February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017

(I Can’t Get No) Conversation

It seems to be harder and harder these days to have a substantive conversation with someone about a third-party topic. It’s easy to discuss our vacation plans, or a funny thing that happened on the drive to work, but bring up Kim Jong Nam’s assassination* and I get a blank face.

Sigh. Maybe it’s my demo. [Insert complaint about a Henry Kissinger soul in a lady millennial body here.]

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a set of conversation Avengers you could summon at will? I’m thinking you’d need at least six:

The Politics Person: Knows the ins and outs of governance. Prior education and experience in public policy preferred. Lobbyists need not apply. Ideal candidate: A scandal-free version of Anthony Weiner.

The Business Person: Capitalist for life, but can reasonably defend the belief. Follows the markets with a keen eye to give the rest of us stock tips. Those with degrees in actual business fields will be selected over those in marketing. Ideal candidate: Steven Levitt.

The Sports Person: Needed only on a part-time basis, specifically during the Super Bowl, Olympics, Triple Crown, tennis and golf majors, and World Cup. Know your stats, know who’s hot, and come with a list of ridiculous prop bets for us to laugh about. Ideal candidate: David Jacoby.

The Entertainment Person: Conversant in both Old and New Media. Will need to create Top Five lists of books, movies, TV shows, albums, and podcasts at the end of each year for the groups’ holiday gift shopping purposes. Should have seen Hamilton at least once. Ideal candidate: N/A – I’m taking this slot.

The Science Person: This position is reserved for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, now and forever.

The History Person: Gives all our discussions CONTEXT. Are the Kardashians the Borgias or our time? Would the Super Bowl be better if competitors were naked, as in the early Olympics? Politics may be crazy now, but what of that Teapot Dome Scandal?! And so on. Ideal candidate: Dr. Lucy Worsley.

So there you have it: my ideal dinner party. I also want to work Ezra Klein in somehow as our Wunderkind Emeritus. Who else did I miss?

Avengers, assemble!

*Anyone who does want to discuss this with me, let’s talk. Because, I mean, WTF. Every time I think I can stop watching Arirang News for a while, they reel me back in with geopolitical intrigue. WELL PLAYED, KOREA.

February 4, 2017

February 4, 2017

To Seem, Yet Not to Be

Alternate universes are all the rage these days. (A statement presented without comment.) Whatever your media poison of choice, you can find something set in a time and place just a little different from our own.

I recently finished the book Underground Airlines, which sat on or atop many “Best of 2016” lists. In its reality, slavery is still legal. The author does an excellent job of explaining the historical precedent and latter-day logistics, and it’s eerily fascinating. I fully expect Underground Airlines to fill the “Book I Thought I’d Hate but Ended Up Loving” slot on this year’s list.

I’m slowly making my way through season 2 of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, set in the years after a World War 2 won by the Axis powers. It’s a dark show, and I find that the most innocuous bits can turn out to be the darkest. They celebrate V-A Day each year on the date America fell. The American flag has a swastika in it. The Pledge of Allegiance is to Hitler.

(Start at 1:37.)

I mean, thank goodness we don’t live in a dystopia anything like this. Right? RIGHT?

I’m also sticking with NBC’s show Timeless, though it’s become less about how small changes in the past have big effects on the present and more about “Time Period of the Week.” And that’s okay. I’m all for meaningless costume drama (cf. 98% of Downton Abbey). I’ve seen the Columbian Exposition, the Wild West, the Colonial Era, and the Space Race. Each of those episodes has been a diverting hour.

All this has gotten me thinking about other turning points. If we’re really living in one of an infinite set of universes, what might the others look like?

What if the Spanish Armada succeeded? Would my Spanish be better? Or at least, less offensive?

What if the Normans stayed in France? Would I spell everything lyke thyss? (Or not be able to read at all because I’m a woman?)

What if humanity domesticated foxes instead of dogs and cats? Would we be asking “What does the dog say?”

The possibilities are endless, and a thoughtful amusement (I know it's an oxymoron) on a cloudy day.

January 4, 2017

January 4, 2017

My Best Books of 2016: A Threeve

The fact of the matter is: I don’t read as much as I used to, and I don’t read as much as I’d like to. First world problems. Woe is me. I read 87 of my 100-book goal in 2016, and that’s…a B? B+? Honestly, anything below an A and my palms get sweaty. FAIL.

My shortcomings aside, it was a good year for literature. Even literature NOT about Alexander Hamilton. In fact, I read very little nonfiction last year. It was just the kind of year that demanded an escape from reality, amiright?

Book I Didn’t Enjoy Until Halfway Through

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I don’t always agree with President Obama, but when I do, it’s about this book. I slogged through the first half, waiting for delight to hit. Then the second half started, and BAM. Brilliant.

Book I Thought I’d Hate but Ended Up Loving

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I only started-without-finishing one book this year: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. You KNOW I love me a good scifi epic, but Red Mars was entirely too tedious for me. I don’t remember how I heard about The Sparrow, but I was sure it would be another failure to fill the Michael Crichton-shaped hole in my soul. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me think about aliens, religion, communication, society, and even Puerto Rico in entirely new ways.

Book I Thought I’d Love but Ended Up Hating

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder by Ben Mezrich. I really dug every other Mezrich work that I’ve read. This, though, was too populated with stern old guys for me to keep them straight in my head.

Book I Should Have Read Long Ago

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Now I see how that whole phenomenon got started. A little too neat to be my Best Book, but a solid contender. (Never have I felt so like a Goop subscriber than at this moment.)

Book I Loved from Start to Finish

Room by Emma Donaghue. My Book of the Year. I haven’t seen the movie, but I figured I’d make up for my cowardice by reading the source material. The book was so engrossing, the climax so gripping, and the narrative device so perfect, that I can’t imagine the movie would do it justice. I read it instead of sleeping. I read it instead of eating. I read it even when it made my heart pound and my stomach burble. That's what a great book will do.

December 30, 2016

December 30, 2016

2016: Not All Bad

Throughout 2016, the barometer hovered between “abandon hope” and “darkest timeline” settings. While certainly not the worst year in history, the hits (tragedies, attacks, deaths, errant tweets) kept on coming.

But on this, the last weekday of the year, let us pause to remember the good. Olympics. Space exploration. Pokemon Go. America isn’t part of the Commonwealth (despite my fervent hopes and recurring birthday wish), but I think this sums it up best:

To paraphrase Bill Withers, “Just the seven billion of us—we can make it if we try.”

On to 2017.

November 15, 2016

November 15, 2016

When Do the Plagues Start?

Though I grew up quite religious, eschatology* is neither my preference nor my forte. Frankly, I find the Book of Revelation terrifying, and even the Left Behind books were a. lot. to. take.

That said, I’ve always kept an eye out for the apocalypse. Ever since my parents and I watched a “documentary” circa 1990 that said our appliances would come to life in December 2012, I’ve been waiting for The End.

(Hey parents: Don’t watch stuff like this with your kids. It will lead to a lifetime of trauma and fear of coffeepots.)

So in 1999, I was sure we were done.

(Fooled me once.)

Then in 2012, I knew it was obviously going to happen because 1999/2000 was an arbitrary counting but 2012 was predicted in ancient history and whatnot.

(Fooled me twice.)

But now, in the words of a group of great philosophers: WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN.

Imagine here a scroll of horrendous things that have happened this year while I point out two things I saw just today:

1. An Amtrak bus. BUS. I’m expecting a Southwest train and Greyhound helicopter any day now.

2. Full-size Christmas trees. At the Pentagon City Whole Foods. On November 15. There are zero living rooms in a 5-mile radius that will accommodate these. Excellent marketing strategy, WF.

Obviously the Matrix is just pranking us now, guys. We might as well settle in for the ride. Hand me the carbs!

* One of the few things I remember from two semesters of Bible Doctrine class. Sorry, Dr. Saxon.

November 6, 2016

November 6, 2016

Writer's Almanac Highlight of the Day

In 1860 on this day, Abraham Lincoln was elected president with an 82 percent voter turnout. Lincoln had dinner that evening in Springfield, Illinois, and then went to the telegraph office in town to wait for word from each of the states. At about two in the morning, he heard that he had won New York, which made his election certain. He later wrote, "I went home, but not to get much sleep, for I then felt as I never had before the responsibility that was upon me." He had won the election with less than 40 percent of the popular ballot, and not one single vote in 10 of the Southern states.

November 5, 2016

November 5, 2016

23andYOU, maybe. Not 23andME.

While I’ve never been much of a “Who am I, and why am I here” ponderer, I was delighted to receive a genetic testing kit from 23andme as part of Birthday Hoopla 2016. My mom is Korean and my Dad is Polish/German, so it’s likely that most of my ancestors were forced to flee their oppressors at some point. (When you’re both German AND Polish, thinking about World War II raises some awkward questions.)

Anyway. Suffice to say I was PRETTY PSYCHED to figure some shiz out. Star in my own version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” but with science instead of genealogy.

The basic 23andme process is simple. The company sends you a test tube. You spit into the tube, seal it up, and mail it back in. They apply science/wizardry to the DNA that occurs naturally in your spit, and tell you all sorts of things about your ancestry and your health (which got them into some trouble—we’ll get back to that).

So, step 1: Spit into a tube.

Okay. Okay? OKAY.

See, what dearly beloved gifter didn’t realize when he got me this present is that I have a deep-seated saliva aversion. Everything about it—mine or other people’s, drool or loogie—I find horrifying. I don’t trot this fact out at parties, but now you know.

It took a lot of screw-your-courage-to-the-sticking-place, lie-on-your-back-and-think-of-England ministrations, but I managed to get the job done. (Even just typing these words is making me shudder.) Because, really, a few moments of suffering will all be worth it to find out I share some common DNA with Pikachu.

Since I was a quivering wreck after The Spitting Incident, TheBoy helped me get the sample ready for mailing. (I was like one of those women in a Victorian novel who doesn’t want to see the baby she is giving up for adoption. I was like, “JUST TAKE IT AWAY. I CAN’T EVEN.”)

So I popped the package in the mail and waited to be delighted. 23andme is very good about updating you at each step of the process: sample received, sample being analyzed, report being prepared, etc. I saw that they got my spit. I saw that they were analyzing my spit.

And then.

And then I got an email from stating that my sample failed analysis.

As someone who takes great pride at her skill with test-taking (that IS a fact I actually whip out at parties), this was a great blow. 23andme offers a second chance, though, and I asked for another tube. I also at this point became the first person in history to pass her driving test but not her DNA test on the first try.

So another tube arrived and I gave myself a pep talk. Obviously my phobia was affecting the results. My DNA was recessing into my body. COME ON, CHROMOSOMES. WE CAN DO THIS. SÍ, SE PUEDE.

[Here, insert a montage of the spit-to-mail process happening again, but with me having more of a steely glint to my aspect.]

I waited some more. Wondered if “Who Do You Think You Are?” ever runs into stuff like this.

And then I got another email. Another fail.

23andme tries to analyze each sample twice, so my two samples were actually four failures to find enough loose DNA (my paraphrase) to run their tests. They gave me a refund, and the fact that they didn’t just make something up—“you’re part Haitian!”—that convinces me they’re the real deal. Unlike every episode of CSI ever, when a one-second cheek swab yields enough evidence to convict a person of several crimes. BOO.

I’m trying to look on the bright side. Maybe my ancestry report would have revealed I’m actually Russian and Chinese, so I’d have to join the Communist party. Maybe my health report would have revealed that I’m simultaneously a carrier of and at risk for every disease. (The health report part of 23andme is controversial, since people get really freaked out when you tell them stuff like “Your genes are full of Alzheimer’s.”) Maybe my low-DNA density means I can commit crimes with impunity and I’ve been wasting my time living on the right side of the law.

I don’t want to dissuade you from 23andme—your mileage will certainly vary. Perhaps in the future they’ll come up with a different way of collecting DNA that will allow people like me (X-Men) to get involved. But until that day, I’ll be thinking about my superhero name.