December 31, 2007

December 31, 2007

The Year That Was: A Threeve

Humor me for a couple of minutes while I take a break from food, commercials, and movie reviews in order to look back at the year that was. For me, 2007 was a holding pattern year, between a graduation and a new job in 2006 and a graduation and a new job in 2008. 2007 was like the peanut butter in the sandwich. (Oh, wait, breaking from the food. Right.)

Here, then, the top stories of my 2007:

#5: I watched The O.C. die. (February)
The O.C. started the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. As such, I felt I had reasonable amounts of distance and perspective in order to appreciate a show about teenaged travails. I’ve already professed my enjoyment of this program so I won’t rehash. My therapist says I have a predilection for opening old wounds. (Note to readers: I do not actually have a therapist. Meet my friend Hyperbole.)

Anyway, I’ve found that The O.C. lives on. In musical influences (“Death Cab!” *shriek*). And in how the actors keep popping up in other things (“Julie Cooper’s in Reaper!” *shriek* “Jimmy Cooper’s in Good Night and Good Luck! *shriek*).

#4: I acquired a lot of gadgetry. (All year)
I’ll admit it: I sold out in 2007. I got a cell phone, a digital camera, and an MP3 player. None of which I really need, but all of which is very shiny. And, yes, I probably could have sponsored several dozen foreign orphans with the money I spent on gadgetry. But I’m a capitalist infidel.

#3: I rode the Megabus. A lot. (All year)
Megabus speaks to the Midwestern ethos of finding a cheap way to get to Chicago. Sure, you can also go to places like Minneapolis (which I have) and St. Louis (which I haven’t). But if there’s one stereotype about Midwesterners that is absolutely true, it’s that we know Chicago is our best contribution to American society. (Other contributions: casseroles, blizzards, and the phrase “Dontcha know?”) The fact that I can get to Chicago and back for less than ten bucks was truly one of 2007’s great discoveries.

#2: I got magical bootleg wireless internet. (Octoberish)
Technically, I have no idea when the magical wireless internet waves began penetrating my house. (Were you just reminded of health class for some reason? Ick.) I only know that I discovered them in late October or so. The jury’s still out on whether this is a good thing, because while having the internet at home has greatly simplified that portion of my schoolwork that’s online (read: all of it), it has also allowed me to become addicted to Facebook (who knew that the people I went to school with were interesting?), do even more instant messaging than I did before, and watch entirely too much YouTube. I like to pretend that all the Wikipedia articles I read will allow me to someday cure cancer.

(I just realized that my times, which were already becoming less and less specific, have now devolved into fake words. The internet is melting my vocabulary lobe.)

#1: [Redacted]. (All year)
Alas, the top story of my 2007 is one of those things I don’t blog about. For some things, you have to maintain an air of mystery. Like Waldo. I mean, why must we all incessantly search for him? Wouldn't that time be better spent searching for, I dunno, Bin Laden?

Stay tuned for 2008. The first of The Great Years.

December 28, 2007

December 28, 2007

In My Opinion: Annie Hall

I know it’s been a rather monotonous week of movie reviews, but I’m between semesters. And when I’m between semesters, I watch movies and catch up on tv shows. Hence all the reviews.

Anyway, Woody Allen is one of those cinematic names that you have to try at least once. He’s like the rhubarb of film. Or something. I enjoyed his vocal performance in Antz well enough, but I don’t think that really counts. So I went for the Woody Allen magnum opus: Annie Hall. As one of my friends described it: “A romantic comedy, yes, but a Woody Allen romantic comedy.” I’m allergic to chick flicks, but I figured I’d be safe as long as I kept a reasonable distance and took a cynicism booster beforehand.

The story to me was eh. I thought the film was a little dated (I missed a LOT of references). What I enjoyed, though, were the lines. So many quotables:

“Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat, college.”

“My grammy never gave gifts, you know. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”

“They give awards for that kind of music? I thought just earplugs...They do nothing but give out awards. I can't believe it. Greatest Fascist Dictator--Adolf Hitler!”

Annie: [about California] “It's so clean out here.”
Alvy: “That's because they don't throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.”

I recommend this movie mostly for the script. Neurotic romance doesn’t really do it for me, but witty banter does.

December 27, 2007

December 27, 2007

In My Opinion: Charlie Wilson’s War

I’ll be honest: on my list of holiday movies to see, Charlie Wilson’s War was…okay, not on the list. Even though it had an excellent cast. And came highly recommended from several of my trusted sources. I remained reluctant to see what I thought would be a cheeky retelling of not-very interesting events that happened before I was even born.

Turns out I was wrong. See, it does happen on occasion.

Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, was a Texas congressman who had a lot of favor in Congress. For those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. government, “a lot of favor” means “can help you out if you help him out.” Wilson almost single-handedly brought about U.S. involvement on behalf of Afghanistan against the Soviets during the 1980s. What we did or didn’t do back then and its effects on what is or isn’t happening now are really outside the scope of this blog. (Inside the scope of this blog: tv, food, and words that are fun to say.)

The cast really made this movie for me. Wilson was, well, sort of sleazy, and seeing the upstanding Hanks in such an anti-Gump role is quite fun. Julia Roberts plays an insanely rich Texan God-fearer with gravity-defying hair. Of the top-billed cast, though, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets it done for me. I absolutely loved every one of his scenes. He’s rapidly rising to the top of my favorite actors list. (Yes, I have a thing with lists. This should not be news to, well, anyone.) There’s a great scene in Wilson’s office involving a liquor bottle that had me doing actual knee-slapping in the theater. That’s right: knee-slapping. North of the Mason-Dixon. *pause for jaw drop*

The supporting cast was also incredible, and had me doing this in my head:
“Ooh, Amy Adams!”
“Emily Blunt!”
“John Slattery!”
“Amy Adams, again!”

Aaron Sorkin did the screenplay, so fans of The West Wing (or intelligent banter in general) should make note of that.

If you need a change after watching Will Smith or Nicolas Cage save the world, watch Charlie Wilson give it a shot.

December 26, 2007

December 26, 2007

In My Opinion: I Am Legend

I saw Omega Man, another version of this story, many moons ago. I remember three things about that movie: Charlton Heston, vampires, and a naked lady. In my defense, my family was in the middle of a Charlton Heston post-apocalyptic movie phase, and “Soylent Green is PEOPLE” had much more resonance with my subconscious. It’s all about the catchphrases with me.

Anyway, I’ve been a Will Smith fan since Men in Black. And that film is really the essence of what I like about a typical Will Smith movie: lots of excitement, a bit of thinking, and an extra-large can of whoopass. That, to me, is the perfect cinematic recipe. (Optional: Add elves, a government agency or two, and/or Wes Anderson.)

(I’m not going to comment on this movie’s plausibility or lack thereof. I don’t care about plausibility.)

When I watched Batman filming in Chicago (no, I will NEVER stop mentioning that whenever possible), I found out how many logistics are involved in shutting down a city street (answer: a lot). And they appear to have shut down large portions of New York for this, which must have been a nightmare. But it definitely made for some eerily-arresting visuals. To be honest, a lot of my reason for wanting to see this movie was the “How’d they DO that” factor.

I like to flatter myself in thinking that, were I stuck in a similar situation as Will Smith’s character (survivor of a plague that’s turned everyone else into rabid zombies), I’d go about things in a similar manner as he does: continue work on a cure while systematically amusing myself. Well, maybe not so much of the cure working. But definitely the systematic amusement. I’d camp out in the nearest Target. (Yes, I realize the closest Target is actually across the Hudson in Jersey City and that I’d have to swim there because the bridges had been blown out in the quarantine. See “I don’t care about plausibility,” above. The likelihood of my being the sole survivor of any sort of cataclysm is nil. I don’t know how to shoot a gun. I can barely tie a square knot, and that’s after several years in the Scouts.)

If nothing else, this movie’s a good reminder that while God may have promised never to wipe life out again, that doesn’t mean humans won’t try to have a go at mucking it all up.

December 25, 2007

December 24, 2007

December 24, 2007

In My Opinion: Elf

No one plays a guileless manchild quite like Will Ferrell. I’d like to say that right off the bat, because I don’t think this movie would work nearly as well without him in the title role. When he first gets to the magical land of New York City, the naivete and amazement are actually believable. You laugh in amusement (and not derision) at the phrase “son of a nutcracker.” That he would sit feet away from a showering woman just to hear her sing seems plausible. All of this is really contingent on Will Ferrell, and he comes through.

The supporting cast is also very good, though I would preferred to have seen the roles of Amy Sedaris and Andy Richter beefed up a little, if only because I quite like Amy Sedaris and Andy Richter. (Amy wrote a darkly funny cookbook/guide to living called I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence that can be purchased here. She’s like a subversive Martha Stewart.)

I was greatly amused by the North Pole sets, as the already-giant Ferrell appeared even more statuesque when in elvish confines. Leon the Snowman had some good lines, and that penguin was too frickin’ adorable. The narwhal freaked me out, though. Even freakier? They’re real.

I don’t usually go in for PG movies, but this one I didn’t mind. It was short. It featured a Milwaukee-based retailer. And it was directed by Pete “The Millionaire” Becker.

“Us elves like to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup.”

“This place reminds me of Santa's workshop. Except it smells like mushrooms and everyone looks like they want to hurt me.”

“It’s just nice to meet another human who shares my affinity for elf culture.”

December 21, 2007

December 21, 2007

To Time Magazine’s Person of the Year

Dear Vladimir Putin,

Congratulations on being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. As last year’s person celebre, let me assure you that I understand the feelings of flattered surprise you right now are experiencing. It’s nice, isn’t it? And while I never went so far as to have cards printed up with simply my name and the words “Person of the Year,” I think you should.

But, Vladimir Putin, I must admit a question that has been perplexing me since I heard your news. Namely: How in the world did you pull THAT off?

You beat out Al Gore. He won a Nobel. Single-handedly brought the word “inconvenient” back into the zeitgeist. And appeared on 30 Rock.

You beat out J.K. Rowling. Every person alive has read Harry Potter. Some dead people have, as well, though it’s much harder for them to set up book clubs.

You beat out General Petraeus...okay, that one I’ll give you.

Apparently, attempting to set up a puppet government is the new thing to do. (Hi, Hugo Chavez!) And while my knowledge of the subject is based mainly on the movie Anastasia, I’m pretty sure you have the added advantage of leading a country used to dynasties.


December 20, 2007

December 20, 2007

Things I’ve Read: The Book of Abigail and John

I realize that The Book of Abigail and John sounds like a crappy love story. This is why, when people would ask me what I was reading, I would add the sentence “It’s collected letters of John and Abigail Adams.” Sadly, even after that, some people continued giving me a blank stare. If you’re unfamiliar with John Adams, you should be talking to David McCullough and not me.

Anyway, I’ve always been fascinated (well, that’s perhaps too strong a word, but “interested” doesn't seem strong enough) with the relationship between John and Abigail Adams. I think it really was a marriage of the minds, even though Abigail, living in colonial times, had to make do with an education based on cross stitch samplers and nursery rhymes [/feminist rant].

I’d classify the contents of the letters as about a third each of the following:

Shopping lists. Along the lines of “Please send several yards of muslin, any tea you can find, and some handkerchiefs.” Apparently, while John was abroad, he could cheaply procure things that Abigail could sell for profit at home, what with all the insane British tariffs.

Domestic stuff. Includes the romanticy stuff, which is self-explanatory. Also includes notes on bringing up the kids. Interestingly, the Adams spent just as must time apart as they did living together. Yay for public service.

Historical commentary. This was the really interesting part for me. You got a sort of unofficial historical perspective on the events of the 1770s and 1780s. When “Dr. Franklin” was casually mentioned, I was like, “Holy crap, they’re talking about Benjamin Franklin. THE Benjamin Franklin.” Then again, that could just be my unhealthy fascination with celebrity kicking in.

If nothing else, reading these letters makes you glad we’ve evolved to phones and email. Because, especially once politics makes travel tricky, most of the letters begin with a request to note the dates of all received letters, so as to ensure none of them miscarried. This was back in the day, you know, and so you couldn’t just rely on the USPS. (Well, you really STILL can’t rely on the USPS, but for entirely different reasons.)

And while it won’t necessarily inspire you to write a letter, or even check out the very good PBS documentary on the Adamses, at least it’s a smart book. Unlike 70% of what I read, this is actually something you could read at the dinner table. (Or is it just me that does that?)

December 19, 2007

December 19, 2007

In My Opinion: Waitress

Waitress is a well-reviewed indie film about a pie savant/waitress starring Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion. If you look closely at that last sentence, you can find five reasons to love this movie.

1. Well-reviewed. I’m entirely too susceptible to peer pressure. I know this. Yet I can’t NOT read movie reviews. It probably doesn’t help that I subscribe to two entertainment magazines (neither of which is People, thank you very much). But eh. Anyway, people who know what they’re talking about loved this movie.

2. Indie. I’m a sucker for little indies. And with this film, Fox Searchlight has surpassed Focus Features to become my go-to source for little indies. Because…Garden State? Yes. Little Miss Sunshine? Yes. The Darjeeling Limited? Yes. Juno and The Savages? Yes and…yes. You get the idea.

3. Pie savant. Though I later found out the pies aren’t real (which was like finding out Santa isn’t real), they look amazing in this film. And they, like me, have funny names, like I Hate My Husband, Marshmallow Mermaid, Naughty Pumpkin, and Lonely Chicago.

Between this and Pushing Daisies, pie is obviously the new “It” dessert. (Previous “It” desserts include Jell-O, English trifles, and flan.)

4. Keri Russell. Back in the day, I was a pretty big fan of The WB. Dawson’s Creek and Felicity were a twofer of verbose angst set to hip music. I like to think that Felicity helped prepare me for college, in the same way that Lost prepares me for life on a desert island. (Also preparing me for life on a desert island: The Dangerous Book for Boys, the film Cast Away, and a strange fascination with constellations.)

5. Nathan Fillion. Captain Tightpants, for those of you who get that reference. Seriously, though, what has he NOT been good in?

This is as close to a chick flick as I get, so take it as it is.

“I know what you’re thinking. No…I don’t. What are you thinking?”

“I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others.”

“If I had a penny for everything I love about you, I would have many pennies.”

December 18, 2007

December 18, 2007

Chicago: Part the Second

(If you missed the first part, I’ll allow for your laziness in not checking this blog daily and instruct you to click here.)

Magnificent Mile. By the time I finished with the Chicago History Museum, it was snowing pretty heavily. Luckily, I come of hearty Midwestern stock. (True story: The day my parents got married, the temperature was hovering in the 20s BELOW ZERO. Milwaukee’s record coldest temperature, -26 degrees, was set the next day, as they were leaving for a honeymoon in California.) I also figured that I was probably only going to be in Chicago during the weeks before Christmas once in my life, so I might as well do things right.

Yes, it was snowy. And crowded. But I got to window shop at places like Burberry and Cartier.

Field Museum. Since I hadn’t been to the Field Museum since I qualified for children’s admission, I figured it was time to go again. And the really good museums just get better as you age; you appreciate the details of the exhibits. Also, the weird ones don’t freak you out as much. (True story: I could only run past one of the dinosaur exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum for the first decade of my life. It had a life-size T. Rex eating a felled triceratops and scared the crap out of me.)

The Hall of Mammals isn’t really something that can be described; when you try it comes out as “stuffed animals in glass boxes.” But is really is quite something. That Field guy knew what he was doing.

And they were setting up for some sort of catered event, too. Why WOULDN’T you want your wedding reception in the shadow of a giant dinosaur skeleton?

Daley Plaza. The Chicago Christmas tree, though a little out of my way, was also one of those things I figured I should see while the seeing was good. I was actually alarmed at how large it was. And how baubled. I mean, the Milwaukee tree doesn’t even have ornaments on it. (Let’s face it: they’d probably get stolen.)

As you can see, I was not the only person enjoying the tree.

After that, I just wandered back to the train station, enjoying the snow and the lights. Yes, I was alone. After dark. In downtown Chicago.

I survived.

December 17, 2007

December 17, 2007

Chicago: Part the First

Yes, folks, it’s that time again. I’ve found that I always visit Chicago on a Saturday in even-numbered months. Who says I’m predictable?

Union Station. I was forced to improvise right from the start when the CTA pass machine informed me that one-day passes (a STEAL at $5 for unlimited rides) were “not currently available.” You’d think that the city’s main transit hub would keep that kind of thing in stock. But, really, what do I know? By the time I decided to pony up $9 for a two-day pass, a large group of Mennonites had swarmed the machine. I walked over to the Sears Tower (luckily it was on my way, or there’d have been MUCH more cursing on my part) and got a one-day pass there instead. And it only took me four tries to get into the building (seriously, it’s a building with a zillion doors, only two of which are unlocked).

Chicago History Museum. According to the schedule, route 36 buses are supposed to run every ten minutes. My waiting time: 35 minutes. This wasn’t my first time, though, so I’d factored it into my schedule. The rule of thumb for Chicago transit is to take the posted time and double it. If the weather’s bad, triple it. If you have to transfer to another bus…just walk. It’ll be faster.

Anyway, once I made it to the Chicago History Museum, I was pleased to finagle a student discount, though confused by this on the sidewalk out front:

The Chicago History Museum has a lot of Lincoln artifacts. Shocker. Some of them are kind of cool, like the bed he died in. Some of them are creepy, like a purported lock of his hair. (Depending on your taste, I guess you might be able to switch “cool” and “creepy” in that last sentence.)

Overall, I found the collection a little underwhelming. (Sorry. After the Smithsonian, almost anything’s going to be a letdown.) However, the fantastic Chicago Room made up for it. I have a weird thing for great architecture; I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

Best Part of the CHS: The video that taught me how globes are made.
Worst Part of the CHS: Losing my chap stick.

Tomorrow: Fancy stores, snow, dinosaur bones, and lots of sparkly lights.

December 14, 2007

December 13, 2007

December 13, 2007

Things I’ve Read: Then We Came to the End

I think debut novels are like rookies: for every one that breaks out, there are dozens that do little more than warm the bench. (Wow, I used a sports metaphor. Someone make a note of this.) Though it seems publishers are always trumpeting the next King, or Rowling, or Grisham, keep in mind that (a) that’s their job, and (b) they probably reject hundreds of people for every one whose manuscript they accept. So these up-and-comers are really just a tiny minority. A cup from the literary swimming pool, if you will. (Lifeguarding the literary swimming pool: James Frey. He will NEVER live that Oprah thing down.)

I decided to pick up Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End because EW gave it a pretty good review. And, as we know, EW is my Bible. Well, except for the ACTUAL Bible. But…you know. Also, it’s set in an ad agency, and if I learned anything from Mad Men, it’s that I’m fascinated by the world of advertising. (As if my addiction to commercials hadn’t clued me in, I know.) Finally, the cover art is Post-Its. And I can’t tell you how many Post-Its I go through on a weekly basis. It’s insane. Not just, “cute delusional” insane; more like “in a quiet facility upstate” insane.

As an office drone myself (though not a corporate one), I enjoyed reading about the idiosyncrasies of a Chicago advertising agency. Ironically, though, anyone who’s worked in an office will recognize some universals. The guy whose mass emails of random ponderings everyone just deletes. The gossipy woman whom you go to for all the good news but then loathe yourself afterwards. The executive who meets his match in the copier. Good stuff, people. Good stuff.

Though the narrative structure is a little confusing (note to Mr. Ferris: please stop flashing back without warning, and then flashing back into the present, and then flashing back again--I felt like I needed Dramamine), the characters are interesting (if a few too many) and the pranks are amusing if juvenile.

As for what “the end” turns out to be, well…I can’t give it all away, can I?

December 12, 2007

December 12, 2007

To the President of CBS

Dear Les Moonves,

I know that you, like me, love television. Thus you, like me, are greatly impacted by the recent Writers’ Guild of America strike. However, you, unlike me, can actually do something about said strike. No doubt realizing this, you have taken action that, while not the “facilitating a settlement” I might have hoped for, is still a thing to behold.

(Let me note here that I have been a fan of yours since David Letterman’s “More with Les” segments. I believe you performed admirably during these skits, revealing a personality more than able to deal with your wife, Chenbot.)

Les Moonves, you have announced plans to bring several Showtime programs to primetime CBS. This will require some doing, as Showtime programming is not so much “family-friendly” as it is “naked.” That aside, I myself (Victorian sensibilities and all) have enjoyed several episodes of Californication and Weeds. That these two programs are among those you hope to clean up for network tv caused me considerable excitement. That Dexter, a program I’ve had recommended to me by several people, is also on the list was the proverbial frosting on the cake.

In short, Les Moonves, I applaud you. Though a censored episode of Californication may last all of 90 seconds, rest assured that I will block out that 9:58:30 to 10:00:00 on a weeknight to be named later.


December 11, 2007

December 11, 2007

Listen to This, Volume 8: Landon Pigg

Yes, it’s another artist discovered via commercial. With the amount of tv I watch, I’m bound to pick up things, musical and otherwise (for example: someone I love may be a numismatist, I apparently need to ask my doctor if Caduet is right for me, and Bounty is the quilted, quicker picker-upper).

This time of year, you get a lot of ads for Christmas presents. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that there appears to be a massive group of people who buy their loved ones products measured in carats or made by Lexus. Question: Who ARE these people, and how do I get on their gift lists?

One of this year’s “A Diamond Is Forever” commercials uses a song called “Coffee Shop” by Landon Pigg. Things to love: he’s lived in Chicago, only two months older than I am, and “credits his mother for nourishing his poetic side.” His music has been classified as “romantic” (chick music, blurgh), so I can really only vouch for this one song. (Which is also very chicky, I know, but eh. It’s the holidays; we’re all feeling a little sentimental.)

Though I find that 80% of YouTube videos are of dubious (read: crappy) quality, this one is pretty amazing. It helps you learn the lyrics AND quotes John Donne. That’s what I like to call a “twofer.”

December 10, 2007

December 10, 2007

Yankee Swap

My work Christmas party was this past Saturday. And though I’m pretty anti-social, I make an exception for this event. My reasons? Partially because every career advice columnist says the Christmas party is NOT optional, partially because it’s fun to watch my co-workers get completely drunk, partially because I get to eat fancy food for free, and partially because I have the chance of ending up with a good gift.

Let me focus on that last one for a minute. The gift exchange at the fire department’s administrative Christmas party is best described as a polite white elephant melee. Though there are only 50 or so guests, the gift exchange takes several hours. This year’s theme: liquid gifts, $10 limit. Since I don’t drink, I figured right away that 90% of the gifts would hold no interest for me at all. But there was hope.

For my gift, I brought this lovely bottle of olive oil.

Nice, right? Classy, right? I know.

I picked number 17. Of 50. Not promising. When my turn came around, I opted NOT to steal a gift (because I’m nice) but rather get one from the table. I ended up with a gift card to Speedway. I actually found this pretty clever: gas IS a liquid, after all.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one interested in $10 of gas. A few rounds later, my card got stolen by one of the battalion chiefs. The room actually BOOED him for stealing my gift. The Chief (who was emceeing) pointed out that he was stealing from the youngest member of the staff. I found the whole thing hilarious.

Here’s where I made my mistake. I should have stolen the tin of Williams-Sonoma peppermint hot chocolate. I love mint. I love hot chocolate. I love classy food. That gift was all three. Instead, I went for another gift on the table. And got this:

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Cherry-flavored personal lubricant. Even the bottle of Jack Daniels would have been more appropriate. THAT I could have re-gifted.

Anyway, one of my friends mercifully stole it in a later round (her exact words were “I’ll take a hit for Heather”; the room applauded her), so that I could re-steal the gas card. It, of course, was later stolen again, at which point I stole the tin of hot chocolate and called it a night.

So it all worked out. Eventually.

December 7, 2007

December 7, 2007

Big Ben

I like to listen to the radio while I’m getting ready in the morning. (Bear with me, I come to a point eventually.) I usually listen to a local AM station that gives me news, weather, and sports in the span of 10 minutes or so. Like the radio version of USA Today (McPaper…tasty).

When you listen to any radio station regularly, you become pretty familiar with the advertisers. They work hard to ensure this, hence the slogans and the jingles. (I know; I’ve taken a whopping three marketing classes.) And as with books, t-shirts, and pastries, some are better than others.

One of the frequent advertisers I hear is a local mortgage company that obviously wants to impress listeners with its cool. And while that may have been the first sentence to ever feature the words “mortgage” and “cool” in such close proximity, it actually works.

The ads are always read by the same guy. The deceptiveness of voices aside, he strikes me as middle-aged and affable. Plays golf, but doesn’t have a huge handicap. Likes his scotch, but not enough to buy the really good stuff. You know, THAT guy. The commercial that had been airing until just recently started with the guy (badly) singing the words, “What goes up…,” admitting his lack of vocal talent, discussing rising rates, and eventually ending with “…rates come down.”

So far, so pedestrian, says the girl with nine marketing credits. But where this company gets it is in the fine print. Those disclaimers read at breakneck pace during the last 5 seconds of the commercial. This ad ends with, “Rates subject to change. Lender is not a rock band.”

I heard a new commercial for the first time yesterday, and found it similarly amusing. I may be the only one, though. Because the tag was “Rates subject to change. Bernanke still won’t return my calls.”

Now, I’ve taken economics (and recently), so I know who Bernanke is. But does the average person?

Do you?

December 6, 2007

December 6, 2007

Happy St. Nick's

Today is St. Nicholas’ Day. Unless you live in what Wikipedia calls “cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and St. Louis,” you may not have known that. It’s okay. That’s why you read my blog: to learn of obscure holidays. And television. And food.

Though Wikipedia also notes, “The tradition of St. Nick's Day is firmly established in the Milwaukee community, with parents often continuing to observe the day with even their adult children,” I’ve not found that to be the case. You know how many people at work have wished me a happy St. Nick’s Day? None. Granted, I appear to be the only one with holiday spirit, having had to put up all the decorations myself while my co-workers said things like “I don’t even HAVE a tree” and “Those things are so much more exciting when you’re YOUNG.” Don’t make me bury you with a stake of holly through your heart, people.

But my favorite part of today isn’t the decorations or the toys. Or even the candy. It’s the murky history. To wit (warning, block quote ahead:

Like many ancient traditions, the history of St. Nick's is debated. Some say St. Nick's Day is a decidedly German observance. Others say it is Spanish or Dutch. What is known is that St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century. He was a Christian prelate and the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was a native of Patara, in the ancient district of Lycia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). He became archbishop of the metropolitan church in Myra, Lycia.

How he came to be so famous is a little bit of a saucy tale, not suitable for tender ears. Legend has it that he took pity on a poor man who was about to abandon his daughters to prostitution. The story goes that he left trinkets for the man in his chimney. From this came the custom of secret gifts on the eve of the feast day celebrating St. Nicholas. Because of the close proximity of dates, Christmas and St. Nicholas Day are now celebrated simultaneously in many countries.

"Saucy," indeed. And while you’ll probably not be able to help anyone keep their daughters on the straight and narrow, you should go ahead and celebrate anyway. Candy cane it up.

December 5, 2007

December 5, 2007

This is My Tannenbaum

This is my tannenbaum. One of the first things you notice is that my Christmas tree is, in fact, an actual tree; a balsam fir, to be specific. It is not made of metal. Nor is it pre-lit. Until a short time ago, it was growing in the woods of Wisconsin. Perhaps near a log cabin. A log cabin owned by a man named Zeke. A man named Zeke who also makes cheese. Anyway, contrary to popular belief, real trees aren’t a huge fire hazard; you just have to keep them watered. They’re like animals or small children in that way. And they smell much better. Sometimes I forget whether I’m in my living room or a forest.

Notice also the relative dearth of ornamentation. It’s not exactly a Festivus pole, granted, but it’s pretty sparse. Call me a traditionalist (I’ve been called worse), but I like to see actual TREE in my Christmas tree. I’m such a freak, I know. The color scheme, of course, is up to you, though I think the red/silver combo has just the right amounts of Christmas and winter. It’s classy. And I choose to top the tree with a star that we got at a dollar store several years ago. It ain’t broke, so I ain’t fixing it. (Also purchased at the dollar store: the garlands and the pinecone ornaments. Like I said, classy.)

Though my family doesn’t have and pets or small children (“Tommy, do NOT chew on that!”), we get a tabletop tree. That way, the presents are at eye level. And if you have way too many to get under the tree (as in those years when the corn crop’s good/a Wisconsin agricultural stereotype of your choice), you can start shoving them under the table.

December 4, 2007

December 4, 2007

Listen to This, Volume 7: ABBA

As these things often do, it all started innocently enough. One of my favorite characters on The Office sang a minute of “Take a Chance on Me.”

I found the scene itself hilarious, but also enjoyed the song. So I Googled.

Turns out that “Take a Chance on Me” is an ABBA song. Like my knowledge of turnips and calculus, my knowledge of ABBA was vague at best. I knew they were a group. I knew they were Swedish. I knew the musical Mamma Mia! was in some way based on them. But really, doesn’t that describe the shoppers at your average Ikea store on a Saturday?

As one of my co-workers put it, ABBA is master of the kind of song that gets stuck in your head. “You will never get rid of it” were her exact words when I described how “Take a Chance on Me” has been playing in my head on a more-or-less constant loop for the past week. (Side note: my co-workers, upon learning of my ABBA discovery, considered getting me a disco ball. Then they realized that I wasn’t even conceived during the years of disco and got depressed at how much older they all are than me. Office fun.)

I got the Gold: Greatest Hits album, which has (in my opinion) all the best ABBA songs. Not just “Take a Chance on Me,” but also “Fernando,” (featured in one of the funniest Malcolm in the Middle scenes ever), “Mamma Mia!,” and “S.O.S.”

Take a chance on ABBA.

December 3, 2007

December 3, 2007

In My Opinion: Good Night, And Good Luck

Good Night, And Good Luck portrays the 1950s battle between CBS (“This is the Columbia broadcasting system”) reporter Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy (“The junior senator from Wisconsin”). The most notable cast member is George Clooney, who doesn’t play the lead, but opts instead for the role of Fred Friendly (alliterated names: always a plus), Murrow’s producer and go-to guy.

Structurally, the film’s 90-minute run time and heavy dependence on historical clips of the HUAC hearings (what, no one wanted to play McCarthy?) make it feel more like a long documentary than a short feature. And as captivating as the blacklist no doubt was back in the day, it loses somewhat in the translation here. However, I think several interesting parallels can be drawn between that witch hunt and those of the modern day (I won’t ask if you don’t tell).

Aesthetically, though, this movie gets major bonus points. Like the AMC show Mad Men (which I’ve already gushed over), Good Night, And Good Luck does an excellent job of portraying the post-war years, when men were men, women were women, and everyone smoked two packs a day. With a bottle of scotch. At least. (Also, everything was in black and white until the invention of color in 1962.)

Supporting cast members who don’t get nearly enough credit: Robert Downey, Jr. (who’s an excellent actor when he’s clean) and Patricia Clarkson as two CBS employees who have to keep their marriage a secret (forbidden love: always a plus), Ray Wise (currently seen as the Devil on CW’s Reaper with my boy Bret Harrison), Jeff Daniels, and Tate Donovan (The O.C.’s Jimmy Cooper, making good).

November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007

Favorite Holiday Songs: A Threeve

It’s still November. Yet the stores and the commercials insist on force-feeding us holiday cheer. And if the advertisers are doing it, who am I to stand in the way?

My favorite Christmas carols are all pretty old and obscure. Some were originally written in Latin. Sung by medieval monks, perhaps. Or Druids.

1. The Holly and the Ivy. Wikipedia calls it “among the most lightly Christianized carols of the Yuletide—the holly and the ivy being among the most familiar Druidic plants.” That’s right: I owe my favorite Christmas song to the Druids. When you think about it, though, maybe the Druids were on to something. They were into magic way before that Potter boy. Caesar took note of them. And while they apparently didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge, I want to pretend they do, because that thing rocks. (No pun intended; you know I hate puns.)

2. Patapan. This could easily have slid into onomatopoeia gone awry territory, but I think it has just the right amount. You should take some Dramamine before watching the video, though. ‘Tis a little shaky.

3. In the Bleak Midwinter. The poem? Good. The song? Better.

4. Good Christian Men, Rejoice. This song was composed in either the 13th or 14th century. Pretty old by any standard. I prefer it a bit faster than it’s sung in this video, but you know what? Still good.

5. Of the Father’s Love Begotten. More music from the 13th century. Apparently I had a past life during the Middle Ages. The video cracks me up because, well, the singers’ outfits are hideous. Close your eyes and listen.

Bonus points to anyone who can sing this in Latin.

November 28, 2007

November 28, 2007

Santa's Village

When I was growing up, a couple of my aunts would pack my cousins and me in a car every summer and drive us down to Santa’s Village. Does anyone else remember that place? According to Wikipedia, it DID exist, though its shuttering last year kinda cements it as a utopia of my childhood. (Fun anecdote: At some point during the drive down each year, my aunt would pop in a Kenny Rogers tape. When he got to “The Gambler,” I knew we were close to the park. To this day, I can’t hear that song without expecting to shortly be riding the tilt-a-whirl.)

I’ve only ever met one person outside my family who’s even heard of Santa’s Village. (Hi, Mr. Betry!) It was like Six Flags, but smaller and Christmas-themed. There were three areas: the Coney Island part (with the tilt-a-whirl, and a yo-yo ride, and one of those ships that goes back and forth higher and higher), a farm part (bird flu, schmird flu), and the Christmas part (hence the “Santa’s Village” thing). Here’s a picture of me and my cousins at the “North Pole”:

I love several things about this picture. One, I still remember the desperate need I had to try to kick the pole over. I now realize that it probably had a METAL CORE. Yet, as you can see, I saw it as a personal challenge. Two, my younger cousin (Hi, Paul!), the one staring into the camera, seems to be having a pretty good time. Three, look how young and cute we all are.

Do you have a place, perhaps from your childhood, that’s so ingrained in your subconscious that you find yourself dreaming about it fairly often, even though you’ve not been there in years? For me, Santa’s Village is that place. Ironically, its slogan was “Always just a dream away.”

November 27, 2007

November 27, 2007

In My Opinion: Beowulf

I like to think that I have a pretty high tolerance for guy movies. The I Am Legend trailer that airs before Beowulf, for example, makes me very happy. It has explosions, and shooting, and Will Smith--all good things. I expected that this film, with its fire, and its fight scenes, and its dragons, would fill me with similar joy.

Alas, I fear I’m a little too old and a lot too female to fully appreciate this film. As I noted in my review of Ratatouille, animated people still don’t look right. They move too smoothly. And their skin looks wrong in low light. USA Today describes them as “waxy.” I’m not sure what it is, but something is definitely off. And while that isn’t a big deal in the action sequences, when your attention was consumed by, for example, watching a man get torn in half and then impaled on a chandelier, the lack of verisimilitude (vocab alert!) is pretty blatant in the quieter talking scenes.

As for content, this is definitely not your parents’ Beowulf. It’s not even your Beowulf, the one you read in college lit class. This is Beowulf for the Wii generation, with naked fighting, a sexy mermaid, and Angelina Jolie. Apparently, animation is like the aspartame of ratings (nutrition reference alert!), because a live-action version of this film would probably have garnered an R.

But, oh, the action. The nice thing about animation is that it frees you of all kinds of bonds. I mean, the laws of physics no longer apply. (I hated physics, so that I was on board with.) Camera shots not possible in real life are the norm in this movie. Thus there’s a lot of swooping and zooming. Those of you prone to motion sickness may need to bring some clear soda and saltines. And while I’ve seen a lot of violent movies, the fight between Grendel and Beowulf had me making a LOT of faces.

Though I can't deny the appeal of randomly using the line "!" Unless your name actually is Beowulf, it tends to have a fun effect.

November 26, 2007

November 26, 2007

To the NASCAR Nextel Champion

Dear Jimmie Johnson,

Congratulations. You’ve won the Nextel Cup, brought to you by Nextel, in partnership with Sprint. Though you weren’t my first choice, you’re in the Hendrick Motorsports family, so I can take one for the team.

You performed well this year. Granted, Jeff Gordon had an insanely large lead going into the NASCAR Nextel Chase for the Cup, brought to you by Nextel, in partnership with Sprint. But, as you know, the points were reset for the Chase, and hoo-boy, did you benefit.

(I hope you noted that “hoo-boy.” It’s an expression I don’t use in any other context. It seems appropriate for NASCAR-themed discussions, though.)

It’s not that you don’t have what some would call “mad skills.” This is, after all, your second championship in a row; I admire consistence and excellency, and you have them both right there. Also, a USA Today article once noted your penchant for “clean living.” Also good. In these areas, you appear to be emulating your mentor (and my favorite driver) Jeff Gordon. Good choice.

So, in conclusion, congratulations on another Nextel Cup, brought to you by Nextel, in partnership with Sprint. I’m hoping the trophy came with some free anytime minutes.


November 23, 2007

November 23, 2007

In My Opinion: The Assassination of Jesse James

The coward steals the show.

The full title of this film is actually The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Jesse James, as you may know, is played by Brad Pitt; you may have heard of him. Robert Ford, though, is played by Casey Affleck, a.k.a. the one who’s not Ben. He was one of Ocean’s eleven, but unless you’ve seen that movie as many times as I have (believe me, it’s a LOT of times), you’ve probably not heard of him. Until now.

Going into this, all I knew about the whole Jesse James saga was that he was an outlaw in the Old West. You know, him, Doc Holliday, the O.K. Corral…all that “shoot out at high noon” kind of stuff. It turns out that Jesse James didn’t handle fame very well. He appears to have turned a little bipolar and a lot paranoid--not a fun combo in the days before Ritalin. Among the locals Jesse rounded up for one last train robbery was one Bob Ford, played to sinister, socially-inept perfection by Affleck. Ford had hero-worshiped James since childhood. (Is my celebrity fascination that creepy? Because if it is, I think I need to stop.) So you’d think being in his gang would be a dream come true. And it is…until the fun stops. I won’t spoil it, but here’s a hint: read the title.

While the film could have stopped there, though, it actually continues and shows us the aftermath of the assassination on the lives of Ford and his brother, who was also there. For me, that coda cemented the fact that this movie isn’t really about Jesse James. It’s about Robert Ford, and the ramifications of unrequited celebrity worship. (Wow, it just got deep, didn’t it?)

As for the peripherals, the cinematography was stark but excellent--lots of wheat fields and desolate farmsteads. Basically how I imagine Kansas and Nebraska still look today. (Go Cornhuskers!) The music was almost non-existent, but I found that appropriate. The entire movie was filmed almost like a documentary, its scenes linked by lots of narration.

The trickiest thing was finding a theatre playing this film; only one was in the entire metro Milwaukee area. Granted, we’re not exactly Chicago, but it’s not like we’re Boise, either.

November 22, 2007

November 22, 2007


This really isn’t the forum for the serious list of things I’m thankful for, as interesting as that one is. So allow me to present the fun (but still important) list of things I’d be mentioning at the table if my family did that kind of thing. We’re more into the eating and not so much about the talking. We’re like hobbits in that way. (Also, we like mushrooms.)

Google. Where would any of us be without Google? Paging through musty books? Using sundials to navigate? Flipping through card catalogs? *shudders*

Carbon. I’m sure that when the elements have their raves and mixers, carbon doesn’t get a lot of the limelight. It’s not shiny. Or “noble.” (Give it up, argon. I’m on to you.) But I’ll be damned if it isn’t useful. Also, it’s pretty when it burns. (“Hi, I’m Heather, and I’m a pyromaniac.”)

Stouffer’s. Makers of the best microwaveable cuisine. Make the cheese a little meltier, and you get bumped to the top of next year’s list.

Ed Helms. I need only to THINK about the scene in which Andy Bernard sings “Take a Chance on Me” to crack up. That is some very potent funny.

Thank you all. Today, I raise a forkful of mashed potato to you.

November 21, 2007

November 21, 2007

Big Holiday Movies You Must See: A Threeve

As a companion piece to my recent threeve of little indies, here are some holiday films you’ve probably actually heard of, in descending order of squee:

1. National Treasure: Book of Secrets. As someone who loves history, intrigue, and Washington, D.C., I was ALL OVER the first movie. This one takes all of that and throws in Britain, as well. It’s like frosting on…more frosting.

2. I Am Legend. A remake of Omega Man (Charlton Heston did more than cross the Red Sea and battles monkeys), but with Will Smith in a post-apocalyptic New York. He’s the last man of earth…or IS he? *dum dum DUM*

3. Beowulf (this year’s post-Thanksgiving movie). Okay, I’ll admit that I’m a little skeptical. The trailers haven’t been terribly promising. And this is some pretty old and (for people not as freakishly-passionate about literature as I am) relatively obscure source material. But there’s fighting, and fire, and dragons. And it’s gotten the fanboy endorsement. So I’m hoping people will at least give it a chance.

You should also check out Ken Levine's capsule reviews here and here. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you actually can judge a movie by its trailer.

November 20, 2007

November 20, 2007

Things I’ve Read: The Field Guide to Evangelicals

My friend Josh recommended this book, though he couldn’t remember the exact title (it’s okay; it happens to the best of us). It’s called A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat and, to be frank, is HILARIOUS. Snarky, yes, but hilarious all the same.

The book presents evangelicals (occasionally referred to as “right wing nutjobs”) as a species for study. There are chapters on education, decorating habits, and even mating. I’ve not done a lot of research into the author, but I have to think he’s spent a lot of time with uber-conservatives, because some of the in-jokes were really too subtle to have been thought of by an Outsider.

If you’re not a fan of putting the “fun” in “fundamental,” or are unable to poke a little fun at yourself, or cannot read, you should probably avoid this book. However, if you are or know someone of evangelical bent, I would recommend it. If you’re still not sure, try an excerpt here.

November 19, 2007

November 19, 2007

In My Opinion: Ratatouille

I sat through most of Ratatouille thinking that it was perhaps the most mistitled film ever. I mean, no one’s eating it, no one’s named it, and no one’s even really talking about the rustic vegetable stew. Then it gets served and I realized that ratatouille sort of functions as the prime mover in this little rat bildungsroman.

To be honest, it took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea of vermin-as-chef. It’s not that I’m one of those people who doesn’t like their foods to touch or something. Believe me, anyone who’s been to my favorite Chinese restaurant knows that possible health code violations are not a culinary dealbreaker for me. (As long as it's cheap, tasty, and at least lukewarm, I'm on board.) But we're not talking a freezer that’s 5 degrees over code. I mean, this is the same species as carried the freaking Black Death making recipes with ingredients whose names I can’t even pronounce. Suffice it to say some suspension of disbelief is required. (Maybe I’m just jealous, since most of my cooking involves defrosting things and dishes that end in “Helper.”)

Ironically, my favorite scenes took place in the restaurant kitchen, because the look of all those copper pots and ingredients and everything was amazing. Not so amazing looking: the people. People seem to be the holy grail of animation. They either look cartoony or disturbing. (Actually, that’s kinda true of real life, too, so eh.)

You did start to root for Remy (the rat) and Alfredo (the human Remy helps) after awhile, though. I won’t spoil the ending, but…it’s an animated Disney film. Take a guess.

Final verdict: not my favorite Pixar movie, but still cute. (Note to Pixar: how about a Monsters Inc. sequel?)

“You know, once you muscle your way past the gag reflex, all kinds of possibilities open up.”

“I hate to be rude, but we're French!”

“If you're focused on what you've left behind, you will not be able to see what lies ahead.”

November 16, 2007

November 16, 2007

My Thoughts on Last Night's "The Office"

I neglected to wish everyone a happy Diwali last Friday, so let me start by mentioning that. As Angela knows, it has something to do with a blue, busty gal.

Last night’s episode was the last new one for the foreseeable future. No doubt sensing my already fragile emotional state, my rewinder tried to eat the tape. After 20 minutes, a few tools, and a bit of scotch tape, though, it was as good as new. My lifelong penchant for taking things apart finally paid off.

Favorite Scenes: Ping pong. Everyone in the lunchroom at corporate reading Michael’s diary. Did you notice how Ryan’s tablemates all looked like him?

Favorite Characters: Trash-talking Kelly. Diary-writing Michael. Ping Pong Master Dwight.

Favorite Quotes: “People underestimate Michael. There are plenty of things that he is well above average at.” “I throw myself at the mercy of the deposition.”

Parting Thoughts: Jan and Michael appear to have a stronger bond than I realized; I assumed the deposition fiasco would finish them off. Shows what I know.

November 15, 2007

November 15, 2007

To the Choosers of the Sexiest Man Alive

Dear People Magazine,

Well. After much cajoling on my part (actually, just complaining to people every year when your choice was revealed), you have finally picked my boy. Allow me to express my appreciation, as well as state a few of the reasons that I feel support your selection.

Matt Damon isn’t flashy. He doesn’t have the characteristics of sexiest men past, like lackadaisical charm (Matthew McConaughey), suave composure (George Clooney), or aloof intensity (Brad Pitt). I can see why you started with men who have those traits; you’re like the people who eat dessert first, or vote for the first name on the ballot. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I think the first suggestion to candidate’s without a snowball’s chance should be to change their last name to something starting with an “a.”

But, anyway, lest the throwing around of names like “George” and “Brad” has made you regret your choice, allow me to give you some items off the Matt Damon Good List. For one, he married a civilian. While the first part of that sentence makes us in the fandom weep (as if we ever had a shot, I know, but don’t hit us when we’re down), the second part gives us hope that we, too, may someday bump into a movie star at a McDonald’s or something and end up married to a celebrity. (Who am I kidding--should I ever happen to be in the Los Angeles area, I plan to check out the Walgreens stores for just such a purpose.)

For two, Matt Damon does comedy and drama equally well. I mean, did you watch the Saturday Night Live episode he hosted? Did you? “Tortillia chips”? Classic. As for serious stuff, I present the Bourne series. I’d like to count that as drama and action, because there is a lot of running, and jumping, and killing of bad guys. Jason Bourne is like Batman, but multilingual, angstier, and capeless.

For three, he’s cute. Enough said.

Thus, though I will continue to read your magazine only in doctor’s office waiting rooms, long grocery store checkout lines, and libraries, rest assured that this year I will renew my subscription to your competitor, Entertainment Weekly, with a slight bit of rue. Because EW, positioning itself as slightly more serious (who are they kidding—this isn’t exactly world politics), keeps itself to a Power List and a Must List (no longer a Hot List, what up, EW?). So it is up to you, People Magazine, to keep the world informed on developments in sexy.


November 14, 2007

November 14, 2007

In My Opinion: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

In general terms, this movie can be summarized as 3/4 setup and 1/4 Armada. Lest that turn you off, though, rest assured that the 3/4 setup is quite intriguing (and this from a girl who loves explosions; Michael Bay movies are almost like a cinematic utopia).

If you managed to stay awake during history class in high school, you’re probably familiar with the Spanish Armada and Mary, Queen of Scots. That’s good, because this movie doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining those things. People just kinda show up and either declare holy war or try to usurp the throne. Sometimes both. If you’re a little fuzzy (as I was), just go with it, knowing there will be giant ships on fire at some point, as well as a tiny bit of bodice ripping. (More “bodice untying,” really, but still good.)

Cate Blanchett (Galadriel!) plays Elizabeth, and does an excellent job of showing how difficult it was to balance personal desires and political necessities. Clive Owen plays Sir Walter Raleigh, who not only is a pivotal character in all that Armada stuff, but also gets to introduce potatoes and tobacco to England. And where would they be without potatoes and tobacco? Where would anyone be without potatoes and tobacco? I believe the state of West Virginia would cease to exist without potatoes and tobacco.

Anyway, while the film can be a bit melodramatic at times (I can understand something important is going on without needing dramatic lighting AND a weird camera angle AND intense music AND John Woo-esque random indoor wind, thank you very much), it’s got great visuals (Elizabethan clothes! burning galleons!). And everyone in it is British.

Catch it if and while you can; it’s flying pretty undercover in most areas.

November 13, 2007

November 13, 2007

I Will Blog About Anything, Volume 2

I bought a thing of alfalfa sprouts at the grocery last weekend. Before that, I hadn’t had them in years, ever since they were taken off most restaurant salad bars. Normally I'd try to suggest some sort of vast conspiracy between the soybean conglomerates (let's pretend there are soybean conglomerates, just for the sake of argument), but I’m pretty sure it has more to do with the fact that the sprouts are highly likely to have at least one type of deadly bacteria/nanovirus/alien life form in them. Those silly people with the compromised immune systems always ruin it for the rest of us, don’t they?

Sadly, I don’t care about playing raw vegetable Russian roulette. It’s not just me living dangerously again. (Well, okay, I guess it is.) I mean, have you had these things? They’re delicious! Whenever I put them in a salad, the thing ends up being at least one-third sprouts. Granted, every time I put a handful on top of said salad, I realize I’m probably putting death in with the croutons, but it’s kinda worth it.

Alfalfa: not just one of the Little Rascals.

November 12, 2007

November 12, 2007

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

I realized on Saturday that I completely missed Guy Fawkes Night this year. I could blame the fact that I don’t live in Britain, but I really have no excuse. I mean, this is a holiday celebrated mainly with a GIANT FIRE. Also, according to Wikipedia, the consumption of treacle, which I have never had but would like to try someday. Ideally as part of an English tea. In London. With someone vaguely royal.

Anyway, if you’re not British (or haven’t seen V for Vendetta) and are looking for the CliffsNotes version, Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He obviously had some anger issues. (Note that I made a joke about his psyche rather than calling him a Crazy Catholic. Thank you.)

He failed when a letter was intercepted (no text messages back then, alas), tipping off the Powers That Be to the plot. Fawkes was arrested a tortured a bit (hello, Gitmo), but he avoided execution by leaping from the platform and breaking his own neck. What a guy.

Thus, every November 5, people in Britain, Australia, and other similarly-exotic places celebrate Guy Fawkes night with fireworks and bonfires (often burning an effigy of Fawkes). Kids also go around, asking for a “Penny for the Guy.”

And don’t forget the treacle.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason, and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

November 9, 2007

November 9, 2007

My Thoughts on Last Night's "The Office"

Favorite Scene: The montage of past birthday parties. If Michael showed up in my car, I'd probably attempt to stab him with the tire gauge.

Food for Thought: Jim the Acting Regional Manager tried to innovate, but ended up finding out he may be a lot more like Michael Scott than he'd realized. Will this lead to some changes for our favorite salesman?

(I wanted to make fun of Michael's complete inability to survive in the wilderness, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be much better, despite having read The Dangerous Book for Boys.)

November 8, 2007

November 8, 2007

In My Opinion: American Gangster

In the opening scene of American Gangster, a man gets doused in gasoline, set on fire, and executed with several shots at close range. If you just blanched, you should probably stop reading now.

This movie reminded me a lot of The Departed in several ways. For one, it’s something you see once, and then maybe again after a few years. I like a little time to absorb these intense movies since my cinema choices usually involve wizards, people stealing things, or explosions. Ideally, all three.

Anyway, the main similarity between this and The Departed is the storytelling approach, in that the lives of two characters are followed as they run on separate courses and then inevitably collide. Usually messily. In American Gangster, instead of the fangirl-pleasing Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, though, we get Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. (Still insanely good, but not as squeal worthy for those of us born in the past two decades. Sorry.)

The premise is thus: Frank Lucas (Washington) became one of America’s most successful criminals during the Vietnam era (1968 to 1973-ish) by buying heroin directly from the Asian source and smuggling it into the country (I won’t tell you how--watch the movie). Kind of enterprising, if you think about it. (No, I did NOT just condone criminal activity. Oh, wait, maybe I did.) Because Lucas was pretty freakishly into rules, order, and discipline (immediately endearing him to me, of course), he’s able to sell a purer product (which he coins “Blue Magic”) at cheaper prices than everyone else in town. Which, as you can imagine, totally pisses off everyone else in town.

Enter Richie Roberts (Crowe), one of the last good cops in New York. Early in the movie, he and his partner find almost $1 million in unmarked bills, and Roberts GIVES IT BACK. Yay for morals. He’s eventually chosen to head up a task force-y kind of thing to reclaim the streets of New York from the burgeoning drug problem. After a bad wardrobe choice on Lucas’ part (again, watch the movie--it’s hideous), Roberts realizes that Lucas is The Man and goes after him.

Though the lives Lucas and Roberts take pretty different threads (the bad guy gets increasingly successful, while the good guy’s life falls apart), they meet eventually (like you knew they would), and watching these two act against each other is pretty mind-blowing. (For me, anyway. I’m all about men doing things well.)

Other things you learn about: the Vietnam War, the drug trade (production, use, it’s all there), and Harlem. Also, assault with a piano and how to get blood out of alpaca (it involves club soda and blotting).

If you’re looking for something grown-up and thought provoking, check this out. Just don’t get the large soda, because though it doesn’t feel like it, the movie is quite long. I would also suggest going with someone else, so you can discuss it afterwards. (A good strategy for just about any movie, really, but that’s another blog post.)

November 7, 2007

November 7, 2007

Little Holiday Movies You Must See: A Threeve

One of the best parts of seeing an indie film is the trailers for other indie films. You know, the ones that go to festivals in foreign lands and win awards that no one’s ever heard of. I love those things.

Here, then, the cream of the pre-Darjeeling Limited crop, in descending order of must-see-worthiness:

1. Be Kind Rewind. Jack Black is a video store clerk who accidentally erases all the tapes and has to re-create every movie. I laughed hysterically during the entire trailer, no doubt alarming the two other women in the theater. Eh.

(Directed by the guy who did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if that means anything to you.)

2. Juno. A smartly-cynical teenager gets knocked up. Articulate hilarity ensues. The cast includes: Rainn Wilson, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, and Michael Cera.

3. The Savages. Two adult siblings have to deal with the logistics of putting their elderly father in a nursing home. The brother (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a loser manchild, while the sister (Laura Linney) is trying to hold it together for everyone’s sakes.

Remember, these are independent films, so you might have to do a little searching to find a theater showing them. Please do; it’s worth it. Or just come to Milwaukee, and we’ll go together.

November 6, 2007

November 6, 2007

Things I’ve Read: The Year of Living Biblically

A.J. Jacobs is a man unafraid of a challenge. A few years ago, he decided to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Those of you with unhealthy Wikipedia obsessions may be unaware that, in the past, encyclopedic information was commonly found in the form of giant books with tiny print. The Britannica is like the Harvard of encyclopedias, and Jacobs managed to read the whole thing, from cover to cover. (Well, since it was in multiple volumes, there were actually other covers in between. Stop quibbling.) Anyway, he wrote a hilarious book about that called The Know-It-All, which you can and should read immediately (if not sooner).

You might think that that would be enough. You read an entire encyclopedia and hang your hat on that, satisfied that you’ve learned enough trivia to coast through several lifetimes of dinner parties and grocery store waiting lines.

But not this guy. He decided to live an entire year according to Biblical principles. And while a lot of people do that, he went all-out, trying to obey every single command in both testaments. As you can imagine, that’s a LOT of commandments. They didn’t all make sense to him at first (no mixed fibers? wtf?), but during the course of the year he finds a lot of meaning in what seemed arbitrary at first.

Both books are written in a similar format: short entries. In Know-It-All, Jacobs would write on particular Britannica entries of interest, often linking them to his real life. In Living Biblically, he writes an entry for each day, usually linking its events to a particular Biblical command.

I’ve had several people tell me (dare I say it?), that A.J. Jacobs and I have a similar writing style. If by that they mean I seem like someone who could write for Esquire, um…okay. (Yeah, it’s probably more along the lines of sarcastic, intelligent, and quirky. I still like the idea of writing for Esquire, though I have no idea what I’d write about. A ranking of tv dinners? The Office? Is Esquire into that sort of thing?)

Over the course of the year, he visits the creation museum, an Amish community, and Jerry Falwell’s church. He also grows a really funky beard and gets a slave.

Oh, and he stones an adulterer. How can you not love that?

My only caveat: I kept laughing out loud while I was reading this and think I frightened people on the bus a couple of times. So keep that in mind.

(According to the books, A.J. Jacobs often Googles himself. So, if you’re reading this, Mr. Jacobs, I’m a huge fan and would be open to any sort of New York publishing industry networking options you have available for a cynical Midwesterner with a fairly good command of English and a freakish knowledge of trivia. [/squee])

November 5, 2007

November 5, 2007

Big Box Death Match

I did a bad thing last week. I went to a Target.

Every time I go to a Target, I become convinced that I need to start doing all my Wal-Marty shopping there. Target is always much less crowded (unless you go on the first weekend of the month when America’s commerce is driven by people spending welfare checks). The lighting is way more ambient. Wal-Mart always makes me feel like I’m shopping in a hospital. Except not sanitary and with less-educated employees.

Even Target’s ad campaigns are better. Sorry, Wal-Mart smiley man. Target commercials are colorful and whimsical…like a 30-second version of Pushing Daisies. And I’ve already written about the excellent music choices.

And then there’s Choxie.

I had time to really examine the Choxie line during this recent trip, and good lord. It’s awesome. Items whose names I usually whisper in reverence, like “meltaways” and “truffles,” grouped in attractive boxes at relatively affordable prices. Chocolate for the everyman, if the everyman had excellent taste.

The problem is that my closest Target is a full ten minutes further than the Wal-Mart. And while you may be one of those country/suburban people used to driving 30 minutes to everything, I’m a spoiled crossroads-of-the-city girl. Anything over 15 minutes is too far.

Oh, Target. So close, and yet…not close enough.

November 4, 2007

November 2, 2007

November 2, 2007

My Thoughts on Last Night's "The Office"

Favorite Character: Stanley! We got scheming Stanley. I didn't even know he existed. I thought he was a myth, like Urban Stanley.

Favorite Scenes: Any time Michael, Dwight, and Jim were in that car together. Avec mustaches, sans was all good.

Favorite Scenes, Runners-Up: Andy's attempts to inflitrate the Finer Things Club.

Overall Thought: I want a Finer Things Club.

November 1, 2007

November 1, 2007

Sorry I Missed It: Mad Men

This isn’t quite like the other items in this series, since I actually jumped on the Mad Men bandwagon whilst the show was still airing. But I wasn’t on when the ride started, so I consider myself one of those Johnny-come-latelys. And I hate the Johnny-come-latelys.

(Yes, I’d actually be a Jane-come-lately, but that’s not the idiom. Deal with it.)

Mad Men airs on AMC, a channel most people have never even heard of, much less watched. I myself don’t have cable (a fact that seems to really confuse people), but I recently found myself with pirated wireless internet and an introduction to the world of torrents. It was like giving crack to an addict, really. Or a hookah. (Sorry; I just wanted to use the word “hookah.”)

The program focuses on the lives of several New York advertising executives of the 1960s. But there’s so much more to love than can be conveyed in that sentence:

It looks great. The props, the sets, and the costumes all evoke the, well, Swinging Sixties. Womens’ undergarments defied gravity. Mustard yellow and burnt orange were in, baby. And you have to love the advanced technology of IBM’s Selectric typewriter. As one of the secretaries put it, the men made sure to make it “simple enough for a woman.” (More on the implications of that statement later.) And, oh the ambiance: every single person on the show smokes and drinks profusely (even the pregnant woman). Ah, the '60s.

It examines society’s attitudes towards minorities. When people make an offensive ethnic joke now, the resulting laughter is more than likely going to be uncomfortable. Back in the day? You made a crack about how the Chinese family over there is going to start a laundry, or how you hate dealing with Jews, and you got appreciative chuckles and a hearty slap on the back. It’s not just racial minorities, either; it’s gays. And women. Actually, that deserves its own point.

It comments on gender roles, then and now. As an “office girl,” I’ve not had to suffer a lot of sexual harassment (there have been some awkward moments, but story of my life, really). And anything I think I’ve had to deal with pales in comparison to the way the girls on this show are treated. We’re talking groping, ogling, and statements that aren’t so much “leading” as they are “here’s what I want to do to you in the janitorial closet during lunch.” I’ve never been much of a feminist, but even I am pleased by how far women have come. Fish and bicycles, indeed.

It’s full of grown-up plots without being lascivious or soapy. Watching things on Showtime makes me feel bad inside. Watching this just makes me feel grown-up, like when I go to orchestra concerts, or eat sushi, or discuss art. And while a lot of Mad Men focuses on the characters’ work lives, there’s plenty about their home lives, too. Like many powerful businessmen, they’ve got cadres of unhappy women (wives, daughters, mistresses).

If you deal with baby boomers on a regular basis (and, really, who doesn’t? they’re frakking EVERYWHERE), watching Mad Men gives you just a tiny insight into their psyches. These people were raised in an era when it was perfectly acceptable to keep a kid amused for an hour with a large plastic bag. When divorcees were considered worse than criminals. When children roamed free in moving vehicles (now acceptable only for offspring of Britney Spears).

Mad Men: like Desperate Housewives, but set in the '60s and, you know, classy. Check it out.

October 31, 2007

October 31, 2007

Things I've Read: Atlas Shrugged

I finished a behemoth yesterday. Atlas Shrugged, the magnus opus of one Ayn Rand. A hefty 1,168 pages, weighing in somewhere between "almost too heavy to drag around Washington, D.C." and "makes a solidly satisfying sound when thrown onto a table in anger."

Sadly, I'd read Rand before; I wrote an essay on The Fountainhead in high school for a competition (my winnings: $0). You'd think I would have learned, since my main memories of that book are that it was about a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque architect who thought outside the box, bucked the system, etc.

Atlas Shrugged takes those Randian (Randy?) concepts and spreads them over several characters, a few states, and a LOT of pages. The book opens with the question "Who is John Galt?" which is initially a sort of rhetorical question people ask each other when they face the inexplicable. The book closes with readers realizing they don't care who John Galt is, unless he can make this book go faster. (He doesn't. At one point, he has a 60 page monologue.)

Perhaps it's that I couldn't sympathize with any of the characters: high-society intellectuals, titans of industry, and genius inventors, all with amazing wealth, talent, and skill. Perhaps it's that the themes didn't resonate with me: industry versus creativity, the struggle of the social classes, intellectual property rights, et al.

Perhaps it's that the one really cool scene, in which the main characters break into a building in the middle of the night and free one of their own from his captivity there, all the while shooting and killing 90% of the guards, happens in the very last chapter. Really, getting that one Bad Boys-esque event after 1,100 pages of crap was almost worse than no exciting scenes at all. Thanks, Ayn.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that the entire experience had two positives:
-Pulling out that tome anywhere, whether on the bus, or the train, or at a restaurant, immediately made me feel like a member of the intellectual elite. Like someone who does the Times crossword in pen. Or belongs to Mensa. Or makes Proust allusions.
-The EXACT book I read (same cover and everything) was featured in several episodes of Mad Men, a show so grown-up, so witty, so good, it's almost scary.

Ayn Rand: 2, Heather: 0

October 30, 2007

October 30, 2007

You’re not from around here, are you?

On my recent trip to Washington, I saw a lot of tourists. No surprise, since it’s a very popular destination for people who (like me) enjoy museums, history, and art, or for people who (not like me) are on eighth grade class trips. In my opinion, the more people pumping money into the cultural and governmental institutions, the better, as long as they keep a reasonable distance and don’t block my view of the stuff.

However, tourists tend to carry lots of (a) money, (b) credit cards, and/or (c) electronic gadgetry. Like an all-you-can-steal buffet for thieves. So blending in is a good idea when you’re on vacation. I thought people knew this. Judging by what I saw last week, though, a few reminders might be in order.

Tip 1: Never wear a fanny pack. Students use backpacks. Messenger bags are carried by…messengers. But the fanny pack does not appear in the wild. Most of the fanny packs I saw in captivity were being worn by older people, so perhaps it’s some sort of throwback to the Depression, or perhaps the wars. (“When I was growing up, we saved everything…in our fanny packs.” “You know where I kept my ration coupons? In my fanny pack.”) At any rate, until we once again return to a system of barter in the face of impending global apocalypse, let’s keep the fanny packs stowed, shall we?

Tip 2: If you’re not taking pictures, put the camera away. Unless you are Ken Burns, Steven Spielberg, or that girl from MySpace, it’s probably best for you to have your camera out only when actually using it. Also refrain from drawing attention to yourself by staging elaborate group shots that will “totally rock” your Facebook.

Tip 3: Do not stare at the Metro map, hoping it will explain itself to you.

The subway in D.C. can be very intimidating, especially if you are from a small Midwestern town whose idea of public transit is a guy with a haycart. However, I’m sorry to tell you that the Metro system map is not the Rosetta Stone, nor is it the Mirror of Erised. Peering at it intently is probably not going to help you figure out which stop is nearest the Kennedy Center and whether you have enough money left on your fare card to get there from Fort Totten. Ask a station attendant. Or someone who looks like they know what they’re doing. As unapproachable as I am on most days, even I don’t mind helping you out. But you really mustn’t stand and stare.

(Also, as a side note, on the escalators, it’s stand right, walk left. And don’t pool at the bottom. I need to get on that train that just arrived, and if I have to leap over you, I will, and it won’t be pretty.)

So, if we all keep these things in mind, I think we can avoid theft, battery, and the chance that I will have to leapfrog you on a Metro escalator to catch a yellow line train to Huntington.

October 29, 2007

October 29, 2007

In My Opinion: The Darjeeling Limited

My Wes Anderson fanship has been declared already, so I won’t beat a Royal Tenenbaums-loving dead horse and gush over his oeuvre. I can judge this film solely on its own merits.

Plot. The Darjeeling Limited is a train, on which three brothers (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody) set out to reconnect with each other and find themselves. Yes, they’re going on a spiritual journey on a train. Hello metaphor.

The film is set in India, so it looks good. Very colorful, very exotic. And you get some great scenes out of the incongruity of three very white guys trying to deal with the locals.

Acting. Adrien Brody is new to the world of Wes Anderson, but I thought he did very well. I didn’t know how well he’d pull off quirky, but he managed. Owen Wilson’s character amused me greatly, because he was such a Type A. He had his assistant bring a printer and a laminating machine on the trip. The laminating machine did it for me.

Music. I love Wes Anderson’s soundtracks; he has a knack for great slow motion scenes accompanied only with emotional (but not too much so) classic songs. Like so:

Bonus Features. At the screening I attended, the 15-minute prequel, Hotel Chevalier, was shown before the film. I think they just started doing that. So it’s like you’re getting two movies for the price of one. Or, one and a half movies. Ish.

“F--- the itinerary.”

“I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people.”

“We haven't located us yet.”

October 28, 2007

October 28, 2007

Trick or Treat 2007: A Recap

Sunny, breezy, somewhere in the 50s. Tiny children wore coats over their costumes, but most of them braved it. Wisconsinites get acclimated to the cold pretty quickly.

The Goods:
Chewy granola bars. Because the “fun size” of most candy bars really isn’t (who are they kidding with that?) and I wanted to be pseudo-healthy. It’s not chocolate. It’s chocolate and GRANOLA.

Cutest Costume:
The kid dressed as Venom from Spiderman. He had to have been, like 4, and ironically was going around with a similarly-sized kid dressed as Spiderman.

Cleverest Costume:
The kid in a lab coat with an “Albert Einstein” nametag. I don’t know who decides to dress up as a physicist for Halloween, but it was endearingly dorky, and I’m a sucker for endearingly dorky.

Random Observations:
-There were a lot of people going around my neighborhood who were definitely not local. We’ll just leave it at that.
-To all the teenagers who think putting on a hoodie is good enough to earn you a pillowcase of candy: Um, no. If you’re taller than I am, you’re not getting any candy.

We only had 40 kids, which was good, since I had exactly 48 granola bars. After that, I was going to have to resort to raisins, Altoids, or re-enactments of scenes from Friends.

(Trick or Treating on army bases is apparently way more fun: my mom had candy for 50 and ran out in 20 minutes. She said they had 700 last year. Note to military officials: Perhaps we need more entertainment venues on base?)

October 26, 2007

October 26, 2007

Washington, Day 7

It’s rained so much here during the past few days that some Virginia counties are under flood warnings. I’m going to pretend that it’s because nature is crying over my upcoming departure, and not some cosmic attempt to ruin my vacation. Yeah.

Phillips Collection
On one of my past trips, I hit all the little galleries: the Freer, the Renwick, the Corcoran, etc. I also remember one whose employees were so full of disdain as to be almost comical. I couldn’t remember which museum that was until today. It was the Phillips Collection.

Its brochure describes the Phillips as “exceptional art in an intimate atmosphere.” You should read that as “some paintings in a converted mansion, protected beneath several layers of meanness and pretension.” Besides the fact that I had to pay $12 admission (and that counts the student discount courtesy of my Maranatha ID), the woman guarding the entrance wouldn’t let me go in until I checked my “wet coat.” Had the coat actually been wet, I would have seen her reasoning. As it was, I was sorely tempted to choke back a “And you define wet as…what, exactly?” Believe me, there was plenty I was already choking back.

I persevered through all of this because there was a pretty good exhibit called “Impressionists by the Sea.” There were 40ish paintings of beachy scenes (bathers, fishermen, etc.). The Monets were very nice, of course, but I really liked the Whistlers. He did paint things other than his mother, apparently.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures here because there were more “docents” keeping an eagle eye on visitors than actual visitors, and I’m sure they would have tackled me, pinned me to the ground, taken away my camera, and perhaps slapped me around a bit. You just never know with those arty types.

And there was a Rothko Room. Ugh.

Dumbarton House
All the crap I waded through at the Phillips, though, was made up for at Dumbarton House. I wasn’t actually sure how to get in at first; I had to use my house museum spidey sense to go through the garden and approach the property from the side. Who is Dumbarton, you ask? What kinds of things did he do in his house? How was his house decorated? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, because apparently no one knows. Even the introductory video said something like, “Dumbarton House remains full of mysteries.” You’d think someone would get on that.

Anyway, the tour guide here was super, super nice, so I actually ventured a few questions. Hey, I watch Antiques Roadshow. I’ve been to a lot of old houses. I can hold a reasonably intelligent conversation involving the terms “Federalist style,” “balustrades,” and/or “English primogeniture laws.”

Embassy Row
I love walking around in Embassy Row, though I almost always get lost and start worrying that officials from a country ending in -stan will abduct me and force me into clerical servitude. I was very nervous taking pictures here, since I wasn’t sure if that would be construed as spying of any sort.

What you don’t see in that picture is that I was getting seriously rained on. By the time I made it to the Air and Space Museum, my coat was so wet that my even shirt was damp.

National Air and Space Museum
I’m not a huge fan of planes. I view them in a very utilitarian way, like batteries. Or sporks. Good when you need them, but nothing to fuss over.

I braved the FREAKISH crowds here, then, for three reasons: to get pictures of the World War II stuff for my dad, to eat at the food court, to see selected items from the currently-closed American History museum on display here, and to get pictures of the World War II stuff for my dad.

The World War II gallery was closed for “fire service updates.”

The food court had scary long lines, even though it was late. I had to wait for about 35 minutes to get what may have been the saddest gyro I have ever seen. I don’t think that was real meat; I’m pretty sure the grill marks were not caused naturally.

The American History museum items were very good, I’ll give them that. Among other things, I got to see the puffy shirt from Seinfeld, one of Thomas Edison’s lightbulbs, and an object without which 80% of my lunches would be impossible:

Possibly the best part, though, was the squirrel that somehow wound up in one of the galleries. I have not the faintest idea how it got in there. Obviously D.C. is a big tourist spot for the rodents, as well.

And that, as they say, is all she wrote. For this vacation, anyway. I'll soon be posting all of the pictures I took (some ridiculous number like several hundred) so you can vicariously glory in the minutiae.