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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Well, How About That...
Turns out, we're in the middle of sleep awareness week (March 29-April 4).

Too Old
We've been on kind of a music-movie tear lately: "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," "Buena Vista Social Club," and less seriously, "School of Rock." Watching these movies has landed a small realization on me. I'm too old to go to rock shows any more. It's not that I mind the volume, or the spectacle of teenagers making absolute fruitcakes of themselves, or even all the spilled beer on the floor making my shoes sticky.

I just get so tired.

I've never been a super-night-owl. I've always liked eight hours of sleep. But I do remember when midnight was easily attainable on a fairly regular basis. Now? It's painful. John will have gone to bed, I'll be up reading the last chapter, finishing out something on TV or following some interesting online thread. Then I realize I'm exhausted. I check the time, certain that it's terribly, terribly late.

It's ten.

So, generally I go to bed at an hour that would feel punitive to a four-year-old. Which is okay, to a point. I like sleeping. But I feel like there's so many hours spent sleeping when I could be doing something else. There seem to be a lot of people out there who insist (despite all scientific research to the contrary) that they need about half the sleep recommended. They famously work late into the night every night and their output is staggering. It's impressive.

But those insomniac multitaskers who only need four hours a night are other people. I doubt I could change, even if I really wanted to.

And as much as I'd like to crawl back into bed this morning, it's not something I can do. I got up especially early today because I have a job interview. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Fun With A or B
What's the Matter with the Middle?
Occasionally, I read something which castigates those of us who have not chosen a religion or a political party as somehow morally deficient. In their view, not making an either-or choice in this matter indicates a weakness of will, a failure to make a decision and stick by it.

To those people, I say, "Nonsense." Sort of.

Centrism/agnosticism is not necessarily a failure of spirit, intellect or will. It is a failure to find what is needed in any of the available options, and a failure to settle for something that's "close enough." Society often demands labels of us - pro or con? high or low? Lennon or McCartney? smooth or crunchy? And in most instances, I can truthfully respond "Both." (Except for smooth or crunchy - that one gets "Neither." It is a further demonstration of what an un-American philistine I am that I don't like peanuts).

It is not necessarily weak-minded vacillation to see both sides, to appreciate more than one angle. Nor is it "strength" to pick a side simply because the major options are A or B. Human beings are celebrated for their individuality: why is it necessary to cram your belief system or world view into a channel that leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that you are tacitly endorsing things you do not agree with?

Monday, March 29, 2004

Clap Your Hands if You Believe...
Here is a legitimate exploration of "belief."

Manning the Ramparts
I've been a bit cranky lately ["A bit?!" I hear my husband cry. Okay, very cranky]. Only this morning do I have a specific, topical and timely excuse (you clean coffee out of an iBook keyboard at seven in the morning and see how cheery you are). The rest of it has been a lingering malaise which I vaguely attribute to the cause: Don't Have A Job Yet. But an e-mail from my mother about this site gives another possible cause. She writes, "The only thing I find scary about these musings of yours is that it's a pretty coherent picture of a culture gone mad--or perhaps more accurately, gone stupid." In all modesty I would substitute the word "consistent" for "coherent" in that statement - otherwise, I'm not sure I can argue with it.

I hate it when I do or say something stupid (cf. coffee on the keyboard). But what is really maddening is when our culture allows us to defend our stupidity - letting us love it and hug it and call it George. There are whole sections of the culture who look upon intelligence and erudition with suspicion, and there is a particularly insidious way of manning the Ramparts of Stupidity: the mislabeled "opinion."

Consider this quote from a music-loving woman in a Wal-Mart for a story about the store's new music download service. Neda Ulaby of All Things Considered asked her if she would use Wal-Mart's new online music purchasing system, and she replied, "In a way, I think that's stealing. And I feel that anything that is downloaded off the computer from anywhere is stealing. So if I come here and buy it then I've paid for it and I'm getting what I paid for. So. That's how I feel."

So, in this woman's mind, purchasing is not defined as an exchange of goods or services for money - it's all about the delivery method. Ulaby blames this woman's thinking (or lack thereof) on the music industry's virulent anti-piracy media campaign. But take a closer look at what the woman actually said. She starts out by saying she "thinks" it is stealing, softening it by prefacing her statement with, "In a way...". But then she goes on to defend her position that it is stealing by saying it's what she "feels." In other words, it's what she believes - it's her opinion. So she stands on a factually indefensible position and mans the ramparts by retreating to the language of belief.

Someone (sorry - I have been unable to find a source) said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts." But our society reflexively retreats from arguing with people who use the words believe, feel, opinion, etc. It's a conversational "home base" from which the factually deficient can say, "Neener, neener, you can't get me." Opinions are so sacred that they cause us to retreat from argument, even when those "opinions" are really factual inaccuracies in disguise. On second thought, perhaps my mother was right the first time - it is a culture gone mad. And you don't argue with the clinically insane.

Later on in the segment, the aforementioned music-lover in Wal-Mart does say that she will probably use the download service. If she still believes she's stealing can she get arrested by the thought police?

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Weekend (3/27/04)
On the weekend, blog rests.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Tourist Visa
More on Gujarat.

Whose Sari Now?
I went sari-shopping yesterday.

Yes, you read that sentence correctly. Those who know me are probably having a hard time imagining a tall, broad-shouldered, Teutonic farm-girl type draped in bright, embroidered fabric, but so it is.

My friend Alicia and I have been trying to schedule a date to go looking at Indian clothing for quite a while. She gave me a royal blue sari over Christmas, but I lacked the necessary petticoat (and knowledge of how to wear the darned thing). The idea of abandoning The Land of Winter for The Land of Bright Colors also appealed immensely. So we toodled off to Silver Spring to check out one of the shops.

I learned a great deal - but my principal lesson was: Indian clothing makes you lose your mind. The fabrics are so gorgeous, the embroidery so intricate and the colors so luscious, you just want to throw caution to the winds and say, "I'll have one of everything." But here's the rub: Alicia (whose family is from Gujarat) can drape herself in sherbet-colored silk and go off to a Westerner's wedding looking so elegant a catwalk model would turn seven shades of envious green. If I wore mine to the same wedding, I would look like I had raided the dressing up box or mistaken the wedding for a fancy-dress masquerade.

It's not fair. But I'll find some event where I can wear it. Never fear.

I bought a salwar kameez anyway - at the very least, I can wear it to my own dinner parties and be the coolest, most comfortable woman on any hot, humid DC night.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Fishing, Take Two
How can you possibly resist a publication with a headline like "Hot Tips for Ice-Out Crappies"?

Mad. They're all mad, I tell you.

My husband is a devotee of the activity known as "fishing." This man, who hates being cold enough to wear a hat inside the house, will stand for hours in a frigid river with a stick in his hand hoping that a fish will come along so he can throw it back.

My own version of "fishing" these days consists of throwing a resume on to an e-mail, hoping to net a job that I won't want to throw back.

Fishermen employ guile, data and superstition in their quest for the perfect, most fish-filled spot.

I employ research and "networking" in order to find the most jobs in the Metro DC area.

So the two activities are reasonably similar, at least in gross outline. Here is the real difference in the two activities: John enjoys fishing. The only ones who really enjoy my version of it are the cats, because it means I sit still for periods of time, allowing them to cuddle up into great balls of fur on my legs. If I had any artistic talent, I would draw the image in my head: me as a trawler, moving slowly across the water, with about ten lines consisting of ones and zeroes hanging off of the boat and baited with resumes. The cats are manning the lines. It would have been the perfect subject for B. Kliban.

You know it's bad when you start getting delusional and imagining yourself as a cartoon.

But must step lively - the Good Ship Jill is sailing off to another networking opportunity today. I'll be easy to spot: just look for the one wearing the lucky fishing hat...

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Resources, resources, resources....
Critics and Critical Thinking
I contributed to a discussion thread yesterday on Teresa Neilsen Hayden's blog. Mostly, those posting comments were annoyed by the author of a Salon article who (among other things) complains that she doesn't get paid enough to write her books while hacks writing trash get rich (really? Wow - that's a news flash). The comments ranged from outrage that someone would get paid to whine about how they are ill-paid when so many others are far worse off to the actual quality of the writing itself. But there was the occasional "judge not lest ye be judged" comment by those who were appalled at the number of critical responses. One person noted that he hoped those of us who thought the article was poorly written were world-class writers ourselves.

What on Earth does that have to do with anything? Since when do ability to do the thing and ability to recognize the thing have to coexist in the same package? What would happen if this sort of wooly-headed thinking were extended to its illogical conclusion? It would be amusing to see an Olympic skater throw down with the Russian judge. "A four? Whaddaya mean a four? Let's see you land a triple axel!" In her heyday, chefs all over Washington, DC would have been outside Phyllis Richman's house screaming, "You better be able to make a mean bouillabaisse if you think you can dis mine, lady!"

When I was performing, there was a common corollary to the "judge not" argument that was just as fatuous, and that was that bad behavior could be excused because of talent. Divas of both sexes were allowed to throw bratty hissy-fits because they could sing exquisitely, dance beautifully or act with vision and heartbreaking truth. The rest of us who were merely good had to behave like polite, adult mortals or suffer the consequences (thank god - somebody has to retrieve the reputation of performers).

Nobody as yet has been able to draw a logical connection between talent and tantrums, because it doesn't exist. The closest anyone got was that talent made those people irreplaceable - not true. Talent is far more common than most people realize, and Eve Harringtons wait in every wing. Nor do you have to be a perfect writer to be critical of poor writing, but for some reason "popular wisdom" connects the two.

I'll take unpopular logic over popular wisdom any day.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

O tsogile jang
Just in case you were wondering, it's Setswana.

Good Morning
Morning routines are sacred little things, though they alter over time to fit a changing lifestyle. When I was single, I required 20 minutes from launching out of bed to dashing out the door. My insane mad dash towards the Metro had some method in the madness: if I got up too early, I would relax, take my time and end up incredibly late. Breakfast was optional.

Enter my breakfast-loving, slow-starting husband, and my cherished A.M. sprint started to mutate. We commuted together for a time, and leaving the house together entailed a kind of Chinese puzzle bathroom routine, which took longer than my standard 20 minutes. The addition of the dog completed the metamorphosis. When I was still working, he had to be walked before I left, so I ended up going from someone who had 20 minutes to get ready to someone who had two hours to get ready.

So now, though theoretically I could sleep until ten and work late into the evening searching for job opportunities and writing cover letters, I still get up somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00, stump sleepily downstairs (imagine the Grimace with flannel pajamas and bed-head) and head straight for the coffee, which wakes me up enough for me to start worrying about what I'm going to write about today.

But why did I, a non-morning person if ever one breathed, choose to structure my day this way? I think part of it is that somewhere I have in me the genes of midwestern farmers who would probably consider that lying about in bed is only appropriate if you gave birth to a child five minutes ago. Otherwise, get up! There's work to be done!

These genes are leavened by a certain postmodern "why bother" sensibility. I have no fields to be plowed, no horses to feed. Hence, I get up - but I consider that I've accomplished something because I write a few paragraphs, publish them for all to see and don't receive a dime for it.

There's a sort of poetry in that combination... but pardon me, the postmodern exercise routine beckons.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Need Superstitions?
Find them here.

No Black Cats Need Apply
Once upon a time, I was an actor. Actors are really strange people - they shudder at the name Macbeth spoken inside a theatre, they have some strange ideas about whistling, and they never, ever wish each other "good luck" for fear of causing the reverse. All of these behaviors stemmed from some real historical causes, but probably continued to exist to provide an illusion of control. This is very important in an actor's out-of-control life, where a stranger with a job title of "critic" can get you fired.

When I stopped acting and started in business, job inquiries were still done via U.S. Mail. This spawned a whole host of superstitious, obsessive behavior - making sure the paper's watermark faced the right way, a good strong signature in blue or black ink, perfect 2/3 folds in the cover letter and resume, lining up the stamp perfectly on the envelope - all in the service of making sure the documents got to the recipient in pristine form. We were told that these documents represented who we were - if we valued them, then the recipient would be more likely to value them. Then you would arrive for the interview and find that someone had used your representative document as a coffee coaster, but the illusion of control was too valuable to give up, and we continued to print copies of the letter until we could come up with a signature that was closer to John Hancock than Charles Manson.

Now we fling the resume as an attachment onto an e-mail and hope for the best. I have arrived at various offices to find my 2-page resume somehow spans onto three pages due to the recipient's printer settings, or the margins are hopelessly tweaked and the document looks like it was formatted by an insane troll. People are more casual these days about appearances and more concerned with content, but it leaves those of us with control issues without some perfectly good superstitious illusions to play with.

But being out of control of a situation long enough will make you invent superstitious behavior. Lacking stamps and watermarks, I have found myself making empty promises such as, "If I get this e-mail out by 7:30 AM, they will realize what a hard worker I am and how much of a self-starter I am!" Nonsense. They probably don't even notice what time you send the e-mail, even if they do happen to read it.

So, I vow to be more constructive and less superstitious. Pardon me while I go cross my fingers, knock on wood and rub my Buddha...

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Weekend (3/20/04)
On the weekend, blog rests.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Okay, this is just disturbing.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Speaking of Fast Food
Question Everything
A common theme that has been highlighted lately in editorial pages is the failure to question, especially by the media. Editorial writers are questioning the lack of introspection and skepticism that seems to have become a hallmark of modern society.

I'm not so sure a failure to question is such a modern trait. Laziness is not a new failing, and it is far easier to simply take something as truth rather than to question it. It may also be a function of willful blindness. Those who want to believe, perhaps despite a tiny voice in the back of their mind, will resolutely use the language of trust, perhaps to the point of insanity, to avoid facing the possibility that their trust may be misplaced. Frauds in journalism are nothing new, and yet the public, the editors of a publication with a fraudster on their payroll, and sometimes even the liar/plagiarist themselves are shocked - SHOCKED - to find out that whatever sounded too good to be true actually is.

In political life, each side has been ridiculed by the other for their blind faith in various leaders. In turn, devotees of a particular leader will turn themselves inside out to either defend the person or ignore/mitigate the contradictions, distortions, and outright lies that come out of their leaders' mouths. It happens on both sides of the aisle here and in all corners of the globe. Policies that sound absolutely insane to an opposing party member are swallowed without a hitch by journalists and the faithful, even if they seem to run counter to most of the laws of economics and many of the laws of physics. This "bread and circus" mentality is like driving a car wearing virtual reality goggles. You may have fun while the show lasts, but the crash is going to be a doozy.

Perhaps the world is just moving too fast for journalists these days. Part of the issue in the media seems to be the fear of missing a scoop: a rumor gets floated, that rumor is picked up by journalists fearing that they will miss out on the feeding frenzy, and sooner or later it is "fact" without a single fact checked. Column inches then get dished up like fast food: hot, fat, salty garbage delivered quickly.

It's not nutritious, but it's filling.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Now This is a Holiday I Can Appreciate
The Luck of the Non-Irish
I am not Irish.

Despite reddish hair, a penchant for green and seasonal freckles, I have little or no "Irish heritage" (e.g. Irish ancestors - can somebody explain why we need to euphemize that one?). I'm your standard, garden-variety American mutt with a preponderance of Scandinavian thrown into the mix. Despite the fact that this genetic mixture didn't give me the thighs of a supermodel, I'm happy with it. I see no particular reason to change.

But apparently, I am supposed to be Irish. According to popular lore, if I wanted to be Irish, today would be the day. I have been told that "everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day!" Apparently, "passing" for Irish is necessary to properly celebrate the holiday. I understand it's all in good fun, but I honestly don't get it.

There are a bunch of half-holidays running around the U.S. calendar these days: St. Patrick's Day, Arbor Day, Groundhog Day - sad little "holidays" where nobody gets a day off. Other than adherence to "Tradition," there is no real reason for their existence. Of this little group, St. P's day is the one most firmly in denial. Parades are held (but they mobilize to the nearest weekend if the holiday lands on a weekday), parties are thrown and people decorate with leprechauns and shamrocks. All of this runs a bit far from the a serious lenten celebration of a Saint who's legend includes driving the snakes out of Ireland. However, plenty of other Christian religious holidays have been co-opted by the secular U.S. That doesn't bother me, either. I'm all for a party celebrating anything or nothing.

I just don't think the words "green" and "beer" belong in the same sentence, let alone describing the same beverage.

I think I'll start my own holiday - "Insignificant Subversive Day." My adherents will not wear red on Valentine's Day and not wear green on St. Patrick's Day. If we're feeling really subversive we'll wear white shoes before Memorial Day.

Who's with me?

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Role Models for Reality
My Hero
I've never understood the position of celebrity role models. Any time a celebrity does something unpopular, stupid or criminal, they are lambasted for deserting their "role model" post. But what does it mean to be a role model?

The task of being a role model is impossibly difficult. You are expected to comport yourself perfectly at all times, be polite to every fan who wants a piece of you, make good decisions at every turn, and - oh, yes - produce quality product in your regular "day job," be that music, films, television, sports, etc. Which of us mere mortals (and despite how pretty and rich these people are, they are in fact human) has a shot at getting even one of those right, especially on a bad day? And therein lies a real problem with the whole role model concept: absence of realistic expectations. Parents who lambast their kids' favorite star for being asleep at the role model switch are expecting a standard of behavior they could probably never meet under similar circumstances.

For those who see evil intent in every "wardrobe malfunction" and the beckoning hand of vice in every televised curse, I have a mantra for you: "It's not about me." There are bad choices - even criminal ones - getting made every day by those in the spotlight. No, they are not for emulation, but neither are they made with the express intent of making your kid burn to copy them. A decision to behave differently may be made for a host of reasons, but not necessarily because a child they don't know has made a papier-maché pedestal and placed them on it. I have heard a few of these juvenile "role models" speak, and what comes out of their mouth leads me to believe that smart choices are probably beyond their powers. It's too bad, but you're not going to make a boy-band member any smarter by standing on the ramparts and screaming that he has irrevocably harmed your child with his heedless behavior.

It is true that the specter of role modeldom lurks in every successful entertainment or sports career. So, say the righteous, if they don't want to be a role model, they shouldn't act/sing/throw a ball for a career. I'm sure none of those righteous people has ever had an unwelcome and inappropriate duty foisted upon them by their job. I'm equally sure they would be up to every conflicting standard of behavior a protean public expected of them. Examining the facts, what is there about being a celebrity - aside from possession of a place in a spotlight - that makes these people role models? Answer: nothing. There is nothing in the training for these careers that enables a celebrity to be of use as a moral guide. Stars didn't get famous because they are good people, they got famous because a large segment of the public is willing to pay good money to watch them do something pretty frivolous. If they happen to be morally grounded (can we agree on what that is? I thought not), that's a bonus.

Deep inside every erring celebrity footstep, there are plenty of "teachable moments" for all of us, many of them labeled, "Don't do this: it's stupid and it might get you killed/arrested/ridiculed."

Another good lesson: the creation of heroes is an activity fraught with peril, and anyone who indulges in it is bound to be disappointed.

Monday, March 15, 2004

It's a Fact.
From useless lies to useless facts.

A Tool or a Weapon
Any e-mail header that starts with FW: Fw: FW: FW: Fw: worries me deeply. Often, my worry is unfounded - another photo montage of kittens or a tasteless but harmless joke has passed from the virtual water cooler to my home. Then there are the e-mails that are worth the worry: deadly spiders hiding in the toilet, shampoo that has apparently been insidiously causing cancer for years, and the latest kidnap, murder or rape of a woman going about her normal daily business.

I'm not worried about the practical aspects of these warnings. I am not spending a moment concerning myself with spiders gnawing on my nether regions, my inevitable demise from cranial cancer or shopping-mall violence. Each and every one of them is an urban legend. When the Internet was still the ARPANET and urban legends had less efficient means of transport through society, we had only our credulousness (or lack thereof) to navigate with. Back then, we relied on clues to tell us if a story was made-up or true. The usual signs of an urban legend were: "It happened to my cousin's friend," (distancing the tale from the tale-teller); anything involving a bizarre gang ritual; or any story ending with, "...and she had been DEAD for twelve years..." These stories might have the power to make your flesh creep, but fireside ghost stories don't actually harm anyone.

The real worry is that these e-mails get passed around because people think they are true. They also think Congress doesn't pay into Social Security, Target stores don't support U.S. Troops, and that using your cell phone near a gas pump will get you blown up. The e-mails perpetuating these stories practically vibrate with suppressed rage, enhanced by every FW: in the subject line. They are filled with enough pieces of data - incidents with names and locations attached - to make them seem credible. But they are also untrue. And now that they are being written out and passed along, they seem to have an additional mantle of credibility thrown over them by the magic of the written word. Some may just mutate harmlessly - a screed from a discussion thread gets altered a bit, a quote gets added, and bingo - it's attributed to the celebrity who originally penned the quote. But others are far more insidious - deliberate falsehoods designed to make people angry or afraid. Somebody actually sat down, thought up and wrote this piece of garbage, and it wasn't for entertainment purposes. We used to have a name for people with axes to grind who hid behind falsehoods: cowards. If you don't have the facts or the intelligence to marshal them, you probably don't have an argument.

The Internet, which enables such chicanery to be widely disseminated, also gives us a weapon to fight back. Research is laughably easy these days, and there are plenty of tools to do it with. When in doubt, anything beginning with "PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO ALL YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS" is probably as suspect as anything ending with, "...and she had been DEAD for twelve years..." Being female is perilous enough without worrying about crazed kidnappers with perfume bottles: keep your head up, your eyes open, and if something looks suspicious, call 911 and keep driving.

And, by the way - dihydrogen monoxide can kill you if you inhale it. But that's more commonly referred to as "drowning."

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Weekend (3/13/04)
On the weekend, blog rests.

Friday, March 12, 2004

As I Previously Mentioned....
It's all about intent.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving
I get the darndest e-mails these days. People actually read this site. You - there on the other side of the screen. You're actually reading this. Amazing. Though most mornings it feels like I'm stuffing a message in a bottle and throwing it out to sea, this is not the case.

Even more incredible to me is that most of the e-mails I get are complimentary. I do know that that will fall away if/when more strangers start reading, and that will be a day I look forward to. WoT? is still pretty much a family affair, though we have gone from almost 100% readers connecting via a Mac to only about 46%. It's truly sad when your passion for readership overrides your passion for compliments and your passion for your minority computing platform.

Because the URL has passed from hand to hand, I have received wonderful e-mails from people I have not heard from in years and I have entered into deeper dialogue with people I thought I knew very well. Essays that I was unsatisfied with touched some, and essays I was pleased with fell flat with others. One friend can't stand my "Victorian Headers," while another finds them to be an interesting lead-in, a tantalizing clue to what the essay will be about.

The most surprising revelation of all is that some of the warm, cozy essays have culled more positive response than the funny, snarky ones (though The Third Bird Carnival is still the people's choice, I believe). It's more fun to write the snarky ones. There is a feeling of jaded, cafe cynicism, of preaching to the converted. I don't have to put myself out there at all - it's my brain talking and not my heart. On the days when something like, "Can You Tell Me How to Get..." or "Welcome to the Year of the Wood Monkey" go out, it's because I haven't got a fully-realized intellectual idea to play with.

Only then is my busy head quiet enough to let my heart get a word in edgewise - like today. So thank you to all who read. I could probably do it without you, but it wouldn't be any fun at all.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

"Lifestyle Magazine"
An interesting "lifestyle magazine" out of the UK, but including international content - imagine.

Mark, I think they nicked your logo....

We Are Not Alone
I've just about given up on U.S. television news. It's disturbing to me in the same way Disney World is disturbing. Nothing is out of place at Disney. Not a blade of grass is un-polished, un-manicured, un-trimmed. Everything appears to be "sanitized for your convenience." I'm not one to bemoan the lack of tacky tawdriness in everyday life. I prefer Times Square now to Times Square twenty years ago. But Disney takes shiny, polished perfection several steps too far in my view. So do U.S. nightly news programs. The anchors are generally beautiful people: they don't have a hair out of place and they never stumble over their words. They have two expressions: bright and cheery (covering the latest Mall opening, elementary science fair, or other tame subject), or stern and censorious (the other ninety-eight percent of the news - mostly violent crime or car wrecks). They are careful not to shock sensibilities by showing too much, but in doing so I believe they often numb their viewership to the horrors that people inflict on one another.

Both experiences also leave you with this curious impression that the U.S. takes up at least eighty-five percent of the world. There is a sense that little happens beyond our borders unless it involves some American citizen hapless enough to travel to non-U.S. shores. In the news, it's an American getting killed or injured abroad. At Disney, it's the national domestication of international experience. EPCOT's little capsules of various countries may be cute, but they are as international as the food at your local grocery and similarly limited in their scope (can you imagine EPCOT's "Haitian Village"?).

I love America. I think the Constitution is a brilliant document and I enjoy the freedoms that the Bill of Rights grant (in writing for this site, I exercise those freedoms daily). There is a youthful energy, a spirit, about Americans that makes me smile and feel that just about anything is possible, like watching a teenager with choices and learning and life before her. But like that teenager, Americans can be impossibly self-centered know-it-alls. I suppose I love America the same way I love my family: appreciating the good, trying to view the bad clearly and dispassionately, and knowing that we are not the center of the universe just because we are us.

So we watch the BBC World News. It is reassuring to me that we are not, in fact, alone. We are not eighty-five percent of the globe. There are events going on outside our borders that don't include American casualties that are truly important. The reporters aren't always scrubbed, blow-dried perfection, and little is sanitized.

Plus, a meteorologist gives the weather report for the entire world. How cool is that?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Transcendent in its Epic Badness.
So Bad, it's Good.
I was listening to Edith Piaf as I cooked dinner last night.

For those who do not think they are familiar with Ms. Piaf's work, you have very likely heard her somewhere - perhaps in passing on some documentary about France, definitely if you watched "Bull Durham." Ms. Piaf was a French singer of enduring popularity both inside and outside of France. She is for many (if not most) an acquired taste, as her voice is simultaneously nasal, tremulous and bombastic. She earnestly committed to every syllable she sung, as if her life depended upon getting the song's point across. When she sings, "Non, je ne regrette rien..." (No, I regret nothing), you believe it, even as you suspect by the fierceness in her voice that she had plenty she could regret, should she have decided to.

I must have acquired my taste for Edith Piaf when I was eighteen and working as a summer waitress in an upscale restaurant. This restaurant's food was excellent, but it was owned and operated by a renowned eccentric who periodically ran for the U.S. Senate. His platform was entirely made up by one plank: to abolish the IRS. For some reason the New Hampshire voters, allergic to taxes as they are, never seemed to think that was quite enough to send someone to Washington for six years. The musical selections in the restaurant that summer were similarly offbeat: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Edith Piaf were most heavily in rotation, and songs like "Vie en Rose" and "Padam... Padam" worked their way almost subliminally into my head.

I didn't run right out and get a recording of her music that summer, as I held the conscious opinion that she was rubbish for several years. Somehow, though, she got under my skin and I feel I have to trace my appreciation back to that summer where she regretted "rien" so continuously in the background. I do know I didn't get my fondness for her out of any nostalgia for the experience of waitressing, so it would have to be the music itself that I finally came to appreciate.

I wonder if it is part of the human condition to find something like this appealing. Does everyone have something they just love that is "so bad, it's good"? Our culture provides plenty of opportunities for such pleasures. "Trash" TV, novels, music, movies, food - everyone has indulged in this sort of thing at some point in their life. If you're brave enough to admit you have seen the latest teen movie or eaten scrapple, it's amazing how many people you know will have done the same. I have often been astonished by a minor discovery about a normally highbrow friend's favorite guilty pleasure.

But don't worry - your secret is safe with me.

Extra, Extra....
Joss Whedon on Talk of the Nation. He confirms that he's working on "Serenity," the "Firefly" movie.

Later on in the same show, Neal Conan talks with some folks about the "Sponge Monkeys," which is apparently the real name for the Quiznos Singing Hamsters that WoT? mentioned early in its infancy.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

As the World Turns...
New theories about the great asteroid....

Evolution - It's Good for Human Nature, Too.
"A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject." Winston Churchill (1874–1965), British statesman, writer. Quoted in New York Times (July 5, 1954).

Fanatics scare the living bejeezus out of me. Partly they scare me because I don't understand them: I have never felt an all-encompassing feeling that one thing was completely and totally true, regardless of circumstances, regardless of context. Partly they scare me because of the rage I have seen them display when their will is crossed and their "truth" is questioned. It reminds me of the rage of a mob: unpredictable and dangerous. But from a personal perspective, I just cannot understand an absence of a questioning mind.

It has been said that the people in my family apologize thusly: "I'm s---, I'm so--, I'm ssss - you're wrong." Consequently, I have worked long and hard for my open mind, always trying to remember that a new piece of data might come in and prove my theory, idea or belief to be completely wrong. It troubles me when a person honestly seeking the best solution has no black/white answer and is thereby charged with what is considered to be a moral failure: the failure to be decisive and stick by that decision, regardless of new information. What is such a decisive person to do when they are proved irrevocably wrong? The world is not a simple place, and often it seems that simple answers are offered as inadequate solutions to complex problems.

Consider the history of medicine. As little as a hundred and fifty years ago, physicians sought to cure disease by alleviating imbalances of the body's "humors." Bloodletting was considered something of a cure-all. Bacteria were not even imaginable, and hygiene a matter of cosmetics, not health. Imagine if nothing had changed from then to now. What if fanatics, bent on their belief that a good bloodletting with a casually cleaned implement was good for just about any ailment, were in control of medicine today?

We live now in a time where we can understand many things that were hidden to us before - progress has led us to our present position. But we have not come to that position in order to stop indefinitely. Instead, new data and new conclusions will rise up and change our world by small steps and large leaps. As little as twenty years from now, some of our most cherished notions may be considered quaint and old-fashioned. We head into a future where the answers we think are carved in stone today are found to be written with a shaking finger in shifting sands.

And that, at least, is nothing new.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Myrtle Foxburr of Loamsdown
....apparently that's my Hobbit name.

Spelling Smith
When I got married, I did the old-fashioned thing. I changed my name. I didn't do it for any parochial, patriarchal reason, I did it out of a desire for simplicity. "Losing my identity" didn't concern me, as I never felt my identity was bound up in a label given to me more or less at random. There were slight twinges of concern over the change, mostly relating to my professional life. It was worrying that professional colleagues and clients might get confused, but I had seen other women make the switch with success.

What made the alteration truly attractive was not having to go through this silly peroration ever again: "ESS-asinSam-AY-DUBLEYEW-DEE-asinDavid-OH-EN-asinNancy." Without that verbal foray into the Ministry of Silly Walks, my perfectly phonetic surname (Sawdon) would end up mutated into, at best, Sodden, Sowden, or Swanson. At worst, it would be Fawdem. Smith! Brief, simple, everyone knows a Smith, everyone can spell it. I would never have to spell my last name again, and I got to keep my initials. It seemed perfect. But I hadn't counted on a fact of human nature.

People don't listen.

Everyone falls victim to the error of not quite paying attention from time to time, and when it happens, it can be embarrassing. It becomes even more embarrassing, however, when someone tries to brazen it out. I call, they answer. I introduce myself, they inform me that whomever I want is out of the office. May they take a message? Certainly. Could you spell your name for me, please?



Oh! [Nervous laughter] Sorry!

Gotcha. I've caught that person not listening. They know it, I know it, we just don't mention it. I wonder just how many times people weren't listening when I was asked to spell Sawdon. I had to spell my name for just about every single person I ever met for the better part of my life up until last year, so another request to spell my name wasn't remarkable then.

The real issue is not that I begrudge giving anyone those five letters - I just wonder what else they haven't paid attention to. I know I'll really be in trouble the day I am on the other end of this conversation:

911, what is your emergency?.... Okay.... We'll get right out there..... Could you spell your name for me, please?

On that day, I'll expect a fire truck for a broken arm.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Weekend (3/6/04)
On the weekend, blog rests.

Happy Anniversary
WoT? is a month old today. Admittedly, it's a slightly short month (having started on February 6), but a month nonetheless. In that short month, Our Heroine has maintained an output of one essay and one Random Thing six days a week. On Sunday, blog has rested with a puzzle or game. My production schedule of 9 AM each morning has, with one exception, been met every one of those days. I have enjoyed meeting this self-set goal - it is both fun and feels virtuous. But there's one thing missing.

I miss sleeping in on Saturday.

So, Wot?'s production schedule is henceforth going to be adjusted. The puzzle or game is going to have to carry Our Heroine's Dear Readers through the entire weekend. Monday through Friday, the daily essay and random thing will go up as usual.

Happy weekend, Dear Reader - go outside and play!

Friday, March 05, 2004

Think you know the Movies that were made from the plays?
Shakespeare in the movies trivia quiz.

Inspiration Corruption
Recently, there has been a great deal of activity surrounding copyright issues. Lawsuits and threatened lawsuits abound, and from my completely unscientific, anecdotal survey it appears that the strictest construction of copyright is the only one people are considering.

But artists have always borrowed and recycled. They use old themes and plots in a new way. Often times, the only way to describe something new is to compare it to something old for reference. When Gene Roddenberry was pitching "Star Trek," he told the studio it would be "'Wagon Train' to the stars" in order to ease executives' fears about science fiction and give them a context they understood.

It is hard to appreciate a new piece of art or art form in without some sort of historical reference. It takes a very open mind to appreciate something completely novel. But when you see art in context, you gain a deeper appreciation for the cultural place it holds. Without any knowledge of Impressionist painting, J. Seward Johnson's sculptures are fun - with that knowledge, they are hilarious. But what if those artists were still around and objected to this sculptural riff on their paintings? What if, like the family of James Joyce, they gripped the work in a copyright stranglehold? The possibilities seem to stretch rapidly towards absurdity.

So, since I'm being very theatrical this week, here is my fantasy of what would happen if Shakespeare arrived in Hollywood today:

Shakespeare arrives in Hollywood for a pitch meeting - the Fab 5 are flown in from New York to introduce him to a toothbrush and a fancy new set of clothes. "I'm thinking scaled-back - how gay is this doublet and hose thing? Off we go- Armani," says Carson. "The long hair is very now - the goatee is a bit late-90's, but we'll keep it. On you it works!"

Ponytailed, suited and moisturized, Will arrives at the office of Big Hollywood Producer for his pitch meeting. "Will!" booms BHP. "Welcome to the colonies, my friend. You know the buzz on you is hot - hotter than hot. We hear the stuff you've got going on at that Globe Theater in London is just magic. So - lay it on me."

"Excuse me?" asks a puzzled Will.

"The STORY - first story. Let me hear the plot."

"Oh - yes. Well, for the first one, I was thinking Lear - a dying king wants to divide his land among his three daughters. But he is not sure of their loyalty to him, so-"

"Hold it." BHP presses a button on his phone. "Cyndee? Get ahold of Carol Smiley's people. I think we have a pitch that matches the plot of 'A Thousand Acres' here. I don't want to get our butts sued. Okay, Will - I think that one's been done. Off the table. But you have a big body of work I hear? Try another one."

"Hm. Okay. Well, this one is a bit lighter - a frustrated father has two daughters. The elder is antisocial, with a fiery temper. The younger is much more compliant - and very pretty: consequently sought after by many men. The father insists that the younger one cannot consider any of her suitors until the elder is-"

"Stop. Okay - you seem like a sophisticated guy, so I can guess you haven't seen any teen flicks lately, but this sounds EXACTLY like 'Ten Things I Hate About You.' Excuse me - yeah, Cyndee? No. Tell that Austen woman her 'Emma' thing has already been done - Amy Heckerling did it in 'Clueless.' Geez. When will people learn? Okay - that one's out. Next."

"All right - a Black officer with a white wife-"

"Hang on - jealousy? Subterfuge? Trusted friend turns on him? Teen melodrama - they did it in 'O' a few years back. Y'know Will, I don't want to waste our time here. Looks like you haven't got anything that won't get us sued. Maybe you should go back to London and just do the theater scene."

"I think you're right," says Will, rising from his chair. "Best of luck in your artistic endeavors."

"Art? Don't kid yourself, kid. This is show business." As Will walks out of BHP's office, he hears, "Yeah, Cyndee? No - tell that redundant hack Sophocles that I'm not taking his calls."

Thursday, March 04, 2004

A Shrewness of Apes?
Get your collective nouns for the zoo here.

Can You Tell Me How to Get....
I have a theory that everyone has at least one place where they become a kid again. Some experiences seem to be tightly woven to the child in us - allowing us still to experience the thrill of discovery and possibility. In your kid place, you still don't have to decide what you want to be when you grow up - all doors still feel open. For some, their kid-place is the ballet, for others an air show or sports event. Take me to a barn, let me wander around and stroke silky horse noses and I'm six. For my husband John, his kid-place is probably the zoo.

It's always fun going with someone to their kid-place. Their eyes light up and they laugh more easily. The solemnity of adulthood slides away and you get a little time-travel journey to their youth. I can highly recommend accompanying someone to their kid-place if you want to get to know them better. With John at the zoo, there are hundreds of little capsule experiences that range from fear to laughter. In the reptile house we get the thrills and chills of big snakes. The small mammal house is like a wildlife game of "Where's Waldo." Going to the prairie dog mound is like attending a standup comedy routine. Prairie dogs do a "jump-yip" to express danger to their community. Since prairie dogs naturally object to all the people standing around looking at them, they jump-yip quite a bit, often causing them to fall backwards onto their prairie dog bottoms. Go to the zoo and see it - it's a lot funnier in person. But the real kid moment comes at the otter tank.

John has a profound fondness for otters. I think they bypass his grownup persona, his responsibility and seriousness, and go straight for the kid funny-bone and awe. They're clownish and silly, and at the same time they are muscular and powerful. They get to have both the goofy and the gravitas because they are otters - it's the niche they adapted to fit. As people, we have to make choices about who we are and what we want to be. We have to decide what we want to be when we grow up.

I can understand wanting to be an otter.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Want to see Vladimir & Estragon?
American TheaterWeb.

Nothing to be Done
I followed a friend's link to a Slashdot thread today, and two things occurred to me. First of all, while I spent way too much time skimming through the contents of this "conversation," the people who produced everything printed there spent much more time writing it. I know I have too much time on my hands, but it led me to wonder if these people sleep, if they have jobs, if they have relationships. Probably they have jobs....

Second of all, it struck me that had Samuel Beckett lived in the Internet age, he may not have been able to write his masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot," because too many people would have accused him of cheap rip-offs of online threads. Reading a thread is like watching a tennis match between two well-matched but mediocre players, with an occasional brass band sent straight through center court at random intervals. Multiple people coming to the same conclusions and posting in swift succession, sudden flaming anger at a post three screens down the page (and in this short-attention span world, already forgotten) and red herrings dragged across the central topic create strange repetition, random leaps in content and self-contradictory reasoning that is remarkably similar to the famous tragicomedy.

So, with apologies to Samuel Beckett, here is my reimagining of "Waiting for Godot - the Slashdot Conversation"

[A country road, a tree. Estragon sits on a low mound, trying to remove his boot. Vladimir enters, pulls off his tinfoil hat, looks inside and knocks it on the crown, as if to make something fall out.]

Estragon: [Giving up on the boot] Nothing to be done.

Vladimir: I've come to the same conclusion myself.

Estragon: So why are you here again?

Vladimir: I had to return: Godot is tracing my movements through the cunning placement of a chip in my head - or is it in my money?

Estragon: [Suddenly angry] You fool! You know that processed cheese is the only thing they trace.

Vladimir: Your spelling is atrocious.

Estragon: Off topic! Off topic!!
[He attacks Vladimir. Vladimir weeps, stops, pulls off his tinfoil hat and looks inside, shaking it to see if anything will fall out.]

Vladimir: Nothing to be done.

Estragon: It's 1:35 in the morning and we've been here for days. We have no life. We should go.

Vladimir: We can't!

Estragon: Why not?

Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.

Estragon: Ah! I had forgotten. Shall we go?

Vladimir: Yes, let's go.
[They do not move].


Tuesday, March 02, 2004

What can I say....?
A delightful site about the misuse of words.

Between You and I
I am a word snob. I admit it. I respond to the question, "How are you?" by saying, "Well, thank you." I value words - like any good tools, they have specific uses. I enjoy producing the verbal equivalent of a 1/8" ratchet and getting the job done swiftly and correctly rather than fumbling around and getting my fingers pinched with an inefficient adjustable wrench. Those of you who have been reading since the beginning may detect in me a tendency toward the use of run-on sentences, but hopefully you will never see the glaring misuse of a word. We all have our lapses (I've even caught myself committing the redundancy of "ATM Machine"), but the rampant misuse of words is a pet peeve of mine.

Written English today is full of little barbs and irritants for folks like me - they creep into every publication as well as every roadside stand. We see "Tomato's" for sale (what does a tomato own, I wonder?), the world situation is deplored as "to much" (toward a muchness that is deplorable indeed), and we are exhorted to end a situation at work by "nipping it in the butt" (seems a bit late to me).

Misuse of words can, admittedly, produce unintentional humor. One of my favorite written blunders came during a severe ice storm in D.C. several years ago. I had struggled to work and I carefully made my way across slick sidewalks to that shrine of caffeine, Starbucks. The store was dark and a hand-lettered sign on the door read, "Closed due to inclimate weather." It didn't make up for the venti coffee I lacked that day, but at least I got a good laugh out of it. Similarly, when my husband and I were putting together a large piece of IKEA furniture, a notice on the instructions read, "It is advisory to be two people when assembling this furniture." The repetition of this maxim and the giggles it produced probably prevented us from killing each other as we disagreed over exactly what the line drawings with the various arrows really meant.

The flip side of carelessness in writing and speech is "hypercorrecting," an instance where the speaker makes a substitution for a word that sounds wrong, but is actually correct. My favorite gem in this category is "Between you and I." I try to be polite when this happens in conversation - a slight tension of the jaw replaces actual grinding of teeth. However, I laugh like a hyena every time Dame Edna says, "Excuse I?" I suppose it's all about intent.

Hypercorrecting seems to be a continual problem in the realm of the first-person singular pronoun. A friend once received a bad performance review at work which commented that he "has problems communicating with myself." This tidbit of information gives me the sneaking suspicion that the communication difficulties in this instance were not due to my friend's lapses.

I fear, though, that my quixotic little campaign is doomed to failure as it seems misuse wears down even the heavily defended ramparts of the keepers of the rules. When even Merriam-Webster allows this to be used (however reluctantly), I come over all wobbly and must cease tilting at windmills to go lie down for a while. Excuse I...

Monday, March 01, 2004

Photos of Katharine Hepburn.

Not a Bang - Not Even a Whimper
My friend Elizabeth said she wanted me to write about the Academy Awards. As I'm stumped for any other subject matter, I suppose Oscar is a trampoline I can bounce on this morning.

I did watch about two hours of the show last night, and before I fell asleep I saw something that made me very sad. Katharine Hepburn passed away this year and the producers of the show honored her with a montage of photos and film. Her accomplishments (not the least of which included growing old gracefully and naturally) were met with the most tepid reaction imaginable by the Belle Monde of Hollywood. Polite, quiet applause dutifully filled the auditorium. It appeared that the glamorously clad, dyed, lifted, tucked and botoxed crowd found this piece of Hollywood history a wee bit tedious.

There was an additional montage honoring other notables in film who died this year. It was clear by the utter lack of applause as some of the names and photographs flashed by that not only were these people unknown to the crowd, but the crowd didn't even care to give them the benefit of the doubt with the bare minimum of clapping. The montage ended with a photo of Donald O'Connor, mugging outrageously in a signature moment from "Make 'Em Laugh." The applause had more or less died off to a trickle at this point and did not revive. Were the masses of jewel-clad glitterati bored, or had they not seen "Singin' in the Rain"? Either is possible. One thing is for sure: the well of politeness that they were willing to grant to Ms. Hepburn was dry.

It's a tired cop-out to mock the vapidity and vanity of Hollywood, and I do not belong to the school of thought that honors the dead more than the living. However, I wonder what was going through these peoples' heads.

Given all the diamonds that were in evidence that night, I can guess the only thought was, "Ooooh. Shiny."