Wednesday, October 5, 2011


“People can change anything they want to, and that means everything in the world." -- Joe Strummer

Today's New York Times has an article about Britain's problem with squatters (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose). I'm resisting the urge to put scare quotes around the world problem, because I do have to sympathize with someone who goes away on vacation and comes back to find that someone has taken over his house, and the owner can't get it back for several months.

That said, when people need places to live, and houses have been abandoned, a certain solution seems pretty obvious.

And I must say, I love this story:

Eighteen months ago, [Keithy Robin, an artist and builder who volunteers at the Advisory Service for Squatters,] and a group of environmental campaigners took over a derelict one-acre site in Sipson, a village near Heathrow Airport, that had been zoned for agricultural use but was being used illegally as an auto-wrecking site.

The group hauled out 30 tons of car parts and contaminated soil and began growing vegetables that it shared with the community. The group restored crumbling greenhouses, generated electricity via newly installed solar panels, set up art classes and campaigned against the proposed third runway at Heathrow, which would have destroyed Sipson. Mr. Robin put up a tent and moved in.

The site’s owners, who have been repeatedly fined for various land-use violations, are suing to get the property back, but members of the surrounding community prefer the squatters. The police say crime in the area has declined by 50 percent since the group moved in.

“The environment there is now clean, and the neighbors, including a day nursery for youngsters, are most grateful,” Linda McCutcheon, chairwoman of the local residents’ group, wrote recently in a letter supporting the squatters’ case.

DIY justice -- poetic and otherwise.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

No animals were hurt in the making of these cupcakes

I am not a vegan. I like cheese.

I am not a baker. I am lazy.

Yet somehow, I spent the late afternoon shopping for vegan butter, picking out cute cupcake liners at Michaels, and most importantly, making cupcakes.

I picked up a copy of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World over the weekend at Barnes & Noble, because I heard good things about the book. (Borders may be 50-70% off, but are pretty limited to books about vampires and autobiographies of politicians I find annoying...and possibly autobiographies of annoying vampires; it's a big store).

I started basic with Golden Vanilla Cupcakes (page 33). I wanted to put Vegan Fluffy Buttercream Frosting (page 142) on them, but I couldn't find non-hydrogenated shortening at the two stores I went to.

So I did some internet-ing and found (and pinned!) Vanilla Buttercream Cake Frosting. I was a little worried it would be more like icing, rather than frosting, but it came out like "fricing": thin but not too thin.
"A surefire way to get people to look at your blog is by posting pictures of cupcakes. No one wants to hear about your terrible day at the office or what you think of China's space program. They want to see pictures of cupcakes. Trust us. -Vegan Cupcakes Take Over The World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero 

I'm not sure if that applies to pictures taken in bad lighting with a low-battery so-so camera, but here it goes.

I ran out of dinosaur sprinkles half way through.

The recipe was easy to follow and didn't take long. Most importantly, the cupcakes turned out delicious.

PS: 50TH POST! I'll celebrate with a cupcakes...maybe two.

Dinner with Carnivores

I've never heard a negative comment about my being a vegetarian, but David Sirota has, and has written an interesting article about it in Salon. It's a good primer on the health, ecological and ethical reasons for vegetarianism (Preview: It's about concern for other people as much as concern for animals.)

It raises a question I've never thought much about. The main reason I don't hear negative comments about being a vegetarian is that I almost never mention it to anyone. Why talk about what you eat?

But if you know that avoiding, or at least cutting back on, meat is good for the planet, and good for people who don't get enough to eat, shouldn't you talk about it?

And can you do that without making people defensive?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Is it possible to have a functioning economy without exploitation?

I don't mean that as a rhetorical question, I really can't think of a positive example, either now or in history.

Obviously in this country we've encouraged immigrants to come here, as a source of cheap labor, then exploit and abuse them once they're here. Calling them "illegal" makes it easy to exploit them, because people who are afraid of being deported won't complain about mistreatment. The last thing they want is to call attention to themselves.

But is it any different elsewhere?

China's economy is growing rapidly. It's one of the few places in the world right now with a strong economy. But it's still a "planned" economy, part of which means you need the government's permission to move from one part of the country to another. But just as many people (until recently) moved from poor countries to the United States, because this was where the jobs were, the Chinese poor are moving to wherever there are jobs in China, whether or not they have permission, which is difficult and expensive to get.

Factory owners like the system because "illegal" migrants are afraid to complain. Local governments like it, too, because it means they don't have to pay health care costs, or educate migrant children. Everyone likes it, except the people who are exploited, and they have no power.

I can think of lots of examples of countries that work like this. I would love to find an example of one that didn't, one that worked well for all its people.

Canada, maybe?

I'd have to do more research, but getting an answer starts with asking yourself a question.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Food Fights

I only recently started watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and I like it, which is kind of ironic, because it doesn't like me back. I like the show because it's light entertainment that doesn't zap every single brain cell I have. I learn something about a place and its people. The show has a running positive theme -- that you should enjoy life and not be afraid to try new things (although there are no guarantees that you won't be sorry afterwards). And it's funny. I like it a lot, even though vegetarians are frequently the targets of the humor. I mean, he's right: vegetarians are frequently annoying.

As are organic food purists.

And food snobs.

And fast food fanatics, for whose convenience Target, which would otherwise be a decent place to shop, smells like rancid grease.

And middle-aged men with earrings who get to travel around the world, trying new foods, bragging about it, and getting paid for it.

I'm a vegetarian, for the most part. I try to buy local and organic produce as much as possible, for my sake and the planet's. I cook from scratch most of the time, trying to avoid processed food. And I'm ready to change those practices at any time, for any good reason, including whim. I think whim is a sometimes a perfectly valid reason for doing something.

Some days, I don't want kale and tofu. I want pizza.

I care about food, but I'm flexible, which is probably why I'm finding Frank Bruni's column on celebrity chef wars kind of amusing. Mostly it's about Anthony Bourdain's over-the-top verbal assaults on other chefs, first Alice Waters -- for an unrealistic assumption that people who work all day and can barely afford McDonalds are going to make regular trips to the local farmer's market to buy organic produce (which Bruni admits is a legitimate criticism)(and I find amusing, considering how many episodes of "No Reservations" begin with trips to local markets) -- and now Paula Deen, for "telling an already obese nation it's O.K. to eat food that is killing us."

Bruni calls this "elitism," because, as Paula Deen responded, "Not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib."

As if cooking with massive quantities of butter and cream were cheap. Not to mention the health care costs you incur when you fry your apple pie. (No, I am not kidding.)

And Bruni missed the better slam on Paula Deen: "She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations."

Got that right:

Last September, she signed a lucrative endorsement deal to be a spokeswomen for America's biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc. "When I was looking for a company to partner with, " she recently gushed, "I wanted to make sure it was someone who shares my family values and traditions."

That's a mighty sweet sentiment. But, unfortunately, Smithfield is not at all sweet. It is notorious as a massive factory farm polluter of its neighbors' air and water, as a monopolist that squeezes out small family farmers, and as an anti-union abuser of working families. Family values? Try these: In recent years, Smithfield has been cited by federal regulators, courts, and other independent monitors for spying, coercing, beating, assaulting, illegally arresting, intimidating, harassing, illegally firing, and racially insulting its employees.

I'm guessing not too many of those people can afford prime rib, butter and cream, or organic produce. And that's the important issue. If you care about food, you ought to care about how it's produced. You lose the right to pose as protector of the poor when you're helping to keep people poor.

As far as I'm concerned, there are only a few hard and fast moral rules, but I'm almost certain that none of them involve eating. That doesn't mean I don't think food has an ethical element to it. An entire industry makes a great deal of money producing food that hurts people and destroys the planet. That is a moral issue. But the issue isn't who eats "right" and who eats "wrong." It's trying to figure out how to make healthy food, farmed in sustainable ways, available to everyone at prices they can afford.

A cook who shills for a factory farm has opted out of the issue entirely. But I think Bourdain and Waters are aiming at similar goals -- encouraging people to try new things, and making it possible for them to do so.

She's more earnest. He's more entertaining.

I'm okay with both.

Update: In a related story, Mother Jones magazine recently interviewed Alice Waters and Nikki Henderson. Henderson is executive director of People's Grocery, a non-profit group in West Oakland, aimed at increasing poor people's access to healthy food. The two women are working together on a class at UC Berkeley titled "Edible Education 101," which will focus on "food justice": "the right of everyone to eat well."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Burning Images

How much information does a photograph really give you? Is it the "truth," only a piece of the truth, or is it staged for a planned effect? When we look at pictures of news events, do we know more about what's happening than if we had just read about it, or do we, ironically, know less? Does it alter how we feel about what's happening? And can the fact that a camera is around actually change events?

In my last post on photography, I ended a list of pictures that made a difference in how people viewed the world with Nick Ut's 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing from her Vietnamese village. The US-allied South Vietnamese Air Force had just bombed there, first with explosives, then with napalm, a flammable liquid which causes severe burns because it adheres to human skin. Kim Phúc had ripped off all her clothes, trying to stop the burning.

Anyone old enough to have read newspapers in 1972 remembers the photo. It is impossible to get that child's agony out of your head. The facial expression of the boy running in front of Kim Phúc is almost a mask of horror. It is Edvard Munch's The Scream brought to life. And as heartbreaking as the picture was, the worst part was realizing that our allies were responsible for what happened.

Which meant we were responsible for what happened.

Many people view the publication of that photo as a turning point in the war, the moment when Americans could no longer turn away from the suffering we were causing in Vietnam. On tape, President Nixon even opined that the photo was altered in some way to turn people against the war.

But did the picture really change the way Americans saw the war?

By 1972, the United States had been embroiled in Vietnam for more than twenty years. By 1963, there were 16,000 U.S. military advisors there. American combat troops had been in Vietnam since 1965, and the number of troops peaked at half a million. Like most wars, it began with public support, but by 1971 (the last time Gallup asked the question) support for the war was down to 28%.

It's unlikely, therefore, that the photo changed very many people's minds. But it intensified the objections to the war that most Americans already had. It turned intellectual objections to the war into emotional ones. And what we feel is often more important than what we know.

Nick Ut's iconic photo may not have changed the way Americans viewed Vietnam, but to a large extent, more than a decade's worth of photographs (along with television images) told Americans everything they knew about the place. In the sixties, a relatively small percentage of Americans could have told you where Vietnam was, how we got involved there, or even who, exactly, was fighting whom. What we knew about the war was mostly what we saw.

Vietnam was called the first television war, but it was also the most photographed war. Photojournalists had never before had the kind of access to battlefields they had in Vietnam, and they haven't had it since. I think most people who are old enough to remember Vietnam believe they know more about that war than any other war in their lifetimes. But most of what we "know" comes from photographs.

One of the first news photos I remember seeing was Malcolm Browne's portrait of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in Saigon, in 1963, to protest the US-supported Vietnamese government's persecution of Buddhists. What does the photo tell the observer about Vietnam? Not much, really. But I remember being haunted by that picture as a child, as I suspect many older Americans were. You wonder what someone must have endured to believe that it was necessary to subject himself to such a horrible death in order to call attention to the injustice. After you look at the photograph, you don't know any more about the political or religious situation in Vietnam than you did before you saw the photo, but it leaves you with a vague sense that this was a place where the government did horrible things to its own people, which is not something you want your own country to be involved in.

Over the years, more photos would add to the unease.

After the photo of Kim Phúc, probably the most famous picture from the war in Vietnam is Eddie Adams' picture of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in 1968. What do you see when you look at the photo? First you see what looks like terror on the prisoner's face. It is actually the moment the bullet entered his head. Next, in contrast, you see the apparent calmness and rigidity -- or is it sheer brutality? -- of the general, and the horrified reaction of the helmeted soldier just past the general's shoulder. As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Eddie Adams in 2004, the picture "galvanized a growing antiwar sentiment in the United States" because it "reinforced a widespread belief that the South Vietnamese and American military were doing more harm than good in trying to win the war against an indigenous insurgency and the North Vietnamese army that sponsored it."

In simpler terms, the photo made Americans wonder why we were helping the South Vietnamese government -- represented by the pistol-wielding general -- kill its own people.

Ironically, the photographer didn't see it this way at all. He pointed out that the prisoner in the picture had recently murdered a friend of his executioner's, along with many other people. Adams considered the general a hero, and was shocked by Americans' reaction to his photo.

Who was right -- the photographer or the viewers?

I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. But it raises the issue of how much "truth" there is in any photo.

Another issue with Eddie Adams photograph is to what extent it was staged. In a book on the visual representation of war and violence, Regarding The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag argued that the execution would never have taken place at all if were not for the presence of cameras, that the photographer, and indeed the viewer, share in the "indecency" of that act. General Loan executed his Viet Cong captive as an act of terrorism -- a warning to other Viet Cong and their supporters, showing how they would be treated. In that bit of frightening theater, he had the complicity of the press.

In fact, the same argument could be made about the portrait of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk. Malcolm Browne, the photographer, said that his photo was "clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end," and that he still had some sense of guilt about his role in the suicide:
I've been asked a couple times whether I could have prevented the suicide. I could not. There was a phalanx of perhaps two hundred monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move. A couple of them chucked themselves under the wheels of a fire truck that arrived. But in the years since, I've had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man who probably would not have done what he did — nor would the monks in general have done what they did — if they had not been assured of the presence of a newsman who could convey the images and experience to the outer world. Because that was the whole point — to produce theater of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone.
It's a difficult issue. Photojournalists often take photos of horrible suffering. Is their obligation simply to record the story, and let the world decide what to do about it, or do they have some obligation to try to stop the suffering? And, in many cases, do they bear some responsibility for the suffering? Are they pawns in the creation of torture and death?

I should note that the balance between telling the story and stopping the pain was quite different in the case of Nick Ut and Kim Phúc. Immediately after taking the photo, Nick Ut got Kim Phúc and several other children into his car, and drove them to a hospital. Because the doctors thought she had little chance of survival, they were ready to move on to other, less severely wounded patients, but Nick Ut insisted they try to save her, and leveraged the fact that he had a photo he knew would soon be on the front pages of newspapers around the world to emphasize her importance. In fact, he didn't leave the hospital to bring his photo to the Associated Press until Kim Phúc was on the operating table. There is almost no doubt she would have died without his intervention. She was in the hospital for more than a year, and Nick Ut visited her regularly. Astonishingly, she survived, and twenty years later emigrated to Canada, where she lives today, working as for UNESCO as a peace and human rights advocate.

In this case, the photographer saved one life. And while his photo probably didn't change Americans' ideas about the war, it changed feelings. It made the determination to get out stronger. Therefore, the photograph, by helping end the war, may have saved many more lives than Kim Phúc's.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"And who is my neighbor?"

In difficult economic times, immigrants often provide convenient scapegoats. Today's New York Times carries a European example of the phenomenon in an article about the rise of anti-Muslim politicians in the traditionally tolerant Netherlands. But blaming immigrants is also an American tradition. The Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s grew out of a fear that the large number of German and Irish Catholic immigrants were changing the nature of the country for the worse. During the Great Depression, at least tens of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were forced out of the United States. In the last five years, several states have passed mean-spirited anti-immigrant laws, but one of the the worst is in Alabama, which
  • makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work,
  • requires all businesses to determine the immigration status of their employees,
  • bars undocumented immigrants from attending public colleges or receiving public benefits,
  • forces all public schools to demand proof of their students' legal residency,
  • gives police the power to demand that people pulled over for traffic violations prove their immigration status, and allows them to arrest or detain anyone they believe is here illegally
  • makes contracts with undocumented people void,
  • and, makes it a crime to transport, harbor, or rent property to the undocumented.

According to many Alabama religious leaders, the last part denies them their First Amendment right to practice their religion, because, as Christians, they have a moral obligation to help the poor. Three bishops -- one Episcopal, one Methodist, one Roman Catholic -- are suing Alabama over the issue.

It's an interesting twist. Usually it is conservatives complaining about their religious rights being abridged, often based on the idea that their religion obligates them to discriminate against gays or women.

But while I agree with the bishops' attitude toward the Alabama immigration law, I don't like the idea of carving out a religious exception. Religious leaders -- in fact, all religious and ethical people -- have a moral obligation to speak out against what they see as an unjust law. I think they also have a duty to practice civil disobedience in refusing to obey the law.

But the law does not become one iota less unjust if everyone except religious leaders has to live with it. The issue is injustice, not religious scruples.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Words and Pictures

Since my recent post on newspapers and Kindles, I've been thinking more about how changes in technology affect what we know about what's going on in the world. In my lifetime there have been two major changes in how news was delivered -- television and the internet, and I think the common assumption is that both of them diminished the news and, in effect, made people dumber.

I'm not sure that's a valid assumption. In fact, there are lots of reasons why it shouldn't be true. Television is driven more by pictures than words, but there's nothing inherently shallow about photographs. Has anyone ever doubted that photojournalism enriched stories, and often even told stories that words couldn't?

Photography has helped people to understand and care about complex issues. Look, for example, at the photographs of Jacob Riis, a pioneering photojournalist and social reformer, best known for his book, How The Other Half Lives, published in 1890. Riis documented -- in words and pictures -- the working and living conditions of poor immigrants in New York City at the end of the 19th century. Riis wrote passionately about the squalid conditions immigrants endured, but he was also quite conservative, and thought that change should come not through government action, but through the philanthropy and good graces of the enlightened rich. He thought his role in speaking and writing about, and photographing, the poor, was mainly to help more affluent people understand the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in the slums and act on their knowledge. He also shared the prejudices of his times, often writing stereotypically and offensively about the different ethnic groups he photographed. But his photographs tell the more important story.

Three unknown, unnamed boys sleep in the gutter outside an apartment building sometime in the late 1880's. Those words don't prepare you for seeing the children, who, in the stark black and white of Riis's photo, almost seem to blend into the rough and broken brick wall behind them, visually symbolizing the way they were camouflaged from affluent America. The boy in the center clutches the boy on the left, but there's no way of telling whether it's for warmth, or some shreds of reassurance. Their little bodies are twisted. They are painful to look at.

Riis was one of the first photographers to use flash, which allowed filming places previously too dark to film, and he uses light and shadow brilliantly in this photo. The space the boys occupy is dark and dismal, which emphasizes the bleakness of their lives. Over their heads, there is a staircase leading into an apartment. It's certainly not an idyllic location. Garbage cans squat by the stairs. But it is a lighted space -- one that appears heavenly in contrast to the boys' condition.

In other Jacob Riis photos, you'll find a broader, but always dismal, view of New York tenements at the end of the nineteenth century, where roughly built wood shacks lean against older buildings, trying to squeeze more living space into an over-crowded city, where walls crumble (and sometimes literally tumble down), and people sleep huddled together on bare floors.

It doesn't matter so much what Jacob Riis thought should be done about the poverty and despair he photographed. His compassion and artistry superseded his ideas. The photographs are as moving today as they were more than a century ago. They defined, and to some extent still define, our mental image of poverty.

Early in the next century, Lewis Hine continued Riis's work, chronicling injustice. He is best known for his portraits of child laborers, who worked in coal mines, meatpacking houses, textile mills, and canneries. Hine's goal was different from Riis's. He wasn't trying to change the hearts of rich landlords and philanthropists, but move ordinary Americans to demand laws that would end the horror of child labor. Although he died in poverty in 1940, by the end of his life Hine had seen his goal achieved little by little, with a great deal of help from his work. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act made it illegal to sell items made by children across state lines. By 1938, minimum ages for work were finally established.

Here are some of the Lewis Hine photographs that changed history, all taken between 1908 and 1912.

A six-year-old cotton picker in Oklahoma:

A newsboy, asleep over his papers in New Jersey:

An eleven-year-old mill worker in North Carolina:

Child mine workers in Pennsylvania:

Girls at a knitting factory in Tennessee:

Riis and Hine were at least as influential as the writers of their era who advocated for reform.

Other photographers followed their lead:

Dorothea Lange, giving a face to the devastation of the Dust Bowl:

Charles Moore, whose photographs shook the conscience of a country during the civil rights struggle:

Nick Ut, who showed America what it was doing in Vietnam:

Obviously there's no reason why a medium built primarily around pictures has to be more shallow than one based on words.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How To Read A Newspaper

I bought my Kindle a couple of years ago almost entirely because I found myself reading less and less due to eye strain. (That's the diplomatic way of phrasing it. The reality is that my eyes were becoming old and useless.) Eventually I found I couldn't see the tiny words in most newspapers and magazines at all, and even though I could use the computer to read by increasing the font size, the glare made it impossible for me to read anything very long.

Goodbye, Sunday New York Times Magazine. Farewell to the long and winding roads of New Yorker articles. It was nice while it lasted.

That sounds nonchalant, but for a lifelong bibliophile, it was torture. I felt as if my attention span was becoming as atrophied as my eyesight. So I bought a Kindle with fingers crossed that it would work. I really half expected to have to return it. By nature, I'm not an optimist, especially when it comes to technology. I definitely have a Luddite streak.

But it worked. For the first time in years I could read for hours at a time.

I quickly realized that a Kindle is by far the best medium for reading a newspaper. The larger font soothes my ancient eyes. The lack of glare (not to mention advertising) improves my concentration. But there were other advantages I hadn't anticipated. I think the fact that my "newspaper" looks like a book, and has to be read article after article (I can skip over an article, but I can't just scan a page looking for something that grabs my attention) means that I read more of the paper most days. I give most articles a paragraph or two to see if they're worth continuing. More of them are worth continuing than I previously would have thought. And because I read more, I understand more.

I remember learning in high school Journalism that the standard layout of newspaper front pages was based on where reader's eyes naturally fell. The most important article was in the upper right hand corner, because that was the first place people looked. The less important articles were in the middle, but still above the fold (because if you were trying to sell the paper, no potential customer, looking at the paper on the newstand, could see anything below the fold). The least important were hidden in the lower right corner.

What you read in a dead tree paper was, in part, subtly determined by the layout, which told you what the editors thought was important. You'd scan it their way, although you'd grab what interested you.

But on a Kindle, beyond the first article (still the one the editors have deemed the most important story of the day), I can't tell what I'm expected to consider more or less important. It's weirdly liberating and restricting at the same time. I feel less as if someone were telling me what I'm supposed to think is important. At the same time, I'm less restricted by my own whims. When you read the "unimportant" stuff, the world becomes a more complicated and more interesting places. It's kind of like being in a strange city without a tour guide book. You never know what you'll stumble across.

And because my Kindle looks like a book, I approach everything I read in it as if it were a book, whether it's a novel, a biography, or a newspaper. I pick up my Kindle each morning, download the New York Times, and come back to what feels like a continuing story. Each article is a chapter in a story I was reading the day before. The newspaper reads like a novel. A revolution, followed by the trial of a dictator, and the machinations of various groups and people trying to grab the newly available power, become all bits of one story, not isolated incidents. I like that. The stories make more sense to me now.

I've been a news junkie since I was 14 or 15, but I feel as if the medium I use to acquire news nowadays allows me to read it in greater depth than I previously could.

There's a standard notion that technology cheapens everything. Movies destroy theater. Television destroys movies. Video kills music. But the news is, I think, enriched on a Kindle.

It makes me wonder how many of my other anti-technology prejudices are also wrong.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cheap Thrills

blackwhitescarfredbootsI love finding something awesome at a second-hand store and trying to figure out why someone would give it away. Did it shrink in the wash? Was it just a crappy gift? Was it taking up valuable shelf space? Any of these are valid reasons to donate the item to a company that can sell it with good intentions.

Most thrift stores run on donations, think Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Because their stock is free, or almost free (they also buy what major stores can't sell super cheap, and sell it in their stores), they can sell items at super-low prices. They tend to do a lot for their communities including providing jobs and giving to worthwhile charities.


Unless you live in a pathetically tiny town in the middle of nowhere, you can probably find a decent thrift store near by. The Thrift Shopper is a great site for finding thrift stores in any city in the U.S.

What isn't always listed on this site is "Resell Stores" and "Consignment Stores". Resell stores involve employees sorting through stores like Goodwill, buying the best things, and then reselling them in their store for a higher price. It's nice if you like vintage clothes, but hate sorting through a ton of junk. Though you probably end up paying more than something is really worth.

Consignment stores are slightly different. Say you have a dress you never wear anymore, that's in good condition. You can bring it into a consignment shop and they will sell it for you. They usually give you something like 10% of the profit earned or sometimes a bit more in store credit. What the stores sell are usually the best of the best. Very good brands, and high prices. Once, I did find a pair of Miu Miu shoes for about $150. They were in very good condition, and probably would have originally sold for $500ish. If you crave designer brands and don't mind the last-seasons rejected by rich fashionistas, consignment stores are for you. Consignment stores also tend to be a lot cleaner and nicer looking than Goodwill, a plus if you have reactions to dust.


It's a hit or miss when you give a consignment store clothes to sell. I've only tried this once. I brought in about ten items and the employee rejected them all, saying they had rips and stains. They did not. Later that day, Goodwill got ten very nice donations from a frustrated sixteen-year-old girl.

I've been buying a large percentage of my clothes and accessories from thrift stores lately because I find it easier to stand out with a pair of bright red lace up boots and black beaded vest then the standard teenage girl dress and flip flops.

The bag below was my best find ever. It's Salvatoré Ferragamo, and was $5. Retail, they aren't exactly the cheapest bags in the world (proof). However, it was in good condition, I carry it all the time, and a great color. I'm doubting it's fake, because it seems to be pretty well made. Lining has a few scuff marks, and ink stains but overall, good. 

If you really hate shopping, thrift stores aren't for you. It will take more searching, planning, thinking and also luck. I love shopping, and challenges. Thrift store shopping is definitely for me.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Insomnia can be interesting sometimes

At 12 PM I should be asleep. I am usually not. I have an overactive mind like my twelve-year-old dog has an overactive bladder. Therefore, I think a lot, and he pees a lot. I've heard writing your thoughts down at night can help relax you. However, my mind moves way too fast (from smartness???) for my hand to write down complete sentences. So last night, I solved the problem by making a "barely-legible-by-any-one-but me-which-is-good-because-my-thoughts-may-sound-really-stupid-the-next-morning" list.

So I present...
Things I Don't Understand and Don't Really Care to Learn More About 
(and an attempt to catch up in number of posts with Mom...)

1. Why the guy grabbing Debbie Harry's butt looks so sneaky on the  "Best of Blondie" album cover.

2. Why Elton John likes Tony Danza so much.

3. Why no one has lung cancer on Mad Men yet. (props to the editor of this video).

4. Why dog shows exist.

5. Why Facebook doesn't let you like "likes".

6. Taxidermy

7. Taxidermists. 

8. Why people are so concerned about the sounds falling trees make.

9. Where Ms. Frizzle buys her clothes.

10. Why I typed this post instead of something more intelligent.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Personal Geography

I've been thinking about Saul Steinberg's famous 1976 New Yorker cover showing a narrow, New York-centric view of the United States, which consists of Manhattan, with some other vaguely imagined places in the distance. The joke is that New Yorkers have a rather skewed sense of their own importance.

I think it's funny, even as a former New Yorker, but in reality, the same myopia exists for the part of the country that's missing from the middle of Steinberg's map: the "heartland," the "real America," the part that isn't, presumably, within easy driving distance of an ocean. The irony inherent in people in the center calling themselves the "real America," though, is that the majority of Americans live on the coasts.

Somehow or other, 53 percent of Americans aren't real.

If New Yorkers are myopic, Kansans are blind.

Stereotypes aside, we all have our own personal geographies. The places we've lived have sharp details; the places we've been are a little hazier. Places we've read about, seen on the news or in movies, exist somewhere in our brains, but barely.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York are real cities to me. They aren't just filled with landmarks, but with supermarkets, libraries, and people. Rome and Florence, where I've been three times over many years (and, maybe equally important, hundreds, if not thousands, of times through books and art classes), are like a collection of snapshots.

Cairo? Camels and pyramids pop into my head, along with men wearing fezzes. I'm almost positive there are neither camels nor pyramids in Cairo, and that almost no one wears a fez, but all that I've got to go on are clichés in my head from old movies and fuzzy memories of pictures in elementary school geography books. They've been updated a bit by more recent images in the news, but adding tanks to the the mental image of camels doesn't improve things much.

Not a fez in sight, either.

And then there are the places that are almost theoretical. I vaguely know that there is a place called The Maldives, but I haven't the vaguest idea where they are or what they look like. I'm not even sure if I should refer to the place in the singular or the plural? Is it The Maldives or are they The Maldives? Does anything happen there? Has anything ever happened there? Surely it must have a history, a people, a government, an ecosystem, some distinguishing characteristics -- but for me, beyond its name, it doesn't exist at all. I didn't know Grenada existed until Ronald Reagan invaded it in 1983. And now all I know about it is that Ronald Reagan invaded it in 1983.

All of this started running through my brain after I read Anthony Shadid's article in today's New York Times on the sudden resignation of most of Turkey's military command. The article does a good job of explaining the importance of the event in terms of both Turkey's current politics and its history. The Turkish military has pretty much run the country for most of its modern history, partly by casting itself as the guardians of secularism. That era appears to be over.

But it started me thinking about how little I know about Turkey, and how much more I would like to know. This history is interesting in itself, and the historical tension between religion and secularism, and military and civilian control, seems directly relevant to what's happening in Egypt right now, where the military, which, less then six months ago, seemed to be the defender of the revolution, may now be making its control permanent.

I think most of us "know" history the way we know geography -- events in our post-childhood lifetimes are relatively clear, events we've heard about from older people who lived through them a little blurrier, and other than that we have vaguely remembered bits and pieces from textbooks and news stories, mixed with a lot of ahistorical stuff from television and movies, that leaves huge gaps in our knowledge.

The older you get, the more "history" you've experienced. Unfortunately, the older you get the more time you've had to fill your head with fake movie history, as well. It's hard to separate the true from the faux.

I thought, what do I know about Turkey?

1. It shares a border with Greece, and one with Iraq.

2. The capital is Ankara. Not Istanbul. (Not Constantinople).

3. It was the center of the Ottoman Empire, which started sometime in the middle ages and ended sometime around the end of World War I. I know it was important, but I don't know why. I don't know how it came to be, or what brought it to an end. It's one of those things in history that I think a reasonably well-educated person ought to know, but I don't. I "know" it the way I know that there was a War of the Roses and a War of Jenkin's Ear -- by name, but with few, if any details attached.

4. In the early 20th century, the Turks committed genocide against Armenians. The Turks still don't admit this, but no one else doubts it. Hitler took it as proof that extermination of a people is something history doesn't long remember.

5. Ataturk was the first leader of "modern" Turkey, sometime after World War I. He was known as a "reformer," which I think simply means that he tried to get Turkey to be more "Western" and secular in outlook (and I vaguely remember that one of the "reforms" was encouraging Turks to wear Western hats, not fezzes; I think there was actually a "Hat Law." Apparently, he did not think fezzes were cool).

When I learned about Ataturk in high school, he seemed to be a hero, at least to the people who wrote my World History textbook, but looking back, I remember the Shah of Iran being described in much the same way (only without the fez antipathy). It's hard to judge how much that you learned in high school is true. An awful lot of what you learn in high school turns out to be nonsense.

6. Through much of my lifetime, Turkey seemed to have one military coup after another.

7. Through much much of my lifetime, Turkey has had a lousy human rights record, particularly the oppression -- or more accurately, imprisonment and torture -- of its Kurdish minority.

8. Several years ago, Turkey chose a prime minister -- Erdogan -- from a conservative, somewhat religious party. That seemed to freak some people out at the time -- what would happen to the secularist tradition Ataturk had established? -- but now Turkey is more commonly viewed as a model for the region.

It seems I know I know eight things about Turkey, which is not very much.

I'm not sure exactly what the point of this post is. I think it is not really about Turkey, or history, or geography. It's about learning. Sometimes, when you want to know more about something, the first step is figuring out what you know, and what you don't. And you need to give yourself a chance to see that there are things you think you know that are completely wrong.

If you get too sure of what you know, without examining it, you end up sounding like this:

One reason to study history is to learn from the past.

Another is to not sound like Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Normal's Overrated

Last weekend, we saw a decent but disappointing production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at PCPA. It was set in the 1920s, and the advertising for the play mentioned that this was, of course, the fascist era in Italy (Mussolini came to power in a coup d'état in 1922, quite a bit earlier than I think most Americans realize), and this historical background would play a role in the production:
DeLaurier and his team have chosen to set this production in 1920s Italy. With the romantic style of the “Cole Porter era” to draw on, as well as the European Jazz age in Italy that embodied the smooth cool debonair swash of polished youthful masculinity that had survived the devastation of WWI and contrasts starkly with the rise of Mussolini’s Fascist movement, the production team plans to capture the romantic quality of great music, art and lifestyle played out against the backdrop of changing world politics.
I'm not sure how you contrast fascism and "polished youthful masculinity" since fascism makes a fetish of youthful masculinity, but I still thought that mix -- Jazz Age and fascism, light and dark -- had some potential to be very interesting. Two Gentlemen of Verona is far from Shakespeare's best work. It's whipped cream on stale cake, with a little mold at the edges. The whipped cream: Proteus loves Julia, and Julia loves Proteus. They are separated, but get back together at the end. Valentine loves Sylvia, and Sylvia loves Valentine, but her father, the Duke of Milan, has betrothed her to another man, Thurio, who is rich, but thoroughly obnoxious. In the end, Thurio gives up and Sylvia gets to marry Valentine.

Essentially, it's a screwball comedy (and a b-movie version of one, at that), so setting it in the '20s or '30s suits it well. Light and frothy. Whipped cream.

But there's way too much sugar in that cream, and that's not even the worst bit, not the mold on the stale cake underneath, which is that two of the major characters are practically unplayable. Julia is so giddy and moon-eyed that she'd seem simple-minded if played by a preteen, but when played by an adult, the character seems completely untethered. At times, she's embarrassing to watch, like a less intelligent Michele Bachmann (and, honestly, a less intelligent Michele Bachmann is quite a feat.)

Proteus is worse. The majority of the play deals with the fact that he falls in love with his best friend Valentine's girlfriend, forgets all about Julia, and plots to get Valentine thrown out of town (or possibly killed), so he can steal Julia. And in the end, for no apparent reason, Valentine and Julia both forgive him, and all's well (so to speak).

So, one of the "gentlemen" is a jerk, and the woman he's going to marry is a twit.

Best of luck, guys. I guess.

You can't have a happy ending about two young people getting together if you can't make the audience care about those people, and I'm not sure it's possible to care about the union of a cad and an idiot. Maybe Hugh Laurie can evoke compassion (even twisted love) for a despicable human being, but he's one hell of an actor, and House also has the advantage of being surrounded by other, more sympathetic characters, whose concern for him, and acceptance of him as a brilliant and charismatic mess, the audience can identify with. Unfortunately, Valentine and Sylvia are no Wilson and Cuddy, and they can't redeem a turd of a character like Proteus.

Yes, I am saying that a good television show trumps third-rate Shakespeare. I'm a snob, but I'm not an idiot.

That's why PCPA's setting intrigued me. Take a piece of froth like Two Gentlemen of Verona, and set it in a fascist milieu? That could be mismatch on a grand scale, but I usually find art works that reach for something difficult and fail more interesting than works that avoid risks. Could the dark element distract from, or comment on, the flimsiness of the play, maybe twist it in such a way that you didn't notice the implausibility of the plot and the unlikeability of the characters? And how would they use the revised setting? The Duke and Thurio would surely be fascists. Would the outlaws be partigiani?

I hadn't read Two Gentlemen since college, and barely (and not fondly) remembered it at all, but I really wanted to see what they would do with the new staging.

The answer? Not a thing. If there was anything in the production that hinted that there was a world in Milan in the 1920s that existed outside of telefono bianco films, I missed it. That left me with a perfectly adequate, traditional, normal production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why I Am Not A Baker (crappy phone pictures included!)

One of my first "pins" on Pinterest (my newest favorite interent thingy) were Sugar Cookie Bowls.


See? Don't they look delicious and very pretty? Oh, wait, those aren't mine.


Yep. Those are mine. Let's get a better look...


A delicious crumbling mess. No really, they taste delicious, but they don't exactly have the best physical apparence.

We put chocolate ice cream in our cookie bowls messes. Good, but very sweet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Teenage Wasteland

Over the weekend, we watched Election, which I'd seen before, but Lucia hadn't. When it was over, she said she had a sudden desire to watch a lot of "teenage" movies, and I know how she felt. Watching a movie in a narrow category often makes me want to do a marathon of similar movies, to see how they compare. Childhood, teenage, high school, and college movies -- they all sort of overlap -- are especially interesting because the genre's been around for more than half a century and that gives you the opportunity to see how visions of childhood and adolescence change and stay the same over time.

I need a list of movies I'd like to see.

Not surprisingly, Google turns up lots of lists of the best school movies ever made. I started with Rotten Tomatoes' list of the Top 25:

1. The 400 Blows
2. Let The Right One In
3. Good Will Hunting
4. Entre le Murs
5. Dazed and Confused
6. If...
7. An Education
8. Heathers
9. Au Revoir Les Enfants
10. Election
11. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban
12. The Freshman
13. School of Rock
14. Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire
15. Carrie
16.Half Nelson
17. Animal House
18. To Sir With Love
19. The Breakfast Club
20. Rushmore
21. Hoosiers
22. Notes On A Scandal
23. Starter For 10
24. Dead Poet's Society
25. Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

I bold-faced the ones I've actually seen, and italicized the ones I've never even heard of. I realize "best of" lists are kind of weird, and often designed to provoke controversy, but this one seems very strange to me. I loved To Sir With Love when I was a teenager, but I saw it again recently and didn't think it held up well at all. On the other hand, how do you make a list of school movies without including the original school movie: Blackboard Jungle? To be fair, I haven't seen it in years, and don't know how well it holds up. But I don't understand a school movie list that includes To Sir With Love and not Blackboard Jungle. And does the other grandfather of all teenage movies -- Rebel Without A Cause -- count as a school movie? I don't remember much if any of it taking place in a school, so I won't argue that it should be on there, but it's definitely one of the more interesting movies about teenagers.

And maybe it's just a baby boomer thing, but where's American Graffiti?

Then there's the weirdest (to me) omission: No Ferris Bueller? Can anyone explain that? Anyone? Anyone?

I need a new list.

Entertainment Weekly did a list of 50, which throws in Rebel Without a Cause at number 4, American Graffiti at number 6, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off at number 10. This looks like a much more promising list, so here it is, taking out the already mentioned, the overlaps, and the ones that seemed like completely idiotic choices (inevitable in a long list). Once again, I bold-faced the ones I've seen:

2. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
7. Clueless
8. Boys N The Hood
11. Say Anything...
12. Mean Girls
13. High School
14. Donnie Darko
16. Lucas
17. Peggy Sue Got Married
18.Rock 'n' Roll High School
19. The Last Picture Show
21. Grease
23. Cooley High
26. Pretty In Pink
28. Back To The Future
29. Gregory's Girl
31. The Karate Kid
33. Hoop Dreams
35. Brick
37. Friday Night Lights
38. Bye Bye Birdie
39. The Virgin Suicides
40 Risky Business
42. Fame
43. Stand and Deliver
45. My Bodyguard
46. Flirting
49. Sixteen Candles
50. Splender In The Grass

It was especially interesting to see Frederick Wiseman's 1968 documentary High School on there. That would be really fascinating to see again, but the hard part is finding a copy.

So the list is interesting, but overstuffed, and it still includes To Sir With Love but not Blackboard Jungle.

I really need a list that includes Blackboard Jungle.

Thank you, Newsweek. Although, honestly, you lose points for including High School Musical.

Next step: Make a list of teenage/school movies I'd like to watch or re-watch.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Childhood Memories

I love when you come across something completely random on the internet. But unlike the Human Calendar, The 50 Things That Remind Us of Childhood, got my brain motors working. This list was clearly not aimed at my generation, considering I didn't know more than half of the stuff on any of the three lists. (Seriously, what the heck is this thing.)

I was trying to come up with a list of things that all generations could reminisce about, but then I realized that would be really hard, considering much of the world's history hasn't been discovered yet. This is my short list, that I hope will cover multiple generations.


Yo-yos actually trace back to 500 B.C. where they were made of wood, metal or terra cotta. In 1866, James L. Haven and Charles Hettrick of Cincinnati, Ohio, recieved a U.S. patent for a toy called the "bandelore" In 1928, Pedro Flores, a Filipino American opened the Yo-Yo manufacturing company in Santa Barbara, California. A year later, Donald Duncan purchased the Flores Yo-Yo Company, and later opened the yo-yo factory in Luck, Wisconsin. I bought a green yo-yo at a drug-store about 5 years ago (still have it!) and it came with a DVD of how to do Yo-Yo-tricks. I'm thinking that the woman above didn't get a how to DVD.


Dr. Seuss had a lot to say, even though his books had very few words. How the Grinch Stole Christmas criticizes people's obsession with material items during the holiday season. Horton Hears a Who! argues that people should work together despite personal differences. What I remember most about Dr. Seuss is the illustrations. The colors and cutesy shapes appeal to children, and maybe even adults. I remember having a big book of many Dr. Seuss stories and I remember loving the illustrations in If I Ran The Circus.

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?"

Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was the most innocent show ever. Could you really be offended by a guy in a cardigan with puppets? 

My Memories:

Dress-up and Barbies (sometimes together) = I had still have some of a plastic bin of clothes, mostly hand-me-downs but also some costumes. And Barbies...a lot of them...and a house...and a convertible...and many outfits ranging from veterinarian to gymnast to supermodel. I think Barbie's full name might be something like Mrs. Dr. Princess Barbie *unknown last name* M.D.
Legos and K'nex = Hand-me-downs from Angelo. I remember, he and I (mostly he) tried to build the roller coaster, but after much use of those sticks and connectors during his childhood, many pieces were gone. Legos were fun, but I was disappointed because we only owned one "Lady Lego".

Winnie the Pooh...on VHS = This is critical because in 70 decades or so, I want to be able to tell my grand-children fascinating stories about the "tough days" of not just being able to click to start your movie. I also remember (and found!) the series I had. I don't remember the specific ones, but I did have at least ten. They may have been Angelo's; I'm not sure.


Teddy Grahams, Fruit Roll-ups, Gold-Fish: Basically, when trading food at lunchtime, the three things you want. Nutrition is not a concern of an eight-year-old.

Nostalgia is fun!