-blowing story. My mind was not blown. In fact, if I were not interested in eventually competing in triathlons myself, I probably would have been so un-enthralled with this book as to have returned it to the library half-read.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Contact Sports

When people think of sports that involve a lot of contact, they usually come up with ones like football or boxing. The thing about those sports, though, is they are supposed to be physical. In football, you bulk up so you can withstand getting body-slammed by a 250-pound man. The running back knows that once he has the football, it’s going to be one brutal hit after another, and any wide receiver knows that a beautiful catch usually ends with an equally gruesome tackle. As for boxing, if you’re not getting hit, you obviously haven’t entered the ring yet.

Other sports, however, are not supposed to be physical. Like volleyball. In volleyball, all the players on the same side of the net are on the same team. The opponents are on the opposite side of the net; therefore, there is no way to bully them in order to gain a physical advantage (as in football, basketball, soccer, etc.). However, some of my worst sports-related injuries have come as a result of contact on the volleyball court: a blocker landed on my ankle, a back-row player elbowed me in the neck (while going for a pass that was clearly coming to me, I might add), and a ball was served straight into the back of my head. Volleyball might be classified as “non-contact,” but clumsiness can lend any sport considerable brutality.

Then there is swimming. Swimming is most certainly a non-contact sport: apart from swimming in the same pool, you don't even interact with your competitors! However, I have lately discovered that swimming is only a non-contact sport if a) you are competing in a swimming pool with clearly divisive lanes and b) if the pool is relatively empty.

In recent months, I have obtained significant bruises as the result of clumsy swimmers in overly-crowded pools. One guy swimming in the opposite direction in my lane came down on my wrist so hard that it instantly turned blue-ish purple. Not only did my wrist swell to one-and-a-half times its normal size, but the man's thumbnail made a cut that turned into a permanent, moon-shaped scar. Another guy (also swimming in the opposite direction) was swinging his arms so widely that he literally punched me in the face, forcing the nosepiece of my goggles to slice open the bridge of my nose. And then there was a woman in a nearby lane who swam so close to the lane rope that she breaststroke-kicked me in my quad and left three little cuts with her toenails.

These are all accidental injuries, though, and all acquired while practicing in a public pool. It gets much worse when you engage in an actual competition outside of a neatly sectioned-off pool. At a traditional swim meet, you are disqualified for crossing any body part into a competitor’s lane, never mind making physical contact with the swimmer. In open-water races, however, it’s every man (or woman) for himself. Everyone clumps up into a big mob at the start line (which is usually in the water, so you’re all treading), and when the whistle blows, everyone starts punching, kicking, biting . . . basically everyone drowns one another to get to the front of the pack. And they say swimming is non-contact!

The other sport (the only other sport I "play," in fact) that people mistakenly classify as non-contact is running. Running has an incredible amount of contact—with the pavement! Knee injuries alone demonstrate the physicality of the sport; you don’t get those kind of injuries from tiptoeing across a mattress. Tracks are slightly more cushioned, but imagine trying to train for a marathon on a quarter-mile track: you’d get dizzy! (Never mind bored.)

I may have stopped playing basketball because I wasn't good at bullying the other players (i.e. "Be more aggressive, Goldstein!), but apparently I am still very involved in contact sports!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Butcher Boy

The Butcher BoyThe Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I had to put this book into a category, I would classify it with Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho, only less elegantly written.

The novel starts out fairly easily, engaging the reader with promises of a dysfunctional family and schoolboy rivalries, all while the reader grows accustomed to choppy first-person style of narration. (The novel is told by the main character, an Irish schoolboy named Francie.) Gradually, suspense builds as the reader's suspicions are aroused by the odd treatment of Francie by the other people in the novel. Eventually his paranoia becomes apparent, and while the readers no longer trust Francie, we must travel through the story along with him, since his is the only viewpoint we have.

I saw in one review that this book is like a mash-up of Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange. In terms of concept and style, I agree; however, I enjoyed both of those books all the way through to their conclusions, whereas two-thirds of the way through this book, I could see where it was headed, which was into the blank incoherent abyss of madness. Unfortunately by that point I was too far into the book to put it aside, and I continued to hold out (in vain) for McCabe to recreate any feeling of suspense. This is what Ellis did better: he kept the reader waiting and wondering and fearful, not so much about what the next gruesome horror might be, but of what the outcome of that horror could be, the backlash, and if it would ever occur.

Horror for the sake of horror and insanity for the sake of insanity are gratuitous, and eventually that is how I felt about this book. By its end, I don't feel I learned any lesson, nor did I feel compassion for a single character in the novel. I didn't feel any empathy for Francie, nor did I pity any of his victims. Thus, I was left wondering what the purpose of the book was. McCabe's ability to portray Francie's descent into madness via his increasingly manic and confused narration is admirable; however, it does not automatically make for a laudable novel.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Firegirl

FiregirlFiregirl by Tony Abbott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a really nice book...for a middle schooler. The lesson taught is simple and straightforward, yet Abbott doesn't hit his reader over the head with it; instead he illustrates it with his story as though drawing a picture with a bold-tipped marker. The characters are simple but also relatable, and the simplicity lends itself well to the main character Tom's discovery of life's difficult "gray areas."

This is a book that would benefit from being taught in middle school. I hope it is added to someone's curriculum somewhere, because it is important to discuss the issues Abbott raises: both childhood politics, inner vs. outer life, and conflicted emotions.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

People Rage

Ever run late to catch an airplane? You’re careening through airport corridors, stomping your foot impatiently at a family of seven in front of you in the security line, hurdling two senior citizens on your way to Boarding Gate Z, waving your ticket in the impassive faces of airport personnel, and are just managing to climb over the obese guy in the aisle seat when the captain comes on and informs everyone that “due to a problem on the runway, the flight will be delayed. Please stand by.” Makes you want to punch someone.
Now, imagine feeling like that every day. In every line. Every time you step one foot outside to go anywhere.

This is what I call people rage: it is the impulse to shove senior citizens through doorways, kick small children off sidewalks, and push tourists down escalators. Basically, anyone obstructing me from getting to my destination qualifies as a target of my rage. Teenagers walking three abreast should know better than to take up the entire sidewalk. NYC is not one giant game of red-rover! And overly large umbrellas should be banned in crowded cities. I don’t want my eyeballs poked out just because some lady needs to preserve her hairdo. God forbid that same woman starts down the subway stairs in front of me, wobbling on her 3-inch stilettos while yapping away on her cell phone. Someday I am going to snatch one of those things from someone and shove it up their rear end.

One thing is for sure: I am not alone. Just stand in Grand Central station for five minutes at the beginning or end of any workday, and you’ll see thousands of people who operate exactly like I have just described. Watch people catch the subway home. A lesson I learned while living in Queens is that a subway car is never too full; you just have to be willing to elbow your way in and endure standing on top of someone’s toes while smelling another person’s greasy hair for the duration of your commute.

Shared or not, my newfound aggression kind of scares me. I was terrible at basketball because I never “got angry,” and now I’m fantasizing about punching grown men who stand obtrusively on the left-hand side of the escalator (which, for those of you who don’t know, is the “passing lane;” the purpose is to leave it clear for those people who treat escalators as speed enhancers rather than as a carnival ride). Is this the product of living in a city packed with 19,000,000 other people? A form of “survival of the fittest?” Or is it a character trait that has finally surfaced, thanks to a few environmental prompts?

I try to tell myself that there’s no reason for such a big hurry. So what if I miss my train? Another one will come (even thought I will probably have to wait at least 20 minutes, knowing my luck). Life will not grind to a screeching halt if I am five minutes late getting somewhere. (Except in airports—then things get a bit trickier.) Arriving at the gym at 4:55 will not make me any healthier than if I arrive at 5:00, and getting out of the grocery store three minutes faster will do nothing but put me back in my insanely hot apartment sooner. So why, when stuck behind a meandering couple on the sidewalk, do I huff impatiently to myself and step out onto the street?

There is one scarier thought: is this an irreversible change? If I move to the suburbs, will I eventually end up in the news as the lady driver who pulled a Colt .45 on the guy in the pickup truck who cut her off at the traffic light?

So far, the most I’ve done is accidentally bump an old lady with my bicycle on a subway staircase. In typical “enraged” fashion, she cussed me out. I apologized. She ignored me and kept ranting. (But I’d rather have jumped on my bicycle and driven right over her!)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The Solitude of Prime NumbersThe Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What this book needed was redemption.

The novel is an odd love story of self-betrayal and disappointment. Giordano does a fantastic job of keeping the reader's interest be creating characters just unique enough to intrigue us and just aloof enough to keep us turning the pages. However, enough sad and disturbing choices are made that halfway through the book, what we are reading for is redemption. What we want is an "aha" moment and at least a small flicker of hope that "everything will be okay."

Unfortunately, Giordano does not offer us that. By the three-quarter mark in this novel, I realized that no salvation was going to come to either of the main characters. Were Giordano's writing not so lyrical and therefore captivating (and were I not so stubbornly hopeful), I would have put the book down and picked up something else. However, I dutifully read through to the end, and was just as disappointed as I had expected. It's a shame, because as a reader, you start out feeling sympathetic toward Alice and Mattia. By the end, though, you are so fed up that you have no qualms leaving them to their lonely, self-destructive ways. Like in counseling, if neither one wants to get better, then there's no use trying to help them...or in this case, read about them.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I Write Like

Apparently, according to a newly developed online algorithm, I write like different authors depending on my subject matter. Who would have thought?
  • Athletic/racing posts = David Foster Wallace
  • Personal stories = Dan Brown
  • Book reviews = H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe
  • Beyond the Bench (science) posts = Arthur C. Clarke or Douglas Adams

Excellent versatility, wouldn't you say?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story by Annabelle Gurwitch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven't read a laugh-out-loud book in a long time. However, when I read Anabelle's passage about Jeff's nude-ar (a male homing instinct that enables this gender to instantly materialize the moment a woman even touches the hem of her shirt), I busted up. And the amusement did not stop there.

Annabelle and Jeff write in alternating passages about the trials, tribulations, and downright horrors of being married. They disagree about pretty much everything and make a sport out of depicting the other as "more wrong." Simultaneously, they strike terror into the hearts of unwed readers, while depicting marriage as an enviable state full of frustration, amusement, and security.

I am one of these unwed readers, and I found the book uproariously funny. I would imagine that married readers would enjoy it even more.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Stars and Stripes Aquathlon

Imagine jumping into a river with 250 other people and then trying to swim through two buoys, approximately 20 feet apart. All at the same time. And yes, everyone wants to be the first through the opening, because this is a race.

That was my experience today, as I participated in the NYC Swim association's Aquathlon. I got kicked, punched, slapped, and pummeled from all directions as I and the other 279 participants attempted to get through two buoys, 1.5k down the Hudson, and up the ladder back to land--at which point we were by no means finished. Then there was the task of shedding our goggles and cap (plus a wetsuit, for those swimmers who wore one), donning our socks and sneakers, and racing up the West Side Highway, from 56th to 83rd street, and then back down again--a 5k run that completed the race.

My results are below. Overall, I am pleased with my performance, seeing as it is my second-ever open water race and also my second-ever mutli-event competition. I'd like to see it as one step closer to becoming a triathlete (because having completed one sprint-length triathlon last summer does not qualify me for the title of "triathlete"); however, I'm not sure whether I'm going to summon the motivation to dive into competitive cycling.

In the meantime, I have other concerns. NYC marathon training starts this week, so long run updates will be coming soon. Stay tuned....

Race Length (swim/run)Overall TimeSwim TimeRun TimeOverall PlaceGender Place
1.5k (1 mile) / 5k (3.1 miles)00:51:06:2000:27:44:9500:23:21:2522/2805th

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Lie

The Lie: A Novel The Lie: A Novel by Chad Kultgen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I would like to give this novel three or four stars. For about two-thirds of the book, Kultgen had me sufficiently intrigued to where I expected to give the novel at least a three-star rating. I was in college recently enough to identify with the three narrators, or at least to recognize and appreciate their outlooks on college life. (For instance, I didn't exactly whore around or base my life upon getting into a particular sorority, seeing as I never even rushed, but I at least recognize Heather's character, even if I cannot identify with it.)

However, once the nature of the particular "lie" the book is based upon became apparent--in spite of all the other intriguing lies that propped up the plot and kept the book moving along--my interest in The Lie wanted considerably. I did finish what seemed to be a painfully long denouement, more because I was desperate for some form of redemption for at least one character (which never came) than because I was still interested in the Kultgen's narrative.

All in all, a promising start that dwindled out to an overly-depressing finish. Only worth recommending to fans of Requiem For A Dream.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

JP Morgan Corporate Challenge Race Results

The Corporate Challenge is, quite simply, the physical manifestation of the term "rat race." The event attempts to put thousands of non-runners in a race alongside 500 people who happen to know how to properly lace up shoes and keep their elbows at their sides.

I spent the first mile hurdling strollers and dodging hand-holding walkers, and then I spent the next 2.5 miles bleeding from a gash in my knee, after being tripped by someone who likely was not a cutthroat competitor.

Here are my results from a race I am NEVER running again. Next year, I'll volunteer to watch the bags.
Race LengthFinishing TimeAverage PaceOverall PlaceWiley Team Overall Place
3.5 miles26:197:31/mile 248/12,8965/116

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waning Athletic Ambitions

This weekend, I conquered another athletic hurdle: I swam two continuous miles “open water” in the ocean. This was both a physical and a psychological feat: having not swum more than 3500 yards in a lap pool, where the water is current-free and there is a wall every 25 yards to use for rest or propulsion (pushing off post flip-turn, for instance), I was unsure if I would be physically capable of swimming 3520 yards (i.e. 2 miles) in the choppy, salty, wide-open Atlantic. Granted, I have completed one other 2 mile open-water swim in my life: it was in a lake with my old club swimming team. However, this was about 6 summers ago, during which time I was averaging between 7,000 and 10,000 yards of swimming daily and attending double practices (one at 5 a.m., one at 8 p.m.) three times a week. And I remember that race being extremely exhausting.

The bottom line is that I did manage to swim two miles at Brighton Beach on Saturday and then went back and did it again on Sunday. Therefore, I should feel proud, right? Wrong. Instead, I feel slow and inadequate, since two swimmers I used to handily beat at “distance swimming” when we would convene for “practices” were far ahead of me on these ocean swims. It’s downright embarrassing, considering that both men had more-or-less just learned how to swim, while I was a former college swimmer. (Of course, I did get kicked off the team for being too slow…but I still completed all of the required training and competed for two full years.)

One would think that getting shown up by these swimmers (and consequently feeling slow and inadequate) would make me extra-motivated to work hard to improve. Ordinarily, that is how I would feel. Lately, however, my motivation to do anything athletic has been sub-par, at best, never mind my competitive spirit.

This lack of motivation is particularly worrying, as I need to begin training for the NYC Marathon in a few short weeks. I decided that maybe signing up for a race or two in between now and November 7th (race day) would help. It didn’t. Then I tried signing up for a swimming/running race to increase my interest in cross-training. It hasn’t. Then I thought maybe getting into triathlon training would save what little waning motivation I have left. However, I cannot even get myself to purchase a new helmet so I can ride the bike I have, never mind actually going through with a new racing bike purchase. (I figure that if I don’t even ride my current bike, why should I spend $1,000 on a fancy gizmo I am likely to break or worse: not use?) Plus, the more I think about it, the more work triathlons seem to be. There is so much gear you “need,” and on top of that expense, race entry fees are terribly expensive, and then on top of all of that there is the trouble of getting yourself and all of your gear to the race. I’m defeated just thinking about all of it.

Ultimately, this all boils down to my being tired of sports. “How can she be tired of sports?” you wonder. “She’s an athlete!” I actually wonder the same thing. However, this past weekend, when I went to swim at the beach, I met a slew of other open water swimmers, some of whom were triathletes, some of whom were just training for mere 25 mile swims around the island of Manhattan. And instead of being intrigued by all this talk of swimming and racing, I was just sick of it. I didn’t want to hear about BodyGlide and wetsuits and bodymarking. I just wanted to enjoy the activity for its simplicity—something I seem to be unable to do with any athletic activity anymore.

I am not sure how I will regain my love of athletic competition. I am hoping that marathon training will renew my vigor, but fear of injury is plaguing that enthusiasm from the outset. If even the NYC Marathon—one of the biggest running events in the country—cannot renew my motivation and excitement for running, I may have to try seeking a completely new sport. Perhaps I will look into curling . . . or better yet, power lifting!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: Losing My Cool

Losing My Cool: Growing Up with--and out of--Hip-hop Culture Losing My Cool: Growing Up with--and out of--Hip-hop Culture by Thomas Chatterton Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those "culture" books that everyone who ever believed a black stereotype should read. I count myself in this category. And actually, I think black people should read it, too. Because this memoir is accurate in ways that most "black culture memoirs" are not. It is a forthright, unapologetic, "inside-then-outside" look at what makes a majority (in this case, a black majority) ascribe to a certain set of beliefs and habits. Williams admits that he bought straight into the "treat women like they're dispensable," "money is the goal," and "act like Respect is something tangible that people will can steal from you if you don't defend it with life and limb" ideals. However, he then debunks them as his upbringing and further education open his eyes to the fact that these ideals are passed down from people with whim he has nothing in common (i.e. rap artists and the like).

Unfortunately, when Williams' story moves out of the realm of his "black culture" life and into his "newfound revelations," the book gets very tell-y: less showing and more explaining which, in turn, makes it more boring. By the end of the book, I truly considered skipping the last few chapters and in fact did skip the epilogue. There is nothing novel or interesting about someone writing, "I decided to cast aside my economics major--which I had only chosen because I imagined I could earn shitloads of money on Wall Street--and pursue philosophy because economics bored me to death and I found philosophy stimulating. I am so enlightened!" In fact, that sort of self-congratulation is annoying, because it assumes no one else has ever come upon such a revelation. Likewise, his epic decision to "defy stereotypes" and travel to France comes across as equally annoying.

Still, Williams' analysis of black culture and what creates, perpetuates, and limits it is on the mark. I think this memoir is worth reading, if only for that reason: we all need to understand each others' motivations and preconceptions, whether we agree with them or not. Understanding is the first step to appreciation and a necessary component of coexistence and, perhaps, change.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Snapshot Book Review: The Daughters

The Daughters The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dealing with issues like families, boys, and fashion, The Daughters is a very typical YA novel. The characters are stock, and the emotions expressed throughout the novel are even more cookie-cutter. Excitement = "Oh my god!" Worry = "Uh oh." Anger = "He's such a jerk!" The only vaguely intriguing character in the whole novel is the photographer who "discovers" Lizzie, and she is unlikely to play a prominent role in the series.

Perhaps I am merely too old to appreciate these sorts of YA novels, but I have read other books for this target audience (e.g. The Hunger Games) and found them deeper, more meaningful, and ultimately more compelling reads than The Daughters. It will likely be a successful sell to 8-12 year old girls, but I will not be on the waiting list for book two.

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