December 18, 2014

December 18, 2014

Yankee Swap, Revisited

(For the original Yankee Swap from 2007, featuring firemen and personal lubricant in a situation far less-sexy than the one you're imagining, go here.)

Today is my office’s annual white elephant gift exchange. While you’re probably familiar with the concept, allow Michael Scott a brief moment to explain:


(“Christmas Party” is the first episode of The Office I ever saw, and also my favorite. Those two things may be related, since most people’s favorite episode seems to be “The Injury.” Which is not even my second-favorite episode; I prefer “Diversity Day.” But I digress.)

So whether you call it White Elephant, Yankee Swap, or something else entirely, you know about the picking of numbers, the unwrapping of gifts, the stealing of other people’s stuff, and the general malaise that accompanies 90% of the proceedings.

The other 10%, of course, is straight-up malice. The people who bring trash as their gift. The people who delight in stealing someone else’s gift because they don’t want that person to have it rather than because they themselves actually want it. You know what I’m talking about, and hopefully because you’ve SEEN it and not because you’ve DONE it.

I’m no fan of humanity, but even I try to get a decent gift for the office exchange. Something I wouldn’t mind taking home myself. This actually brings me to a sort of existential quandary: Is it bad karma to end up with your own gift?

I mean, I understand that it’s…shall we say…“questionable” to get yourself in a Secret Santa situation. Kevin’s delight aside:


But things are a bit more dicey when it comes to exchanges. For the most part, people get a selection of gifts. If they’ve passed over yours—and you think it’s a good gift—then I believe you can go for it with impunity. It’s like if you came to my home (unlikely) and I offered you a piece of cake (even more unlikely) and you didn’t want it. I would then happily eat it. In front of you. BECAUSE WHAT IMBECILE TURNS DOWN FREE CAKE?

Okay, bad example.

Anyway, at time of writing I have no idea what I’ll get. I try to go into these situations expecting the worst. The price of the gift that I purchased is simply the cost of social acceptance. Sunk cost.

May the odds be ever in our favor, gift exchangers.

December 16, 2014

December 16, 2014

We Googled It

My favorite of the many year-end lists, recaps, and reviews is the annual Google Zeitgeist video. It’s one of the few times a year that I marvel at humanity rather than wince at it. (Your mileage may vary.) In preparation for this year’s video, which came out yesterday, I re-watched 2010 through 2013. And while they’re all inspiring and mist-inducing, my favorite remains 2011:


Whether you believe we’re alone in the universe, put here by a higher power, and/or living lives of quiet desperation, the fact remains that we’re all in this together. For better or worse.

It’s difficult, though, to consider videos from prior years with no consideration for what came after. I really love the 2012 video, for example, but it features Oscar Pistorius pre-Punch and Shooty* show. It makes me wonder what from this year will suffer the same fate. “Remember 2014, before ebola mutated to turn half of humanity into zombies?”

But let’s focus on the positives. The things that unite us, which tend to be:

1. Sporting events
2. The weather
3. Accomplishments in space
4. Political revolution

So, note to alien species looking to conquer humanity: These—rather than butts, as you may have been led to believe—are the ways to endear yourself to us. Help make the 2015 video REALLY good.

* Couldn’t resist. I’ll gladly take the coal in my stocking for that one.

December 3, 2014

December 3, 2014

Recent Reads: A Threeve

Though I’m still in the process of choosing my books of the year, a few recent reads deserve brief mention here.


Sweetness #9: A Novel by Stephan Eirik Clark
Recommended by California author Eden Lepucki when she was on The Colbert Report to discuss the whole Amazon vs. Hatchette dealio. It’s Mad Men, but with artificial sweeteners instead of advertising. It’s also much longer-form than Mad Men (unless there’s one hell of a time jump coming up in the final episodes), going from the 1970s to the present day. While the theme is ostensibly the evils of eating artificial, I remain a convert to those blue and yellow packets. Your mileage may vary.


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Dentist goes crazy. Many Red Sox references.


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty also wrote The Husband’s Secret, which I quite enjoyed despite a few confusing Aussie references. (Both author and setting are Australian.) In both that book and this one, Moriarty sets up a tangled web of school mums, husbands, townspeople, and kids, adds a complicating factor or two (an affair, a murder, etc.), and stirs. Quite enjoyable, even—or especially—when they’re having tea or calling cookies “biscuits.”


Wild: From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
I enjoyed this book so much it inspired me to research the Pacific Crest Trail and buy a small fanny pack. On the down side, I feel like Reese Witherspoon is a little too glam for Cheryl.


The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton
Sugar, sodomy, and the Dutch.

November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014

Things I’ve Read: The Aviator’s Wife

A recent trivia night reminded me that Time magazine’s very first Person of the Year was not Einstein or Hitler, the personal computer or an oily Kardashian. It was, in fact, one Charles Lindbergh, known primarily for flying across the ocean blue back when flight involved strapping yourself to a paper box and hoping for the best.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s a huge accomplishment. Lindbergh probably did more for aviation than almost anybody, particularly in transforming aviation from neato curiosity to legitimate industry. So rah rah and all that.

Some things Lindbergh was less known for: his secret families. That’s right: plural. Only recently was it revealed that he fathered seven children with three different women in Europe. You know that trope about the airline pilot with a family in every city? Exactly.

The Aviator’s Wife tells the story from the point of view of Anne Morrow (later Lindbergh). Flash forwards aside, it runs from just before she meets Charles through to his death in the 1970s. While he is (understandably) the book’s prime mover, it turns out that Anne was pretty amazing in her own right. The unassuming second daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico went on to become the first licensed female glider pilot*, her husband’s faithful navigator, and (less happily) the mother of the Lindbergh baby.

It’s that kidnapping fiasco that proves to be the watershed moment in their lives. (I’m not a mother, but I’m assuming the parents out there are knowingly nodding their heads.) Charles, like many Great People, was difficult to live with—selfish, cold, convinced he was always right—and his “my way or the highway” attitude didn’t exactly help the investigation. Even as Anne went on to have other kids, she never quite got over the death of her first one.

I originally thought this book was by the same author as The Paris Wife, a novelization of the life of Hadley Richardson, wife of Ernest Hemingway. I mean, look at the covers:


But this turns out to be a wholly separate tale. They say there’s a woman behind each great man. But with Lindbergh, Hemingway, and so many other cases, it’s more that there’s a man in front of each great woman.

* Amelia Earhart is referred to occasionally, but almost always as simply “The Aviatrix.” Anne was not a fan. It’s like The Real Housewives of Early Aviation.

October 29, 2014

October 29, 2014

A Real Frame-Turner

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the book was better than the movie.

Sure, there are exceptions. Sometimes you see the movie first and are so impressed that you read the book afterwards, skewing your perception in favor of the film that drew you in to the tale. (For me, Jack Reacher. I was so impressed by the movie—yes, I was that ONE PERSON—that I immediately read the entire series and went to see Lee Child in person.)

Generally, though, I think those of us who enjoy book literature and film can agree that the book medium allows for presentation of greater detail, especially through inner dialogue. (When I heard that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was being adapted into a play, I needed someone to slap in the face.)

However, since films these days are essentially a license to print money, odds are good that any notable book will end up Coming To A Screen Near You. A shame, since some books are so beloved that nothing—no combination of director, cast, special effects, and/or Tom Cruise—will live up to the version in your mind.

Friend-of-blog M recently asked me if I’d seen Gone Girl, for instance, and I’m really reluctant to see the movie version of my 2012 book of the year. Not because I have anything against Rosamund Pike or Ben Affleck (she was in Jack Reacher!). Rather, I’ve read that author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn make some changes during the adaption process, and that worries me. I barely tolerated the absence of Tom Bombadil in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, guys.

Other films I’m afraid haven’t done/won’t do the book justice: The Giver, The Maze Runner, Chaos Walking, and The Fault in Our Stars. All YA books, and mostly YA Sci-Fi, which shows both what I like to read and what gets adapted into movies these days.

Have you ever gone into a film adaptation hopeful and come out disappointed? Or the other way around?

October 22, 2014

October 22, 2014

Gunston Hall

George Mason’s Gunston Hall isn’t exactly atop anyone’s list of famous residences. Graceland, sure. Biltmore, yes. Mount Vernon, definitely. But Gunston Hall? No. Indeed, a great many people don’t even know who George Mason is, and that’s partially his fault.

[Quick primer on George Mason: Considered one of the Founding Fathers, Mason was a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention. However, because the Constitution gave much power to the central government and lacked a Bill of Rights, he refused to sign it. Ironically, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by Mason in 1776, formed the basis of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791. Herein lies an important lesson: You can have principles, or you can be famous, but it’s difficult to do both.]

Gunston Hall is in Lorton, Virginia, nearish to Mount Vernon. A Groupon and some classic October weather (sunny but not too hot) led to my recent visit. I started with the small museum, which contained a few displays and a great 10-minute introductory film that I’m pretty sure was on VHS. I learned that Mason’s first wife died at only 39 (aw), but that they had married when she was 16 (ew), and that he married his second wife partly to have someone to “warm his sheets.” Direct quote. Classy.

Next, the house:

Scaffolding not period-authentic.

For some reason that I didn’t catch, all of the furniture had been removed. On the plus side, this meant we could take all the pictures we wanted (pictures aren’t allowed when the furniture is in). On the down side, there was really nothing to take pictures OF. Here, pictures showing what the rooms are supposed to look like:



Unlike some other grand estates (e.g. Windsor Castle), Gunston Hall isn’t huge. The first floor has four rooms for entertaining, and the second floor has some very small bedrooms and closets. You had to wonder how the latter-day residents of Gunston Hall crammed modern amenities like kitchens and bathrooms into the floorplan.


After we toured the house, we checked out the outbuildings and gardens. One of the largest dependencies was the schoolhouse Mason built for his kids, which sort of takes homeschooling to the next level.


One of the best bits is the Potomac River view. Apparently Gunston Hall had its own ship landing back in the day, with even more trees cut back to expose the river. Even now, it’s pretty impressive.


While not on par with Monticello or even Montpelier, it’s not a bad day trip if you’re in the DC area. Maybe wait until they put the furniture back in, though.

October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

State Fair Showdown: Wisconsin vs. Virginia

Though I’ve been going to the Wisconsin State Fair for years decades, and though I’ve lived in Virginia since 2008, I had somehow missed the Virginia State Fair. I guess it was in my State Fair blindspot, along with the 46 State Fairs that aren’t in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, or Texas. But in the interest of giving everyone a fair shot (no pun intended), I decided to check it out this year, if only to compare and contrast with my home state’s annual shindig.

Virginia, you never had a chance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Contest: Opening Times
The Winner: Wisconsin

The Wisconsin State Fair opens at 8 a.m. This way, you can start with breakfast (the pancakes are always popular) before continuing on to the fried food of your choice. I myself like to arrive shortly before 9 a.m., when the buildings start to open and the deep fryers have been boiling for a while.

The Virginia State Fair opens at 10 a.m. Once I got in the gates, I headed straight for this place, obviously.

One of everything, please.

I approached, but was met with looks of confusion. I reminded myself that this is the South, and that’s sort of their default, so I asked whether they were open. The response I got? “Depends on what you want.” I WANT THE FRIED FOOD ADVERTISED ON YOUR SIGNS, BRO. Never mind that we’ve already cut significantly into my eating time by not opening until basically lunchtime.

The Contest: Food
The Winner: Wisconsin

Now, I’m trying to be objective when it comes to the food, because it’s certainly a matter of taste. Just because I like eating deep fried Oreos until I pass out in a sugar coma doesn’t mean that’s a plan for everybody. Thus I’m using quantity, variety, locality, and quality of fair food selection as my metrics. I was particularly pleased to see Virginia ham and seafood on offer in addition to popcorn, corn dogs, and other festival staples.

Of all the things to do with a peanut, boiling isn't even in my top five.

Even thus, I have to give the edge to Wisconsin on this one. We have an entire building dedicated just to the brands (Palermo’s Pizza, Berres Brothers coffee) and foods (cheese, cranberries, potatoes) of Wisconsin. Plus, the deep fried country ham biscuit was really salty.

The Contest: Activities/Displays
The Winner: Virginia

Though the Wisconsin State Fair has offered a lot of really cool shows over the years (circuses, bike stunts, lumberjacks, exotic animals), rarely does a single fair contain them all. At the Virginia State Fair, though, I got to see a magician and a team of (Yooper) lumberjacks.

He did much cooler stuff than this, but we weren't supposed to take pictures.

He proceeded to chop that log in half while standing on it. 

In addition, the prize-winning produce and condiments were in open-air displays. It’s not that I WANT to touch these things so much as I like to know that I COULD. (I actually did surreptitiously touch the cotton, because I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched a cotton plant.) Also, the giant pumpkin competition, which I don’t think Wisconsin even has:

Think of all the pies!

Wisconsin used to display the three biggest pigs, but that stopped a few years ago. Probably after that whole swine flu thing. Eesh.

Overall Winner: Wisconsin

You did well, Virginia. But you cannot beat the behemoth that is America’s Dairyland.*

* “First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity"