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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Green Bean and Radish Salad


  • 2 pounds green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard 
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 3 tablespoons juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil 
  • 8 radishes, trimmed and sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh dill
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted


  1. 1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Fill large bowl halfway with ice and water. Add green beans and 1 tablespoon salt to boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 6 minutes. Drain green beans and place in ice bath to cool. Drain again, transfer to salad spinner, and spin dry. (Blanched, shocked, and dried green beans can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.)
    2. Whisk shallot, mustard, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt together in large bowl. Slowly whisk in oil until incorporated. Toss radishes, dill, and green beans with vinaigrette and let sit for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir almonds into salad. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

Friday, May 30, 2014

I, Claudius (1976)

The Julio Claudian rulers had some problems after Augustus died and they are all on display in this 12 part series that spans the end of Augustus' reign through the reign of Claudius.

Augustus was a very astute politician, and he ended the years of war that plagued the end of the Roman Republic.  He accomplished this by subtly changing the Roman government in a way that was acceptable to them but not quite a monarchy.  The stability that he eventually brought to government (after substantial purging of all those who opposed him) was remarkable.  He also brought peace--he was not a great warrior, not like Julius Caesar or Mark Anthony.  Instead he had a loyal right hand man who was a great warrior in Agrippa, which, combined with his military strategy brought stability to all that was Rome.  He replaced client kings with province governors who were faithful to him, and so the taxes flowed in, as did the grain.  He made the military a professional one, with benefits and a retirement plan, so that he had well trained men that were loyal to him.  The one thing that he did a very bad job at was judging his wife.  This series is quite damning in that respect.  Livia wanted Tiberius to be his successor, and everyone who stood in his way died.  Probably not a coincidence.

Tiberius' reign is not generously portrayed here--he proceeded to kill off all possible successors to him, all family members mind you, and without much thought to their character.  Unlike Augustus, he had a very corrupt right hand man who led him very much astray, and left Rome with no one but Caligula to rule the place.  Caligula does not come out well here, but he appears more mad than evil and I believe he more of a sociopath than he was crazy, but no matter, he is not the ruler of ones dreams, and it is a relief when the men charged with guarding him take his life.  Then to Claudius, who is the teller of the story, who is really the last man standing.  Very well done and the story sticks pretty close to historical accounts, so you can actually learn a little history while you watch.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Postcards From Tomorrow Square by James Fallows

Fallows lived in China starting in 2007 and watched the nation ride the boom years upward, much as he had in Japan in the 1980's.  His essays for The Atlantic magazine from that time are published here, back to back in the order that they were written to give the reader a sense of what the reader a sense of who were the early winners and losers on the roller coaster going uphill.

Fallows is neither simple in his approach to the rising giant, nor is he in awe of it.  He addresses some of the things that Americans fear about China, that it has a stranglehold on us because of the percentage of our debt that it holds and that it will permanently outpace us with it's rapid modernization.  The quality of the economics  lessons that he preaches I cannot comment on, but he breaks down the amount of each product that is made in China actually stays in China and that is reassuring.  He also gives some opinions on how we should get this all better than we do, because if we miss the boat on China we are going to be very sorry.  He thinks that the fact that we educate the youth of China, that they come here to go to college is good for us and good for China.  He thinks that we need to loosen our immigration policies considerable in order to continue to attract the new wave of talent to solve the new wave of problems is our best hope to surging forward in the future.

I read the book because I wanted some perspectives and things to think about as I embark on my first journey there, so that I go not just with what the guide book says but with thoughts from experienced travelers and thinkers.  That part of the plan was very much a success.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moroccan Carrot Salad

I recently made this salad for a friend's garden wedding and was reminded of just how wonderful fresh carrot salads can be.  I had a number of carrot based dishes when on a recent trip to Morocco, and will be posting some additional recipes ove rthe next few months.  Carrots are fantastic because they are available year round and are reasonably priced.

1 pound carrots, grated
1/4 c. dried fruit (I use cranberries or currants)
1/4 c. chopped parseley
1/4 c. toasted chopped nuts (optional)

3 Tbs. lemon juice
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cayenne

salt and pepper to taste

The carrots can be grated several days ahead of time, and the dressing is better if made a day ahead of time.  Toss together a couple of hours before serving.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

A surprisingly entertaining movie that tells the story about Walt Disney's 20 year pursuit to get the rights to make a movie of P. L. Travers' classic childrens book, 'Mary Poppins".  Disney (played by Tom Hanks) tries to woo the extremely difficult author (played by Emma Thompson) into allowing him to make his movie.  She needs money, which is the only reason that she would even consider giving up her precious story to a man she considers to be the purveyer of candy coated treacle, someone whose life work is unsubstantial.  Even with her reduced circunstances, she wants complete control of the movie.  Despite a wonderful creative team who work diligently and patiently with her, she is impossible and leaves unswayed.

The movie moves between her current life and her childhood in rural Australia, where she idolozed her story telling father who died young of a combination of alcoholism and tuberculosis.  Her aunt, who swooped in at the end of his life to attempt to fix everything, but failed.  As Disney tries to figure out why she won't let go of her story, the viewer gets a clear idea of what the issues are--and we also know that the film was ultimately made.  Fun movie with a bevy of good actors.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dulce Et Decorum Est by Winfred Owens

Memorial Day was established after the American Civil War, but  after World War I the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.  Today, in addition to remembering veterans who have given their lives for their country, I am also honoring those who went to war and then wrote about it.  Winfred Owens, who died one week before the Armistice was signed ending WWI, is considered to be the greatest war poet of the war that took his life.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Merrakesh Medina, Morocco

The really difficult thing about the medina in Marrakesh is that they allow vehicles--so there is a stifling aroma of incompletely combusted exhaust that is combined with the nudging on the backs of your legs from scooters and motorcycles that want you to hug the souk walls so that they can zoom by, the occassional car might even try to squeeze by a visitor, to the point that within minutes of entering the medina you are ready to sign the petition to make it a vehicle free zone.  Give me the 'Balack' and the donkeys any day!
Once one gets deeper into the medina, the impressive thing is how many people are making things with their hands.  Chess pieces are being whittled with an ingenious foot operated contraption, leather is being cut, boxes are being assembled and the list goes on and on.  I especially liked the tin work being done, and the spectacular lights that were being produced.  The art of making things with your hands is alive and well in Morocco.

The other thing that I liked was that while there are plenty of tourists mingled in the crowds, the medina is largely populated by locals, people who are there to do their shopping and are not there to ogle the craftsmen.
Goods are not the only thing to go to the medina for--there are food items to be had as well.  I bought some spice mixtures in Rabat and felt that I had enough in that exotic arena to last me once I got home,  but I never tired of seeing the mounds of spices piles high in front of shops that mixed and sold spice combinations--these are for show, but they are works of art.
In retrospect, I should have gotten more tassels while I was there--they are everywhere and very inexpensive, decorated with bits of metal, and very festive.  I have ceiling fans through out my house and could have them dangling from each of them--I left them for a return trip!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Potato Tomato Gratin

Fresh tomatoes add great flavor to potato gratin, but they also add lots of moisture. For a clean flavor profile, we nixed the cream for this Provence-inspired dish. Broth was a better fit, but as it turned out, the juice from the tomatoes alone provided enough moisture to cook the potatoes to tenderness. Caramelized onions, kalamata olives, and fresh thyme add even more Mediterranean flavor to this gratin, and a topping of nutty Gruyère cheese is the finishing touch.

Serves 6 to 8

A mandoline makes quick work of slicing the potatoes (tomatoes are better sliced by hand).


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 2 onions, halved and sliced thin
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped
  • 3 pounds plum tomatoes, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • 8 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded (2 cups)


  1. 1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
    2. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add water and cook until nearly evaporated, scraping up any browned bits, about 2 minutes. Off heat, stir in olives; set aside.
    3. Shingle half of tomatoes in even layer in prepared dish. ­Shingle half of potatoes over tomatoes and sprinkle 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper over top. Spread onion mixture evenly over potatoes. Shingle remaining potatoes over onions. Shingle remaining tomatoes over potatoes. Sprinkle remaining 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper over top.
    4. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour. Sprinkle with Gruyère and continue to bake until cheese is browned and bubbly and potatoes are completely tender, 25 to 30 minutes longer. Let cool for 30 minutes. Serve.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

One must be open minded when watching this 3 hour movie.  One of my sons refused to watch it with my parents because of the graphic sex scenes.  My parents watched it one day while I was at work and said they were happy that they had not paid money to see it in a theatre, and they too were happy to have not watched it with any of my children.  And I understand why.

The movie is at least twice as long as it needs to be--I thought an 80 minute movie  whave been about right and my husband thought a short would have done the trick.  It doesn't take long for a new Wall Street broker, Jordan Belfort (played masterfully by Leonardo DiCaprio) to get seduced first by the money, falling into deception, then outright unlawful behavior as the millions poured in.  Not too long after that it was mega drug abuse and daily hookers.  It is not hard to figure out why both of his wives left him, or why the FBI was so eager to convict him.  DiCaprio is memorable in his performance, as is his norm, but the whole thing was just not worth the time and effort it took to watch it.  Once again I am at odds with the critics at large.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

I have tried to read all the books that my children have read as they progressed through their high school and college careers, which is a very easy method for getting some adult education in and you only have to pay one tuition. 

My son read this short story for a college class, and while I loved Karen Russell's first book, 'Swamplandia', it did not occur to me to go back and read her collection of short stories--big mistake on my part, because this is great.  Here is a brief overview of the story--girls have been raised by a werewolf mother who decides that perhaps they would have more opportunities if they were to leave the woods and enter into more mainstream society.  This goes about as well as you would expect, and of course, sibling rivalry being what it is, some of the girls do better than the others, and the rest are jealous and hateful of that success, while some do worse, and the girls marginalize the ones who are not cutting it.  Every wolf for herself.

The thing that it reminded my husband and son of, which I had not really tumbled to, was the removal of Aboriginal children from their homes in Australia, a practice that went on well into the 1970's.  The stolen generations.  These children were treated as wild animals who needed to be tamed and taught the virtues of 'civilized' life, much like the girls raised by wolves in this story. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Three Business Card Life

I wear many hats.  At both home and at work, I have a number of roles, and that is largely how I like it.  I have always been someone who is best when I am slightly over extended.  My greatest fear with retirement is that I will not have enough to keep me occupied, and that I will then become completely unproductive.  The one time in my life over the past 30 years that I was not working 5 or more days a week instead of getting all of my unfinished projects done (which is what I had hoped and planned to do) I spent my 1.5 weekdays off the whole summer lolling by the pool.  I had never been less productive in my life.
 So I need a plan, that is for sure.  This year I have noticed two things.  The first is the most concerning--as I have gotten older, I dan't get as much done.  I know, this is news to almost no one, and certainly comes as no surprise to people who are a decade or two ahead of me in years--no matter how much you accomplish, whatever your baseline is, it will diminish over time.  But my taking things on has remained at the same pace, which has gotten me into a bit of trouble.  The second is that I have a much busier home life since my youngest son went to college--I read all of the material for his classes that is not available on audiobook out loud to him.  I have done this since his childhood because of a learning disability that makes reading comprehension challenging, but it turns out that college has a lot of reading and not all of it makes sense to me, so how to explain it to him?  Suffice it to say that I am learning a lot, but it is taking up all my spare time to be so educated.  The third thing is that in doing all this reading, I realize two additional things (see this is like picking up one rock and finding another one underneath it--layers of issues!).  The first is that I am not as well educated as I thought I was.  I have so much more than I can know and learn and think about that it is positively overwhelming.  The second is that rereading things changes how you see them in a really positive way--and I definitely do not have time for that!  So in retirement (which as of today I am about a decade away from being eligible for in the traditional sense) I clearly need to go back to class.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

American Hustle (2013)

Lots of well known people in this 'Who's Conning Whom?" film.  Christian Bale is almost unrecognizable as Irving Rosenfield, a man who you would think could live off his numerous dry cleaning businesses in Long Island, but who has a long standing penchant for scams.  He is married to a high maintenance gorgeous woman (Jennifer Lawrence), and having an affair with his partner in crime, Sydney Prosse (Amy Adams, who is inexplicably seen throughout the movie in a top that needs to be glued to her chest in order to stay on).

Everything is going along as planned until they get busted and FBI agent Richie DiMasio (a surprisingly oily performance by Bradley Cooper) gets the idea that he can score big with the two of them running scams for the bureau.  He neglected to address two issues.  The first is that he got greedy--he wanted to catch a very big fish and he was very naive.  The second is that he forgot that he was dealing with con men.  The first would have been forgivable if he had remembered the second, or if he hadn't been going for the sole glory.  Hoisted by his own petard, the man was.  The movie has had mixed reviews from my group of friends, but I very much enjoyed it (despite its logging in at 2 hours, which in my book is just too long).

Monday, May 19, 2014

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

This book is a comical farce of a romance, and like any classic of this genre,  the book culminates in a wedding.  However,  getting down the aisle, which only takes three days, just about kills the father of the bride. At 59, Winn Van Meter has spent his whole buttoned-down life on a rickety perch of the upper class, trying to fulfill Brahmin expectations. Resigned to the inevitability of “death, taxes, and family,” he’s a persnickety, joyless man, easily annoyed by others’ misbehavior but entirely forgiving of his own foibles.  He is entirely unlikable and the book gets well inside his head.

Among the guests arriving is Agatha, a young bridesmaid unburdened by qualms about hooking up with an older, married man like Winn--so while he is openly chastising others for their peccadillos, he is caught with his hands up the bridesmaids dress and his wife knows it.  Shame on him. Before the rice flies, there will be broken hearts and broken bones, falling bodies and exploding whales, and affairs to be wished and interrupted.

The author does an admirable job of capturing the bride’s forlorn sister in all her wounded disappointments (she is my favorite character int he book), and she’s particularly astute in her portrayal of a young Egyptian bridesmaid who regards the troubles of the .1 percent with muted exasperation. What’s more surprising is her unnerving insight into the comic-tragedy of middle-aged men, that mixture of smothered envy, aspiration and lust that mutates into irritated superiority.  Her affection for these spoiled people, her tender handling of their sorrows and longings,  produces a light but true humane comedy. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Graduate (1967)

Ironically, one of my sons graduated from college this weekend, and it is a very different world  almost 50 years later.  Happily, ther way the movie told it's story has a timeless quality, as does its soundtrack.

I saw this movie when I was in college, and while the movie was over a decade old at that point, I was not yet old enough to really appreciate the depth of Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson narcissistic malevolence. Holy buckets.  The woman was just an awful person and the fact that her daughter Elaine came out as a caring person is miraculous.

Simon and Garfunkel masked her evil character underneath a pop tune that masked a multitude of evils (most likely used in an ironic manner by the director).  The song is interwoven throughout the movie--Ben (Dustin Hoffman) hums it, the music plays on his car radio as Mrs. Robinson is getting into his car to tell him she is about to ruin his love life, and at carious other moments throughout the movie.  The song does not connect with the character's personality, but more often with her actual presence.

In contrast, the songs that play when Ben is alone drive the narrative forward.  Ben is a quiet, confused recent college graduate who was a successful college student but is not sure what to do to be successful at life, and he cannot express his trepidation.  So while the song, "Sounds of Silence" are non-diegetic, meaning that they are not within the movie, the lyrics give the audience an idea of what Ben is thinking and feeling.  I did not realize this, but it was the first movie to use rock songs in a soundtrack that was not a musical--the concept of using already recorded rock songs to tell a story that was not being sung by the actor had not been done.  Dustin Hoffman was the perfect actor for this role--no one could imagine him bursting into song.  The Simon and Garfunkel songs used in the movie are mournful, and while they help to say words that Ben cannot, they are not songs that would fit nicely within a musical.  It is such a perfect use of music as narrative, and I wish I was intuitive enough to have seen it when I saw it the first time.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Role of Siblings

Charles, I just want you to know that your memory is a blessing.

My parents are undergoing the most difficult thing that older adults have to do that is unrelated to their health, their family, and their mortality--they are making the last move of their life.  In the process of doing that, they are sifting through their worldly possessions and deciding who should get them.  I recently made what I hope is the 2nd to last move of my life, and so I have a sense of what it is like to get rid of things that once seemed quite precious to me, but what I don't yet fully understand is the part about finding a resting place for the things that still are precious.

They still have a long way to go on that journey, but in their early baby steps, I got a photo album with all the early photos of my brother Charles, who died when I was 10 years old.  When I posted this photo on National Siblings Day one of my college friends said that she didn't realize that I had a sibling who died and wondered about the impact that had had on me.  I still grapple with that question, even though I do it less now than I did 10 or 20 years ago. 

Throughout my childhood my brother had a tremendous impact on my life, who I was, and who I became.  He came home from the hospital on my 2nd birthday, a healthy baby boy, but by 5 months he had polio, and I do not remember him ever not being paralized.  A sibling in a wheelchair changes you.  For one thing, you really cannot be mean to them.  Seriously, who would do that?  It teaches you kindness and compassion that I do not think I come naturally by, although my other sibling is one of the kindest people I know.  A sibling in a wheelchair is always around, so he was not just my brother he was my best friend, and losing him meant losing all of that and more.  My parents had lost a child.  I had lost what was not an exaggeration to call the center of my life.  The problem with trauma when you are a child is that you aren't old enough to process it--so you keep putting it into context at every developmental stage that you go through, and Erik Erikson was right, those don't stop at adolesence.

So, how do I feel today, on what have been my brother's 53rd birthday?  I still cry when I think about him, even though it has been 45 years since he died. Grief has a tenacity that love should strive for.  I definitely became a physician because of him, and I am tremendously grateful for that, because I love my job.  Losing him made me feel like I was strong, that I had faced tragedy and could survive it--I found out when I was 40 that I had been completely mistaken about that.  My youngest son was diagnosed with cancer, and that invincibility myth shattered into a million little pieces, but I did get 30 years where that fantasy was alive and well.  He taught me to look at the world through the eyes of another--we were nothing alike in many ways, and being able to step into his shoes and see what he saw is a great skill to have.   I am also grateful to have had an intense sibling relationship. I missed out on the part where your sibling is the only one who has known you all your life, but I did get the emotional intelligence that I needed from that love.

Friday, May 16, 2014

By Blood by Ellen Ullman

This book is set in 1974 and that is critical for two reasons.  One is that the main characters date back to WWII and Nazi Germany, so in order for them to be yound enough for the story to work, the setting has to be in the 1970's.  The other is that the ability to access information needed to be what now seems almost farcically difficult--in the pre-Internet era, that was certainly the case.  Information was in paper formats and required humans to access data banks of infromation.  Requests for information were sent in the mail.  An individual's ability to research their past on their own was far more limited than it is today.

The set up is somewhat classic--a banished academic who's fate is being determined by a university disciplinary committee has fled the state and headed for San Francisco, ostensible to work on the ancient Greek play The Eumenides.  Hopefully his future does not depend on his progress with the project because as far as the reasder knows, he does very little in that regard.  The office next to his is inhabited by a psychotherapist and when her white noise machine is turned off he can hear her therapy sessions perfectly. He becomes obsessed with one particular patient, and adoptee, like himself, who feels unloved by her family and wants to find her birth mother.  The professor uses his academic resources to help her search--doing so anonymously, and then he easedrops on her results.  It is not a happy story, her having a Jewish mother and this being WWII.  While the professor himself is unlikable, the story is well written and it is a great example of how trauma ripples across generations.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Honey Bourbon Ham

This is the simplest recipe and yet delicious--it comes to us from my mother-in-law, who is all about simple and delicious when it comes to cooking.  My father-in-law, now gone, I am sure appreciated the bourbon in this recipe, so this is to celebrate the two of them.

My absolute favorite ham is a pepper ham from Petit Jean in Arkansas--I first had it at a wedding in Kentucky many years ago and have ordered one every year since. 

¾ cup honey
1½ tablespoon bourbon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
Ham (about 5 pounds)

Combine honey, bourbon and cloves in small bow/  Blend well.
Place ham, cut side down, in roasting pan.
Brush with honey mixture.
Cover  with foil and bake at 275 degrees, about 1 hr until thoroughly heated.
Remove foil, brush with honey mixture and put in 425 degree oven.
Bake about 10 more minutes until ham is golden brown (baste during this time).
Remove from oven, place on serving dish and pour juices over ham.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Carnage (2013)

Based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski’s latest movie is about two couples who get together in an attempt to resolve a fight between their sons, but succeed only in bickering amongst themselves to a point where it all gets quite ugly. It’s a story that parents can relate to; nobody likes to be criticised on their parenting skills, and they each think that their approach is better than anybody else’s. They start out being fairly civil but as tempers fray, the couples begin to turn on their respective partners, and it soon becomes clear that however much we try to act like we’re in control of our lives, we’re really all just making it up as we go along.  The end.

The film features an excllent cast of Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. Waltz is pitch perfect as the supercilious unlikable one whose words end up being the light that shines at the end of the movie.  Walz and Winslet act like the power couple, but Reilly must be hauling in some serious cash because their apartment, where all the action takes place, is very high end.  So there is irony to go with the fighting and the ugliness.

The film has an extremely claustrophobic feel, as a result of it being set exclusively within the apartment of one of the couples. The audience is given no relief from the situation or the characters – all of whom are portrayed as ridiculously annoying in their own way. The film is also repetitive; the audience comes to know what to expect, which creates a further source of humor when expectations are continually met. Any attempts to leave the apartment are always somehow thwarted, and in the end it turns out to have been better solved by their two children, who share the blame for the incident.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

China Airborne by James Fallows

I am still getting ready for my upcoming trip to China so bear with me a bit.  The task of getting to know China seems daunting and I have a long ways to go to understand the nation that invented large seafaring ships and the technology to print in an economical way a thousand years before anyone else, and yet chose to remain isolated rather than capitalize on these monumental feats.  That China is gone. Today's China is struggling to become the behemoth that it's early advances seemed to promise.  They are playing catch up and they are a major player.

I have been reading James Fallows for the greater part of my adult life, and have always found him to be interesting as a journalist.  This book, an attempt to look at today's China through he microscope of their entry onto the world aviation stage is novel--I know nothing about aviation, so the divergence into areas that might seem uninteresting or repetitive to those more well versed than myself were fascinating to me.

Fallow attempts to make sense of China’s current economic challenges through the lens of this particular industry. Emphasizing the massive increase in funding for aerospace research and air travel infrastructure in China’s Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011 to 2016), Fallows argues that China’s efforts to develop domestic air travel and aerospace production represent a true test case of China’s development. He contends that, since aviation uniquely requires both “hard skills,” such as those required in manufacturing and infrastructure construction, and “soft skills,” such as smooth coordination between civil, military, and commercial organization, “if China can succeed fully in aerospace, then in principle there is very little it cannot do.

Fallows does an admirable job of distilling the current discordant state of the Chinese economy into engaging prose. His description of China’s addiction to infrastructure investment seems particularly prescient given the recent economic reports coming from Beijing. Moreover, the book’s discussion of China’s challenges in transforming from a producer of low-end parts to a true manufacturing power is surprisingly nuanced, with apt comparisons to economic evolutions in other nations. He offers a set of fascinating comparisons to American economic history, noting the United States’ own reputation in the 19th century as a copycat of European technology and innovation and the United States’ own struggles with outsized trade surpluses in the 1920s. Very interesting stuff.   I can't wait to see it in real life.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Red City--Merrakesh, Morocco

Just as Casablanca is white, Marrakesh is the  pink color of the traditional  terra cotta.  It is beautiful to behold as a sensory experience.

Then comes the city itself. 
Everywhere you go in Marrakech, you end up chatting and haggling. And even if you don’t agree on a price and end up walking away, the most important thing—Moroccans say—is to leave avec un sourir. To enjoy Marrakech, you definitely need to keep a sense of humor, otherwise the endlessly creative “friends” and “guides” will only annoy you, and the constant attention and haggling of the medina will become tiring. Be prepared for an overload of sensory experiences: the smell of mint mixed with saffron, oils, and perfumes, tanned leader, tagines cooking on the street, de-blooding chickens, buckets full of escargots, exhaust fumes, and the occasional donkey dung. Merchants trying to attract your attention, men young and old selling hashish, mopeds honking incessantly, people approaching you offering their services or simply asking where you’re from and welcoming you to Morocco. Women hidden behind the Islamic veil offering henna tattoos administered through plastic syringes, snake enchanters, storytellers, and men with trained monkeys happy to climb all over you for a picture and a few dirham.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Offspring Are No Longer Children

Happy Mother's Day to all!  We all have mothers and some of us are mothers, so it is a holiday all around.

This photo, resurrected by my SIL for a throw back Thursday this spring, was taken before my youngest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  In so many ways that ended childhood as we knew it in our family.  The reality is that severe trauma changes you forever, and so while chemotherapy and radiation ended, hair grew back, and on the surface our routine returned to what it had been, in truth we could never really go all the way back to the way we all felt this day.

This Mother's Day, many many years later, I am reflecting on the fact that my offspring are no longer children. They are men, all of them having left or about to leave their teenage years behind.  They are all in the process of embarking on lives that are independent of the people we were then.  It is a remarkable  job, parenthood.  There is no other human relationship quite like it, and I am eternally grateful to my husband for bestowing it upon me. I would never have applied for the job if left to my own devices.  When I was a girl no older than my youngest is here I was quite clear that marriage and parenthood were definitely not on my 'to do' list, and I held that view well into my 20's.  Today I am once again grateful for the riches that raising children to manhood have left me with.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen brothers are just merciless when they write their own material.  Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in the early 1960's.  He is playing at The Gaslight where the folk revival is on the verge of occurring, but it is very clear early on that the revival wave is not going to carry him to stardom.  Not if he can help it anyway.  Llewyn is intent on spreading the torture and misery that resides in him all over everyone around him.  Here is how the story of the movie's inception goes: “OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City.  That is the beginning of the movie.” So Joel Coen once said to his brother Ethan.  Maybe that is why he gets first billing here. Somewhere between idea and execution, Dave Van Ronk became the fictional Llewyn Davis, Folk City became another real-life Greenwich Village venue, and hence we have one of the brother's lesser popular but no lesser loved movies.

Elijah Wald, who co-wrote the book that this is based on, said of the movie’s lead, played by Oscar Isaac, “The character is is not Dave at all but the music is.” Like Llewyn Davis, Van Ronk was a folk and blues singer from the outer boroughs who made his living playing coffeehouses in the Village after a brief stint in the merchant marine. Like Llewyn, he considered abandoning music and returning to the sea, only to realize he had lost his seaman’s papers. Early in his career Van Ronk hitched to Chicago to audition for Albert Grossman at the Gate of Horn, a folk mecca, under the false impression that Grossman had received a demo of his (Llewyn turns Grossman down when he suggests he join a trio he is putting together--which becomes known as Peter, Paul, and Mary).
That event is the basis for a key sequence in Inside Llewyn Davis. Another scene, where Davis goes to his label and asks for money is right out of a passage from The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Llewyn’s label, Legacy, is a nod to Van Ronk’s first, Folkways, a small outfit run at the time by Moses Asch.  But in the end it is not that Llewyn can't catch a break, it is that he isn't open to the breaks that he is offered.  His sense of personal integrity is so great that he can't work with it and he can't work around it.  Perhaps a metaphor for the sorts of pitfalls that the brothers Coen encountered themselves when first starting out.  They certainly have retained their quirky ways in film and managed to make both a living and a following for themselves.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Little Red Guard by Wenguang Huang

This is a dysfunctional family tale, Chinese style.

In the 1970s, when the author was a little boy in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, his grandmother’s death loomed large over his family. The  details of her funeral consumed her. A small woman with a domineering personality, she spent years milking her son and grandchildren’s loyalty to get what she wanted, causing PTSD in young Wenguang in the process.
In part, this the story of the family’s attempts to carry out their matriarch’s wishes, a task made both complex and risky by sweeping policy shifts imposed by Mao's communist government. Burial became illegal in China in 1949, leaving cremation the only permissible way to handle the remains of the dead. Officials ramped up their enforcement of this rule during Huang’s childhood. Still, Grandma insisted on a traditional burial.
So her dutiful son, a Communist Party member whose honor and livelihood could be devastated if he were discovered to be violating a law, roped his wife and children into a series of stealthy maneuvers. The family sneaked seamstresses into their home to craft special burial robes, and schmoozed train conductors and drivers to transport the body. And they lived on a shoestring so they could pay back a massive loan taken out to buy the black-market coffin that Huang slept beside for years in the family’s cramped apartment, causing nightmares for years to come.
The memoir is a fascinating look at unhealthy family dynamics: a wife who resents her husband’s blind devotion to his mother, grandchildren who begrudge their grandmother the sacrifices she forced on them, and a grandmother who blatantly favors her son and eldest grandson. But this tale isn’t just about Huang’s family. Vignettes of scrounging for food when rations were scarce and forcing tears at school when Mao died so no one would question Huang’s allegiance to communism provide insight into the cultural landscape of China in the tumultuous 1970s.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Fes Ceramics, Morocco

Morocco is a land of people who still make things with their hands, and it is an excellent experience to go to the places where things are made and watch people who have tremendous skill produce works of art.

The city of Fes is known for its handmade ceramics. Each plate is hand painted. The blue and white color and the polychrome design (with green, yellow, and white) are the most common colors used. The designs are often based on geometric designs that are similar to those found in the mosaics of Morocco where the design repeats outward from one central point. Arabesque designs are also common and even Arabic calligraphy can be painted onto a ceramic. On the top of the photo are Moroccan tajines, ceramic cooking and serving vessels. The name tajine is also given to the delicious stews that are cooked in these ceramics.
Pictured here are two people making ceramics in Fes.  The potter is shaping small tagines for the table (used to store salt or pepper or cumin) and the woman is carefully and beautifully hand painting ceramics to be glazed.  Moroccans agree, the green clay of Fes produces the strongest pottery, and the techniques used to decorate the pottery are handed down from generation to generation.  It is extraordinary to watch the speed and precision of these painters at work.  The added bonus is that there are minor differences between the pieces so that you can tell that the final pieces have been painted by hand--I so loved everything that I saw at this shop it was hard not to want to ship it all!
I did get this set of dishes--I have always wanted to have hand painted dishes, and have been on the look out for something that I would both love and use for over a decade.  I would have predicted that I would have found the dishes of my heart's desire in Mexico, but that was not the case.  I am as surprised as anyone that I fell in love with this set.  The tagine in particular is just beautiful.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Invisible Woman (2013)

This is a movie about Charles Dickens love affair with Nelly Ternan.  Ralph Fiennes directed the movie based on the biography that Claire Tomalin wrote.  Fiennes plays Dickens as a histrionic peacock of a man who is so focused on himself and his fame that he neglects everyone else except for rare moments of playfulness as a father.  I did not realize that he had an oratory and acting career that paralleled his writing, but that is well laid out in this film.  Felicity Jones plays Ternan, first seen as a lone, cloaked figure striding across the beach, boiling with memories, and then in flashback as the teenage thespian whose delicate beauty and heartbreaking professional uncertainty bewitch the conceited Dickens at the height of his celebrity. Joanna Scanlon gives a shrewd and sensitive performance as Dickens's neglected wife, Catherine, and Kristen Scott Thomas does her usually brilliant job of playing Nelly's mother, complicit in the affair at the start (she is a mother who will do whatever it takes to get her daughters ahead).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

SCOTUS Fails to Uphold the First Amendment

 The United States is a largely secular country that was founded on the ideal that government should be completely separated from any religious sect. The term “separation of church and state”—a quote from Thomas Jefferson—is the most common label for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the constitution.

The 1st Amendment establishes a double-edged separation of church and state; one side of this separation prevents religion from taking control over the government, while the other side prevents government from interfering with religious expression.

Yesterday the Supreme Court took what I consider to be a big step backwards--to quote Andy Borowitz, if only they protected the First Amendment as vigilantly as the Second Amendment. Not only uis Christian prayer permissable in public meetings, but the door is open for people of all faiths to offer a prayer--the wicca, the satan workshipper, the rasta, you name it.  I do not want to listen to any of them.  Let's just get to the business of government and save the religious stuff for our private lives. And Justice Alito, keep your snarky remarks to yourself. It makes you look petty.

To quote from Justice Kagan's dissent in the Greece vs. Galloway case:

In 1790, George Washington traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, a longtime bastion of religious liberty and the home of the first community of American Jews. Among the citizens he met there was Moses Seixas, one of that  congregation’s lay officials. The ensuing exchange be­tween the two conveys, as well as anything I know, the promise this country makes to members of every religion. 
Seixas wrote first, welcoming Washington to Newport.  He spoke of “a deep sense of gratitude” for the new Ameri­can Government—“a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.” Address from Newport Hebrew Congregation (Aug. 17, 1790), in 6 PGW 286, n. 1 (M. Mastromarino ed.1996). The first phrase there is the more poetic: a gov­ernment that to “bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” But the second is actually the more star­tling and transformative: a government that, beyond not aiding persecution, grants “immunities of citizenship” to the Christian and the Jew alike, and makes them “equal parts” of the whole country.  Washington responded the very next day. Like any successful politician, he appreciated a great line when he saw one—and knew to borrow it too. And so he repeated, word for word, Seixas’s phrase about neither sanctioning bigotry nor assisting persecution. But he no less embraced the point Seixas had made about equality of citizenship.  “It is now no more,” Washington said, “that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people” to another, lesser one. For “[a]ll possess alike . . . immunities of citizenship.”  Letter to Newport Hebrew Congregation (Aug. 18, 1790), in 6 PGW 285. 
That is America’s promise in the First Amendment: full and equal membership in the polity for members of every religious group, assuming only that they, like anyone “who live[s] under [the Government’s] protection[,] should demean themselves as good citizens.” Ibid.  For me, that remarkable guarantee means at least this much: When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. I believe, for all the reasons I have given, that the Town of Greece betrayed that promise. I there­fore respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Revolution in Wage Equity

At first glance you may wonder why this is a good Cinco de Mayo post.  First, a reflection on the origins of the holiday itself.  It is a much bigger celebration in the United State than Mexico because it originated with Mexican American communities in the west as a way to commemorate the cause of freedom and democracy at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War.  Today the date is observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride.   In the state of Puebla, Mexico the date is observed to commemorate the Mexican army's  victory over a bigger and better armed French force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  So it is a holiday with its roots in wars and equality.

In the battle over minimum wage, Hispanic workers as a group stand to gain most.  According to the Buereau of Labor Statistics, Latino workers, both men and women, have the highest percentage of workers who are earning salaries that are at or below minimum wage.  I really hope that as a result of the tremendous disparity in income that currently exists that we can have a wage revolution.  I know the plutocrats who are making $10,000 an hour believe they are worth that much money, that they are a thousand times more deserving than the person they employ to clean their house, but what about the rest of us?  Will we continue to tolerate income disparity?  I hope we have the kind of Progressive Revolution that swept the country at the beginning of the last century.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hippo Roller

Water--it is not just what we have to worry about in the future with global climate change.  Water is a scarce resource already for millions of people around the world and it is primarily young women who are responsible for hauling the water.  The Hippo Roller allows for the transport of 24 gallons of water at a time (which is what it takes women up to 6 trips to make if they balance a bucket on their head)  with less physical strain, saving hours of time.

The design was arrived at with several considerations--the first is that it needed to be water tight and easy to fill--the lid that was chosen was the largest available, to increase ease of filling and also for cleaning.  The width of the roller had to fit through the doorways of developing country abodes, and then it had to be able to be rolled over very rough terrain--all these considerations led to the 90 liter tank capacity.  The handle is designed for rough treatment and longevity.  The only difficulty with the design is that they do not stack well, so there is wasted space when transporting them.  The rollers have been used for a multitude of storage uses besides water--they will only semi-submerge even when full of water, so they have been filled with all sorts of supplies--food, clothing, medical supplies, and, yes, water--and dropped into disaster areas.  They have been packed with grain to transport to areas in need--so they may not stack well, but you can fill them with something that is useful.

I love seeing low cost innovations that can change people's lives--running water everywhere would do that as well, but this is s solution to use in the meantime.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

I read some opinions on what would be good books to read prior to your first visit to China in the 21st century and this book was on such a list.  I am not sure why, because it is much more like a true life crime drama thatn a book that gets at the culture of the people there.  The one thing that is clear is that China has a history of occupation, colonization, fragmented rule, and war--this book is set in 1937, when China has three big problems converging all at once.  The first is that the English colonizers, who really have no power at that point, are still in China--which is a major miscalculation on their part, because the situation has deteriorated from a security point of view, and the British always have their families with them.  China in 1937 was no place for a foreign hostile presence to raise children.  The second was that the Japanese were rather successfully moving into China in a military way--that did not increase the stability for the English and contributed to the general lawlessness of the community.  The third major thing going on was a civil war with Chiang Kai Sheck's national forces fighting Mao's communist army.  We all know how the stories turn out, but that is the backdrop to the story.

A young girl is found mutilated and dead in a kind of no man's zone early one morning.  She is identified based on the color of her eye, the color of her hair, and a particular expensive watch that she is wearing; otherwise she is too mutilated, with her organs having been removed and an attempt made to dismember her that was apparently interupted.  All of which is quite gruesome, but the much sadder story is that the Brits were putting their families in harms way on a regular basis that they did not appreciate at the time, and the quilty parties were never brought to justice because of the subsequent events of war.  

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Playing a very unlikable chracter with a drastically thinned body, Matthew McConaughey captures the Academy Award.  He has shed his bubble gum romantic comedy persona and become downright gritty.  I found him annoying before and unlikable now--but in the former role you were suposed to love him and now that is not the case, so he is on the right track as far as I am concerned.

The movie is based on the real-life story of Ron Woodroof,  a homophobic redneck who was diagnosed HIV-positive in the mid-80s, and responding badly to AZT (at that time, the only officially approved medication), Woodroof circumvented FDA regulations by importing unlicensed drugs that he distributed through a club, which charged an "admission fee" but distributed medication without an additional cost. The operation was a scam, but the results were impressive, as David France's Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague powerfully points out; people with HIV/AIDS often knew what was good for them, self-medication playing a key role in the fight against the disease. While the FDA was methodical in responding to new treatments, it was those with no time to lose who were at the cutting edge of research and buyers clubs played a significant (if controversial) part in that process.

McConaughey's Ron has a business partnership with pre-op transgendered AIDS patient Rayon (Jared Leto); a committed bigot, Woodroof needs a way into the gay community and Rayon is his passport to monetary reward. Only later, when business is booming, does something approaching friendship emerge – in the beginning, it's strictly business.  In the end, there is real sadness when Rayon doesn't make it.  The movie is a wonderful retelling of the networks and strange bedfellows that the early days of the AIDS epidemic fostered before HIV became a chronic illness rather than a death sentence.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day, May Day

 May Day! May Day!  I say this not so much in celebration of the workers who fought so that we (largely) have an 8 hour work day and a five day work week.  I say it as an SOS related to people who are not in the 0.01% having a say in the way our country is governed.

Here is the worry.  The Supreme Court lifted the cap on how much an individual can contribute to a politician's campaign coffers.  That means that it theoretically became easier for individuals (in addition to corporations) to own politicians.  While this is by news a recent phenomena in our country (I have just finished reading 'The Bully Pulpit' which delineates the depth and breadth of political corruption at the turn of the century--we did not invent this problem, it has been here for quite some time), the potential pit falls of those of us without deep pockets to have an equal say in government just multiplied.
The only real ray of hope is that in the last election money did not buy the election--we ended up with a very dysfunctional Congress and it remains to be seen if we can manage to vote our way into a more moderate form of government where compromise is not a dirty word.  It may not be true for the next election, where big money is already shaping the candidates for the 2016 election.  I think it will be okay so long as more people vote, especially young people.  It would be even better if people voted for what benefited them, but that seems to not be the American way.