Monday, December 31, 2012

Make room for better debate

You've gotta know that I respect the New York Times as a journalistic institution. I've defended its journalism even as I join in the mocking of its trend stories. Shrug. The trend stories--at least the fluffy ones--are harmless and amusing. The more serious ones questionable (a trend story on the struggles of low-income students should be based on more than two cases). But what really bothers me--what's always bothered me--is Room for Debate. It's a vapid waste of space. For a while, I thought it was just me, but this morning, the Times issued definitive proof that the section adds nothing to public discourse. You're the paper of record; do you really need to ask questions of people off the street--or, perhaps, people with credentials who add nothing more the the conversation than people off the street? The Style Invitational just published the following definition of a blogger: "someone with high self-esteem and a keyboard." Does anyone else find that the contributors to Room for Debate are just random people given column space?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The power of stories

There is much to love in Elif Batuman's "Stage Mothers." It was one of those beautiful reading experiences where my mind jumped from one idea to another without quite being sure I was done processing the preceding ones. First, I thought about when I first caught the theater bug--actually, it was a multi-stage (no pun intended) affliction, but I remember each hit. My parents didn't take me to much theater when I was a kid--as less than fluent English speakers, it would have been mostly lost on them, so they went to more ballet and opera. But when I first saw good plays, I was hooked.

Anyway, then I thought of that woman's transformation and how stunning and yet how natural it was. She reminded me of Susan Boyle, and then of Elaine Page's reminder that Susan Boyle didn't need a makeover, and that the best thing for her is to be true to herself. Which, of course, brought my mind to the words of Polonius (to thine own self be true), which I couldn't help but consider in contrast to those of my mother (be someone else so you can get a boyfriend).

But the big point of the article was the power of storytelling, and the power and privilege of reading and writing. Of creating and absorbing stories.

Sunday morning roundup

Rest in peace, Rebecca Tarbotton.

It's dangerous to be in possession of Afghanistan's "most famous artifact."

China's censorship is selective.

Why would anyone want to separate couples like these?

Why is the right to equal pay still a subversive concept?

The language of animals.

We may love our devices, but we still love our books.

Last-week roundup

There's nothing in the Times this morning; I'll get you the Post shortly. Meanwhile, here are the articles I tweeted last week:

Haiti's recovery is stalled and in shambles.

Ireland cuts it deficit and its trash with carbon taxes.

Bolivia cuts coca plantings with a licensing program.

Pain-med addiction takes a toll on babies.

Foxconn actually improved working conditions in its factories.

Cartoonists have broken out of syndication into a new era of creative freedom.

The people in these stock photos get some much-needed advice.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday evening roundup

Here it is, and it is awesome (hat tip to Priya for finding it). If you think the green frosting will be too much for the kids, it works really well with the chocolate "frosting" from the fondue (chocolate, almond milk, vanilla extract). Though I personally liked the frosting (but with a fraction of the sugar, which is what we did, and it was still super sweet).

Okay, this kind of thing irks me to no end because body acceptance is not an us vs. them thing. It's about encouraging and enabling women (and men) to love their bodies and accept themselves. Yes, I've complained about being on the other side of "are you anorexic?" type comments--and there was just an E. Jean column about that (but it's not online yet): it's never appropriate to tell someone they're too anything, unless it's a health concern, and even then, it should come from a place of caring, not judgment. So I can only roll my eyes at "real women have curves" attitudes: it's not anyone's place to define real women for the rest of us, much less based on curves. But it's even worse to feel victimized for being fit, and it's much worse to demonize women of different body shapes. This war is silly. Our bodies are ours: it's bad enough that advertisers and douche bags are claiming ownership rights by telling us what we should look like; let's not compound the issue by telling each other what we should look like.

The Onion speculates as to scenes in "The Hobbit."

The Year in Food.

Eat asparagus before you drink.

Saturday roundup and rambles

Death Valley is officially the hottest place on earth.

If you haven't yet checked out Nice Guys of OKC, go NOW. Here's a basic summary with some good pointers for the guys who are confused about what the problem is.

On a related note: you're not a man if you have to be a douche bag to earn your "man card":
Turning your female partner into a castrating mommy figure who you rebel against by drinking shitty beer with your buddies ain’t manhood the way that Steve McQueen would have done it.
But why, Mr. Solomon, must you undermine your own point by equating manliness with meat-loving?
Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, from “Parks & Recreation,” is a mustachioed, meat-loving man who loves woodworking and being emotionally distant, and he can follow the lead of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. 
Would Mr. Offerman the vegan be any less of a man?

On that note, here are some vegan cookie recipes and pictures of some of the awesome vegan food we made over the holidays.
Chocolate chili macadamia cookies

Vegan ravioli
The ravioli filling (pumpkin and spinach/artichoke)
Avocado chocolate cake

Seitan (about to go in a stir-fry)
The stir fry, with spicy peanut sauce
Avocado cake dipped in chocolate fondue
Home-popped popcorn (with olive oil, salt, and chipotle)

It's the time of year to reflect on... the year. I'm not really interested in rehashing things that I've already hashed about (mom conflicts and epiphanies, relationship and dating sagas, six countries--though only one of which was new), but I do want to hash about technology. The inspiration to hash came last night, on the train--for which I'd bought and shown the ticket from my phone--as I was reading the New Yorker on my iPad. But particularly when I tweeted to complain that Amtrak hadn't updated the train status on its app (we had to stop for a medical emergency, but the app was still showing an on-time arrival, and continued to do so through the actual arrival time). Amtrak immediately responded to my tweet and let me know of the updated time (I thanked them but informed them that the point was that the app still wasn't doing what it was supposed to be doing). For not the first time, I got an immediate customer response by kvetching on Twitter. But this trifecta--buying and showing the ticket on my phone, reading an issue that I hadn't yet gotten in the mail on my iPad, and dealing with an issue on Twitter--was not even on my horizon a year ago.

This time last year, I didn't have a smart phone and barely knew how to use one. When my coworker or then-bf was driving and asked me to do something on her or his iPhone, I would start out by poking at it like a monkey. In late March, I got my own smart phone--and it took me a good couple of months to figure out how to use it. In August, I opened a Twitter account to (1) share shorter, not-quiet blog-worthy mom statements and (2) call out AAdvantage for trying to screw me out of my bonus miles (and it kind-of worked). In November, I won an iPad. So here I am. I am now in a position to refer to the "devices" on which I access the internet, etc. I use apps. Yes, I know that everyone else was doing this five years ago, but it's new to me. It's kind of crazy. But I love it.

Behind the blog-title change

For those who aren't sure why this blog is no longer titled to reflect mom's obsession with my apparently ginormous gut, here's a compendium of posts that put the title change in context:
Mom is psychic
I radiate no warmth
Mom knows why I'm single
I'm an extremist 

My hair is too dark (and I'm harsh and cold)
You will never find a partner!
My self-imposed rules

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mr. Bittman says it all

Malnutrition in the form of overeating is now a bigger problem than starvation, and both are preventable by sane policy measures that could make decent and real food available to all. Contrary to the hysterical preaching of techno-agriculturalists, there already is enough real food to feed everyone on the planet; there simply isn’t access.
More here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tuesday evening roundup and ramble

I love the idea of a shut-up toy but experts think an iPad is not the best thing for your little ones.

The silver lining of the Mayan apocalypse.

I was walking to an event today when I saw a woman walking a few steps ahead of me. She was slouching and looking down. I don't know what's going on in her life--whether she was having a bad day or whether she was perfectly content with life and with bad posture--but it stood out in a city where women overwhelmingly stand up straight, dress well, and walk proudly. Maybe that one woman would consider the rest of us vain.

A related topic came up recently--in response to Richard Cohen's idiotic column on how James Bond makes him feel too unfit to date much younger women: there's this apparent stigma on people who exercise. It's like we're self-obsessed and uninterested in the written word. It's as if taking care of oneself is a sign of vanity.

Allow me to quote from the above-linked article:
Worrying about the way you look doesn't mean you live in your own little, insulated world where you don't understand that there is also war and massive human rights violations and global warming and animal cruelty. Worrying about the way you look is a form of awareness and sensitivity to the world around you. You are influenced by your environment because you are paying attention.
Thinking about the way we look is probably almost never the only thing that anyone thinks about. Our brains are far too lively and complicated for that. But ignoring the hangnail doesn't make it go away. And being made to feel guilty for it is just ridiculous.
I have to admit, and I think I've admitted, that I hated caring about my weight. Not only because it was stressful to care about my weight, but because I felt petty and vain caring about my weight. It's not like I was unaware that there was a world around me, but I still cared. And I'm still aware that there's a world around me, and I'm actively reveling in being thinner. If you believe dampening the happy-weight festivities in my soul will bring peace to the Congo and solvency to Greece, please explain. I'm listening. If you think it'll make Aesha feel better about her face, tell me how. Otherwise, quit calling people who care about their appearance, vain.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday evening roundup

The things I miss when I leave the country! It doesn't shock me that Richard Cohen is a dirty old man, but I don't have much to say about it beyond what Jezebel already does. I can second all that, from personal experience: many men who consider themselves sophisticated apparently think that's a reasonable excuse to let themselves go. I can also second the offense in one of those commentaries: as a woman who spends a fair amount of time exercising--for myself, because I like it; because it's good for me; and because it makes me feel good--I not only resent the implication that it makes me the female equivalent of a meathead (would that be a bimbo?) but also the fact that, empirically, it's bullcrap: exercising makes you smarter.

Let's also take a minute to discuss this apparent male victimhood trend. I was thinking, as I was watching the misogynistic "Ruby Sparks," that what insults women also naturally insults men. For example, Tracy McMillan's reduction of all men--in the service of dating advice to women--is just insulting to men. The very dating advice that I so often hear--don't be too smart, don't be intimidating--is f*ing insulting to men.  Maybe MRAs could tackle that.

Sunday morning roundup

The "never-ending nightmare" that is Congo.

The case against military intervention in Syria.

Russia's protesters are still going, albeit in smaller numbers.

Do stumbling stones individualize and humanize victims, or focus unduly on victimization?

Demand truth in food labeling, including in restaurants.

Whether someone's too thin to be pregnant may be a fair question--though the question should be about eating enough, not how thin she is--but an even more relevant question is whether someone's too overweight to be pregnant.

Is there hope for Moscow's non-neighborhoods?

In case you were interested in what ailed the writers you read in school.

Jews, apparently, are not ready for female rabbis

Alexandria's federal courthouse is quite the prosecution hub.

Is another era of smart films upon us?

Wow, this guy really gets my family experience. An example:
My family is always late to pick me up at the train station in Boston. They understand the arrival time to mean the time they should leave the house, 20 minutes away. The station is usually cold — this isn’t bracing, it’s annoying. But, bonus: nearly a half-hour more to fester.
There is an easy solution: take a cab. A line of them awaits, eager and willing, one last anonymous stalling until the joy begins. My offers are constantly rebuffed though. That would be too simple. And also, why start the visit on a good note?
What happens next is noise. My family has never met a silence they didn’t want to fill, a question they didn’t want to ask.
I came to accept why we couldn’t have a tree. Reason: Jewish. (My older brother could never understand why I wanted a tree. I could never understand why he didn’t understand — was he unaware of what was under those things?) The abundant chatter is a more secular concern. It persists, out of nerves, maybe, or love, most likely both. Neither is a hanging crime. It’s a crowded time, these several weeks, and you have to be a saint to make it through unscathed. Luckily my family doesn’t believe in those either. 

It's all still copy

Whether or not to give to good organizations that violate my food-related ethics isn't my only, or most pressing, ethical dilemma. I'm struggling with the fact that mom isn't aging well, and that even her increased nastiness may be a function of her physical ailments. Dad seems to think it is.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to be less prolific in transcribing that nastiness. I still have to deal with it. I still have to deflect it. I love my mother and I'm going to continue to interact with her to the extent that my sanity permits (and this holiday season, that means I won't be visiting). She picks fights with dad almost every day; this means she'd pick a fight with me almost every hour. Which doesn't help anyone, much less dad. Besides, she's still not talking to me after the fight over the phone--for those of you not following me on Twitter, she got very angry and said that talking to me made her want to vomit when I asked if she could perhaps tell me later about accessing the streamed opera she'd seen online, since I wasn't in a position to take it in or write it down. It was late in Sweden, and work issued me a phone (don't get me started about how unusable the Blackberry is as anything but a phone, that's a rant for another time) that I was perfectly within my rights to use for personal calls, but I didn't want to abuse that, and mom was going on and on and repeating herself. Anyway, maybe I should have just let her keep talking--as every altercation with mom goes, I'm not entirely in the right, but it's her response that's entirely disproportionate. I may visit at some point, for a weekend, once she's calmed down, but my limit is two consecutive days.

Also exacerbated: Mom's penchant for constant, unrelenting criticism and opinionating. I told you before that she'd mouthed off about a family friend's singing ability (friend in question is training to be an opera singer). And, more recently, my parents ran into my cousin and mom couldn't resist telling her that her hair looked bad.

As we've discussed, constant negativity and criticism gets to you, and I'm at a point in my life where I choose to limit its access to me. I will take care of my mom and help my dad, but I will also impose limits. And I will keep writing about her as long as she provides fodder, whether or not she has a medical excuse for it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When causes conflict

There are many ethical conundrums in the realm of charitable giving, including the one I mentioned in this morning's roundup. I've just run into another as I made my donations this year: I've cut off the Seaport Foundation, even though they do great work, because they had a pig roast, and I just don't feel like I want to support that in any way. I had the same conflict when I decided to go ahead and give to Feeding America: they do fight hunger, and to the extent that they partake in the food system, they leverage its excess instead of supporting them. Look: I've volunteered at many a shelter and I've cooked and served meat for the residents. The difference in the case of Seaport is that it's not necessary for anyone's sustenance. And it's not like Seaport cares--it's not like I'm a big donor; it's not a punitive measure or a political statement; I just want no part of my donation going toward a pig roast.

If you're looking for giving ideas, my regulars include Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Women for Women International, American Jewish World Service, the local homeless shelter, and a local animal shelter, among others.

Saturday morning roundup

China rethinks its "labor camps", hopefully for real. That stuff's f*ed up.

Gail Collins on the Connecticut shootings.

This in no way takes away from the kindness and humanity of the policeman, but it does (re)raise questions about giving to people in the street. I'm on the side of giving to organizations, for the very reasons discussed in the article.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday night roundup, response to comment, and ramble

Hamburgers are bad for Iowa and its water. Don't even get me started on Big Beef.

Myers-Briggs is kind of a crock.
It’s about belief much more than scientific evidence. And it’s administered by leadership coaches who, by and large, have no formal education in the science of psychology.

“People like it because it reveals something they didn’t know about themselves or others,” says Wharton’s Grant. “That could be true of a horoscope, too.”
Even Katharine Downing Myers concedes that “psychologists had no use for the indicator; they felt that Jung was a crazy mystic.”
This is so true, and yet it's thankfully very far from my experience. I almost expect people to think there's something wrong with me because I'm single, and I'm almost surprised when people don't. I mean, am I a dating mess? Sure, but not any more so than many non-singles.

Thank you for the warm welcome! It's good to be back, it's good to be blogging, and it's great to know that the blogging has been missed.

"The Mindy Project" is absolutely one of those shows that I feel the need to watch immediately, I was thinking this weekend. I guess I'll get Hulu Plus. It would have appealed to me in any context, and in its own right--not just because it was a strong, real female lead--but it especially appealed to me in contrast to "Ruby Sparks," which I watched beforehand. What a pile of misogyny--a male adolescent fantasy film, written by a woman. And it was as terrible as it was offensive; a few witty or insightful lines couldn't save it.

But back to "The Mindy Project": I found the very joke that these The Frisky writers find convoluted and offensive spot-on (even though I agree with everything else the first writer wrote). As Tina Fey would say, has said, pushing into uncomfortable territory is what makes things funny. The uncomfortable reality about our health care system is that doctors have incentives to take wealthy and/or insured patients, and wealth is somewhat correlated with race. That's why "more white patients" is funny, and why the character's discomfort with it is funny. That's the role of satire in society: to make jokes about what's f*ed up in the world.

What makes me an authority on this? I've blogged for years about my mother's calling me fat and unlovable. And--like the first writer--I think we need to be able to discuss things that make us uncomfortable without being squashed by 'bad feminist' or 'racist' stamps. Am I racist for calling out Junot Diaz for his misogynistic Dominican sh!t, when he's the one who justifies the misogyny by claiming it's authentically Dominican? (The sh!t designation is mine). It's, by his own designation, misogynistic-Dominican (and by mine, sh!t). Does it help if I designate Julia Alvarez's work as Dominican but light-years from either misogynistic or sh!t? As for Lena Dunham: from what I've seen of "Girls," I don't think it's that good, but I agree with Lena Dunham: her job is not to write characters of color; her job is to write from her own experience. 

Friday morning roundup

It still sucks to be poor in Cairo.

Who would Jesus demean? And is it written, literally? And how much God do you invite into your holidays?

Remember the man who gave us the barcode.

What's our longest word?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tu es toujours le même Paris

Before the trip, I listened to "Paris s'éveille" and "Paris, tu n'as pas changé" to get myself in the mood. As if I needed to. I f*ing love Paris; I always will. When I was there in 2000, knowing it could be a while (it turned out to be 12.5 years!) before I'd return, I risked missing my Chunnel train to walk rather than metro, between train stations. At the time, I was returning to the UK from central France, where I had accompanied Anne, by car, from London. We'd ferried--I want to say Southampton to Cherbourg, but I could be wrong--and drove down. I hung out with her family for a few days and partied with her brother on his 30th birthday. As when I'd stayed with them years before, after leaving Geneva, and they were enormously welcoming and hospitable.

Anyway, it was time to get back to the UK, where I had been working, kind-of, so I got on the train to Paris, where I would catch the Chunnel to London, where I would catch a train or bus--I don't even remember anymore--to Cardiff. But before that, I wanted to walk around Paris for as long as I could. When I was in Paris for my longest stretch there at a time--almost six weeks in September, 2007--I would walk around almost every night. Even my host mother was in awe of my love of walking around Paris--I could do it for as long as my feet held out, or longer. I would also get up early and walk to class--at least some of the way--even though I had a monthly metro pass. So, that day in 2000, I made it to the Gare du Nord just in time, having said goodbye for a while to one of my favorite cities.

Paris has a huge piece of my heart that I couldn't take back if I wanted to, but I feel no need to see anything official in Paris. When I was there that September, with the Smith Geneva program, we had (1) an art historian take us around, twice a week, to the most significant museums and monuments, and (2) a cultural budget for stuff we did on our own. And I did just about everything. This is not to say that I would mind doing any of it again, but I didn't feel a particular pull to do so. Which is good, because this time around, I didn't have time. We had meetings or trains to catch pretty much all day, every day. But I got some glimpses of the city, some nice walks in before things opened.

I was also excited to see Anne again and to meet the family she now has. She got married the summer I moved to DC, so I couldn't go to the wedding, and I hadn't even met her husband. Even though I haven't seen her since that spring day in 2000, it felt like neither of us had changed.

You start to feel at home in a far-off place--I noticed, after a few trips, that I felt 'normal' on Oahu, and feeling normal there felt weird--and I didn't know whether I'd feel at home in Paris. I didn't even know whether French would come out when I opened my mouth. But it did, without my thinking about it, first on the flight over when the Air France flight attendant addressed me in French--product plug: the Bose were so effective in creating a sense of quiet that I was apparently whispering, such that she asked me if I had a cold--and then at the airport, when someone asked me whether everyone from our flight would have already come through the main terminal. And so it continued throughout the trip: the right words came out, just like they used to.

The Parisians were unfailingly polite helpful. I hear about this alleged Parisian rudeness and have to wonder where on earth it comes from, because I've not experienced it, ever (apart from people whose business is street harassment, but you find that everywhere). 

So once we settled in, I headed to the 'burbs to see Anne. The machines at the station wouldn't take my chipless credit card, so I fretted and asked for help. Let me tell you, having gone through the same thing in Prague over the summer: this is soooo much easier when you speak the language. In the end, the easiest thing to do was to buy a silly magazine to make (coin) change. This provided reading on the RER; in particular, reading about the pregorexia trend having reached France. I couldn't believe anyone would starve their fetus--I'd not previously heard the word--but I guess it's real. The magazine blamed it on celebrities, but really? Really? If Kate Moss threw her kid into traffic, would you do it?

Anyway, Anne and her middle daughter picked me up at the train station. It was lovely to see her, and to meet the girls, one at a time, and of course, her husband, who made an almost-vegan molten chocolate cake in my honor (organic eggs, no dairy). It was amazing, as was the smoked tofu and other food they made. We hung out for a bit; I heard all about the oldest girl's recent birthday party, which had a Fort Boyard theme (their version of Fear Factor). Anne had pointed out the actual Fort Boyard to me nearly fifteen years ago, on the ferry from La Rochelle to Ile d'Oleron. I recognized the image immediately.

The youngest was so well-behaved as I carried her to the car that the eldest suggested that Anne take a picture. The eldest also presented me with a lovely drawing that I'll use for office art.

That afternoon, we headed into the city and walked around the Christmas market past Champs Elysees. It was beautiful, tasteful.

On the way into the city, in the car, Anne had asked me where I primarily shopped. I told her Banana Republic, which she hadn't heard of, so I supposed it wasn't a think in France. But there it was, on the Champs Elysees! She took a picture of me in front of it. Yes, my friends: of all the pictures of myself I could have had taken on the Champs Elysees, I opted for one in front of Banana.

After dinner, we parted ways, and I headed back to my hotel.

The rest of the time in France was all work, all craziness... but there was lots of beauty to be taken in along the way.

Our next destination had excited me less, but I liked it better than I'd remembered it. The most memorable moment for me, outside of work, was when we were walking back from dinner and I saw some macarons in a display window.

A.: Oh, Jay would love those. But I doubt they'll keep.
Coworker: Oh, is that your gay bitch?
A.: [does all she can to not roll on the ground laughing.]

I mean, he may be, but I think the term he was going for was "gay husband."

Here are some views of Brussels:

Next (and final) stop: Stockholm. Which I loved when I was there in the summer. Still, it was beautiful in the winter, and it wasn't that cold. I mean, it was cold, but it was tolerable. People were certainly out and about. Look, it's me, looking very Russian! Which is something I don't aspire to, but sometimes one can't help it.

I did slip on the ice and fall on my butt, but that's why we have butts. To my shock, Sweden doesn't do snow management much better than DC. Part of it is that they figure that snow is safer than ice to walk and drive on, so why not leave some of it.

As we were walking on a main pedestrian shopping street, my (other) coworker remarked on the statues of lions gracing the walkway. Why, he asked, do countries opt for such beasts to project their power? Why not, say, gerbils? 

The first coworker fixated on some t-shirts that said "I love my Swedish boyfriend," said perhaps I may consider one for one of my "gay persons." 

The next day we hit the Wasa Museum. 


Speaking of power projection gone wrong, what an example of trying to send a message at the expense of substance!

Other highlights from Sweden: lots of snow, 

Lots of people who like to walk right into you. It was the pushiest country we'd been to. Oh, there was a moment--during the work part--where we had to strip down to our underclothes and put on special protective jumpsuits. I had a "Zoolander" moment, thought, "good think I wore underwear today." Unfortunately, we didn't get pictures of ourselves in said jumpsuits. But I did get lots of other pictures.

Look! A crazy person fishing,
...and crazy people availing themselves of sidewalk seating.

Here's the restaurant in our hotel.

 And a sign at the airport.
 And a dachshund at the airport.
 And a view from the air.