December 31, 2015

December 31, 2015

My Best Podcasts of 2015: A Threeve

It’s been a long time since I last wrote about podcasts. The number of good ones has increased (though a few have stopped publishing—RIP Firewall & Iceberg) while the amount of time in a day remains constant. Thanks for nothing, physics.

As we plan to flip our calendars from Year of the Sheep to Year of the Monkey, I’d like to take a minute to note that Gimlet Media completely changed my podcast routine in 2015.


My point of entry was Reply All, specifically an episode about online dating for Asian women featuring This American Life contributor Stephanie Foo. I believe the show was plugged on TAL, and the internet and Asians are two of my Favorite Things, so I checked it out. It was, in a word, fantastic. As every episode has been. While answering a seemingly simple tech question (“Who wrote this hold music?” “Why is it so hard to cancel auto delivery?” “What happens when you email a generic address like john@gmail.com?”), Reply All’s two co-hosts find all sorts of layers to the internet onion.


Reply All was promising—quality, longform audio narrative—so I decided to add Mystery Show to the mix. It’s hosted by This American Life contributor and pixie-in-a-good-way Starlee Kine. Starlee solves a mystery in each episode, and my favorite thus far has been “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” The answer is far more complicated than you’d expect.


My final Gimlet show (thus far) is Startup, in which each season follows the start of a company. Season one focused on Gimlet itself. Season two focused on a website called Dating Ring. Season three’s subject is TBD, but this Shark Tank fan will definitely be there with Bluetooth earbuds on.

I’m still listening to my old standbys, of course: WTF, Wait Wait, Good Job, Brain, and the like. But few shows have made me think and laugh more this year than Gimlet’s. Thank you, Ira Glass, for being the Lorne Michaels of public radio.

December 22, 2015

December 22, 2015

My Best Books of 2015: A Threeve

2015 was the year I stopped slacking off and started multitasking in earnest. There’s just too much good TV, film, literature, and podcast media out there. I used to have down time while (for example) walking from the train to the office, but this year I realized that life is too short not to listen to podcasts while (for example) walking from the train to the office. Result: my Gimlet media consumption is up 1000% percent, though I still don’t understand the draw of Serial.

But that is for another day. The day I write about my best podcasts of 2015. Stay tuned.

I feel like I read less than I should have this year. (Probably because I was spending so much time listening to podcasts.) I didn’t start tracking myself on Goodreads until the middle of the year, but my cuff records indicate I read between 140 and 150 books this year. Frankly, that is not enough. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH.

I’d like to do something a little different with my Best Books this year. Rather than focusing on flash-in-the-pan Best Books—for which my love burned hot but short—let me talk about some books that will stick with me. Spoiler alert: None of them are Go Set a Watchman or Grey. Because…yikes.

2nd Runner Up: The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips.


Part allegory, part commentary, part dystopia. Short enough to read in a longish single sitting. Reviews compare it to Murakami and Atwood. I’d throw in Orwell, too. Granted: this is right in my female-bureaucrat-who-loves-dystopian-fiction sweetspot, but still.

1st Runner Up: Miss Colombia*

Winner: The Last Hundred Years trilogy by Jane Smiley


Look. It’s my list, and I’ll name a trilogy as top book if I want to. It’s called the Tolkien defense. Look it up.** The Last Hundred Years trilogy is comprised of consists of Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. Each chapter in these books covers a year in the life of the Langdon family. Book 1, Some Luck, starts in 1920. Book 3, Golden Age, ends in 2019. We follow one Iowa farm family through the generations, and the great events of history—wars, economic boom and bust, Jonestown, 9/11—are filtered through their experiences. Not every character gets fully-formed, but I’d say there are 15 or so “main” characters covering 4 generations by the end of the trilogy. And the thing is, 100 chapters (100 years) is plenty of time to get to know these people. Since the whole trilogy is rooted in history (except the prospective 2016-2019 chapters, of course), you know what’s around the corner and get to anticipate how the various characters will be affected by it. Dramatic irony FTW.

As with any recommendation, your mileage will vary. These are simply some of my takeaways from a very good year of very good books. (But do remember that one of my recommendations from last year was turned into a movie that basically the entire universe loved.)

* This reference won’t make sense for much longer, so please allow it.
** Don’t look it up. I haven’t looked it up, so it’s probably some weird sex act on Urban Dictionary.

November 19, 2015

November 19, 2015

Edel-what now?

It’s 19NOV2015, which means tomorrow is 20NOV2015, a.k.a. the day The Man in the High Castle is released. (It’s an Amazon Prime production, which means you might as well start your 30-day free trial now, if you didn’t up to Prime back when Transparent came out.)

The show is based on a Phillip K. Dick book with a simple premise: What if the Allies had lost World War 2? What would America look like? Turns out, something like this:


Japan occupies the West; Germany the East. The show’s characters include normal citizens, members of the resistance movement (if it’s America, there’s gotta be a resistance), and Nazi Big Bads. Even if you aren’t the daughter of a WWII buff whose entire German vocabulary consists of military terms, you’ll like this show. (I myself personally watched the pilot when it was initially released a few months ago. Frankly, it’s the most absorbing and haunting thing I’ve seen all year.)

If you are STILL not convinced, try episode 1 for free. Once you see that the cast includes Rufus Sewell AND DJ Qualls, I think you’ll dig.

November 13, 2015

November 13, 2015

I Before E Except When It's an A

Hola, kiddos. It’s been a minute, I know. I left Cabinet Department That Shall Not Be Named the State Department and took a shiny new job at Cabinet Agency That Shall Not Be Named. And my parents decided to move for the first time in 23 years. So blah-blah-blah life got in the way of blogging, excuses excuses whatever.

Serious talk: Do you remember My Buddy and/or Kid Sister? This could possibly be 2015’s second bombshell regarding parallel universes?

Why “second,” you ask? Because of the Berenst*in Bears situation. (I like that the asterisk makes it look like an expletive. This whole thing is just that serious.)


If you haven’t heard, there’s a universe of people (this one) who grew up reading books about the Berenstein Bears. I’m one. You’re one (HELLO, ethno-cultural assumptions!). They are like the Boxcar Children, or The Monster at the End of This Book. Touchstones of our childhood. Right? Right!

Then, sometime this year, we all realized that the actual name is spelled…

B – E – R – E – N – S – T – A – I – N

…and always has been. ALLEGEDLY. Even though the name is pronounced Bear-in-STEEN and not Bear-in-STAIN.

UGH.

Then, to add literal insult to figurative injury, TheBoy recently reminded me of My Buddy, which reminded me of Kid Sister, and I’ve basically had this tune running through my head for a week and a half:


You haven’t lived until you’ve exited a Metro station with the words “MY BUDDY AND ME!” That day, the guy lying on the ground with a sign and a cup but no shoes was NOT the one getting the craziest looks.

Wikipedia tells me that My Buddy and Kid Sister were marketed for like half a second  several decades ago. I never had one. No one I know ever had one. But everyone seems to remember this commercial and that freaking song.

I can only conclude that in some parallel universe, we all had My Buddy and/or Kid Sister, and wherever they went, we went.

("...our Buddies and us!")

October 14, 2015

October 14, 2015

Ballpark Figures

While I was furiously reveling in the fact that our Chicago Cubs have eliminated the Cards from the playoffs, TheBoy pointed out that Back to the Future 2: Electric Boogaloo Part II features the Cubs winning the 2015 World Series. I’m sure you all have been on this since the season started but WHAT. GUYS. WHAT IF THIS HAPPENS. Science!

My sports research—a phrase I really never get to use—also informed me that my Milwaukee Brewers once had the following alternate logo:


The universe cannot contain the amount of side-eye I’m giving. Shall I start with the fact that Milwaukee is nowhere near the star? You could generously say the star abuts the greater Milwaukee area. Maybe. Sort of. (Going deep for my Wisconsin friends: Looks like rural Racine County to me, yes?) Then you’ve got weird rounding of the state borders. I guess it’s stylistic to contrast with the M, but poor Door County got the short end of that stick.

Honestly, I keep hoping they’ll go back to the old MB mitt, because you can’t beat visual wordplay.


It's good, right? (Answer: Yes.)

So #GoCubs. The dreams of a division are with you.

September 18, 2015

September 15, 2015

September 15, 2015

The State of the TV Schedule: Fall 2015

It’s with some reluctance that I turn my thoughts from summer to fall TV. In general, I delight in putting summer behind me: summer is the season of no school, hot weather, and entirely too much daylight. Blurgh. But this summer was an embarrassment of television riches, people. Difficult People made me laugh wickedly. UnREAL convinced me once and for all that I needn’t watch anything that includes the word “bachelor.” Mr. Robot tickled my dystopian bone. Like I said, an embarrassment of television riches.

Alas, all good things must come to a Shonda-declared end. Thus I present the State of the TV Schedule: Fall 2015.

Monday
Minority Report – I liked the movie a lot, and while this series has 100% less Neal McDonough, I’m hopeful just the same.

Tuesday
NCIS – At some point, this show will end, disappointing me and millions of senior citizens. Until that day, I’m in.

Wednesday
Modern Family

Thursday
Heroes Reborn – Hiro + HRG? Yes please.
Scandal
How to Get Away with Murder

Friday
Shark Tank – To my surprise, this is the show I’ve been missing most. Nothing like seeing people’s pitches rewarded and/or crushed accordingly.

Sunday
The Last Man on Earth – I didn't expect to like this show nearly as much as I do. It's a gem, even if your Will Forte mileage varies.

Undecided: Quantico, Limitless, Project Greenlight

Watching, but not on network TV: The Mindy Project, The Man in the High Castle, Manhattan

You?

September 10, 2015

September 10, 2015

Wisconsin State Fair 2015

At this point, only the briefest of recaps is necessary for each of my annual State Fair visits. I’ve got my routine down pat, and very little changes from year to year.

I know that I’ll wander the Expo Center, ogling the miracle products:


There will be a few head-scratchers, too:


I’ll watch the Raptors: Birds of Prey show with utter delight.

TINY OWL IS TINY.

Peregrine Falcon, fastest animal.

"I am freedom, baby.”

Crows are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bird world. No respect.

I’ll admire prize-winning cheeses:


Prize-winning baked goods, too:


The animals will seem less-than-excited to be at the freaking STATE FAIR:

“Wake me when it’s over.”

Cock-a-doodle-meh.

And throughout the day, I will attempt to eat my body weight.


Cruller on a stick.

Flavored milks: Orange creamsicle, root beer, banana, strawberry, and chocolate.

The Wis-cone-sin (new this year).

Pretzel-crusted brownies on a stick, also new this year.

See you in 2016.

September 4, 2015

September 4, 2015

Hot Pocket Veto

The BBC’s recent Britain at the Bookies miniseries—available as of writing on YouTube, so be quick about it—was a pretty fascinating look at betting. I myself am not a gambler, preferring the buffet to any table game or machine. Seriously, I’ve been to casinos dozens of times but gambled only once, spending a dollar on penny slots in Vegas and ending up with $2.32. Thus it’s with disinterest that I enjoyed learning about OTB, horseracing, and the like.

BUT. My ears did perk up during episode 2, when the question of naming racehorses came up. Namely (no pun intended), what you would name your horse, if you had one. Coincidentally, I had decided on this very thing earlier that same day. So without further ado, let the record show that I today am claiming the following name for any racing horse, dog, BattleBot, or yet-to-be-invented cyborg I may ever use for competition purposes:

Hot Pocket Veto

Brilliant, right? It combines three of my loves: frozen food, politics, and wordplay. Google indicates that the phrase has to date been used just once, in a tweet about the President, and that the phrase was not referencing the food product. Folks, I’m counting this one as all mine.

Back-up plan: I discover something (a strain of bacteria? a planet? spitballing here) and use this name. Win-win.

Edit: What name would you choose?

August 20, 2015

August 20, 2015

Parks and Recreation

When I was your age, parks were different from what they are now. I was reminded of this when I read about an enterprising DC-area family who created a guide to Arlington’s 70 parks. The guide includes ratings “on the different features, like how challenging the playground was, how much shade each has and if it had bathrooms.” The kids “liked playgrounds that had more challenging features, like rock climbing walls or climbing nets.”

Hang on. What? Rock climbing walls? Bathrooms? SHADE?

As a kid on Milwaukee’s south side, my main haunts (Maitland, Copernicus, and Tippecanoe parks) featured some swings, that spinning platform thing, and maybe a wooden structure you could climb on. Think this:


(By the way, I had to Google “old playground” to get that image because simply Googling “playground” brings up the colorful monstrosities delighting kids these days. BAH.)

Among the things you DON’T see in this picture are rock climbing walls, bathrooms, or shade. The slide was made of metal and 100% exposed to sun. The wooden frame would result in your getting at least a splinter a week. The ground—if you were lucky—was littered with just a few cigarette butts.

It was glorious.

Because when I was a kid, you spent the day having adventures, often at the playground. That wooden structure was actually a castle, or an airplane, or a skyscraper, or a laboratory. You tried to swing the swing ALL THE WAY AROUND, because someone knew someone who knew someone who had done that once. You dug in thesand looking for arrowheads because we all knew Wisconsin was chock full of Native American artifacts. (Years I looked for arrowheads: 25. Arrowheads I found: 0.)

It was dirty and dangerous. If you fell off the monkey bars, you landed hard onto unforgiving sand. (From what I can tell, playgrounds today are covered in recycled water bottles mixed with condescension.) If you did scrape a knee or get a splinter, you knew exactly what was required to procure Bactine, tweezers, and a bandage without being detected. Do kids today even understand the nightmarish sting of Bactine? Is Bactine just an app now?

I don’t begrudge kids their newfangled play technology; time marches on. Particularly in big cities, where everyone lives piled atop each other and no one has yards or driveways. But I’m afraid that for every climbing wall and bathroom gained, some imagination is lost.

Safety first, I guess.

August 12, 2015

August 12, 2015

Things I’ve Read: Unnecessary Canon Additions Edition

It’s been a summer of teaching old dogs new tricks, hasn’t it? I’ll leave reviews of the newest Dr. Seuss book to people with kids and/or souls, and stick to two books that were a little more in my wheelhouse.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

As you probably know, Watchman was a rough draft of the universally-loved* classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s editor read Watchman, realized the childhood flashbacks were the best part, and counseled Lee to write a book set wholly at that time rather than one that moves between Scout’s past and present.

And here’s the thing about editors: sometimes, they’re RIGHT. Because the childhood flashbacks are just about the only thing in this book that aren’t a mess. Without the background of Mockingbird, the reader has no reason to care about these characters since there’s almost no driving action or suspense. Though the book opens with adult Scout on a train ride to Alabama (promising!), her arrival in Maycomb puts an end to the travelogue and cues up the casual racism.

Which, look: I get it. This book was written and set in the 1950s and it was a different time. I repeat: IT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME. The attitudes and language in the book must be considered in that context. It’s not that I was offended. I was bored…bored by Scout’s inner struggles regarding her father, her fiancé, Maycomb’s racist community leaders, et al.

Harsh as it seems, this appears to be an instance of an interesting kid growing into a boring adult. It happens all the time. Harry Potter is probably an accountant now or some such.

Read this if you seek completeness (as I did). There’s not much other reason.

Grey by E.L. James

I was a little mislead about what I was getting into with Grey. I thought it was the entire 50 Shades trilogy from Christian’s POV. Turns out it covers just the events of the first book. So much for completeness.

It’s been quite some time since I read the trilogy, so I didn’t remember what was coming as I read (no pun intended, ew). I had hoped for a little more insight into Christian’s background, since I find him the far more interesting character. Call me a misogynist (I certainly do), but Ana seems to be there mostly to be there.

Alas, other than a few childhood flashbacks (indicated by italics, which is apparently some kind of typography commandment), most of Christian’s time is spent using his ostentatious wealth and/or genitalia. I guess that’s the life of a playboy.

Read this if you seek titillation (I didn’t). There’s not much other reason.

*I came to Mockingbird late in life, since the tiny religious schools I attended didn’t discuss race relations and certainly didn’t acknowledge the existence of rape outside the Old Testament. The Scarlet Letter made everybody PRETTY CLAMMY and everybody in that was white. So I had to pick up Mockingbird—and a host of other classic works—once I graduated, was allowed to think on my own, etc.

August 4, 2015

August 4, 2015

Iceland, Day 5: The Silver Circle

The last full day of my Iceland trip, the day of the Silver Circle tour, dawned sunny and clear (TWO DAYS IN A ROW, WHAT WHAT HEY-O). There was some initial confusion, because between the time I booked the tour and the time I went on the tour, it changed names. “The Silver Circle” became “Vikings, Waterfalls & Hot Springs.” IMO, the new, more-explicit name is at least 30% less sexy. But whatever, man.

We were a group of five: me, TheBoy, a couple from Norway (!), and the guide. We got a fancy van (technical term) and drove from Reykjavik to our first stop: Hvalfjörður, the whaling fjord.

Not our actual fancy van, but very similar. We each got, like, a whole row of seats. SWANK.

What with the worldwide popularity of the “Save the Whales” movement, Hvalfjörður is home to one of the last remaining active whaling plants. We drove past but couldn’t stop, because the place was locked-up, Fort Knox style.

I assume Auric Whalefinger sits inside, stroking a white cat.

According to our guide, his childhood involved field trips to this place. Now? You’re not getting in for love or money. THANKS, PETA.

Anyway, the fjord had much more to offer in the way of scenic beauty. I mean, mirror lakes, big skies, hills-are-alive kind of beauty.

Taken from the middle of a road. The guide said it was fine. You know what? It was.

Next, Borgarnes, home to the Settlement Museum. Two lengthy exhibits, one about the founding of Iceland and another about one of its mythic figures, Egil. You were forced to use the audio tour, which worked out okay because the exhibits were basically stories told via folk art. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures (and for once, I didn’t), but here’s someone else’s to give you some idea of what I was dealing with.




Credit where credit’s due: The exhibits were creative and varied. I’m just spoiled by the Smithsonians.

Since all that audio touring was hungry work, lunch in Fossatún was next. Fossatún, as far as I can tell, consists of one motel/restaurant/camping ground. Luckily for me, the view from the patio was GORG.


Added bonus: My lamb stew came with an egg on it for no obvious reason.

That side salad is the very definition of "anemic."

The first afternoon stop was Deildartunguhver, the highest-flow hot spring in Europe. Imagine 200-degree water gushing out of the ground at 48 gallons per second and you’ve pretty much got the gist.


Our next stop was Reykholt, where we learned all about Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland’s most significant historic figures. He’s sort of their Homer; he wrote down a lot of the myths and history back in the early 13th century. His original homestead now has a church, school, and other stuff on it, but there’s a little museum and the Norwegian couple traveling with us LOVED it. Apparently Snorri’s huge in Norway. Who knew? (Answer: The Norwegians.)

The man, the myth, the Snorri.

Now here’s where things get hairy, and the one regret I have about the trip. The next stop was supposed to be a drive through the second-highest pass in Iceland to a glacier walk, which was something I knew TheBoy really wanted to do. This tour is only offered in June, July, and August because the pass is snowed-over and impassable (ha) the rest of the year. Alas, IT WAS STILL SNOWED OVER. BOO. Obviously global warming is a myth.

Our consolation prize was Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, two waterfalls. Hraunfossar was more visually impressive…


…but Barnafoss legend is cooler. Quoth Wikipedia:

Many Icelandic folk tales have been associated with Barnafoss, the most famous being about two boys from a nearby farm, Hraunsás. One day, the boys' parents went with their ploughmen to a church. The boys were supposed to stay at home, but as they grew bored they decided to follow their parents. They made a shortcut and crossed a natural stone-bridge that was above the waterfall. But on their way, they felt dizzy and fell into the water and drowned. When their mother found out what had happened, she put a spell on the bridge saying that nobody would ever cross it without drowning himself. A little while later, the bridge was demolished in an earthquake.

Criminy.


Fittingly, our last stop was a return to Þingvellir. Our visit during the Golden Circle tour of Day 2 was an overcast bust that we'd tried to make the best of. I didn't mention that we got separated from the group and I almost threw my first Unesco World Heritage Site tantrum. This time around, it was partially cloudy and our guide stuck with us, so we got to better understand the significance of the site as well as partly-sunny views of it and the local wild horses.




Since the sixth and final day or our trip involved going from hotel to airport, this is where I’ll leave it. Iceland’s a strong recommend: the perfect mix of unique nature and ancient history.

July 24, 2015

July 24, 2015

Iceland, Day 4: Whale Watching and the Blue Lagoon

Because we had full daylong tours scheduled for days 3 and 5 of this Iceland trip, we took it a little easier on day 4. In the morning, we went whale watching (not to be confused with "whale eating," which I did on day 2).

As we walked to the dock, we were happy to see that the weather was finally—FINALLY—going to cooperate. Blue skies, sun, and temps in the 50s. Downright BALMY.

Iceland doesn't have an Army, but it does have a 3-ship Coast Guard. Ooh-rah.

We boarded the whale watching ship (one of several, hashtag capitalism), put on ridiculous coverall outfits for warmth, and headed onto the bay.

I will never look more outdoorsy than I do here.

Reykjavik, lookin' good.

We tooled around for a bit, looking for puffins, dolphins, and minke whales. We ended up seeing all three, though the fact that they were moving quickly and in the water make picture-taking very tricky.

Pretty much my best shot. You had to be there.

After a quick lunch at 10-11, the Icelandic version of 7-11, we hopped on another bus and rode to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's most-visited attraction.

Not to be confused with the Blue Lagoons of other countries.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa. Its pools are made of mineral-rich wastewater from the nearby geothermal power plant (not as gross as it sounds). People can pay to swim, get covered in mud, and all the other sorts of spa-ish (spa-y?) things people do at spas. We saved ourselves hundreds of dollars and just walked around. The unnaturally opaque blue water combined with the rocky landscape were surreal.




Once we got back to Reykjavik (the Blue Lagoon's near the airport, so it's a 50-minute ride to town), we went back to Hallgrímskirkja to get pictures with blue sky rather than the grey sky of day 1.

Not too shabby.

In Day 5: A fjord, Snorri, and a return to Þingvellir.