Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween morning roundup


Good morning, all! I'm going to keep this short--will leave for work as soon as it's light enough to bike--but I wanted to throw more things out there to discuss later.

Can a trade agreement create the conditions for a more sustainable food system?

The road to peak garbage.


Do watch Jon Stewart's takedown of CNN (I'm opting to link to a story about it rather than embed the videos, at this point).

Alexandra Petri's issue here--how funny that someone who's complaining about the misuse of words is... misusing words--is not these words, per se, but their misuse. With the exception of "mansplaining," which she handled with wit: the word is bad, but the thing is worse.

I agree with the Hax rule but I would say that the argument can certainly be made for excluding certain types of people from one's life, or at least limiting their influence, and active addicts are the poster case for that.

Whatever; the seeds of cooking pumpkins are better, but those of carving pumpkins are still fine. Don't trust anyone who ruins pepitas by adding butter.

Alright, let's move on to that which I don't have time to discuss right now: the humanities. This is not the first time I've posted about it, or its conceptual counterpart--scientism--but I somehow missed the series of columns in the New Republic. It is with mixed feelings that I tell you that Steven Pinker's is the best written (Leon Wieseltier does himself no favors with his rambling, nor with his needless defensiveness).
I have yet to read Christina Paxson's (Brown's President), and, well, you know how I feel about Adam Gopnik, though he makes a few good points. Excerpts from each (or maybe not quite) later; for now, I have to run. 

Later, if I still care enough, I will bitch to you (again) about the people who think it's a good idea to bring small children to the ballet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wednesday morning roundup


Greece's incredibly f*ed up tax system.

Ukranian chocolate is the latest pawn in Russia's trade aggression strategy.


Grameen brings microcredit stateside.


It's easy to lose all hope with the political process but recent developments in regulation of prescription painkillers show that sometimes, people manage to do the right thing.

Speaking of addiction: the recovery community finds an advocate and role model in a candidate for Boston's mayoral race.

I really want to talk about trecciemc's piece on "the logic of stupid poor people" but I don't have time. Maybe tomorrow, because there's a lot to discuss... so please read it in the meantime.

OMG, I'm taking Cosmo's side against Petula Dvorak's in the sexy Halloween costumes debate, although Jezebel's is worthwhile as well (and it can be summed up as who the f* cares). What we need to point out to AskMen readers in light of their apparent confusion:
Chances are the “slut” you’ve been eyeing across the party is exactly the opposite of what you originally thought. She’s dressed up because everyone else is, and she's itching to cover up whatever it is that creepy guy (you) is staring at from across the room.
Halloween is both pleasure and torture for us. Every girl puts herself out there, but she’s not really out there to put out. Even if they are, they all look the same and it’s impossible to tell which ones actually follow up on the promises their costumes make. That's where AM comes in, to clear up the confusion.
Guys, guess what: there's no such thing as a "slut." It's not really about you (ever; not just on Halloween). Costumes don't make promises (ever).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday roundup

Are India's attempts to battle its rape epidemic more or less pathetic than Kenya's?

Congo may yet see an end to the fighting.

Could we use a bit of inflation?

Fertilizers are damaging the oceans.

I'm all over teaching kids things earlier, but it only counts if you don't have to dumb those things down.

Tim Kreider's piece on remuneration for internet writing is hilarious. and comes with practical advice. Ladies, take note:
I know there’s no point in demanding that businesspeople pay artists for their work, any more than there is in politely asking stink bugs or rhinoviruses to quit it already. It’s their job to be rapacious and shameless. But they can get away with paying nothing only for the same reason so many sleazy guys keep trying to pick up women by insulting them: because it keeps working on someone.
For the sake of all of us, turn those dudes down. Please.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Saturday roundup and ramble

This fallout from a tragic, not uncommon situation, is so perfectly phrased:
"Forgiveness isn't about saying, 'It's OK,' or that you 'accept' or 'approve' what happened," Blanton said. "Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that what happened, happened, and that you are now ready to set down the baggage, the pain and the fear."
"There simply is no other way," Friedman agreed.
Blanton finds that when a person forgives they no longer take action based on feelings of revenge, anger or fear, but instead make decisions based on their own character.
"If I consider myself a good person, a generous person, but then act meanly or selfishly because someone has treated me that way, then I allow their actions to determine my character and my actions," Blanton said.
Surprise! Factory farming is the enemy of humanity.

***
On a quasi-lighter note, I want to talk about using personal history or upbringing as an excuse. Sometimes people don't even mean it that way, but it tends to come off that way, even when it's just an explanation, and it always comes off as an exceptionally lame excuse because you're an adult and you've had time to deal with the issue. Example: a coworker who volunteered to get burger toppings  for our team picnic got cabbage instead of lettuce. Not the end of the world, but when she said, "my mother didn't use vegetables when I was a kid" by way of explanation, one could only think, "but it's been a while since you've been a child, so what does that have to do with anything?" But the bigger issue is, who the f* cares? I wouldn't dream of explaining my behavior by way of, "I throw a fit when I don't get my way because that's the behavior that was modeled to me by my mother." Just sayin'.

Saturday morning roundup

Syrian refugees face an overgrowing, overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

An acid-attack survivor is loving her new face.


Alexandra Petri's answer to Emily Yoffe is rambling but she eventually makes her (good) point. Which is similar to the points here and here.

College pricing apparently follows the department store model.

People have caught on to the soda debacle, but not the bottled water racket.

Oh, honey, he is just not that into you.

Would you volunteer to have sex for science?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thursday morning roundup

Baltimore jurors hate women, keep acquitting serial rapist because he's charming.

Nobody is going to do anything about antibiotic resistance until consumers quit supporting factory farming.

A Dominican Republic court ruling has rendered millions of ethnic Haitians stateless.

Nigerians won't let Boko Haram win as long as they keep laughing.

Thailand's crazy-expensive, pimped out fire truck fleet sits idle.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tuesday morning roundup

Academic freedom in China is in bad shape. So is the environment, not just from smog, but from the impact of rare earth mining.

Argentina embraces Chevron, with environmental consequences to be seen.

Russia continues to bully its neighbors; Moldova finds alternate markets for its wine.

Egyptians have had it for a very long time but now more of them have had it enough to want to leave.

No-till isn't really the answer in the long run, but there is such a thing as sustainable agriculture. It's just that big food spares no expense in deceiving people so it can continue to wreak its havoc.

Why is poop coffee a trend?
 Times have changed since the McDonald's coffee lawsuit, and the Times is on it.

Oh, that's low, for so many reasons (not least Texas's regular offers to secede).

Duffel Blog on Limbaugh.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Monday evening roundup

El Salvador jails a woman over a miscarriage.

Argentina shows that the case for organics extends beyond our own health, to that of the people who grow our food and live near where it's grown.

The successful campaign against shark-fin soup is already serving as a model for combating poaching in general:
Buoyed by the results of the shark fin campaign, conservationists are now turning their attention to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Some 25,000 elephants were poached last year, and 668 rhinos killed in South Africa alone, with China the largest market for ivory, and the second largest for rhino horn behind Vietnam.
The Chinese government is more defensive about the ivory trade, seeing carving as part of traditional culture. Licensed workshops are allowed to use existing stockpiles of ivory to make ornaments, jewelry and chopsticks, but this legal business has provided the cover for a vast illegal trade.
But attitudes can change, and the Chinese government is not intransigent. A major investor in Africa, it does not want to be seen as the reason for widespread insecurity caused by poaching. In September, it started sending text messages to every Chinese cellphone user who touched down in Kenya, warning them to “not carry illegal ivory, rhino horn or any other wildlife.“
Attitudes can change, indeed.

Opera in Hungary addresses antisemitism; a beautiful point about culture and society:
“Culture shouldn’t be interested in day-to-day politics,” said Mr. Fischer, who has also been the principal conductor of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra. “We want to be valid next year and the year after. But I think culture has a strong responsibility to find the essence, the real concealed truth which lies behind the day to day.”
Uncertainty and conflicting results don't make a field unscientific; economics is a science. How many times do we have to go over this:
It makes demands on economics that are not made of other empirical disciplines, like medicine, and it ignores an emerging body of work, building on the scientific approach of last week’s winners, that is transforming economics into a field firmly grounded in fact.

It is true that the answers to many “big picture” macroeconomic questions — like the causes of recessions or the determinants of growth — remain elusive. But in this respect, the challenges faced by economists are no different from those encountered in medicine and public health. Health researchers have worked for more than a century to understand the “big picture” questions of how diet and lifestyle affect health and aging, yet they still do not have a full scientific understanding of these connections. Some studies tell us to consume more coffee, wine and chocolate; others recommend the opposite. But few people would argue that medicine should not be approached as a science or that doctors should not make decisions based on the best available evidence.
The systemic barriers for girls interested in science.

Not all criticism is "shaming."

Whatever, I still don't need a vitamix.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sunday morning roundup

Village elders in Haryana State terrorize young women who deviate from medieval social codes.

Europe struggles with the Roma question.

Making better decisions starts with acknowledging feelings:
Anxiety, stress and fear — emotions that are part and parcel of serious illness — can distort our choices. Stress makes us prone to tunnel vision, less likely to take in the information we need. Anxiety makes us more risk-averse than we would be regularly and more deferential.
We need to know how we are feeling. Mindfully acknowledging our feelings serves as an “emotional thermostat” that recalibrates our decision making. It’s not that we can’t be anxious, it’s that we need to acknowledge to ourselves that we are.
Another key point in that article: experts make mistakes all the time. Don't be afraid to question them.

This first-semester grad student successfully challenged established research on happiness. The article touches on some of the "scientism" themes I've written about in the past:
Psychology has long been vexed by the question of the quantitative vs. the qualitative, resulting in a kind of shame known as “physics envy,” whereby researchers in so-called “softer” social sciences feel inadequate when compared to “harder” physical sciences. Friedman says he tries to take a balanced view on the subject. Seligman, on the other hand, he says, “claims that quantitative work is more rigorous than qualitative, and that’s something I dispute. Each can be rigorous in their own way, and each can be misused.”
The STEM issue comes up again, albeit tangentially, in the extremely offensive and absurd post discussed here. It could well be click bait, but I think this guy believes what he's saying, and most of the comments support him. The post (unsurprisingly) considers women solely in terms of what's attractive to men, rather than in their own right. And makes the case that that's how it has to be. The STEM issue comes up as part of that:
If anything, having a college degree is a strike against a girl—unless it’s in something real like a STEM discipline—as it shows that she’s a conformist who thinks that credentials are a substitute for knowledge and experience.
He continues:
The same goes for having a job. The vast majority of girls work useless fluff jobs: government bureaucrats, human resources and various other makework positions that exist to give them the illusion of independence. The jobs that keep the country running—tradesmen, miners, farmers, policemen, the military—are still overwhelmingly dominated by men. If every girl was fired from her job tomorrow, elementary schools would have to shut down for a couple days, but otherwise life would go on as usual.
Now you see why I'm not even going to bother, but I do want to point out just one more, key thing, this time in response to the "most girls have done nothing to deserve self-esteem" statement.
In the world of men, respect—and by extension self-esteem—is based on actually achieving something of worth or having some kind of skill or talent. Are you a bodybuilder or jacked?
He goes on:
Women claim they want equal rights as men, but they don’t want equal responsibilities. As such, they demand respect not based on their merit as people, but for merely continuing to breathe.
And that, precisely, goes against the definition of self-esteem: self-esteem for men and women alike is not a function of achievements. Like basic respect, it's something you do get just for breathing. See my earlier discussion here or jump directly to the Scientific American article here, even though I'll save you the trouble and re-excerpt the key part here:
The hunt for self-esteem through a focus on achievement makes us emotionally vulnerable to life's inevitable travails and disappointments. It also causes us to engage in behaviors that can actually harm our chances of success, our competence and our personal relationships. A far better way to bolster your sense of self-worth is, ironically, to think about yourself less. Compassion toward others and yourself, along with a less self-centered perspective on your situation, can motivate you to achieve your goals while helping you weather bad news, learn from your mistakes and fortify your friendships.

Selfies are as old as photography, and they're more about social connection than vanity.

Speaking of photography, check out some science photos. The snacking black hole is particularly striking.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quick Saturday afternoon ramble

I'm just as disoriented as I was a couple of days into the shutdown: it's almost as hard to readjust to the old normal as it was to the then-new normal. No question, it was awesome to be back at work; it was awesome to do work, to see everyone, to be back among my work "family." And I'm the kind of person who frowns upon the concept of work family in theory, but in reality, my coworkers do make a sort of family. We missed each other, and it was wonderful to be back together again. The whole experience gives me all the more compassion for unemployed people who haven't gotten their jobs back. I also understand how happy dad was to get back to work, and how happy he was to be welcomed back like family.

Saturday afternoon roundup

Internet users seem to think women should shut up, which is one reason that, while I appreciate the overall sentiment of this piece on intersectionality, I think it's dangerous to tell women--white or otherwise--to shut up, much less imply that that has to happen for "other" voices to be heard. You can talk and listen at the same time; it's called "conversation."

While we're on google-search autofill results, this XKCD mash-up is awesome.

Miscarriages are common and not particularly correlated with behavior, so quit blaming the women.

This map of baby names by year and state is crazy.

Drudge thinks that the popularity of salsa is (1) new and (2) a sign of the apocalypse.

This reminds me just how much wine is not vegan.


There's a tilted solar system out there.

Are you up on the Law of Urination? Here's an illustrative video:

Saturday morning roundup

Peru's governance issues are decimating its the world's rainforests.

Libya's governance issues... are making the country ungovernable.

The UK flirts with fracking.

Texas is an interesting place.

People like this guy were really screwed by the shutdown. I thought about our own contractors: our security guards, maintenance people, cleaning crews, fitness instructors. I hope they get paid.

Kathleen Raven's powerful piece on harassment in science:
I’ve never been taken advantage of by a male off the street. All of the men who have sexually harassed me in professional settings have been smart, accomplished, eloquent, driven. But ultimately, and this is key, they have been and are predators.
Renee James' powerful piece on the insecurity industry. Instead of tearing ourselves apart over our perceived imperfections...
Viewed another way, we could presume that when we’re going about our day and feel healthy, calm, and happy, with friends and loved ones sharing our lives, we feel more attractive. What a concept.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thursday evening roundup

Bora Zivkovic gets credit for apologizing rather than defending himself and, further, not accepting others who came to his defense. His behavior was unacceptable and detrimental; it's amazing that some people can't see the harm of sexual harassment in science, given all the existing barriers.

***
It was great to be back to work.

Thursday morning roundup

The medical device racket.

Ultrafaint dwarf galaxies.

On managing other people's favoritism.

Red meat consumption is detrimental to sperm quality.

Yup:
Here's a food show I would watch (and yes, "vegan queen" is a proper title for Isa Chandra Moskowitz).

I have to go to work! Woohoooooooo!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesday morning roundup

As Africa makes progress against infectious diseases, cancer remains a tragic, undertreated malady.

Once again, the Mo Ibrhahim prize goes to no one. See some discussion on Twitter.

Sexual harassment in science is rampant and inherently difficult to address.

Blue-collar federal workers are really feeling the pinch.

Mexico's obesity crisis is as serious as ours, and soda is a huge part of the problem. Be aware, however, that juice isn't much better.

Carolyn on eschewing ultimatums in favor of statements of needs. My heart goes out to the LW, since I've been there (in a relationship where the other never planned anything and, it turned out, really didn't give a $hit about how I felt).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Furlough photo essay (and tortilla-making tips)

Told you the upstairs bathroom was really f*ing orange!

"What are you still doing here?"

Warm weather is back, and so are the frozen grapes.

Downstairs bathroom is actually quite a nice color but you don't see that here.

Love my wood chipper! For the first time I could do something with all the pruned roses.

Cracked the tortilla code! See below.
First of all, tips are helpful but you do really have to just do it through trial and error until you get a sense of what worked. The dough was better this time (it was particularly bad last time, as I'd frozen it), and letting it sit helped a lot. Oh, a tip you don't see a lot is to add baking soda. I recommend this not just for extra lift but also for the sodium; it salts the tortillas perfectly. It's still quite challenging to peel them off the plastic (definitely use a thicker plastic--ziploc consistency, not saran wrap) but you get the hang of it. Do cover the entire round with your hand and catch it as you peel it off. I would also cook them just enough on each side to lock in the shape (i.e., make it sturdy), then pile them up and fry again before serving. Start peeling the next one once you flip the one that's frying (and flip with a flick of the wrist, not a spatula).

***
Insulation people are coming tomorrow, to be followed in short order by the drywall repair people. Don't say I'm not making the most of the furlough. Do call your elected representatives and get me back to work, though!

Tuesday evening food roundup

Please read Mark Bittman's "How to Feed the World" article in its entirety, even though I'll excerpt from it here:
Yes, it is true that high-yielding varieties of any major commercial monoculture crop will produce more per acre than peasant-bred varieties of the same crop. But by diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, planting trees — which provide not only fruit but shelter for birds, shade, fertility through nutrient recycling, and more — small landholders can produce more food (and more kinds of food) with fewer resources and lower transportation costs (which means a lower carbon footprint), while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change. (Not only that: their techniques have been demonstrated to be effective on larger-scale farms, even in the Corn Belt of the United States.) And all of this without the level of subsidies and other support that industrial agriculture has received in the last half-century, and despite the efforts of Big Ag to become even more dominant.

Tuesday ramble

I talked to mom last night, briefly (she was fielding other birthday calls and awaiting birthday guests). I thought about how good it felt--what a weight lifted--to not resent her. It was one of those places that I'd long wanted to get to, but I couldn't wish myself there. Still, I worked on it and continued to choose it, and eventually, we got there.

***
I started out the morning with one of my favorite things in the world--a bike ride to Mt. Vernon--and ended the morning with two of my least favorite things: driving in northern Virginia and Michael's. I made it worse by choosing the Michael's in Seven Corners, since I had to return something to the REI nearby and figured it wouldn't be much longer, but it was pure hell, even in the middle of a weekday. Perhaps because it was such hell to get there, I stayed and circled even after I didn't see anything close to the frame I needed. Miraculously, just as I was about to give up, I found the perfect frame in the form of a t-shirt display box (who knew?), and left to get paint.

The bathrooms are painted; the upstairs one was a breeze--most of it could be done with rollers, and it was even fun. The only damper on the fun was that the ceiling wouldn't take any painter's tape (I tried four varieties, but it was just too slick), so I had to do that with a brush (no, I didn't think to buy a foamy thing, although I probably could have found one somewhere) and there's some spillover onto the ceiling. Not a lot, but enough that it's not a clean line. But who looks up at the ceiling, anyway? The upstairs bathroom is very orange, much more so than "tango" looks on the swatch.

Can I go back to work now? I'm going to prune the roses... then can I go back to work?

Tuesday morning roundup


Stieglitz waxes cautionary about inequality, but I wish he'd talk more about policy solutions.

Keller on the Affordable Care Act.

Perhaps Upworthy did the right thing but there has since been scientific basis to back up the disgustingness of McNuggets.

Our brains our wired for god.

What does an adult owe parents that didn't always let her be a child when she needed to?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What my furloughed self has been up to

My downstairs (half-) bathroom is a nice new color. Painting it was a tremendous pain in the ass; I don't know how I ever painted while working (actually, I do: painting empty rooms is a lot easier than painting bathrooms, although those were a pain, too). Anyway, the half-bath looks good (well, better; at a certain point, you settle for good enough). It's all the same color now, whereas before there were patches of different shades where pieces of wall had been cut or broken out.

I'll paint the upstairs bathroom tomorrow, once I get paint. Should be easier, since most of the fixtures are on the tile, which I'm not painting. It'll just be three rectangles of open wall, more or less. I'm thinking pumpkin or another rusty orange. Oh, and I'm arranging to get my (non-existent) "attic" insulated.

It's a good time to have gotten a $hit-ton of CSA veggies. I sauteed down most of the greens (kale into the tofu scramble; mustard greens on their own as topping for potatoes; bok choy in a stir-fry), with more kale and salad greens to go. I made "fries" out of the butternut squash and turnips, and roasted the other roots (potatoes, beets, sweet potatoes) whole. I also made mom's mushroom-barley soup, in honor of mom's birthday tomorrow. I used her mushrooms, too. It came out as more of a stew than a soup, but it's amazing nonetheless. The cast-iron dutch oven is great in many ways, but it's harder to tell what's going on in there unless it's really bubbling.

Gracie was happy to have me here at first, but now she can't understand why I'm trying to do stuff when she's trying to sleep. She's been pretty good about it, though.

Last but not least, my one-act play got a staged reading as part of a night of (all excellent) one-acts, and it was very well received. The actors loved it, said afterward that they'd miss saying the lines. And random people approached me afterward to say that they loved it. All in all, an amazing experience.

I've been using my time very well. Can I go back to work now?

Sunday evening roundup

Women in science around the world.

On that note, as the world stands with Dr. Danielle Lee, SciAm is the latest to learn the hard way that taking things down is not the answer. And for what it's worth, don't bull$hit us with the "fact-checking" excuse; I've seen a factual error or two on the part of SciAm's bloggers, all left standing.

Body and body image.

Just don't even eat chicken.

Enjoy:

Sunday morning roundup

"I Am Malala" is apparently a very good book.

Kick-ass Virginia woman travels to China to comfort a dissident and let the government know that the world is watching.

Our broken health care and political systems drive the price of drugs up to absurdity.

A lot of non-Jews "feel Jewish."

Mark Kelly, too, has thoughts on "Gravity."

A silver lining of the furlough is that I get to stop trying to understand physics until I get back to work, but then those people have to go and ruin crosswords for me.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Saturday morning roundup

Reconciling Tibetan Buddhism with science.

The Times lags with its shutdown-impact coverage but it is what it is.

More on kissing. Note, ladies, that if you're not being choosy, you're going against nature and evolution:
For women, bearing and raising children is a huge investment of their life and health, so they want to choose the right co-parent. As anthropologist Helen Fisher told U.S. News and World Report, “When you get a highly intelligent, pair-bonding species that requires years to raise a baby, you evolve more and more brain mechanisms to weed out the losers.”
Also, I'd argue that abstinence is an even worst idea than chocolate-covered ants.

Collins covers the New Jersey elections.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday morning roundup

Libya's militias run the place.

The shutdown is hurting federal workers and many others.
Gladwell responds to Chabris, makes the case for storytelling in science writing.

Kissing is evolutionary.

That you don't have to show affection in material ways doesn't mean you don't have to show affection.

Alice Munro... enough said.

Oh, Walmart!
Oh, Times!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Thursday afternoon roundup

If you're dumb enough to think that shouting at women on the street will get you results, you're too dumb to get results. That also goes for "dumb enough to think..." I've got nothing, this speaks for itself. If the best worst you can do is harass and threaten women online, I do hope the police start taking you more seriously.

That science is obsessed with sex is not the only reason you should be concerned about the shutdown's shutdown of science. Also, don't bother with this book of phallic seascapes masquerading as sciency.

Ancient women rocked the cave art.

Thursday morning roundup

Wonkblog's brilliant Janet Yellen listicle (complete with GIFs).

Collins on the state of the shutdown.

Saying "I" a lot doesn't indicate what you think it does.

This article on binge eating articulates what I've been trying to get across in my earlier rants about publicly calling people out on their weight: disordered eating is defined by behavior, not weight. Just like being very thin and physically healthy are not mutually exclusive, being very thin and mentally healthy are not mutually exclusive.

No body looks perfect, but the thigh gap obsession grows. That article points out that most people, even very thin ones, couldn't achieve a thigh gap for the same reason that I couldn't achieve a flat stomach if I wanted to: it has more to do with the way you're built than how much fat you carry.

My issue with the masseur's post (in the "no body" link) is that it's not really true and it's not really the point. I get that the social media is perpetuating the thigh-gap thing because people get the idea that "it's possible," but it shouldn't matter that it's possible. Back to that Slate piece: we need to learn--and to teach our kids--that other people will have things that we don't, and sometimes those things are more desirable physical characteristics. And we have to learn to live with that and love ourselves the way we are, even knowing that someone out there has a thigh gap or flat stomach or no cellulite (and yes, there are people who have no cellulite).



Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wednesday morning roundup and ramble

Oil prices will continue to stabilize.

If you love being confused and annoyed, read the Times' piece about this year's Nobel Prize in physics. Otherwise, see what Sean Carroll and Matt Strassler have to say.

Also see i09's formula for Nobel wins in a handy chart.

What the f*, did the NIF get a step closer to ignition and I'm on furlough? F*, I need to get back to the office.

It was budget cuts that destroyed the Library of Alexandria (the other Alexandria; not the one to which I'll be returning some DVDs today).

The furlough is taking a (so far small) toll on relationships.


Well, in lieu of growing a furlough beard, I'm just blogging a hell of a lot more and you're just going to have to deal with it. (Did I mention that I waited a full week before drowning my ennui in Banana?)
Anyway, this morning, I'm going to blog-ramble about how unromantic I am.

I've been thinking about my lack of appreciation of "romance" because a (male) friend can't get his head around my indifference to a play and its allegedly romantic moments. It's not that I don't appreciate genuine moments and signs of affection; I just don't care for manufactured ones, like heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. I don't know to what extent this 'meh' to romance is specific to me or a more general truth about how, contrary to stereotype, men love that cheezy $hit and women see it as a distraction. So my question to you is, is this a broader thing? Is the stereotype the reverse of reality?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Tuesday evening roundup

I'm pretty good at reading faces.

Ashkenazi Jews are genetically European.

Twitter needs women to succeed.

Today in how is this journalism? from the Post, you may find yourself asking the following very obvious questions: shouldn't someone who's interested in a weight-loss diet be willing to plan their own meals? since when is vegetarianism a "fad diet," rather than a lifestyle (see your own linked article), with ethical benefits as well as nutritional ones? And what's wrong with the following statement: "unless you plan appropriately, meeting your recommended daily allowance..." of certain nutrients "can be tricky." C'mon, bitches: use your f*ing heads. Meeting your nutritional needs on any diet--and by diet, I mean the way one eats, not a way of eating with a goal in mind--"can be tricky" unless you "plan appropriately." And if you click on that second link, here's my advice: don't write down what you eat. Don't turn food into something joyless.
***
The local NBC station seems to be going where I go. They were at meditation last night, and at the shelter's volunteer day today.

Tuesday morning roundup and ramble

I was not imagining things; even amid a shutdown, traffic still sucks.

We should be able to talk about religious beliefs the same way we talk about food choices: without having to explicitly articulate that we respect other people's beliefs and choices, because it goes without saying.

I was thinking about this last night, on my way home from interfaith meditation. I've been going, sporadically, over the last two years, and it's always worth it. It always works. One thing that sometimes surprises people--the moderator always asks the participants what surprised them--is how it was a meditation of a different faith that most resonated for them. It really varies; the first time I went, the Jewish meditation didn't work for me at all; last night, it really did, and it worked very well in conjunction with the Christian meditation that followed. Overwhelmingly, it's about connecting to something not only bigger than you but representative of the universe as a whole, and that representation takes whichever form you give it and whatever name you call it.

I have friends of various faiths and of no faith, and those friends differ not only in how strongly they identify with their faith on a personal level, but in the extent to which they make their spiritual beliefs part of their overall identity. A very good friend of mine goes to church every Sunday, but it was probably a year before I knew that she was Catholic.

It's not quite the same with food: you can't keep your eating habits private, on a social level, for long. Social events are often food events. Even though I don't generally call myself a vegan (and I didn't call myself a vegetarian--I just said that I didn't eat meat), not least because I don't like food habits as identity, other people (friends included) will push a food identity onto me. But, just like my very Catholic friend has no problem dating Jews or Hindus, but can't see herself connecting with an atheist on that level (yet, she does not judge; she has atheist friends), I would rather date, for example, an omnivore that loves food than a vegan who doesn't. Erik Marcus, @vegan himself, recently tweeted that "vegan" was a better label for food than for people. There's a fine line between something being a part of your identity and letting that thing define you.

***
Adelle Waldman's essay on beauty is a bit rambling, but it's interesting. Toward the end, she touches on an interesting hypocrisy:
Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it. The implication is that this may be unfortunate—not exactly ideal morally—but it can’t be helped, because it’s natural, biological. This seems more than a little ironic. Women are not only subject to a constant and exhausting and sometimes humiliating scrutiny—they are also belittled for caring about their beauty, mocked for seeking to enhance or to hold onto their good looks, while men are just, well, being men.
I've blogged about beauty before, twice with the same title--no, three times! And with other titles, too.

I simultaneously understand and don't understand our preoccupation with human beauty. I'm much more obsessed with natural beauty (i.e., mountains, oceans, stars), and I can honestly say that human beauty doesn't preoccupy me much. I like to take in the sight of Jon Hamm as much as the next straight woman, but then I'll move on. Unlike Tracy Moore and, apparently, all her friends, I have walked away from beautiful men whom I didn't want to date for other reasons.

Some of Waldman's guy friends can't seem to put beauty in perspective, but there are so many men who do. Seriously. And let me re-excerpt from my third "On Beauty" post:

I'm not going to go all beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder on you, but take it from these guys:

Mr. Campbell:

Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world.
 The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Mr. Bernstein (in reference to his mother):
All sorts of men had rejected her when she was younger as cute but not beautiful. She wrote about it, turned it into a comic riff — everything is copy — but privately, it was heartbreaking for her until this noble man came along and made her feel that she was as fabulous to look at as she was to talk to.
Enough said.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Monday evening roundup

Don't blame failure to invest time in your children on feminism.

Fiona Apple responds, (appropriately) uses the word "bullying."

Would "real America" quit blaming "DC" and look in the mirror instead?

We're spoiled for choice over scientists' fact-checks on "Gravity," so I'll just pick one randomly.

Monday morning roundup

Dayton is very smart about immigration and immigrants.

The Senate's chaplain is awesome.

What kind of bull$hit is doctors being sexually harassed?

It's not actually bad to work over lunch.

Who the f* cares who had a poorer childhood


Sunday, October 6, 2013

More response to comment

That we are ill positioned to diagnose the health of others just by looking at them should go without saying. If it doesn't, click on some of the links from the original post, particularly this one. It really comes down to, "who do you think you are?" If the answer is not "his or her doctor" or a very close friend, consider the probability that you have no f*ing idea what's going on. That person may be undergoing cancer treatments; she may be dealing with a difficult personal situation; she could just have a really high metabolism. You just don't know, and you're not going to help anyone by calling her out.

Even if you see someone behaving in a certain way, your interpretation of that behavior is filtered by your own idea of "normal," which is mostly based on what you would do in the same situation. What you consider as compulsively healthy may just be normal for the observed person (and she could see your idea of normal as unhealthy).

A few years ago--apologies to my (few) regular readers, who have heard this story--I was at a friend's birthday party. This friend is obese; her obesity is limiting on an everyday basis, and she's experienced serious complications (such as pancreatitis) from it. Since that episode of pancreatitis, she's been telling me that she's been eating a lot better. But her idea of "a lot better" is my idea of "are you f*ing kidding me?" My mom--this woman is a family friend--has suggested that I look over her shoulder and nag her about her eating habits. I argue that that would only make it worse; if I want to get anything across to her, it's that she's responsible for her own health and nutrition. I can share nutritional information (I had to tell her that brown sugar was still sugar and that highly sweetened yogurt was not healthy, after other well-meaning friends had picked it up for her to help her eat better) and ideas and recipes. But I can't tell her what to do, and I could tell even then by the way she wanted me to believe that she was cooking and eating certain things that she didn't really believe in it. She was more interested in convincing me, as if I wanted her to eat well for my sake.

Anyway, at her birthday party--actually, it was two birthday parties. At the first, a few months after she was hospitalized, she couldn't believe I wasn't having any cheese. She literally didn't understand that I didn't want it. She said, incredulously, "surely, you can allow yourself a little indulgence once in a while." Sure I can, but in this case, I don't want to. And she just couldn't wrap her head around that.

A year or two later, at another birthday party, I happily gorged on the hummus and guac. She kept saying, "we must be making you very hungry with all this pizza," and again, wouldn't take me at my word that they weren't making me hungry at all. To her--through her lens--my eating habits came off as overly disciplined. To me, I was eating exactly what I wanted to eat.

My (few) regular readers know that I do not answer to the (non-existent) vegan police. If I feel like having something that's not vegan, I just have it. But 99% of the time, I have no interest in having it (the other 1 percent of the time, it's right in front of me and I'm pretty hungry, with no vegan options in site, or it's homemade and I may as well try a little. Something to that effect). But to my friend, the concept of actually preferring vegan food is so foreign as to be impenetrable. It's easier for her to believe that I'm unreasonably restrictive.

Which brings us back to this: what do you think is my response when she comments on my eating habits? "Thank you for helping me see the light; I'll have some pizza now"?

Our shapes, like our finances, are a product of outside circumstances as well as personal choices. Outside circumstances matter, but not so much that we can discount the power of personal choices. Our choices are, in turn, a product of our circumstances, but they're also a product of our beliefs and habits. If you believe that healthy food isn't as good--that eating healthily is a sacrifice--that's going to affect how you eat. And if you see someone else eating healthily, and you really don't want to, it serves you to paint that person as extreme.

I've observed certain common behaviors and beliefs among my obese friends: they do things like count steps to minimize walking distance, and go for the closest parking spot available. They talk about healthy eating as if it's something that only crazy, obsessed people do (mind you, RM did that and he wasn't overweight). They don't see the value of exercise in its own right (i.e., other than a weight-loss tool).  I've also observed common characteristics among thin people: we move a lot, without giving it much thought. We exercise because we feel like it, not because we think it'll move the scale. We take stairs and open doors manually. We are just generally active. I realize that some ubernaturally thin people can be internally obese (i.e., high percent body fat), and many overweight people are active. Hence what I was saying the other day about BMI being a meaningless measure. But I digress.

My point is that our shapes are a product of many different factors, including habits, and some of those habits may seem foreign to someone with opposite habits. The same for beliefs. As I've said, it's very, very hard for my obese friends to understand that I truly like vegetables and prefer hummus to pizza and exercise for fun (and because I feel sluggish when I don't). To me, it's foreign to eat cheetos and take the elevator to go up one flight (or two, or four) and count steps to the restrooms to determine which is the closest by a hair.

Yes, there are genuinely unhealthy habits related to weight management: binging, purging, starving, etc.  There are borderline (not the healthiest, but not clinical) behaviors: obsessing over calories, emotional eating, eating in bed, etc. But when you see someone on the street whom you've deemed "too thin," how do you know whether they're healthy? Who the hell are you to diagnose them? And if you happen to know that someone's binging and/or purging, what are you going to do about it? Call them out in front of other people?

I'm going to end with the same claims with which I started: other people's body shapes are none of your business. You are in no position to diagnose them or pass judgment on them. You're not helping anyone by calling them out. So just mind your own business.

Sunday evening ramble and mom blog

I went to see "Torch Song Trilogy" this afternoon and it was phenomenal and you should drop everything and go see it. Yes, it is three-and-a-half hours, but it goes by in no time. It's super-witty and poignant at the same time. I'll quote from the poignant, because there's too much witty to choose from:
I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, do taxes, build furniture... I can even pat myself on the back when necessary. All so I don't have to ask anyone for anything. There is nothing I need from anyone except love and respect. And anyone who can't give me those two things has no place in my life.
***
I normally go to Studio, or any theater in DC, straight from work; why come into the city over the weekend when I'm already there during the week? In this case, there's no work to go from, and--I haven't subscribed to Studio this year, at least not yet--I was very glad to go on the weekend (and thus, the afternoon rather than the evening) because of the length of the play. I mean, it doesn't feel like three-and-a-half hours, but it's still three-and-a-half hours.

Going on the weekend changes the calculus for getting there. On one hand, the metro is at its most unreliable on Sundays. On the same hand, as much as I hate driving in DC and hate parking there even more, Sunday is the day to do it. Also on the same hand, I discovered that Bed, Bath and Beyond had tortilla presses (can you believe that Grand Mart doesn't? WTF??). But only the one in Columbia Heights has it in-store. And that store's not far from Studio (but a bit too far to walk there and back). So I decided to drive into the city and to find parking not once but twice. And I decided that the only way to do this without letting it stress me out--I mean, who wants to be the asshole who stresses over a tortilla press and a play--would be to leave super-early: two hours before the start of the play, to allow for getting to and parking at both places while allowing for routine delays.

So I got in from my morning bike ride in good time, had second breakfast, washed my hair (I have a lot of hair; it's an ordeal), read the paper, and got my stuff together. I was just about to leave the house when the phone rang. It was mom.

Let me take a minute to remind you of a few things about mom and the phone:

(1) Mom has (both parents actually; have) trained me to answer the phone even when it's a bad time, because the alternative is a "where on earth are you/are you alive" message, and this gets even worse when I can't call them back for a while. Once, many years ago, my parents called me around 10pm; I didn't pick up because I was at a party. By the time I saw the call, it was too late to call that night, so I figured I'd just call in the morning. So at 7am my phone rings and it's both parents, who can't understand why I haven't returned their call. So I decided that it's easier to just pick up, briefly, when I do see the call and let them know that it's a bad time but I'll call them back at a better time.

(2) But mom doesn't respond coherently to "it's a bad time." When I say "this is a bad time," what I really need to hear, to get the sense that I have been heard, is something along the lines of, "okay, let's talk later." But what I usually get is, "well let  me just tell you this one thing." and that one thing is usually along the lines of, "the birdsongs this morning are amazing" or "can you believe those bastards at Verizon?" or "can I just show you the mushrooms we picked?" And that usually has the predictable effect of pissing me off. When I say, "not now," I mean it. When one keeps talking to me when I say, "not now," one is showing disrespect. And it stresses me out because I need to be doing something other than fighting to get out of the conversation.

And it's that stress that's the issue, because, especially in light of mom's illness, I am trying really, really hard to be more patient with mom when she pulls this kind of thing. But when I'm stressed, my gut reaction comes out, and that gut reaction fails to account for mom's illness and my determination to be more patient.

When mom called this morning (a minute before noon, to be exact), I half thought, "this is fake timing; I can just talk to them and leave later" but I also thought, "I'd rather just talk to them when I'm not pressed for time; I'd rather it be a more relaxed conversation." So I picked up to say, "I'm leaving the house; I'll call you tonight."

A.: I'm about to leave the house. I'll call you tonight.
Mom: You should have seen "Eugeniy Onegin!"
A.: I'm leaving. We'll talk later.
Mom: You really have to see it. I mean, the singing wasn't all that crisp...
A.: I AM LEAVING THE HOUSE. I AM LEAVING THE HOUSE. I AM LEAVING THE HOUSE. I WILL CALL YOU TONIGHT.
Mom: Okay.

I instantly felt bad, but what could I say? I really didn't want to talk about opera at that moment. Wasn't it also more fair to mom to save the conversation about opera for when I had it in me to talk about opera? I'm genuinely glad that, with all the things mom is going through, she has the opera (and birds and mushrooms) to bring her joy. And I want to hear about them. Just not when I'm about to leave the house. Even for frivolous reasons. But when I'm all set to do something, I'm in the mode of doing it.

Anyway, I called her back when I got home, six hours later. I was happy to hear all about the opera and I may even try to go see it (the telecast, that is). I mean, "Eugeniy Onegin" is in my blood. As my father pointed out, "every educated Russian woman knows it practically by heart." (I do not, but you see my point).

***
It all worked out perfectly: it was smooth sailing to Columbia Heights, and I found parking after only minimal circling. And had I not allowed as much time as I did, the circling would have stressed me out to the point where I'd have quit and driven straight to Logan Circle. But I parked a block away and got my tortilla press. And then drove and parked in Logan Circle (well, a ways out, but still closer than the nearest metro, and close enough to drop off the paper towels I got at the Whole Foods before the show). I worried a bit about my car: perfectly legal parking spot, but you never would have guessed from the ominous "no parking" signs (you have to read the fine print; the most ominous ones restrict parking on a single day, for street cleaning). But I got to Studio just in time and got lost in the amazing show, which was all that I could ask; had the logistics been so all-consuming that they distracted me from the very purpose of going into DC, it wouldn't have been worth it. But the show really delivered, so the logistical smoothness was just (vegan) icing.

Sunday evening roundup

These are possibly the most heinous, offensive buttons ever.

Businesses (Google, financial service companies) are addressing the mug-shot extortion racket as the legal process hits some snags and hesitations.

Really interesting letter about "values" and "social equality." Conspicuous consumption for its own sake is one (tacky) thing, but living well, as Carolyn points out, is another.



Response to comment

My post does not "imply" that "we" should "look the other way" when we see "anyone" with a "weight problem." My post explicitly states that we are in no position to diagnose weight problems, and we are usually not in a position to do anything about them. Do you really want to go about telling people that they're over- or under-weight? Really? To the extent that anorexics (and bulimics) don't realize that they have a problem, they certainly don't respond well to people trying to tell them. [No, I don't know that from personal experience; I know that because I was a psychology major.]

Obesity and anorexia are both diseases; they are disorders, and they have consequences. I have never argued otherwise on my blog. I have argued that it would better serve the debate about weight to separate the discussion about eating disorders from the discussion about variations in healthy weight. And, especially on the thin side, you are in no position to diagnose someone's weight as an eating disorder. That was essentially what my post was about. That's what Lindy West's post was about. That and the fact that even if you could, you wouldn't be helping by calling someone out, especially in public.

When you say, "go along with their illusion that all is well," who are you to determine that all is not well? I say this--as I pointed out in my original post--as someone who has had three or four friends approach me to let me know they thought I was getting too thin. Who are they to tell me what's "too thin"? And, not to put too fine a point on it, if I did have a problem, their approaching me wouldn't be helpful.

Absolutely I'm offended when people advise me that I'm in harm's way. Do I micromanage what my friends eat and how much they exercise? Do I look over their shoulder and say, "that bacon is going to kill you?"

I can't speak for everyone, and I certainly can't speak for people with actual eating disorders, but I'd like to point out that no one who knows me very well and interacts with me on a regular basis would for a second entertain the thought that I was starving myself in any way. So if you'll just go back to minding your own business, I'm going to have a nice pasta dinner with chocolate for dessert (and wine, of course). And then I'll be back to blog about some other stuff.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Saturday evening roundup and quick ramble

More analysis of the politics of the shutdown.

The less meat you eat, the slimmer you're likely to be.

Life events are not fundraisers for your lifestyle.

***
I didn't catch "War Horse" at the Kennedy Center last year, but I just saw the film. It was emotionally manipulative (in the vein of ET; it is Spielberg, after all) and you will be moved.

I've also started reading "Snow" (Orhan Pamuk) and I like it, but I can't help but point out that he doesn't achieve what Tea Obreht did; perhaps it's more fair to say he didn't attempt it, or that it's not his style. But unlike with "The Tiger's Wife," you absolutely do get the sense, with "Snow," that someone is (regularly) interrupting the story with asides to give you a history lesson.

Everyone mind your own business

Madonna's Bazaar essay is amazing.

Please heed Lindy West:
Everyone. Repeat after me. "The health of strangers is none of my business. I cannot diagnose other people's health just by looking at them. If I have opinions or suspicions about other people's health I should keep them private and afford those people the same level of respect and personal agency that I demand for myself. If I cannot restrain myself from doing these things then I truly have farts for brains."
This was in response to a "fan" bringing Fiona Apple to tears, onstage, for being thin.

We've talked about this before--about the lack paucity of middle ground and nuance in the discourse about body size and shape. It goes both ways. Thin women are left out of the conversation, even though we, too, have curves. Crystal Renn gets slammed for losing weight, as if it's okay to turn her a symbol if it's in service of "plus-sized." Many women who are unhappy with their bodies feel even worse for caring about such "frivolous" things. Men think they're being progressive by stating their preference for curvy bodies. Let me excerpt from that one:
But while this group might technically be size-positive, it isn't body positive. It isn't woman positive. It's still rating women against each other, it's still making bodies a competition, it's still body surveillance culture. (Consequently, there seems to be a whole lot of surveying going on on that website.) Fat acceptance isn't saying that fat bodies are better. Fat acceptance isn't saying that everybody should be fat. It's about accepting bodies because they are bodies and they are attached to people with thoughts and feelings and it's about self esteem and it's about how everybody deserves respect, no matter what they look like. Fat acceptance is not body snarking on thin women, and it is not saying that real women have curves. A hip to waist ratio does not make anyone any more 'real' than anyone else. Curves do not a woman make. Criticizing thin bodies is actually just validating sizeism. Celebrating one thing by tearing down something else isn't really very celebratory at all.
And Fiona Apple isn't the only thin women to be accosted by busybodies. It's happened to me, although in my case, those busybodies were friends. I've also had people (coworkers that I was traveling with) assume that I don't need to eat, or that I don't eat (man, did they get an eye-opener). But that's a different issue; more to the point, A couple of friends have told me to stop losing weight (my body does what it does).  Another friend asked me whether I had tapeworm. One woman told me that I risked looking anorexic, but I just don't. And even if I did, it wouldn't be anyone else's business. Anorexia is a disease, not a body type. And I don't need anybody else's validation with regard to what my body looks like: don't flatter yourself, men or women. If I were anorexic, do you really think that your telling me that I looked fine as-is would have me say, "alrighty then, I can start eating now. Thanks!"?

At 5'1" and 100 pounds, I hover above the border between 'normal' and 'underweight,' but we all know that BMI is bullshit. If anything, with my body composition, the BMI tables should be adjusted upward for me, but they're still bullshit. It's an attempt to define normal, to which I'll requote Carolyn from earlier in the week when she said, "I don't care about 'normal;' I care about healthy." If someone is not healthy, body snarking isn't going to change that. If someone does feel the need to be thinner than she or he is, that is a legitimate feeling, and it's not anyone else's place to invalidate it. If you prefer curvy women, or thin women, good for you: we all have our preferences; the issue is when you broadcast yours as if you're the arbiter of what other people should look like.

I try to be polite to my friends who express concern over my size. I owe no such courtesy to strangers, which is just as well because I don't stand out as unnaturally thin to random people in the street. I am, nonetheless, sensitized to the busybody phenomenon because I do often have to field questions about being vegan. Would it be rude to answer with other questions: Am I wasting away? Is my hair falling out? Does my skin betray any signs of malnourishment? (No, hell no, and no). My body doesn't want to hold on to fat right now, just like some bodies cling to fat no matter what. My body gets what it needs and keeps what it needs. Which brings me back to what Lindy West said: "The health of strangers is none of my business. I cannot diagnose other people's health just by looking at them." Words to live by.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thursday evening ramble

I'd rambled earlier about the concept of small traumas, and the body's (the soul's?) tendency not to distinguish small inconveniences from significant problems. I added, in that ramble, that the mind can help the soul along, although sometimes the mind doesn't feel like it. Sometimes the mind wants to wallow a little bit, and that's okay. But ultimately, we do have some control over how we react to things, even though not all of us realize it or choose to exercise it. And sometimes the process can't be rushed; but the intermediate step is acknowledging that the choice is there and that it's somewhere we want to get. Example: "I understand that being furloughed is not the end of the world, and in my head, I understand how lucky I am that this is a temporary arrangement. But my soul is nonetheless wallowing. I am ready to move from the wallowing to the perspective of 'this too shall pass,' even though I'm not there yet." We can all find examples of people who have it worse, but that's hardly comfort (in fact, it feels like reverse schadenfreude, even if you don't only gratitude, and not happiness, in it). It's one thing to know that someone, somewhere is hurting or starving, but even if it's not that far geographically, it's far conceptually. That suffering person's world is so different from ours. Even knowing that we choose gratitude as a perspective for ourselves and not out of compassion, it can be hard to summon when you're in a bad situation. Sometimes it takes a loss of what you have, or a perceived loss, to viscerally appreciate what you do have.

[I'll interrupt this ramble to refer you back to a post in which I excerpted Jonathan Franzen's essay on losing David Foster Wallace and finding comfort in the birds, which his late friend couldn't bring himself to do:
David wrote about weather as well as anyone who ever put words on paper, and he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else, but nature itself didn’t interest him, and he was utterly indifferent to birds. Once, when we were driving near Stinson Beach, in California, I’d stopped to give him a telescope view of a long-billed curlew, a species whose magnificence is to my mind self-evident and revelatory. He looked through the scope for two seconds before turning away with patent boredom. “Yeah,” he said with his particular tone of hollow politeness, “it’s pretty.” In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.
I think about that often, and I'm sure that's not the first time I've reexcerpted it, whatever else I think of Franzen. It's just so powerful. But I digress.]

***
The day my mom broke her rib, I heard her say, "how wonderful everything was up until today." She wasn't in perfect health even before the fall; in fact, we'd been to the emergency room the night before, as well, for a different instance of excruciating pain. But once the new normal came through, she longed for the old normal. [She's doing much better, in case you were wondering.]

On Tuesday, I was in good spirits. I was burnt out and I needed some rest, even though I still would have rather been at work. I also needed to run some errands that were better suited to the middle of the week. But once I did those, and finished my book, and had a few naps, I was really ready to go back to work. By mid-day Wednesday, my spirits were falling, in spite of my best efforts to maintain perspective. And, in my defense--if I need one--I was equally upset for everyone else affected as I was on my own account. But I was also bored. And because I'd had places to go (well, mostly the mulch yard), I'd come to appreciate the value of getting out of the house, even for a little while. (It's also not exactly peaceful here, with all the construction). So this morning, as I ran out of nori, I decided to go to the Korean market. On the way back, I'd stop at the Afghan market and get tahini and Assam tea, and maybe I'd stop at the mulch yard again, just because I'd be close. And then--why not? it'd be on the way back--Whole Foods.

So there I was at H-Mart, having passed the produce unimpressed (once you go CSA you never go back, except in the winter when there is no CSA; I did get some tarragon) and picked up a few boxes of silken tofu and a package of masa harina (why the f* not? I'm bored). But don't listen to anyone who tells you you don't need a tortilla press, unless you really know what you're doing. That dough is a mess. I tried to roll it between to sheets of plastic and it worked, but then it was impossible to peel off. But I digress. I got the nori, and then went to look at pulses but decided I could do much better (and more organic) elsewhere. At checkout, my mind circled back to pulses... and I thought for sure that I forgot to turn off the chickpeas before I left. F***.

I ran to my car and drove as quickly as I safely could. The lights were with me, and most of the traffic was with me, but that was one of the longest half-hours of my life. I'll spare you about other aspects of keeping calm (I'm a bit believer in "stress is optional," so even if the worst had happened, stressing would not help; keeping a clear enough head to drive safely but quickly, would). I'll also preempt your question: yes, I chronically needlessly stress about having left my pulses cooking, even though I've only done it once, and there was enough water in there that it was fine, but once is enough, and I need a system to make sure not only that it never happens again but that I don't needlessly stress over it until I can get home to check. I'm thinking checklists at both doors, at least until checking becomes a habit). But (surprise!) I digress.

As I calmly drove to H-Mart, thinking about how I had all the time in the world, I actively, consciously made a point to count my blessings: I'm so grateful that I don't drive to work every day, especially not on the beltway; I'm grateful that traffic's not worse now; etc. As I frantically drove home from H-Mart, thinking how it could be okay (there was enough water to boil out and put out the stovetop; enough windows were cracked open that any smoke could get out and Gracie could get some air), I didn't need to convince myself of my blessings. It was a "I'm so happy with what I had just yesterday" moment: a house not on fire, a safe cat. It was the kick in the @ss I needed and asked for: help me get emotionally where I know intellectually I want to be. And that place is genuine, heartfelt gratitude for the things I hardly have to think about not having.

The stove was off when I got home; the cat was fine. My heart was still pounding, but my spirits were higher.

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