Monday, August 31, 2009

My mom will get it (redux).

Although practically perfect in every way, Muffin Uptown has a very short fuse when it comes to balky mechanical equipment. I warned her about this when she asked for her first sewing machine. As those of us who already own these contraptions could easily have told her, sewing machines exist for the sole purpose of testing one's certitude in a higher, beneficent being. Anyone prone to crisis of conviction would be better served at the mourner's bench than in front of a sewing machine.

And MU's constancy? Well, she loses her shit when a zipper gets stuck.

She's building an ambitious art installation that involves PVC piping and yards and yards of fabric, and had a meeting scheduled with her advisor on Tuesday to evaluate her progress. It's been going well. So of course, the machine inexplicably stopped in the middle of the next-to-the-last, nine-foot-long seam.

She telephoned me at work to test both my diagnostic and prognostication skills. Normally so articulate, she was struck dumb in the face of total mechanical malfunction.

"Mom! My sewing machine is all messed up. The wheel thing won't turn and it doesn't work. Well, it will turn--but it's really, really hard and when it does, the other thing just moves back and forth, instead of up and down and nothing is happening. This is really making me mad. What's wrong with it?"

Click. Click. Clickclickclickclick.

"What is that noise? What are you doing?"

"I'm turning the other wheel thing. But nothing is happening. Why won't it work? This is really making me mad."

"I think you should stop doing that--it isn't supposed to make that noise. Check the needle and make sure it isn't bent. Look for knotted up thread behind the bobbin. Check the presser foot."

"Presser foot? What's that?


Ultimately, she was reduced to finishing her project on my sewing machine--a Singer 301A, circa 1956. There was a lot of inarticulate moaning and groaning about that, too.

"Does your machine even work? It's old."

Later, during her project review, she detailed the difficulties she'd had to her professor and complained of having to finish her sewing on a "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sewing machine."

"That sounds cool." her professor said, "I don't think I've ever used one of those before."

Originally posted January 23, 2008.

Friday, August 28, 2009

There's a Haiku for that.

Did you know that you can write your dissertation as a haiku and submit it to Dissertation Haiku for all the world's wonder?

"It takes a long time to get a Ph.D. Maybe five or six years, four if you’re fast. At the end, you’ve written a big fat document which all of your committee members will read if you’re lucky. How can you gain a wider audience for the major product of ten-or-so percent of your time on Earth?"

Maybe you don't have a dissertation. I don't, and I only read them when I'm researching. But I like Haiku--especially Haiku that gets out and sees the world:

Marine microbes eat
polysaccharides, except
that sometimes they don’t.

Andrew D. Steen

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I measured the rates at which dissolved polysaccharides are degraded by microbes in seawater. Differences in those rates among locations suggest that the reactivity of dissolved organic matter in seawater is determined by the nature of the microbial community as well as the chemical characteristics of organic matter. If seawater microbial communities in the Arctic Ocean begin to access a wider range of dissolved organic molecules as temperatures warm in the future, more organic matter may be converted to carbon dioxide in the Arctic Ocean.

Scholarship, with a touch of irony. I like it.

image from ashkev's flickr photostream.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Telling the tale, true.

Before I was a writer, I was a storyteller.

I love writing stories down, but for me, nothing compares to telling a story in real time, to real people. Once it's on the page, it's going where it's going. But a story told to another honest-to-goodness person is a once in a lifetime event. It's shaped as much by the reactions of the listeners as it is by the teller.

As self-absorbed as I am, though, I also like hearing the stories other people have to tell--which is where The Moth comes in.

I can't remember if I've talked about The Moth here before--I meant to, but something sparkly may have distracted me. If I did and you remember it, please send me the link. After the first 700 posts, it all starts to run together.

The Moth is a not-for-profit storytelling organization based in New York City featuring "celebrated writers and actors and other unique storytellers." They feature "true stories told live on stage without scripts, notes, props, or accompaniment." Moth stories are broadcast via podcast for free download each week on iTunes, and some of the stories you hear on This American Life were recorded live at The Moth. You don't have to live in New York City to hear the storytellers featured on stage.

But if you are Muffin Uptown and living in NYC for the summer, you aren't going to miss an opportunity to see it up close and in person. And yes, if the opportunity presents itself, get up on that scary stage and tell a story your own damn self.

The Moth hosts competitive StorySlams for the amateur storyteller four times a month, so it wasn't like Muffin would be sharing the stage with Garrison Keillor or Dan Savage. Even so, I was a little nervous. As much as I hate flying, I'd board that plane today if I thought a single big city New Yorker had been mean to my heart of hearts.

So, I had lots of constructive criticism for MU after gave me a preview of the story she planned to tell on stage--stuff to leave out and stuff to stick in--along with some advice about delivery and timing. She left the majority of my advice right where she found it, and--like any good storyteller--told the story the way her intuition and the crowd told her to tell it.

Which--when you think about it--is even better than doing what I told her to do in the first place. I guess she was listening to me after all.

Muffin Uptown took 3rd place in her first ever Moth StorySlam. Not bad for a little pastry in a big city.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


For years, Tawana and I have had an in-case-of-sudden-death arrangement. I won't go into details, except to say that each of us has agreed to go in and vamoose certain items that might not leave our loved ones with the best last impression. We're good friends, and that's what good friends do.

This is the kind of thing that has to be revisited periodically--stuff gets moved around, the list of damning items changes. I assume that--given enough time--there will eventually come a moment when we no longer need this compact. If you get to live long enough, you reach a point where you just don't care what people think of you after you've called it a day.

Last week, Tawana told me that she is almost always conscious of what she's doing at any given moment--just in case it happens to be her last. In other words, would she want to be found having gone the way of all flesh while doing whatever it is she happens to be doing? As she was telling me this, I had another one of those moments when I realized how fortunate I was to have a very best friend. Who else is going to go the extra mile to be sure my anxiety level about an already uncomfortable subject is ratcheted up there where it's supposed to be?

Because, before she named it, I hadn't even considered this.

When I have thoughts of death, they are almost always of the how-to-avoid-the-untimely variety. Premature death lies in wait around every corner for the woman who lives alone. I wish I could see the statistics for the number of women who plummeted to their deaths carrying three trips-worth of crap upstairs--just so they wouldn't have to schlep back down and then up again. And again. I'd like to know my odds of meeting my maker at the hands of my 5-bladed uber razor, or via the 3am hormonally-induced heatstroke that's out there with my name on it. It's highly likely that I'll fall and break something I need to maintain adequate ventilation and respiration while trying to beat my cat to the ringing telephone. I might choke to death on a piece of poorly masticated corndog, or strangle on my own spit while trying to get AT&T on the line.

ADT and Brinks may be worried about scary home invader types, but I'm convinced any home security system is just going to lock me in with the thing that's trying to kill me. The CSI team is going to take one look at me--lying there in a pool of Netflix envelopes--and then turn their tiny little flashlights to the room around me.

"Well," one of them will say,"I'm surprised she's lasted this long. It's a danger zone in here."

Then another one--probably the pretty one in white designer jeans, will say, "Hey, Mac/Gil/Horatio. Lookit this. Would you say these are two-day old pajamas, or three?"

Image, Elektroschutz, via Bre Pettis.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Punk love.

Night before last, I dreamt that my puppy died and I was sad all day. I don't even have a puppy, but dreaming about it was enough to hurt my feelings. What I do have is a 9 month old cat, and she's a punk.

She's selfish, destructive, and has no regard for my authority. I think she's been smoking in the bathroom. Last night she tore through the living room, kicking the legs of the furniture, and stopped in the hallway to turn to me and say, "What are you looking at?"

Then she tore down the driveway and stayed out past curfew. I think she was out racing for pinks.

"She's probably acting out because she's bored," I thought.

So I bought her a new toy--an expensive, stupendous, pink- and purple-feathered, sashaying, bird-in-Las-Vegas-drag toy. This toy was absolutely flaming. If this toy had a theme song, it would be "I will survive."

The toy, sadly, did not.

My punk cat loved that toy. She batted it out of my hand and had it in her jaws before it hit the floor. She rolled on it. She batted at it with her back feet. She sang romantic songs to it. Then she plucked it naked and left it--dead and forgotten--in the middle of the kitchen floor. Punk love is ferocious, vicious, and violent; punk love will leave you with nothing but pink and purple feathers and bits of neck and wing that stink of catnip.

photo, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, by Richard Mann.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping it real.

Did you see this picture last week? A lot of you did--it made a fairly big splash for a photo measuring 3 inches square.

"The Woman on page 194" of Glamour is 20-year-old, plus-sized model Lizzie Miller. She's not plus-sized at all, when using real-girl calculations. In fact, Lizzie's picture looks unremarkably normal. It's a variation of what most of us see when we look in the mirror, and not at all what we've become used to seeing in the magazines. This is the kind of shot we wouldn't expect to see without a black bar thrown over her eyes.

And although Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive says her "inbox was flooded" with positive messages and that she "pays attention to this stuff," I wouldn't hold my breath, if I were you.

This isn't a look you can expect to see on the cover any time in the near future.

At practically the same time Lizzie Miller's picture was prompting an outpouring of affirmative responses, Self magazine's editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger was adamantly defending the photoshopping of singer Kelly Clarkson's cover shot. While striving to "capture the essence of [Clarkson] at [her] best," they shaved a goodly portion off the singer--presumably because her best just couldn't possibly be that heavy.

This much is true: virtually every styled photograph that sees publication has been photoshopped. (Have you ever seen an electrical switchplate in a room shot?) With the right software, even the perfect shot can be made more so. The same holds true for the perfect woman.

I've been in these meetings--the ones where the editor-in-chief looks at the photography director and demands to know why the 99-pound model looks so fat or so ugly. I was always thankful the models weren't privy to what was being said about them behind closed doors--usually by women nearer the exit door of the feminine ideal than the entrance.

It wasn't until I took my place at that conference table that I understood that the flawless standard being fed to us by "the media," could more accurately be described as the absolute as defined by the one or two people at the top of the publication's org chart. Make no mistake--the photostylists, photographers, artists, and writers all take instruction from the executive director and editor-in-chief. If those people wanted realistic representations on the pages of their publications, that's exactly what you would be getting.

And it wouldn't take an outpouring of positive responses from readers to make it happen.

photo, Walter Chin for Glamour

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ukulele with authority.

Even dressed up and center stage, I guess they just can't help themselves.

Guess what song I'm figuring out how to play tonight?

via nothing to do with arbroath.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

At least Ferguson had a cockney dinosaur puppet afterward.

Muffin Uptown, you might remember, has been living in New York City since the first week of June, and yesterday she and her boyfriend had tickets for the taping of last night's show.

I assume that had Mr. Letterman asked her up on stage and quizzed her as to the origins of her awesomeness, the child would have afterward dropped a dime to call me with a report. Since I got no such call, my main concern last night was to watch the show and scour every audience shot in the hope of glimpsing a Muffin elbow or wisp of strawberry-blonde hair.

I didn't see her anywhere. It was just like not winning the lottery.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

You could call it "collective intelligence." I prefer to call it "Hey, that was cool."

You might remember that on Monday I suggested that Ms. Nina Totenberg do her part to keep me happy with a verse or two from Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Meanwhile, over on Koufukuron, Jeannie Harrell posted this lover-ly flowchart, "for the better understanding of" this same song. On that same day.

Coincidence? I don't think so. That's just the Internet, doin' what it's supposed to do.

Found via HannahRMoore's twitter feed via HuffPo, who also suggests the literal version.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On the verge of becoming Kathleen Turner Overdrive.

My first husband used to say that I had such an addictive personality, if he could only convince me to have sex a second time, he'd have it made. I've mentioned this here before, but I guess it bears repeating--cause I've still got the same problem.

Moderation, that is. Never heard of it.

I'm drinking the national debt in Diet Cokes every week, and like my brother's chicken-nugget-hiding dog, I've got M&Ms stashed in every room. I've brushed all the enamel off my teeth, the number and length of my naps alarms my mother, and during my last move I packed 22 boxes of books. Done to excess, even stuff that's supposed to be good for you (like dental hygiene, sleeping, and reading), isn't.

But who would have imagined that NPR could be enjoyed to one's detriment? That's right, Susan Stamberg. Too much NPR is not necessarily a good thing.

I listen to NPR every day. On weekends, I listen all day long. I'm one of those NPR junkies they talk about during pledge drives. And like all good addicts, I abuse my substance of choice to the exclusion of all other things.

I didn't really realize this until my last trip to see my extraordinarily beautiful dentist. His office is located in a town about 40 miles from where I live now (I just can't break up with him and move on), in a small town that is nestled in a lovely river valley. It's very picturesque, but the mountains on all sides make NPR reception spotty at best. Turn left, and you get the 24-hour-Jesus channel; turn right, and Scott Simon comes back.

It's maddening. So last week, I just gave up and turned the radio to a music channel.

And here's the thing about music--whether you prefer blues, jazz, country and western, or all-80s-all-the-time: nothing lifts the pall of everyday drudgery better than 2 minutes, 42 seconds of song. Even if--like me--you weren't particularly aware of needing a lift.

It's so cliche that I forgot.

So I'm going to make an effort to get out of the NPR house every now and then, and spend more time with my music collection. I need to invest my energy in finding something with which to get my jiggy. Who knows? Maybe we should even consider piping some Stevie Ray Vaughan or Al Green into the Town Hall Meetings, or pre-load some iPods to give those angry people. It's hard to stay mad when you're getting your groove on. That's why God invented mix-tapes.

Who among us--angry or otherwise--couldn't use more cowbell?

Not that I don't still love me some Nina Totenberg. But if she could also occasionally give me a few bars of Total Eclipse of the Heart--that would be even better.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In which I try to get absolution for asshatery by means of public confession.

I planned all day yesterday to go to a Writers' Group meeting last night. I'd printed out my Google directions and the host's phone number, in case I got lost. I read and made notes on all the stuff we were going to be working on. Although I worked on class prep all day in my pajamas (nothing new there), I set the alarm so I would know when to knock off to take a shower, put on my last remaining pair of publicly-acceptable pants and unknot my tangledy hair.

I'd been late for the last meeting, so I wanted to get there on time. Then too, when the meeting is at someone's house, you kinda want to be there when they expect you. I was just headed out the door when I got a call from some friends who live too far away for me to see as much as I would like.

"We're just getting off the interstate right now, headed to your house. Come go eat with us."

"Oh man! I can't," I said. "I have a meeting."

"Sure you can. Come on."

"No. They think I'm coming. And there'll be Iranian food. Stuffed grape leaves!"

"Oh, come on," they said. "Come on. We're almost there."

So I caved. I called the meeting host and made a feeble apology.

"Look, I'm really sorry, I know I don't come to meetings very often, but I usually try and let everyone know ahead of time. It's just--I only just now found out that these people are coming."

She was very gracious, considering the meeting was scheduled to start within the next fifteen minutes. I stand people up all the time; I'm nothing if not consistent. But these folks don't really know me very well. They don't know that I'm undependable. And this woman is a real grown up--she cooked food and everything. She shows up to stuff.

"I feel really bad," I said, especially after you went to all that trouble to make Iranian food and stuff grape leaves and junk."

"Oh! Well, we decided to have pulled BBQ pork instead."

"Pulled pork?" I thought. "Ooooh. I'm not really a big a fan of BBQ pork. I don't feel so bad about missing pulled pork."

"Oh, okay," she said.

And that's when I realized that I had actually said that last part out loud.

So. Probably not in the Writers' Group anymore.

image, foxtongue's flickr photostream. (Note: our hats are not this fancy.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Julie and Julia and a bunch of other people.

I slipped off the theater yesterday afternoon to see Julie and Julia. Muffin Uptown recommended it, and was anxious for me to see it so she would have someone with whom to compare notes. So, after allowing my beautiful, beach boy dentist to get me all hopped up on nitrous oxide and fill my mouth with needle-holes, I headed for the matinee.

I posted previously about how I no longer attend Friday night movie showings because I dislike being so outnumbered. All the teen-agers and date-nighters go to the movies on Friday nights. But had you a back row seat for the Tuesday afternoon showing of this film, you would have been smack-dab in the middle of a large congregation of my people. Right before the lights went down, I leaned forward and swiveled completely around in my seat, taking a gander at the entire audience. There was not a single male in the whole theater.

And the women were all my age.

And that--right there--is what I miss about my youth. When I was a young person, it seemed as though everyone else in the world was also young. The universe was filled-to-bursting with people in their twenties and thirties. It still is. I don't know where all those other people landed, but where ever it is, they went without me.

If I had my druthers, I'd see every movie with an audience just like this one, and not just because our cell phones didn't ring and our children weren't acting out. I was digging on the sense of camaraderie, the perception of unity. I was relaxed--and they were, as well. When the audience consists entirely of women over the age of 45, though, there's also something indescribably different in response to what's happening onscreen--especially the ribald joke.

You can tell a lot about an audience by the way it acknowledges a humorous off-color reference--whether by shocked gasps of disapproval, titillated twitters, whoops, or high-fives. This movie did not contain a great many of this sort of gag, but the ones it did were met with with the hearty belly laugh of approval. It was funny, because it was dead on. This audience was able to recognize it as such because we had already lived through it. A couple times, probably.

Universality. One of the things that gets better with age.

image via 77 Square: Women, some with children, attend a Farmers' Institute Cooking School class at Spring Valley in 1915. - Wisconsin Historical Society.

Is it too much?

I've changed the color scheme. Do me a solid and tell me what you think. There's a poll at the top.

edit-Well this makes no sense, at all, now. As you can see, as few days after this post I scrubbed the new, buttery color and practically everything else about the old design in favor of whatcha got here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Well, that was good. Now what?

If you've just finished a book you mostly enjoyed and would like suggestions for another, try The Book Seer, a new project by Apt Labs.

Just type in the name and author of the book, and the Book Seer will recommend another.

Practically anything is more dependable than waiting on me to finish something worthy of recommending.

via plexi.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Oh, thank goodness. For a minute there, it was all lost in a blur of Law and Order reruns.

After a weekend that represents a personal best in slothfulness, I was beginning to despair of my character. After all—if a woman needs the threat of poverty and starvation to compel her to work—what good is she? I was starting to wonder if I can, in good conscience, hold my head high after spending fourteen straight days in my pajamas. Then I remembered that I had at least managed a couple of books this month. There might have been more, had I been able to find them. Sometimes, it’s hard to lay your hands on a good book, so I thought you might like to know what I thought of the ones I had found. There are no flesh-eating zombies, no parasitic viruses (flesh-eating or otherwise), and no Stephen King, so my little list doesn’t really qualify as vacation reading, as far as I’m concerned. But there’s no great lit-ra-chur here, either—so there’s that.

Gillian Flynn lets you know right away that there's almost nothing to like about Libby Day, the protagonist of her novel, Dark Places. In the very first paragraph, Libby opines that she was never a good little girl, and that she got worse after the murders. brrr.

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.

Libby's all crusty on the outside and putrid on the inside. Flynn sets you up to hate this girl, and then manages to make you like her anyway. That's a pretty handy trick to have if you write books for a living.

Libby is the lone survivor of a murderous attack on her family, perpetuated by her older brother when she was but a tiny tot. She was there—she saw, or rather heard, it all. After living on the rotten fruits of that tragedy her entire life, Libby is running out of money with which to support her crappy life. With no other real options, she agrees to speak in front of a group of true-crime fans—many of whom believe her brother to be innocent. As she goes through innocuous bits of family mementos to sell to the group, she begins to piece together what happened that day—as opposed to what she remembers having happened. I liked it.

I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. Everything I had heard about it had been positive. Sometimes books are like that though—the time has to be just right. Turns out, there's nothing quite like a little familicide to put you in the mood for a book about the Queen. Bennett's book is small, but wholly satisfying. In it, the Queen wonders into the bookmobile—parked outside the royal kitchen—while out walking her dogs. Much to the consternation of her husband and the royal staff, she becomes—horrors!—a reader. This is a lovely little book about the power of books.

Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed is the kind of novel I generally like getting my hands on—768 pages, written by an author with whom I had previously spent time. Meh. By the time I had finished this book, I was beginning to think of Lamb as a high-maintenance boyfriend. Stop talking, already, and let's get it on. The set-up and the plot are really quite compelling: Columbine High School teacher Caelum Quirk is called back to his family home in Connecticut when his aunt suffers a stroke. His wife Maureen, the school nurse, is trapped in the library when the shooters launch their killing spree. After the shooting, Caelum takes his wife back to the aunt's farm to heal.

Caelum is a well-written character, and there's plenty to the story before, during, and after the shootings to make for a worthwhile read. Caelum and Maureen's marriage is realistic—they have their issues already. But then Caelum discovers a cache of family letters in the farmhouse in which his family line intersects with virtually every notable personality in American history. Dude. Your wife just lived through one of the most horrific events of the century. This is not about you, okay?

I don't like this sort of Forrest Gump-inspired plot device anyway, and didn't find this one to be particularly compelling in the first place. The only enjoyment I derived from these portions of the book (and there are many) came from imagining the argument they must have sparked between Lamb and his editor.

There's a good story buried in The Hour I First Believed, but you're going to have to wade through a lot of mush to get to it. Frankly, it tried my patience. If you’re long-suffering, though, knock yourself out.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A little disco motion for Friday.

Here's a little 1975 dance number to liven up your Friday by Shirley and Company. It was their only hit. Even though I was there, I don't really remember disco looking quite as goofy as that poor guy on the right. I coulda missed it, though, since I was working my own moves. Shame on you, if you can't dance, too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Well that's just great.

I guess I lost my favorite pants while on vacation. I've looked everywhere.

I've burrowed headfirst into the laundry hamper--all the way past the sweater I haven't worn since 2002 because it has to be handwashed and the sheets I'm never gonna wash because I don't like them. I tunneled past the red items that are waiting for more of their kind in order to make a full load. Gollum is down there--wearing a sexy appliqued brassiere that never makes it into the washing machine because the underwires make me feel like I'm having a heart attack. It's too pretty to get rid of, but it doesn't seem worth the trouble to launder it if I'm never going to saddle up in it again.

Even though I am absolutely positive that I didn't hang these pants back up when I unpacked, I've looked at every pair on every hanger in the closet. This is no mean feat, since my closet is under-lighted and I am under-sighted. Getting a good look at anything necessitates draging it out of the closet and into the full light of the bedroom: Snag-step-step-check. No, that's not them. Step-step-hang. Repeat.

I've already done my back-to-school shopping, so now I am going to be one pair of pants shy of a complete wardrobe. In fact, many of my fashionable urban teacher ensembles is based around this particular pair of pants, which means more shopping in order to fill the deficiency I didn't know I had. I dislike shopping almost as much as I dislike spending money.

I have returned sans pants from vacation before, but I must say, much more wantonness went into losing them than was the case this year. If I'm gonna be coming home without items of clothing, I need to be seeing more action.

image, Improv Everywhere No Pants 2K9. Guess I'm good for 2K10.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

If you're looking for me.

I'm blogging next door at Recession-Fabulous today. Click on over.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New digs.

I didn't write today, because I was moving all my crap down the hall to my new office. It's on the cool kids' end of the hall--closer to the women's room and the copier closet, but farther away from the kitchen. I guess I won't be the first one hitting the donuts this semester, but it's not a bad location, all-in-all.

Except when you stop to consider that this time last week, I was doing all my work at the location on the right.

That's my assistant, there on the right--ever at the ready in case I need something filed or chased.