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Friday, January 31, 2014

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

My husband's comment after reading the first third of this book on a plane was' "That Ursula is really unlucky."  Indeed she is.  This is the ultimate 'do over' book.  Ursula Todd, born in 1910, gets numerous chances to relive her life. Every time Todd dies, Atkinson brings her back and gives her a chance to relive the moments that killed her first time around – and so to carry on living.  I have always said that the real money in a time machine is to be made in being able to go back five minutes, not to time travel back to the Middle Ages or forward into whatever dystopian reality that the distant future may hold.  Ursula sometimes goes back years rather than minutes (she makes a decision that leaves her in Nazi Germany, and when she gets the chance to reset the clock she has to go back to the time when she could have made a decision to leave).

The writing is fantastic, so even though there were times when I got a little lost in what was actually going on in the story (this is no where near as confusing as Will Self's book 'Umbrella', but it is non-linear enough that if you get a little distracted you could have trouble finding your bearings), I enjoyed the story as it was told, and could eventually link it to the previous narrative.  One of the New York Times best books of 2013, it is well worth the read.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Prince Avalanche (2013)

This is a small movie--almost like a play that has been transferred to the great outdoors.  There are only four characters, three of which were part of the original script and one that got added in later because they found her there when they were filming.  The natural setting of the movie is a significant part of it's beauty and it would not work neary as well indoors in a theater because part of the story is about living outdoors.

Alvin (Paul Rudd) gets his girlfriend's brother Lance (Emile Hirch) hired on to help him finish marking a road that was part of a larger sweeping fire that went through Texas, destroying a surprising nubmer of homes before it was put out. The opening scenes show a ferosious and fearsome fireball that seems impossible to tame or control.  Alvin and Lance are tasked with patinting the center line down the road and resetting the reflectors on the side of the road--it is repetative and boring work that is saved only by the beautiful setting that it takes place in.

We are introduced to Lance through Alvin's eyes--he sees him as a boy struggling to grow up, with few skills and less ambition.  Lance does have those limitations, but there is more to him than that, and we see that as the movie unfolds.  Alvin is a man who is more comfortable in the woods than he is with people.  He can skin a squirrel, gut a fish, and feed himself in the great outdoors, but when it comes to dealing with people and relationships he is far less adept.  The movie is quirky and wise at the same time, and well worth watching.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Palazzo Reale, Naples, Italy

As you might expect in a Neopolitan palace, this is an imposing building with high painted ceilings and marble floors.  It leans towards the baroque more than a little but it is well worth a visit if you are in naples for more than a day.  It is one of the four residences used by the Bourbon Kings of Naples during their rule of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, and you can see that those Bourbons were not much into roughing it.
This imposing palace was designed by Domenico Fontana and built in 2 years, from 1600 to 1602, for the Spanish king Filippo III. Ironically, he never made it to Naples, and the castle was used by later kings who enlarged it in the 18th century. Luigi Vanvitelli worked on the facade , closing some of the arches to strengthen the walls and creating niches.

One of the highlights of the palalce for me is their spectacular collection of enormous tapestries.  The craftsmanship and artistry that goes into weaving tapestries of the quality of what is found in this collection is beyond me, but what I do know is that the end results are magnificent.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

News Literacy

News flash.  People who identify Fox News as their primary source of news were less informed about domestic news, things that happen in our country, than people who stated that they had no source of news.  The study conducted at Fairleigh Dickinson University and herein quoted is recent, but their findings merely replicate what has been found in several polls, going back several years. 

It is low hanging fruit to state that of course this is true, because while Fox has "news" in their name, in no way do they convey news.  They convey ideology, and if that means that they have to bend the truth to do so, then so be it.  The problem with that is that not all viewers know that they are being lied to.  Most amusing is that viewers of a comedy show that clearly states that it is not the news, The Daily Show, were far better informed than those who watched more traditional news--a fake news show was found to be more informative, in that people remembered the news that they saw and were able to more accurately answer questions about domestic affairs.

A week ago Glenn Beck stated in an interview with Megyn Kelly (who infamously averred that both Jesus, a Semite from the Middle East, and Santa Claus, an imaginary character, were both white) that mistakes were made.   He used language that I suspect he was coached by lawyers to say--he regretted things that he said, and felt that he had contributed to the rise in acrimonious politics in the United States--although there was the back handed slam that he did not realize just how fragile we were.  Of course he did.  First of all, while he talks like an ignoramus, he is not one, and it doesn't take a political genius, or in fact a 10 year old, to see that there are large rifts that exist in America.  The Civil War was fought here, and while we are technically one country, there are still many differences that separate us, and fanning the flames of hatred has always been good for getting an audience.  The Greeks knew that, politically extreme governments know that (Egypt and Turkey being two contemporary examples), and Beck knew that.  Maybe this is his mea culpa ride back to some kind of relevancy.  Let's hope not--let's not forget that he is the guy who has advocated the murder of specific individuals as well as calling Obama a black supremacist--he should go far far away.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Stuck in Love (2012)

I found this to be a charming romantic comedy, despite the improbable fact that there are two, soon to be three published authors in the mix.  I would love to think that it was so common to get a book or story published that pretty much any one who wrote well could accomplish the task, but that has always been rare and is only more so now that things in print seem to be increasingly rare.  It is like a return to the 19th century, except with the internet.  So skip over that and enjoy the rest of the movie.  Please note, I have a relatively serious weakness for the indie romance, and all that follows should be read with that in mind.

William Borgens (Greg Kinnear) is an unhappily divorced man who lives with his dysphoric son Rusty (Nat Wollf).  William may have a regular roll in the hay with his much younger neighbor, but what he really wants is to have his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly) back.  So badly that he regularly sets a place for her at holiday dinners, despite the fact it has been three years.  Which is a very bad example for his children--and they point that out.  His daughter Samantha (Lily Collins) is his exact opposite.  She is relationship phobic, and has made a literary career of kiss and tell 21st century style.  She wants no sex that involves entanglements, and you can see watching her parents where she might have developed an aversion to emotions that lead to the kind of pain her father is in.  She hates her mother for it, and she runs from intimacy like it was contagious.  As a  result bit she and her brother are getting involved in their first real loves simultaneously.  The movie is occasionally funny, occasionally wise, and occasionally absurd, but all in all, very enjoyable.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trojan Women by Euripides (415 BCE)

Euripides is not a big fan of war if 'Trojan Woman" is any indication.  It takes place at the end of the ten year war between the Greeks and the people of Troy.  The Greeks have prevailed--it is very hard to way 'won' because at some point mid-war, almost everyone of note has been killed.  But Odysseus did manage the final nail in the Trojan coffin with a large horse filled not with adoration to Athena but with Greek soldiers, who killed the men and raped the women.  Oh that those aspects of war are behind us, but we know quite well that they are not.

This is the third in a trilogy of plays about the Trojan War, and it is told from the perspective of the Trojan women, who are learning their ultimate fate--who will they go with, in what role, and where will they end up.  While Cassandra correctly foresees the outcome, no one believes her (the curse of Apollo), the interesting part comes after Hecuba chastises Helen for leaving her husband, traveling with Paris to Troy and starting the whole thing.  Never mind that she was cursed by Aphrodite and had no free will.  Never mind that Paris made the choice that brought about the ruin of Troy.

 Helen fights back.  She reminds Hecuba that she knew the prophesy when Paris was born that he would bring about the defeat of Troy and yet she could not bring herself to end his life.  Who is to blame for that?  Surely not Helen.  In addition, Helen claims that she is actually the savior of Greece. Paris had been the judge of a beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Each of the three goddesses bribed the judge by promising to reward him if he gave her the prize. Hera promised to make him the ruler of Europe and Asia. Athena promised to make him a mighty commander who would conquer Greece. Aphrodite described Helen's beauty and promised Paris that Helen would be his wife. Paris decided in favor of Aphrodite, so he married Helen instead of conquering or ruling over Greece. In this way, Helen makes the case that Paris is to blame, and that she has in some way saved Greece.  She was a wily woman.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Best Sandwich Bread

This is simply the best sandwich bread for two reasons--it is fast and it has an incredible crust with a chewy moist center--and it is super fast--from start to finish it is 1 1/2 hours.  So you can get up in the morning and have it for lunch, or get home from work and make sandwiches to take to work the next day.  I know that this might not convert those who love their bread machines, but I think it is a winner.  It is adapted from the Cook's Illustrated recipe.

  • 2 cups (11 ounces) bread flour
  • 6 tablespoons (2 ounces) whole-wheat flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons warm water (120 degrees)
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon water 
  • 1/4. tsp salt salt


1. In bowl of stand mixer, mix bread flour, whole-wheat flour, and yeast together. Add 1¼ cups warm water, 2 tablespoons melted butter, and honey. Use a paddle and mix on low speed for 1 minute. Increase speed to medium and mix for 2 minutes. Scrape down bowl and paddle with greased rubber spatula. Continue to mix 2 minutes longer. Remove bowl and paddle from mixer. Scrape down bowl and paddle, leaving paddle in batter. Cover with plastic wrap and let batter rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 20 minutes.  It will be very moist, and in the end,  the dough can be poured into the bread pan.
2. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 9 by 5-inch loaf pan with vegetable oil spray. Dissolve salt in remaining 2 tablespoons warm water. When batter has doubled, attach bowl and paddle to mixer. Add salt-water mixture and mix on low speed until water is mostly incorporated, about 40 seconds. Increase speed to medium and mix until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute, scraping down paddle if necessary. Transfer batter to prepared pan and smooth surface with greased rubber spatula. Cover and leave in warm place until batter reaches ½ inch below edge of pan, 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover and let rise until center of batter is level with edge of pan, 5 to 10 minutes longer.
3. Gently brush top of risen loaf with egg mixture. Bake until deep golden brown and loaf registers 208 to 210 degrees, 40 to 45 minutes. Using dish towels, carefully invert bread onto wire rack. Reinvert loaf and brush top and sides with remaining 1 tablespoon melted butter. Let cool (more or less) completely before slicing.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Elysium (2013)

This futuristic vision of the year 2154 is from the makers of 'District 9', and their fingerprint is visible, as are those of 'Mad Max' and Blade Runner'. 

Earth  has been ravaged by disease, pollution, and overpopulation. The wealthy have abandoned ship and now live on a space station called Elysium, which can be seen in the clouds by those who have no hope of living there. Max (Matt Damon)  has grown up watching Elysium from his rundown,  L.A. neighborhood (which is only slightly more rundown that the Watts I remember from the mid-1960's).

Max is an allegedly reformed car thief who is working in a grueling factory job.  Despite his living conditions, he is trying to keep things together in a society openly rigged against the poor.
It's not easy. Amid a gritty cityscape populated by cluttered streets and dirty hospitals, a robot police force makes arrests indiscriminately, with no apparent restraints on brutality. Sentencing is automated, administered by a droid, and there are no appeals.  When he gets a radiation exposure that is lethal he agrees to a rogue plan to invade Elysium and make all the citizens of Earth eligible for the improbably good health care they enjoy in paradise. There are a lot of things that require a suspense of reality here, but there are many things that are only slightly more extreme than the Republican view of how America should be.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hosteria Toledo, Naples, Italy

This was our second favorite restaurant that we ate at on a recent trip to Naples and because of the proximity to our hotel, we ate here more than once.

The first time we ate was on a week night and that was the very best--the restaurant is family owned.  While we were there on a Thursday night it was only ourselves and one other table--but we were not lonely, because many family members dropped in, came to chat, had presents to leave off, and it was a very homey environment.
The best dishes here in our experience had either shrimp or clams.  The clams are the smaller sized ones that I favor, and either alone or in a pasta vongole sauce, they were spectacular.  I have a slight preference for the pasta, because the overall sauce was quite good.  The shrimp are the far more flavorful kind that you can get in the Mediterranean and these I preferred all by themselves--taking off the heads, shelling them and savoring the highly flavorful meat, which is akin to the flavor of lobster but with a far more tender meat--is heavenly.  The Antipasto Toledo was a delicious medley of grilled and marinated vegetables, with the highlight being the grilled zucchini with mint--I wish I had the recipe for this, because I would make it year round.   We did not try the fish, but there were several dishes that we saw on fellow diners' tables that looked spectacular, and not a morsel was left on the plate.  Best of all, the food is quite reasonably priced, with a wonderful wine least that is equally affordable.  Don't forget to end the meal with limoncello.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hippolytus by Euripides (428 BCE)

Euripides is not a playwright known for his happy endings and Hippolytus is no exception.  They don't call it tragedy for nothing.  I have not read Euripides since high school, but have been immersed in Classical Mythology with my youngest son this past several months, and it is well worth revisiting these stories later in life.  I had forgotten just how brutal they are, and how little people have changed over the last 3,000 years.

Hippolytus is the son of the great Athenian hero Theseus.  He is like Adonis, not much for the women, and more focused on the hunt.  Artemis is his godess of choice.  Aphrodite does not take kindly to men who are not easily woed by sex, and she takes offense at his disdain for the pleasures of the flesh. 

Aphrodite's revenge is to make Phaedra, Hippolytus' stepmother, fall desperately in love with him.  She is literally sickened by her lust, and is torn beween starving herself to death and a vow of silence.  Her nurse is worried about her, and managed to get her to confess the etiology of her illness.  This is where the story goes wrong--the nurse, rather than keeping her moth shut and stopping at giving Phaedra a potion to end her infatuation with Hippolytus, decides to tell him, saying that showing it to the light of day will cause it to go away.   No such luck and Phaedra is so embarrassed she kills herself--but not without first leaving a note for Theseus that Hippolytus raped her.

Oh, the Greeks leave trouble in their wake.  Theseus confronts Hippolytus, who tries to reason with Theseus, stating he is a virgin, and not stupid enough to think that raping the King's wife would be a good idea, but to no avail.  Theseus uses one of Poseidon's curses to mortally would Hippolytus as he exited on horses.  Artemis tells Theseus the truth, and vows to take revenge on Aphrodite, but it is too late for Hippolytus.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fill the Void (2012)

This Israeli movie about a cloistered 18-year old girl named Shira in an Orthodox Hasidic community optimistically hoping to find love in an arranged marriage is claustrophobic, with shades of 'Das Boot', 'Fiddler on the Roof', and to a certain extent, 'The Godfather'.

The movie opens with Shira and her mother sureptitiously checking out prospective mates for Shira in supermarkets while her older sister Esther and Esther's handsome and loving husband Yochay await the the birth of their first child.  The ground rules are established early on in the movie--marriages are arranged but the girl has the right of refusal.  The cinematography uses close in shots and low key lighting to build suspense throughout, and the rooms of the houses are all small and filled with people.  The whole atmosphere raises suspense in a way that is at once Victorian and Mafiosa.

Then Ester dies, leaving a grief struck husband and a baby.  Tradition dictates a remarriage for him at one year, and he has an offer from a widow who he knew in childhood who now lives in Belgium.  Shira's mother cannot bear to have Esther's child leave, so she cooks up a plan to have Shira marry him.  Yochay is admittedly older than Shira, but he is also  gorgeous and successful, in contrast to the boys that Shira is considering as alternatives,  The catch is twofold--does Shira want the match, and that the rabbi won't let it go forward unless Shira can convince him that she wants the marriage.  For something as simple as who is going to marry Yochay, the movie is filled with suspense. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Black and White

Happy Martin Luther King Day and the annual opportunity to look at where we are in terms of achieving Dr. King's goal of peace and brotherhood. The very clear message that I have gotten from having an African-American president is that that is not the time to work on race relations.  The fact that you can wrap racism in the cloak of politics and "I just don't agree with you" is shockingly prevalent.  Race is still a very big deal and we are no where near the point where Dr. King would like to be even though almost 50 years have passed wince he voiced this hope.  Change is difficult, and it is also very slow.

I would not have predicted it when I was younger, but for a very long time I have voiced the extremely unpopular belief that the best advocates for diversity are those who do not have a dog in the fight. Men can be far more effective advocates for the rights and representation of women, so long as they are actually passionate about that cause. The same goes for straight and long time married people vocally advocating for marriage equality.  The role of bringing diversity and civility and fairness to education and the work place is complicated, but essential.  If the person tasked with that job is merely window dressing, someone who is there to demonstrate that indeed "we have a Diversity Officer", then they are just as ineffective as the next guy.  Organizations need to want change, even demand change or it will not happen.  But if there is a will there is a way.

My annual MLK Day speech to my four white male offspring, all of whom are now adults, is that they need to be the most vocal advocates for civil rights. Speak out in favor of civil rights when none of them directly benefit you--because the truth is that we all benefit from diversity, and to know people who come from different places and cultures and perspectives is the best reward of all. Doing the right thing makes the world a better place, which is ultimately good for everyone. So keep up the good fight.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

National Archeology Museum, Naples, Italy

This is an amazing museum, holding perhaps the best collection of art from the ancient world.  Originally a cavalry barracks, the museum was established by the Bourbon king Charles VII in the late 18th century to house the rich collection of antiquities he had inherited from his mother, Elisabetta Farnese.  The Farnese family had an enormous collection--much like the Borgia collection in Rome, on the one hand, it is obscene that one family would hoard this much art.  On the other hand, it remained a complete collection, and allows visitors today to see the art all in one place.  In any case, they had everything that could be considered artistically or historically valuable from the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum removed to their private collection, and this is where it all ended up.  Often exhibits are closed off (we missed the Borgia coin collection on the basement level, for example) but it is an awe inspiring collection.  If for no other reason, Napoli is a must see for any student of classics.

After ogling the impressive marble statues on the ground floor, head straight to the mezzanine floor, home to an exquisite collection of Pompeian mosaics. Of the series taken from the Casa del Fauno, it is La battaglia di Alessandro contro Dario (The Battle of Alexander against Darius) in Room LXI that stands out. The best-known depiction of Alexander the Great, the 20-sq-metre mosaic was probably made by Alexandrian craftsmen working in Italy around the end of the 2nd century BC--if it is at all accurate, and impressive looking young man, and by all accounts the best field commander known to the world. In room LIX, look out for the amusing Scene di commedia: musici ambulanti (Comedy Scene: Street Musicians), which portrays a drunken looking group of roving performers. Other outstanding mosaics include one of a cat killing a duck in Room LX and a study of Nile animals in Room LXIII.  I loved the animal mosaics best but they are less well respected.  The craftsmanship of these well prepared me for the mosaics that remain in Pompeii.

The rest of the 1st floor is largely devoted to fascinating discoveries from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale, Stabiae and Cuma. Among them are breathtakingly vivid, mythologically themed wall frescoes from the Villa di Agrippa Postumus and the Casa di Meleagro, as well as a pair of gladiator's helmets, ceramics and glassware – even eggcups.  Really amazing the craftsmanship in the day to day housewares in the first century of the common era.  Unbeleivably beautiful as well as functional.

A word of caution--the 'Secret Rooms' of the museum, which house erotica from Pompeii may seem a little disappointing. It might represent the offerings at the bordello, but they were certainly not imaginative.  The inflated sense of phallus abounded, but judging from the statues, did not reflect the actual size of ancient male genitalia.  Don't miss it, but it is definitely not the highlight of the museum.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Phantom (2013)

This is a Cold War era story about a KGB plan to precipitate World War III, nuclear style.  Inspired by true events, so they say, but filled with a liberal sprinkling of speculative fiction, "Phantom" takes place almost entirely aboard a nearly obsolete Soviet submarine in 1968. The sub will be stripped of some key elements and then sold to the Chinese — but first there's one last mission.

The bad guy is Bruni (David Duchovny) and the good guy is Demi (Ed Harris turns in a stellar performance in this role, which is unfortunately not matched by the script or his fellow actors, but is so good he alone makes it worth watching).  Be aware--everyone talks like they do in real life.  No Soviet accents.  It is always a conundrum about what to do with accents when portraying a story set in another country but the whole thing will be in English.  I find the phony accents disconcerting, but some might find people with Jersey accents talking disparagingly about Americans equally jarring.  So brace yourself for that.

Demi is a craggy-faced, world-weary Soviet sub commander who battles epilepsy, alcoholism, and is plagued by flashbacks that seem right out of a horror movie. He is a complicated hero, to be sure.  Nearing the end of his career, Demi has never escaped the shadow of his father, a legend in Soviet military lore--this is his swan song, his last voyage as well as the subs and he knows that he will not emerge from his father's shadow.  Bruni, who is badly cast (Duchovny is much too likable a guy for this role), stages a mutiny, and things don't end well.  Almost the entire film is shot in the submarine, but the final result has none of the intensity of the classic claustrophobic sbumarine film, 'Das Boot'.  Watch this for Harris' performance.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Medea by Euripides (431 BCE)

Even by Greek standards, Medea was a complicated woman for whom her magical powers were both a gift and a curse. 

The ever troublesome Aphrodite got Eros to cast a spell on Medea so that she would fall in love with Jason when the Argonauts came to town--which worked like a charm, as the saying goes.  Hera then convinced Medea to help Jason capture the Golden Fleece that her father had dominion over.  So Medea double crosses her father, Aeetes, and contributes to the death of her brother Apsyrtus, making it virtually impossible for her to return to her homeland.  She had burned quite a few bridges, and had demonstrated to Jason that she had some powerful magic at her beck and call.  That is the background to the play.

The play opens in Corinth with Jason announcing that he intends to marry another--Glauce, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth.  He wants to marry up, and he is baffled that Medea would not see this as a big opportunity for their two children.  She would be abandoned, with no homeland to return to and there was no sign that Glauce had any interest in her two children.  So her plan is to muder them, children and all. 

Jason comes off as a clueless and ungrateful idiot.  He would never have been able to capture the Golden Fleece without Medea's magical aid, but he strips her of any role in his telling of his successes.  He also seems to have completely forgotten that she has some powerful sorcery at her finger tips, and she did not hesitate to betray her family, why would he fare any better?  Medea does a wonderful speech about how unfair the gender bias is for women in Greek society (which could have been written at any time for centuries afterwards) and then comlpletely loses our symapthy when she sacrifices not just those who have betrayed her, but also her offspring.  The Greeks do tragedy like no others.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Protecting the Water Supply

The problem of water contamination in West Virginia is now declared to have passed (although looking at photos of the water coming out of taps there looks less than appetizing to either drink or bath in), but the episode is a wake up call.  We didn't hear it when it came from residents in areas where fracking has been going on, poinsoning water supplies, but now we have a chemical spill contaminating the water supply of the western side of West Virginia, and there was no real idea of how long it will last because so little was known about the chemical that was spilled, 4-methyl cyclohexane methanol, and what effect it would have on humans and for how long.

The company, Freedom Industries, has a storage tank of this chemical, which is used to wash coal before it is burned, that is near the Elk River.  They were not the ones who identified the leak--the chemical smells like licorice, and somebody smelled and got suspicious.  By that time at least 7,500 gallons had been spilled into the water supply.  Because the company does not manufacture the chemical, they are not required to have regular inspections of their facilities.  So beyond the five days without running water, the real fear has to be that this will be the norm rather than the exception as the climate changes, weather patterns change, and water becomes the resource that is most scarce.  Let's not look back on this time, where we sacrificed water for fossil fuels and regret it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Adore (2013)

Naomi Watts and Robin Wright bring heavy hitting acting to this movie, which is an adaptation of a Doris Lessing novella.  The plot sounds tawdry, but the movie itself is more complex than the basics sound.

The setting is an idyllic coastline in New South Wales.  Liz and Roz are lifelong friends who have grown up there and lived all their adult lives in this place with daily sun and swimming.  They got married, each had a son, and while they are both employed, they seem to spend hours of leisure together. 

The bulk of the movie is set in a time when the women are in their 40's and the boys are in their early 20's.  One boozy night Liz' son confesses to Roz that he is in love with her (and frankly both women are in incredible shape--they have none of the sun damage that you would expect from a life at the beach, and their sparsely clad bodies reveal zero fat and hours of gym work).  She is not hard to convince, and they are off and running, having an affair while Roz' husband is working far out of town.  Roz' son discovers them and in what starts out as more of a grudge match than a love affair, starts to sleep with Liz.  The two women know that they have crossed a line--even though they are not technically related, the affair has an incestuous quality about it--and they know better than to go waltzing into town holding hands with each other's sons.  But try as they might, the attraction does not go away, and the ending is bittersweet at best.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Gender Diversity

The state of Utah is digging deep on why marriage should be betwewen a man and a woman.  Kind of ironic when you remember their polygamist past, and their extended cohabitating families today.  It is not only that I believe polygamy subjugates women and creates power struggles within families.  It is that while the husbands age, their subequent wives remain 14 years old, and that is institutionalized child abuse.  So not a big fan of their history with marriage.

Now they are defending marriage as between a man and a woman--the judge already told them how he feels about the fact that children should live with their biological parents, and that marriage encourages that.  The evidence for the later is not strong, and it is not an argument against same sex marriage--why should those biological children not grow up within a marriage?  It is not like Utah doesn't have divorce, and there are many children living with one biological parent and one non-biological parent.  The court laughed at the idea that a man and a woman are the best pair to raise children--no expert supports that contention so Utah went with the statement that they don't listen to experts.  Lovely.

The final argument is the one that seemed more at home in The Onion instead of the New York Times. That is that the Supreme Court has ruled that diversity of all sorts is of value and importance in education, and therefore Utah feels that gender diversity in marriage is equally important. The court did not mandate that the diversity of any particular group need reflect their representation in the population, and I would argue that we already have gender diversity in marriage to match that in education.  There are single sex institutions of learning that continue to exist, and we do not deeem those educated there to have inferior knowledge. We allow that option.  Then  there is the more troubling problem of gender diversity within the family.  If in fact Utah thinks that gender diversity is paramount, will families like mine, with 4 boys, be forced to give up our children to families that lack the Y-chromosome?  Would we need to trade for girls?  If we are keeping marriage equivalent, what is to prevent the family from being forced to do so?  Would two of my boys go to a marriage with two women?  Then they would have gender diversity.  Marital equality is a civil rights issue, that is for certain, but this just seems like an odd and potentially hazardous argument.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cold Vietnamese Shrimp and Noodle Salad

Patricia Wells has a new cookbook out, and while the food focuses largely on home grown French food, there is a foray into food that originated in countries that were former colonies of France.

This is one of those recipes and it is fantastic--not only is it delicious, it can be assembles ahead of time, and it is light and filling at the same time.  Eliminate the shrimp and it can be vegetarian.  It uses mung bean noodles so it is also gluten free.  This salad is called bun nem nuong, and it is typically eaten for breakfast, with meatballs instead of shrimp, so that is another option.

2 oz. thin mung bean vermicilli noodles
1 lb. shrimp, cooked

1 green papaya julienned (we used a ripe one and it was very good)
1 cucumber julienned
6 tbs. cilantro chopped
6 tbs. basil, thinnly sliced
6 tbs. mint, thinnly sliced
6 tbs. scallions, thinnly sliced
6 tbs. peanuts coarsely chopped

1-2 red bird's eye chilis thinly sliced
3/4 c. lime juice
5 tbs. Vietnamese nam pla (this is key--the Thai nam pla is much strongere flavored)
1/3 c. sugar
1 tbs. minced garlic

Cook noodles in boiling water for 1 minute, rinse under cold water and set aside.
Mix dressing ingredients together, and pour over noodles.  Add vegetables, herbs, and shrimp, toss.  Top with peanuts.
This can all be done up to 8 hours ahead of serving it.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013)

This is not your father's Lone Ranger.  The storu has a quirky beginning, with a Native American statue labeled 'The Noble Savege' coming to life and telling a young boy dressed in full cowboy gear his story of the way the American West was won.  I'll give you a hint, it is not based on the good intentions of hard working men.  It was a corrupt and corporate business driven by money and greed (Tom Wilkinson has yet another amicable bad guy role to play here).

Johnny Depp turns in an impecable straight laced comic performance that is reminicent of Buster Keaton.  His comical face paint does not hurt, but he is equal parts competent, contemptuous, and honorable in his dealings with John Reid (played by Armie Hammer), the kutzy and seriously uncool man who becomes the Lone Ranger.  Tonto is his own man and not a side kick.  He is no Sancho, and that is not the end to where the story veers off from the one we all know.

The West in this movie does not deviate much from what was portrayed in the the 1950's except in it's protrayal of the role that railroads and cash drove what happened in small Western towns--money talks and the bad guys run rough shod over the good guys, and bankers were the real winners.
In this rendition, the Lone Ranger is a decent man from the start, but he's unknowingly serving corrupt masters.  By the end, the Ranger has become something close to an American Robin Hood — an outlaw-by-circumstance who understands the difference between brute force and true moral authority. It is a  long and rambling movie (especially by Disney standards) that is pleasant to watch, often very funny, and occasionally wise.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Dogs in the Workplace

Today is my brother's birthday, and while we did not grow up together, and I never had a dog when I was a child, he and I both share a love affair with canines. So today's post is devoted to my sibling and the dogs we have loved.

 I have loved many dogs, including this one.  Would my work life be better if he were at my side?  Evidence seems to say yes.  We started a pet therapy program on our inpatient psychiatry unit two years ago and it has been an unmitigated success.  Patients with PTSD who have trouble relating to their health care providers readily cuddled up to a dog.  Some of the less enthusiastic amongst us saw puppy puddles and dog bites as potential hazards but none of that has materialized.
So what about all of us bringing mans best friend into the workplace?  According to a study, employees who bring their dogs to work produced lower levels of the stress-causing hormone cortisol.  Published in spring 2012, the study, led by Randolph Barker, a professor of management, was conducted at a dinnerware company in North Carolina, which sees 20 to 30 dogs a day on its premises. As the workday went on, research found average stress level scores fell about 11% among workers who had brought their dogs to work, while they increased 70% for those who did not.

According to a 2008 national poll of working Americans 18 and older, 17% reported their company permits pets at work. In 2012, the group reported in a separate study that workers surveyed brought their dogs with them to work 22 times in 2012, compared with 17 times in 2008.  In addition to relaxing employees, the need to walk the dog midday might replace dessert with some noontime exercise--yet another healthy choice.

Happy workers are more productive workers, so if pets make that happen, is it something that should become the norm rather than the exception?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Ode to Vitamix

Today is the birthday of my spouse, and it is for him that I write this ode.  We had dinner at an acquaintence's house in Chicago.  We are both very good friends of someone, which led us to believe that we could almost certainly find some common ground between us, and we cooked dinner together to see if that might gel.  The dinner was supurb, the company even better, but the hands down winner of the evening was the Vitamix that swiftly produced a soup with a sublime texture.

So in the cab on our way back to the apartment we were staying in we ordered one on Amazon.  I read a variety of reviews and decided that the best bet was the very cheapest of models--it had the exact same motor as the more expensive versions, but had only two speeds (high and low) rather than a larger range of options.  We were reasonably certain that high would be our speed of preference, and any more choices might just be confusing.  The other difference was the length of the warrenty (5 years vs. 7 years)--since we can never manage to invoke a warrenty due to our inability to either register the purchase or find the required materials to redeem the warrenty, this was a non-issue for us.

My spouse and I have been cooking together for over 30 years, and we have never shied away from spending money on kitchen equipment--while the price tag for this is quite high if you think of it as a blender, if you consider it as a specialized kitchen tool, then the cost can be seen as 3 meals out with the family at a mid-priced restaurant.  The consistency that the Vitamix produces is remarkable, and over a very short period of time we have become true beleivers--which for us means that we have given it as a gift to other serious cooks amongst our friends.  It is sublime.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lemon Falls, Chagrin Falls, OH

I was visiting my parents in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which is a small village east of Cleveland that was a summer community for the well to do.  Now it is part Cleveland Suburb, part quaint village.  They took me to eat at a new restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch.

They have baked goods and some breakfast sandwiches, but the lunch menu of salads, soups, and sandwiches was very impressive.  We were there for one reason only--to have their lobster roll sandwiches, but there were several other things that I would have considered having if that was not available, and their chicken salad is reputed to be especially impressive.  I had the cauliflower soup, and it was a little too delicately flavored, and a little under-salted for my taste, but the texture was perfect.  Very smooth, with a reasonable texture that either resulted from a Vitamix or running the coup through a fine sieve.  I wouldn't give up on the soup, in other words.
The highlight was the lobster roll--the owner is from Massachusetts, so he knows a thing or two about what makes a good lobster roll.  The meat was predominantly claw and arm joint meat, which is richer and more delicately textured than tail meat.  My parents were born and raised in Maine, and make a regular pilgrimage to Lemon Falls to experience this sandwich.  Perfection!  The side order of home pickled cucumbers was quite good as well.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Blue Jasmine (2013)

I have been watching Woody Allen films for over 40 years, and there are very few of them that at the end of the day do I feel like I don't entirely get.  Perhaps it is the homage films that I struggle with.  'Interiors', Allen's homage to Ingmar Bergman, was the last Allen movie that when it ended I said, "What?".  This is rumored to be done in the Tennessee Williams style of story telling, which as near as I can tell is a talented portrayal of misery that has no meaning and the characters lack an ability to escape it.

Cate Blanchett is eminently watchable in the lead role of Jasmine.  Her character is one of the best film portrayals of a narcissist in recent years--she is elegant and self centered on the outside, with a fragile core.  Her porcelain exterior is cracked and she does not know how to gat back to the the pinnacle that she was so abruptly shoved off off.

Jamine's rich and successful husband is prosecuted for fraud.  He goes to jail, they get divorced and she loses everything.  It turns out that she had more than a little to do with her fate, but in any case, she goes off to live with her sister, aptly played by Sally Hawkins.  They are both adopted, and while we do not meet the parents, that story alone just didn't ring true--I could easily beleive that they were biological sisters separated at birth and raised in different families, but the opposite just seemed too far fetched, and I had a great deal of trouble letting go of that disbelief.  If you can get around that, Cate Blanchett portrays Jasmine with the right balance of pathos and shallowness that everyone can think of someone that she reminds them of.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Orange Almond Madeleines

These are fantastic--they come from a very good cookie cookbook by Tish Boyle aptly called 'The Good Cookie'.  I don't know why it has taken me until now to discover the joy of the madeleine.  I read 'Swann's Way' when I was in college, and no one can argue that Proust did not do his damnedest to convince every reader, one and all, that the madeleine was a sublime bite of cake that was unparalleled in it's perfection.  I loved the book, but missed the message.  Then years later I was given a madeleine pan--still I did not succumb.  I admit that one madeleine pan is almost cruel, because when you make madeleines it makes most sense to make dozens of them at once, and that would entail washing and reusing the pan over and over again, and that simply would not happen in my kitchen.

The turning point in my love affair with the madeleine was a train trip from London to Glasgow.  I was in first class and in addition to a table with electricity and Wi-Fi, there was a drinks and food service that included what I am sure was an entirely ordinary madeleine, but I loved it.  I returned home, bought several madeleine pans, and have since passed the love of these on to my children.  This is the very best recipe, with the browned butter being a bit of a pain to make, but it is the secret ingredient.

1/2 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup granulated sugar -- divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 large egg whites -- at room temperature
3/4 cup unsalted butter -- (11/2 sticks) cut into tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia -- or orange extract (but mail order the Fiori di Sicilia--it is worth it)
For the Sugar Glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter -- melted
3 tablespoons whole milk
1/4 teaspoon Vanilla extract
Two regular madeleine pans (don't use nonstick pans)

Make the batter
1. Place the almonds and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor and blend until finely ground, about 1 minute. Transfer the almonds to a medium bowl. Add the remaining sugar, the flour, and salt and stir until well blended. Slowly whisk in the egg whites until blended.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Continue to cook until the solids at the bottom of the pan turn light brown and the butter is fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk butter into the almond mixture until combined. Whisk in the vanilla extract and Fiori di Sicilia. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the batter for at least 2 hours, until cold (or up to 24 hours).

Bake the madeleines
3. Place two racks near the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Spray two madeleine pans thoroughly with nonstick cooking spray. Place the pans in the freezer for 10 minutes to set the spray.
4. Place a dollop of batter in each mold, filling them two-thirds full. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until the madeleines are golden brown and the centers spring back when lightly touched.  Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

On Boxing Day in 2004 there was an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami in Sri Lanka that swept the author of this book and her entire family out to sea and only she survived.  The book opens with an account of the event itself.  She and her husband looking out the window at her parents sea side hotel and seeing a wall of water, realizing that it was not a dream, that is represented a clear and present danger.  They swept up their two small sons and ran for their lives.  They did not even pause to knock on her parents door as they ran by.  At first it appeared that they were in luck--a jeep stopped to pick them up.  The immensity of what they were facing became very real when one of the passengers in the jeep fell out and they did not stop to retrieve them--that simply could not happen.  Then the jeep was engulfed in water, and they were left to fend for themselves in the ocean.  The author managed to grap a tree branch as the wave was sweeping her out to sea--the rest of her family was not so lucky.

The rest of the book is about what it is like to be the survivor when everything you care about has been taken from you in the blink of an eye.  She struggles with finding meaning in life, she struggles with alcoholism, and she waivers between wanting to remember and desperately hoping to forget.  It is a moving and enlightening first hand account of learning to live with trauma.  It is a short, well written and raw memoir that is well worth reading and thinking about. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

World War Z (2013)

When I tried to say this wasn't a zombie movie, my family laughed me out of the room.  Yes, so I will concede that it is a zombie movie,  but it is really a movie about a pandemic that is rapidly spreading and overwhelming in it's scope.  Where 'Contagion' gave a largely muted picture of a highly virulent flu, it was marked by two tempering messages.  One was that a cure was within our grasp within months (which is highly optimistic, but when you know you are dealing with an infectious agent, you do have a leg up on figuring out a pathway to cure), and the other was that the spread, while impressive for an infectious agent, was not devestatingly fast.

In the zombie apocalypse we have no such hope.  The spread of the disease is unthinkably rapid, the hosts actively seek out the uninfected with vicious and terrifying success, and containment of the disease is just not possible.  It is not like the build up to World War II where everyone knew that war was inevitable and the question was not if but when.  So you could build barriers, emigrate, get yourself to neutral territory if you were a forward thinker.  In this war you are helpless. 

The movie itself is a fine piece of work if it is judged within the action adventure framework, where the special effects are at least as important as the script itself.  Brad Pitt manages to come off as a brave intuitive man who you are pleased to see come out ahead in the end, and there is a strong female to play Tonto to his Lone Ranger. Divertionary, but with the possibility of provoking deeper thought is how I would sum it up.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Barri Gotic, Barcelona

The Gothic Quarter is the heart of old Barcelona, a medieval city built upon Roman foundations Most of the buildings are from the 14th and 15th century, when Barcelona was at the height of its commercial prosperity and before it had been absorbed into Castile.  This historic hodge podge of narrow and, in many cases, pedestrian-only streets and squares is full of character and charm and home to hundreds of shops, bars and restaurants, as well as good old fashion people watching.  The folks who loiter in the Barri Gotic are far more interesting to watch than those up in L'Exaimple, let me tell you.  One afternoon I sat in a small square of a church and before 15 minutes had passed a group of 9 people with medeival instruments set up music stands and started to play and sing.  Such a treat!

The gothic quarter is located between Barcelona’s famous boulevard Las Ramblas and Via Laietana, with Plaza Catalunya at the top and the port at the bottom.Portal de L'Angel, a modern pedestrians shopping street which starts in Plaza Catalunya, leads to the traffic-free square dominated by the Cathedral and to the Roman walls that once enclosed the city. From here all of the major attractions are easily accessible, including the Roman remains beneath the City History Museum.On the south side of the Gothic Quarter is the Plaza Real, a palm-lined square just off Las Ramblas whose bars and restaurants around each side are a relaxing place to stop and watch life during the day and at night when the square becomes a hive of activity.  The well known modernist cuisine restaurants are in L'Exaimple, but I recommend staying in the Barri Gotic and walking to dinner.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Oh my gosh is this book great.  First of all, the author is fantastic.  I will never forget her TED talk about Chinua Achebe and how important it was for her to see that there were authors who told stories about the life that she led growing up in Nigeria.  She was a well read child, but the world she read about was a European world and nothing like the life she was living.  As a writer, it appears that she is writing about the world within which she lives.

Unlike her previous two novels, there is not a lot of what I would consider to be traditional trauma.  This book is about being an immigrant in the United States, and specifically about being black and not American.  The Booker Prize short list book 'We Need New Names' by NoViolet Bulawayo covers similar territory, but this book is more powerful and better written. 

The gist of the story is this--that everything about America comes as a shock.  The first is that it often really isn't the land of opportunity for the recent immigrant--if you come with an education, or you get one here, than it can be, but even for an immigrant with some college, an undocumented laborer has few shoices.  It is the land of opportunity for the next generation--but even that comes with a few caveats.  The kids grow up in America and are influenced by American values, which may impede their future success.  Then there is the issue of race, which is huge.  Africans are shocked by how much of a problem race is in America.  Adichie manages to address this complex emotionally charged subject in a way that is gentle and illuminating.  This is a fantastic book.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dorfman in Love (2013)

After all the seriousness of the holidays--the joys, the stress, the overeating, and the disruption in regular routine, I felt that it was time for something on the light side.  Frivolous even.

This movie is available streaming on Netflix, and as low key romantic comedies go, I enjoyed it.  It is not in the top half of that genre, but the thing that I liked especially about it is that the woman in it changes her mind.  She thinks that she desperately wants one thing, and in the end she is able to figure out that what she really wants is another.  The ability to step outside yourself, look at what the choices are that you are making and then recalibrate is something that humans are particularly bad at doing.  If we could all do this a little bit better we might make fewer mistakes (like marrying the wrong person, being miserable, getting divorced, and potentially involving children in the whole ugly mess), which might translate into more happiness.

The crux of the movie is about how there is a very big difference between a crush and being in love with somebody, and ideally you would figure that out in high school and move on.  Sadly,  life is often more complicated than is ideal and that doesn't happen.  I remember one of my fellow interns telling me about how she ended up divorced--"Do you remember the guy you went out with in high school?  Well, I married that guy?"  There are definitely people who have excellent high school relationships that last well into adulthood (my son is one of them), but it is the exception and not the rule.  This movie shows a path towards making positive change.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

So You Say You Want A Resolution

You say you want a resolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know you can count me out

Don't you know it's gonna be alright
Alright, alright

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We don't love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well you know
We're doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.

In truth I am a little bit too young to really have appreciated what the Beatles brought to the rock and roll table.   I came of age with the Grateful Dead (who I am also a bit young for, but they kept playing for so long that I managed to be young with their music and grow old before it was all over).  But I do love the Beatles, and somehow the lyrics continue to be meaningful to me well into my middle years.  But I digress.  Here goes. 

For 2014, I hope to learn a lot--I am working with my youngest son as a tutor for some of his college classes, and it has been sobering to see how little I really know.  And that I am definitely not a natural at some things.  I am reading at a pace like no other, and I hope to keep that up and to benefit from it.

I hope to cook a little more--the pace of academic requirements in 2013 definitely negatively impacted my cooking output, and I am hoping to make modest improvement in that.  I did do a better job than the year before, but I want to expand my vegetable side dish repertoire, primarily with things that do not take all day to make, and despite having the same primary ingredient are distinctly different from each other.  I would like to make one quilt in 2014, and see if I can make a dent in my fabric collection.  I hope to help design and complete one major home improvement project on my 1860 Victorian farmhouse that I am really proud of (in 2013 it was a gorgeous carriage house style garage, but I mostly deserve no credit for that other than that it cost money and I am employed).  I hope to convince my husband that I will be miserable without a dog, but that may be beyond my capabilities, so I will stop right there.