Archive for February, 2008

The Maytrees

February 29, 2008

8b85_7.jpgI write and edit for a living. Have for years. Most of it is a combination of flackspeak and journalism, short and sweet, avoiding the hyperbole that my client base always wants. I like to imagine I’m channeling Hemingway as I slash away at bloated copy and reduce an item to its essence. (Think the Associated Press Handbook, not the Chicago Manual of Style.) But I occasionally get to write something I’m proud of, something I’ll return to and read and rearrange and tweak and massage just a little. “No good writing, just good rewriting,” I remind myself. Yep, yep. I can do that.

It’s usually at this point that I’ll pick up and read something that smacks me in the forehead and makes me realize I am a hopelessly illiterate hack who should trash her word processing software before she does any more damage to herself or the English language. Annie Dillard’s little burnished diamond “The Maytrees” is my latest lesson in humility. I have a copy of her much-acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” sitting in one of my to-be-read piles scattered around the house — so many books, so many more distractions — so this was our first encounter. Read the rest of this entry »

More than a midlife crisis

February 25, 2008

images-21.jpegA troubling story from a recent NYTimes: “A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group…For women 45 to 54, the rate leapt 31 percent.” Research apparently indicates that “the prime suspect is the skyrocketing use — and abuse — of prescription drugs,” according to the Times story.

As interesting as the story itself was, with some really poignant stories, the readers’ responses were, well, amazing. Their top culprits? The economy, George Bush, Iraq, ageism, lookism, 9/11, a general loss of hope.

Deep in the dark recesses of my heart, I have my own theory: Read the rest of this entry »

Chaucer and PC

February 14, 2008

images-12.jpegThis is hilarious — but it’s probably for English majors only. Via.

Uncle Al and the economics of obesity

February 13, 2008

a849_6.jpgThe NYTimes Freakonomics blog, one of my favorite sites, continues to poke at the “obesity epidemic,” most recently with an interview with Eric Finkelstein, health economist and coauthor of The Fattening of America. “Modern society,” he says, “is giving Americans many more incentives to gain weight than to lose it. We are, in fact, victims of our success as a nation.”

The two most obvious factors are: 1) the abundance of cheap, tasty foods; and 2) the new technologies that allow us to be increasingly more productive at work and at home while burning fewer calories. For example, between 1980 and 2005, the price of food fell 14 percent relative to non-food items, so it is thus not surprising that we are eating more food.

I remember once seeing a graph that compared the rise in rates of obesity with the rise in the use of cheap high-fructose corn syrup in America. It probably wasn’t very scientific, but it was impressive: the patterns were pretty comparable. (And just try to find something tasty on the grocery store shelf that DOESN’T have HF corn syrup in it.)

To his credit, Finkelstein rejects the notion of an “epidemic” of obesity, at one point even comparing it to an “epidemic” of flat-screen TVs in America. But he doesn’t wave away the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Quotable quotes

February 12, 2008

“The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in everything he does, leaving others to determine whether he is at work or at play. To him, he is always doing both.”

— Zen quotation

Cool, eh? Zen and all — at least the letter-to-the-editor writer in the recent Wall Street Journal SAID it is a a Zen quote. A quick Google search, on the other hand, attributes it to American author James Michener, who probably had his Zen moments but could hardly be called a master.

Gee, I love a good quote, but I’ve been suspicious of them ever since the Desiderata hoax in the Seventies. (Why do Zen-sounding quotes always wind up being written by some guy from the Midwest?) My other favorite is the “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate” quote that has been attributed back and forth from Marianne Williamson to Nelson Mandela so many times that I’m beginning to suspect neither one of them wrote it.

Visiting

February 11, 2008

images-11.jpegMy mother, in an uncharacteristic burst of charity, once wished for me as many “women-friends” as she had enjoyed. She had a lot of them, I know, because as a little girl I would be dragged along with her when she went “visiting.” In our age of cell-phones, text messaging, twittering, video phones blah blah blah, this practice of actually driving or walking to someone’s house for an extended, sit-down, face-to-face conversation has almost disappeared. But it was an important ritual for my mother and her friends.

Mother would bring her knitting to Hazel Harris’ house in Provo, having likely bought the yarn at the store where Hazel worked. (I would spend most of each visit unsuccessfully trying to ignore Hazel’s facial tic.)  Mother and her friend Beulah Phipps would often give each other home permanents in Beulah’s tiny house in a shabby subdivision built in the ’40s for the steelworkers and their families. And Mother and Joey Maag would sometimes can peaches or tomatoes at Joey’s house in Pleasant Grove before Joey went blind. But most of the time they would sit there in their handmade housedresses and cross-stitched aprons, drinking coffee when Mother still drank coffee and Postum when she didn’t, and would just visit — about their children, their spouses, their lack of money, their neighbors, Church, all the small things that made up their lives.

I hated these visits on several levels. As a child, I had an embarrassingly active sense of smell, and their houses, with their strange combinations of hand lotion, laundry soap and food smells, were often almost intolerable. The ammonia odor of the hair permanent solution at the Phipps house would make my eyes water. On one visit in Price, the hostess had had a small fire in the kitchen, and I spent the whole visit sitting on her front porch because the smell in the house made me gag. Mother was mortified, but spent her requisite several hours visiting anyway. I spent the time dreaming of being home with my dolls and stuffed animals, making up stories about them. Read the rest of this entry »

Mitt—and the Mormons—the morning after

February 8, 2008

images-2.jpegNow that the initial news over Mitt Romney throwing in the towel has been absorbed by the media far and wide, a lot of news copy and bloggage is picking over the relationship between his candidacy and his faith. Libby Copeland of the Washington Post in “Did Mormons Get a Bounce from Mitt?” thinks Romney may have been a little too perfect for the American public:

Romney seemed so Mormon, so squeaky clean, so Pollyanna-ish, even. (Remember when he went to Michigan and said he could bring those lost jobs back?) Romney’s seeming normalcy isn’t the norm anymore. Maybe we understand better those who’ve strayed or failed and recovered — or, for that matter, those who aren’t fabulously successful and can’t put tens of millions into their own campaigns. Maybe we relate to the family lives of other candidates, candidates who have been divorced, who have blended families, whose children don’t all campaign with them (and may not even like them). Sure, they’re messier, but messy is authentic.

Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune today concentrated on the “weirdness factor” that dogged Mitt and the Mormons during the last several months:

…Romney’s failed campaign revealed what many Americans really think about Mormons. It forced Latter-day Saints to acknowledge that they don’t just belong to another American denomination.

“We have to live with the fact that a lot of people think our beliefs are strange,” said LDS historian Richard Bushman, the professor emeritus at Columbia University who helped explain Mormonism to a skeptical public. “Mormons have never had so much exposure as we have in the last year, so much genuine curiosity on the part of high-level media. I don’t think we’ll ever be the same.”

If it has been tough for many Latter-day Saints to see themselves as others do, it has been equally hard to face the country’s continued bigotry, said others.

And it may not bode well for the future, says Stack. “The anti-Mormon whispering campaigns in the Bible Belt may also have permanently derailed the growing political alliance between Mormons and evangelicals,” she predicts. Read the rest of this entry »

The perfect vinaigrette and other musings

February 7, 2008

images1.jpegI love perfect, simple food: a plain bread pudding, my husband’s grilled salmon (aluminum foil, a little oil and lemon pepper are the key elements), crusty French bread, steamed vegetables, a made-from-scratch salsa. The NYTimes has a great ongoing column/blog, Bitten, by Mark Bittman, a terrific minimalist chef. He shares his perfect vinaigrette:

Vary this however you like: with herbs, with garlic (roasted is very nice), with a tiny bit of soy sauce and sesame oil, with lemon juice in place of the vinegar, with hazelnut oil, with spices . . . you name it, in moderation it will work. You can also just beat the ingredients in a bowl with a fork, or shake them in a jar; it won’t be as creamy, but it will still taste delicious.
Ingredients
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons or more good vinegar — wine, sherry, rice, balsamic, etc.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 large shallot (about 1 ounce), peeled and cut into chunks
Method
1. Combine all ingredients but the shallot in a blender and turn the machine on; a creamy emulsion will form within 30 seconds. Taste and add more vinegar a teaspoon or two at a time, until the balance tastes right.
2. Add the shallot, and turn the machine on and off a few times until the shallot is minced within the dressing. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve. This is best made fresh but will keep a few days refrigerated; bring back to room temperature and whisk briefly before using.

I pretty much agree with this one, although I would probably skip the shallot (too hard to find around here), increase the dijon mustard to about a tablespoon and use only a good red wine vinegar. It makes a pretty indispensable dressing/marinade, and it has a mysterious fresh, alive sense about it that bottled dressings lack. (Is it the preservatives? The shelf life? There’s something that makes Hidden Valley taste, well, dead to me…) Read the rest of this entry »

Happy birthday

February 7, 2008

“To think, when one is no longer young, when one is not yet old, that one is no longer young, that one is not yet old, that is perhaps something.”

— Samuel Beckett

What I’m reading now

February 6, 2008

21jdfhl6gl_aa115_.jpgI stumbled upon Denise Mina quite by accident, er, Amazon. I’d ordered and read a couple of Minette Walters’ mystery fiction, and trusty Amazon popped up with several recommendations, including Mina’s previous books, The Dead Hour and Field of Blood. (Okay, I succumbed to some shameless marketing. Sue me.)

This series features Paddy Meehan, Mina’s not-quite-likeable heroine who is scrabbling after a career as a newspaper writer in the uber-macho world of Glasgow. I’ve been to Glasgow, and was quite taken by its grey, grubby, hung-over, working-class charm. Nay, this isn’t your Masterpiece Theater Scotland, but it has its own energy. After some encounters with unsavory types, several high-speed chases and some brushes with death in the last book, Paddy had managed to solve the case, scoop her rivals and — SPOILER ALERT — get herself knocked up, quite a dilemma for even a not-so-good Catholic girl.

At the end of the book, I had one of those wonderful “turn-the-page-OH-NO-where’s-the-rest-of-the-story?” moments. Mina set us up but good, but my patience has paid off and I will find how she deals (or in Paddy’s case, doesn’t) with her problems.

One of the things I love about good crime and mystery fiction is how authors manage to balance the character development of their major players against the unfolding of the story. Those characters, their strengths and, better yet, their weaknesses, should add to or be revealed by that tension. Mina’s Paddy, with her messy life and stubborn will, is a great one.