Monthly Archives: May 2013

More ridiculous questions about race and ethnicity

Hearkening back to last week’s post about the dreaded “Where are you from originally?” question, thought I’d share an interesting — and somewhat horrifying — article I came across this morning. NPR’s new race, culture, and ethnicity blog, Code Switch, just did a feature about the ridiculous questions people have been asked about their race or ethnicity. The slideshow alone is well worth your time.

Apparently the “where are you from originally?” question is alive and well, but on the milder end of the spectrum of ignorant questions people get asked about their race. Asians get asked if they “see in wide-screen.” Black people get asked if they shampoo their hair. Black people also get asked if their blood is red (as opposed to, what color, exactly?). Non-Mexican Latinos get asked to bring tacos to potlucks. SIGH.

One person quoted in the article makes the point that, as mind-blowingly stupid as some of these questions are, he feels bad for criticizing any attempts at cultural dialogue, “even if clumsy.” He is a more charitable person than I, apparently! The article notes:

Eric Deggans, a friend of Code Switch, has a good point. It’s easy to punish well-intentioned folks who really just are curious about different cultures. But part of our aim was to create some dialogue about how we deal with questions that could quickly go awry.

Hm. I’m not sure about the best way to deal with some of these questions, other than to remain calm and politely set the person straight. Another commenter suggested that a person asked a bizarre question regarding race should ask the questioner, politely, why they’re asking, to try to get at what the questioner is actually curious about. In other words, the person could be asking a legitimate question in an ignorant way. Could be. Or people could just be stupid.

What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever been asked about your race or ethnicity? I’ve heard a lot of weird stuff, but one of the weirdest was when the daughter of my CCD (Catholic religious education) teacher asked me if I was Jewish (despite the fact that I was in her mother’s CCD class), and when I said no, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “Well, you look it.” Well, shoot, let me abandon my Catholic education since you’ve decided that I don’t look the part! Point me to the local synagogue, kind madam! Granted, she was a child, and so was I, but even then, I knew she was suffering from a severe case of the stupids.

Also, I looked like this:

A31S (11)

What’s that little Jewish girl doing, receiving her first Communion??

Okay, okay, I wasn’t wearing my Communion dress when she asked me if I was Jewish, but come on.

Similarly, when I was touring a Catholic girls’ school when I was in eighth grade (I was considering going there for high school), one of the students asked me if I was an Arab. So… there seems to be some confusion here. Anyone else have any good stories about crazy questions you’ve been asked about your race or ethnicity? Do share!

Book review Monday: The Shining, by Stephen King

Programming note: Book Review Tuesday is becoming Book Review Monday, because Momma’s got a brand new bag/writing gig covering The Bachelorette for Previously.TV, and I’ll need to devote my Tuesdays to watching idiots misuse personal pronouns. Links to my pieces for Previously.TV will also be posted on Twitter and on Tube Topix.

Remember my post about Stephen King? And how I’m resolved to read more of his stuff? Well, I made good on that statement last week when I read King’s classic haunted hotel story The Shining. The verdict? It’s the best Stephen King novel I’ve read yet. And today, I want to talk both about this book and what makes it so compelling, as well as the classic-in-its-own-right movie adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, and how I’m not sure one can enjoy both the book and the movie.

The-Shining-novel-picture1

As if the book weren’t creepy enough, they had to go and make this the cover.

Let’s start with the book. The Shining, for those of you who have not participated in popular culture for the last thirty-five years or so, is the story of a troubled schoolteacher-slash-writer, Jack Torrance, who loses his job at a prep school in Vermont after beating the ever-living crap out of one of his students in a fit of rage. One of his former drinking buddies and colleagues manages to set Jack up with a gig as the winter caretaker of the uber-creepy Overlook Hotel, which is set into a remote part of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Jack, who has recently quit drinking, decides to take the job, seeing it as a fresh start for him and his wife, Wendy, and their five year-old son, Danny. Danny, by the by, has a special gift where he is able to see glimpses of the future (often presented by his imaginary friend, Tony) and can read people’s thoughts. Before the Torrances pack up and move into the Overlook, Danny has several disturbing visions of what awaits them there. I don’t want to spoil the entire plot (especially since the plot of the book, including the ending, varies markedly from the movie version), but suffice it to say that the Overlook Hotel has its own ideas about the Torrances’ fresh start, and things do not go as planned once the family arrives. One word: REDRUM.

The book is a wonderful read because it manages to combine a slow build-up with consistent, page-turning creepiness. One of the main themes of the book is Jack’s struggle with alcoholism. At its heart, it’s the story of how one man’s personal demons slowly destroy him and his family. The book shows us Jack’s slow undoing, as he slips from being a loving husband and father struggling with an addiction to a shell of a man entirely inhabited by monsters. The horrors contained in the Overlook — including a bloated, rotting dead lady in a tub, a man in a dog suit, murdered children, gangsters with their brains blown out, topiary hedge animals that come to murderous life, killer wasps, and a fire extinguisher hose that morphs into a snake — are terrifying, but the most terrifying inhabitant of the hotel becomes Jack himself. We readers stand by, helpless, as The Overlook preys on Jack, knowing he’s weak and it can control him to suit its sinister purposes.

IT IS SO GOOD, this book.

After I read the book, I decided to re-watch the movie, which I hadn’t seen in twelve years (the last time I watched it was as a college freshman in someone’s dorm room), to see how it held up next to the book. And, I must say, my hearty appreciation for the book actually dampened my full enjoyment of the movie this time around. Kubrick’s movie adaptation, as creepy and well-done as it is, is not a faithful adaptation of the book. Lots of plot and character points are different. To name a few:

  • Danny in the book is not supposed to be creepy; he’s supposed to be tortured by his visions and the voices he hears in his head. In the movie, he’s this exceedingly creepy little kid who talks in a funny voice and references “the little boy who lives in my mouth.” Tony, Danny’s “imaginary friend” in the book, does not live in his mouth (wtf?) and also tries to protect Danny from the dangers that await him at the Overlook. We also find out something else important about Tony toward the end of the novel, but I won’t spoil it.
  • Mr. Ullman, the man who gives Jack the job, is supposed to be an officious, prissy jerk, not the glad-handing, newscaster-esque sort who they cast in the movie. Jack’s anger and resentment of Ullman comes up again and again in the book but is not referenced in the movie.
  • There’s a whole backstory in the book about the ownership of the Overlook and the corrupt goings-on that have plagued it since its opening in the early twentieth century. None of this is explicitly referenced in the movie.
  • The reasons Jack got fired from his schoolteacher job (namely, beating up his student) are not referenced in the movie — nor is a haunting drunk joy ride he took with his drinking buddy in which they may or may not have killed someone.
  • The murdered little Grady girls (“come play with us”) are referenced maybe once in the book, and they’re not twins.
  • There’s no labyrinth in the book; there are, however, the aforementioned murderous hedge animals.
  • Jack does not attempt to murder his family with an axe in the book; instead, he uses a roque mallet (roque being an earlier ancestor of croquet).
  • The dead lady in the tub is in room 217, not 237. Why change that, Stanley Kubrick? I ask you.
  • [SPOILER]: Why does the black guy have to die in the movie? C’mon.
  • There’s a lot of backstory in the book about Wendy’s horrible mother and Jack’s horrible father, which informs both of their choices and their dynamic as a couple.
Come play with us.

Come play with us.

The biggest difference between the novel and the film, though, has to do with the book’s focus on Jack’s alcoholism and the idea that Jack, as an addict, is an easy tool for the Overlook. In the book, Jack is controlled by external forces; he is a pawn of a larger, evil force. In the movie, however, it seems as if Jack (as memorably played by Jack Nicholson) is bad from the start, and the Overlook merely brings out the badness that’s already lurking within him. Also, in the film, the character’s alcoholism is barely touched upon and does not appear to impact Jack’s behavior in any meaningful way. Apparently, this departure from the book was Stephen King’s biggest problem with the movie adaptation. In King’s novel, it is the hotel that is evil, not Jack Torrance. King once said, regarding his issues with Kubrick’s adaptation:

Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shiningis that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.

In other words, Kubrick missed the point entirely. And as I watched the film, I really wondered why Kubrick had made some of the changes he made. Some of the less consequential tweaks were understandable. For instance, I can see why Tony, Danny’s imaginary friend, was challenging to express in film. In the book, Tony appears in visions. I can see why having Tony “live in Danny’s mouth” and talk through Danny is a more elegant expression of Tony. But why the creepy voice and the finger? Ugh. I found myself wishing throughout the film that Kubrick had more closely followed the arc of the story in the novel; that is, a weak man is worn down by an external evil until he destroys himself and his family. It’s easy to root against a non-nuanced monster like Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. It’s more complicated — and more compelling — when the character retains human layers and some shreds of decency. For that reason, the film comes off as flatter — and less emotionally gripping — than the book.

movie

I guess I’m going to have to add The Shining to the long list of films that pale in comparison to the books that spawned them. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I recommend that you watch the movie first, and then read the book, and prepare to be impressed and surprised by the differences.

PS. A new interview with Stephen King in Parade.

 

 

Sound Advice Thursday: the lying colleague

Dear Steph,

I’m in a bit of an awkward situation. Somebody I interact with on a professional level recently lied to me, like, to my face, and as the tarnished words came out of her mouth, her eyes were totally giving her away. The lie was so stupid and insignificant and most of all, I can’t understand why this person did this, especially considering that in less than 12 hours, it would be so obvious that she lied, and not just to me. I was going to let it go but I’m so curious to find out why she did this and whether she thinks I’m stupid or was it just a childish mistake? Should I confront her since this is work related or just let it go and pretend it didn’t happen? I saw her last week and it’s crickets between us because of this elephant in the room. 

Sincerely,

Somebody Make This Stop

Jiminy Cricket has had it up to here with this sh*t

Jiminy Cricket has had it up to here with this sh*t

Dear SMTS,

Liars are the worst, right? We’ve all come across people who, for whatever reason, can’t stop themselves from fibbing, even about stupid, inconsequential stuff. I once knew a guy who used to lie about everything — everything — for seemingly no reason. He’d tell us tall tales about what he got up to over the weekend, the women he supposedly charmed, the victories he’d won — but he’d also lie about petty things, like what he ate for dinner last night. My only conclusion about this guy and his propensity to — embellish, let’s say — was that he just could not help himself. Lying was like breathing for him. I think it probably had something to do with attention-seeking: every story had to be inflated or polished in order to make the storyteller sound grander, braver, smarter, or wittier, even when the stakes were low. I wonder if this same thing is going on with your colleague.

You didn’t say what your colleague — let’s call her Judith — lied about, but there are a bunch of reasons why someone might tell a stupid fib at work. Maybe she messed up and was embarrassed to tell you about it. Maybe she had told the same lie to someone else and was trying to be consistent. Maybe she was trying to wrangle an advantage for herself by withholding information from you. Whatever the reason, Judith lied, and now you’re left wondering why.

But let me ask you: would knowing why she lied really make things better? And, assuming it would make things better, do you think she would actually tell the truth if you confronted her about this? The thing about liars is that, well, they lie. So if you back Judith into a corner and ask her “Why did you lie to me about [x]?”, chances are, she’s gonna lie to you about her reasons for lying to you. I suppose it’s possible that she’d come clean and ‘fess up to her dishonest ways and beg for forgiveness, but the odds are low. And if she did tell the truth, well, then you’d know, I guess, but there would be no guarantee she wouldn’t lie in the future. To paraphrase 3LW, liars gonna lie.

So what do I recommend? Unfortunately, since you say the lie was about something inconsequential, this is one of those situations where you just have to let it go. I realize this is easier said than done, but I think it will save you some grief when dealing with Judith in the future. Instead of maintaining a chilly distance with this woman — which she might very well be oblivious to — I say treat her normally, but keep your sensors up around her. That is, forgive, but don’t forget. In a professional context, it pays to be wary around dishonest people, so be careful with the information you share with Judith, take whatever she says with a large grain of salt, and, to the extent possible, verify what she tells you with someone else, if you must rely on the information she gives you. Realize that if she lied to you once, she’ll probably do it again, and proceed accordingly. But maintaining an awkward silence with her is not going to help matters. Better to just act professionally but keep your guard up for future fibs.

Good luck!

~Steph

On ethnicity, curiosity, and idiocy

I’m a member of the website Quora, which I’ve been told is now used primarily by stoner college students who want to get “deep” and ponder life, man, but is actually sometimes also used by lame, non-stoner, old people like me. The premise of the site is that people ask questions and other people answer them, and then the best/most popular answers get voted up the chain. So it’s like a smarter version of Ask.com and a less weird version of Ask Metafilter.

I don’t go on Quora often — I have asked a total of one question, and it was about whether earthquakes can cause headaches, and only one person answered it, and the answer was no — but sometimes I see a question that strikes my fancy and I decide to answer it.

The other day, I saw this question: “Is it racist for someone to ask ‘where are you from originally?'”

My original answer was the following:

Not racist, necessarily, but perhaps (probably) ignorant. I’m a vaguely ethnic looking lady from Michigan. I’ve been asked COUNTLESS times where I’m from “originally.” Um. Michigan. (Well, I was born in Baltimore…) Another one I get asked is, “Where are your parents from?” California and Pennsylvania. Is that what you really want to know? No. What people who ask these questions really want to know is, “What ethnicity are you?” And these people don’t tend to take my honest answers to their questions — Michigan, California, Pennsylvania — at face value. They don’t believe that someone with my looks could NOT have immigrant parents. It’s bizarre. Like, hi, welcome to America: lots of us have brown hair and brown eyes, turns out.

Anyway, if you’re so curious about my ethnicity, go ahead and ask about it: that doesn’t bother me. (For the record: Irish-Mexican-Italian). But asking where I’m from “originally,” as if that’s a more subtle or polite way to get at my race or ethnicity, is just stupid. So stop doing it and just ask the question you want to ask.

This face confuses people.

This face confuses people.

My answer sparked a bit of a debate on Facebook, with some of my friends arguing that it is, in fact, inherently racist to ask where someone’s from originally, because it implies that an Asian American person, for instance, is not actually American, and with other friends arguing that it’s a harmless, if stupid, question, and just shows curiosity and an intent to strike up a conversation about the wonderful melting pot that is these United States.

I’ve thought about it a bit more and I’m sticking with my original answer, which is that the question itself is not racist, necessarily, but it is tremendously stupid and should go the way of the dodo. Here’s the thing: in today’s America, do people really not recognize that someone belonging to a minority racial or ethnic group can actually be FROM America? How is that news? Take my dearly departed grandfather, Mark Rivero, as an example. He was born in San Francisco in 1920. He was Mexican-American (and his father was born in Mexico), but Pop, my grandfather, was originally from San Francisco, which is located in America, contrary to what some might think.

This man is from San Francisco, originally. But is that what you wanted to know?

This man was from San Francisco, originally, despite being ethnic.

So if a person were to ask Pop, “Where are you from originally?”, he would say, “San Francisco, California.” And then if this person kept questioning him, like, “No, but originally, where are you from?”, Pop might smack him upside the head. And he’d deserve it, because that’s a stupid way to get at someone’s ethnicity.

Unbelievably, people still try to tiptoe around the question of race and ethnicity by asking this stupid question. I, myself, have been asked many times where I’m from “originally,” and even when I know what the question-asker is driving at, I won’t volunteer my ethnicity, because it’s annoying. Just ask what my ethnic background is if you really want to know.

To be fair, the “where are you from” conversation has happened to me more in Latin America than it has in the United States. Whenever I’m in Argentina, or Brazil, or anywhere else south of Tallahassee, people are always asking me where I’m from originally. If I say the United States, they ask where my parents are from. If I answer that both my parents are from the United States, they ask where my grandparents are from. Finally, when I say that my grandfather was Mexican-American, they go, “Aaaah, I knew you had some Latin blood in you.” A trip to Latin America never feels complete until my “sangre Latina” is brought up at least once by a cab driver.

Now, normally, I am not offended by someone asking me about my ethnic background, because most of the time, people are just curious. Most people, especially Americans, myself included, find ethnicity and racial background interesting. It’s fun to find out where people’s grandparents were from, and how people of different backgrounds found each other to produce the DNA cocktails we’re walking around with. Like, how many other Mexican-Irish-Italian-Americans do you know, besides me? Don’t you kind of want to know how that mess happened? (Answer: long story, but mostly, strict Catholicism brings people together in surprising ways). I find these types of conversations fun and innocent, for the most part. Once in a while, though, you do get the creepster who is interested in fetishizing a certain race or ethnicity (“I like Spanish girls”), and that is no good. No good, at all. [Note: I am only speaking for myself, here, by the way, when I say “once in a while.” I’m sure that ladies (and gents) of other, more immediately recognizable ethnic groups may get the creepsters on a much more regular basis (looking at you, Asian ladies).]

And sometimes, you get people who are just plain ignorant. I was at a party in Boston once where this girl was going on and on about, among other things, how Mexicans typically have “heavy brows” and “slicked back, greasy hair.” I was with Al, and we looked at each other in horror/delight, because this woman was so terrible/ridiculous, but I didn’t feel like jumping into the spray of her ignorance fire-hose to let her know that she was being offensive. This same woman, shockingly, was interested in my ethnic background, and so, being the evil person I am, when she asked me about it, I told her to guess. She guessed Persian because, apparently, I have “Persian eyebrows.” Believe it or not, this is not the only time someone has guessed I was Persian. Years ago, a hot-dog seller in Paris asked Al, right in front of me, “Where’s she from?” Al said I was American, and then the hot-dog lady insisted that I looked like a Persian Jew, which is both very wrong and very specific.

The point of all of this is that people can be dumb. But the secondary point is that it’s just easier to ask someone in a straightforward way what his or her ethnic or racial background is, if you’re dying to know, rather than trying to get at it in some roundabout, stupid way, such as asking where he or she is from “originally.” I mean, originally, we’re all from Africa, right? Maybe I should just start saying that.

Idiot: “Where are you from, like, originally?”

Me: “Oh, originally? East Africa. Near modern-day Ethiopia.”

That might just create more problems. But it would be fun to see the looks of bafflement (“But — but, you’re white! White people can’t be from AFRICA!”).

Anyway. Can we put the “where are you from originally” question to bed, once and for all? Please? I’m tired of people guessing where my eyebrows are from.

 

Book review Tuesday: Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

When my cousin Amanda was visiting, she recommended Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone to me one night over dinner in Cape Town. A few days later, I saw the book in the airport in Durban and felt that it was meant to be, so I bought it. I can now say, after reading it, that this book is unlike any novel I’ve ever read before, for several reasons: it involves conjoined — and then unjoined — twins, it includes grisly descriptions of surgeries on almost every page, it discusses the history of Christianity in both India and Ethiopia, and its author is a professor of medicine at Stanford, my alma mater. Impressive!

cutting-for-stone

 

This novel is huge, mostly because of its sweeping scope. The story starts on the day in 1954 that the narrator, Marion, and his twin brother, Shiva, were born in Addis Ababa, and then spans over thirty years and across continents. Without giving anything away, a rift develops between the twins, who were once preternaturally close — almost able to read one another’s thoughts — but who eventually stop speaking because of a perceived betrayal of one by the other. Eventually, a serious crisis brings them together again. (No spoilers…)

The story of the two brothers is emotionally compelling and interesting, and full of mysteries that are sussed out as the novel progresses. Their birth was the product of a scandalous tryst between an Indian nun and nurse, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, who worked together in a small hospital in Addis; they were then raised by two Indian surgeons who adopted them at birth when their biological mother died in childbirth and their biological father peaced out; they grow up in a tumultuous time in Ethiopian political history; and they both become surgeons themselves, albeit with very different paths. However, the story of Shiva and Marion becomes a bit bogged down by the aforementioned long and torturously detailed descriptions of the many surgeries performed by the characters, some of which are truly stomach-turning. I had to do a lot of skimming so as not to feel nauseated by certain parts of this book. For those of you with a medical or nursing bent, you might have a different experience with this, but for me, I could have done without the intimate details of how, for instance, a fistula repair works. Just sayin’.

For me, the most interesting portions of the book were those that discussed Ethiopian history and culture, including the ancient brand of Christianity practiced there. I really liked a passage in which one of the hospital’s donors, a Mr. Elihu Harris from Houston, visits Matron, the head nun and nurse at the hospital in Addis. His church has donated Bibles to the hospital in the hopes of bringing “knowledge of the Redeemer to those who do not have it.”

Matron let out an exasperated sigh. “Did you think they were all fire worshippers? Tree worshippers? Mr. Harris, they are Christians. They are no more in need of redemption than you are in ned of a  hair straightening cream.”

“But I feel it’s not true Christianity. It’s a pagan sort of…,” he said, and patted his forehead.

“Pagan! Mr. Harris, when our pagan ancestors back in Yorkshire and Saxony were using their enemies’ skulls as a plate to serve food, these Christians here were singing the psalms. They believe they have the Ark of the Covenant locked up in a church in Axum. Not a saint’s finger or a pope’s toe, but the Ark! Ethiopian believers put on the shirts of men who had just died of the plague. They saw in the plague a sure and God-sent means of winning eternal life, of finding salvation. That,” she said, tapping the table, “is how much they thirsted for the next life.”

Verghese also talks about the ancient Christian church in India, in the state of Kerala. He explains that “Malayali Christians traced their faith back to St. Thomas’s arrival in India from Damascus in A.D. 52. ‘Doubting’ Thomas built his first churches in Kerala well before St. Peter got to Rome.” I had no idea Christianity in India predated the Roman Catholic Church — fascinating.

I’d recommend this book for those looking for a slightly more exotic brand of historical fiction, those who are interested in surgery — particularly as practiced in the developing world in the 1950s-1970s — and medicine, and/or those who like a good betrayal-redemption story. The book is long, and graphic, but it’s emotionally satisfying enough to keep you reading, despite the gross surgery scenes.

[In case you’re interested in other perspectives on this book, here is a lukewarm review from the New York Times and a more positive one from The Guardian).

Help me by letting me help you

Guys, no Sound Advice Thursday today because, alas, no one sent in any questions this week. Not to be your college girlfriend who threatens to kill herself if you break up with her, or anything, but I will have to discontinue Sound Advice Thursdays if no one seeks my Sound Advice. So this right here is basically the blog equivalent of your dad yelling into the backseat, “Don’t make me turn this car around!!!” Because I will, you guys. I will turn this thing around.

I'm obviously the dad in this scenario.

I’m obviously the dad in this scenario.

Please send all burning questions — I know you have them — to stephanie.early.green [at] gmail [dot] com.

In the meantime, please feel free to peruse some of the past Sound Advice that I’ve so lovingly doled out, including:

And many more!

See you next Thursday.

Namibia

For our one-year wedding anniversary, Al and I took a long weekend trip to Swakopmund, Namibia, and it was definitely one of the most unique places we’ve been in Southern Africa.

A Namibian tapestry

Namibian tapestry

On a Thursday morning, we flew from Joburg to Windhoek, the Namibian capital, which is a very slow-paced little capital indeed. It has a distinct small-town vibe to begin with, plus, for reasons we couldn’t figure out, everything was closed when we visited, including all of the museums. It was kind of creepy, actually, walking around this capital city at ten AM on a weekday and seeing almost no other people on the streets. I turned to Al and asked if there had been some sort of apocalypse memo that we missed, and he wasn’t sure. Jury’s still out.

Corner of Michael Scott and Fidel Castro.

Did I mention the street names in Windhoek are also weird? See, e.g., corner of Michael Scott and Fidel Castro.

We did manage to visit one of the few landmarks that was actually open, the historic Christ Church, a sandstone Lutheran church built in the early 20th century.

IMG_5547

We spent most of the rest of the day sitting at the open-air Zoo Cafe (a curious name, given that Windhoek does not have a zoo), and then eating and drinking at a nearby beer garden, which had some of the most delightful German-to-English menu translations I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Like, such as.

Like, such as.

That afternoon, we caught a shuttle to Swakopmund, a beach resort in northwest Namibia that’s smack in the middle of the Namib desert. Swakopmund is this weird mix of Germany (it was founded in 1892 as the main harbor for German South-West Africa) and Africa. It has something for everyone: palm trees, desert, beach, wiener schnitzel, beer, wine, pastries, game meat, surfing, adventure sports, seafood — you name it. Al and I were particularly excited about the food: Al ate wiener schnitzel at least once a day, and I ate a lot of fresh fish and steak. Yum!

Brauhaus, Swakopmund

Brauhaus, Swakopmund

Pastries at Cafe Anton, the cafe below our hotel (Hotel Schweizerhaus)

Pastries at Cafe Anton, the cafe below our delightfully 1970s hotel (Hotel Schweizerhaus)

Since Swakopmund is surrounded by desert, we decided to try a desert-based sport: sand boarding. Sand boarding is exactly what it sounds like: you get on a snowboard and go down a sand dune. It takes some getting used to — it took me two runs and several falls on my butt/head to get the hang of it — but once you can balance and glide down the sand, it’s super fun.

Me, sand boarding

Me, sand boarding – doesn’t look like I am moving, but I am. Trust me.

And Al discovered he has a hidden talent for flying down sand dunes on a piece of plywood. He got some serious air, dudes.

(100)

Overall, we loved Swakopmund and wished we had been able to spend a bit more time there. But I’m glad we got to see yet another country in Southern Africa before our time in this part of the world is up.

Book review Tuesday: Top of the Morning, by Brian Stelter

I’ll admit it: I watch morning TV. A lot of people — especially educated people who fancy themselves to be above it all — won’t admit to ever tuning into such drivel as the Today show or Good Morning America. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard some variation of “Oh, I think it’s so sad that some people get their news from morning shows,” as if getting your news from Twitter is so much more high-minded. (Don’t pretend, morning TV haters: you’re not tuning into Al Jazeera. You’re getting half of your information from Gawker and then skimming the headlines on Google News. I’m onto you). Anyway, I don’t see any point in denying it: I watch morning TV because I find that the 7 to 8 AM hour of the Today show is just as an effective way to get my basic news as anything else. Plus, once the 8 AM hour starts, maybe I’ll get a few cooking tips or find out what color jeggings I should be buying this season. So it’s all gravy.

I’d say that one of the most interesting aspects of morning TV is the whiff of the private dramas that are undoubtedly simmering just below the surface among the cast-mates. We morning TV viewers watch with almost pervy interest to see if Matt Lauer’s going to snap at Natalie Morales (lovers’ quarrel?), or if Lara Spencer’s going to make another awkward comment about Sam Champion’s taste in interior decor. At least, that’s what I do when I watch. And that’s what I was doing in June 2012, in the weeks and days before Ann Curry was unceremoniously dumped from the Today show and replaced by Savannah Guthrie. I had been following the news of Ann’s imminent sacking for weeks before it happened, and I watched Today every day with rapt interest, trying to see if I could pick up on the tension between Matt Lauer, morning show demi-god, and Curry, who, let’s be honest, kinda sucks at being on TV. For those of you not familiar with Ann Curry’s on-air presence, this (harsh) Gawker article from March 2012 sort of sums it up. And Ann’s last day on the Today show couch? Oy. Being forced to watch it should probably be integrated into the “enhanced interrogation” techniques at Guantanamo.

So, given my prurient interest in morning show drama, I was eager to read Brian Stelter’s Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, in which Stelter dissects the decisions at NBC leading to Curry’s firing; discusses Good Morning America (GMA)’s rise in 2012-2013, which ultimately resulted in an end to the Today Show’s years-long ratings streak; and looks into the recent up-cropping of other morning shows, including the MSNBC cult favorite Morning Joe. [Fun fact: I also was interested in the book because I met Brian Stelter before — years ago — in a bar. He’s a friend of my dear friend, Claire].

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Much of Stelter’s book focuses on the fierce (and decades-long) rivalry between Today and GMA. This rivalry, by the way, in which the Today show sees itself as the “serious” show and GMA sees itself as the “fun” show, is actually kind of ridiculous, at least from an outsider’s perspective, given that these two shows both contain some news content and a hefty amount of fluff. Nonetheless, Stelter writes, “Loyalists to Today liked to describe GMA as smutty, crappy, and, most of all, tabloid.” In contrast, the Today show has traditionally seen itself as erudite and sophisticated — yet, this is the same show that employs the doddering Willard Scott, whose Smuckers-sponsored birthday greetings make me cringe with second-hand embarrassment. But really, both of these shows have a little bit of tabloid and a little bit of news thrown in to the mix. Stelter observes, “No one disputes that the morning shows are supposed to be entertaining as well as informative — look no further than the chimp on the Today show set in the 1950s for proof of that. The philosophical battle is over the mix — the exact proportions of light versus dark, of You Should Know This versus You’ll Enjoy This.” Finding this balance appears to be a constant struggle for both GMA and Today, but especially for Today, which seems to wrestle with delusions of, if not grandeur, sophistication.

Top of the Morning is a snappy, dishy read, full of inside information from people at the networks and plenty of gossip about the relationships between the stars at the center of the Today and GMA lineups. I found Stelter’s discussion of the vast differences in chemistry between the casts of Today and GMA to be particularly interesting. His observation that a network can effectively manufacture success by handpicking a cast with chemistry, energy, and enthusiasm — which is what GMA has accomplished over the last year or so — is fascinating. (Less interesting to me was the in-depth discussion of the ratings war between GMA and Today. My eyes tended to skim over the numbers, in search of more juicy gossip. But then, I’m not really a numbers lady).

I also really enjoyed Stelter’s brutal (but accurate) diagnosis of the problems that plagued Ann Curry as a Today show anchor. For example, Stelter observes, Curry had a tendency to come off as both disingenuous and awkward, and her “on-air comebacks to Lauer during her first months as cohost were just plain weird — the conversational Hacky Sack often fell thudding to the rug, or, figuratively speaking, wound up in the saucepan put out for Al Roker’s cooking segment.” Nailed it. For me, as a Today show viewer, this complete inability to make basic small-talk was one of the most grating things about Curry. I used to cringe — literally, cringe — sometimes watching her flub an interview or make weird comments to her co-hosts.

Poor Ann Curry.

Poor Ann Curry.

Despite Curry’s tremendous awkwardness, though, after reading Top of the Morning, I do feel sorry for her. She was roundly mistreated by NBC. Even if one is bad at one’s job, one deserves a humane and dignified dismissal, rather than the dragged-out public humiliation Curry was subjected to. Karmically speaking, it didn’t work out well for Today, either, so I guess what goes around comes around.

Top of the Morning is definitely a book geared toward morning TV viewers. If you don’t watch these shows, it probably won’t be interesting to you, unless you’re interested in the television industry in general. So, those of you who only get your news via carrier pigeon might want to skip it. But for those of us who enjoy a little trash with our morning coffee, there’s a lot of good stuff in this book — recommended.

Anniversary

This is my 100th post on this blog! And yesterday marked one year of marriage to my wonderful husband, Alastair. Milestones abound!

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Evidence of our wedding day is all over the internet — I wrote about it here, and it’s popped up here — but one of my favorite relics of our wedding day, May 12, 2012, is this very short video made by our great photographers, Leah and Mark:

Ugh, I love that video so much it hurts!

Our wedding was a fabulous day, and the best part of the whole thing was coming out of it with Al as my husband. He is SUCH a catch. I knew it before I married him, but after a year of having him as my official life partner, I now know it even more. Al has been the most relentlessly supportive person in my life since making my Big Decision to quit my lucrative law job and throw in my lot with the starving artists of the world by trying to become a writer. He is also hysterically funny, ridiculously sweet, smart as a whip, and, I must add, devilishly handsome.

This guy makes me laugh every single day.

This guy makes me laugh every single day.

Our first year of marriage was not necessarily a cake-walk in terms of life events: I got typhoid fever and quit my job in the same week (both of which were fairly traumatic), we moved from D.C. to South Africa, Al had to adjust to a very challenging work environment, I received my first rejection letters, and, you know, life happened. But marriage-wise? Piece of cake. All of the obstacles I’m faced with as I go through life seem infinitely more surmountable with Al as my permanent cheerleader, and I love that I’m also able to be there for him, cheering him on, as he faces his own challenges. I love having dinner together, watching bad TV together, having travel adventures (both successful and fail-tastic) together, and generally just muddling through life together as a team. Marrying him was one of the best life choices I’ve ever made.

No, seriously. He makes me laugh EVERY DAY.

No, seriously. He makes me laugh EVERY DAY.

Thank you, Al, for being you. And here’s to many more years of getting up to stuff together.

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Book review Tuesday: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is, in a word, delightful. Other adjectives that I’d use to describe it include charming, sweet, heartfelt, moving, emotionally satisfying, and adorable. I read it in less than a day and was enraptured the entire time, and I want everyone to go out and read this book, right now. Go!

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I was predisposed to like this novel because I read and loved Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, another sweet, moving, funny love story. And actually, I think Eleanor & Park is even better than Attachments; it packs a big emotional wallop with a great payoff. After reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which left me feeling down in the dumps and emotionally manipulated, Eleanor & Park is a breath of fresh air. It’s not all saccharine-sweet happiness — there are some serious emotional ups and downs — but the ending feels true and real and right, and I loved it.

The story is about two teenagers — the aforementioned Eleanor and Park — who live in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s. The narrative switches between Eleanor and Park throughout the book. These two kids each have struggles fitting in: Park, who’s half-Korean, is one of the only Asians in his entire school — perhaps the entire state — and Eleanor, the new girl in town, is chubby and awkward, with crazy red hair, and comes from a rough family situation, with an abusive stepfather, absent father, and weak mother. Eleanor and Park make an unlikely pair, but, surprising everyone (including themselves), they fall in love. They ride the bus to school together, and after a rocky start, become friends, and then something more. They bond over comic books, music, jokes, and their shared sense of isolation — real or imagined — at their high school and within their own families. The description of the torturous process by which Eleanor and Park fall in love is so sweet, so tender, so pure, that it almost made me cry several times. But the real tears started when Eleanor and Park face a seemingly insurmountable challenge to their relationship, and have to figure out a solution. The last ten percent of this book (I read it on my Kindle) nearly had me in tears the entire time, which was not ideal, since I was reading it while sitting on a stationary bike at the gym. Fighting off tears did provide a cardio challenge, though!

I want to share just a few of the many snippets in the book that I had to highlight as I was reading. These passages spoke to me even though I was never in love as a teenager: the story of Eleanor and Park transcends the fact that they are teens, in the 1980s, in Omaha. There’s some universal stuff in here. I mean, Rowell’s descriptions of what it feels like to be in love are just dead-on. Some of my favorite little bits follow:

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”

“He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute. It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.”

“They walked down every street of the market area, and then across the street, into a park. Eleanor didn’t even know all this existed. She hadn’t realized Omaha could be such a nice place to live. (In her head, this was Park’s doing, too. The world rebuilt itself into a better place around him.)”

“You think that holding someone hard will bring them closer. You think that you can hold them so hard that you’ll still feel them, embossed on you, when you pull away. Every time Eleanor pulled away from Park, she felt the gasping loss of him.”

Oh, God. I’m tearing up just transcribing these quotes! Apart from completely nailing the feeling of being in love, especially new love, Rowell does a great job describing some of the conflicts that arise in this particular high school relationship, particularly around the universal teenage desire to be well-liked (or, at least, not picked on) and the urge to be loyal to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Park doesn’t get picked on because, for one thing, he grew up in the area and is good looking (even though he’s not necessarily “cool”) but Eleanor, on the other hand, is a walking target for bullies. Thus, Park has to wrestle with his loyalty to Eleanor and his own desire to fly under the radar and avoid being bullied himself. (Hint: he makes the right choice in the end).

“God, she had adorable cheeks. Dimples on top of freckles, which shouldn’t even be allowed, and round as crabapples. It was kind of amazing that more people didn’t try to pinch her cheeks. His grandma was definitely going to pinch her when they met. But Park hadn’t thought that either, the first time he saw Eleanor on the bus. He remembered thinking that it was bad enough that she looked the way she did… Did she have to dress like that? And act like that? Did she have to try so hard to be different? He remembered feeling embarrassed for her. And now… Now, he felt the fight rising up in his throat whenever he thought of people making fun of her.”

The relationship that develops between Eleanor and Park is nuanced and delicate, but also deep and strong. It’s a joy to behold. So if you want an emotionally rewarding, well-written, and utterly sweet novel to take your mind off your troubles, please please please go pick up Eleanor & Park.

(And here’s another glowing review by the New York Times, in case you’re still not convinced).