January 29, 2009

January 29, 2009

In My Opinion: Frost/Nixon

While you should be familiar with the name Richard Nixon, David Frost might not ring a bell. In that case, you need to see Frost/Nixon. Actually, you should consider this film even if you know who both main characters are. (If you do, though, and are under age 30, bravo. Because these are some pretty obscure political/entertainment events.)

Like Glengarry Glen Ross, Frost/Nixon is based on a Tony-winning play and thus is pretty DRAMATIC and tightly-plotted. It’s intense; you have to focus or you’re going to get lost. Actually, even if you ARE focusing, you might still get lost. This is why it helps to go with someone else, or at least discuss the film with another person afterwards. (Yes, I’m advocating social contact. Please note that it is in the context of entertainment. Thank you.)

In 1977, British tv personality David Frost interviewed former President Richard Nixon in a series of televised interviews. While political figures are much fonder of blurring the lines of politics and entertainment, I guess the modern day equivalent would be something like George Bush showing up on The View. Basically, Frost was a journalistic lightweight who scored a major coup. But could he handle it? *dun dun DUN*

The film traces the events leading up to, during, and following the interviews. Michael Sheen, so brilliant as Tony Blair in The Queen (also written by Peter Morgan), plays Frost; Frank Langella (look him up—he’s one of those actors you’ve seen in all kinds of stuff without realizing it) plays Nixon. Both men starred in the play; no doubt that familiarity aided them in the translation to screen. Notable supporting cast include Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, and the always-amusing Oliver Platt.

I’d like to give special kudos to Langella, as he just sinks into the character. Some actors resort to caricature (Thandie Newton in W, I’m looking at you), while others are able to absorb themselves in the role. I think Langella not only nails it, but manages to make you feel sorry for Nixon.

January 28, 2009

January 28, 2009

Things I’ve Read: Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point were good books. They took a grand theory (“Snap decisions are good!” "It's the little things!"), gave a few practical examples, and otherwise distilled the idea for the common man. In my opinion, this is what a good nonfiction book should do: make a thesis, support with good evidence, and let the reader judge.

Gladwell scores again with Outliers. The Big Idea this time is that success is NOT the result of hard work, contrary to what we’ve all been told. It’s all about environment, luck, and timing. The “self-made man”? A myth. While that man may be incredibly smart or talented, it’s more likely that he was helped along by the era during which he came of age, or his parentage, or some other factor.

It might take you a minute to absorb that; I mean, it goes against everything the American Dream is about. If I’m not responsible for my own success, what’s the point in trying? This is where Gladwell’s practical examples come in so handily.

“The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point.”

When talking about people and success, Gladwell recounts the life stories of several notables. People like Bill Gates. And Gladwell notes that it wasn’t necessarily anything unique to Gates that made him what he is today. Rather, it was the opportunities he had. Like how a certain computer lab was accessible to him. Or how he was born at just the right time in history to take advantage of the burgeoning technology as a college-aged man.

One of the interesting facts Gladwell points out in discussing individuals is the magic 10,000-hour mark. According to research, 10,000 hours is the requirement to master a discipline, like music. Only people who reach that threshold will truly kick ass at piano, or kazoo, or what have you.

“There is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward…[is] worth more to most of us than money.”

Gladwell also discusses success in terms of cultural history—what he terms “legacy.” People descended from certain ethnic groups (Asians, Jews, etc.) just work harder. It’s a stereotype, but not a bad one. Who among us wouldn’t want to be labeled as a diligent worker? C’mon. I won’t go into Gladwell’s research and proofs; suffice to say the type of work your ethnic ancestors did probably affects how you were raised. In my case, Korean rice farmers eventually produced a woman who was scarily focused and ambitious (also, for those of you who've heard my mom stories, one of the funniest people I know). She married my dad, and the rest is history.

“The statistics show that the Southerner who can avoid arguments and adultery is as safe as any other American, and probably safer. In the backcountry, violence wasn’t for economic gain. It was personal. You fought over your honor.”

On the flip side, ethnic legacies can be tricky things. If you’re raised in a culture descended from herdsmen (Hi, Appalachia!), you’re probably going to be territorial, assertive, and a shotgun owner. Such is life.

“We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have 'it' or you don’t. But…it’s not so much an ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try.”

Near the book’s finish, Gladwell describes a certain New York public school that’s an apparent incongruity: though it’s in the low-class Bronx, the kids are wicked smart at math. Like, scary smart. And it’s not necessarily because these kids are math geniuses. Rather, it’s because of the way the school is structured: long days, longer school year, etc. The gist is that it’s the school ENVIRONMENT rather than the student that determines success. Gladwell also has a few interesting posits about the harm in a long summer vacation, but I’ll leave that discussion to professionals in the field of education. (I don’t know that I’m a professional in the field of anything. But let’s pretend.)

While you don’t need to read Gladwell’s books in order, or even read all of them, I daresay that if you enjoy one, you’ll like ‘em all. Try it and see.

January 27, 2009

My Work Is a Sitcom

While I don’t like to blog about work*, you’re allowed to know that a good chunk of my job involves working with a budget. A federal budget.

(At this point, imagine a video clip of someone being struck by lightning, hit by a car, or shot. Maybe all three.)

If you’ve not caught on so far, math and I aren’t friends. Despite my Asian heritage, I’m more wordy than mathy. (Before you GASP IN HORROR at the proliferation of a stereotype, rest assured that my upcoming review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers will prove that this particular stereotype is actually both true and beneficial. So ha.) I can literally talk for hours, whereas my quality calculator time tops out around 15 minutes. Thus the karmic irony that I spend most of my workday staring at Excel sheets is HAHAHAHAHA, grr. I can only hope that I’m building up cosmic goodwill for…something.

Anyway, imagine, if you will, my amusement to find that while a paper copy of the federal budget is 170 pages (not bad, you** might say), the appendix is a whopping 1,246 pages. That CANNOT be right. If it takes you seven times as long to explain something, perhaps you need to rewrite the original object. Just a suggestion.

Then again, I’m not so good with the maths.

(As for the curiosity-piquing title of this post, one aspect of my job and coworkers would make a sitcom easily as good as Kath and Kim. It would certainly transition from Earl to The Office much better. If only I blogged about work, eh?)

* Among other things, if you know what I mean. [insert cutesy winking emoticon here]
** And by “you,” I mean “me.” And by “me,” I mean “me after spending hours banging my head against a system that confuses the pudding out of me.”

January 26, 2009

January 26, 2009

Amateur Philatelist

“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” –Ernest Rutherford

As a high school student, I was pretty hardcore into biology. And no, that’s not a euphemism for anything. I mean the actual scientific discipline. Chemistry was good (loved the formulas). Physics was horrible (hated the formulas). Earth science was eh (day 1: rocks and soil, day 2: final exam).

But biology. Biology was fantastic. It spoke to my innate need to classify. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species*…it’s not just a little classification. It’s seven freaking levels. Phenomenal. While I have trouble remembering important things (what did I wear to work yesterday?) I still remember the oddest tidbits (nematoda? osteichthyes?) from biology. Thank you, weirdly-selective memory.

People who went to high school with me (there are a few of them floating around, and fewer still who read my blog, but they DO exist) could tell you that I participated in state academic competitions in biology. And won. I tried nationals once, but considering that they were held at (BRACE YOURSELF) Bob Jones University,** once was enough.

Stamp collecting, on the other hand, I never really got into. I remember once as a child getting a starter kit with an album and a handful of stamps from Around the World. I think you were supposed to mount them in some special way. For me, that took the form of hot pink glue. While I’m sure it totally ruined the value of the stamps, I’ll be darned if I didn’t have the best time with that glue.***

Does this mean I am scientific? Halfway?

* Totally listed those by memory. Yeah, it’s freakish.
** I am not even kidding, people. Not even kidding.
*** Only I would use the phrase “the best time with that glue” in conjunction with STAMPS.

January 25, 2009

January 25, 2009

Writer’s Almanac Highlights of the Day

Yesterday: Edith Wharton. Today: Virginia Woolf and Robert Burns. Quite the weekend, all round.

It's the birthday of Virginia Woolf, born in London in 1882. She was educated by her father, and she said he taught her "to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not."

For most of her life, Woolf suffered from depression, and one doctor prescribed long walks as a remedy. It was on these walks that she conceived many of her novels, including
Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927).


It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Scotland, in 1759. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he spent the first half of his life engaged in the back-breaking work of farming. He always carried a book with him, and he read while he drove his wagon slowly along the road.

He got into trouble with a girl named Jean Armour when he got her pregnant. He had left another woman after she became pregnant, but he loved Armour and didn't want her to suffer the indignities of being an unwed mother. He lost the farm,* married Jean Armour, and wound up in Edinburgh. He wrote conversational poems about Scottish life. His book Poems,
Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was very successful when it came out in 1786.**

Robert Burns is the National Poet of Scotland. And today is a Scottish national holiday in his honor and celebrated all over the world by admirers of Robert Burns and by loyal Scots.

There are formal suppers organized by Robert Burns societies, at which the host gives a welcoming speech and then everyone together says the Selkirk Grace, which Burns made famous. Then soup is served - maybe potato soup, cock-a-leekie soup, or a Scotch broth - and then, with great ado, the haggis is brought out. Then the haggis is cut open and served, along with rutabagas or mashed potatoes.

After the meal, there are a number of toasts: one to the monarch or leader of the country, one to Robert Burns, and then a "toast to the lassies," to which a woman gives a reply. There may be other toasts, and of course, there is whiskey involved.*** The evening ends with everyone singing "Auld Lang Syne."

* In this case, NOT a euphemism. Or a metaphor.
** He also wrote only
the most romantic poem EVER.
*** Of course.

January 23, 2009

My Thoughts on The Office

Overall thoughts: As my friend* Aimee said, this episode was very old-school Office. Good A plot, good B plot. Everyone was involved, even if only for a line or two. We even got a Jim prank during the cold open.

Speaking of Jim, I was a bit hesitant about his being in charge, as it’s the one aspect of him that I don’t love. He’s a great smartass underling, but not a great boss.

Favorite quote: “You will have pancakes and you will like it.” Mmm…pancakes. Yes, I had pancakes for breakfast this morning. No, it was not because of this. Well, not totally because of this. Whatever.
Favorite quote, runner-up: “Thank you, accounting department.” Bitchy, Jim. Very Bitchy.

Favorite character: Kevin. So simple, so internet-deprived, but so funny.
Favorite character, runner-up: Michael. He got the job done. For once.

Favorite scene: Hilary Swank: hot or not? (My vote: not. She’s tall and very slightly mannish. Long story short: she scares me.)
Favorite scene, runner-up: The cold open. A good old-fashioned prank on Dwight, with the added bonus of red wire.

(Click to enlarge.)

* Technically, she is a friend of a friend. I daresay she doesn’t mind.

January 22, 2009

January 22, 2009

For Sale: One Seat, Gently Used

While the main focus of the entire Blagojevich scandal is the pay-to-play aspect, I can’t help but find some happiness in it all. Those of you who know me can probably imagine the joy I get whenever a Midwesterner with a funny surname makes it big. For one, it draws attention to the frigid heartland. (To be fair, I hear “heartland” and think, like, Nebraska. But I imagine that the sorts of coastal elite I live among now couldn’t tell Nebraska from Illinois on a map. Heck, a guy at work once told someone going to Cincinnati to beware lake effect snow. Yeah, the nearest great lake is on the other side of freaking Ohio, man. Anyway.)

No, I draw hope from the whole ordeal because I believe that if America can learn to pronounce “Blagojevich,” it can learn to pronounce my last name. Those of you who are Smiths, or Joneses, or anything that’s pretty easily pronounceable should really count your blessings. Because I find myself having to phonetically spell my last name EVERY SINGLE TIME I give it on the phone, and sometimes in person. “That’s c as in cat, z as in zoo…” By the time I’m done, the person on the other end of the line has either given up…or died.

I mean, the fact that Blago’s last name is given on Wikipedia followed by a written pronunciation, and audio clip, a link to “help,” AND a link to “info” cracks me up. It’s like, Hey, here this thing is, and here are FOUR AIDS to assist you in figuring it out. I love it.

January 21, 2009

January 21, 2009

Fundit-at-Large

Ah, Mo Rocca.

My fascination with Mo Rocca can be traced to his frequent appearances on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. (I could probably do a separate entry on that program; it’s a news quiz show that’s snarky, informative, and from Chicago. Win-win-win.) Though he’s entirely too nasal and a bit too whiny, I do so enjoy the bitchiness.

He majored in lit at Harvard. This is also a big selling point, as it combines my dream major and the school that I considered applying to until I realized the application they sent me was approximately 40 pages long. Sure, I kicked the ACT’s ass. That doesn’t mean I can write a novella with a “Why I rule” motif.

He was a producer on Wishbone. I’m not going to lie: a good portion of my familiarity with and/or interest in classic lit works was spurred or reinforced by episodes of Wishbone. Heather has watched a lot of PBS over her quarter century, folks. A LOT of PBS. I still randomly quote “Please sir, I want some more” from the Oliver Twist episode. Though I have to say that seeing any of the actors in, like, a soup commercial or something leaves me completely nonplussed.

Perhaps my favorite quote from his Wikipedia page (well, other than the word “fundit”) is this: “When examining Rocca's appearances on various talk shows it would appear he is often called when producers don't know who else to call.” Screw Ghostbusters—we want Mo Rocca.

Really, the only dark side of this whole thing was that one time I dated a guy rather too long solely because he was (cue Valley Girl) so totally, like, a young Mo Rocca. But you know better than to ask more about that.

Ideally, I would end here with a great embedded video from CBS’ Sunday Morning in which Rocca tells a joke that goes something like: “You may think the living presidents’ club is exclusive. Not true. The living popes’ luncheon is a bit more exclusive.” Best joke I’d heard in a while. But CBS is unwilling to cough up the clip. Boo, Les Moonves. Boo.

January 20, 2009

January 20, 2009

Things I’ve Read: Atonement

When I know I’m going to be seeing a film based on a book, I try my darnedest to read the book first. This is usually helpful, as books go into more detail than movies ever could. ‘Tis the beauty of the written word and all that. However, this strategy occasionally goes awry and I end up reading the novelization of a Lara Croft movie. (True story. Learn from my mistake: a novelization and a novel are not the same thing. The -ization suffix here is from the Latin and means “written after the film in order to make more money.” Those crazy Romans.)

Atonement is a certainly complex enough to require reading before viewing. As the Coens might put it: view after reading. Sadly, you already know this didn’t happen for me. I’m not exactly sure what made me read the book after a…good but not great experience with the film. Perhaps I was hoping the second time would be the charm. Everyone makes mistakes on the first date, you know?

I’m pleased to report that the book is, indeed, deserving of all the praise. While the film advertisements (and, to be honest, the cover of the book version I read) would lead you to believe Robbie and Cecilia are the main characters, Briony strikes me as the true protagonist. I didn’t get that impression in the film at all. Damn James McAvoy and Keira Knightley for being so photogenic, I guess.

I won’t rehash the plot here. Well, I guess I didn’t really flesh the plot out in my film review, so I won’t, um, hash the plot here. Suffice to say a case of mistaken identity, World War I, and familial tension make for very unhappy characters.

What really struck me in the book was the clever use of the frame tale structural device. The reader doesn’t know it’s a frame tale until the very end, resulting in (for me, anyway) a pretty cool “Whoa” moment. The frame tale (Briony’s novel) ended happily while the real-life version (the frame) did not. This incongruity is perhaps the true meaning of atonement.

When I’m reading a book I expect to blog about*, I dog ear the bottom corners of pages with good quotes. You can tell how much I like a book by the number of dog ears, and whether they’re concentrated at the beginning (before I lost interest but kept reading until the bitter end) or spread throughout the story. Atonement has 10 dog ears, and they’re pretty evenly spaced. Good man, McEwan. Good man.

“Once your life gets going you’ll find that stuff doesn’t mean a thing.”

“She rarely read back over what she had written, but she liked to flip the filled pages [of her journal]. Here…was her true self, secretly hoarded, quietly accumulating.”

“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.”

* I’m entirely too self-aware, I know. It happens at movies, too. If only the theaters weren't so dark, I would sneak in a handy-dandy notebook. You think I'm kidding.

January 19, 2009

January 19, 2009

Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

As part of the big “Heather is a Grown-Up Now Tour of Northern Virginia” I’m taking my parents on this weekend, we visited the Udvar-Hazy portion of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. I’d been once before, but wasn’t able to take pictures then.* My parents have seen me do things a lot worse than taking pictures of aircraft, though, so it was all good.

As an aside, can I mention that the amazing sushi restaurant we went to for lunch had the coolest clock ever?

Anyway, the full picture album is up on my Facebook, where most of you have perhaps already flipped through all the plane-age. Here are some highlights:

The museum is in a giant hangar in Chantilly, Virginia. It’s pretty far off the D.C. beaten path. And by “pretty far,” I mean “There’s an 80% chance Heather will get lost on the way.” In my defense, I relied on Google Maps the first time I went and it OMITTED A TURN. My faith in Google was shaken that day. Shaken, I tell you.

I hit the museum (this time) mostly for my dad, as he’s pretty hardcore into planes. (Well, and ships and tanks and whatnot. Y’know, all the heavy vehicles.) He kept saying things like “This is so cool” and “Look at all of this!” The same reaction I have when walking into the Container Store. What really weirded me out (on both visits) was my companions’ ability to identify planes randomly. My dad would be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a P-52 Mustang LX-1” without even having to look at the sign. Is this what people feel like when I namecheck Ikea couches?**

My favorite part of the entire museum is the space hangar. There’s something about that space shuttle. It’s so much bigger that I expected. It’s, like, scary big. But I cannot look away.***

Also, the Mars rover. Too cute!

Getting out to Chantilly is highly-unlikely for the typical tourist who has three days in D.C. I mean, you have to assume at least half a day is going to be spent figuring out what train stop to use for the hotspots. Here’s a hint: If you want to go to the Smithsonian, GET OFF THE TRAIN AT SMITHSONIAN. Ahem.

* The guy had a graduate degree in aerospace engineering; the museum had a lot of planes. You do the math. (And I believe that random disclosure earns me at least three shutups, thank you very much.)
** “Ektorp in idemo beige”
*** That’s what she said, that’s what she said, and...that’s what she said.

January 17, 2009

January 17, 2009

My Thoughts on The Office

First off, I’m sorry that these are late this week. I know it threw off your Friday.* I would tell you that I had better things to do, but I know the fact that I even half-teasingly made that suggestion BLEW YOUR MIND.

Overall thoughts: We knew this was coming eventually. How it went down, though? Priceless. The gradual car-pinning of Dwight. The revelation that Angela was playing them both. Kevin’s form-related metaphor. So good.

Favorite quote: “All you do is dress fancy and sing!”
Favorite quote, runner-up: “Don’t turn your back on bears, men you have wronged, or the dominant turkey during mating season.”

Favorite character: Dwight. I think you know why.
Favorite character, runner-up: The soup spoon. Take that, sporks.

Favorite scene: The Duel. I realize that it’s highly unlikely men will ever fight over me. But a girl can dream, right?
Favorite scene, runner-up: Michael, David Wallace, and the pasta. Let's pretend it isn't mostly because of the pasta. Ahem.


5.12 – The Duel

Traffic hazard
“New year, new candy.”
“This is insanely awkward.”
“giant heads and beet-stained teeth”
“I’m sorry I did such a whorish job filling out this form.”
Cake-cutting fee
The dominant turkey
Learn the rules or be eaten in your sleep
“eager and flexible”
“My neighbor got murdered.”
Formal chrysanthemums
“A little bit.”
Improversation
“So, like, missionary?”
“making lovemaking”
“I will fight you.”
Would men duel over me?
Sword vs. bare hands
“I call loser.”
Involvement vs. sick day
The need for tweed.
“I guess people have fewer choices as they get older.”
“soft underbelly of my refined upbringing”
“He deserves the win.”
Silent Prius, holy prius?
The essence of Andy: dressing fancy and singing. I love that essence.
Whoa, Angela!
Sailboat-shaped wedding cake
Confiscated crossbow

* Well, I at least know it threw off Patricia's Friday. Sorry about that!

January 15, 2009

January 15, 2009

WTF Product of the Day, Volume 4

Though my holiday travels home allowed me several glimpses of (and one over-excited text message regarding) the newest SkyMall catalog, today’s piece of merchandising brilliance is courtesy of the Washington Post’s Sunday coupon insert. Don’t get me wrong: I love the discounts on oatmeal, shampoo, and yogurt. (Wow, I really AM boring.) It’s the ads for medical-miracle shoes, elastic-waist pants that come in EVERY COLOR, and magical acne treatments that take me aback.

Stuff like this:

I’m not sure that “INSECT EATING TERROR” is really the way you want to go with the Sunday morning crowd. The typical Sunday morning coupon-clipper is a soccer mom who’s drinking coffee with tv news in the background. She’s trying to decide between pancakes (easy) and French toast (the kids have been clamoring for it). She doesn’t want to turn the page of the coupon flier and be confronted with either INSECTS or TERROR.

For anyone who was confused about the tagline, note the picture and accompanying caption assuring people that the plant does, in fact, actually eat insects. I hope that fly got paid more than union rate, but I doubt it. A gig’s a gig, I guess.

The kit (ooh, it’s a KIT!) includes quite a few things, all of which I understand except the “Bog Buddy.” I’m guessing that’s the lid you put over the top, hence the “Greenhouse” part of “Venus Fly Trap Greenhouse.” One has to wonder, though, whether that doesn’t really cut down on the plant’s fly-trapping abilities. Unless that is one HELL of a plant.

I dare not go to the website. There’s no way I’m brave enough to see how much the web offers really do vary.

January 14, 2009

January 14, 2009

Sorry I Missed It: How I Met Your Mother

This may be the first time I watched a show’s pilot and wasn’t interested, but later picked the show up and enjoyed it. See, as a long-time EW subscriber, I get odd entertainment-related freebies. For example, I recently got a jump drive from TNT. Granted, there was a show pilot on it, but still. In summer 2005, I got the first episodes of HIMYM and Everybody Hates Chris. I picked up on the latter but wasn’t inspired by the former.

However, now that I’ve given up on Heroes*, I’ve been looking for something else. Preferably something short and funny. The television equivalent of Mike Myers, but smarter.

My friend Ian had been unsuccessfully pimping Chuck and HIMYM to me for quite some time. Despite my complete inability to resist a tall dork, I’ve managed to keep my distance from Chuck. Critics have been kind to HIMYM, though, so I decided to check out what I’d been missing. I’m about a quarter of the way through season 2, and I daresay it’s a keeper.

The title says it all with this show, though I like to think of it as the advent of Friends. Not a true imitator, no, but very close. Young and attractive (and white) New Yorkers navigating the waters of young adulthood. Besides the endearing protagonist (who may also be cutely dorky, whatever), there’s an engaged couple, an utterly-hilarious lothario, and an ambitious brunette who reminds me of myself right until she picks up a gun or goes home to her five (five!) dogs.

My favorite character is probably Lily (Alyson Hannigan). She’s not the brunette I referred to in the previous paragraph (that’s Robin), but she cracks me up. Perhaps it’s my admiration of her job as a kindergarten teacher. Or my envy of someone who found love in college. Maybe it’s just Alyson Hannigan. Dunno.

On the guys’ side, I (pauses for breath) CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF BARNEY. Do men like this really exist? I would never want to date one, but I would love to just observe one in the wild. Such wit and wardrobe…it’s almost too much.

As far as I know, we have not yet met the mother, at least officially. I daresay that’s a last episode sort of revelation, a la Ross and Rachel. But every time a new woman shows up, you can’t help but wonder. (Whoa, Sex and the City slip. Sorry.)

* I know, I know, I KNOW. But I just couldn’t pretend to care anymore. Even about Sylar.

January 13, 2009

January 13, 2009

Small Change

Galadriel once said, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” (If you find it odd that I’m beginning an entry with a Lord of the Rings quote, you’ve obviously not been following along.) I mentioned last week that small changes in Operation Valkyrie and the ensuing consequences (only changing the ENTIRE COURSE of World War II) fascinate me in a way usually reserved for sparkly objects, products from the Container Store, and things that are glazed.

I suppose this is an offshoot of the Butterfly Effect (the phenomenon, not the movie), though not having researched it, I’m only like 63% sure. I know it has something to do with fluttering and hurricanes. (As a side note, has anyone told the butterflies about this? Because once they realize that they can unify and screw all of us over, I daresay we are going DOWN.)

Think about what small changes might have done to famous events. I’m not talking about the South winning the Civil War or Julius Caesar donning a Teflon vest. Little things.

What if Newton had been sitting under a coconut tree? Get bonked on the head by an apple: develop the concept of gravity. Get bonked on the head by a coconut: a dozen stitches and some short-term memory loss.

What if the French had been fighters, not lovers? Gone would be perhaps the biggest source of ethnic jokes. Also, crepes.

What if Martha Stewart had never left modeling? Millions of Americans would be without a guide to home design. Instead of wandering around K-Mart aisles looking for linens, they’d be wandering around K-Mart avoiding the sticky floors and would-be shoplifters. (Okay, to be fair, there may be some overlap on that last one.)

If I had the chance to go back in time (or perhaps I should say “When someone finally builds a time machine and lets me have a go in it”), I’d visit the Titanic. I’m aware that Leonardo DiCaprio is highly unlikely to be there (unless, of course, he’s the one who built the time machine). I wouldn’t necessarily bring binoculars for the lookouts or anything, either. But I might surreptitiously get the lifejackets out. Unless I got distracted by the hors d’oeuvres or something.

But, seriously, no one tell the butterflies. THAT is not going to end well.

January 12, 2009

January 12, 2009

In My Opinion: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Of the current crop of awards contenders, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is perhaps the most viewer-friendly. Doubt involves anger, and Catholics, and Meryl Streep. Frost/Nixon is about politics and journalism. Revolutionary Road traces the slow shattering of the American dream. None of those really screams “Watch me!” unless you are perhaps unhappily married, Richard Nixon, or a nun. (Coincidentally, I’m hoping to knock all of those out during my upcoming four-day weekend. If I’m not back the day after Inauguration, assume that I jumped out my eighth-floor apartment window.)

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt) and the woman he loves, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).

At, least, that’s ostensibly the case. The film starts during World War I and ends during Hurricane Katrina. Considering that Fitzgerald died in 1940, I’m thinking there’s no way he wrote about most of the events in this movie. Unless he had some pretty serious time-traveling connections. Or was clairvoyant. Hmm.

Anyway, questionable source material aside, the film actually does a pretty good job with logistics. I mean, the protagonist starts his life as a gruesome infant and ends his life (spoiler alert!) as a cute one. He goes through all the ages in-between, but backwards. Meanwhile, everyone around him is aging normally. (Did I just blow your mind?)

The way I see it, this film has three motifs:

1. Love is timeless.
2. Brad Pitt is pretty good-looking at any age.
3. An old man crushing on a young girl is creepy, even if that man is Brad Pitt.

Let’s tackle them LIFO*, shall we?

An old man crushing on a young girl is creepy, even if that man is Brad Pitt. As my viewing companion** noted when a middle-aged Button and a teenaged Daisy were enjoying each other’s company: “Still illegal.” Oddly enough, I didn’t find the opposite disturbing at all. When an aged Daisy was caring for a teenaged/child/infant Button, it came off as more maternal than anything else.

Brad Pitt is pretty good-looking at any age. As if the rest of us didn’t have enough reasons to envy Angelina Jolie. It’s not enough that she looks phenomenal AND is mad talented AND is, like, single-handedly running the UN. She also gets to spend the rest of her life (pretend Hollywood marriages are like normal ones) with THAT. Gah.

Love is timeless. Like Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button found his One True Love as a child and went through hell and high water (in Button’s case, World War II and Russia) to be with her. Actually, the two movies have quite a bit in common, though I cried much more at Forrest Gump.***

From what friends and critics told me, this movie was only THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER, OMG. To be honest, I felt it was more in the 7-8 range. The reverse-aging effects were great, as was the cast (also including Tilda Swinton, a woman for whom the term “luminous” doesn’t even begin to cover it). Surprisingly, the daunting running time (almost three hours) didn’t bother me at all.

“Sometimes we're on a collision course, and we just don't know it. Whether it's by accident or by design, there's not a thing we can do about it.”

“Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.”

“It's a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same. Smells the same. Feels the same. You realize what's changed is you.”

* And there’s your gratuitous accounting reference of the day.
** WILL you never learn?
*** Shutup.

January 10, 2009

January 9, 2009

January 9, 2009

To the Creator of My Second-Favorite Study Aid

Dear Cliff,

Though the title of this letter probably raised your suspicions, let me assert that I’m a fan. While I didn’t depend on you as much as you’d like during my college years (I was the weird girl who actually did the reading), I certainly used you more than once to supplement my literary understanding. I have particularly fond memories of tucking your Heart of Darkness booklet inside the front cover of the best textbook ever. It was a perfect fit, of course.

(I daresay you earned more than your fair share of my shiny valedictory medal, though this may also be because I was a business major who took fun lit electives instead of ones that would have been helpful for her future career in finance. Eh, bygones.)

Or how about that time I read your guide to The Grapes of Wrath after reading the book itself and decided that I liked your version better? Good times, eh?

However, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

Cliff, I am a fickle, fickle woman. Perhaps you thought I was different from all the others. That what we started in high school would grow into a long and happy relationship. I'm going to be blunt: I’m seeing someone else. Someone you may have heard of. Someone named SparkNotes.

Let me explain.

I was first drawn to SparkNotes by its No Fear Shakespeare line. Each NFS puts the original Shakespearean text side-by-side with a modern-language translation. I know that purists such as yourself scoff at this. I realize that you would never bring yourself down to this level—that sort of high-mindedness is part of why I love you.

But it’s not as easy for me. I love to read, yes. My dream major is English literature, yes. But I have the darnedest time with Shakespeare. Even my beloved King Lear. SparkNotes was the only thing that helped. I have needs, Cliff. Shakespearean needs.

I realize that our future dealings are going to be a lot more awkward now. I’ll see your funny black and yellow covers and laugh. Remember that thing we had with Oedipus. And then I’ll wistfully turn to the soothing blue of SparkNotes.

We’ll always have college.

Cheers,
Heather

January 8, 2009

January 8, 2009

In My Opinion: Valkyrie

This entry covers both film AND history. Brace yourself.

Valkyrie is not a date movie.* It doesn’t have quarreling brides, or someone in a cape, or a dog.

For those of you without subscriptions to several entertainment magazines or a father for whom the phrase “World War 2 buff” would be a huge understatement, this film is probably best summed up as “that one with Tom Cruise as a Nazi.” Luckily for you, both of the conditions above apply to me, so I can go into a little more detail.

Valkyrie recounts the plot to assassinate Hitler. (This is where I get a bit long-winded about the history. Feel free to skim for a few paragraphs.) See, before the war, and at its beginning, Hitler was hailed as a brilliant orator and arbiter of change. In case you hadn’t noticed, that thing does really well for politicians. However, once people started to realize that Hitler was not so much “change agent” as “deranged madman,” some in the Nazi party realized action was needed.

Cue Operation Valkyrie. Originally, it was meant to be the standard operating procedure in case of a civil uprising. The military could take control, beat the people down, and restore normalcy. Its first line “The fuhrer Adolf Hitler is dead” gives you some idea of the drastic measures under which the operation would be enacted.

The pro-Germany-yet-anti-Hitler Nazis (hereafter referred to as the Good Nazis) felt that, with a few rewrites, Operation Valkyrie could be effected to remove Hitler from power. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) was chosen as the prime mover/fall guy. After being injured in North Africa (hellooo, eye patch) he was reassigned to Berlin and thus got into all the best Nazi parties.

(For people interested in such things, the scene in which Stauffenberg’s vehicle gets strafed is quite excellent.) (Yes, I may have also just wanted to show off my knowledge of strafing. Shutup.)

Stauffenberg accomplishes the necessary edits to Valkyrie and puts things into action. After one false start (“Only a drill, folks! Ha ha ha!”), July 20, 1944 is set as The Day.

Obviously, Hitler wasn’t killed by Valkyrie**, but it’s the specifics that fascinate me more than the botched outcome. I mean, a last-minute venue change and the movement of a briefcase bomb a few feet totally changed EVERYTHING. I love thinking about how little changes completely alter the course of history.

The conspirators all met grim ends (hanging, mostly, though there was also a firing squad). Then again, they were all Nazis, so even the self-righteous SS members who condemned people like Stauffenberg to death ended up losing the war…and then meeting their own grim ends.

Most of the criticism of this movie has centered on Cruise’s American accent. I didn’t find it distracting at all, though I did enjoy the mostly-British accents of the phenomenal supporting cast (including Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy). I was also pleased that the actor playing Hitler had a German accent. Any portrayal of Hitler really needs two elements: a German accent and complete lack of redeemability. Mel Brooks films aside, Hitler and the Nazis must be evil. Third rule of fight club.

Go see Valkyrie. Don’t take a date*, don’t take your kids, don’t take your dog. But go.

* Well, unless the date is me, I guess.
** If you did NOT know that...okay, you must have known that and just forgotten...right? RIGHT?

January 7, 2009

January 7, 2009

Sugar Rush

“People who've resisted eating cookies gave up sooner on a task requiring persistence compared to those who succumbed to temptation and ate the cookies.”

While this probably isn’t the first study to link sugar and willpower, that line about cookies certainly caught my eye. Then again, a similar affect can be achieved with the sight, smell, or taste of actual cookies. (Or, if my across-the-hall neighbor is any indication, fried foods. I have literally spent time standing in the hallway outside his door just sniffing the air.)

I first heard about this when it was linked on Scott Adams’ blog. Unfortunately for women everywhere, he pointed out that this basically means that women on diets are more likely to make bad judgments. For one, food deprivation lowers self-control. For two, the sudden calorie intake at (for example) a dinner date throws the system out of whack. Long story short: it’s best to just eat a lot of sugar. Constantly.

On behalf of women everywhere, I want to find Scott Adams and ask “WHY must you spread this knowledge? For the love of Pete, why?” Then, though, I would have to thank him for endorsing cookies for all. As someone who has skipped meals in order to have more baked goods (my consumption during December is basically 60% brownie, 38% cookie, 2% everything else), I’m pro-cookie all the way. (I am also probably hopping the fast train to diabetes town. Hmm.)

I find it ironic that increased sugar consumption lowers self-control. I imagine (or have experienced) it going like this:

[begin internal dialogue]
I want another cookie.
I have already had six cookies.
But I want another cookie.
Okay.
[end internal dialogue]

It's just a vicious cycle.

January 6, 2009

January 6, 2009

In My Opinion: Body of Lies

Like those directed by Michael Bay, movies by Ridley Scott have plenty of explosions, a lot of shooting, and a good deal of intrigue. You know this going in, and (if you’re like me) it’s one of the selling points. Body of Lies had the added attractions of CIA involvement, a D.C. setting, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Based on a novel originally called Penetration (thank you, Powers That Be, for the re-titling), Body of Lies is about CIA field operative Roger Ferris (DiCaprio). The film globe trots quite a bit, but most of the action takes place in Jordan. To oversimplify, Ferris, watched by his handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), is trying to find the terrorist Al Salim. He enters an uneasy alliance with the head of Jordanian intelligence, whose main selling point appears to be his phenomenal fashion sense (hello, double-breasted pinstriped suits).

There is, of course, a lot of double crossing along the way. Hoffman in particular likes to run several operations simultaneously without telling anyone involved what’s going on. Since he’s usually safe in Langley, this works out pretty well for him. The field people, though, usually end up on the wrong end of a ball-peen hammer. (This movie is not for the squeamish. It makes 24 look like child’s play.) And when Ferris becomes involved with a cute Iranian nurse, you want to warn her to flee for her life. It’s Teri Bauer all over again.

I find that this sort of film makes me become suspicious of, well, everybody. Wary of using my cellphone. Wondering if people are secret operatives and “Do you want a receipt?” is code for “The agents are waiting out back.” The same thing happens whenever I visit the International Spy Museum. You’d think I would have learned, eh?

While the fact that the "NO ONE IS SAFE, ANYWHERE, EVER" aspects of Body of Lies were rather unsettling, it certainly made me dislike my job a bit less. Say what you will about what I do (goodness knows I have)—there’s very little chance I will be brutally beaten at a staff meeting.

January 5, 2009

January 5, 2009

I Am Resolved

“Good resolutions are simply checks that man draws from a bank where he has no account.” –Oscar Wilde

Say what you will about the man; Oscar Wilde sure knew his pithy aphorisms. (I have to assume that he was also a fantastic dresser, but that’s beside the point. Ahem.)

I’ve never been big on New Year’s Resolutions, mostly because I consider myself pretty disciplined all 365 days a year. Lest this turn into a giant self-congratulatory blog entry, though, rest assured there are plenty of things I could work on. Disliking people less, for example. Maybe learning how to cook something without using a microwave. (Can’t be done, I know. But let's pretend.)

I figure it’s best to start small, though, so I present four things I promise to do this year…or at least this week:

1. Resist the urge to boo, bump, or glare at people who stand confusedly at the bottom of escalators in Metro stations. I don’t care if you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. KEEP IT MOVING. Thank you.

2. Walk past Ann Taylor stores. Just walk on past. Because when I go in, I see the pretty things and find myself thinking things like “I’ll take one of everything in a medium” while mentally adding my parents’ credit card limit and mine. I don’t like to shop try things on, so that sort of “get an entire wardrobe at once” thing is VERY tempting. The fact that I’m one of the cheapest people I know also helps. I’ll look at a price tag and realize that if I wait a couple of years, I can get that shirt/blazer/dress at a Goodwill for like 95% off. (Patience and stain tolerance also come into play here.)

3. Hold doors open for people. If someone’s RIGHT behind me, I’ll do it. But I really hate waiting for the other person to (if they’re considerate) hurry and catch the door. Humanitarian gestures: so much work.

4. Drink less Diet Coke. There's was a time in the not-so-distant past when I was up to four cans a day. I'm pretty sure that's enough acid to dissolve most light metals. Unless my stomach is lined with titanium, that's not ending well.

Do you make resolutions? More importantly, do you keep them?

January 2, 2009