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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Wow.  This is a fictionalized account of the war in Iraq that is written by someone who was there.  The author has stated in interviews that he wrote the book to answer the question that is most often posed to him about his war experience—“What was it like over there?”  The short answer is that it was as bad as you would think it would be and worse.
The book is the narrative of a soldier-witness still numbed by what he's seen. Private Bartle is not filtering what he says to us in his account of his time in Al Tafar, Iraq.  His story is a beautiful and horrifying trance of a book, as he takes us again and again to a dream-like battlefield where unimaginable cruelties are inflicted upon combatants and civilians alike.
The men fight in Al Tafar, in a setting that is Dante-esque, in the broadest possible sense of that word. The men of Bartle's squad go there to see sin and to suffer, and perhaps to survive and be somehow redeemed. The torments they find in Al Tafar are described with a spare, haunting lyricism that is both cilling and memorable.
On this battlefield in Iraq, Private Bartle finds himself caught between the conflicting demands of his role as soldier: becoming the ruthless killer his commanding officer, Sgt. Sterling, expects him to be and being the protector that the weakest member of the squadron needs him to be. His inability to reconcile those contradictions is pulling him apart — while ideas, language and memory are the glue holding him together.
In the end, Private Bartle loses his battle to be human and to remember and integrate what he did and saw in Iraq with who he needs to be to be a well-adjusted civilian.  He can fake it at times, sometimes he even feels it, but ultimately he has left a part of his ability to be happy and well-adjusted on the ground in Iraq.  A sad, sobering, and powerful book that serves as a well placed reminder that war is hell.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cream of Jerusalem Artichoke Soup

  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped garlic
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 1/2 pound Jerusalem artichokes (washed, sliced 1/4-inch thick)
  • 4 cups stock
  • 1 cup milk
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 teaspoon chopped chives
Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over high heat, add the garlic and onion and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the Jerusalem artichokes and sauté about 2 minutes. Add the stock and simmer until the chokes are tender. Add the milk and bring back to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Purée in a blender until smooth. Strain through fine sieve. Keep warm. Sprinkle with the chive. Serve.
This is a rich tasting soup, which you can make with nonfat milk if you want to keep it healthier.  I love the nutty flavor of the Jerusalem artichokes.  Remember--they do not need to be peeled prior to cooking.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Lawless (2012)

As one reviewer wrote, ‘Lawless’ is not flawless’.  But it is pretty darn good.
There are movies that I watch because they appeal to me.  I love period dramas.  I love foreign films—both comedies and downbeat dramas. This is more of an action film with a whopping dose of violence.  The bootlegger heroes are breaking the law, but the lawmakers are a more loathsome group.  They are both law breakers and law enforcement, which is not an ideal combination.  You do not end up loving the cops at the end of this movie, and it is easy to draw connections between the money that was in whiskey running in the 1930’s and the large amounts of cash that is involved in drug running in the 21st century.
This is a post-Prohibition tale. It is set in the period after there is an absolute ban on alcohol, but it deals with the same impulse -- to sell illegal liquor and thwart government regulations. In this case, those doing the selling are moonshine makers and runners in 1930s' Virginia.
Based on a true story, Lawless focuses on the Bondurant brothers: Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf). They are amongst the best-known moonshine makers/distributors. Jessica Chastain is the obligatory femme fatale behind the legitimate business’ bar, and she does a fine job with that somwhat liniting role.  Their unobstructed access to trafficking in moonshine goes very wrong when a federal agent from Chicago named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town to get a cut of their action, monetarily speaking; when they refuse to pay, he starts to play rough.
Rough being the key term there. Rakes is a fancy-pants sadist with a severe hair center part that sets him apart, nearly invisible eyebrows, and a penchant for boys. He terrorizes the Bondurants every way he can -- but despite all the bruising and beating, he merely riles them up.  They duel to the death—literally—and may the best men win.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman

The author goes through a century of the history of the slow but steady change towards equal rights for gay men and women in the United States.  The going was tough, after a remarkably good step forward during Prohibition (when the culture of doing things that were not condoned by the main stream became almost main stream by virtue of prevalence), but the book does not have a downbeat tone--quite the contrary, it is uplifting throughout.

The author does not waste any time defending the concept that homosexuals require equal rights--she very appropriately has that as a given.  Her contention is that because gays are so much like straight folks it led to a longer time for us all to figure out that we have friends, family members, and co-workers who are gay, and this delay in recognition did the gay community no favors.  She argues that it was HIV and AIDS that brought the issue of gay rights to the forefront, for two reasons.  One was that it was no longer possible to deny that Uncle Leo was gay--once AIDS was in full epidemic, people became reluctantly openly gay.  The equally important effect was that the gay community became an effective and powerful lobby.  They worked first for treatment options for HIV, but the networks that developed went on to lobby for gay rights in all walks of life.  THe most recent battle grounds--military service and marriage--have taken dramatic strides forward this past several years.

The book is a wonderful read, but it is especially strong in the area of Supreme Court rulings related to gay rights. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Year of the Snake

Happy Asian New Year! It is not too late to celebrate!
I love the February holidays.  All of them.  But this one especially, for two reasons.  The first is that it is so celebratory.  The second is that about a third of the planet has spent the last two weeks celebrating. It is not anywhere near universal, but as a diverse planet goes, this is a big one.  It has the added bonus that it is disconnected from religion—nobody is going to fight a war over this. Ok, I am going to add a third one, and that is that the celebration goes on for two weeks.  My family was not a ’12 Days of Christmas’ family—despite my English roots, my family doesn’t do Boxing Day (or paper crowns and firecrackers, for that matter).  So I love a holiday that has staying power.
When I was in high school I had a good friend whose family emigrated from China, and as is so often the case with immigrant families, they knew all sorts of other Asian immigrants.  Many of whom were excellent cooks.  I had the great good luck to be able to enjoy a wide range of foods prepared to celebrate the upcoming year, so I developed a love of Chinese New Year that has continued well into adulthood for me.
I like the idea of characterizing each year as well.  I have no idea how much this influences the character of the year itself or the person who is born then—not that I believe that it would inherently confer personality traits, but we do so often become the person that we are expected to be.  The Year of the Snake child has the usual complexities that make us human.  On the up side, they often have a good temper and a notable skill at communicating concisely. They possess gracious morality and great wisdom. They are usually financially secure and do not have to worry about money. They have tremendous sympathy for others and are charitable—they would like to take actions to help their fellow human beings. They are determined to accomplished their goals and they hate to fail. Although they look calm on the surface, they are intense and passionate. They have a rich source of inspiration and understand themselves well. They are people of great perception.
Now for the bad news.  They are likely to be jealous and suspicious. They should be cautious about what they discuss with others, because their frankness might cause them to lose friendships and opportunities. They tend to overdo things. They prefer to rely on themselves and have doubts about other people's judgment. They are courteous, with polite manners, but they can be headstrong. They are fickle and usually have problems in relationships or marriage problems. 
So, all in all, a pretty good mix of characteristics.  Please, everyone, enjoy the Year of the Snake.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Grassley Must Go

One Iowa Senator is retiring, and it is the wrong one. Chuck Grassley just did an unforgivable disservice to Iowans in his comments on why he was one of 22 Senators (all Republican men) who did not vote for the Violence Against Women Act.  Grassley contended that Native Americans aren’t capable of holding fair trials.

Since the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a trial among a jury of peers, Grassley reasoned that white men would be deprived of their rights if those who were accused of violence against Native American women had to appear in a tribal court. “On an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” Grassley said. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”

There is actually no requirement that juries reflect “society as a whole.” So Grassley doesn’t know or doesn’t understand the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment requires juries to be drawn from the “State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed,” and Supreme Court decisions establish that criminal defendants also have a right to a jury which is"drawn from a fair cross section of the community” where the trial court convenes to hear their case. But this does not entitle anyone to be tried by a jury that reflects the whole of American society.

A person who is tried in western Iowa, where Senator Grassley resides, is likely to have an all-white jury, because over 91 percent of the Iowa population is white, whiter still as you move west of Des Moines. Similarly, a person who commits a crime in the Navajo Nation will face a jury of Native Americans because the population of the local community is made up of Navajo people. There is no reason to believe that Navajo jurors are any less impartial than white Iowans, and Grassley is wrong to suggest otherwise. Worse yet, if he believes he is right, then he must also believe that whites can not give a non-white a fair trial. In that case, he is at least wrong in not advocating for what he would see as a fair jury for his non-white constituents. No matter how you look at it, he looks bad.

Grassley went to great lengths to tell attendees of the town hall meeting that he had supported VAWA in the past. “I support 98 percent of what’s in the bill,” he said. If it weren’t for his belief that Native Americans’ are incapable of conducting a fair trial, perhaps he would have voted for it again.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

This is a bracing, fearless and uproarious satire of how contemporary war is waged and sold to the American public in the 21st century.  We get one day in the life of Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier who's on a "Victory Tour" of America during the time of the Iraq war. Having prevailed in a firefight with insurgent Iraqi forces that was filmed by a journalist imbedded in the unit, Billy and his fellow Bravo squad members are now nearing the end of their trip through America, where the government has been using their heroism to drum up support for the war.
The novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day before, during and after a Dallas Cowboys' football game at Texas Stadium, where the Bravos are being feted shortly before they'll have to return to Iraq. Fountain follows a few somewhat thin plot strands - Billy falls in love with a Cowboys cheerleader and considers going AWOL; Bravo Squad runs afoul of some thuggish roadies during a misbegotten halftime show starring Destiny's Child; a film producer tries to put together a deal so that the Bravos can sell their story to Hollywood (Hilary Swank is interested if she can play the lead male role).
Each of those stories works in and of itself, but they function largely as a showcase for Fountain's brutally insightful observations of contemporary America. In Fountain's fairly persuasive view, the American public has been ruthlessly manipulated by the government and the media, which in turn are shamelessly beholden to moneyed, corporate interests. The most powerful figure here is not President George W. Bush, whom one Bravo sergeant likens to a relatively amiable Chase Bank loan officer, or Vice President Dick Cheney, who seems oblivious to the fact that the Bravos regard him as a buffoon, but Norm Oglesby, commander in chief of perhaps the world's most-pampered and best paid fighting force: the Dallas Cowboys.
Billy Lynn and the Bravos are made to endure photo ops and meet-and-greets with condescending members of the Cowboys' brass and bloodthirsty, dunderheaded athletes; they are subjected to the unsolicited advice and fulsome praise of Cowboys fans who seem awed by the soldiers, yet somehow less so than they would be by, say, Roger Staubach.
After all the false admiration, the showboating and the inside look at what fame buys you—absolutely nothing--going back to Iraq doesn't seem like such a bad deal to poor Billy.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Seven Treasure Roasted Vegetable Tart

This is a wonderful rustic tart dough:

Savory Rustic Tart Dough: makes 2 crusts

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour plus more for dusting
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 in cubes
1/4 cup ice water

1. In the food processor, combine flour and salt, pulse a few times. Add the butter. Pulse about 20 times then with the motor running stream in the ice water. Stop the motor. Pulse a few more times, just until the dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl and clump together.

2. Turn the dough out and gather it up into a ball.

3. Divide the dough in half.

4. Shape each piece into a flat disc about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and refrigerated for at least an hour up to 2 days. You can also freeze the extra disc of dough for up to a month but thaw it in the fridge before using.
Now for the tart at hand:

1 small pear cubed
4 oz. cremini mushrooms quartered
4 oz. cauliflower florets
1 c. sweet potato cubed
4 oz. potato cubed
3 oz carrots cubed
1 onion sliced

Toss these in about 1 Tbs. of olive oil and a dash of salt and roast at 425 degrees for about 50 minutes.  Cool 10 minutes then toss with :
2 tsp. orange juice
1 tsp. mapel syrup
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. thyme

Roll out tart dough to about 12 inches round.  Pike the vegetables in the middle, about 3" from the edge of the dough's edge. Top with 3/4 c. feta cheese that has been mixed with a tablespoon of heavy cream as well as a dusting of parmesan cheese.  Fold up dough all around so it is toward the center of the tart (see picture above.  Wash with egg wash, dust with rosemary leaves.
Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until brown--let rest for 10 minutes, then serve.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hysteria (2011)

This is a very enjoyable film, which I recommend, but with one reservation.  If you want to avoid discussing sexual satisfaction, do not watch this movie with a broad audience.  At least be aware that any discussion of the movie will inevitably drift into the arena of how poorly female sexuality was understood.  The very real history is that “female genital manipulation” was a medically employed technique for centuries—and it was not envisioned as a remedy for lack of sexual satisfaction.  Hard to believe (although almost every movie out of Hollywood with a sex scene ignores foreplay as well as safe sex, so maybe we aren’t as far along as we would like to think).
The story is about Mortimer Granville (aptly played by the ever charming Hugh Dancy), who has a private practice that consists of treating hysteria by bringing women to orgasm manually in an office based setting.  The story in the movie, which diverges from what really happened, is that he is so successful that he develops some sort of carpal tunnel syndrome and becomes unable to perform professionally.  In the movie version of the true story, Granville’s benefactor develops a devise that he envisions as a mechanical feather duster, but Granville modifies as a vibrator, and the rest is history—the most successful sex toy to date. 
The unwelcome voice of reason in the story is Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gylenhaal) who states what seems obvious.  The Emperor has no clothes.  Women are sexually frustrated by inept lovers or the inability to self-satisfy, and that is the number one issue.  A medical intervention is both unwarranted and a less than satisfactory solution.  The vibrator gave Victorian women control over their destiny, even if they had a poor understanding of how they came to be in that situation—and that is a very good thing indeed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This is a fictionalized modern diary, which according to one reviewer, is based on the artist's own artist friends in Toronto.  All I can say is 'TMI'.  It is a book with no frontal lobe inhibitions what so ever.  It is probably the way a diary would read if you were still grappling with growing up in your early 20's and being completely honest, meaning you do not filter all your thoughts and behaviors through a mirror of how you want it to look.

There is no attempt to look good here.  The women in the book are so far from feminism it is scary.  They perform a prodigious number of blow jobs, and they really do not appear to enjoy them.  They are doing what they think men want rather than what they want.  They may be right about what is desired, but it is not good sex.  It is sad sex. And for me, it was painful sex to read about.  Yuck.  When you are young you should really adhere to what you enjoy and what makes you happy.  Then you should stay that way as you grow older.  Compromising so significantly so early in life just seems gloomy.  But it is very well written gloom, which gets into the head of women.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidential Prowess

Today we celebrate two Presidents of the United States who stand out above the rest.  We used to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln separately, but when we added a day to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., we put the two presidents into one day.  Would they mind sharing a day?  I would hesitate to guess.  Washington was not a man to put himself on a pedestal.  He deeply loved his country and he was a soldier—he did what needed to be done.  History has painted him as a reluctant President, one who remained for a second term in order to keep his fragile country together rather than do what he wanted to do, which was spend his lest years on his beloved plantation in the bosom of his family.  He might even be surprised by the ongoing adulation he is honored with.
Lincoln is another story—he actively sought out glory.  He was an attention seeker and a showman from young adulthood onward.  He was smart and quick thinking, and he liked to show that off.  He might be a bit put out that his special day was usurped.  
How would Lincoln feel about our current president?  They share some personality traits, to be sure.  Would Lincoln be surprised that we had elected a black president or would he be surprised that it took so long?  Lincoln’s task was daunting—the North and the South were born out of two different ambitions, and they never really fit nicely together as an independent country.  They stuck together post-Revolutionary War for practical reasons. It was easier to establish one country, no matter that the values were not overlapping, rather than establish two independent countries, one born of religious freedom, and the other seeking economic wealth.
Our current POTUS is a socially and politically moderate man who has incurred the wrath of the Republican Party from day 1.  They are still in shock that he was re-elected—how did this happen?  When the Republican led House refused to do any work, the people put blame where it belonged—on Congress.  There is no place for compromise it seems—perhaps it is early days to give up on this, but I hope we see a lot more independent action from the president.  His legacy is secure—he is the first person of color to lead the country, no one will forget that.  When people in the future look back, they will see that we were not ready to elect a black man in general, but rather that we were ready to elect this man, and all the racism, both conscious and unconscious that was stirred up hindered his path to change.  So now it is time to think about what he can accomplish on his own.  He is a smart guy , and the blueprint he would leave us with would be well worth having.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lighthouse Hill (2004)

It is very hard to grow up rich.  Ok, not really.  It is definitely hard to grow up poor.  The film focuses on the growing up part of what is hard about being rich.  Charlie (Jason Flemyng) is a successful London publisher, but he is constantly in the shadow of his wealthy overbearing mother.  She is in every corner of his life--his work, his love life, his business interactions, and she wants to continue to control it all.  So while he is headed into middle age, he is not free of his family of origin.  He is engaged to be married, but it becomes very clear that his mother is more in love with his fiancee than he is.

He takes out an ill advised loan from a loan shark to launch a business with his close friend--the loan comes due, he doesn't have the money, his friend gets hit by lightning and dies, all more or less on the same day.  He refuses to go to his mother for help with the loan repayment, and he hits the road once he is roughed up by a couple of intimidating women who are his loan shark's enforcers.  Before you know it he has stumbled upon a curious old hotel, with a nearby semi-restored amusement park and a bevy of oddball locals, including the enchanting Grace (Kirsty Mitchell). 

Initially the allure is just how hidden he is amongst this crowd, but as time goes on, he starts to fall for the people and the place.  They do not treat him like the boss, they do not suck up to him because of his money and class, and they do encourage him to follow his dreams.  Which he has a very hard time doing--much of the movie is the false starts that he makes in searching for his bliss.  But remember, this is a British comedy, and a happy ending is mandatory.  Very fun and quirky movie.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Alif the Unseen by Willow Willson

There is an element of magical realism in this novel.  It is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in the midst of the Arab spring.  Much like Jerusalem, the city at the center of the action in the novel is subdivided into quarters.  In Jerusalem it is divided based on religion and history, but in this story it seems to be more socioeconomic.  The exception to this rule is the Empty Quarter.  This is where the magic comes in—the Empty Quarter is the realm of ghouls and demons, and quite literally who-knows-what.  It is unchartered desert, and no one with their wits about them wants to be there or go there.
Alif is a pseudonym, named for the first letter of the Arabic alphabet.  He is a free agent in the world of zones and quarters.  He’s got the information security background required to protect the identity of a poster on the internet and he is available to all who can pay.  His customers cross all sorts of barriers that are unbreachable in the real time social life of the country—he works for the rich, the rabble rousers, women, men, the educated and the illiterate.  He makes it possible to communicate across social networks anonymously.  He facilitates tremendous opportunity for communication of like-minded people, and that puts him at odds with the repressive regime under which he lives.  Add to that his personal life.  He is sleeping with the intended bride of the government’s key hench man for information security, and this is not a country that takes infidelity lightly.
Alif gets captured, then rescued, then his real adventure starts in the Empty Quarter.  The surreal quality to the novel transports the reader to a place where all things are possible, but they come with a price. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Shrimp in Spicy Peruvian Red Sauce

2 lbs. small shrimp
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. vodka

Place into a jar, shake, and set aside for at least an hour.

For the sauce:

1 1/2 ounces of dried red peppers (panca, mirasol best)

To rehydrate--cook in a quart of water, boiling about 15 minutes until soft.  Puree in a blender with about 1/4 c. of the cooking liquid.  Set aside.

Now, to make the dish:

2 Tbs. olive oil
8 cloves garlic finely chopped
1 red onion finely chopped
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c.stock
1/4 c. dry vermouth
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro leave
4 oz. creamy feta, crumbled

Heat the oil in a large skillet--saute garlic, onions and cook until soft, about 10 minutes.  Add the pepper puree, cumin salt, and potatoes--stir about a minute, and then add the vermouth and the stock.  Cook covered for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are soft.  Add shrimp and cook 2-3 minutes. Finish with the feta and cilantro and serve.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

To Rome with Love (2012)

Let's start off by saying that none of the love that is depicted in this film is fairy book material.  It is not what you would want to watch on Valentine's Day, and it is not the sort of love story that holds general appeal.  It is a dark comedy sort of a love story.

Woody Allen tours the cities of Europe in his 21st century films--first London, then Barcelona, followed by a luminous film in Paris. This go round it is Rome, and it is recognizably Rome indeed--we see the Tivoli Fountain, the Spanish steps, and the house where Keats lived and died in when he was in Rome.  This is the Rome of tourist fame.

The movie is not so much a story as it is dropping in on four different stories--two Italian and two Americans visiting Italy.  The stories have reasonable beginnings, but they taper off to a fade rather than end.  For my taste the two most successful stories are a farce involving Italian newlyweds and one that involves an American couple.  The Italians more or less fall into bed with people who are not their spouse, with almost no consequences, and the Americans involve a third party and a chorus (Alec Baldwin, who is my favorite character in the whole film).  The dialogue is not tip top Woody Allen, but the acting is enjoyable and the film is diversionary, if not illuminating.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye

These are three linked novellas that center on three different women with three different definitions of ‘strong’.  The author grew up in France, born of a French mother and a Senegalese father, and like her, the three women have links with both France and Senegal—going from most connected to France to most connected to Africa in the order of the books.  One word of caution—these are not uplifting stories.  The women are tough because they have to be, not because they want to be.  Worse still there are really no men in the story who have any redeeming qualities.  They are selfish, brutish, narcissistic, occasionally sadistic, and not one of them is someone you would want to sit next to on a train, much less work with or have a social relationship with.
The first story is about Norah, who travels to visit her estranged Senegalese father who, years earlier, had left his French wife and daughters while taking his 5-year-old son back to Senegal. He is unbearable, both as a man and as a father.  Norah learns that her father is a ruined man, and he has taken out a most callous revenge on her brother.  The trauma includes small children of uncertain parentage abandoned after their mother is killed—I warned you, these are not happy stories.
In the second story, a French man fears losing Fanta, his African lover, and their son due to his financial and moral failings. We see little of Fanta beyond her graceful reticence, but we become uncomfortably intimate with her partner, Rudy, a mentally unhinged kitchen renovation salesman with a persistent hemorrhoidal itch (I will not make any Freudian comments other than to say they are obvious).
In the third, we re-encounter Khady, glimpsed earlier by Norah, who is a childless widow cast out by her husband’s family. She journeys from the relative stability of life as a West African market woman to ever-grimmer forms of exploitation.  The moral is that while Europe is not a kind environment, Africa is more brutal and offers up less in the way of justice or revenge.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gorant Chocolatier

The time of chocolates and flowers is upon us, and I would like to recommend these particular chocolates for the upcoming holiday.  Valentine's Day is more of a celebration of guilt rather than love.  There are things that you supposed to do, and if you fail to do them, you are in trouble.  Not my cup of tea, I must say, but if you are someone who will be in the dog house if you fail to produce a delectable box of chocolates as a surrogate for the quality and quantity of your love, these are my recommended ones.

My family of origin is all about familiarity and repetition.
We are not ones for new and different.
We are all about doing what we always do, rather than blazing new ground.
We always have turkey for Christmas dinner.  We always have soup on Christmas Eve.  We like things to be predictable.
One of the recurring holiday gifts within my family is See’s chocolates—the ideal is to go to the store and create a box of favorites, but the Nuts and Chews collection is a very acceptable second best.  It is not so much that See’s is the best chocolate, but rather that it is very good chocolate that we have been sharing as a family for my entire life.  It is familiar, and the holidays are all about tradition.
Several years ago my father brought a new brand of chocolate into the Christmas season—Gorant chocolates are an Ohio chocolatier and they have a very good collection of chocolate covered nuts that we shared for several years.  I really loved them, and when the store in their neighborhood stopped carrying them, I really missed them.  This year I discovered what I should have thought of earlier—they are available on line.  We did a side-by-side taste testing this Christmas and we all agreed.  The Gorant chocolates definitely have better chocolate than the See’s—and a higher chocolate to nut ratio as well.  I foresee this being the new gold standard for the holidays.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Liberal Arts (2012)

There are two kinds of people who will really like this movie.  The first are people like me--those who really loved their time in college.  The story takes place on a liberal arts college campus in Ohio (Kenyon College), and if you loved the time that you spent in a similar location you will be biased towards this movie.  The story is one of a man growing up, to become his adult self--if you like those sorts of stories where you finally look in the mirror and wee who you are, you will like this movie.

I loved my college life--when I am back on the campus of the undergraduate institution of my youth, I can almost become that person again.  At least in my mind--once not long ago when I was there a student asked me when I graduated and when I said, his reply was "wow, I wasn't even born then".  Well of course not--I was looking at colleges with my children, and thankfully, I did not yet have any of them when I was an undergraduate.  The message to me was that I was inconceivably old, whereas it seemed like only yesterday that I was in his shoes.

So I am compromised--this is a story set in a place that I am prone to love.  Jesse is a 35-year old living in New York, working in a college admissions office.  He dresses like he did in college, he is always carrying a book, and he isn't quite sure what he is going to do when he grows up (uh oh, that sounds dangerously close to my situation...only I am far older, I have lost my youthful figure, and my book is in my backpack, not in my wonder I liked this movie).  He goes back to his alma mater for the retirement of his favorite professor, and while he is there, he meets a college student who falls for him--and he for her, although he is deeply disturbed by just how inappropriate the relationship is.  As he grapples with who he is and what is going on with his attraction to a teenager, he emerges a different man.  He grows a little, and more importantly, he is thinking about who he is and who he wants to be.  I only hope it doesn't take my boys this long....

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Pink Gun Killed Him

A child picked up a pink gun, thought it was a toy, too cute to be dangerous, and is now dead, killed by that innocent appearing firearm.  I have previously posted my feelings about pink guns.  My quibble was not that they looked too cute, but rather that it was entirely inappropriate, even gruesome, for a breast cancer foundation, which is dedicated to saving the lives of women who have breast cancer, to have its name associated with a gun.  It seemed to me that they were entirely off message with that association.  Owning a gun puts you at roughly a 10 fold increase for dying of gun violence.  Those statistics cross all socio-economic classes.  They do not just apply to people living in poverty, of people who are involved in the drug trade.  They apply to all of us—some are more likely to die by accident, some by suicide, and some by murder, but the risk that you put yourself under is the same, no matter what color your skin is, where you live,  or how much money you have.  So why would an organization dedicated to saving lives encourage the purchase of an item that would increase their chance of being killed?  Don’t wait for the cancer to kill you, buy a gun now!  You control your fate!  Only it turns out that you do not.
Now we have another dead child in the news.  What is the bigger tragedy?  That Tmorej Smith, a South Carolina 3 year old boy, was shot accidentally with a pink gun that he and his sister are presumed to have thought was a toy, or that if it wasn’t for the mass shooting of school children in Connecticut in December we wouldn’t even hear this story.  The truth is that this happens all the time.  The tragedy is that it ceased to be news, and that it took someone killing a classroom full of children for our country to even pay attention to it.
This death was entirely preventable.  It highlights the folly of dolling up weapons that kill people—it is a highly lethal weapon and it should look like one.  If you feel it is a given that you will own a gun, then at the very least we should require gun owners to pass safety testing, and to maintain their weapons in a safe manner.  They infringe on the rights of others with irresponsible gun safety practices.  Gun locks and keeping weapons unloaded and out of the hands of non-gun owners is a must.  Gun owners should be qualified and tested on a regular basis, just like drivers are.  They should be required to control their weapons and keep them out of the hands of non-licensed folks.  Why is that even up for debate?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Family--The One You Marry Into

Today marks 32 years of a shared destiny with my spouse.  When you marry someone or otherwise join your life with theirs, you take on more than the individual.  You don’t have to, but as is oft repeated, ‘no man is an island’.  You acquire a life partner, you also get their family.
You do have some flexibility about this situation.  It is not always mandatory that you welcome all of your partner’s family with open arms.  There are some factors to consider—the first is your spouse’s relationship with their relatives and family friends.  You might luck out.  The relationship could either be so fantastic or so terrible that when you opt for a life together, you think you n know more or less what you are getting into.  Up to a point, you can decide if this is the sort of family relationship you can live with going forward.  I sometimes worry that this is a significant hindrance for my offspring and their candidates for long term relationships.  We are loud, opinionated, occasionally overbearing (maybe more than occasionally, if the truth be told…), and I suspect that may be a little overwhelming for the uninitiated.  We literally eat off each other’s plates.  If someone orders something that they don’t like, we try to find a way to trade and share so that everyone is satisfied.  It is a community model of resource allocation.  Private stockpiling of preferred commodities is not well tolerated.  Some people come from families where what you order is what you get.  Brace yourself—life at the Kline dinner table, whether at home or out, is quite another story.
So I worry that it eliminates otherwise wonderful people who find us just too lacking in personal boundaries.  But does the present reflect the future?  Would someone who shares my offspring’s life have to buy into that?  Probably it would be completely unnecessary, but it might be hard to see that when you are at the ground level.  There are several reasons that it is not required, and the most important one is that you really do not know what the future holds.
On the other hand, it is important to think about if you can deal with the family system your partner grew up in, because things like how you will deal with the inevitable disasters that will occur down the road are reflected in how you were raised.  Are you people who band together, or are you an ‘every man for himself’ sort of family? Do you help others?  Are you generous or self-protecting?  What works for you in terms of what you need?  Most importantly, do you share values?  In the end, I think that is the most important ingredient to success of a long term relationship and what you can learn from looking at your partner’s family.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Trouble with the Curve (2012)

The more of Clint Eastwood that I see, both on and off the screen, the more I wonder if he is acting at all.  This might just be him, playing himself, but he is reading the lines that someone else wrote.  Judging from his performance at the Republican National Convention this past summer, he should be mightily grateful to have those lines.

All of this sounds slightly petty and more than a little crabby--which is funny, because irascible old men are the role that Eastwood has consistently played this past decade (as opposed to the irascible young men that he used to portray).  Do not misunderstand me.  I liked this movie, despite the lack of chemistry that was generated by Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake.

The story is that Eastwood is a baseball scout of the old school.  He reads player's stats in the newspaper.  He goes to see them play to figure out who is just shining because there is no competition and who has what it takes to make it in the big leagues.   He has two major problems--the first is that he is way too old school.  The young scouts want him gone.  The other is that he has macular degeneration and he really cannot see any more.  He is given an ultimatum on a potential high school start, and much to his dismay, his daughter comes to join him, knowing that he can't actually watch the kid play--she is his eyes, and he uses his ears, and together they come to what appears at film's end to be the right decision.

This is a feel good movie about baseball, including the value of the old style approach to recruiting.  It has imbedded in it some lessons on what not to do as a parent.  Eastwood's wife died when his daughter was very young, and as he himself admits, he did not cope very well, and he never talked with her about it and he never apologized to her.  As a result, she has been in therapy for years, and is emotionally as unavailable as he is.  The outcome of that problem is less satisfactory than the baseball story, but that is the nature of the beast--business is neat and tidy, life is more messy.  Recommended, unless you absolutely hate sports movies.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

This is a very good short book about what matters and what probably does not when it comes to the character of children and the success they go on to have as adults.  There is not a lot of new ground broken here, but it is a good reminder that the things that we thought would be helpful don’t always turn out that way, that character can be taught and manipulated and changed.

Seven characteristics matter:
·         Grit
·         Self control
·         Zest
·         Social intelligence
·         Gratitude
·         Optimism
·         Curiosity 

The author goes through each of these, giving specific examples of each characteristic, and why in particular it is a stand alone important trait.  Then he goes through a series of very compelling stories about how to positively influence the character of high risk children, kids who grow up in both violence and poverty, who have a high risk of dropping out of high school, much less never going to college.  One vehicle is chess--which teaches children patience, self control, and gives them some confidence in their intellectual abilities.  He tells the story of a middle school chess team that has not so much tremendous talent as it has depth--so as a team they have a chance to win, even though as individuals they do not.   There is a little bit of the Malcolm Gladwell concept of 'Outliers'--that if you practice anything long enough that you can become good at it--the idea that some things can indeed be taught, that you do not have to be born with any of the characteristics necessarily.  You can learn them--but you have to stick with it.

The final section of the book is about sticking with things.  The author explores some of the things that led to himself dropping out of college at one point, and juxtaposes that against some of the kids that he interviewed in writing the book--this is the brightest part of the book, for my taste, because it contextualizes the intellectual material and allows the reader to do the same.  Very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Memorable North Dakota Refugee

Every once in a great while when you travel on a plane you get the pleasure of sitting next to someone who is really special, someone who you will never forget.  I had that experience recently on a flight from Baltimore to Chicago.

I met Laetitia Mizero.  She is the North Dakota State Refugee Coordinator and 15 years ago she was a refugee herself.  She grew up in Burundi in a family that had six children.  Burundi is a central African country sandwiched between Rwanda to the north and Tanzania to the south.  Like Rwanda, there are Hutus and Tutsis.  The Hutus make up a majority of the population and the Tutsis dominated politics and the military.  On October 21, 1993, Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. As a result of the murder, violence broke out between the two groups, and an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people died within a year, and over the next twelve years the death toll rose to 300,000, with another 250,000 leaving the country as refugees.  A nightmare.  Not a unique nightmare, but a catastrophe none-the-less.   Laetitia is the perfect person to help new refugees adjust, because she has been there herself.  

Laetitia left Burundi first for Burkina Faso, and then for the United States--she traveled with her then 3 year old son, as well as three younger sisters and a younger brother.  She and one of her sisters were adults, and they were primarily responsible for the welfare of their family--more on that in a future post.  Our conversation that afternoon was like a pendulum.  It veered in many directions.  The things we focused on were the ways we were alike and the ways that we were not.  Laetitia has left her home, her country, her family and friends behind, coming to the United States to find a new life--I know nothing of that.  Yet we share values.  We did not shy away from discussing social justice, immigration, the importance of education, and how all these things are key ingredients in what makes our country great.  It was a joy to be with her, even if for just a few moments, because she is exactly what I think of when I talk about how important having open doors is to our success as a nation.  We are a richer people because we have diverse cultures within our borders.  We haven't exactly melted together yet, but we are slowly but surely getting there.  It is just so wonderful to be reminded of that.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

What to do when you know the world is doomed to end?  In this comedic drama, an asteroid is hurdling towards the earth and everyone knows that the end is near.  All efforts to stop it have failed and so all that is left to do is wait.   If I am ever faced with this situation, this would be the dream solution to all the bad mistakes that I would have had to make to find myself where Steve Carroll finds himself.

He plays Dodge, an insurance salesman who leaves work one day when he realizes the absurdity of selling whole-life insurance policies in the current climate.  His wife has suddenly walked off to join the man she loves—which Dodge had thought was him, but it turned out that he was wrong about that.  So he is all alone—he has few close friends, and we later find out that his relationship with his father has some unfortuante wrinkles as well.  Then he meets Kiera Knightley who lives nearby.  They talk in a way that you can only do with strangers on a train, and he gradually, ever so slightly begins to realize that she is the one that got away.  She is the love of his life.

They discover this mutual affection for each other as they collaborate on a road trip together—they first have to escape her mildly deranged boyfriend and some fairly serious rioting and looting in their city.  Then they have hurdles like finding cars, finding gas, and finding lost loved ones.  The landscape is deserted once they get out of the city, and they have a lot of alone time as a result.  It is a sweet funny end-of-the-world movie that will make you smile and think at the same time.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

This author has focused her fiction in the peri-WW I era in England, and this book is no exception to that rule.  As anyone who has watched ‘Downton Abbey’ knows, WW I was a sea change for England.  The was not only a colossal waste of life and resources.  It represented a shift in the importance of class in England, as well as the roles of women in society.  That is the cultural and social backdrop against which the story takes place.
The book is entitled ‘Toby’s Room’ but it is really about Toby’s sister, Elinor.  They are siblings who are unusually close throughout their lives.  They are so close that they have a taboo sexual relationship that was a ‘one off’ event for Toby, but Elinor is not so convinced about that.  She wants that extended intimacy, which in childhood meant one thing but in adulthood would certainly include sex.  Which is why you are supposed to leave your family of origin behind you and find intimacy with a partner—because sex with you family of origin is really frowned upon.  
The book does not focus on incest, but rather sees it as part of the drive for Elinor’s obsession with Toby.  When she has a premonition that he will not come home from his military service in France and he is soon thereafter reported ‘missing in action, presumed dead’. She becomes obsessed with what happened to him.  The subtext of that obsession is that something triggered that premonition, and that she somehow knew that not coming back is what he intended.    She is desperate to find out what his state of mind was those last few days on the battlefield, and somehow absolve herself from the guilt she feels that she should have recognized the danger and done something about it.  She really wants to be wrong, but she is equally sure that she is right.  She drops all the social niceties in her pursuit of her goal, which is wholly unladylike at the beginning of the 20th century.  Pursuing men who ignore you is simply not done.  She can’t let it go because she can’t get on with her life without knowing.  She is sleeping in Toby’s room and painting Toby.  So he is in her thoughts both day and night.  Moving forward with ordinary tasks of life is simply impossible for her.  The backdrop of WW I, men with profound physical and psychological damage, magnifies her obsession, but the truth is that the death of a parent, a spouse, a child, or a sibling leads to tremendous and ongoing trauma in those left behind, and post WW I in England it was almost impossible to have not lost at least one of those.  This is a serious story well told.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

University of Iowa Dance Marathon 19

The art of charity is a good thing to learn.  The earlier you learn it the better, and the more you exercise it the better.

I am personally invested in the University of Iowa's Dance Marathon mission, which is childhood cancer and all things related to it, that I sometimes forget that there is a broader message to be learned by the thousands of dancers who participate each year.  They have the opportunity to do two things--they are giving of themselves for the benefit of others, which is a good lesson to experience, even if you don't learn much from it.  The other is that they acknowledge that bad things happen to people, some of them children.  They get a chance to talk to families of children with cancer and hear what their experience with illness and trouble has been like.

Pictured here are two of this year's dancers.  On the right is my youngest son, himself a childhood cancer survivor.  This year is his 13th Dance Marathon as a survivor, but it is his first year as a dancer.  He raised a reasonable amount of money and he usually stays up all night anyway, so I don't think the experience of dancing will have the impact that it does for many participants.  On the right is my daughter in law--she has danced before, and she has a long standing relationship not just with her husband, but with the whole family, so the impact is not so great for her either.

There are many college students who have not had a personal brush with serious illness.  You can't learn in 24 hours what that is like, but it at least opens your eyes.  Then there is the work that the students who get involved at the leadership level do--they really work year round on the effort to not just raise and distribute money for the greater good.  They are also exposed to what it is like to be a child in the hospital, what that is like for families, and I think you can't help but come away from that experience a better person.  It is true altruism--you get as much as you give.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ground Hog Day Reflections

In Iowa, it used to be that there was no question.  On February 2nd, whether the groundhog saw his shadow or not, there were six more weeks of winter.  And I don’t mean low key around freezing winter.  I mean temperatures could hover in the single digits—or lower—for weeks to come.  Not so these past few years.  This year at Groundhog Day we have yet to have any sustained Iowa winter weather.  By that I mean we have had a lack of consecutive days where the temperature is bone crushingly cold.  We have had weeks where the low might be 1, but the high is 52.  Or higher still.  So while we have had a bit of snow, and nights where you wouldn’t go out without full winter gear, we have also had weather in the 50’s and 60’s.  And lots of it. 
In the meantime, Australia has had the hottest summer on record—with day time highs going to 130 degrees.  China has had more snow than they can withstand—literally.  Roof cave-ins from snow burden are at an all time high.  The world has more storms and weather variation than anyone can remember—yes, that is a poor indication of climate changes, but that is not all.  Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have been in the 21st century.  That, combined with the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, lead to what some would have hoped would have been obvious conclusions.  We have a problem.
I hope that in the next four years we see our way to energy sustainability and independence as containing lots more wind and solar.  Fracking oil is not the legacy I want to leave my grandchildren with.  The current lack of leadership in the country makes planning for the future challenging at best, but as the numbers of young people soar, people who see themselves as needing a functional planet 50 years down the road, and who see that there might be profit in being pioneers in those solutions, then we might stand a chance.
In the meantime, get ready for spring.