Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Remove a Broken Cork

While I am still trying to figure out where to keep the wine in my 1949 handyman special kitchen at the new house, this certainly does not mean there won't be any purchased or consumed in the near future. And at some point, there will be a broken cork.  I know how to open my own wine--if I didn't, I'd have to get married again immediately--but this is a problem that has stymied me until now.

As a Canadian in the grips of winter, Beppe Crosariol of the Globe and Mail describes this problem as a "catastrophe."  I wouldn't go quite that far, but it's annoying as hell.  In this very short but extremely useful clip , Crosariol demonstrates how to get that jagged little sucker out of the bottle and prevent those awful shards of cork from ruining a good pour.  And the tool he suggests--a two pronged cork-puller--will be in my utensil drawer.  As soon as I figure out where it's going to be. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bacon and the Daily Beast

I eat bacon almost every day.  Okay, every day except today, because I'm moving and have run out.  It's expensive bacon, non-cured with pepper, but nevertheless it's bacon.  I cook it about halfway and then put it into my homemade croutons as they cool down, and always have it with whatever pasta sauce I make, and then in braised short ribs.  Basically if I need a little salt and fat and comfort flavor, it's the ticket.  The smell makes me feel cared for, and so far the two or so slices a day I average haven't sent my cholesterol into any bad places. 

So imagine my surprise when my fellow Fort Worth resident and favorite celebrity chef wrote a column on The Daily Beast saying that bacon has finally gone too far.  Lonesome Dove, his restaurant in the Stockyards district of our city, is by far my favorite place, although it's a special occasion spot.  Where you can wear your jeans and see the boss in the kitchen pretty regularly.  It's also got one of the most comfortable yet classy bars I've ever been in. 

Well, Tim.  I respect your opinion as a professional, but I couldn't cook dove, quail or kangaroo (don't roll your eyes, readers: his tacos will make you weep).  But I'm not going to give up my habit because it's not cowboy cool.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Tax on Soda?

Is soda the new tobacco?  Last week Mark Bittman wrote about how many are arguing it represents the same public health threat as tobacco, given the undeniable obesity epidemic in this country and elsewhere as other cultures adopt the Western diet. 

I have an uncle who is battling advanced esophageal cancer, and when he went to a clinic in Switzerland this past autumn, he asked his doctors if he could enjoy his drink of choice, Coke, again.  No, his doctors responded, it's poison.  What about diet stuff, then?  Even worse, said they. This has helped me cut back from three or four DCs a week to one at the most.  I don't hold an MD, but the brief rush I get is frequently overwhelmed by an upset stomach that doesn't happen with my morning coffee, so it's rather like the persistent early morning cough my parents said they noticed long before they finally gave up the smokes.

Michael Pollan has written that America's collective weight can be traced back to corn--he estimates that the average American consumes more than 90 percent of his or her calories fromn corn. Our farmers grow tremendous amounts and are subsidized fairly heavily by Farm Bill.  So to find a place to put it, most processed foods no longer contain sugar but high-fructose corn syrup.  It's denser in calories than sugar and part of foods that are marketed aggressively.  As Pollan says, most non-packaged food can't market itself.   An apple doesn't have bright shiny packaging or brilliant copy telling us how good it is for us.

Taxing cigarettes has been successful to a point, but smoking has levelled off since campaigns began more than two decades ago.  At a certain point, higher taxes on commodities people really want are no longer deterrents; at some point past that, they even generate a black market that is counter-productive.  Educating people about the dangers of smoking got large numbers of Americans to quit, except for those who love to smoke.  I have lots of friends who consider soda (and for women, especially Diet Coke, which is thought virtuous by most) their drug of choice, and have no real reason to question it.  As with tobacco, it's going to be difficult to fight a powerful industry, but it's possible if a case can be made.   I hope people do learn to cut back,, for everyone's health. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Panic and Procrastination

Have you ever watched Clean House or Hoarders? I always wonder how those people do six months down the road, and my assumption (backed up by by this post on a health blog) is that they back to navigating around piles of stuff they can't bear to part with.  I believe myself to be, as I've written before, a thrower rather than a keeper.  But this weekend I hit the wall.  My tiny but tidy house has turned out to hold an awful lot of crap, all of which I need to pack. 

As I frequently do during fits of panic, I decided to actively procrastinate and find a new blog to use as a time sink. (Note:  this is not one of the Habits of Highly Effective People.)  Leo Babuta, who also writes Zen Habits, has another, very spare blog called Mnmlist.  He says we shouldn't buy "unnecesary" things, should clean off countertops and keep floors clean of clutter, and, most important, get rid of half of our stuff.  Then get rid of another third again.  Books, too. 

This has only deepened my panicked state.  I've clearly been kidding myself and can't possibly pack everythng up by next Saturday when the movers arrive.  I haven't sold the appliances I didn't want to take, and I haven't even thought about the garden shed or the gigantic composter I don't really know if I want to take, and why do I have so many yearbooks from high school and college? Why is just now that I've realized I have three junk drawers in my kitchen?  How can there only be five empty boxes left?  And why, when I should be so happy, am I so anxious and worried about every little thing?  I think this is what Communicatrix calls "the black hole between okay and fantastic."   

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lent: Winning Ugly

I'm not Catholic, so I don't really feel pressure to give up anything for Lent.  In fact, I don't attend church regularly at all anymore. I am sorry to say I often spend Sunday mornings going for a long run and cleaning my house, because my work week/kid schedule is so packed, though I know for many that's no excuse. But for at least the past five years I've chosen something to give up, and my reason is not noble: it makes me feel like I'm tougher and more disciplined than others. 

I have an acquaintance who climbs mountains as a hobby.  Once I asked him why he does it, and his first answer was, "because not very many other people do."  That's the feeling that got me started running in a small, freezing town, and when people used to drive past me, shaking their heads as I skipped over snow drifts. I'd pick up my pace and think, yeah, you laugh, but it's not like you have the chops to do it.  When I made it through a 10K a few weeks back, I remembered that sweet, smug feeling of superiority.  Not an attractive sentiment, but because of regular exercise my self-righteous ass might not take as many sick days as others do, so maybe it's to the greater good.  

Anyway, back to Lent.  For my forty days in the metaphorical desert this year, I've decided on two things.  The last time I decided on two things, they were coffee and wine. The wine part wasn't too bad then (not on your life this year, given that I'm moving house in two weeks and can't go postal on my realtor, lender, movers, or my numerous friends who own pickups) but my children begged me to go back to my two morning cups of java after a number of mornings getting off to school which were, to cut myself some slack, a little shrill. Also not pretty.

So now I try to pick a thing I can live without, but without which I won't make others totally miserable.  Last year it was red meat, and I really missed those burgers at the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas.  But I was proud of myself for making it through, save for a meal my mom made me and had planned a week in advance.  In fact, in a moment of weakness, I walked into the deli at the church and then, cowed (pun intended) by the overall Christian pleasantness of the staff, ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. 

This year, in the name of home ownership and overall austerity, I've given up buying clothes and lunches out. Clothes, I've learned as I prepare to move, are a commodity in which I am well invested.  Lunches out are hard to do in a healthy way, as those Baptist burgers attest, though I must make a little extra each evening at dinner and not decide my lunch is boring when 11:30 rolls around.  Still, no Chipotle Saturdays or quick fixes with a cute something for $29.99 at Target, at least for a month and a bit.  If I make it through without a lapse, it may be very hard to live with how totally pleased I am with myself.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Walmart May Beat Whole Foods at its Own Game

Today a friend started an email volley around the "too fat to fly" issue.  Reactions were mixed, though all who responded agreed that one of the ways we can collectively get healthier is to cook real food for ourselves.  The group is health-conscious, and one comment about the obesity epidemic was "the misconception is that eating healthy is expensive." 

It looks like the champion of cheap knows we're all headed towards the buzzwords of local and organic. In "The Great Grocery Smackdown:  Will Walmart, not Whole Foods, save the small farm and make America healthy?" in the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic,  Corby Kummer, a skeptic, puts the Big Box's organic claims to the test.  And not everyone - including the blind tasters in an Austin restaurant known for using local ingredients - will be happy.

Walmart is not a non-profit.  But that they are chasing this market and imagine it going mainstream is a positive sign.  I don't care if they're doing it because using local farmers saves money on transport.  The point is they've bothered to look at whether there is a financial basis for supporting these small operations.  The only thing that drives real change is going where the money is.  Maybe we'll start living according to the old Italian saying of "pay the grocer, not the doctor."

People know they are supposed to be eating organic, but, as my friend stated, most don't believe they can afford it.  If they see it at Walmart, will they buy it?  The bigger question is whether this trend will go the way of "Fat Free."  Americans need to educate themselves about eating real food, and they need to understand that it takes less time to make a healthy, affordable meal than to wait in the drive-through line.  This won't happen overnight, and it will take a huge change.  Will the People of Walmart lead the way?   

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When Your Ex Gets Engaged

This Valentine's Day, my former spouse got engaged to his long-time girlfriend.   I'd said for a long time that I would really like it if he married her - they've been together for more than four years, my children love her and her family, and all is reciprocated.  Despite my early, very angry reaction to their relationship (we've been divorced for three years) I think she is a tremendously nice, intelligent and responsible person, and from what I've seen from afar, she's good for him. 

I found out via my daughter's Facebook post, saying she was baking with her "new stepmom."  Actually, I found out through a text from a friend who wondered what was going on.  It's not like I knew, although it shouldn't have surprised me.  I sort of wish he'd called me first, but to be fair it's none of my business and they've lived together for long enough that it's not a surprise to my children, which is what matters. 

My reaction surprised me.  As I am apt to do, I recalled a movie scene (when I have an emotional reaction, I intellectualize via scenes from books or film).  Remember in When Harry Met Sally, when Billy Crystal acts like a jerk when friends are having a playful argument about what to keep in their apartment once they get married?  He says that before they know it, they'll be fighting over what is in the boxes they've brought to their union, that eventually it will all degenerate from happy love into familiarity breeding contempt.  Soon we learn what's preciptated the outburst: his ex-wife is getting married again. 

I'd always attributed his words to continued love for his former wife, but suddenly I understood it in a way I didn't before.  Maybe Nora Ephron, the screenwriter, had been through it or was just aware of what friends had experienced, but I realized the feelings are a renewed sense of rejection.  Marrying again says, not only do I not want to be married to you, but I know I can be happy with another person.  Ouch.

Today I am fine, but it was curious.  It's rather competitive (which, not to dodge it, is one reason I am no longer married) but it bugs me that he reached this milestone before me.  It's not like a classmate getting into Harvard grad school, but a bit like your best friend's toddler walking before yours did. 

But really what bothers me is that it's an expression of hope.  When people argue against gay marriage, I say this:  if two people, against what the world throws at them, can summon up enough hope to believe they can happily grow old together, how can we begrudge them that?  By deciding to marry another person, we say that we believe in the possibility that we can walk through life together and make each other's time on earth better rather than worse.  I wish them all the best, though I envy them that more than I can say.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Why Worry?

Worrying is nothing more than a bad habit.  We say it's a mood or an emotion, but it's really not.  Like other habits, it serves a purpose in moderation.  If we have a short-term spate of worry over something we can change, like having a difficult but necessary conversation with a co-worker, it serves the purpose because taking action alleviates it.  But the long-term, obsessive kind really just a drug of choice.  It gives us something to do so we can avoid pain, boredom and fear.

Part of it is puritanical in nature--we really aren't allowed to be happy unless we suffer, right?  So worrying gives us the pretense of suffering, so don't feel so bad about being good.  (Bloody Calvinists.) But more importantly, when we worry about something, we can confuse it with doing something about it.  Except we're not doing a damn thing. We're using worry to avoid doing it, because the thing we're avoiding is too scary or difficult or just no fun. Right now I am worrying about packing rather than actually going through that extra closet where I've thrown junk, because that's going to be tedious and I'll find wedding albums and other reminders of failure. 

And then there is good, old-fashioned, co-dependent worry.  We obsess over finding just the right thing to make that other person give us what we need.  If I look pretty enough and keep a perfect house and make sure the kids are taken care of, he'll appreciate me.  If I make varsity and the Honor Roll, Mom will give up her four martinis a day and actually talk to me.  Women's magazines are expert at exploiting this: "Get a Perfect Butt."  "10 Moves to Drive Him Wild."  So we worry about cellulite or technique because we think those things determine our lovableness, instead of figuring out why we don't feel lovable in the first place.  That is hard and it's work no one else can do for us, no matter how much we pay them.  It's less painful just to keep dancing as fast as we can. 

When I get into a worry rut--this is usually between 3 and 4 am--I try to remind myself that if worry is a habit, I can break it.  But my 3 am self is often quite unreasonable, so often I have to get stern with her and tell her to shut up and go back to sleep, because there's nothing she can do about it right now.  And sometimes it actually works.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Big Hockey Tournament Starts Tonight

When Elizabeth Manley took to the ice in Calgary in 1988 to compete as a figure skater in the Winter Olympics, Canadians watched with pride.  She hadn't been given much of a shot at a medal, but by the time the competition reached the long program, it looked like she could get the bronze, agreeable to Canadians as emblematic of a good effort.  The real battle was between the beautiful Katerina Witt and Debi Thomas, the flashy Californian.

Before Thomas skated out for her long program, the camera and audio zoomed in to capture her coach's final words of encouragement.  "You're gonna win.  Remember, you're an American!  You're the best!"  A collective of groan came out across our living room.  Then we all looked at the floor.  Those Americans are so vulgar.  All they care about is winning.  But maybe if we were that way, we'd win more.

Like a wallflower living next door to the world's prom queen, Canadians roll their eyes at the national naked ambition of the US.  We wouldn't want to be like that anyway, we think, and it's true.  But we're still jealous of the accolades and the attention, even if the last thing we really want to do is call attention to ourselves.  We just want to be noticed for our good manners, overall cleanliness and our willingness to play nicely with others.

All kidding aside, this year's Olympics may mark a turning point in this regard.  An organization charged with making the home team win is called Own the Podium, which sounds downright competitive.  And Vancouver is the least typical of large Canadian cities.  I mean, how can a place that downright gorgeous not know it, even if it's been very well brought up?  It's used to feeling special, and now it's making the country look that way.

Debi Thomas, you may remember, flamed out spectacularly in her long program, and Elizabeth Manley had the skate of her life, coming within a fraction of Witt's score and taking home silver.  It was a sweet moment for her, a nice girl from Ottawa, and for her country.

I've lived in Texas for thirteen years and am proud to call it home.  I don't ever anticipate going back to Canada, although never is a long time.  The winter Olympics really is the only time I cannot cheer for the US team, at least not if there is a serious Canadian competitor, especially in the most of important of sports.  As Canadian musician and author Dave Bidini said in a quote to the New York Times this week, "God bless the lugers and the bobsledders, but at the end of the day, it's a hockey tournament."

There's an old, sad joke that goes, "Did you hear about the Canadian who won a gold medal?  He was so excited, he had it bronzed."  I really hope the next sixteen days put that joke to rest for good. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do You Know What it Takes to Be Happy?

Penelope Trunk says the pursuit of happiness is vacuous, and that she would rather live an interesting life--which she defines as being interested--than be happy.  And this is a good thing, because she doesn't sound terribly happy but is what Texans endearingly called "a mess."  In this part of the world, being all over the place and doing things that aren't logical means you are a character, which is a big compliment here.  As much as I like to think I am interesting, her life is too chaotic to use as a model.  But her ideas--such as that a college education is a waste of money--are truly, truly interesting.  So I watch her posts.

Then there is Gretchen Rubin, who worked on a blog/book project called The Happiness Project.  She has a few rules that are compelling, too, including, "Act the Way You Want to Feel."  The cynics among you are already rolling your eyes, but some of what she extols (for example, that happy people aren't stupid, they just look at life differently, and they also provide a contagious good vibe where they work and play) makes sense and has helped me remember that life is short and being a bitter cynic makes me no fun. 

Then there is an article in the British Sunday Times about happiness.  That someone is writing about happiness in London in mid-February is admirable indeed, and the interviews provide a good contrast.  The French monk (look at his picture yourself, but I dig him big-time, self-described as celibate, of course) says the way to happiness is from the individual and is based in meditative life.  The British Peer, a man after my own heart through my convictions, says it's important to be active and engaged and to give often. 

The article's quote of Edith Wharton, however, provides my last word: "If only we stopped trying to be happy, we'd have a pretty good time."  What do you think makes us happy?  Do you think it's a worthwhile pursuit?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Football Game: Three Hours of Your Life, Eleven Minutes of Play

This week's On the Media was a great window into professional sports, from the league-sponsored networks (as in "This Halftime Show sponsored by the NFL Network") bringing up conflicts of interest that boggle the mind of anyone who believes in a firewall between advertising and editorial, to the effect of video football on the real thing, to a fascinating look at NFL game broadcasts. 

The most interesting fact revealed was from a Wall Street Journal study determining that during the course of a typical NFL game, only 11 minutes is devoted to live play.  In fact, in the course of a broadcast--which usually lasts almost three hours, ostensibly covering an hour of actual play--an average of 56% more time is devoted to replays than to live field action. 

The genius is in the editing.  Bob Fishman is a game director for CBS Sports, and he says he wishes he only had to work 11 minutes for each game, but in fact his very long Sunday is what brings viewers what they see when they seem something other than what takes up most air time: former game greats offering their backslapping perspective on the game, the ads, replays aplenty, cheerleader T&A shots, the ads with talking babies and the hot racing chick for  (Go Danica, I say, for taking some of that endorsement bank away from the backslapping boys' club.)

The important thing, Fishman states, is the narrative, which he ultimately orchestrates through rapid-fire direction through the course of the game in choosing which cameras cover which plays. The reactions to a play from the players involved, the coaches and the fans are what humanize the game and makes it compelling. Fishman is like a Bobby Fischer of football, seeing "everything" on the field, according to a staffer. A terrific Atlantic profile on Fishman tells us that his first major production assignment was the Apollo 17 moon launch in 1972 asd concludes with this assessment of the game director: "...he would be the same place he is every week for millions of football fans all across America: behind the curtain, lodged deep inside our brains."  So in the end, it's less about the game than the story.  For a change, a news story finally leaves me less rather than more cynical.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How Lawyers Have Made Me A Better Writer

Lawyers are often beaten up for their writing. In caricature, they obfuscate in order to deceive, but that's an entirely unfair stereotype.  I've worked with many brilliant, ethical ones over the course of nearly a decade, and I know they've made me a better scribe.  Here's how:

Risk-aversion.  Lawyers like precedent, so as a marketer if one offers a new idea, often the (very frustrating) response is "who else is doing it?" Note: at the progressive firms, it's much, much better. This makes me choose my words carefully, and I've gotten better at asking myself whether my text is over the top.  I find copy agonizingly difficult to write, so thinking about this before I hit send is a useful guideline.

Language must be specific.  If you are selling your company or getting money to start one or divorcing, you want to be certain that the contract doesn't leave room for interpretation.  When I draft copy for brochures or any "client-facing" materials, they ask if a turn of phrase is really correct: "Can we really honestly say we do this?"  Whatever popular opinion, lawyers are held to tremendously high ethical standards and must only write what they mean.  A good rule for all of us.

They are specialists.  At a certain point, usually during law school or as a summer associate, lawyers must put all of their chips on one square and throw their lot into a narrow distinction.  In some cases, it's a calling, like criminal or family law, but, cable news personalities aside, those specialties don't generally pay a tremendous amount.  For those who go to Big Law, as it's known in the biz, they decide to look at tax or finance or spend their lives writing up leases for commercial landlords.  My intellect is more of a puddle than a glacial lake, so this is hard for me to understand.  So I write the best I can and then take it to people who live and breathe it.  Which means a lot of red ink.  And...

Edits make me better, even if they hurt.  I have never, ever sent something to a lawyer and had them write back "Wonderful, perfect writing."  They are used to dealing with young attorneys, with whom they are charged to educate.  This means, in associate parlance, that they bleed all over it.  That's the red ink.  Sometimes I don't agree, which leads to an, ahem, spirited discussion--one of my great pleasures of working with lawyers, as I love nothing more than making my case, even when I lose--but almost always I revise, read and realize that another pair of very experienced eyes make what I write better. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Impossible Cool

Of all the talents I envy, the ability to truly capture people in still photography is near the top.  There are a few photographers who are almost as famous as their subjects--Penn, Lebowitz, Weber--and their work rivets me.  But their books are really big, and they cost a lot of money. 

Then I found The Impossible Cool, a spare and gorgeous blog with black and white celebrity photographs from an age when we didn't know what Ashton Kutcher just ate for breakfast or what kind of pharmaceuticals a particular PGA star used before a short but ill-fated drive. (Full disclosure: I follow Mr. Kutcher on Twitter and have read more than is dignified about golf clubs and Ambien.)  

And yet these photographs are candid and it's wonderful to see Hunter S. Thompson in a canoe and Jackie Bouvier laughing and languid in an armchair, after a party, though we don't know, because there is no narrative.  And, I hate to say, no comments, refreshingly.  The blog host must be overwhelmed by email, given the charm and relative mystery of the photographs.  So far, this picture of  Gregory Peck (on the set of Twelve O'Clock High, according to the link that pops up when one clicks on the picture, which is an elegant mode of explanation) is my favorite.  They don't make 'em like that anymore. Whoever is responsible for this does amazing work.