Saturday, April 29, 2006

'The Final Cut' ...

Have you seen this movie?

I'm guessing not. Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't even heard of this movie.

It was released in 2004. Made for about a quarter of a million dollars. It opened on 117 screens. Three weeks later, it had earned about a half a million dollars.

I didn't realize it was even in theaters. But with Robin Williams at the acting helm, it wouldn't have been a straight-to-video candidate.

So as Mr. Williams steers "R.V." and his career down an arid path this weekend, allow me to recommend this film.

Actually, "recommend" isn't strong enough.

L.A. Dave suggested I see this film. I don't remember the impetus. Were we talking about "Brainstorm"? Were we talking about Robin Williams' performances?

No matter. L.A. Dave recommends good stuff, and I believe this is his finest recommendation yet.

I really loved this movie. I love the premise and the social commentary and the questions it raises.

I love the score. Brian Tyler, whom I've never heard of before this film, has a style that reminds me of Danny Elfman mixed with Philip Glass. (An IMDb search reveals Tyler's credits and it's really more a case of knowing his music but not his name; it's not like he's got the name recognition of Hans Zimmer ... yet.)

But most of all, I love one single moment in the film, literally about one second on the screen, a gesture by Robin Williams so subtle it's almost imperceptible. I scanned backward to watch the scene again to confirm what I thought I'd seen and then paused the disc, dumbfounded. It's one of the best moments of acting I've ever seen. I'm going to guess that he wasn't directed to do it. I think he's such a brilliant actor that such a tiny bit of nuance would just happen, that his brain would just insert it into the moment.

A true test of how much I like a film is how much time I spend with the extras. Some films make so little an impression on me that I eject the discs the moment the credits roll. But if I love a movie - and I love this movie - I continue the relationship through all the extras.

And then I go out and buy it.

Or, I remember that Netflix sells previously viewed films and I go to Netflix and buy it. Which I just did.

'King Kong' ...

Long movie, short review:

Three hours of Peter Jackson self-indulgence.


OK, maybe a little longer than that:

At one point, I was actually bored. It's like Jackson got sidetracked in the CGI department and started pushing buttons. "What does this one do? Oooh! Tyrannosaurus Rex! Let's have a lot of those in the movie. And what does this one do? Oooh! Big flying bugs! Let's have lots of those in the movie. And what does this one do? Oooh! Big crawly cockroach things! Oooh! Let's have lots of those in the movie! And what does this one do? Oooh! Giant bats that look like Nosferatu! Let's have lots of those in the movie!"

Honestly, once everyone arrived at Skull Island, it was just one frickin' thing after another. The natives aren't nice. They want to kill us. The dinosaurs aren't nice. They want to kill us. The swampy sucker worm bugs aren't nice. They want to kill us. The big flying bugs aren't nice. They want to kill us. The big crawly bugs aren't nice. They want to kill us. The giant bats aren't nice. They want to kill us.

I mean, it's King Kong. It's not like we're all waiting to find out how it ends, but every once in a while, it's nice to move the story along, instead of just masturbating with the computer graphics. I like cool special effects, but not when they're used to make a movie run more than three hours unnecessarily.

Ebert loved the movie. Gave it four stars, but he too comments that it could have been shorter, that we could have done without a few bugs. Still, he really loved it. And if it wasn't more than three hours long, I think I would have loved it, too.

The Kong-sized budget for this film was $207 million. Released in mid-December, it's made, as of the begnning of April, $218 million. So when you factor in how much a studio spends on marketing these days, this movie lost money. DVD sales will no doubt save the day. That's what studios rely on now. Some might say that the reason the film didn't make more money is simple math: It's very long so theaters have to show fewer screenings. Ebert points out that the studio wanted the film to be about 45 minutes shorter for just that reason, but Rog also needles the studio execs, pointing out that we all have to sit through 20 minutes of commerical time before a movie starts, so they're tying up the space anyway.

I'd give it three stars, simply for its length. It's a good movie, it's beautifully shot, the special effects really are amazing. There are just too many of them.

Oh, and I really liked the score.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Aw, Hell No ...

Apparently, hell just froze over because I actually find myself on the same side of an issue as Bush: The national anthem should be sung in English.

I've been annoyed for some time by bi-lingual packaging of everything from masking tape to tampons, but I draw the frickin' line at the national anthem being sung in Spanish.

Hey, I dig Spanish people, Spanish music, Spanish food, Spanish culture. Welcome to the United States of America. Let's get this immigration thing figured out once and for all. You bet.

And once you're living here, I don't expect you to never speak another word of Spanish. But when it's time to sing the national anthem, sorry, either you learn it (and you can learn it phonetically; not everyone who sings a song in another language can actually speak the language) or you just sit it out.

Snacking, Supersized ...

Who doesn't love a little creativity in the kitchen? Without it, the world wouldn't have Cheetos. Or Jell-O. Or Ho Hos.

But sometimes, an everyday snack just won't do. In this bigger-is-better world we live in, sometimes you just gotta say: "Pimp My Snack."

The Giant M&M amuses me greatly with its silver dragée bling.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Food For Thought ...

Pat, my fellow blogger pal, wrote a fab post entitled "Pat's New Dietary Shit." Pat's going to cut back on his animal intake. Good man.

Yesterday, I made my first-ever recipe out of one of Dr. Neal Barnard's books. He's the president of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine whom I've mentioned before, and he advocates a vegan lifestyle.

Part of my reason for doing the cleanse (aside from simply seeing if I could do it) was to jumpstart my healthy eating plan.

I confess to mixed results on that front. My pre-cleanse eating habits were rather sane, so it's not like I've been trying to shift from a total-crap diet to sticks and twigs, but I do really want to cut out meat and dairy. Cutting out meat and dairy immediately eliminates a lot of foods: Sausage pizza, cheeseburgers, (God help me) Reuben sandwiches and mom's lasagne ... I'm allowing for a transition period.

Shifting from omnivore to herbivore, however, requires active thought. Like last night, when I needed to go to the grocery store, and thought, "Oh, I should pick up some yogurt." And then I thought, "No. Not unless it's soy yogurt, and your grocery store doesn't sell soy yogurt." And frankly, soy yogurt doesn't sound very appealing anyway. I do soy milk. I do soy burgers. I do soy protein bars. And edamame rocks. But soy yogurt? Hmm. Well, maybe. I'll try anything once.

When I was on the cleanse, I realized just how much food is a part of our lives. It's almost always available. The first day of the cleanse, the chick at the bank drive-thru tucked a couple Tootsie Rolls in my envelope of cash. I put them in my car's console. Couldn't eat them. Of course, I've eaten them since going back on food.

Likewise, now that I'm trying to cut meat and dairy out of my diet, I'm realizing just how much of it we eat. Mom was always good about serving salad and a vegetable with dinner, but the main event was always something meaty. Steak was our default entree. When I got sick of steak, mom would grill chicken for me. I'm sitting here trying to think of any vegetarian entree she might have served and I'm coming up with nothing. Whopping surprise, Beth. We used to buy a side of beef at a time. We had an entire upright freezer in the basement ever-stocked with neatly wrapped packages of butchered cow.

I tried the vegetarian thing in high school for a while (no meat, but eggs and cheese were OK). I gave up the cause for one of my mom's hot ham and cheese sandwiches. No, seriously, they're that good. She minces onion and mashes it into butter along with some garlic and spreads that on really good rolls and piles up the off-the-bone ham from a butcher in Wisconsin (that supplied the freezer in the basement with the cow) and Velveeta cheese and wraps 'em in foil and puts 'em in the oven. Oh. My. God. Yeah, I liked The Smiths, and Morrissey says meat is murder, but well, faced with a ham and cheese sandwich, I didn't care.

These days, my dietary choices are driven less by animal cruelty (though Chicago just banned foie gras - Mayor Daley says we should deal with real problems, and I gotta say, the man has a point, though it's sad, what those ducks and geese are put through just so people can pay too much money to eat their livers) and more by an ever-increasing understanding of how our systems deal with (or, more to the point, don't deal with) animal products. Not to mention the hormones animals are fed and some of the gross shit that's in our milk supply.

Still, there are some foods I just don't want to give up. John's cheesy grits with andouille and shrimp on Memorial Day? Hell, that's the best part of English Teacher Dave's annual cookout. So I'm signing up to be 85 percent vegan, good most of the time, but allowed to make select exceptions. Every year, mom asks me what I want for my birthday dinner, and every year, I want her lasagne. I won't ask her to amend the recipe with soy cheese and texturized vegetable protein. Some things are sacred.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Today ...

Today is today, in case you were wondering.

My "Yesterday" post did indeed elicit some "Get off your ass" comments. Not a surprise.

But they set me to wondering: How many people are really living their dreams?

How many people even know what their dreams really are? How many people have resigned themselves to their lives, however banal, however everyday?

Does restlessness stem from prescience? Is the pace of life the problem?

I believe that we're always where we're supposed to be, that every experience has a purpose, that every person holds a lesson.

And that patience is a part of the process. I've always been deficient there.

I know that there will come a day when I will look back at this time in my life and understand it in its context.

I've never been good at breaking tasks down into baby steps. I don't allow myself learning curves. I live in absolutes. If I can't sing like a professional jazz singer, no one will hear me sing. So I practice and practice and practice, then perform. If the execution of a recipe doesn't meet my expectations, I won't let anyone eat it. Hell, if I make a mistake when addressing an envelope, I tear it up. Perfectionism can be a pain in the ass.

So that's one of the reasons why I don't appear to do more. I'm actually doing plenty. But the world doesn't see it until it's ready for prime time. That said, there's more I can be doing. And I know that.

I go through these phases of feeling like I'm not making progress, but maybe they're more about refueling, regrouping, refining. Because right about now, when I start feeling restless, I do something that surprises even myself. And then I think, "Huh. Well, that wasn't so hard. What took me so long?"

But everything happens in its time.

Yesterday ...

Today was one of those days.

Today, technically, was yesterday, because it is now very early morning, but I have not yet gone to sleep, so despite the hands on the clock, it is still today.

Some days, it's like all the cosmic energy in the world is being focused through a magnifying glass, harnessed to a single, burning point, and I am an ant on the sidewalk.

Today, the universe seems to be saying, you need to wake up.

Today I watched Bruce Springsteen on "Good Morning, America," live from Asbury Park, New Jersey. Springsteen is my generation's Dylan. Sometimes, when I watch him, I don't see a man. I see a legend. And I wonder if he knew, growing up, struggling, that his life would lead him on the journey he's taken. Is taking. During a song, a camera revealed the view from the stage. I love the view from a stage.

Today I learned that a friend of mine won a Edward R. Murrow Award. I am thrilled for her. I sent a card to tell her so. "I should be doing more," I wrote to another friend. "Your existence is enough," she wrote back. "That's nice of you to say, but I have a big ol' brain. I should be doing more with it," I said. And she said, "Quit shoulding all over yourself."

Today I looked out my front door and the view was unfamiliar. It is familiar because I've seen it many times, but it is unfamiliar because this, suddenly, does not feel like my home. Like I've been living in the wrong place for six years. Like I've been living in someone else's house, which, really, is true. Not because there were previous owners, but because the previous owners were relations.

Today I thought about writing to Dave yesteday and saying, "I feel another life shift coming on, gotta make some changes." I'm not sure where they come from, these feelings. Orbits, inertia, dissatisfaction. But they build and build and build, these feelings, and they kick me in the ass.

Time is literally slipping away, and I can't seem to grasp it. It's as though it's Sunday night, and I blink, and it's Friday again. Albert Finney in "Looker."

Ennui, but not a plea for pity. Just thoughts as they come to me. Writing is my therapy.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

'Match Point' ...

I love Woody Allen films.

Chinese food and a Woody Allen film is my idea of a great date.

"Match Point" is unlike any Allen film, and it's flippin' brilliant.

Made for $15 million, it made $23 million back, but it should have made so much more.

Allen doesn't indulge himself in a neurotic central role, if that's been your objection.

If you didn't see it because you don't like Woody Allen films, pick up the DVD or order it on pay-per-view. Aside from the typical titles, you won't find Allen's usual fingerprints on this film.

It's a knockout.

Ebert gave it four stars.

Damn straight.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Accidental plagiarism? Uh, No ...

"Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard sophomore accused of plagiarizing parts of her recently published chick-lit novel, acknowledged yesterday that she had borrowed language from another writer's books, but called the copying 'unintentional and unconscious,' " the New York Times reported today. The other writer is Megan McCafferty.

Viswanathan says, of her book, "Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,' and passages in these books. ... I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words."

Nope, don't buy it.

I read a story about this yesterday in the Times, and was really put off when I read that when Viswanathan was reached for comment, she said, "No comment. I don't know what you're talking about."

Ding, ding, ding, ding. Red flag.

So, hey, I have this idea for a book about this young idealist named Scoot and her father is a lawyer in the South named Attica French ...

I totally understand that we pick up each other's speech habits. I've adopted words and phrases from other people and have added them to my vocabulary.

But I'm talking about a word or a phrase, not an entire passage out of a book, and not 29 times.

There are a lot of writers out there, some crazy-successful, some barely known. There are pioneers and there are parrots. There are those who write and those who try to write like others.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but plagiarism is a crime.

I have read many, many books. And sometimes, I read a sentence so perfect, my jaw literally drops. Barbara Kingsolver has had that effect on me. Ditto Bryce Courtenay. Ditto Eliza Minot. Ditto Kaye Gibbons. Ditto Mark Haddon.

I envy their talent and their unique lyricism. But if I ever wrote a sentence nearly identical to any of those I have read and loved, my brain would say to me, "Uh, isn't that just like that sentence in 'Animal Dreams'?"

Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair and James Frey are iconic examples of why it's a bad idea to make up stories and try to pass them off as truth. But their trespasses are actually less egregious than the situation at hand, because while each of them tried to pass off fiction as fact, their words were their own.

"Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said that Ms. Viswanathan planned to add an acknowledgment to Ms. McCafferty in future printings of the book," the Times reports.

I wonder what it's going to say.

And will it have been said before, by someone else?

Anchor Away ...

Stephen King writes a back-of-the-book column for Entertainment Weekly.

Stephen King, being Stephen King, can write about whatever he wants. I wonder if he has to run ideas by an editor at EW. I mean, he's Stephen King. The man could make use-and-care manuals for small appliances compelling. And, as is the mark of a great writer, he makes it all seem effortless. Then again, for him, it probably is. For some people, writing is like breathing. And he's no asthmatic.

But the point to be made here is that his latest column is about morning news. Stephen doesn't give a rabid rat's ass about Katie's defection to CBS. No, he gets his morning news from "Robin & Company" on Headline News, "CNN's cute baby sister."

Robin Meade is the Robin in "Robin & Company." Robin Meade used to be an anchor in Chicago. And, at the time, I thought she was awful.

So I'm more than a little baffled by lil' Stevie's gush-fest here: "This is a quick intellect, and it's a pleasure to watch it at work."

Really?

When I used to watch her (and I didn't watch her often), I would wince at the frequency with which she flubbed words. Anchors have two jobs: to look pretty ("... the beautiful Ms. Meade ... runs a four-hour marathon ... and does so with considerable style and panache [not to mention some killer outfits]" says Steve) and to talk pretty. Looking pretty is the job of your parents, a good plastic surgeon, or the station's make-up artist. Talking pretty is another story. Sure, a nice speaking voice is a gift, but delivering the news is a learned skill, especially if you're reading off a TelePrompTer.

I was surprised when Robin disappeared from NBC's Chicago broadcasts and resurfaced on Headline News.

Maybe I was just catching Robin on off-days. Flubs can rattle your confidence and send you down a slippery slope that finds you flubbing more the more you try to flub less. I had that experience doing radio. I suspect it's worse on camera.

Any Headline News viewers out there? If so, do you share Steve's undying adoration?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

'Hustle and Flow' ...

Ohhhhhh, *now* I understand why "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp" won the Oscar for best song.

Damn, that's a good movie.

I don't like rap, or hip-hop, or crunk, or whatever the kids are calling it these days (and maybe they're all different, but I wouldn't know), but this movie is really powerful. My brain tends to automatically tune out that music because all I hear is profanity and some pretty otherwise hateful language being spewed, but watching this movie, listening to Terrence Howard's performances, talking about not letting his father die in vain? Damn.

It's a really impressive study of the lives of the characters, a grittiness that a lot of us never glimpse.

Ebert gave it three and a half stars. His review has a mistake in it (Starbucks-esque drink carriers, not egg cartons, are used for sound-proofing the makeshift studio) but he captures the heart of the film: This isn't an inner-city cliche, it's a study in the transformative power of art, of what can happen when someone believes in your dream, especially when that someone is yourself.

Things My Teachers Taught Me ...

I was a pre-school dropout.

My mom taught me to print my name when I was three years old. Preschool for me was about socialization more than learning any of the basics. I already had the basics down, thanks to mom who spent lots of time with me (and my brothers) when we were little little.

But on the second day of pre-school, when it was time for our snack, the grown-ups doled out glasses of grape juice. Except that they ran out of grape juice by the time they got around to me and tried to give me a glass of V8 juice instead. I tried one sip and decided that not only was I through with V8 juice, I was through with pre-school, too.

To this day, V8 juice has not passed these lips again. Vile crap.

I started kindergarten when I was four. I was excited. I remember my first day of school. We were each assigned a box of chunky crayons with our name written on the base of the box. The boxes were stored in a rack when we weren't coloring. And our first coloring assignment was a stoplight. Oooh, challenging. Red, yellow, green, yeah, I knew the drill. But when it was time to color the outside of the stoplight, I had a problem on my little four-year-old hands. In the real world, the outside of a stoplight was yellow-orange. I had no yellow-orange crayon. The yellow-orange crayon wouldn't show up until I graduated to a bigger box of crayons in a later grade. Orange was an option, but it wasn't quite right. So my little brain decided that if I couldn't be literal, I'd be completely different. I colored the outside of the stoplight blue. And it bugged me.

Mrs. Lang was my kindergarten teacher. When I got my picture back, my full first name written proudly in purple crayon across the top of the page, it had a star stamp on it and "Excellent!" written below the inky image. Excellent, maybe. But wrong.

As the year wore on, we graduated from our chunky crayons to a big box of crayon remnants. Many more options. So on the day that we had to color a picture of a bunny (on that buff, coloring-book paper), I was very excited that my literal self could capture reality and color the bunny's tail with a white crayon. Oh, the relief.

Until my picture was returned to me. With a frowny face at the top. And a note and and arrow by the bunny's bum that read, "What about the tail?"

Oh, that bitch. In hindsight, I should have marched right up to her polyester pantsuit and said, "Feel the paper. It's WAXY. Is it my fault that white crayon doesn't show up?" A frowny face. Indeed.

And then there was that day at recess. A light snow covered the playground but my eagle eye spotted a treasure. I scooped it up and ran over to Mrs. Lang to show her. "Look, Mrs. Lang! I found a nickel!" At that tender young age, when allowance was doled out in single coins, an unexpected nickel was a windfall. "You better let me hold it for you while you're outside," she said.

I don't have to tell you that I never got my nickel back.

First grade arrived just in time. Good riddance, Mrs. Lang. Hello, Mrs. Prinz. Mrs. Prinz made cute smiley faces (with an extra swoop at the top, like bangs swept aside) on our papers and had fabulous hair and, at the end of the year, let us have her markers. I loved Mrs. Prinz.

For second grade, I moved across the hall to Mrs. Skibinski's class. Every once in a while, I would go back to Mrs. Prinz's class and, for lack of a better word, tutor the first graders. I specifically remember taking little trinkets to incentivize them, including a small green plastic bus that I'd gotten in a box of Cracker Jack and a small pinecone that I'd found. But here's the kicker: I carried those items in my purse.

My purse. What second-grader carries a purse? And for what? All my cash and lipsticks?

My brothers warned me that I'd hate Mrs. Nemeth, my third-grade teacher. Liars. I loved her.

Mrs. Preban and Mr. Radtke (fourth and fifth grade) were fine. Mr. Radtke was getting a little long in the tooth, but he was a nice man. Easily confused, but nice. (My friend Tracy will no doubt post a comment here about his problem with spit.) He liked me. I could do no wrong in that man's eyes.

Mrs. Gradisher was my sixth-grade teacher. I adored her. Many didn't. She had a reputation for being a hard-ass, but we always got along well. We had to write in a journal every morning, and on Fridays, she'd collect them, and while we went to another class, she'd read them and write comments. We had nice chats that way.

I liked junior high. Mrs. Rosenstein, the smallest woman I'd ever seen, was my homeroom teacher. Mr. Weir, very clearly the first gay man I'd ever seen, shared a double classroom with her. Mrs. Engle was my well-to-do science teacher (she commuted from Chicago in a Lincoln Town Car), and Mr. Ridder was my cut-up social studies teacher. Oh, I almost forgot Mrs. Ross. She taught math. I've never liked math much, but she was a nice woman. I babysat for her a few times. Once a week, during my Language Arts period (tagged teamed by Rosenstein and Weir), I'd head down the hall with a few other kids to Mrs. Olson for "gifted class." We solved inane problems. Presumably, I was learning to be a "critical thinker."

Mom made me go to summer school each year before transitioning to a new school. It was a good idea. I had a month or two to get the new lay of the land, so when the first day of a new school rolled around, I wasn't freaked out. Smart woman, my mom. And I also got some required junk out of the way.

High school was fraught with all the usual high school crap. I had teachers I liked and teachers I nearly hated.

And I had Dave. English Teacher Dave as he's known today, so named for the year and a half he had me in his classes. The first half of Junior year and all of Senior. Senior Honors English. Yikes.

Dave had his own grading scale. In his classroom, you needed a 93 for an A. Damn, man. And if you couldn't score 70 percent, well, you just didn't pass. Dave demanded more from his students. He still does. And he gets it. Funny how kids will rise to meet expectations.

Today, Dave and I discuss his classes over dinner. Sometimes he's here. Sometimes I'm there. His wife travels a lot for work (she's also involved in education, and spends a lot of time in Springfield and beyond), so we'll often get together when he's temporarily single, and education is always a topic.

One night, here, he told me that he was considering dropping the research paper as a requirement. It was a sober disucssion. He was arguing that the kids he teaches today always struggle with the assignment and he wonders if there's any inherent value in it for them.

I told him that I thought he had to keep it as a requirement if only to send the message that he believed they could rise to the challenge. If he were to eliminate it just because it was hard, what would that say to them?

During Christmas break, he goes to the Art Institute. Any kids who want to show up get extra credit in his class. I met him and his wife there this year and was astonished at how many kids were waiting for us. As we walked through the galleries, I asked him if he had an assignment based on what they were seeing. He pointed out that the semester was over at that point. He had only to file grades. So why the Art Institute for extra credit?

"To give them the chance to see things they might not otherwise see," he said.

Damn.

Damn. There's a teacher who cares about his kids. The paintings in the Art Institute have nothing to do with his curriculum. But those paintings are important as part of culture, as part of a broader human experience. And he just wanted to be sure they had the chance to see them, in case no one else had ever taken the time to make the introduction, in case those kids would someday visit without the promise of a slightly better grade and come to understand the world from the many varied perspectives of the artists in those halls.

Dave had a profound impact on my life then. And he has a profound impact on my life now.

So when I come across a story about the plight of education, I forward it to him and we chat about it.

The latest story was about kids in Illinois and the textbooks they're issued in some schools. Some are woefully out of date. Some are literally held together with rubberbands.

Dave's reply to the story? A story of his own: "... at Thorrnridge the English 4 classes are using books published in 1988. And they will use them next year too because there is only dough for English 3 texts this year. Those 1988 books are so shabby that I'll go back to the 1970's books next year - they are in better shape."

What the hell?

His colleagues gather at his house from time to time for drinks and kvetching. The stories I hear (he's always nice enough to invite me, despite my outsider status) scare the hell out of me. No Child Left Behind is doing nothing but binding educators' hands. Oh, wait, that's not true. There was a story recently about the unexpected segregation effect it's having on the education system. Swell.

Our legislators need to get off their Ivy-League asses and figure this thing out. No Child Left Behind is just adding to the problem. Just ask any teacher in the trenches. It's an embarrassment that there are school libraries in this country that can't afford books and today's kids are being taught with texts that still refer to the Soviet Union.

And while we're at it, let's start paying teachers what they're worth.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Items Of Note ...

♪ Today, in Crown Point, I paid $2.97 for a gallon of regular unleaded. Something is seriously, seriously wrong when $10 barely buys 3 gallons of gas. I have a 16-gallon tank. Fifty bucks per fill-up? Joel Weissman on "Chicago Tonight" is talking to a panel from the oil companies, the auto industry, and a consumer-advocacy group. Joel is asking stupid questions, such as asking the oil-company guy if they're in bed with Congress. Yeah, Joel, you'll get a straight answer there.

♪ There's nothing on TV tonight, so I landed on ABC for a few minutes and watched a bit of "American Inventor." I had to turn it off. Jesus, it's depressing. The contestant at hand is the inventor of BulletBall, a ping-pong/air-hockey hybrid that you play with your hands. He came up with the idea one night when he was sitting at a table with his wife (now ex-wife) and they were rolling a ball back and forth and began to swat it across the table with increasing speed and force. But ABC is known for its high drama (I'm pretty bummed that the producers of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" search so deliberately for such hard-luck stories), so not only does this man have a dream to bring his game to the market, he's given up everything: His wife, his home, his car. He's living out of a Volvo station wagon with 300,000 miles on it. And I don't have to tell you that the judges told him that his idea is never going to sell. I thought the man was going to have a breakdown on national television. He tried to hold a brave face and respectfully disagree, but it was too painful to watch. I turned off the TV.

♪ I am in love with Hank Azaria and "Huff." I don't have cable or satellite (yes, *I'm* the one person in this country under the age of 60 who doesn't) but I saw the pilot episode back in the day, and have been renting the first season from Netflix. Wow. It's one of the best things I've ever seen on a television screen. The writing is frickin' genius.

♪ "Alias" is back and as mind-blowing as ever. (See, Dave? I TOLD you Vaughn was still alive!) It's a damn shame that that show never found a bigger audience because it's great TV. But at least I'll still have "Lost." I hope J.J. Abrams got his Cruise/Scientology innoculation before making "M:I 3."

♪ I've been making some good headway on the screenplay. At this rate, it might actually get done this year!

♪ Spring has finally arrived in Chicagoland. I have two yellow tulips blooming in front of my house. When I moved in here, my friend Joanne gave me tulip bulbs as a housewarming gift, which I thought was brilliant. So I planted them, and the resident squirrels promptly dug most of them up and took little squirrel bites out of them, like they were tasting a sampler of chocolates. Squirrel bastards. But two survived, and every spring, they bloom. And I've also already had to cut my grass for the first time this year. And I'll be cutting until November. Ah, homeownership.

♪ I took an IQ test tonight that's broken down by categories in addition to supplying an overall score. My highest score - 146 - was in spelling. I guess I'm on the right track with this writer thing then.

♪ I now have nearly 4,000 songs in my iPod. And now, tonight, it's time to take it for a walk.

Divorce ...

Now, this may seem like an absurd topic from someone who's never been married, but lately I've been thinking a lot about divorce.

I think many people have become far too comfortable with the idea of divorce. The fact the lexicon now includes the phrase "starter marriage" freaks me out. Do we really need to be so cynical? So cavalier?

But the other end of the spectrum is populated by people who take their vows so uber-seriously that they refuse to get divorced even when circumstances seem to justify it.

Therein lies my confusion.

Today, people seem to get married at a more advanced age, relatively speaking, than our parents did, and so in theory, we should be more in tune to what we want and expect from a relationship, and make the marriage/no-marriage decision accordingly.

But what about those people who did indeed get married at a young age, before they really understood who they were and who they would become? If those people ultimately choose poorly, is a life of unhappiness their punishment?

Presuming the marriage was of the church (not civil) variety, are these people fearful of angering God? Is that why they refuse to divorce? Let me state again that I'm not a religious person, so I don't believe in the concept of God the way many people do, but I did go to Sunday School and get confirmed and all that, so I'm hip to what's taught to Christians, and I remember being told over and over again that God loves us. So God wants us to be happy, right? So does God demand that you live out your days in sadness or at least in the absence of joy as a result of making a bad choice? Does the vow of marriage simply supersede all else?

I know some people who stay in marriages because they're too afraid to be on their own. The someone-is-better-than-no-one philosophy. I know other people who stay in marriages because in their world, divorce is spelled f-a-i-l-u-r-e. I can't judge them for why they do what they do. Everyone's lives and circumstances are unique. People are capable in varying degrees. Some can walk away from a marriage and start a new life. Others can't.

And then there are the people for whom divorce was not their choice. Some people are the divorcers and some people are the divorcees. When a spouse decides to leave, the other half is in the same boat, whether they ever wanted to be, or not.

But mostly, I'm thinking about people who stay out of obligation.

I have friends who have been married several times. To them, they entered into each of their marriages thinking they had found the right person, and then they discovered they were wrong. For some of them, the third time really is the charm, it seems. "Nobody gets married thinking they'll get divorced," one of them once said.

Maybe that's true. Maybe people really do believe that their love will last forever.

Or maybe love needs to be measured with a healthy dose of luck. We're all going to change over time. Maybe the key to a successful marriage is finding someone who will change in compatible ways.

But if you don't end up with that person, it doesn't seem fair to be trapped forever.

Or is that kind of thinking an extension of a society that is ever-increasingly self-centered?

College Boyfriend David, long after we had stopped dating, once said to me, "Why can't people just accept that we're not meant to be with one person forever? Why can't we just be together for as long as things are good, and then move on?"

That always struck me as selfish, as if once the salad days had wilted, he wanted to be out the door. But maybe he meant something else. Maybe he wasn't opposed to doing the heavy lifting that's required in a marriage, but also understood that at some point, you just can't lift anymore.

David's getting a divorce.

It's never an ideal situation. It's usually messy to some degree, and people are inevitably hurt. But, as some people seem to think, should it never be an option?

I guess I answered that question already, above: I can't judge people for what they do. Everyone has to live the life that they can live with.

But I hate to see them so sad.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

'I Ain't Havin' No Baby' ...

When I was in high school, I had a role in "ER." Not the Michael Crichton-created hospital drama, but the goofy hospital spoof that starred Elliot Gould for a time on TV. I, proudly, was the Appalacian Mother.

And my character had two daughters, one of whom I brought to the hospital with a stomach ache, which, of course, turned out to be contractions.

The birth of Suri the TomKitten made me think of my on-stage daughter. Of course, Katie knew she was pregnant. Or at least, we think she was. Some of those pictures of her pregnant belly looked an awful lot like she had crammed a basketball under her shirt. I joked with my cousin Patty that the only thing coming out of Katie Holmes would be a Cabbage Patch doll. But Suri, a k a Princess or Red Rose, is here.

L.A. Dave called me within a minute of the birth being announced by AP. I honestly hate that I care about any of this. Patty Blackberried me from Paris last week to ask if the blessed event had occured. Apparently, it's not as big a story in France. Even though Tom, doing his own stunts yet again, proposed on top of the Eiffel Tower.

L.A. Dave also told me that Brooke Shields had her baby, too. Something tells me Grier and Suri will not hang out at the playground together.

So I was poking around online, reading stories as I do every morning, and was amused to see a headline about a much-anticipated birth in 1953. I saw this picture and thought, "Orson Welles?" Lucy and Desi weren't big people Can you imagine pushing this child out of your body? Was Lil' Desi (I didn't realize he was Desi IV until today) George Lucas' inspiration for Jabba the Hut?

Oh, I'm being mean.

So if you'll excuse me, I have to go wait obsessively for news of Baby-To-Be Brangelina.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Cilantro Haters Unite! ...

Many thanks to my pal Marc for pointing me toward ihatecilantro.com!

I am pleased as non-cilantro-flavored punch that there are so many others in the world who share my assertion that the herb tastes like soap.

Blech.

My mother shares my disgust, so there must be a biological/hereditary component to the ickiness. An assertion on the site (and elsewhere, according to some very brief preliminary research) suggests that I lack an enzyme, though that seems strange and nonsensical. Enzymes are used to break things down. I wonder what compounds in cilantro, when left whole, taste soapy. I will investigate further, and invite any readers with advanced cilantro knowledge to share information and links.

My disgust for cilantro goes so far that, in restaurants, I tell the servers that I'm allergic to cilantro and cannot eat anything prepared in a pan in which cilantro has been used.

Once, English Teacher Dave proudly made a cilantro pesto and I couldn't stomach more than a couple bites of the pasta before throwing ... in the towel.

(Oprah is on TV right now gushing over Oscar de la Renta in a way I've never seen before.)

In happy, non-cilantro news, I tried the turkey, basil pesto, and roasted red pepper Frescata sammich from Wendy's today. What a fine fast-food option.

Homeowner Travail ...

Last night, it rained like a bitch.

At one point, I checked the regional radar online, and the storm system covered the entire state.

As I was getting ready for bed, I heard water trickling in my basement. I have two sump pumps. One in the crawl space under the addition, and one in the basement proper. The one in the crawl space - the one that's harder to get to - is the primary sump pump. I've had problems with it in the past.

Sure enough, when I shone a light into the crawl space, I could see the rod attached to the floater sticking high up. The floater ball gets stuck in the pit sometimes, which requires me to hoist myself up into the crawl space - icky, becaue there are cobwebs and God knows what else in there - and duck-walk over to the sump pit and resituate the floater thingy.

And then I kinda had to back out of the crawl space and ease myself back down.

And while doing that, you know what I noticed, although it took me a minute to realize what it was?

A skeleton.

A little skeleton.

Of what once was a mouse.

Now, I've known about the mice issue in the crawl space. I have several traps (which my father would take care of when I'd catch something - OK, yes, *kill* something). But after the initial freak-out last night, I started to wonder how exactly the former mouse got to such a state. I didn't smell anything rotting in the basement, though I don't venture near the crawl space often, and a mouse doesn't have a whole lot to it from a decomposition standpoint. Which made me further wonder if there is some mouse cannibalism going down in my crawl space.

The scientist side of me thinks the skeleton is really fascinating. It looks like ivory-colored plastic. And I never considered how complex a mouse's tail really is, but there are a lot of little bones.

The girl side of me thinks: Eww!

Dad!

File Under: Warm And Fuzzy ...

This morning, I made the death march to the post office to file my taxes.

Ugh.

I walked into the post office and joined the line waiting for the windows to open. A mother and a little boy got in line behind me. Kyle must be about 3 and loves the buttons on the postage vending machine. He was in his mom's line of sight, so she let him wander that way and press to his little heart's content.

A man came up to use the machine. In his 50s, I'd say. Pleasant face, close cropped hair, bald on top, dressed in a nice shirt and pair of pants. A businessman of some sort.

He was having trouble using the machine. One of the post office women was talking him through it. He couldn't read the display's instructions for the glare on the glass. Kyle was telling him a thing or two, too. The man played along. Finally, the machine dispensed his stamps and change. The woman pointed out that his change included dollar coins. Don't we all hate dollar coins?

Kyle, the tyke, proceeded to go in after the goods. The woman laughed. "See? He's used the vending machine before."

Kyle handed the man the money and the stamps. "Get that piece of paper, too," the man said, indicating his receipt. Kyle did.

And when Kyle wandered back over to his mom, he was clutching a coin in his little hand.

His mom said, "What's that? A penny?"

No, it was a gold coin.

The man tipped Kyle a whole dollar.

"It's gold! That's like pirate money!" Kyle's mom said. And explained whose picture was on the coin.

So Kyle got a buck, a little history lesson, and shining example of kindness all at the same time.

A fine little moment of humanity that I would have missed if I didn't have to pay my taxes this morning.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Romantic Stuff ...

... according to blogthings.com, though the second-to-last comment is neither grammatically correct nor logical:

The Keys to Your Heart

You are attracted to those who are unbridled, untrammeled, and free.

In love, you feel the most alive when your partner is patient and never willing to give up on you.

You'd like to your lover to think you are optimistic and happy.

You would be forced to break up with someone who was emotional, moody, and difficult to please.

Your ideal relationship is comforting. You crave a relationship where you always feel warmth and love.

Your risk of cheating is zero. You care about society and morality. You would never break a commitment.

You think of marriage something you've always wanted... though you haven't really thought about it.

In this moment, you think of love as commitment. Love only works when both people are totally devoted.


And so it follows that:

You're an Expert Kisser

You're a kissing pro, but it's all about quality and not quantity
You've perfected your kissing technique and can knock anyone's socks off
And you're adaptable, giving each partner what they crave
When it comes down to it, your kisses are truly unforgettable


And so this quiz revealed:

Your Love Life Secrets Are

Looking back on your life, you will have a few true loves.

You're a little scarred from your past relationships, but who isn't?

You expect a lot from your lover - you want the full package. You tend to be very picky.

In fights, you are able to walk away and calm down. You are able to weather the storm.

Getting over a break-up doesn't take long. Easy come, easy go.


Amd most importantly of all:

You Are an Oatmeal Raisin Cookie

On the surface, you're a little plain - but you have many subtle dimensions to your personality.
Sometimes you're down to earth and crunchy. Other times, you're sweet and a little gooey.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cooking On TV ...

L.A. Dave and I have the most wide-ranging conversations, and today's discourse lingered for a long time on television chefs.

Once, long, long ago, in my days as an intern at Chicago magazine, someone suggested to me that I should have a cooking show. That was very nice of them. I look OK on camera and know my way around a kitchen and can crack a joke. And L.A. Dave was saying much the same thing today, that I have the personality to be a television chef, which led to a discussion about TV chefs we love or love to hate.

And, as L.A. Dave said, he felt a blog entry coming on (for my blog, not his). Here, then, is my take on TV chefs as their names come to me, not in any particular order:

❉ Martha Stewart: This woman has single-handedly caused more domestic angst than any other person in history. Because select women (and select men) get sucked into the pages of her magazines and tune into her self-congratulatory TV shows and lose sight of the fact that Martha, she of the farm-fresh eggs and perfectly decked halls, has a staff of a bazillion people feeding her ideas and doing all the prep work. Martha just has to smile for the camera and condescend to her staff who are unlucky enough to appear on screen with her. I officially got over Martha several years ago when, on her show, she was discussing unsightly foliage in her garden and offered that her solution to keep it tidy until it was time to cut it back was to braid it. BRAID IT. What's worse, she never seemed to think to herself, while braiding the foliage, "Huh. I apparently have too damn much time on my hands. I'm on my knees in my garden braiding shit."

❉ Rachel Ray: Oh, she's a lightning rod these days, isn't she? The world is suffering from Ray saturation, much in the way that everyone got sick of Reege and "Is that your final answer?" Yes, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Mom and I first liked Rachel when we first found "30-Minute Meals." (Which, by the way, is often unhyphenated by the Food Network, which drives me nuts; we're not talking about 30 meals that take a minute to make, as "30 Minute Meals" implies; why doesn't the world run these things by me first?) But the Food Network people got greedy and gave us the inane $40-a-day show (in which Rachel always loves every single thing she puts in her mouth, and leaves shitty tips), and the far-from-A-list gabfests on "Inside Dish" (with apologies to Morgan Freeman, cuz he's cool as hell) and now she has a magazine and she's going to have a TV show, and one has to wonder if RR isn't a cyborg, cuz when does the woman sleep? And her 30-minute meals take most people longer than 30 minutes to prepare. And for the love of God, just call it extra virgin olive oil.

❉ Giada DeLaurentiis: OK, I agree, she's got a nice rack and good teeth, but do they need to be on display constantly? L.A. Dave and my brother don't seem to mind, but oy. Giada gets points for preparing food that's doable, but her editors lose points for the inane composition of the show. What's with the b-roll of her washing her hands? I understand that you need to pump some soap in your hands and then turn on the water and then rub your hands together under the water and make the soap all sudsy and then rinse it off. I don't need to spend several seconds watching her do it.

❉ Emeril: Good riddance. If I never hear "BAM!" again, it'll be too soon.

❉ Sandra Lee: What the hell is this woman about? The whole conceit of her show is that you should use 70 percent pre-fab food and add 30 percent of your own effort. But each of her shows have these inane themes. So, what? I'm gonna skimp on the effort of cooking the food my friends and family will actually ingest, but I should spend all the time I saved by poking around the Army/Navy Surplus buying props for my outdoor safari? No. And what's with the Vaseline on the lens? In the interest of full disclosure, I once requested an interview with her for a story I was working on, and she wouldn't talk to me. Please. The woman's created an quasi-empire using condensed soup. She's not the second coming of Julia Child.

❉ Mario Batalli: Friend Jay loves Mario. Jay's Italian and a guy and likes to cook, but Mario and his bare legs and clogs skeeve me out, and I'm never particularly interested in what he's cooking.

❉ Lidia Bastianich: Pasta water is not a food group.

❉ Daisy Martinez: I detest cilantro, and you can't make half of Daisy's dishes without it, but I adore this woman. She's the perfect TV chef. She makes real food, she uses shortcuts when it makes sense, but she also really loves what she's doing and conveys great stories about learning to cook and what it means to her to feed her family and friends. She's adorable and friendly and real.

❉ Steven Raichlen: My cousin used to do the marketing for his books and knows Steven and says he's a nice guy. I'm sure he is. But with all the news that grilling over high heats forms carcinogens, should we be pushing grilling shows?

❉ Christopher Kimball and his "America's Test Kitchen" cohorts: The best food show anywhere, ever. And Cook's Illustrated is the best food magazine ever.

❉ Jacques Torres, Marcel Desaulniers: Freakin' geniuses with chocolate. Fun to watch, but you know you're never, ever gonna do anything they're demonstrating.

❉ Jacques Pepin: I love his accent. I love his casual approach to food. But when he has to share the set with any other person, you can see what a control freak he is. Then again, I probably wouldn't be any different.

❉ Ina Garten: LOVE her. Would love to have her house on Long Island. She makes real food. She makes a bit of a mess as she cooks. And she truly loves cooking for people who are important to her.

❉ Paula Deen: She's cute as a bug, but if you actually ate the way she cooks, you wouldn't live to see the next episode of her show.

❉ Alton Brown: Is there anyone more fun than this guy? Part chef, part Ask Dr. Science. For geeks like me who like understanding the Hows and Whys behind everything, Brown is a good half hour of television.

❉ Nigella Lawson: Another real-food role model. And easy on the eyes. And seems genuinely nice. Good combination.

❉ Jamie Oliver: Rock on, this guy. Fun to watch, interesting food, but also doing his part to spread sorely needed nutrition education.

❉ Charlie Trotter: What's the point of this guy having a cooking show? No one is going to make his food at home. That's why everyone goes to his restaurant. He seems to forget that food should be fun.

❉ Rick Bayless: Chicago boy (like Trotter) who takes his chosen speciality very seriously, but knows how to have fun. The show on Mexican wrestlers and the street food culture is one of my all-time favorites. And you have to love a chef who has two restaurants right next door to each other. He can keep his hands in all the pots yet cater to two very different vibes.

And a nod to Keith Floyd, whose show "Floyd on Food" was one of the all-time best food shows ever made. But then, I've always been a sucker for an accent.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Wal-Mart And Guns ...

So, today on the news, I heard that Wal-Mart is going to discontinue the sale of guns in some of its stores and stock instead "other sporting goods."

What the hell? Guns aren't sporting goods.

Guns are used to kill things.

And if you're going to throw skeet shooting out there, then let me ask you exactly what you think skeet shooters are practicing their aim for? To shoot more ceramic discs? No, they're practicing their aim so they'll get better at shooting birds in flight.

I hate guns. I hate them. I can understand hunting as a means of population control, but hunting for "sport"? It disgusts me.

I think the fact that we don't have better gun control laws in this country is appalling. The only thing more appalling than the lack of gun legislation is the fact that Congress is in bed with the NRA.

And don't give me the "it's our Constitutional right" argument. The Constitution was drafted in the days of settlers protecting their homesteads and single-shot rifles, not semi-automatic assault weapons. Our Founding Fathers weren't able to conceptualize the day when people would be walking the streets toting guns capable of killing a crowd of people with one hefty spray of bullets.

So good for Wal-Mart for beginning to get with the program, but it should pull guns out of all of its stores. Just like Michael Moore shamed Kmart into changing its policy on carrying guns and ammo in "Bowling for Columbine." If people want to buy guns, they can find other outlets.

And as for "Guns don't kill people, people kill people"? Bullshit. Let's take knives and other weapons out the equation, too, and see how many people are beaten to death in fist-to-fist or head-to-wall scuffles. I'm sure there will be plenty, but you can be damn sure that there will be a lot less than if guns were involved. Because to beat someone to death, you actually have to be near them. Which means you're in just as much danger as the person you're trying to beat to death.

Gun owners aren't that brave. They want to murder from a safe distance.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

'An Unfinished Life' ...

A heapin' helpin' of happy, this movie.

It should have been called "The Bear Whisperer."

Robert Redford, looking ruggedly handsome as an aging cowboy, and Morgan Freeman, looking a little worse for the wear but yet again employing his perfect narrator voice, spend their sunset years together on Redford's ranch.

Redford is a pissed-off old man with permanent 5-o'clock shadow, and Freeman is yet again the sage.

Jennifer Lopez was better than I thought she'd be. Richard Roeper recently said that she turns in her best acting in the films nobody sees.

Josh Lucas is the typical handsome law-enforcement protector/would-be boyfriend.

It's not a bad movie. It's not a great movie. It moves along like a cowboy with nowhere special to go.

And the bear likes honey, just like Winnie the Pooh.

Cookies ...

One of my daily blog stops is Whoorl.com, the musings of a woman in Southern California, who is not from Southern California, about her life, her love (named David - because every male in my life is named David, even the ones I read about), and her baby-to-be. She's a very good writer. Her most-recent post centers on a cupcake.

Which got me thinking about cupcakes and their explosive popularity over the past couple years. My cupcake memories are of PTA or Cub Scout meetings in my grade-school gym. There would always be a refreshments table, and the kids had turned cupcake selection into a science, and by "science" I mean picking the cupcake with the biggest schmear of frosting. Typically, the moms who cupcaked were pretty stingy with the frosting, but I ask you: What's the point? The frosting is always the best part of a cupcake. Skimp on that, and, well, it's barely worth eating.

And then there are the cupcake liners. We can put a man on the moon (or on a space station) but we can't make a cupcake liner that doesn't retain 20 percent of the cupcake upon its removal? The only thing worse than a frosting deficiency when you're a child is an inability to suck the cupcake endoderm off the cupcake liner, but those obnoxious pastel paper liners seemed to be designed to disintegrate on contact with saliva. Dammit.

As an adult, I'm amused by the by-gone refreshments table. Those were the days when people didn't obsess about nutrition, so it made perfect sense to serve cupcakes and punch to the kids. Here, honey: Have a hunk of sugar, topped with sugar, and wash it down with a cup of sugar.

Ah, yes, those were the days.

But this post isn't titled "Cupcakes," it's titled "Cookies." Whoorl's post about cupcakes got me thinking - again - about baking for a living. She's preggers, and she waited in a line for 45 minutes to score a cupcake, and was willing to plunk down $3.50 to do it. You can read her post for the fab way she got out of paying for hers, but it started me thinking about the mark-up in food.

Early on in my parents' marriage, they had a pizza place. Not many people know this about my parents, but I could have been the daughter of pizza barrons. Their pizza venture was short-lived (they still use the pizza wheel they used to cut pizzas, back in the day, a remnant of their brief pizza life), but I remember my dad talking about the mark-up in pizza. To this day, it bugs him to order a pie and drop $18, because he knows it cost the pizza place about $1.50 to make it.

But that's the wonder of food: People are willing to pay a lot when it comes to things to cram in their mouths.

Take Mrs. Fields. No, really, take her, cuz I don't wanna buy what she's sellin'. I've never been a fan of Mrs. Fields' cookies, but cookies have made that woman a bazillionaire, and why? Because a dozen cookies in a tin, delievered next Monday morning, will set me back ... wait for it ... $51.97. The cookies and tin alone will set me back $27.99. The rest is shipping, but still.

So a couple Christmases ago, I put together a cookie assortment for Dave's familly, and asked him to ask his wife, who's a catering genius in Chicago (www.limelightchicago.com, if you're in need of a catering genius, and really, who isn't?), if she would help me price a similar selection for a friend who had asked me to bake for her that year.

Now, I'm bad about accepting money from friends. But in this instance, the friend asked me after I was done with all my holiday baking (if I'd known sooner, I would have just doubled or tripled my already-doubled and -tripled recipes), so I bascially had to do everything all over again, just for her. And so, Rita (that's Dave's wife) calculated that for what I was supplying (two dozen each of 14 kinds of cookies), I should charge no less than $225.

Gaa! I couldn't charge a friend $225 for cookies! But Rita used a well-known bakery's price as a guide (she pointed out that her company and bakeries and such buy ingredients in bulk and therefore pay much less than I was paying, buying retail) and said that it charges about $8 a pound for cookies, and there are about 12 pieces to a pound. Yep, $8 for a dozen cookies. Much cheaper than Mrs. Fields, but then, Mrs. Fields cookies are kinda big.

And that was the year I realized just how much I could make, making cookies.

I write about cookies for a freelance client. Mary's dubbed me The Cookie Queen. A couple years ago, my photog friend Jeff (linked under my Links) and I did a little photo shoot in his apartment. He wasn't happy with the lighting, but we came up with an image to run with the story. You get the idea. I wrap the cookies in cellophane, tie it with a ribbon, tie on a handwritten tag, and pile them in a tissue-lined hatbox or some such.

The problem with baking ventures, typically, are the hours. The hours suck. You have to bake before people want to buy the baked goods. Ah, but with cookies, there's not that first-thing-in-the-morning factor. You can open at a reasonable hour. You can close at a reasonable hour. You can have a life.

Of course, if the operation gets huge, you have to bring on help, and I'm a bit of control freak when it comes to my food, so that'd be a bit of a challenge for me, but that would be a good problem to have.

It feels like cookie time is drawing near.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

KT Tunstall, Live ...

I made a post-New Year's resolution to see at least one show a month. Not necessarily a big show - not everything needs to be Coldplay - but live music, once a month.

Last month, Coldplay.

This month, so far, the symphony and KT Tunstall tonight at the Park West.

Next month, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can make something happen on Pearl Jam tix. We'll see.

But tonight was KT. I never catch shows at the Park West (well, not often enough, anyway) and that's a shame, cuz it's a great place to see a set.

David Ford opened for her and he was terrific. When the boy gets his butt around to releasing an album, I'll buy it for sure.

But KT? Cute. As. A. Bug. Totally relaxed on stage, having a great time, chatting with the crowd in between songs. Surprisingly, she did "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" fourth. I thought for sure she'd close with it, seeing as how it's her big single. But no. I think she played everything on her CD, as well as a couple new tracks. It was all good, though both Jay and Dave complained about the bassist. Or the guy who was running the board who should have taken the bass down. They're both in bands. They're more tuned into that stuff. I noticed it, but I wasn't annoyed by it.

No, I was annoyed by the chicks sitting on the other side of Jay who would NOT SHUT UP. What IS that? What's the point in catching a show to talk through the whole thing? I mean, sure, comment on a song or something - Jay and I weren't mute the whole time ourselves - but sheesh.

Still, KT didn't seem to care. Tonight was the last date on this tour, and tomorrow she's off to L.A. to appear on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." She has no idea who our talk shows hosts are, but she doesn't care. This is her time in the sun, dammit. One of the stories she was telling the crowd was about a regular slot she had at an open-mic night at a Chicago bar ... in 1995. Another classic example of an "overnight" success who took 10 years to get there.

And she has a Scottish accent I could actually understand.

I ended up having an extra ticket for the show. Jay called a couple friends, but they couldn't make it on short notice. I thought about calling G. He likes her music. But I was in the car when the idea struck, and he's no longer in my cell phone, so I couldn't call him. (I never did memorize his numbers.) And I asked the chick in the will-call closet if I could leave it with her to give to someone who wanted to catch the show at the last minute, but she said she couldn't take it.

I went outside, but didn't find anyone looking for a ticket. So I stuck it in my back pocket and went inside. Jay and I sat ourselves down on some stools along the side of the space and had a perfect view of the stage.

All for 15 bucks. Plus fees. Ticketmaster "convenience" fees. Because it's convenient to charge people more than 33 percent in fees on a 15 dollar ticket.

Ticketbastards.

But Jay saw the guy who plays Steve on "Sex and the City" down the street from the Park West. Does he live in Chicago?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Food ...

A word on what it's like to consume an actual food-type product after 10 days of cleansing: Soup.

I know my way around a kitchen well enough, and I turn out some pretty tasty treats from time to time, but Friday's soup was borderline spectacular. I believe its near-spectacularness stemmed from the fact that the soup contained neither lemon juice nor maple syrup nor cayenne pepper. And it felt really, really good to cook something, to dice celery, to slice carrots, to peel potatoes.

So I made my veggie soup on the fly (the recipe in the little yellow book is pretty vague: no amounts, no cooking time, just cook it 'til it's cooked seems to be what Stanley was going for) and then I pureed some of it in my oh-so-spiffy blender that I hardly ever use, a fab birthday gift from Tracy one year, too many years ago. (Where *does* the time go?)

And I poured some into a bowl, and I got out a spoon, and it was so damn exciting to eat something with a spoon, I can't even tell you. Well, I guess I can, because I just did. But, oh boy. Soup.

The cool thing, though, is that it was really good. Not just I-haven't-eaten-for-10-days good, but like I-could-make-this-again-and-maybe-even-serve-it-to-friends good.

Soup. It's a wonder food.

So that was Friday afternoon and evening. And my system wasn't all together happy to meet my soup, but I got through it. And Saturday was better. I had some cantaloupe and some yogurt and some mashed potatoes.

And today, I had a combination of the pureed soup and the chunky vegetable, non-pureed soup and more yogurt (saving the pink lids) and met Chris for a cup of coffee which seemed to sit OK and then more mashed taters and some mac and cheese for dinner.

I went for a walk and talked with L.A. Dave and the conversation wound its way around to Twinkies. Oh my. When's the last time I had a Twinkie? I can't imagine. Not in my 30s. In my 20s? Maybe. In any event, it's been a long time. I was just about home when we drifted into Twinkie talk, so when I got to my house, I opened the door, grabbed some cash, and continued walking to the grocery store.

That's my compromise when I want a piece of junk food: I have to walk to the store and back to get it. I figure I burn off about as many calories as the treat that way, so there's little or no net gain.

So I walked and talked and got to the store and looked at the label on the Twinkies and reported to L.A. Dave that there was no way I'd be eating a Twinkie. (Though I also looked at the cupcakes and Ho-Hos and discovered that a single serving of Ho-Ho is 3 Ho-Hos. Finally, someone sane drafting a food label, cuz really, who the hell eats one Ho-Ho?) And I walked out of the store empty-handed.

L.A. Dave booed me. But I was having none of that.

"I just finished a 10-day cleanse on Friday," I said. "And it's Sunday night and I'm already willing to eat crap again? You should be supporting me, not booing me."

But it's like I wrote about in a previous post: Some people don't want you to be good, because that makes them think they should be good, too.

This isn't a slam against L.A. Dave. He's been very supportive, not just over the past couple weeks, but always. It's just one more obstacle on the road to being healthy: people who want to make excuses for you to eat things you know you shouldn't.

Which isn't to say I'll never have something so-bad-it's-good again. I know I will. But I can also say no. Especially this soon after everything I went through.

Old habits die hard. But I'm crediting the cleanse with tonight's display of willpower. Under other circumstances, I might have thrown reason to the wind and wolfed down the snack cake. But toward what end? Ten seconds of pseudo-enjoyment with a liberal side of guilt?

No thanks. I'll save the calories for something I really, really want.

Like the warm apple cobbler with vanilla ice cream at Houston's. Which is now closed.

Safe for another day.

I Was A Pre-Teen Fanilow ...

(I intended to write an entirely different post, but then this happened:)

This has nothing to do with the post at hand, but as I was getting ready to write, iTunes offered up Barry Manilow's "Daybreak." This used to be my favorite song. I remember very, very well saving up enough allowance to buy this album, and sitting on the couch in the living room of my childhood home with this album on the stereo, with the jacket open on my lap. It was one of those covers that opened like a book. I was in heaven. Then, as now, I listened to the song over and over and over. (I don't mean I listen to "Daybreak" over and over and over now. This is the first time I've heard it in ages. But when I love a new song, I listen to it non-stop.)

I'm sure my brothers, whose bedroom was right off the living room, were thrilled.

My brothers, being older, were listening to Kansas and Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk. (I was always fascinated by "We're An American Band." The album itself was goldy yellow and the band photo? They were naked. Though shadows hid anything worth seeing. But then, I was, what? 8? How much could I have really appreciated anyway? By the way, I just read online that there were 100,000 copies of the 45 and album pressed on the gold "virgin vinyl," which are a bit of a collector's item, apparently, and worth a few bucks. And iTunes offers a 2002 remix of the title track, though the sample sounds no different than the original cut.)

But no: Thanks to Beth, Barry Manilow was in the house, and I was blaring "Daybreak." My God, I was a weird kid. But I wasn't all about Barry Manilow. Back in the day, I loved K-Tel albums. These days, the kids are buying "Now That's What I Call Music," but they're the same things: collections of hits so you don't have to spend all your money buying entire albums for one song. Of course, with lovely iTunes, you can do the same thing, and you never have to own a Britney Spears track unless, for some reason, you want to.

Oh, but I digress. Years later, when I met To-Be Boyfriend Tom online and we traded voluminous e-mails before meeting for the first time, one of us confessed to having "Barry Manilow Live" as a kid and the other one of us owned up to owning it, too. And wouldn't you know it? "BML" had found its way to CD. So I bought a copy for me and a copy for Tom, and the night of our first date, he brought me an enormous bouquet of flowers and I was able to turn right around and hand him his copy of the CD. He put it on immediately while I arranged flowers.

And later, standing in my apartment's living room, when he stopped kissing me and I said, "What?", he laughed and said, "We're making out to Barry Manilow."

I've never seen him in concert. I own one other album, a greatest-hits colletion. I mean, come on: "Weekend in New England"? You gotta own that tune. "I Write the Songs"? I have six Barry Manilow entries in iTunes. By comparison, I have 106 tracks by Springsteen and 107 by Sting (not counting The Police). Clearly, my fondness for Barry has waned. But I was very happy for my impromptu trip this morning down memory lane.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' ...

Holy frickin' depressing movie, Batman!

Friday, April 07, 2006

'The Ruling Class' ...

L.A. Dave recommended this film.

I love Peter O'Toole. But I should have remembered that Peter O'Toole is not known for his straight dramatic roles. And so a movie entitled "The Ruling Class" would not be a Merchant/Ivory period piece. Oh no.

"The Ruling Class" is from 1972, a major freak-out, too weird to turn away from, so engrossing in its insanity that you feel compelled to continue watching to see where the hell it's going to go.

L.A. Dave tells me that this was a pet project of O'Toole's, that he was very instrumental in getting it made, and received an Oscar nod for his performance as the lunatic Earl. No surprise there. He's brilliant in this movie. More brilliant than the movie itself.

Whew. Settle in with some junk food, maybe some hallucinogenic drugs, and enjoy.

Beyond Fast Food ...

Today is the first non-cleanse day.

I made it for all 10 days.

I have been nursing a glass of diluted orange juice for half an hour.

Kelley, my cleanse mentor, wrote this morning to say that based on her experience, about 10 percent of people who try the cleanse actually get through it.

Which puts me in the 90th percentile. So I get an A!

It's been a valuable experience. For the physical benefits, sure. But, maybe even more so for the psychological aspects.

I've stepped outside my comfort zone. I've done something I didn't think I could do. The first day of the cleanse was far more emotionally taxing than I could have anticipated. I was standing on a precipice, my feet slipping down the slope, kicking gravel over the side of the cliff. But I managed to find a branch to hang on to, to pull myself back up. Well, actually, the branch found me.

L.A. Dave.

He, like Kelley, has been there every day, checking in, letting me vent. Kelley played a different role, having gone through this before. She was able to give me glimpses of what I might experence from day to day. L.A. Dave just listened. Which is hugely valuable. So many, many kudos and thanks to L.A. Dave, a true friend. And kudos to Kelley, too.

So now that food is back on the table, so to speak, I'm presented with a whole new set of choices. Luckily, the way this cleanse is structured, you're limited for several post-cleanse days as to how much you can ingest.

Yesterday, mom asked, "So, what will you eat tomorrow?" She thought maybe I could have something simple, like a soft-boiled egg.

No, I told her. Juice. Just juice. Diluted juice at that. Much like I've been drinking for all these days. Just, thank GOD, a different flavor. And not spicy.

So there's another built-in transition. I'm not downshifting from Fireball Punch to a cheeseburger and fries. And that gives me more time to think about food and what role I will allow it to play in my life moving forward.

Dave (not L.A. Dave, but Dave Dave, Composer Dave) does not eat fast food (the actual fast food, not what I've been referring to as fast food). Every year, I give him and his wife and daughter a cookie assortment at Christmas and he promises that he'll eat some of them, but his wife tells me that he's very judicious about what he eats, while she and their daughter pretty much dive into the middle of the cookies and come up from time to time for milk. Every time Dave and I find ourselves in a restaurant, he orders salmon. Every time.

Last year, at my birthday lunch, I ordered Tuscan fries for the table: French fries tossed with parmesan and rosemary and grilled vegetables. Hello! Dave passed on them, but I made him take one. One. And he, to exaggerate the momentousness of the occasion (and to crack me up), grabbed his knife and fork and spread his elbows wide and said,"OK, gimme room!"

And then he ordered salmon for lunch.

When it came, he said I had to try it.

"I don't like salmon," I said.

He looked at me as though I said, "I strangle kittens for sport."

But I tried it. And it was really good. I had a bad, formative salmon experince as a child and I've been loathe to eat it ever since.

He eats it, of course, because it's good for him. Food is fuel in Dave's world, pure and simple. He'll have a treat from time to time, but most of the time, he's very, very good.

That's the lifestyle I need to adopt. Of course (and this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy), I have my doubts as to whether I can be as ascetic as Dave. But I can aspire.

It's been an hour now. There's still juice in my glass. Taking this slowly. And thinking about what I've done.

And feeling proud.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Fast Food VI ...

Tomorrow is Day 10.

I remember when I was in college my friend Adam telling me that if you do something for 21 days, it becomes a habit. Or, more specifically, if you don't do something for 21 days, the behavior of not doing that something takes over. He was talking about quitting smoking, but it could apply to anything.

The last time I had a bite of food (not counting Saturday's unintentional grape) was Monday, March 27.

Tomorrow is the last day of the cleanse. It doesn't have to be. The cleanse can be followed for much longer, but I think 10 days is enough for this first go-'round. I'm ready for food, and yet, the concept of eating feels foreign to me.

I guess the longer you don't do something, the easier it really does become not to do it.

I've said that I wanted to do this cleanse as a way of making the transition to a better lifestyle, to springboard to eating healthier food. I nearly sent L.A. Dave into a panic when I told him I was leaning toward veganism.

"But I'll never be able to go out to eat with you again!", he said.

Well, of course he will. It's not like we convene on a savannah and tear apart a zebra.

But I'm not going to try to do anything radical. It's unlikely that I'll be able to give up all meat and dairy. Because giving up meat and dairy would mean giving up my mother's lasagne, and there are some things in life I am simply not willing to do. Giving up my mother's lasagne is very high on that list. And life without the mushroom-Swiss burger at Mity Nice Grill? Not worth living. So, as I told L.A. Dave, I will be an 85-percent vegan. (Yes, I know, being vegan is an all-or-nothing proposition, but you get the idea.) I'm going to try to eat very well most of the time. lots of grains and vegetables and fruits and such (I have a couple vegan cookbooks and they intrigue me greatly).

But I won't be a militant vegan, the type who refuses Jell-O because it's made with gelatin which is derived from horse hooves. No, in my life, there will always be room for Jell-O.

My friend Brian wrote tonight to say he's interested in the cleanse. He had many questions. And that's the great thing about having gone through it: I can be a resource for people who might want to try it, the same way that Kelley has been a resource for me. It's been very good to have a friend to reassure me that what I'm going through from day to day is "normal." Her experiences doing this cleanse have closely mirrored mine. So now I can be there for Brian if he'd like to try this, grow the web a little wider.

I've grown accustomed to the taste of Fireball Punch. I don't love it. Doubt I ever will. But I don't detest it the way I did at the beginning of the cleanse. Maybe my body has come to accept it - welcome it, even - recognizing it for the nutrition it provides.

I've learned a lot over the past 10 days. And I don't think I can put most of it into words. But I'll give it a go over the next few days when I start to introduce food again.

But first, one more day of punch.

Kelsie Update ...

A couple posts back, I wrote about Kelsie, the amazing 11-year-old who's losing her sight and making it her mission to raise money to help buy books for the libraries ravaged by Katrina. What an amazing kid.

I want to donate to her cause, but her site only accepts donations through PayPal. I'd rather write a check. So I wrote to Kelsie to ask if there was P.O. Box number to which I could sent my donation.

Kelsie wrote back this morning. Here's what she had to say:

Hello,
Thank you for the response. And the kind words. It means a lot to me to hear that I am making a difference. The mailing address is:
Kelsie's Books
P.O. Box 506
Morton, MS 39117
If you include your return address I will send you a receipt, also the foundation is registered with the State. So, you will get the tax deduction for you donation.
Thank you so much, Kelsie Buckley

If anyone else is interested, there you go.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Fast Food V ...

Well, here we are: the end of Day 8.

Who knew I'd make it this far? I know I didn't.

Two more days and then I get to start introducing food back into my diet. Well, food is overstating things a bit. You start with diluted juice, which, uh, is pretty much what I've been drinking all along. But by Sunday night, I should be able to have a salad or something light. Sunday will be the 14th day of this experience.

I am more surprised than anyone that I've been able to not eat anything for so many days. But I feel completely fine physically. And proud of myself, to boot. There's nothing like a little personal challenge to boost your self-esteem.

I spend a lot of time - a LOT of time - inside my comfort zone. That is one of the many ways in which I take after my father. But every once in a while, the little voice in my head whispers, "Pssst! Beth! Do this! This will be interesting! This will give you something to write about! This will remind you that you're capable of doing things you never thought possible!"

A hell of a lesson, and I need to be reminded from time to time.

L.A. Dave and I talked about my life last night, the "problem" I have of having too many options. There are so many things I could do, so many directions I could go. I get overwhelmed by the possibility. Or maybe it's adult ADD. I like to do so many things that I never seem to focus on one for very long.

Ultimately, it's a lovely problem to have. No, not a problem. A situation. It's a lovely situation to be in. Should I be a screenwriter? Should I be a jazz singer? Should I be a cookie magnate? Should I be an interior designer? Should I be a voiceover artist?

Happily, I can do all of them. Or I can pursue all of them, anyway.

But first, I have to get through the next two days. The last two days. I'm even starting to tolerate the taste of the Fireball Punch.

Now that's progress.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Fast Food IV ...

Today is Day 6.

Yesterday, I ate a grape.

I didn't plan on eating a grape. But I was at the store, picking up a few things - milk, juice, fruit - for my parents who returned from a vacation last night, and mom loves her red seedless grapes and, well, you can't just buy grapes on sight. You have to try one. So I found what looked to be a good bunch and popped one in my mouth and then thought, "There's a grape in my mouth." And given that there was nowhere to spit it out (not discreetly, anyway), I swallowed it.

Last night, I felt a twinge of a cramp. Haven't felt that before on this cleanse. Laughed and thought, "Well, that's the sensation of one grape being digested."

I shuttled them home last night, but it was really this morning. So we didn't talk much. I just got them in their house and let them get to bed. Mom called this morning to catch up a bit. "You looked absolutely beautiful last night," she said.

Well, I *was* kinda dolled up. I had gone to the symphony with Doreen. (As we were leaving Symphony Center last night, Doreen said, "It's a Scotch kind of night. Too bad you can't have any." Indeed.)

"You looked so slim," she said.

"I was wearing black," I said.

But I was looking slimmer last night. And this cleanse is partly to thank. That and the fact that I continue to exercise and up until the point when I stopped eating, I was eating pretty well, healthfully. All part of the master plan.

"You're father's not happy that you're doing this," she said.

"I know. I even had a dream about him not being happy that I'm doing this," I said.

Dad is very old school. Dad does not like anything outside of the status quo. Dad still listens to The Doobie Brothers. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I like certain artists and will listen to them forever. But dad doesn't like anything new. One day, we went CD shopping at Best Buy because his new truck came with a CD player. As we walked through the parking lot to the store, I made a wide, sweeping gesture with my arm and said, "I invite you to explore the wide world of music released since 1976."

He bought The Doobie Brothers and The Bee-Gees.

Like I said, old school.

So dad likely thinks that I'm simply starving myself. (Some of you may think that, too.) But I'm not. I'm getting nutrition. It's just in a weird form. Contrary to what you might think, this lemonade mixture really does provide nutrients. Maple syrup is nothing but sugar and vitamins and minerals. Lemon juice provides lots of vitamins and other nifty stuff off the periodic table that our bodies need. Water is always a good thing. I drink tons of it anyway. And for those of you who simply refuse to believe that it's enough, what I'm ingesting, well, I won't be able to change your minds. But something is going right, cuz it's not like I'm lying in bed, weak from lack of food. I feel fine. I walk two miles every morning and, if it's not too cold, I walk two more miles at night. I'm not starving. Yeah, I get hungry, but so do you. I have another glass of Fireball Punch and the hunger goes bye-bye.

On Thursday, I spoke with Susan Levin, a registered dietician who works for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. Dr. Neal Barnard is the president and founder, and I've interviewed him the past for stories and gotten to know him and members of his staff. I respect the work of his organization. (Yes, Henry, I know, you think they're quacks, but I've addressed that in posts in the past.) Susan told me that PCRM doesn't have an official stance on fasting/cleansing, but her own take on it, from the point of a dietician, was pleasantly measured. I was expecting something militant and condemning, that this is a horrible idea and I should quit immediately. But as she pointed out, various religions and cultures have been fasting for thousands of years.

As for the cleanse, she figures as long as you're getting nutrition through liquids, it's fine to do for a while. I explained to her that I want to do this as a springboard of sorts toward eating better (most of PCRM's staffers are vegan, by the way), and she fully supported that thinking. She thinks it's good for people to stop consuming their daily allotments of bad food and give their bodies a break and feel what it feels like to not have all that stuff in your system. It does raise your awareness of what "healthy" can feel like.

So today is Day 6. Ten days is the minimum recommendation. Some do it for longer. I think 10 days will likely be enough for me this time around. But we'll see how the week goes.