September 28, 2011

September 28, 2011

Things I’ve Read: The Help

Whenever a book or other written work gets adapted to movie form, I try to read the book first. In 99% of cases, the book is better (the exception here being a novelization of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” but I probably should have seen that one coming). It has more time to develop the characters, more storylines, sometimes even a completely different ending. I’m of the opinion that it’s better to get the details first, and then watch the simplified Hollywood version with understanding provided by the book. (No surprise that I was not a fan of CliffsNotes in school.)

However, with Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” I ended up seeing the movie first and reading the book afterwards. Lemme tell ya, I’m glad I did. Without mental pictures of Aibileen and Minny, and without a gist of what was coming (Terrible Awful Thing, I’m looking at you), I daresay I would’ve been quite confused. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Wisconsin. Maybe it’s because I grew up long after the dawn of Civil Rights. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city. But there’s not a whole lot I identify with in a tale of 1960s Mississippi. That’s neither a good nor a bad thing; it just is.


You may already know that the book’s about a white woman (Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan) who decides to write from the POV of the colored maids in her town. They tell her How It Is and she writes it down, sends it to New York, and gets it published (spoiler alert). This was a pretty radical thing to do back then and there, and everyone involved spends most of the book nervous about getting caught.


Of course, no good narrative is without a villain or two. The Help finds villains in pretty much all the white women people Skeeter. Her friends. Her mother. Her on-again/off-again boyfriend. It’s as if the town is universally clueless about civil rights. I’m not saying this is inaccurate; I’m just pointing out how much of a broad brush is used. Skeeter and the maids = good. Everyone else = bad.


As for differences between the book and the film, hoo boy. Things were certainly lightened up for moviegoers. The truth of race relations at that time and place wasn’t pretty. The book doesn’t shy away from that. The movie, of necessity, has to. You’re not going to make much money by showing people getting beaten to death. I was also disappointed that so many of the characters as described in the book look nothing at all like their film counterparts. Aibileen and Minny were pretty close. But Skeeter, her mother, Constantine, and Hilly I found to be completely different. Some taller, some shorter, some fatter, most uglier. Ah, real life.


The highest praise I can give a book these days is that it makes me look forward to my commute. Bus doesn’t show up? No problem—more time to read. Subway tracks on fire? I hope I can see through the smoke. “The Help” was one of those books. It made me realize that there have been worse times and places to be than a crowded Metro station.

September 27, 2011

Sight for Sore Eyes

For some of us, wearing glasses is a way of life. There are those who came to it as adults, and those who’ve been afflicted since childhood. Those who need corrective lenses all the time, and those who need them only for certain activities. Those who’ve left the brotherhood by slicing their eyeballs open with lasers or sticking shards of glass ON THEIR EYEBALLS.

Regardless, a great many people have at one time worn glasses. They will commiserate with me when I state that glasses make things difficult.

The logistics of sunglasses when you already wear glasses, for example. You have to switch, or you have to get those transitions lenses that result in 30 minutes of greyness, or you have to clip some sort of ancillary lenses to your main glasses.

Lying on the couch. Every single night, I try to lie on my side to watch three (or four) hours of tv. And every night the pillows push my glasses into my face and require me to either lie on my back, strain my neck, or mount the TV on my ceiling.

Anything involving the face, really. Have you just been accused by the wife of your married work boyfriend* and need to splash some water on your face to keep from throwing up? Good luck if you’re wearing glasses! Itchy eye? Watch out for those glasses.

Plus the whole issue of being ineligible to fly fighter jets. Stupid glasses.

If only the solution wasn’t a choice between LASERS and SHARDS OF GLASS, y’know?

* Note: Inspiration comes from an episode of BBC’s “The Hour” and not my real life. Your mileage may vary.

September 25, 2011

September 25, 2011

Public Diplomacy

Last week, friend-of-blog Patricia and I toured the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the Department of State. I'd first learned of this tour on a DC-set episode of Antiques Roadshow. The plethora of everyday-joe tourists on my tour leads me to believe that people aren't nearly as stupid as I assume then to be.

The tour is free, and highly-recommended by your humble blogger. (Kids are not allowed. Bonus.) The tour is a series of 6ish rooms filled with fantastic furniture and objets d'histoire.

Then there's the room where Secretary Clinton meets foreign dignitaries:

The desk where Jefferson wrote part of the Constitution:

And the Benjamin Franklin dining room, where diplomacy is served with a side of mashed potatoes.

(Not set up for a banquet that day, obviously.)

I have no idea how other people are discovering this tour, but now you can add it to your list next time you visit.

September 22, 2011

September 22, 2011

Here's my card.

Recently, I was gently mocked for having personal cards made up (for free, at Moo.com). I have sound reasoning. I think.

As you can see from that annoying countdown atop this blog, I will soon be in London, baby. As part of a tour group. In a city full of fascinating British people. I daresay I might meet someone with whom I want to correspond.

Enter my card:

It’s not ideal, but I had trouble getting the design I really wanted to work, and the best I could improvise was a double-sided text card. Just go with it.

And, look, okay, I get that I’m nowhere near as cool as the only other person I know to have gotten these:

But Moo.com ships 10 cards to your door for free. I’ve gotten them before (with business info) and they are really high quality. Thick and sturdy.

Join me and Mr. Ocean. You’ll be the classiest entrant in the “Drop a card, win a sandwich” contest at Quiznos.

September 21, 2011

September 21, 2011

Worth Every Penny

One of the news stories binging around the beltway today is a recent OIG audit of the Department of Justice. Notably, this one’s about monies spent on “conference planning food and beverage costs.” The entire report, if you’d care to read it, is here.

Naturally, I dug right in.

(Perhaps a little background is in order. OIG stands for “Office of the Inspector General,” a component of each department/agency responsible for checking up on everybody else. An OIG typically gets funded directly by Congress (as opposed to receiving money from the department/agency head), so it can report issues without fear of financial reprisal. Though I have not yet worked in an OIG, I hope someday to do so. My attention to detail and precipitous nosiness make me an ideal fit. CDTSNBN*, I will watch the watchmen!

But back to the report. DOJ OIG (see how fast you devolve into alphabet soup) sampled 10 conferences over 2 years. (One could argue against this methodology, but whatever.) They found “costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks … indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending.” Things like $16 muffins and $8 cups of coffee.

(Researching and compiling a report like this would truly be my magnum opus. You may dream of being an astronaut, but I dream of reviewing ATF conference menus.)

The way I see it, there are a few things in play here:

The cost of catering. I have limited experience with catering, but a survey of my Facebook wall indicates that wedding receptions cost a LOT. Maybe not $5-a-meatball prices, but…y’know.

Government restrictions on buying food and beverages. We have this thing called the FAR, and also this thing called the FTR, and suffice to say there are A Lot of Rules about who can pay how much for what. Throw the concepts of “training” and “conferences” into the mix and it gets dicey.

Common sense. DOJ appears to be lacking common sense when it comes to food and drink. Then again, SO DO I.

Though I’ve only read the executive summary (and skimmed the remainder of the report), I’m fairly certain that the findings indicate some bad choices were made. Also, that DOJ feeds its people really well. Also, that going into catering may be the wisest investment strategy in this economy after 1) winning the lottery and 2) buying gold.

I bet those muffins were good, too.

* Many thanks to friend-of-blog Justin for the acronym.

September 20, 2011

September 18, 2011

September 18, 2011

Fall 2011: What I'll Be Watching

I’m not sure about you, but I’m always interested to know what TV shows my friends are watching, what new shows they’re trying, and what old shows they’ve dropped. Though my opinions are in no way authoritative, I hope they’ll give you something to chew on. Here, then, a night-by-night guide to my planned viewing. New shows are in bold.

Sunday
Pan Am

Sunday Summary: In the absence of my Don Draper fix, I will do what I must. (See: The Playboy Club, below.)

Monday
How I Met Your Mother
Gossip Girl
Castle
Hawaii: Five-O
The Playboy Club

Monday Summary: Mostly returning favorites, though Castle is waxing and Gossip Girl is waning. I’m tentatively committing to The Playboy Club only because I’m so desperate for anything a la Mad Men. (The Sing-Off will be viewed via Hulu, and only the actual performance parts. It’s a practice I adopted for this season of Project Runway and it is a FABULOUS time-saver.)

Tuesday
NCIS
Glee
New Girl

Tuesday Summary: I like to think I’m single-handedly bringing down the average age of NCIS viewership by a year or two. It’s millions of seniors…and me. I’ve seen the New Girl pilot on Hulu and found it just this side of Too Twee. Not making any promises, though.

Wednesday
Modern Family

Wednesday Summary: As has been the case a few years running, Wednesday is a light night. I’ll use it to watch two of my three “Monday at 10 pm” shows, since I’m usually only half-awake at that time to begin with. CBS does a terrible job of putting its stuff online, so I typically watch Hawaii: Five-O live.

Thursday
Community
Parks and Recreation
The Office
Whitney

Thursday Summary: The ads for Whitney have amused but not annoyed me. I’m not hopeful the show itself will maintain that record, but I’m going to try it. I’ve started following Whitney Cummings on Twitter, and she est amusant enough to pique my interest.

September 14, 2011

September 14, 2011

Tommy Wilson Goes to Washington

Not too long ago, TheBoy and I found ourselves in Staunton*, Virginia. Now, except for the one-in-a-million of you going, “Oh sure, Staunton,” I realize most people are completely blanking on the fact that Staunton is the birthplace of our 28th President. Hence, it’s home to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.

Since I was unable to see JFK’s library whilst in Boston last year, this was my first (and possibly last) Presidential library. Not a lot of commanders-in-chief from Wisconsin, so I didn’t grow up with many Presidential sites. I bet this is how the Puerto Ricans feel.

The library was by appointment only, and the house didn’t allow photography, so what I have for you are mostly…pictures of the museum. Because there’s something you NEVER see on this blog, I know.

Staunton. Tres charmant, n’est ce pas?

I think I could have navigated the three buildings myself, but I did appreciate the yellow highlighter road.

Gardens were also a big deal on the property. The building behind them is the house where Tommy was born. (Woodrow was his middle name. FACT.)

I couldn’t take any pictures in the house. It was…just like every other old house I’ve been in. The best part was the crotchety old guy in my group who leaned on some furniture (!), dropped his sunglasses at one point, and kept asking questions. It’s quite possible he and Wilson were contemporaries.

Anyhoo, the museum allowed pictures. My favorite objets:

Should you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods, check it out. Also, the Frontier Culture Museum (we had to pass and I'm dying to know how it was).

* The “u” is silent. I keep telling myself that, but pronouncing the “u” anyway.

September 12, 2011

September 12, 2011

Mutiple Choice

As you know, I’m a great fan of dystopian fiction. Give me a book, a film, or a tv show set in a not-too-distant future where technology/government/evil science has taken control, and I’m not coming up for air until I’ve devoured it. Of late, I’ve been on a run of YA-oriented books on this theme. (In case you are keeping score, none of them overthrows my love of The Giver. The Hunger Games came pretty close.)

I’ve noticed that each book/series involves a future where some omnipresent piece of The World As We Know It is missing. Something—whether it’s our loves, our careers, our bodies—is decided for us. This, more so than control via aliens or robots, seems to be the common thread of dystopia. Examples from my recent reads:

In Matched (Ally Condie) and Delirium (Lauren Oliver), people’s mates are chosen for them. No need to worry over matters of the heart!

In Divergent (Veronica Roth), each person selects* a personality-based sector of society to join. Once there, careers and behaviors follow suit. No need to stress about your line of work!

In the Uglies series (Scott Westerfeld), each person receives extensive cosmetic surgery at age 16, resulting in a world of beautiful people. No need to be judged on your looks!

In The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and The Maze Runner (James Dashner) series, certain children are put through rigorous physical tests for the greater good. No need to wonder what you’ll do on summer vacation!

The obvious message in all of these is that freedom of choice is good. The ability to choose (and even to make the wrong choice) is what makes us human. When that freedom and those choices are taken away, we as a society lose our way.

(I am obviously an anomaly, because I am all for rigidity and order. Seriously, I was that one person cheering the machines during The Matrix. Why? Because people are messy and stupid. Machines are clean, always on time, and will brew me “Earl Grey, hot,” if I ask for it. But don’t let my personal opinions dissuade you from reading any of these fine books. I sure didn't.)

* I’ll admit this one is a bit tricky. I argue that while INITIALLY there is a choice involved, once that choice is made, it’s all over. In addition, those who do not/cannot choose become known as “factionless,” a fate worse than death. One could argue that since not choosing isn’t a viable option, this whole process isn’t really a choice at all. *mind blown*

September 9, 2011

September 8, 2011

September 8, 2011

Notes from a Commute

Disclaimer: I’m still ridiculously fond of DC. It is the city that still makes me feel like a scene from West Wing could break out at any moment. I *have* gotten to know it a lot better these past three years, though. It’s sometimes delightful and sometimes dismaying.

I’ve mentioned before that I spend a lot of time commuting. A lot. Of time. Waiting for buses, waiting for trains, walking, and so on. If I’m lucky, I spend two hours a day getting to or from work. If I’m not lucky, we’re talking three to four hours. Yes, there are cases when I could literally walk faster.

But that’s a topic for another therapist.

Since I suffer from abundances of both anxiety and inner monologue, I often find myself internally blogging about things I notice on my commute. Since I started at cabinet-department-that-shall-not-be-named, my new commute has provided ALL SORTS of fodder. It’s the difference between the bus crowd and the train crowd: more space, yes. More space for weirdness.

Allow me to translate a little of my recent inner monologue to a more permanent medium.

Have you ever noticed that people walk more slowly when they’re talking on the phone? I assume it’s a result of the split in focus. I’ve noticed that people also walk more slowly when they’re walking with another person or texting. Sometimes I’ll get stuck behind someone doing two of the three. (I assume that if someone ever finds a way to do all three at once, s/he will actually go backwards in time.) Since the sidewalks I commute on are very narrow (and often clogged with students from THE George Washington University), I have few chances to shoot the gap. Sometimes I gotta walk in the street. Sometimes I gotta richochet off a church stoop. Sometimes I gotta duck under Slowy McSlowerson’s umbrella as I whoosh around him.

Speaking of: umbrellas. It’s been a rainy week in Washington; the universe is crying at the impending collapse of our society. Unlike the British, who face precipitation with a brigade of somber black umbrellas, I have to live not only with garish colors but a multitude of sizes. These umbrellas work equally well as Christo installations. Topped with sharp prods. Some have vents. Handles more ornate than anything post-czar has a right to be. We’re all commuters here, people. If you have to carry an umbrella on the train and then in the midst of a walking crowd, IT SHOULD NOT BE LARGE ENOUGH TO SHELTER YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY.

(And then there is the occasional parent-with-small-child who insists that Little One gets her own teeny umbrella that does more shin-bruising than anything else. Pop a raincoat on the child and call it a day.)

So between all of that and the not-infrequent tunnel floods, sick passengers, traffic-impeding accidents, no-show buses, and track fires, things are always interesting for those working in and around DC.

Enjoy your commute today. I wish I could.

September 7, 2011

September 7, 2011

Feed Your Children Well

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggests bringing home ec back as a way to combat obesity. If children learn how to cook real food (the thinking goes), they will not become fat. As someone who has no idea how to cook and was obese for quite some time, I’ll pretend to be uniquely qualified to discuss this idea.

No. Seriously no.

It’s not that I’m against home ec. I attended schools (and one college) where “homemaker” was the highest (and literally only) profession a woman could aspire to. If anything, you got a teaching degree to bide time until the wedding. But seriously, fields such as business, theology, and medicine were best left to the men.

You think I am kidding. I am not kidding.

Despite the fact that I spent most of this time preparing to pluck the forbidden fruit of a business degree, I tried to play along and learn what I could of domesticity. Thus I own and can fully operate a sewing machine. Should it hit the fan at cabinet-department-that-shall-not-be-named, rest assured I could theoretically save the day with a basting stitch and a hidden hem!

While I had no proclivity for cooking, I appreciate those who do. Goodness knows I watch enough of them on Food Network, PBS, and Cooking Channel. I also understand the temptation to link “ability to cook healthy food” and “compunction to eat healthy food.” Yet I don’t believe they’re all that linked. What you eat doesn’t depend on what you can cook.

It depends on what you can afford.

It depends on what tastes good.

It depends on what those around you are eating/want to eat/cook for you to eat.

Kitchen dunces like me know how to add dressing to a bagged salad mix. Or buy a Lean Cuisine to throw in the microwave.

Remember how I said earlier that I watch a lot of TV chefs? The professionals? I will state as diplomatically as possible that these people are not our best shot at outrunning the aliens. I have seen the future, and it is WALL-E.

Find a way to make junk food expensive and gross. I think that’s your best bet.

September 5, 2011

September 5, 2011

In Our Opinion: Water for Elephants


Friend-of-blog Mel and I have once again agreed on a mutual review. Last time, it was Inception. This time, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. (The book, not the movie. Sorry to all the Robert Pattinson fans; I think he’s also done work in a series about vampires or something.) Her review, which you are welcome to read first, is here.

I.       Setting

Depression era. The glory days of the circus. A time when a plethora of men out-of-work combined with a plethora of families looking for amusement and a modicum of freaks. Let’s face it: throughout history, mankind has been sprinkled with a modicum of physical and mental freaks. Their ability to find job satisfaction fluctuates, but they’re always out there.

(Caveat: As a child in Wisconsin, I certainly attended a circus or two, and dutifully watched the now-defunct Great Circus Parade on TV, but have never visited the Circus World Museum in Baraboo. I am just as much an outsider as the rest of you, unless you are a Flying Wallenda, in which case I am a much bigger outsider.)

The circus of Water for Elephants is the (name of circus), which is certainly a mouthful. To the eyes of this non-Flying Wallenda, it appears to be pretty typical of the time, especially once it gets an elephant. More on that later.

II.    Plot

Just a brief synopsis here, since many of you have likely seen the film, read the book, or are planning to do so. Jacob Jankowski (protagonist), runs away to join the circus after his parents die in a car accident. Perhaps unwisely, he does so just before finishing his veterinary degree. He meets August, the bipolar head trainer. He falls in love with Marlena, August wife. After the circus picks up an elephant named Rosie, Jacob uses his profound understanding of animals (and the Polish language) to bond with her. And with Marlena. Since August is a total jackhole, though, this relationship is doomed.

Luckily for everybody, the circus owner (Big Al) is known for cutting corners, and his spendthrift ways end in total calamity. The animals get loose, August is trampled to death, and Jacob sweeps Marlena off to live happily ever after. They have children, he works for a real circus (Ringling), and end up ditching the nursing home for yet another circus.

III. Characters
 
I couldn’t help but picture Robert Pattinson in my head as I read this book, and I hated that. Same for Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. Nothing to be done, but I wish it had been left to my imagination.

Though I found the premise a little unbelievable on the whole (literally running away to join the circus?), I did empathize with Jacob. Preparing for a profession that requires you to stick your hand up a cow’s butt is hard enough. Once your parents are tragically killed? Forget about it.
The Jacob/Marlena/August love triangle didn’t convince me either, but perhaps that was residual cringing from Jacob’s sexual awakening facilitated by the ladies of the cooch tent. I may be years removed from my days at Fundy U, but reading about Adult Activities will never get any easier.

(I should also apologize to the man sitting next to me on the bus that one day. Sir, if you happened to notice that I was reading about a man getting deflowered, I DO APOLOGIZE.)

Honestly, the character I liked best was old Jacob. (No, my favorite was not the elephant. I did not cheer when she killed August, nor at the many times the reader was reminded that ELEPHANTS ARE PEOPLE TOO. Save it for Greenpeace.) Old Jacob, an imperfect narrator, combined the indignities of old age with a fierce desire to keep living. He doesn’t remember how old he is, nor which of his many relatives was supposed to take him to the circus camped next to the nursing home. But he’s feisty enough to scoot himself over when no one else will, and it’s that same sort of self-determination that won us two world wars, dammit!

*wipes tear from eye*

Maybe I’m just nostalgic for the grandpa I never had. It’s like that scene from The Royal Tenebaums, when Royal reads the gravestone of a man who died heroically on a sinking ship. The viewer is led to believe this is a relative of Royal’s. He then says something like, “What a man. I wish I knew him.”

Well, I wish I knew Jacob Jankowsky. After he finished all that silliness with the circus.

IV. Style

Gruen uses a framing device, in which the bulk of the book is recalled through the eyes of the now-aged main character. The parallel? Present-day Jacob is eagerly anticipating a trip to the circus, whereas past-day Jacob worked many years on a circus. I do love the framing device, confusing as it is when you start the book. (More or less than in medias res? Discuss.)

I appreciate a single protagonist/point of view kept constant throughout the book. I would not have liked to read a chapter told by Marlena, or the elephant, or the dwarf. It’s hard enough keeping these people (and animals) straight with just one narrator.

The ending was a little tidy for my taste—I kept expecting Marlena to miscarry or die in childbirth. That their long and productive union disappointed me probably speaks more to my own predilection for dystopian fiction (where EVERYBODY dies) than Gruen’s storytelling abilities.

The pacing was good, and you definitely knew when the book climaxed. I appreciated the real-life archival circus photographs scattered throughout, as well as the small details of circus life: the cookhouse flag, the water buckets, the segregation of performers and labor. Who knew that 50,000 people were paralyzed after drinking Jamaica ginger extract? Not me, even after watching the entire first season of Boardwalk Empire. HBO fail.

Conclusion:

Water for Elephants is a “slice of life” novel. In this case, Depression-era circus life. My criticisms aside, it’s a worthy read. While researching this blog entry (ie reading the Wikipedia article), I learned that this novel originated in NaNoWriMo. If given one month to write a book, I would certainly do much, much worse. For those who’ve read the book and seen the movie, how do they compare?

September 1, 2011

September 1, 2011

In My Opinion: Arthur

You KNOW I’m the very last person on earth to recommend a romantic comedy. I’ve only seen a handful of them (even those not by choice), and I find their lack of explosions disappointing. More power to those who enjoy will they/won’t they drama on the big screen. Just not my cup of tea.

But oh how I loved Arthur.

The recent release, starring Russell Brand, Jennifer Garner, and Helen Mirren, is a remake of a 1981 film starring Dudley Moore as the titular spoiled playboy. Arthur, you see, is heir to the sort of vast fortune that allows him to buy whatever, whenever. He has a Batmobile, a bed supported solely with magnets, and days full of nothing but free time. Unfortunately, Arthur was not subject to the sort of fundamental upbringing many of us were, and thus lacks any sort of discipline or self-control. And when you have a Batmobile, self-control is really key. (Ask Batman. He’ll tell you.)

When Arthur’s hijinks land him increasingly bad press, his mother decides that the only way to fix things is to (wait for it) force him to marry Susan, one of the family business’s VIPs. That way Susan can run the company (keeping it in the family) and Arthur can quietly continue his loutish ways. But Susan is not the sort of tolerant, gentle soul required to keep a manchild in check. She’s more the sort of person that starts with “b” and ends with “all-buster.”

So that’s the conflict.

Enter the complication: Naomi, an adorable free-spirit Arthur meets when he ends up on her illegal tour of Grand Central Station. Naomi is everything that Susan is not; the sort of character you just KNOW Zooey Deschanel passed on.

The rest of the movie is confusion blah blah blah declaration of true love blah blah blah comeuppance blah blah blah denounement. Idk, romantic comedies, whatever.

The plot is not what I enjoyed about this movie.

The script, and Russell Brand’s delivery of it, is what I enjoyed about this movie.

So many throwaway lines. Witticisms. Britishisms. Smart, sharp, subtle humor. Sure, there was plenty of ribald over-the-top stuff, too. You can’t have a movie about a playboy (starring the man married to Katy Perry) without a little zaniness. But overall, this film felt SMART. And that is not a feeling I often get from movies aimed at the ladies. (You’ve no idea how many times I’ve been the only woman in a theatre, just because the film in question featured soldiers, or cowboys sans aliens, or the Crusades. BUT I’M NOT BITTER.)

Not sure whether I’m ready for Russell Brand’s comedy, but I do hope to see him in more stuff on the big screen. Or the little one.