Thursday, December 31, 2009

Resolutions that are easy to keep

At this time of year, many of you will be making New Year’s resolutions – most of then having to do with losing weight, quitting smoking, or spending less.

I wish you good luck with those, even though I won’t be joining you. I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions in years. I have figured that 1) if I need to make a good change, I can do it on any day of the year, and 2) I forget all about my resolutions come February. (A little mouse tells me I’m not the only one.)

However, here are some resolutions that you may find easier to keep than the big three:

1. Notice and appreciate the good things in life.
2. Don’t run towards suffering.
3. Be aware of the issues in your life, and take action to alleviate them (but always be gentle with yourself).
4. Read good books.
5. Learn something new.
6. Don’t take responsibility for problems that aren’t yours.
7. Don’t sweat the small stuff (tip of the hat to Richard Carlson). For example, if you don’t like football and the people around you do, it’s OK. Go and take a walk around the neighborhood while others watch football.

Sounds more enjoyable than losing weight or quitting smoking, doesn’t it?

This will be my last post of 2009. Even though the “official” first anniversary of Meandering mouse is January 20, 2010, I’m so glad that I posted more than once a week on average (63 posts total). If I can post at least twice a week in 2010, I’d be happy with that.

Today is also our first wedding anniversary. Two Dogs and I will share breakfast soon, and I look forward to being with him and our friends today. Maybe we’ll go to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. I haven’t had my egg nog cone yet. Two Dogs is and will always be one of my “good things.” I love you, swee-dee-luv!

Readers, enjoy your New Year’s Eve, be safe, and enjoy a happy and prosperous 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What’s with all the hate towards Kwanzaa?

Graphic courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

It's a holiday mystery right up there with "What's wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys?", "How does Santa deliver toys to homes with no chimneys?", and "Would anyone even like the song 'Jingle Bells' if it wasn't associated with Christmas?" (FYI, "Jingle Bells" is a Thanksgiving song, people. It would be nice if I didn't hear it after the turkey has been digested.)

What is this unfathomable question I'm thinking of?

"Why do people hate on Kwanzaa?"

Turn on any AM talk station at this time of year, and sooner or later you’re going to hear somebody say, “Well, Kwanzaa’s not a real holiday.”

Real to whom? If even one person celebrates it, that makes the holiday real as far as I am concerned.

You might also hear this: “Oh, Kwanzaa is just a made-up holiday.”

All holidays are made-up, even those that are centuries old. We do not have an instinct to celebrate ritualized holidays. As proof, read this New York Times story about people who have stopped celebrating Christmas.

What is it about Kwanzaa that pisses people off?

First, let’s take a closer look at the holiday itself. According to Wikipedia, “Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday celebrated in the United States honoring African heritage and culture, marked by participants lighting a kinara (candle holder). It is observed from December 26 to January 1 each year, primarily in the United States. Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. It was created by Ron Karenga and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1, 1967.”

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa represents a principle: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Now, what could possibly be wrong with those values? I thought about it, and here’s my take:

1. Some people don’t like Ujima and Ujamaa. Collective? Cooperative? Sounds a bit too much like (duh duh duhhhhh) socialism!

2. Some people think that Kwanzaa is in competition with good old-fashioned ‘Merican Christmas. Who knows, people might celebrate this mumbo-jumbo instead of turning to Christ, as they oughta! (FYI, according to the official Kwanzaa website, this is not so: "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything.” Those who bitch about Kwanzaa are also more likely to bitch about the “War on Christmas.” Think about your last visit to a mall or big-box store. Does it look like Christmas is losing this “war”? (But’s that’s another post for another day, probably in 2010.)

3. Some people don’t like it when black folks do something for themselves without asking for white folks’ approval. Yes, that's right. Even in 2009.

It is easy to dismiss Kwanzaa-bashing as just more noise from the conservative whine machine. But it’s not so easy to dismiss the 1971 conviction of the creator of Kwanzaa, Ron Karenga, for beating and torturing two female members of United Slaves, a militant cultural organization which rivaled the Black Panthers. The women were ordered to strip, and then were whipped with an electrical cord and karate baton. One had a hot soldering iron placed in her mouth, the other had one of her big toes placed in a vise. Disgusting stuff. Karenga spent four years in prison for his participation in this crime. No matter how culturally righteous you may be, there’s no justification for this.

Still, Karenga’s crimes do not erase or negate the values of Kwanzaa. It’s just like knowing the difference between the words of the man known to most of the world as Jesus Christ and the horrific acts of those who acted in his name throughout the centuries.

If I had the choice to erase from the earth either Christmas or Kwanzaa, I would erase Christmas. It’s a holiday of a single religion, and one of those repressive paternalistic ones to boot. It’s a holiday that’s a servant of consumerism, and no pious TV special about the “true meaning” of Christmas will ever change that. Its “true meaning” becomes doubly false when we learn that we don’t really know the day that the man we call Jesus Christ was born.

Far better to ponder unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith than mythical red-suited gift-givers, reindeers with shiny red noses, and dreadful songs played over and over again.

So let the Kwanzaa corn stand alongside the Christmas cookies and the Hanukkah chocolate coins as holiday treats, and instead of wasting a kilowatt of energy in complaining, acknowledge that it's a big world, not a small one, after all, and it can contain multitudes of holidays.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sometimes I feel like the Misfit Doll on “Rudolph.” Don’t you?

I never know where my next thought is coming from. For the past few days, I have been pondering the Misfit Doll on the Island of Misfit Toys in the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Remember her? Unlike the other Misfit Toys, she didn’t have any outer flaw. The question of why she was on the Island of Misfit Toys in the first place has puzzled viewers for decades. Finally Arthur Rankin, of Rankin-Bass (producers of Rudolph), explained that Misfit Doll’s problem was psychological in nature. In other words, she was depressed because she was unwanted.

How sad. It makes me cry just thinking about it. Really.

I want to pick Misfit Doll up and be the friend she needs. I know what it is like to be unwanted, to be lonely, to not have “any dreams left to dream.” As a writer and graphic artist searching for work, I feel the sting of doors closing. I don’t know what I would have done if Two Dogs wasn’t here.

I try to feel better by imagining a happy life for the Misfit Doll after Rudolph. After the elf dropped her from Santa’s sleigh with the umbrella, she found a good home with a little girl who took care of her so well that she was passed down to two generations (so far), and was able to be reunited with her Misfit friends for this 2009 commercial:

I felt the need to search for a doll who looked just as gentle and kind and ready to love and be loved. Unfortunately, such dolls are hard to find in big-box stores. Because it was too late to obtain a real Mistfit Doll before Christmas, I chose this pretty purple octopus from Toys R Us. I will deliver her to a toy drive soon.

In the meantime, I suggest that you love and protect the misfit side of yourself. Imagine a safe place for her, perhaps a little yellow cottage with a vegetable garden and noodle trees around it.

Enesco/CVS "beanie" version of Misfit Doll (1998)

Give her a porch to watch the sun rise and the sun set, lots of books to read, and a fluffy bed to sleep in. Above all, let her know that she is wanted unconditionally. Be kind to the vulnerable pieces of yourself – don’t deny, ignore, or try to make them more acceptable to society. That is a key to happiness.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The winter solstice

Photo courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art

The winter solstice – which in 2009 happens tomorrow, December 21st – is a day of celebration for societies around the world, from Sweden to Polynesia to Australia and Japan. In America, hardly anyone notices except for a handful of neopagans.

It’s hard to think about the solstice, or even realize that it exists, when the greater society relentlessly shoves Christmas in your face, as well as the mandate to make that holiday perfect for your family.

I say, don’t stress. You can celebrate the solstice without neglecting Christmas. The solstice is only one day – actually, only half a day if you start celebrating at sunset.

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, so the moon will be up for longer. Why not have a dinner that’s as white as the moon? Serve it on white plates against a white tablecloth.

I suggest these dishes:

1. White fish such as halibut, cod, and scallops.
2. White vegetables and side dishes such as parsnips, cauliflower, potatoes, and rice.
3. White drinks such as water (with seasonal navel orange slices for flavor), milk, white chocolate, egg nog, and sparkling white wine.

Nighttime puts me in a mood to watch movies. Perhaps this longest night of the year is a great night to watch a lengthy classic such as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, or Doctor Zhivago. (If you dare, you can even attempt the four-hour-plus Cleopatra, where you can see Elizabeth Taylor being a movie star.)

Nighttime is also a good time to slow down – and to think about slowing down. What are the stresses that are weighing you down? How many of them are really self-inflicted? Do we worry too much about problems instead of thinking about solutions? Do we realize that we are not as helpless as we think? How can we slow down the way nature slows down in winter? It is possible – even a few days before Christmas.

It’s true that all holidays are man-made. Pausing to celebrate the winter solstice, though, doesn’t feel quite so artificial – because it’s the day of a natural phenomenon that happens every year. And think of this good news – after the 21st, the days will start to get longer again.

Happy solstice, everyone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The night of moral disgust

My brother Jim is staying with Two Dogs and me until he can find an apartment of his own (or until we find a new place for us to stay together – homesharing is not out of the question for us).

Not too long ago, Two Dogs showed the DVD of Reservoir Dogs (the 15th anniversary edition in the mock gas-can packaging) to Jim. It gave me a chance to re-watch the movie, too. This time, I didn’t enjoy it as much.

I bought the movie during the Steve Buscemi phase of my life, shortly before I met Two Dogs. Of course, Mr. Buscemi is still great as Mr. Pink, and so are the other actors – Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and the late Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney. The director/writer Quentin Tarantino’s inimitable style still zings and crackles, and who couldn’t love K-Billy’s Sounds of the 70s?

What’s wrong with this movie now? When the final credits came on, I was permeated with moral disgust.

I use those words, “moral disgust”, very carefully. It’s hard not to associate that terminology with people who have the FCC on speed-dial just in case they hear a fart (the word and/or the sound) on television. Believe me, I do not want Reservoir Dogs, or any other movie, taken off store shelves and TV screens. I have no problem with strong language, explicit sex, bathroom humor, and non-traditional lifestyles.

So, what was it in Reservoir Dogs that I found morally disgusting? It wasn’t the blood. It wasn’t even the realistic depiction of what really happens when you shoot a guy in the belly (Hint: First he screams. Loud.). It was the casual attitude towards violence.

With two exceptions, the characters of Reservoir Dogs are at best amoral criminals who think it’s just fine and dandy to shoot people who get in their way, and at worst cheerful psychopaths who torture victims while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. This may have been cool back in 1992, but today it just makes me sick.

Story is the number-one factor when I decide what movies I want to see. When I say story, I mean human beings deciding how best to live life. In his 1973 book, The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold lamented that the original series (which was all the Star Trek there was on TV back in 1973), contained too many “Kirk in danger” stories and not enough “Kirk has a decision to make” stories. Too many moviemakers think that conflict = danger = guns, explosives, killers, monsters, ad nauseam.

I’d rather see real stories about real people who will live to use the insights they gained through the action of the movie. I’d rather see movies that tell us that life is weird, funny, sad, bad, and ridiculous – but we can get through it without giving up our selves (or for that matter, our guts). In other words, the kind of movies that mainstream Hollywood is afraid to make anymore.

So be it. Leave the toy movies to the boys of all ages. I will go to the art houses and the Netflix in search of meaningful cinematic experience. As for Quentin Tarantino, if I could ask anything of him, I would ask him to write a movie with no blood and no violence and no killing. (But the strong language can stay in.)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The blog entry I hesitated to post

I hesitated to post this entry, because it’s about a controversial person and a controversial book. I worried that if I wrote what I felt, some people would think that I supported terrorism. The attitude of Elizabeth Taylor (see last post) is poking me in the back of my head, telling me to damn the torpedoes of criticism. So, here goes.

Earlier this year, I read the book Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers. (Interestingly enough, I bought it on September 11 at Small World Books in Venice, CA. Every time I go into Small World, I buy something. You should, too – it’s one of the best independent bookstores in Los Angeles County. And it’s near the beach!)

It’s the story about how a typical middle-class kid from Illinois became liberalized, and then radicalized, simply by paying attention to the world around him. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, who reacted to the atrocity of the Vietnam War by attempting to “bring the war home” – giving America a taste of the agony it was inflicting on the Vietnamese. The WU claimed credit for about 25 bombings overall in the U.S., including one at the Pentagon in 1970 – though the only people ever killed with WU bombs were three members of the WU itself, while they were handling explosives at a Greenwich Village brownstone. Bill Ayers and his fellow WU members spent most of the 1970s as fugitives, but when he turned himself in, the charges against him didn’t stand because of illegal surveillance on the part of the FBI.

Fugitive Days forced me to ask myself questions – how far am I willing to go to fight injustice? What is the proper response when your government is the criminal? Does answering violence with violence work in the long run?

It’s hard not to cheer a group of ordinary people wanting an end to war, racism, sexism, and other steamrollers that crush the human spirit. It’s hard not to cheer when this group strikes back against a monolithic, heartless war machine.

On the other hand…

The WU and other radical groups could be just as dogmatic, rigid, and tunnel-visioned as their enemies – a fact that Ayers makes painfully clear.

And then, there’s the bombs.

What, empirically speaking, is the difference between the Weathermen who plant bombs in the Pentagon and the anti-abortion activists who plant bombs in Planned Parenthood offices? Had the WU had made good on its threat to “bring the war home,” people who didn’t cause, affect, or even approve of the Vietnamese conflict would have died.

Uncritical approval carries with it moral risk. Bombs, no matter who throws or plants them, tear people apart – figuratively as well as literally.

Bill Ayers and the other WU members who stayed on the right side of the law since 1980 have enjoyed peaceful and productive lives since then. I have no problem with that. When certain members of the right wing tried to smear then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama because Ayers hosted a campaign event for Obama back in 1995, I rolled my eyes. (Most other voters did, too.)

Fugitive Days is a harrowing story of people who tested the limits of their values. I recommend it no matter your place in the political spectrum. If it makes you think that planting bombs is a great idea, you didn't read it close enough.

How to be a movie star (or at least think like one)

I just read a book called How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann. This was not the first book I’ve read about this subject – for an escape-starved girl, Ms. Taylor’s saga of movies, marriages, and money was one of the greatest ever told. This new book, however, is not the conventional Hollywood bio.

It’s the story of how Ms. Taylor (and the entourage around her) grew, nurtured, and fought for that invisible but knockout-punch-powerful quality called stardom – fighting (and winning!) against the patriarchal studio system, vindictive gossip columnists, and the suffocating moral conservatism of Middle America.

I have new admiration for Ms. Taylor after reading Mr. Mann’s book. Of course, my fantasies have evolved over the years – I don’t want eight husbands, diamonds the size of golf balls, or cigarette holders that go with my dress and my tablecloth. (But I would be happy to take two candlelit baths a day.)

The greatest legacy of Ms. Taylor is her “fuck-you” attitude towards the obstacles of life. I, too, seek greater independence in my work life, being able to pick and choose worthy projects instead of being tied down to the rules and needs of just one company. I want to no longer care about pleasing people who wouldn’t extend the same toward me. I want to say, “This is what I’m going to do, and you’re just going to have to wait.” I want to be strong without degenerating into bitchiness. (I don’t care what anybody says – “bitch” is not a good thing to be.) I want to enjoy life without reservations.

Read the book, and learn more than you ever imagined.

(P.S. From this post on, I’m only going to capitalize the first word of a blog entry, unless there are given names involved. It got too tiresome to figure out which short words to capitalize or not. As much as I am a stickler for grammar, I’d rather concentrate on expressing my thoughts than worrying about capitalization minutae!)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Question: "Do Two Rudes Make a Polite?" Answer: No.

This morning, I came upon this two-week-old article in the New York Times: As the Rudes Get Ruder, the Scolds Get Scoldier.

It's about so-called "etiquette vigilantes" who think that the best way to deal with rude (or at least what they think is rude) behavior from other people is an equally strong counter-offense. One Amy Alkon, self-described "manners psycho" (isn't that an oxymoron?), after overhearing a cell phone conversation at Starbucks, wrote down his cell phone number, called him, and said, "Just calling to let you know, Barry, that if you’d like your private life to remain private, you might want to be a little more considerate next time."

That is:

a. Creepy,
b. Creepy,
and c. Just as rude.

Since when is it okay to fight rudeness with rudeness? I thought that politeness was an act of kindness to your fellow beings. You hold the door open for other people because it's nice, not because you expect to be thanked every time. If someone is rude to you or behaves rude in front of you, rise above it, and maintain your high standards anyway. Don't get down and dirty to their level.

Speaking of rudeness, I don't see nearly as much of it as these "etiquette vigilantes" (another oxymoron) and the complaining commenter class does. (Hey, I just created a new term! "Complaining commenter class" means the people who post negative, soul-sapping comments after Internet news articles.)

I have never been bothered by public cell phone conversations. They are no more loud than public conversations between two people standing or sitting in front of each other. At the movie theater, I have never heard a conversation (cell or person-to-person) loud enough to distract me from the movie. And where are all these beastly, running-amok children that Ms. Alkon and others say are ruining restaurants, stores, and other public spaces? When I see children in public, 99.9% of the time they are acting okay. When you form opinions, it's best to base them on what you see than on what "they" say.

People aren't that rude these days. It's just that complainers have gotten noisier, and have more outlets to do so. It's unfortunately easier to whine about what others do than to watch what we do. I say, watch yourselves first and foremost.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And While I'm Thinking About Holidays...

Here is a list of places where you can buy non-commercial toys for your kids (or yourself!) for Christmas, including web links:

The Vermont Country Store
Back to Basics Toys
Museum Tour

If I had kids, I'd definitely stick to these merchants. Not a Spongebob, Dora, Transformer, or Barbie to be found -- just hands-on, evergreen toys that help kids think and dream.

Jerk the Turkey (From Your Thanksgiving Table)?

Quick, what are you going to have on your Thanksgiving table a week from now? If I could stand on top of my roof and see your thought bubbles, I’d probably see acres and acres of turkeys, golden brown and resting on oval plates.

Where is the law that requires you to drop a ten-to-twenty-pound bird on your table every Thanksgiving? No matter how many variations the food magazines throw at us – no matter if you bake, grill, fry, butterfly, chop it up into pieces or roll it up around stuffing, no matter if you coat it with sage butter, fennel and coriander, clementine peel, apple-cranberry glaze, paprika, rosemary and garlic, or plain salt and pepper, turkey carries with it two inconvenient truths:

1. Its meat is bland and dull, and
2. Unless you have a shipload of guests, the leftovers are going to linger longer than Sarah Palin.

Think about all the Thanksgiving dinners you have experienced. Was the turkey ever the most delicious item on the table? Turkey is just not a feast-worthy bird. Really.

What is? I would suggest duck, for starters. I’ve heard good tidings about goose, though I have never tried it myself. Cornish hens are an alternative that was on the table when Two Dogs and I had our first Thanksgiving together (actually, he is philosophically opposed to the holiday, but that’s a story for another time). Even a good-sized chicken or two will give you more flavor per pound.

Then again, why does it have to be a bird? Why not a flat-iron steak, or a pork tenderloin, a whole salmon, or lasagna? Even a stuffing casserole with butternut squash and cranberries sounds great, whether or not you’re a vegetarian.

Even if you are dead-set on turkey, why roast the whole big bird? Why not buy it in pieces? I got this idea while looking at turkey legs at Sprouts market. A single turkey breast can feed three, perhaps four people.

In the big picture, though, it really doesn’t matter what is on the table. What matters is the thanks giving– thinking about and discussing all you have to be grateful for. But it certainly does help when you have a feast that is delicious, not just abundant.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why I Won’t Go See Precious

Tomorrow, the movie Precious will be released in certain cities across America. It is based on the 1996 novel “Push” by Sapphire (the title was changed due to another movie called “Push” released earlier this year). It is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl in Harlem who is the victim of horrific abuse from both her mother and her father. Eventually, she learns to read and write at a special school, and finally learns to use her (figurative) voice. It may be the best movie of 2009 that many people are not going to see. Including me.

As a writer and an artist, I am very nearly a First Amendment absolutist when it comes to content. Nothing should be off-limits when it comes to telling a story. Violence, rape, mental illness and degradation are all legitimate (and sometimes necessary) subjects. But a writer/artist’s right to expression is not mirrored with an audience’s obligation to read or view.

What good will it do me – or anyone else – to watch a girl being abused on an 80-x-30-foot screen? Yes, I know there’s uplift at the end, but it’s like walking on a path of nails, all points up, to get to a bowl of ice cream. The suffering/reward ratio is overloaded on the wrong end.

I would go so far to say that instead of going to see the movie, you can better help girls like Precious by donating to inner-city tutoring programs and rape education programs (which must speak to potential perpetrators as well as victims), being watchful for signs of abuse in your neighborhood, and raising the level of dignity and culture in your world (starting with you as a good example). Illiteracy is not a permanent condition, poverty does not excuse degeneracy, and even when we live in an ugly world we do not have to become one with it.

As I wrote before in an earlier post (“Why I Don’t Volunteer”, August 31), I absorb negative energy way too easily. Avoiding movies like Precious, while remaining aware of the issues behind them, is part of the self-defense I must do in order to be at my best. Don’t feel like you’re shallow or insensitive if you would rather see, say, The Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend. Only you can decide what you can take.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buying Local and Natural – One Small Step at a Time

Like most of you reading this blog (I hope!) I strive to buy local and natural as often as I can. Two Dogs and I do most of our shopping within a five-mile radius of our home. We either go to several supermarkets, two within walking distance, or we go to our weekly farmer’s market. I am becoming more aware of ingredients, too, and I try to avoid unnecessary chemicals in my cleaning and grooming products. I recently made some homemade glass cleaner with water and vinegar, and eventually I’ll be making more homemade cleaning products as we need them.

One product I like very much that is both local and natural is Sturley’s Organic Soap. As of today, it sells four different scents: Café Brulot (made with coffee, cocoa and cinnamon), Naked Aloe (a aloe-based, almost scentless soap), Sweet Lavee (with lavender and orange oils) and pure Lavender. They also sell bath salts, bath bombs, chapstick, and soap-making tools. I think the next one I want to try is the Café Brulot -- it sounds like a great wake-up soap!

Sturley’s Organic Soap costs $6.99 a bar at the website. The company is based in the San Diego area.

If those pastel-colored, overly perfumed blocks you find at the supermarket give you an uneasy feeling, move on up to Sturley’s and get back to nature!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Confession is Good for the Soul? Whose Soul?

This week, if you are a diligent Internet news site reader (as I am), it was impossible not to hear about the “bombshell” revelation that former TV star Mackenzie Phillips suffered incest with her father, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, starting when she was in her late teens.

I will not go into further detail than that – if you want more, you know where to find it – but this story made me think about the value of revealing horrible secrets, secrets that when exposed explode with the force of an A-bomb.

Revealing the secret was perhaps therapeutic for Mackenzie, who had been hiding it for nearly thirty years (including eight years after her father’s death). But was it good for the rest of us?

Some folks say that revelations of incest, rape, abuse, addiction, etc. are good because they help raise awareness of these issues. But do you know anyone over the age of twelve who is not already aware of these issues? The play Oedipus the King– perhaps the oldest, and certainly the most famous depiction of incest – is over 2,000 years old.

Awareness has a dubious link to prevention. Does anyone remember the TV movie A Case of Rape starring Elizabeth Montgomerystarring Elizabeth Montgomery, back in 1974? It was a daring and necessary movie – but how many rapes have occurred since then? A famous person’s story of personal trauma, too, will titillate some and traumatize others, but if only it were true that talking about problems actually solved them.

Of course, any victim has the right to tell his or her story. And the rest of us – whether it’s to avoid yanking up old scabs, or the desire to avoid unnecessary ugliness – have a right not to hear it. That doesn’t mean a lack of empathy toward the victim, but once you read or hear about another’s abuse, it never completely leaves your memory files. It’s okay to protect your mental space. Keep that in mind when (not if) the next confession goes off.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pipe it Down, Please

Ask yourself this question:

When you go to a store, a doctor’s office, a beauty salon, or even a restaurant, and you hear piped-in music, are you:

1. Glad?
2. Bored?
3. Annoyed?
4. Disgusted?

According to Pipedown, a UK-based organization that objects to piped-in music in public places, more people are 2, 3, and 4 about it than 1.

Music is one of the great joys of life – when you choose to listen to it. Music that you listen to at home, in your car, or on your headphones, is all right (as long as it’s not loud enough to disturb others). Music that you don’t choose to listen to, which is inflicted on you as you perform necessary tasks like buying groceries, going to the doctor, or fueling your car, is just frigging annoying. It’s beyond annoying if you’re in a restaurant and it interferes with talking to your table partners or digesting food. Believe it or not, even libraries (!!!) have gotten into the act, according to an article by Anne Kadet in the October 2009 issue of Smart Money magazine. Spaces of silence are getting smaller all the time.

The Sprouts natural-foods grocery store in my neighborhood constantly plays 1960s oldies on its PA system. Many of these songs have been favorites of mine for years. But I don’t like them so much played at excessive volume in a place where I shop for food. The market where you choose what you eat should have a calm, serene atmosphere, and give you enough mental space to think. (And it’s not respectful to these great musicians, whose songs deserve better than to be mere background.)

I should probably be grateful that the Sprouts store plays great 1960s pop instead of the American Idol swill that passes for music these days. Whenever I hear Kelly Clarkson’s sappycrap “Because of You”, it deflates me when I’m cheery and sours me even more when I’m sad. Some romantic songs, too, should not be played indiscriminately in public places – who knows which newly heartbroken person is walking or standing under the speakers?

The belief of business owners that background music calms people down and makes them more likely to hang around (and buy) is questionable indeed. Target stores have been music-free for fifteen years, and not one person has complained about it.

If businesses refuse to give up the habit of piped-in music, at least they should choose music like this

which is non-irritating, non-vocal, and highly unlikely to drag bad memories back to light, and keep the volume low enough to hear conversation. I miss this old-fashioned style of so-called “elevator” music. I would get some CDs of it if I knew where to find them (and I will play them in my home and my car at a respectable volume, of course).

Businesses, turn off the pop and free our heads when we visit you. The silent majority will thank you.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Why I Don't Volunteer

Lately, it seems that everyone -- from our President and First Lady to bloggers on the Huffington Post to public service announcements on the radio – has their feet on my behind, prodding me to go out and volunteer already. It’s good for our country! It’s good for the community! It’s good for your health! It’s fun!

While I have no argument with those points (well, maybe with the last one), none of them are going to move me to volunteer, even though if you look at my life superficially I have more free time than most. Does that make me mean and selfish? Some of you may think so.

I don’t care. I need my QT.

QT is Quiet Time, and that is the time which I don’t spend working, cooking, cleaning, exercising, driving, doing errands, sleeping, etc. QT is time for thinking, for reading, for gazing upon others’ art, for creativity in words and shape. QT is time to converse with Two Dogs and our friends. QT is more valuable than gold; it is the stuff of life. I guard it vigorously. Money may come and money may go, but lost QT is lost forever.

I am not one of those “people…who need [a lot of] people.” I prefer to keep my social circle small and select. When I approach a gathering of strangers, I’d rather that gathering be with peers with whom I can exchange thoughts, ideas, creativity, and laughter. I would not be comfortable spending much time with people who are worse off than me economically, culturally, and emotionally. I am an emotional sponge – I absorb negativity around me way too easily. Reading a sad news story online, or watching a tragic movie (such as Changeling) can affect my mood for days.

I know it’s important that someone stand for hours ladling food onto the plates of a long line of homeless people, or read stories to developmentally disabled children. I just don’t want that someone to be me.

Some people think volunteering is so good, especially for young people, that it ought to be mandatory. Those people are as annoying as a toothache. (Isn’t it reeeeeeally int-ter-est-ing, as Arte Johnson would say, that most of those same people would be too old to be conscripted under such a law?)

It is perfectly OK to write a check, or drop off boxes of food and clothing. Charities cannot run on volunteers alone – they need the material goods, too. Can you imagine any charity saying, “Oh, no, we can’t use your money – just your time”? Me, neither. Help in the way you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I would even do some pro bono graphics or writing for a cause I believed in. Just don’t pull me too far from home.

One of my favorite quotes (attributed both to Oscar Wilde and Ruth Rendell) is, “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” Your first duty is to cause as little trouble for others as possible. Anything beyond that is gravy -- and strictly voluntary.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Tasty Summer Snack

Two Dogs made this for us not too long ago. He is a creative foodmaster!

1. Slice a peach, nectarine, plum or pluot into slender wedges.

2. Slice cheese into thin rectangles that can fit on top of the fruit wedges. We used sharp cheddar, but any sliceable cheese will work.

3. Place a piece of cheese atop a wedge of fruit.

4. Eat and enjoy!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Hole in Whole Foods' Heart?

In the Wall Street Journal this week, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, wrote an op-ed piece detailing his own prescription for fixing the health care crisis in America.

Mackey has some ideas that make sense, such as:

Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits. Now employer health insurance benefits are fully tax deductible, but individual health insurance is not. This is unfair.

Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.

Enact tort reform to end the ruinous lawsuits that force doctors to pay insurance costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These costs are passed back to us through much higher prices for health care.

But then he comes up with this doozy:

Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

Unfortunately, private charity is not going to be enough to pay for health care the way it is in America now. What needs to happen, at the very least, is for the costs of insurance to come down so that individuals and businesses do not have a crippling financial burden.

Mackey evokes the “boogeyman” of “socialized medicine”:

All countries with socialized medicine ration health care by forcing their citizens to wait in lines to receive scarce treatments.

Which is not true – take it from a Canadian doctor, Michael M. Rachlis, who wrote his own piece in the Los Angeles Times. And if “socialized medicine” is such a nightmare, why is France (whose system is a combination of public and private options) ranked number one among industrialized nations in health care?

And then Mackey takes this tack:

This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.

Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.

We should be able to live largely disease-free lives until we are well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age.

In other words, let them eat organic apples.

If Mackey has forgotten those of us who

1. have congenital (from-birth) diseases, hereditary diseases, or diseases that appeared in our childhood without warning,

2. have felt the scourge of cancer due to no personal behavior but because of the toxins floating around in our environment,

3. have received one of those sudden personal injuries, whether in the car or on the sidewalk or in the home, which are just as debilitating as illness,

then he is a fool. If he has deliberately ignored them in order to further his campaign against “socialized medicine”, then he is craven. It is tragically easy to ignore real-world problems when you sit in the throne of the CEO of a highly profitable corporation. It’s too bad Mackey hasn’t learned this lesson from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t expect him to pay for my health care, but I am furious that people like him, who oppose true reform, might stand in the way of my being able to afford my own.

Already, the call to boycott Whole Foods is coming loud and clear. Mackey is out of step with the people who shop at Whole Foods, most of whom are progressive, caring, and more-than-ready for a change in the way we do health care.

I would also join the effort, loud and clear, except –

I have a brother and sister and brother-in-law who work at Whole Foods.

If the boycott has a measurable financial effect, who do you think is going to feel the sting first? John Mackey, or the average worker trying to feed a family or save money for college?

This is a situation that is grayer than it seems. Should we temper our righteous political anger with tangible personal concerns?

Let’s all think about it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Agreeing with John"

Two Dogs wrote these words after watching the documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon". He wanted me to share them with you:

When silence is sickening
It’s time to scream
When words are not heard
It’s time to lean
Not to the left
Not to the right
Do not lose your legs
For there is no one else’s might
When you scream and scream
And you are still not heard
It’s time to pick up guitars
And gather the herd
And give peace a chance.

The piece is called "Agreeing with John." I agree, too.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Two Other Books I Recommend

Speaking of books, here are two more that I've read lately that deserve a larger audience...

1. The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson

Tom Hodgkinson is the founder of the Idler magazine (also available online) and also wrote a book called How To Be Idle. He says that idling is not mere laziness, but a raised fist of freedom against the tyrants of the industrial world - corporations, television, credit cards, housework, and the so-called "good life" (which will make you miserable in the pursuit). Don't let the UK-centric language scare you - this book contains joyful news for people of all nations. Even though I am not quite ready to "Live Free of the Supermarket", this book came into my hands at just the right time.

2. You Or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr

This novel tells the story of Anne Rosenbaum, a highly educated and literate woman who is also the wife of a top Hollywood executive. Anne sets up several book clubs for motion picture professionals. It seems counterintuitive to have book clubs featuring heavyweights like William Faulkner, Edward Lear, and George Sand for people working in a business that has little respect for literature. Or is it?

The novel also explores the journey of Anne's husband, Howard. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, but breaking away after falling in love with Protestant, English Anne, Howard barely thinks of religion until a family relevation shocks him into reconsidering his roots. You will see a startling - but understandable - comparison between Orthodox Judaism and one of its worst latter-day enemies. I will say no more. Just pick up this book where you can, and don't forget to write down the titles in Anne's book clubs, too.

E. Lynn Harris

I was shocked and saddened this afternoon to hear of the sudden death of author E. Lynn Harris, whose novels have entertained me over the years.

Mr. Harris is perhaps best known as an author of the black gay experience. Yet, that is not what I remember most about his work.

First, even though tragic events happen - beloved characters die of AIDS, love affairs crash and burn, betrayal and lies abound - the reader finished each book looking upon sunshine, knowing that the ones left living would not only survive, but thrive.

Second, and more important, these novels contained black characters who were educated, affluent, and mobile, who partook of American freedom as their due. They are not victims of poverty and/or racism. When I read Invisible Life, his first novel, I had not seen these kind of people in fiction before.

Of course, Mr. Harris started writing books in the 1990s, and not during the years of the worst racist outrages. Still, they were a relevation to me, and I hope they can be a relevation to you, too. The next time you're in a bookstore or library, stop at "H" in the fiction section for E. Lynn Harris

About that graphic...

The sun is supposed to be orange and yellow, and the slug-me is supposed to be flesh-colored with brown hair. Don't ask me why the graphic looks the way it does on the blog. (But those are cooler colors!)

Sun Slug

A little explanation of why I haven't been blogging lately...

It's been hot where I live lately. Not Arizona or Nevada hot, but hot enough - upper 80s to 90s. The air conditioning control in our apartment is hard to reach, so Two Dogs and I have been feeling the heat more than we would otherwise.

Excess heat turns even meandering mice into sweaty, sleepy slugs. Instead of going out and about as usual, I hide inside the apartment during the day, drinking lots of water and Coke Zero and taking...afternoon naps (!!!)

I thought summer was my favorite season, but I haven't felt its true effects in a long time. Maybe it's growing older, maybe it's no longer spending most of the day in an air-conditioned office. But it's something I will need to tolerate (if not overcome) for now. That, and drink some more cold water. As in now.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Worst People in the World?

A few days ago, I was having morning coffee with friends. My left ear was listening to what my friends were saying, and my right ear was listening to the conversation of the people next to us, a man and a woman wearing bike uniforms - black Lycra shorts and colorful, ad-laden shirts.

The woman, eating a lunch of tuna and apple slices, spoke about people with different lifestyles:

"They don't exercise...they eat fast food...they're the worst people in the world."

Really, Ms. Tuna-and-Apple-Slices?

People who don't exercise and who eat fast food are the worst people in the world?

Worse than murderers, torturers, warmongers, thieves and rapists?

Changing of lifestyle to achieve better health is a worthy pursuit. Unfortunately, such changes often awaken the self-righteous beast inside. Without thinking, we can use our newfound enlightenment as a bludgeon against those who haven't seen the light.

Once upon a time, the only thought humans had about food was how to find it. Years and decades and centuries brought technological, scientific, and industrial progress. An exponential increase of knowledge and choices brings with it a similar increase in anxiety. Today, almost everyone knows how to find food. The big question is now what to eat.

Food choices are heavy with baggage - the war between health (which for most people equals slenderness) and taste. We want to eat tasty food, but we feel soooooo guilty when we do. Some of us feel more guilty about eating a cookie than making an unkind remark to someone's face. To take control of the health vs. taste issue, some of us latch onto rigid rules about eating (and living), which we then project onto the rest of the world.

"If you don't eat like me, you're a terrible person!"

Please. Chill out.

What other people eat is really none of your business. Just enjoy your tuna and apple slices and stop worrying about the rest of us. In the end, we can only be responsible for ourselves - and that's a difficult job as it is.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Weirdest Packaging I've Ever Seen (but it worked for me)

Have you ever gone into a drugstore or beauty supply store and have a certain product stop you in your tracks? A product that looks a little like this?

Welcome to the weird (to say the least) world of Montagne Jeunesse beauty products.

Some beauty lines present an image of serenity and tranquility, promising to take you away to a world of quiet. Montagne Jeunesse is as colorful as a tabloid cover -"BRIGHT and full of DELIGHT" according to the website - and if I had been a child seeing these packages at stroller level, I would have thought these the faces of monsters. Especially the blue one.

But they make you look. Big time, as Two Dogs would say.

I tried to take pictures of these at the store, but they came out blurry. I had to buy them to get a decent shot (fortunately, they're only $1.79 each, and the buy-two-get-one-free deal helped, too). I am wearing one of the masks as I type this, the "Passion Peel-Off". Here's how it looks in real life:

I'm not sure whether or not to be relieved or disappointed!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Was I Wrong?

I am a contributor to the eHow website, which is a place where people can share tips on aspects of life that they are expert at. (FYI, my eHow name is "jenniebrown".) I added two articles this evening (after not posting since December of last year), and then, out of curiosity, searched the site for "Michael Jackson". (No, the site did not freeze afterwards.)

Not surprisingly, I found articles titled "How to Mourn the Death of Michael Jackson" and "How to Think of Michael Jackson" and "How to Deal with Michael Jackson's Death", etc. This one stood out: "How to Not Care That Michael Jackson Died" (find it here).

The author, "edieness", takes a highly skeptical point of view about Michael Jackson, the person behind the "King of Pop". She includes some jokes which are not -- how do I put this -- tasteful, but then again humor is not BFF with good taste.

I thought "edieness" was interesting, even gutsy, because she went against the grain of the mostly reverent Michael Jackson coverage that is pouring out of major news outlets like water from a neglected faucet. I was so impressed that I went to Twitter and called it to everyone's attention.

Seconds later, regret crashed between my eyebrows like a tiny silver hammer.

Was I mean by "passing on" a not-so-nice article about a celebrity who died only a few days ago?

But who was I mean to?

Michael Jackson?

No matter what you believe about the afterlife, it's unlikely that he cares now.

Michael Jackson's fans?

They would not likely read an article with that title, anyway, and if they did it would not change their minds.

The records of the Jackson Five were some of the first that I had ever listened to. I paid attention to the Jacksons throughout the 1970s, and listened to "Thriller" over and over again. No one can say that Michael Jackson is not one of the most important artists in popular music. No one can listen to one of his hits without recognition, if not tapping one's feet.

No one can say that he was not also an extremely troubled individual whose interactions with children were sometimes dubious. No one can say that some unpleasant truths are not about to come to light.

Must we be unswervingly reverent to people just because they die? Must we keep our opinions locked behind our teeth, or hovering at the edge of our fingertips, because you're just not supposed to speak ill of the dead?

I don't think so.

As writers, artists, and thinkers, we must not be afraid to express ourselves, as long as we are not gratuitously cruel to the innocent. We must not be afraid that some people won't like us for what we say. To try to please everyone is to turn yourself into tasteless mush - and it's impossible anyways. Don't be afraid to be contrary.

I guess I just answered my own question.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Get Dad Some “Eats Free” This Year

There are no bad apostrophes, just bad typesetting, as shown in this sign at a local restaurant:

Move the apostrophe from “Dads” to “Fathers” and the (grammatical) sun comes out again.

P.S. If you need some good typesetting, please contact your friendly neighborhood (and by neighborhood, I mean Internet) Meandering Mouse.

The Inimitable Magic of Midnight Movies

Last night, Two Dogs and I watched a documentary called Midnight Movies (which is available at Netflix. This doc (based on the eponymous book by Stuart Samuels), takes a close look at six of the most important films of the genre (though far from the only ones): El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead.

Of these, I have only seen Rocky Horror, and frankly was not that impressed, except for “Time Warp” and Rocky Horror’s blond hunky goodness. I had never heard of El Topo, thought that The Harder They Come looked like a dull crime drama, am too frightened of Night of the Living Dead (even though it was filmed in Pittsburgh, the big city near me when I was growing up), and am still working up the courage to see Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead. Despite this record, I still love the idea of midnight movies, and harbor hope that they won’t become completely extinct.

Born in the convention-defiant maelstrom of the late 1960s, and living long enough to become all but obsolete in the home video age, midnight movies share these characteristics:

1. Out of the mainstream – way far out;
2. Sexually and/or politically subversive;
3. Packed with weird and disturbing imagery, almost like dreams;
4. Marijuana-friendly

The midnight hour was also an essential ingredient. Larry Jackson, the manager of the Orson Welles Theater in Boston (an early promoter of midnight movies) said, “At 12 o’ clock, a different world of movie-going took place.”

Imagine driving to a big-city or college-town theater at a quarter to midnight, finding a parking space, and then walking to the theater under ghostly street lamps. You won’t see little kids or uptight middle-aged matrons among your fellow movie-goers; they’re people who know, people who dare, people who don’t let Reader’s Digest tell them how to think – people like you.

You buy a popcorn and a drink at the concession stand (that alone is transgressive; snacking after midnight is so naughty), and find a seat in the middle of the theater. You sniff the air, and discover the skunky aroma of pot smoke. Before the lights go down, you notice that the theater itself is a little run-down; the velvet of the curtains is worn-down in spots and the wooden armrests are grooved with amateur carvings. This doesn’t bother you one bit; who wants to see a midnight movie in an antiseptic chain theater?

Darkness closes in on the theater. The mumble of conversation sinks into whispering. The curtain parts with the rattling of pulleys. After a series of coming attraction trailers and lovably cheesy “go-get-some-popcorn-now” ads, up comes the midnight movie. And man, it’s stranger and better than you ever imagined. It turns you over and cracks your head open like an egg. It’s as if the sky had turned bubblegum pink.

Beats sitting at home watching some lame Loretta Young movie on the Late Late Show, no?

What are your favorite midnight movies? Two Dogs wasn’t happy that his favorite, The Song Remains The Same, wasn’t in the documentary. I can also vouch for Freaks, Heavy Metal, and that collection of Beatles shorts that popped up from time to time (Beatles fans, you know what they are). We are keeping our eyes out for the midnight movie experience again, but no more Rocky Horror. BT, DT.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mr. and Mrs. Mouse Bomb

Along with my various and sundry hats of writer, graphic artist, photographer, and mousewife, I also design T-shirts and other goods for Cafe Press.

I received these two T-shirts a few days ago. I call the design "Mouse Bomb". Two Dogs and a drummer friend came up with the idea in Orange not too long ago -- "The mouse is the bomb." So I designed a bomb-like mouse (a mouse-like bomb?). Here's how the shirts came out:

And the back view:

Small creatures can have a huge impact, no?

You can buy the shirts for yourself at my Mouse Bomb outpost. Be the first on your block to know...the mouse is the bomb.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mouse in motion

Sorry for the delay in my June blogging, but I have been a mouse in motion. I was laid off from my full-time job late last month. I was a little surprised, for I had been busy all that week. But my mom said to me that big changes were going to happen within the family, and this must be my big change.

I do not see this as a referendum of my worth. I see this as an opportunity to take the next step upward. I am still figuring out what that next step will look like, even as I make "micromovements" (as the artist SARK puts it) every day. All I can do is all I can do.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Well, National A Book and a Coffee Day has come and gone, at least as far as May 2009 is concerned. I passed out flyers at local coffee shops and libraries and sent Twitter tweets after each pertinent post. (FYI, I am JennieBH on Twitter.) I hope you spent it very well. Here's what I did:

I went to a charming little restaurant called Zov's. My coffee was a cappuccino. My book was "Retro Hell" by the editors of a no-longer-published "zine" called Ben is Dead.

If you are a person of a certain age, if you can remember a cartoon called "The Funky Phantom", if you ever got excited about mood rings, if your first exposure to the 1950s came from "Happy Days" and Kristy McNichol used to be your role model, "Retro Hell" will provide hours of memories and fun. You will find yourself talking back (even if only in your head) at each entry in this "ABC Afterschool Specials" to "Zotz" encyclopedia. "Retro Hell", alas, is no longer in print but is available at used booksellers and (if you're lucky) your local library.

To tell the truth, I didn't spend much time reading because my husband Two Dogs was with me. I asked him if he remembered the Battle of the Network Stars series. He didn't, mainly because he grew up in Mexico City. I wondered if this concept would work today. We have long ago left the era of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). We'd now have to include Fox, the CW, and myNetworkTV -- and all of those cable networks. We could have a Battle every day of the year.

(Don't you love books that make you think?)

On a side note, Zov's has excellent baked goods, including cupcakes with flower-shaped frosting. I had this one, mainly because it had a chocolate cake underneath:

It was as delicious as it looks, but it's something to eat once a month, at most!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One More Book Recommendation -- Gone with the Wind

This is my final book recommendation before this year's NABAACD on May 31. I would be most remiss if I did not mention this book. It's a big book, a big good book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It was the basis of a movie that won ten Oscars. It has been a reliable best-seller for over seven decades -- it's now #5,653 in Amazon's bestseller list (and for Amazon, that number is up there).

It's Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and if you choose this book for sharing a coffee with on Sunday, you've done well indeed. But watch out. If you finish Chapter I, you will have to read Chapter II. And so on, and so on, until a barista taps you on the shoulder and tells you that the coffee shop is closing. (If you finish GWTW by the time you finish your coffee, you're a naughty reader because you just skimmed the book. Some books take skimming as a high insult.) GWTW is like the movie Titanic -- it's long, but it's so compelling that you don't care that it's over 1000 pages.

What makes GWTW a great book is not only the sheer storytelling, it's the highly dramatic historical setting -- a time when this nation was, if not literally torn in half, at least psychically and spiritually so -- and it's the characters. Margaret Mitchell knew that if a reader can't care about the characters, nothing else in the story matters. A rip-roaring plot with characters as flat as tortillas is as fulfilling and memorable as a roller-coaster ride at Six Flags.

Scarlett O'Hara is more than a spoiled Southern belle. Rhett Butler is more than a charming rogue. Ashley Wilkes is more than a golden-haired hero on horseback. And Melanie Hamilton Wilkes is more than a sweet timid mousewife. Each of them is as layered as a Russian nesting doll.

Scarlett is not a role model. She is often shortsighted and thoughtless, she is neither a loyal friend nor a sensitive mother, and she is tone-deaf when it comes to her dealings with men. But she is also capable of kindness and loyalty, of guilt that she is not living up to her mother's loftly ideal, and of heartbreaking unrequited love for Ashley. It is the last most of all which keeps her from being a total B-I-T-C-H. Who among us hasn't pined for the unattainable person? Who hasn't agonized that the one you love loves someone else more?

I do have to write about GWTW's greatest flaw, though, so it doesn't shock you. While Mitchell was psychologically astute when it came to the major white characters, her depiction of black characters is not just politically incorrect -- it's just plain incorrect, period.

The black characters are compared to children and apes and bloodhounds with "unerring African instinct." The "good" ones live for serving their white masters, and the "bad" ones are ungrateful for the care their masters have given them. Both Scarlett and Rhett utter the word "nigger,"* and Melanie would rather abandon her beloved South than have her son go to school with "pickaninnies." (Of the four major characters, only Ashley says nothing that is racist.) Did I mention that the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes in this book?

But still...but still...I forgive GWTW this flaw, a flaw which would have made me stand up and scream if this had been a lesser book. That's how great it is. Even black female readers forgive the book. We all live in the twenty-first century; we know that racism is sheer foolishness. Don't feel guilty for reading and enjoying GWTW.

I am not sure where I'll be going or what I will be reading for NABAACD. I am sure that I will let you know what happened. Have a happy NABAACD, everyone!

* I debated with myself today whether to spell out this word or use the euphemism "N-word." I chose to spell it out because I am a writer and words are my tools -- all words, the grand and the base and the lovely and the ugly. Euphemisms for vulgarity fool no one and treat the readers like infants.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


While driving to the bank today, I spotted a red Goggomobil in front of me. Goggomobil is what's known as a microcar. It's similar to the car in this picture.

Spotting the Goggomobil reminded me of foreign films from the 1950s and 1960s, where little cars roamed freely in the cities, rolling down narrow and curvy cobblestone streets, going round and round in traffic cute!

It would be fun to take a test drive, even though Two Dogs would probably nix it...he'd think that mice shouldn't drive mice!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Acorn Books

When I came up with the idea of National "A Book and a Coffee" Day --

Scratch that.

Let's call it National A Book and a Coffee Day, sans quotations, NABAACD for short. It makes it easier to type.

-- anyway, I imagined people sitting with their coffees and reading books of one of two types: fiction and non-fiction.

I neglected to add another category of book, a type of book which is technically non-fiction but belongs in a category all its own. I call it the acorn book.

An acorn book is a book that you know you will keep for life, and you'll go to it over and over again, especially on Friday and Saturday nights and all other nights when the road ahead is free and you won't wake up the next morning to an ugly-sounding alarm.

My acorn books are worth their weight in gold. They pay for themselves many times over, for a night with acorn books is more fun to me than going to a nightclub or bar or sporting event. Acorn books are essential to my well-being. They take me away from my busywork life and allow me to play -- inside my head.

Very few of the fiction books I've read have become acorns; those are the books I'm most likely to pass on after reading. "Regular" non-fiction books hang around longer, but I'm not likely to reach for my heavy-duty books about history or atheism when I'm in the mood to escape.

An acorn book, to me, usually fits into at least one of these categories:

1. Books which answer odd questions, such as David Feldman's "Imponderables" series, Cecil Adams's "Straight Dope" or the tomes on urban legends by Jan Howard Brunvand.

2. Nostalgia books which take me back to one of the three most important pop cultural decades of the 20th century -- the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Examples include 60's! by John and Gordon Javna, The Pop Sixties by Andrew J. Edelstein, 1966 by Hal Lifson, Sixties Peopleby Jane and Michael Stern, Retro Hell by the editors of Ben is Dead, and any book by Charles Phoenix. Some of these books are out of print, but well worth the finding.

3. Books with advertisements of the past -- once again, emphasis on the Big Three decades. Taschen Books has a series called "All-American Ads", big fat volumes containing a decade's worth of advertising. You can find out so much about the values of a decade just by looking at its advertising. And you haven't lived until you're startled by the living color of 1950s ads -- when we think of the 50s, we usually think them in black-and-white, don't we?

4. The For Dummies and Idiot's Guide books, each one an inclusive overview of one subject.

Current circumstances have temporarily separated me from my years-in-the-making collection of acorn books. Fortunately, I can still find some in the libraries I go to. I may enjoy a little bit of one before this holiday weekend ends.

Why not collect some acorns of your own?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another Book Recommendation -- The Four Agreements

Continuing with book recommedations for National A Book and a Coffee Day on May 31, I am glad to let you know about The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

You may have seen this book in the self-help section. It's small, but it contains a universe of wisdom. Unlike other self-help books which
a.) make you feel guilty for not being successful/married/a perfect mom/happy already,
b.) have flies flittering around the pages because of all the B.S.,

The Four Agreementsis thoughtful, mature, and helpful for everyone. It's a testament for being responsible for what you can do -- not for what happens outside you.

I don't think I am spoiling the book by giving this summary of the Agreements (which I had on my refrigerator for a long time):

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of endless suffering.

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

Your best is going to change from moment to moment, it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

If I had read this book when I was in my teens -- especially Agreement #2 -- it would have saved me years of sorrow.

Whenever I feel that circumstances or other people loom over me like storm clouds, The Four Agreements help put them in perspective. Try them out for yourself -- maybe with a coffee at your drinking hand!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cheerful Books for Spring (and Summer)

When I reach for a book of fiction, it is almost always the literary kind. Literary as in not bound by the rules of genre fiction. Literary as in being in the spectrum between cloudy-day gray and janitor’s bucket water gray. Literary as in not in the business of making the reader smile at the end.

I’m okay with this, because I like to read books that take place in the real world – no heart-pounding thrillers, no candy-coated chick lit. But a cheerful book is good for my soul every now and then.

I define a cheerful book as one telling the story of good people trying to do their best, and then (eventually) good things happen to them. Cheerful books are upbeat without being silly – no “Aw, come on!” moments – and you believe that these good things can happen to you, too.

In preparation for National “A Book and a Coffee” Day on May 31, 2009, here is a list of cheerful books I recommend to you:

1. Love Walked In and its sequel Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

This text is from the Love Walked In reading group guide:

When Martin Grace enters the hip Philadelphia coffee shop Cornelia Brown manages, her life changes forever. Charming and debonair, the spitting image of Cary Grant, Martin sweeps Cornelia off her feet, but, as it turns out, Martin Grace is more the harbinger of change than change itself.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, eleven-year-old Clare Hobbs must learn to fend for herself after her increasingly unstable mother has a breakdown and disappears. Taking inspiration from famous orphans (Anne Shirley, Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and even Harry Potter) Clare musters the courage to seek out her estranged father. When the two of them show up at Cornelia’s café, Cornelia and Clare form a bond as unlikely as it is deep. Together, they face difficult choices and discover that knowing what you love and why is as real as life gets.

How can you resist a book like this? I thought it was the real deal, a book with great characters and some genuine (as opposed to contrived) surprises.

2. The Monk Downstairs and its sequel The Monk Upstairs by Tim Farrington

Can you imagine falling for a former monk? That is what happens to Rebecca Martin when she rents her in-law apartment to Michael Christopher, who has spent the last twenty years in a monastery and is like no man she has met before.

These are romantic novels which do not fit the romance novel straightjacket, and I am ever in search for books like these.

3. The Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

I take pride in not being frivolous, so I didn’t think I would enjoy reading books with the word “shopaholic” in the title. Ms. Kinsella’s books are great fun. The misadventures of Becky Bloomwood prove a truth that the stern budget-nags of the media never hint at: there’s inimitable joy in buying beautiful things. Through these books, you can experience that joy without incurring a triple-figure credit card bill.

4.The Soulful Sex series by Diana Laurence

I enjoy an erotic scene as much as the next person, but most published erotica writers think that sex walks in wearing six-inch heels, a black leather corset, and a red lipsticked mouth from which few words longer than four letters emerge.

In Ms. Laurence’s books, you meet characters like the people you know in real life and you get to know and like them before they become intimate. Sex is better that way, isn’t it?

5. The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish

The first (and in my opinion, the best) of Ms. Radish’s feminist fairy tales, this novel has a seemingly simple plot: Eight women spontaneously decide to start walking. Behind this simplicity, though, lies earth-shaking results for the women, their families, perfect strangers, and the whole nation. This is a book which says it’s not just a cliché -- you can make a difference.

6. The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue and Madame Mirabou’s School of Love by Barbara Samuel

I admit that I like these books for personal reasons – “Goddesses” contains one character who is an aspiring writer (just like me!) and “Madame” has a photo of a woman in a bathtub on its cover – I do some of my best reading in the tub! These are books about making real-life miracles with the gifts you already have.

I found out that Ms. Samuel is now writing under a new name, Barbara O’Neal, and has published a new book, The Lost Recipe of Happiness. I just bought that book today. Will it be added to my list of cheerful books? Stay tuned.

Monday, May 4, 2009

National "A Book and a Coffee" Day

I found this essay in my computer archive. I originally wrote it in October 2004. I thought it would make a great holiday, but as happens all too often with me, I put the idea in a virtual drawer and let it drift to the bottom of my priority list.

Really good ideas never go stale, you know. What I have now that I didn't have in October 2004 was a blog. I pulled the essay out of the virtual drawer, made a few edits, took an appropriate photo, and here it is...

One of the joys of Sunday mornings is its placement out of ordinary time; that is, it does not have a beginning (when something must be done) and an end (when something must be finished). Sunday morning just is, it doesn’t ask you for anything, and thus it’s the perfect time to have a book and a coffee.

I can just imagine sitting at a table, the toasty aromas of fresh coffee warming my nose as I open a book I can’t wait to begin (or continue)...these are the “small” moments that define the true good life.

Perhaps we should have a designated day for this. Perhaps the last Sunday of every month would be the best time. You can have a book and a coffee anywhere -- at home, at work, at your favorite neighborhood café. You can have coffeehouse coffee, French-pressed coffee, percolated coffee, instant coffee. You can read a book you heard about on NPR, the number-one bestseller, a book that has been on your shelf for decades, a recent download on your e-book reader, an old favorite from the library, a book with someone else’s writing in the margins that you found at the thrift shop.

You may have a book and a coffee alone, with your best friend, or with a group of like-minded people. You can even substitute tea for coffee, if you prefer (though you really can’t substitute television for the book).

The next last Sunday of the month is May 31, 2009. Will you have a book and a coffee with me and the rest of the world?

Monday, April 27, 2009 making me wait

I have heard time and time again that writers should not talk about their projects while they're in progress. I haven't heard anything about blogging about projects, sooooo...

I am almost finished with a non-fiction book. I gave myself an April 30 deadline for it to be finished and ready to submit. It's 27 pages long. That is all I'm willing to share (here) at this time.

Last night, I Googled the term "midnight movies" for a section in my book about movie theaters. That got me thinking about Beatles movies. As a teen, I attended several Beatles film festivals at independent theaters like the Nuart in Los Angeles and the (late, lamented) Fox in Venice, CA. I saw films such as "The Beatles at Shea Stadium", "Magical Mystery Tour", concerts at Washington, D.C. and the Budokan in Japan, and all sorts of fab clips. This wasn't like going to a typical, narrative fictional film; I didn't know what I would see next, and that was a thrill. (I also thrilled to the trailers of films like "Eraserhead" and "Pink Flamingos" (two films I haven't had the courage to watch yet), and ads for rock stations like K-WEST (which is now Power 106, a hip-hop station).

Anyway, thinking of Beatles films got me thinking about the stage production "Beatlemania" (you remember..."Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation"), and so I started looking up that, and I, um, kind of forgot about both the original research and my manuscript.

I was angry at myself for my failure to respect time. The manuscript needs to be finished, and ready for editors' eyes, in three days. What is wrong with me? How much do I really care about my writing or my project?

It's sad, but true: we talk to ourselves more harshly than we would a friend, or even a stranger.

At least I know I am not alone, thanks to this comforting Los Angeles Times "Jacket Copy" blog post. Some writers -- published, acclaimed authours -- even procrastinate with, ahem, Perez Hilton.

But, really, really, I need to do some book writing tonight. The rest of you can enjoy this clip of "Beatlemania":

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What's your NPR name?

One of the joys of blogging is to read other people's blogs and see what they do right. (I've found so many bloggers doing it right!) I found this gem here (scroll down to April 13).

I deduced that my NPR name is Jesnnie Tijuana. (That's not something to be proud of, Tijuana being the smallest and only foreign city I've visited so far. Why can't it be the most desolate road? I like the sound of Jesnnie Zyzzx better.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What Do You See When You Look at a Cross?

This is a cross necklace which Two Dogs gave me for my birthday in 2007. I am wearing it today, Easter Sunday. I wear it even though I am an atheist who does not think that the individual most people know as Jesus Christ (his Hebrew name was Yeshua bar Yosef) was a divine being.

The Christian cross (also known as the Latin cross) is an aesthetically pleasing and balanced piece of geometry. It is also an abstraction of a ghastly execution device. On television, we see crosses made of crystal with a tiny Lord’s Prayer engraved in the center (in adult and child sizes). At Easter, we see crosses made of white and milk chocolate. In California, we see white crosses standing tall upon brushy hills. A cross that shows Yeshua pinned to it – a true crucifix -- is much harder to find, except in the Catholic Church.

What if Yeshua had been born in the last 100 years? Can you imagine wearing a crystal pendant in the shape of an electric chair, or giving a chocolate gas chamber to your children?

It’s easy to understand why crucifixion is a subject few of us, even the most devout Christian, want to dwell on. But no matter what your belief, never forget that the cross has its roots in the bloody, agonizing death of a human being in a brutal time. It's a sobering reminder of our capacity for cruelty, and an admonition to leave such cruelty behind.

Read Weeds

Last night, I finished an extraordinary novel called Weeds by Edith Summers Kelley. It was first published in 1923 and reprinted in 1996 by the Feminist Press. This was one of my "acorn" books -- I bought it from Bas Bleu a few years ago and just now got around to reading it. It's good that books never go stale.

Weeds is the story of Judith Pippinger Blackford, who grows up in Kentucky tobacco country at the turn of the 20th century. Hope falls like a star as Judith transforms from happy, oblivious child (with a gift for drawing comical pictures) to tenant farmer's wife beaten down by motherhood, house and farm work, and the knowledge that this is all she will have for the rest of her life. The tenant farmers in Judith's community live a never-ending cycle of planting and cultivating tobacco; their enemies are those which they have no weapons against: weather and the caprices of tobacco buyers. They grasp at joy with the occasional ride to town to trade horses, a stolen ewe in the hungry days of weather, whiskey (for the men) and pictures torn from newspapers and sentimental farm wives' magazines (for the women).

Kelley, who had experienced Kentucky farm life firsthand, describes the land, the customs and the people with unstinting detail, making textual detours which today's writing advice frowns upon.

A contemporary writer might also be tempted to turn Judith's husband, Jerry, into an abusive lout. Kelley lived in a time when feminism did not mean war on the opposite sex, and thus Jerry is a decent man doing the best he can, every bit a victim of circumstances as is Judith.

Weeds has been more than another great read for me. It has pushed me to keep working on my creative projects, such as my CafePress T-shirt business (which thanks to advice from the board is now at least five separate websites -- more on that later). We women who are creative must remember the Judith Pippingers who never had a chance to have their art truly come to life. The world needs our versions of beauty and truth.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How to Keep White Chocolate Special

Take a ride in the time machine with me:

Do you remember when the only time you ever saw white chocolate was in this shape?

Remember when white chocolate (which isn’t really chocolate, but let's not split hairs) tasted better...because you knew you could only have it at Easter? Not for your birthday. Not for Christmas. Easter only, in a shape of a bunny. White chocolate was a seasonal thing.

Today, white chocolate is available 24/7/365. You can pick it up in bar form in the candy aisle, buy white chocolate chips for your cookies, and see Lindt white chocolate truffles staring up at you while you pay for your books at Borders. White chocolate still tastes the same as it did as an Easter bunny. But it no longer tastes special.

What else is no longer special today?

The movie The Wizard of Oz -- once aired once and only once a year on one of the networks, now you can watch it every day on DVD.

Movies in general – how can something that you can do in your living room be called an “event”?

Going out to eat – some of us think we can’t cook and therefore stop and pick up fast food or do takeout every day. (I see an inverse relationship between the quantity of the restaurants and the specialness of the food – a dinner at Pina’s Bistro in Tustin, of which there is only one, is far better for the soul than a dinner at, say, McDonald’s.)

How can we make these things special again?

It would be impractical, not to mention annoying, to return specialness to these things by means of law. Imagine a law which forbade the sale of white chocolate except in the month before Easter.

What we can do to return specialness is
a.) not overconsuming, and
b.) remembering to be grateful.

The last time I saw The Wizard of Oz was in a real theater – the Bay Theater in Seal Beach, some years ago. (If you're in the area, go to the Bay. Please go. Classic single-screen theaters need all the support they can get!) I eat any sort of chocolate in small doses, no more than about an inch square at a time. Two Dogs and I enjoy every moment when we get the chance to eat out, and we pick our restaurants with care. Quality of food, not mere convenience, earns our respect and business.

Come to think of it, life itself is pretty darn special anyways, isn't it?

Monday, April 6, 2009

An Evening at Felix Continental Cafe

If you meander to the Old Towne area of Orange, California, and find yourself hungry, I vigorously recommend Felix Continental Café on the southwest side of the traffic circle. It serves traditional dishes from Cuba and the Caribbean, in generous but not overwhelming portions and prices that are easy on the budget. Two Dogs and I were there not too long ago.

Here is our appetizer – white bread with a layer of butter and a sprinkling of salt. I saw Two Dogs sprinkle salt on his buttered bread at Felix. Mmmmm. This is such a treat that it inspired a T-shirt design.

For those of gentle palate, like myself, Felix can accommodate you with this grilled shrimp and white rice dish. You can request maduros (fried slices of a banana-like fruit) or, since it’s spring, asparagus (as shown below).

Here’s the dish with some white rice left over, which the nutrition police would have me leave on my plate (but I didn’t).

Felix also has a selection of domestic and imported wines and beers. Two Dogs favors Alhambra Negra, a rich dark brew. We also enjoy the Marques de Riscal Rioja and the Martin Codax Tempranillo Rioja. This evening, we shared a bottle of Martin Codax Albariño, a citrusy white which complimented the shrimp.

Come to Felix with an appetite, curiosity, and some good friends. You might even find new friends – or much more. I met Two Dogs here at breakfast one Sunday morning. I had simply decided to eat breakfast out that day. I can’t say exactly why I made that instantaneous decision. Maybe it was because it was the day of the Oscars, and I wanted to read my Sunday Los Angeles Times in a pleasant place. Maybe it was because it was a sunny day, and sunshine has a special magnetism for this mouse. Maybe the universe was nudging me towards a whole new world of music and cuddling and adventure and luvvy-luv.

The sophisticated magic of Felix brought us together, and it brings us back time and time again.