Monday, December 26, 2011

Why I don’t buy year-end issues anymore

Year-end magazines – they bloom like poinsettias at this time of year. From Time to People, editors feel a need to eulogize the ebbing year – even though the year doesn’t actually end until 11:59:59 p.m. on December 31st (so there’s still time for major news to pop up – it’s like writing a book about a television series before the last episode airs).

These issues used to mean much more to me. When I was 14, I was really excited about the end-of-year issues. I remember buying this issue of the newly revived Life magazine in December 1979 – which was not just the end of a year, but the end of a decade.*

When I was 14, I was just becoming aware of the parade of progress – and it was exciting, like riding a sailboat and feeling the splash of the ocean. I felt that I was a part of history, even if my participation only consisted of buying year-and-decade-end issues.

Thirty-odd years later, however, the parade of progress has lost some luster. It’s not that I don’t care about news anymore. It’s just that I am seeing a truth that doesn’t come to light until you’ve ridden the merry-go-round a certain number of times: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

What is going to happen in 2012?

• Crimes will happen that will shock and disgust us.
• Stories of personal triumph will bring tears to our eyes.
• Famous people will die.
• People not previously famous will become so.
• Celebrity couples will get together, marry, have babies, and break up – and some of those breakups will shock us.
• Politicians will unleash their inner fools (especially in this election year!).
• New words will enter the lexicon (and be so totally out by next year).
• A public figure will say something outrageous and then quickly give a P.R. apology.
• Disasters, natural and man-made, will bring upheaval to thousands of lives.
• A few sports fans will have good reason to cheer – but most will not.

Check back here on December 31, 2012 (at 11:59:59 pm!), and tell me that not all of these have happened.

My days of collecting year-end issues are long over (which is a blessing, because the amount of paper already in the Hakim household has passed the “sufficient” category). Now it’s time to keep an eye on my personal parade of progress – to make some history of my own!

* Yes, I know that 1980 was the technical end of the decade – but come on, nobody thinks of it that way. Not even mathematicians.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What's the true meaning of Christmas? It's the gifts after all

This week, most of us will hear well-meaning newspeople and pundits lecture on the “true meaning of Christmas” – which is as amorphous as a fast-moving cloud. Is it the birth of the man most people know as Jesus Christ? (No one really knows when “Jesus” was born; his birth is celebrated in late December because Christianity needed a celebration to compete with pagan solstice rituals). Is it getting together with family? (That is where many problems start.) Is it a feeling of warm fuzzy goodwill towards all? Maybe.

At the bottom line, though, it’s all about the gifts.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at any given Christmas television special. In the plots of so many of these, the distribution of Christmas gifts (almost always from Santa Claus) is endangered by one threat or another (snowstorm, toy-hating baddies, Santa just being tired of it all) – but lo and behold, at the last minute the gifts come through as they are supposed to in this materialistic nation.

One of the key case studies is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, a special near and dear to the Hakim household. You know the story – a mean green Grinch tries to “steal” Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville by taking away all of the gifts. However, Christmas comes anyway, personified by a gleaming star that takes the place of the town Christmas tree.

Now, if the true meaning of Christmas was something other than gifts, the special would have ended right there. But, no – the Grinch is so moved that his heart grows three sizes and he brings back the Whos’ gifts – so they get the warm fuzzy goodwill and the material goods.

What if the Grinch had not brought back the gifts?

I’ll bet that CBS would have shown this just once, instead of thirty-five times (and counting).

Do you think that Walmart, Target, Sears, Best Buy, Home Goods, Old Navy, ad nauseam would sponsor a Christmas special which celebrated the “true meaning of Christmas” – without gifts? How would they feel if even one-quarter of Americans decided to just give warm fuzzy goodwill this year?

All I can say is, I’d hate to be inside their underwear.

At this point, I don’t put too much stock in the “true meaning of Christmas.” I am content to enjoy the holiday lights and the egg nog ice cream and the gingerbread latte and, yes, the warm fuzzy goodwill.(The crappy songs, such as “Jingle Bells” – not so much.) Hey, it’s a holiday, after all – how much meaning does it really need?

Speaking of holidays, enjoy yours - whatever one you celebrate!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My first picture

Long-time Meandering Mouse readers know that I share lots of photography here.

It's only proper that I share the very first photo I took - the Fort Pitt Bridge that crosses the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. Not bad for a ten-year-old mouse!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Taking the murder out of mysteries

Would Mma Precious Ramotswe approve of this vicious red skull? I think not.

See this stack of library books that I recently checked out? See the scary-looking red skull at the bottom of the book I’m pointing at? That is how the city of Orange’s libraries label books in the mystery genre – including mysteries that contain no murder whatsoever, e.g., the works of Alexander McCall Smith.

That little red skull got me thinking: is the link between murder and the adult mystery genre unbreakable? (Thank goodness it does not show up in mysteries for kids, such as the Encyclopedia Brown series.) Is it moral to use this crime as a form of entertainment?

Despite all of its great reviews, I never read and never will read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones because it’s about a fourteen-year-old girl who gets raped and murdered. That is my deal-killer (no pun intended).

I respect the mystery writers who treat this crime with the gravitas it deserves – even though it is highly unlikely that I would read those books. On the other hand, some folks write books with titles like these:

Revenge of the Wrought-Iron Flamingos
Fatally Frosted
Pleating for Mercy
The Chocolate Frog Frame-Up
Shoe Done It
Sew Deadly
Pepperoni Pizza Can Be Murder
Slay It with Flowers
Murder Most Frothy
Fatally Flaky
The Cereal Murders
Cream Puff Murder
Murder Boogies with Elvis
A Stitch in Crime
Back to School Murder
Murder of a Chocolate Covered Cherry

If you don’t believe these titles, go to your local bookstore or favorite online seller. They’re all real.

Now I understand that we all have different perspectives, but if I knew someone who had been murdered – or had even viewed a murder victim as part of my job – I wouldn’t be laughing. Would anyone publish, or even write, a book called Cream Puff Rape or Pedophilia Boogies with Elvis?

Mysteries are like puzzles, and I do respect puzzle creators. However, why can’t there be more books in which the puzzle is who stole the pepperoni pizza? Or who painted the wrought-iron flamingos black? Or who peed on the chocolate-covered cherries?

That’s entertainment without guilt – and without red skull labels.

Fun with old ads

As you could tell by previous posts (here and here), one of my hobbies is collecting old periodicals. Looking at old magazines and marveling how things have changed (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) is far more fun than watching any reality show. (At least, I think so.)

Some of the best pages are the advertisements. These two, from Reader’s Digest of December 1966 and March 1969, respectively, stood out.

First, Life Saver WHAT???

Isn’t it amazing how words change in only a couple of decades?

And here’s a mouthwash with an odd promise in the last sentence:

I guess getting “closer to people you don’t even know” wasn’t that much of a bonus – when was the last time you saw Purify at your local supermarket?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why can't Thanksgiving be every day?

Thanksgiving in 1942. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Most will gather around a table with family and friends, feasting on stuffing and cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and green bean casserole and pumpkin pie and, in nearly all cases, a big roast turkey.

It has been some time since I participated in Thanksgiving the traditional way. The holiday is not an entirely benign event, as Two Dogs always reminds me this time of year. It is a day of infamy in Native American history - Natives saving the lives of European settlers by giving them seeds and teaching them how to fish - only to have the Europeans bite the hands that fed them, figuratively speaking.

While I believe that we must stay aware of historical truth, it is meaningless and even counterproductive to punish ourselves for the sins of our ancestors. It's better to perform acts of generosity in the present.

I love the idea of sharing meals with the people you care about most, and giving thanks for all of your blessings (and we all have them). I ask why we don't do it more often - say, once a week if not more.

If we did, though, would we still need a Thanksgiving Day?

I say yes.

Happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels for all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A note for the discouraged

There are scores of stories about people doing the work you love to do – and not only surviving, but thriving quite nicely, thank you. However, you are more likely to read about the unemployed and underemployed in the mainstream media.

Why? It’s the same reason why functional, psychologically healthy people rarely show up on reality shows – trouble makes a story. Things that go wrong are the bread and butter of what we call "the news."

If you feel discouraged in your job search, read stories about people who are succeeding, whether or not they are famous or super-rich, and avoid reading stories about people who are failing. This may sound cold, but when you are vulnerable you need the powerful vitamins called good news more than ever.

Please pass this along to everyone who needs it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I knew it... chromosomes are made of preztels!

Monday, October 31, 2011

What fanatics really want

In fact, often the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or faithlessness, he wants to improve your eating habits, or to cure you from your drinking or voting habits. The fanatic cares a great deal for you; he is always either falling on your neck because he truly loves you or else he is at your throat in case you prove to be unredeemable. And, in any case, topographically speaking, falling at your neck and being at your throat are almost the same gesture.

Amos Oz, from How to Cure a Fanatic (excerpted in Utne Reader, November/December 2011)

(I think I'm going to buy Mr. Oz's book . And check out the superb cover illustration by Tom Richmond!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kick the ass-trology, already

No matter how long I stick around, I fail to understand some aspects of human life. I don’t understand why Gimme a Break lasted six seasons while the original Star Trek lasted three, why anyone enjoys the taste of bell peppers, and why horoscopes persist in magazines and newspapers long after science has put to rest the notion that stars millions of light-years away have any effect on our lives.

The Los Angeles Times, one of the few American newspapers I respect, still has a horoscope – every day – and I scratch my head. A horoscope just does not belong in a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper. If I were the chief editor of the LAT, I would quietly and with no fanfare remove the horoscope one Monday morning – considerately adding a brief note of explanation to readers:

We at the Los Angeles Times have concluded that a horoscope is unnecessary and is incongruous with the logical thought that this still-new century demands. In this space, we will now have quotations from great thinkers and books.

What do you think would happen? Would most readers nod their heads and think, “It’s about time”? Or would they light their virtual torches and storm the Readers’ Representative Journal, screaming for my head?

Even more disheartening, horoscopes persist in women’s magazines. (Never, ever in men’s magazines.) Why does my sex tolerate ass-trology in its publications? Is there a meme that women just aren’t that into critical thinking? If the media can convince women that it is mandatory to wear shoes that cripple and distort the feet and to spend hundreds of dollars to remove perfectly natural (and necessary) pubic hair with agonizing hot wax, perhaps getting them to believe in ass-trology is child’s play.

Here is a sampling of three different horoscopes for my “sign,” Cancer (June 22-July 22) in three different women’s magazines dated October 2011.

Marie Claire – October 2011


The Mood: Homey
The Forecast: As the weather continues to cool off, you’ll become a domestic goddess – brewing hot apple cider, cooking a fall stew, even carving a pumpkin. After the 23rd, a guy will want in on this low-key fun, so make room in the kitchen. In money matters, Mars in your house of finances has you working hard, so splurge on a crazy Halloween costume.
Power Day: 23rd

Glamour – October 2011


The new moon in your pleasure sector in October 26 tempts you to grab onto something that’s not yours. Keep yourself in check with values you learned growing up. If it (he!) doesn’t belong to you, walk away.

Cosmopolitan – October 2011


Homey Pluto suggests inviting people over to watch the World Series on the 19th. Some juicy gossip will come from it – the stars predict a hookup between two of your single pals.
Dating tip: Alluring Venus recommends you rock a pair of sky-high heels on a date near the 7th. Grab his arm if you feel wobbly – he’ll like the chance to show off his chivalrous side.
Love advice: Playful Saturn says have a Guitar Hero showdown on the 13th. For every new song, strip off a piece of clothing.

What do these horoscopes have in common, besides being narrowly focused on a superficial notion of romance?


If ass-trology was a real science, researchers would most likely come up with similar results, even if they do not meet and/or confer with each other. If ass-trology was a real science, all people born under the Cancer sign would have similar experiences during the month.

No sky-high heels for me on a date near the 7th, or a Guitar Hero showdown on the 13th (who needs the Guitar Hero game when I have a real-life Guitar Hero?). We didn’t watch the World Series on the 19th. I didn’t do anything significant in the kitchen on the 23rd (that is Two Dogs’s domain), and I didn’t have a lick of temptation to grab into something that wasn’t mine on the 26th.

If you’re not into ass-trology, you don’t have to ass-ume what your days are going to be like. That’s the mystery of life. Why not just let things be as they will be?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Scary television logos (just in time for Halloween)

What do you remember when you remember the television of your youth?

Do you remember the astounding stupidity of Lost in Space’s Dr. Smith (which makes you ask 1. What hellhole of a university gave this asshat a doctorate, and 2. Why, oh why did he survive so long – you can’t be stupid in space, people!) Or is it the seamless cool of the Fonz, a cool that makes even vending machines obey? Or is it Pee-Wee’s happy household of talking, singing thingamajigs? (You wouldn’t fart in a talking chair, would you?)

Or is it the heavy, hairy hand that brings down this hammer?

The logos which are the closing punctuation of TV shows can have lasting effects on our memories – for better or for worse.

Type in the words “scary TV logos” in the YouTube search engine, and you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. You’ll also see that “scary” is highly subjective.

I grew up in the pre-home video era, so I guess it’s hard for me to see the fright in this logo:

It’s only a mouse, after all. (And he's not even meandering!)

The following two logos are more annoying than scary. This one concluded cheesy 1970s sitcoms:

And this one ended cheesy syndicated 1980s sitcoms:

This one is nicknamed “Closet Killer”, and when you hear it you will understand why:

That’s the sound an orchestra would make if a killer jumped out of your closet. Ironically, this often ended the supposedly family-friendly Brady Bunch.

This one from across the pond is spooky:

This one from NTA (National Telefilm Associates) is not too scary on its face, but it gave me goosebumps because it often kicked off some eerie sci-fi movie on Pittsburgh TV’s Chiller Theater.

I don’t remember any television logos that really scared me in childhood, but I found one on YouTube that scares me now at age 46. I would not want to watch this alone at two in the morning:

BИD (VID in English) is the undisputed king of all scary logos. I am exceedingly grateful that I didn’t grow up in Russia!

P.S. Are you reading this blog at two in the morning? If so…I hope you’re not alone! (And don’t watch BИD twice!)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is everyone a cheater?

I don’t know about you, but I thought I knew the definition of infidelity in relationships – sexual contact with anyone other than the one you’re supposedly monogamous with.

Not too long ago, the they who define culture came up with the idea of “emotional infidelity.” Michael Formica, one of those experts with a trail of letters following his name and a blogger at the Psychology Today website, defines emotional infidelity thus:

Although the implications and consequences are similar, emotional infidelity as a construct is a bit more murky, as it does not simply apply to sexual or romantic interpersonal relationships. . . .

The notion of emotional infidelity can also apply to platonic same- or trans-gender relationships, as well as activities, work, exs, siblings, extended family, hobbies and even kids. Many women in the part of the country where I live and work ruefully refer to themselves as Wall Street Widows - non-interpersonal emotional infidelity in full flower.

Emotional infidelity is any situation that creates or causes some degree of emotional unavailability on the part of one partner that interferes with one particular aspect of the relationship, along with the quality of the relationship as a whole.

According to a recent survey by the Kinsey Institute , 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women in partnerships say that they have cheated on those partners. If we use Formica’s definition of infidelity, those percentages go up to 100 percent. What person in a relationship doesn’t also have other people and goings-on in his or her life?

If everyone cheats – if everyone can’t help but cheat – then “cheating” means nothing, and why should anyone care?

This kind of definition creep bothers me. In the absence of real trouble, some minds go in search of worry and offense. The idea of emotional infidelity is a gift to this kind of mentality. Instead of a clear, specific definition of cheating, anything and everything in your partner’s life outside of you can become a threat. Talk about crazy-making. People who not only trust their partners, but have self-esteem that is unassailable, do not worry about emotional infidelity.

Formica ends his blog post with this non sequitur:

Here's the rub - in the case of emotional infidelity, you're stealing from yourself.

Actually, if you believe in emotional infidelity, you’re stealing from yourself – and your partner.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don’t forget to enjoy what you eat!

Not too long ago, most of us didn’t think much about what we ate. We’d trudge to the grocery store after the workday and grab a foil-wrapped “TV dinner” (meant to go into the oven, not the microwave), a few boxes of pasta and powdered cheese ready for their ground beef or tuna “Helper,” a box of sugar-coated cereal for the kiddies, and the cheapest meat in the newspaper ad.

Today, such ignorance seems almost luxurious. The experts who “know better” than us are shaking us by the shoulders like desperate doomsday seers and screaming at us to ask! Is your food organic? Local? Free-range? Green? Packaged? Genetically modified? Raw? Pasteurized? Artificially colored or flavored? How many calories? How much fat? How much sodium? Were any living things harmed in the making of it? (The unfortunate and unavoidable truth is always “yes” – the living must depend on the living for sustenance; it’s easy to forget that plants are living, too). Every encounter we have with food is now ideologically booby-trapped.

To paraphrase John Lennon, food is a concept by which we measure our fear – and our impulse to make sure that our habits are better than theirs, whether they are our family members, our neighbors, or our concept of “average” people.

Whatever happened to enjoying what we eat?

Speaking for myself, I’ve gotten just as much of a kick of joy from a lunch of a cupcake and cappuccino at the Barnes and Noble Café as I have from a lunch of spring greens and sliced pears. I do try to keep most of my meals on the healthy side, but I say a life without ever once sitting in front of the television with a bowl of popcorn is a life that has missed out. I feel sorry for those who insist that food is mere fuel, as if we are just spiritless machines.

See this bowl of stew? It has two slices of white French bread sticking out of it, which will not please the whole-wheat fetishists. The potatoes will turn off the starch-haters. The carrots are just too cooked for the raw foodies. And get ready to scream, vegans, because there are chunks of lamb meat in the bowl, too.

So what?

This stew, created with love by Two Dogs, gave me the best nourishment I had all day after a long Wednesday of running around. I felt joy and gratitude with each sip and bite. I was glad to be human and glad to be able to love this dish.

It is not enough for our food to be “correct” – nutritionally, politically, ecologically. Our food needs to touch our humanity as well. I dare say it may be better to share fried chicken with loved ones and laughter than a raw vegetable smoothie while running towards your horribly stressful job.

Food for thought.


I am proud to take part in Blog Action Day Oct 16, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Prosperity for you = prosperity for the world

There is a belief prevalent in America and other Western countries that being successful, making money, is somehow wrong for people who are trying to lead a spiritual life. In Buddhism though it is not the money which is in itself wrong; in fact, a person with greater resources can do much more good in the world than one without [italics mine]. The question is how we make the money; whether we understand where it comes from and how to make it continue to come; and whether we keep a healthy attitude about the money.

- from The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Read it for the words

Here is the September 2011 issue of Playboy. It is not a magazine I pick up often (at least, not in its current form – more on that later). Why did I buy it now? (Hint: see what the little gray mouse is looking at.)

There was a time when Playboy didn’t need to interview a favorite actor to get me to read. I have collected issues from the early 1960s to the 1980s – and if any interesting issues cross my path at the right price, I will add them to my collection.

It’s not because I find pictures of naked women all that interesting. Oh, no. I am that creature that most people think is as mythological as the Easter Bunny: the person who reads Playboy for the words.

Those little black things in between the booby pictures aren’t ants.

If you’ve got Playboy in your house and you’re not reading the words, you’re missing out. (The same can’t be said for Juggs. Juggs doesn’t have any words. At least that’s what I think – I’ve never even touched an issue. You tell me!)

My personal favorite section is the Playboy Forum, which investigates current events in a way you almost never see in major newspapers, much less on TV. This month, I read about why the “War on Drugs” is no palliative against terrorism, and the somewhat-no-definitely-less-than-successful results of Alcoholics Anonymous. (It’s hard to expect much from an organization who urges people to “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”)

However, the September 2011 Forum consisted of just five pages. I can’t say for sure, but in earlier issues (up through the 1990s) I remember it being longer. Did the Forum lose pages to extra Playmate pictures? (A future post will discuss where the gravitas went in commercial magazines – did it get brushed away, like the “yellow,” with Pepsodent?)

Oh, well, back to the past!

I can’t wait to have my old Playboy collection nearby again. I need to read decades-old but timeless debates about censorship and prudery and homosexuality and drugs and the perpetual battle between the individual and the state. I need food for my mind, and not just my eyes – witness the rainbow of clothes and shoes and jewelry and makeup that today’s women’s magazines throw at us.

(I need to end this post. It’s Saturday!)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

That day

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up – reluctantly, as usual on weekdays – at 6:25 in the morning. My alarm clock awakened me with KROQ-FM, which at that time was the one saving grace of the morning, for that was the time for Kevin and Bean and their motley crew. The first thing I heard was a commercial for the Latin Grammy Awards, which were to air that evening, and I wondered why the Grammys needed a separate Latin ceremony.

After the commercial aired, Ralph Garman, the KROQ entertainment reporter, spoke in a tone unusually serious. He told us about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York.

I went to the bathroom and washed my face quickly during the commercial break, imagining a small Cessna-type plane crashing into the pavement between the Twin Towers.

When I was done washing my face, Ralph told us that two planes had crashed into the Trade Center. At that moment, radio had become inadequate. I went to the living room and turned on the television.

On every channel that mattered, I saw the Twin Towers on fire. No Cessna could do that much damage. The planes were commercial jets, jets carrying tens of people.

When jets run into buildings, people die.

And then, something was happening at the Pentagon. Another plane – or maybe it was a helicopter? – had crashed right into the hub of America’s military.

At that moment, I felt the icy grip of pure fear that hadn’t been experienced in America since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What was going to happen next?

Was this just the advance guard of a fleet of planes traveling across the oceans, carrying bombs that would destroy everything that was precious to us?

Was this the end?

I was alone. I had no friends nearby. I had to be with people.

All I could do was drive to my job as I normally would have.

The Twin Towers disappeared from the Manhattan landscape during my commute. I was stunned and nearly silent for the rest of the day. Almost everyone else was, except for those whose job it was to speak.

I was too scared to cry. Too worried to grieve.

For the next days, I flinched when birds zipped through the plane-free sky. I left the TV on all the hours I was at home, something I never did otherwise. Comforting imaginings of golden-haired angels holding large white eggs for me to sleep in were now impossible. And, for the one and only time, I found comfort in the words of President George W. Bush.

In Orange County, far, far away from the rising ashes, everything looked normal. The late-summer sky still shone brightly on us all. But whatever was normal had left us forever.

On the Internet, other people expressed themselves in myriad ways, ranging from syrupy sentiment to targeted rage. I saved some pictures from that time which illustrate this point:

The slim golden lining was my hope that this would purge inanity, bickering, and partisanship from America. The détente between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, was a sight to behold.

It didn’t last long.

Ten years later, we are more divided than ever before, more angry, more willing to express that anger. If America was adolescent before 9/11, we have now regressed back to kindergarten (“You stink!” “No, you stink!”). In too many areas of life, whining and blaming others brings not scorn but more attention.

Where did we go wrong?

Do three thousand more people – or more – have to die to bring the American people back to peace? I hate to say this, but I think not even that will be enough.

I want to write that America is a great place. Compared to too many other nations, it is. But the days after 9/11 showed me a glimpse of a better America, a kinder and more understanding America.

I hope we will get back to that place – without another tragedy.

Today, let’s be not just better Americans, but better people – and keep on being better tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A photo + a quote = a post

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it… – Søren Kierkegaard

Monday, August 29, 2011

So this is why these are called the “dog days”…

…because you feel like the laziest dog on earth!

If you want to move, better do it early in the morning or just before the sun goes down, or else it will be too Hot! Hot! Hot! (which is only fun in a pop song).

You won’t feel like doing the things you need to do (like write a new blog post to maintain your monthly quota), and you won’t feel like doing the things you want to do, either (like go to the café for an afternoon croissant and Chardonnay).

You want to spend all day in an eggshell filled with water.

You question why summer is your favorite season.

You will miss this time when the next chilly, rainy day comes along.

You will stop writing this to watch the sun set.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fear not profanity

This is the essay about "strong language" that I promised in the last post. I originally wrote it for the This I Believe program on NPR – which is why there is no actual profanity within.

* * *

I believe that it’s long past time for people to get over their squeamishness over words. Especially the words I can’t write in this newspaper.

A writer should not be afraid to use all of the words in the vocabulary toolbox – and that includes profanity, when appropriate for the character, setting, genre, and market. Sometimes, words like “nonsense,” “jerk,” “harridan,” and “make whoopee” don’t pack the needed punch. Try using these instead of the profane words and listen to the difference.

One of the canards that I despise is “if a writer has enough imagination, he shouldn’t have to resort to profanity.” That is such a can of succotash on so many levels.

First, it’s the character who’s doing the swearing, not the writer. I rarely curse in my real life, but I happily let some of my characters let rip. Do you think that, say, Dean Koontz is a homicidal maniac?

People who say that profanity and imagination don’t mix are only putting a guilt trip on writers because of their own discomfort with certain words. It’s easier to point the finger at the writer – “How dare you use those words!” – instead of yourself: “I just don’t like seeing those words in print.” But when you conclude, “I don’t think anyone else should see those words in print, either,” you have crossed a line that makes me stand up to fight, because your rights end where my pages begin.

One of the most wildly imaginative writers I’ve ever read is Harlan Ellison. In both his fiction and non-fiction, he takes the reader to unearthly worlds of terror, absurdity, and delight, his words spinning dizzily in a fractal explosion. And he’s not afraid of the judicious use of profanity. On the flip side, you can go to any bookstore in the country and find prose as flat as a can of Pepsi left opened on the dock from sunup to sundown -- but it’s A-OK to some of you out there, because it’s free of that awful profanity.

For those who say that profanity is the proof of a dull mind, I give you Quentin Tarantino and his screenplay Pulp Fiction, in which the profanity adds flavor to the prose like Lawry’s seasoned salt does with white rice. For those who believe that cursing just sounds ugly, open your mind and taste the tart hard candies that shoot from Steve Buscemi’s mouth in Fargo.

“But what about the kids?” you ask. What about them? The material mentioned above isn’t meant for them. And if your kids are eight years old or over, it’s too late anyway. They’ve already learned all the profanity they need to know in the schoolyard. Or at home.

And these are only words. Words that float in the air and feel like nothing. They are not fists. Not guns. Not bombs. Do you really think that a rapped profanity drifting out of a driver’s car window is going to scar your children for life?

Grow up. Please.

Does my vocabulary suck?

The difference between the words I use when I talk and the words I use when I think is similar to the difference between a genteel talk show airing early in the morning on PBS and a reality show in which the grand prize is dating a Z-level celebrity on VH1.

While I give the words in my mouth a security check before I let them out of my mouth, my mind is far more spontaneous. For example, if I hear something as obvious as the I.Q. of someone who would wear a hat with teabags dangling from the brim (aside: what a waste of tea bags!), I think: No shit, Sherlock! I don’t think a day goes by without my synapses going, NS, S! – but I have never said it out loud. (I think.)

I also have the same relationship with the word sucks, as in something being notably subpar (not something engaged in the act of suction). The words That sucks! pop into my head like toaster pastries whenever I am in stuck in glue-speed traffic, listening to a stultifying lecture, or gazing down at a flat iron-less meat section at Ralphs. (If you live in California, Ralphs sells a great flat iron steak.)

I have to admit that I sometimes feel shame for my thoughts. Why? Because as an English major and a (for now) semi-professional writer, I should be able to form thoughts without the use of, um, “strong language”. At this point, my rational side will stand up and scold me for taking the cursing-is-a-sign-of-an-unimaginative-mind canard seriously. (I wrote an essay about cursing a few years ago – maybe that will be my next post.)

Just what is wrong in thinking, or even saying, the word sucks if it fits? As the T-shirt from the 80s said, poverty sucks. So does war, fundamentalist religion, abuse, and rotting shellfish. What is wrong in thinking or saying No shit, Sherlock! if someone on the radio says, “Consumers lack confidence due to uncertainty over the economy,” or, “Fried Twinkies are a uniquely American treat.”

If the word fits, use it!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Look for inspiration, not mere information

Alexandra Stoddard , one of my most-trusted wisdom brokers, wrote this in her book You Are Your Choices (Chapter 5, “Information Is Not Inspiration”):

“One hundred years ago no one could imagine the flood of information that would be available today. You could drown in it if you’re not careful. The Information Age first dawned in the 1970s. An abundant amount of publications were available, along with manipulation of information. Through the use of computers and the Internet, we can learn about anything we choose to know. We can collect facts and data in an endless stream. The Internet is limitless; it is overwhelming. . . .

Bob O’Brien, a prize-winning journalist and writer, advised me when I first began to write not to read the newspaper before I began my work. The human mind has limits to how much it can absorb. We can know everything, but not know anything about how to live. We have to be careful not to clog our minds with bad news that cannot inspire.”

The Huffington Post is at the top of my news bookmarks. I pay a visit nearly every day. But recently, I do not stay as long as I used to, mainly because (with few exceptions) it is filled with “bad news that cannot inspire”, celebrity “news” that cannot inform, and trivia that does nothing but take time away from the inspiration that I really need. I still admire Arianna Huffington for her political courage and good works, but I must be honest about the site. I do not leave the Huffington Post feeling better about myself and my world.

Sometimes mere information is helpful – such as knowing if the library is open on Sunday, or mapping out the location of a coffee shop that you’ve wanted to try. Other times it is not helpful, or even worse – when you turn on your local news to learn about the weather, you hear about a murder case that darkens the rest of your day.

The answer may be to ask yourself, before you open a web link:

Is this something I really need to know?

Will I be more inspired, more energized, more hopeful after reading this?

Is this the best use of my precious time?

Don’t get tangled in the briar patch of information – reach for the sweet, healthy fruit of inspiration.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Things I used to think were glamorous

Calgon bath salts
Hollywood (the idea)

Charlie’s Angels
Marina del Rey
Frederick’s of Hollywood
Little guest soaps shaped like roses
Holiday Inn

Shrimp cocktails
Makeup kits with lots of colors
Barbie (and Dawn) in fancy gowns
Beauty pageants
Gigantic mansions
Rodeo Drive
Designer jeans

Shopping malls
André sparkling wine
Mirrored walls
Star sapphire rings
Camay soap
Cosmopolitan magazine

Sizzler restaurant
Day-of-the-week panties
Bubble bath in ersatz champagne bottles

Gold lamé
“Beautiful people”
Los Angeles magazine
Foreign flags used as decoration (as in the International House of Pancakes)
Air travel

Jockey underwear
Entertainment Tonight
Pat Booth novels
Judith Krantz novels
Being a rock groupie
The Jolly Roger restaurant
VIP rooms
Surf and turf

Cookies the size of teacup plates
Long acrylic fingernails
Being a trophy wife
Shoes with pointy toes and heels
White zinfandel

Rembrandt toothpaste
The Hungry Tiger restaurant
Esquire magazine
Strawberry daiquiris
Tight clothing
Going to Lakers, Kings, and Ducks games
Marrying a professional athlete

Teased hair
Wearing a suit to work every day
Satin shirts worn with high-waisted black pants
Sitting at the bar with “the girls” and gossiping about other people
Ultra-shiny lip gloss
Letting other people tell me what is glamorous
Thinking that good things are out there, far away, and will come someday

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Farewell to an old friend – for good

The first Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Alas, I never got to go there.

Earlier this year, I lamented the loss of two local Borders stores. This week, the shoe has fallen off the other foot.

Borders Stores was unable to find a new investor, and so it will liquidate its assets and go out of business altogether by September 30th.

No more the joy of finding Rewards coupons in my e-mail: 20, 33, or even 40% off regular prices. (Those coupons were why I was able to afford new books, including hardcovers, relatively often.) No more the excitement of dropping by non-local Borders in Mission Valley and Santa Barbara and Westwood and Las Vegas, it was the cherry on top of the sundae called travel. No more the search at the kiosk for my new favorite book. (It’s not always easy to go up to an employee and ask for directions.) How many of the books in my collection were purchased at Borders? I remember every one.

When a small independent bookstore goes out of business, it’s like the fall of a single tree in the forest – a loss to be sure, but the other trees keep the forest strong. Now, a mighty chain – once 1200+ stores strong – is going to disappear. This says something about how we’re reading now.

Last year for my birthday, I received an Amazon Kindle. It has changed my attitude towards books. I have to say that unless a book has color pages (an exception that might go away when I get my iPad), or is unavailable on Kindle, I will probably be spending many more of my book dollars on e-books – perhaps the majority of them. When the independent stores went away, it forced readers to the chains; when the chains go away, more people will choose e-books.

I will never stop reading, of course. The loss of Borders, however, closes the door to a gateway to the magic world of books. That is worth mourning.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When the priority is beauty

Take a look at this mobile:

It’s Four Boomerangs by Alexander Calder, an American artist most famous for his mobiles (metal sculptures made to hang from the ceiling and move with the air) Calder is one of my personal favorite artists. Perhaps it started when I saw his mobile Pittsburgh in the old Pittsburgh airport (I remember it being orange, but Calder originally created it black and white and it’s only recently been restored to its original colors; read this story).

I saw Four Boomerangs during a recent visit to the Orange County Museum of Art. (I have made a resolution to visit more museums.) I loved it and all of the other Calder mobiles which will be on display until September 4, 2011 (if you live in Orange County, go!)
In addition to Calder, other artists are on display who have been Calder-influenced.

This is Martin Boyce’s mobile, Fear Meets the Soul:

Which mobile looks better?

Which mobile would you rather put above your dining room table?

I thought so.

When comparing the Calder works to the others in the museum, I saw that there was more of an effort for the work to end up beautiful with the Calders than with the more recent art.

This has nothing to do with laziness or lack of effort; I do not doubt that Boyce put in just as many hours for his mobile as Calder did. The priority for beauty starts in the artist’s mind, not the hands. (IMHO, the priority for beauty is a great motivator!)

Maybe the notion of art as pure beauty is not popular these days. Maybe artists think it is more important to make a statement, protest a social wrong, and/or give the viewer something to think about. It is okay to use art to make a statement, protest a social wrong, and/or give the viewer something to think about – but it’s also okay, more than okay, to create something that is just beautiful.

Artists are creators of worlds. Why not make them pleasing to the eye sometimes?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creepy old schools in my hometown

The Internet is a rabbit hole, isn't it?

I won't get long-winded here, but last night a search for outdoor movie screenings in my area turned into an in-depth mining expedition for photos of my hometown, Washington, Pennsylvania. I looked for the Route 19 Drive-In (closed, alas, in 1986), the Gee Bee department store across the highway (also closed), the Cinema 19 which was next to Gee Bee (closed - so many things I remember are closed! That's what happens when you stay away for 35 years).

And then I found these clippings at the Bealsville Cemetery blog.

These are the old elementary schools, numbered by "Ward", of Washington. Evidently, they were already getting old way back in 1954.

I have seen some of these school buildings in my lifetime. I have even been inside a couple.

Tell me, what do they look like to you?

Mental institutions?


Would you have wanted to step foot in any of these buildings as a child?

Would you want to step foot in any of these buildings NOW?

Just saying.

(I am not sure if any of these Ward buildings are still standing, but Washington is using a new facility for education. Lucky kids!)