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!