Monday, May 31, 2010

Lowered Expectations...

Back when MadTV was on the air, there was a sketch that appeared fairly regularly for a while, which poked fun at dating services. (Remember the days before Match.Com, eHarmony, Zoosk and Grindr?) The dating service was called "Lowered Expectations," and seemed to have every type of misfit as a potential date, from convicts to mail-order brides, and everyone in between. The general premise was that when you were that desperate, you needed to lower your expectations and settle for what you could get.

Now, I'm not in the dating situation described above, but I could use some lowered expectations where people's behavior is concerned. Believe me, I don't expect people to do extraordinary things. However, I do expect people—particularly family and close friends—to act as I try to, in a considerate and unselfish way. (When I tell some people this, they say "I'll bet you want world peace, too.")

I pride myself on trying to bend over backwards for people, to reach out to those who need encouragement, congratulations, advice or support. But all too often, people don't return the favor, and it's hard not to get frustrated or disappointed. I've always been told to behave as you'd like others to behave toward you, but no one ever mentioned you couldn't expect them to!

Trying to lower your expectations isn't the easiest thing to do. But I've found that when I expect people to behave as they normally do, not as I'd necessarily like them to, I don't spend as much time disappointed or frustrated, which means I'm more fun to be around. And when people behave the way I'd like them to, imagine the surprise!

But before you leave this post either impressed or skeptical, consider this: because I say I'm lowering my expectations, it doesn't mean it actually happens all the time. So if anyone has any good advice there, you know where to find me!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review: "Road Dogs" by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is one of those authors, like Stephen King, John Grisham, Joyce Carol Oates or Jeffery Deaver, whose ability to churn out novels on a regular basis is truly amazing. Sometimes I can barely muster the creativity for a blog post, and they're turning out novel after novel.

Leonard's latest brings together characters from three previous books: Jack Foley (George Clooney's character) from Out of Sight, Cundo Rey from La Brava and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. Foley and Rey meet in prison and become "road dogs," trusted jailhouse comrades watching each other's back. Out of friendship, Cundo pays his attorney to get Foley's sentence reduced from 30 years to 3 months, and, upon Foley's release, asks him to keep an eye on Dawn Navarro, the psychic who is Cundo's common-law wife. Dawn, of course, has other plans for Foley. From that moment on, the twists come so fast and furious, at times you can't quite tell who's doing what to whom and why...and then Cundo is released earlier than expected.

When this book was on, it was great; sadly, though, it isn't always firing on all cylinders. And while Foley and Dawn's characters are tremendously layered, I felt as if many of the supporting characters, including Cundo and Foley's FBI nemesis, Lou Adams, were a little more stereotypical. But Leonard's dialogue and the twists he throws in this novel are still worth your time.

The End of an Era...

Change is scary. Especially when you're entrenched in a situation. But you always hear that the best time to make a big change is when you're completely comfortable. And so, Friday was my last day at my job. Having been there nearly five years—and spending four of those in the same job—it was, as Peter Brady said, "time to change."

Tuesday I start a brand new job, my first one outside of the nonprofit field (not counting my time working retail and cooking), so it will hopefully prove to be a completely new experience for me. Of course, nothing is quite perfect, so the commute should prove to be slightly more challenging than my current going-against-traffic trip, but my hope is that I'll find this job less emotionally taxing, which will help me handle the traffic stress a little better.

The nearly five years I spent at IDSA weren't always perfect, but the opportunity to represent a field as exciting as industrial design (not to mention being able to dress casually every day) was pretty fantastic. I had the chance to meet people who designed some products that impact our lives—from my former boss, who designed the first BlackBerry that looked like a cell phone, to the person who led the team that designed the CD jewel case. And in 2007, I met the man who, 60 years ago, designed the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. How cool is that?

Of course, what I'll miss most is the relationships I developed. Many of us spend more time at the office than at home, so your colleagues become your surrogate family. And I was tremendously fortunate to build friendships with some fantastically funny, smart and giving people. We laughed, we threw tantrums sometimes (maybe that was just me), we worked hard, we ate (a lot) and we had so much fun throughout the years. While I look forward to getting to know my new colleagues, I'll be taking a lot of memories with me.

So...on to the next chapter of my life. But as I look forward, to those of you who made my nearly five years at IDSA so memorable, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Truth Doesn't Have to be True...

As the number of media outlets in the world has grown, so has the number of people who tout themselves as experts. And with the ever-expanding number of media outlets comes the pressure to attract new listeners, viewers or readers.

What to do? The favorite strategy of commentators, politicians and nonprofit "advocates" is to create their own special, sensational brand of truth. This isn't truth that actually contains any facts, but rather truth designed to provoke passionate reaction, particularly anger and/or outrage. From Rudy Giuliani's assertion that no terrorist attack occurred on US soil during George W. Bush's presidency (guess he forgot about 9/11) to Sarah Palin's recent accusation that President Obama won't discipline BP for their negligence in the recent oil spill because big oil was a powerful donor to his presidential campaign (Palin has actually received triple the money from big oil than Obama and the Democratic Party), these "truths" come fast and furious, and are rarely checked or challenged by the mainstream media. And this is why people still want to see President Obama's birth certificate...

But I digress. Earlier this week, Bryan Fischer of the right-wing American Family Association truly crossed the truth equator with assessments he made on his radio show:

"So Hitler himself was an active homosexual. And some people wonder, didn't the Germans, didn't the Nazis, persecute homosexuals? And it is true they did; they persecuted effeminate homosexuals. But Hitler recruited around him homosexuals to make up his Stormtroopers, they were his enforcers, they were his thugs. And Hitler discovered that he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough to carry out his orders, but that homosexual solders basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after. So he surrounded himself, virtually all of the Stormtroopers, the Brownshirts, were male homosexuals."

I am beyond the capacity to understand what people like Fischer have to gain with accusations like these, except to incite hate, prejudice and violence against gay people. And isn't one conservative argument against letting openly gay people serve in the military that they won't be effective soldiers? But Fischer clearly thinks that only gay people can be cutthroat, so which is it? Is the new brand of gay soldier 100 percent weaker than their historical predecessors?

Doesn't the media have any responsibility to challenge these so-called truths? Who can police the "experts"? If this is what passes for news and information these days, will out-and-out false accusations not be too far behind? It's scary to think that the further we move away from the days of McCarthyism, where a simple rumor could ruin a person's life, we never stray too far from obfuscation of the truth.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall

As hard as it may be to believe, Golden Richards is lonely. Golden has four wives and 28 children, but he's never been lonelier in his life. He is mired in a controversial construction job that, if discovered, could bring disgrace to him and his family; he knows his wives and children are looking to him more and more for guidance but he can't avoid them quickly enough; he is still mourning the loss of one of his daughters several years ago; and he has begun a tantalizing flirtation with Huila, a Guatemalan woman who doesn't know about his real life. He is so afraid of letting everyone down but wants nothing more than to run away and avoid the crushing responsibilities.

The Lonely Polygamist is a humorous, heartbreaking, frustrating and beautifully written novel that looks at the realities of polygamy through the eyes of Golden; Trish, his fourth wife; and Rusty, one of his sons, who doesn't quite fit in and wants to be unique, not just one of 28 children. Brady Udall has done a terrific job creating compelling characters and a story that provides deep perspectives into what has brought Golden to this lonely crossroads in his life. While sometimes Golden is a little too passive and you want to react to him the way his wives want to, at his core you see that this is a man desperate for love and approval who is fearful of making a wrong turn but unsure what else to do.

The literary world has billed this book as the next Great American Novel. I don't think it's quite at that level, but it is a really well-written book with a lot of heart, one that is definitely worth reading.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Down to the Wire...

Wednesday night is the finale of the ninth season of American Idol. While much has been written about this season's failings—Simon Cowell's obvious boredom, the group of relatively lackluster contestants and performances, the majority of themes being a retread from previous seasons, the judges' more-contradictory-than-usual feedback—the show still continues to draw very strong ratings.

Having watched the show since the middle of the first season, I'll admit I've been less than enthused this year. While Tuesday's final showdown between Crystal Bowersox and Lee Dewyze is one I'm looking forward to watching more than any final pairing in years, I'm growing more tired of the show. From the judges' increasingly annoying behavior and lack of respect for the contestants, Ryan Seacrest's trying to create "moments" where there are none, and the control preteen and tween girls seem to have on the show's results, I'm starting to think that Idol is moving past its prime.

While I'm rooting for Crystal Bowersox to win, I have a feeling that the judges' none-too-subtle "pimping" for Lee Dewyze, plus his clear appeal to the show's core female audience, will propel him toward the win. I think Lee is talented, and his win won't disappoint me, but I feel that once again the producers are trying to manipulate the show toward what they think is best rather than letting the audience decide. But that seemed to backfire in the last two seasons, with David Cook and Kris Allen surprisingly defeating favorites David Archuleta and Adam Lambert, so it will be interesting to see what happens Wednesday night.

So until then, "Mama Sox" rocks! (And if you don't believe me, check out this performance, or any of her others on YouTube.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reading, Writing and Radical Conservativism...

Yesterday the Texas State Board of Education adopted a statewide social studies and history curriculum that amends or waters down the teaching of the civil rights movement and religious freedoms, among other things, and calls for the addition of many conservative issues, such as the Moral Majority, the National Rifle Association and the Republican surge of the mid-1990s.

The new standards were adopted after two 9-5 votes along party lines, and they now will be taught to some 4.8 million students over the next decade. But even more disturbing is the fact that also will be used by textbook publishers who often develop materials for other states based on guidelines approved in Texas.

Any reference to "slave trade" in early American history will be replaced by the words "American Triangular Trade," a move that clearly minimizes slavery's impact on our nation. And the standards water down the rationale for the separation of church and state, arguing that the words were not in the Constitution. These standards also required students to evaluate efforts by global organizations such as the United Nations to undermine US sovereignty, using the always-popular conservative argument that those who disagree with the right are un-American.

Maybe I'm naive, but we're now letting the political beliefs of some determine the education of our children? Make no mistake, many Republican school board members are unapologetically proud of what they've accomplished. Said board member David Bradley:

"We took our licks, we got outvoted," he said referring to the debate from 10 years earlier. "Now it's 10-5 in the other direction ... we're an elected body, this is a political process. Outside that, go find yourself a benevolent dictator."

Benevolent dictator? Aren't we supposed to concentrate on teaching children?

News like this makes me scared for the future. Between constitutional bans on gay marriage and gay adoption in many states to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's recent decision not to mandate protection from discrimination in cases of sexual orientation, from the Arizona immigration laws to the growing power of the Tea Party movement, I really don't like the direction in which our country is moving. And while I recognize this is only my opinion, when we start mandating what our children learn in school based on political philosophy, we're headed down a slippery slope that fear won't end here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

...And No Religion Too...

President Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court has energized both her supporters and her detractors. And while the media has been abuzz with facts, figures, hints and allegations (a tip of the hat to Paul Simon), I stumbled across a bizarre and troubling article yesterday: Top court will have no Protestants with Kagan.

The article discusses that if Kagan is confirmed as expected, the Supreme Court will have three Jewish and six Roman Catholic judges, and it will be without a Protestant judge for the first time. While that is seen by some as a sign of religious maturity, because 50 years ago the thought of a court with three Jewish and six Catholic judges would have been impossible to fathom, I wonder: why, in this day and age, are the religious beliefs of a Supreme Court justice even an issue? And while I'd understand if this article was written for a religious magazine, why Reuters?

I guess there are times I slip into my Pollyanna mindset and believe that we should want the best candidates to serve our nation, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Isn't it better that the court is starting to look a little more like America than it did even 30 years ago? I guess the separation of church and state only applies when things go your way...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: "Husband and Wife" by Leah Stewart

Sarah and Nathan have a fairly idyllic life—they have two beautiful children, great friends and Nathan has a successful career as a novelist, with his newest book, Infidelity, about to be released. And then Nathan drops a bombshell on Sarah: he slept with another woman once during a writer's conference. Needless to say, this revelation throws Sarah for a loop, causing her to question everything—her marriage, whether she is satisfied with the path her life has taken, even whether she should have acted on a flirtation during graduate school when she and Nathan were already engaged.

While this book treads some fairly familiar territory, I found Leah Stewart's treatment of Sarah and Nathan's story to be very compelling. More than just a story of a troubled marriage, of how to handle betrayal, the story touched on just how far you should pursue your dreams and ambitions, and what sacrifices should be made for the sake of marriage and children. At times I was slightly frustrated by all that Sarah didn't say—to her husband, her friends and others—but I understand that this behavior is fairly true to what often happens in this situation.

Leah Stewart is a terrific writer, and it is her skill that helps this book transcend the possible soap opera-like pitfalls it could have encountered. I'd also highly recommend her book The Myth of You and Me, a fantastic story of friendship and betrayal.

Happy Mother's Day!!

Here's wishing a very Happy Mother's Day to my mother, my grandmother, my sister and all of my friends and family who are mothers, or those who act like mothers to someone special. Each of you makes the world a better place with your love and kindness.

And to my beloved Grandma Gloria, I miss you as always, and wish you a happy day as well.

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater?

Yesterday, three-term Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) had his dreams of a fourth term derailed when he was eliminated during the second round of voting at Utah's GOP convention. Bennett, who supported the bailout of Wall Street as well as co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill calling for health insurance, was the target of tea party activists who felt Bennett wasn't "conservative enough." Plus, when Bennett was elected in 1992, he vowed only to serve two terms, which obviously, he had exceeded.

While the GOP faithful and political strategists alike are salivating at the prospects of an enormous Democratic bloodbath during the midterm elections, not all GOP stalwarts are safe either—former Arizona Congressman JD Hayworth (the buffoonish radio commentator who said if gay marriage exists than why not man-horse marriage) is locked in a tight primary battle to defeat Senator John McCain. And Florida Governor Charlie Crist, once a darling of the Republican party mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate, has vowed to run for the Senate as an independent rather than face what would have been a lashing at the hands of tea party-supported Marco Rubio.

I understand the anger that many have about the direction in which this country is going. But it wasn't running smoothly only to suddenly derail since Barack Obama has been president. During George W. Bush's presidency, we were mired in war, a poor economy, scandals and social Puritanism, all under the false guise of patriotism. And very little actually happened. Instead of letting the country continue falling apart while Congress played its usual games of pass-the-buck, the Democratic majority actually made change happen. And the Republicans, more content to have issues to use as bludgeons when running for re-election, stood by and did nothing. Is the country better? No, not by a long shot, but would reversing course completely after a year help our progress? Doubtful.

While many are excited by the fervor incited by the tea party movement, what it incites in me is fear. I can't help but wonder if this same movement would have gained such momentum if someone other than the nation's first African-American president were in office. Passion is exciting; violence is not. Ideas are exciting; hatred and racial epithets are not. I don't believe those people who gathered in Boston Harbor in 1773 called their opponents the "n-word" or "faggot" or "baby killer." (Maybe those in the Continental Congress did, though.) And no, Sarah Palin, it's not the media increasing the violent nature of the dialogue, it's people like you, who smile and wink in one second and then fall back on wholly inaccurate demagoguery the next.

I was no fan of Senator Bennett, and I do think that term limits should be enacted in Congress. But Bennett proved he was willing to put the well-being of the people of our country ahead of scoring political points. I fear that his successor, as well as many others who may get swept in as part of the anti-incumbent movement, will see stonewalling as the key to progress. And to me, no progress + lack of basic human civility = #AMERICAFAIL.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Review: "Bad Things Happen" by Harry Dolan

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and there's nothing more frustrating than when I can figure out where the plot is going or who the murderer is before it's revealed. When a book keeps me guessing, I'm hooked. And that's why I loved Harry Dolan's debut novel, Bad Things Happen. I had my suspicions about where the plot would go. Sometimes I was right and sometimes I was wrong, but the book took so many twists and turns, I found myself surprised from time to time, and not because of random red herrings or improbable occurrences.

A man who calls himself David Loogan lives an anonymous life in Ann Arbor, MI. He meets Tom and Laura Kristoll, publishers of Grey Streets, a murder-mystery magazine, and after a time, becomes an editor. He builds a friendship with the Kristolls, and begins an affair with Laura. One night Tom asks for Loogan's help with a problem, and shortly thereafter, Tom winds up dead. And that's just the start of the mystery within a mystery within a mystery. Loogan tries to unravel the truth behind Tom's murder, and comes into contact with Detective Elisabeth Waishkey, who is investigating the crime.

I wish that some best-selling crime and mystery authors would read Dolan's book before writing another retread. Many of the characters have great depth to them and you don't know what to expect. That's what I loved about this book. I hope it's not too long before Dolan's next novel, and I hope that David and Elizabeth might return. Pick this one up if you're a fan of mystery/thrillers. You won't be disappointed.

Book Review: "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" by John Green and David Levithan

Times have changed...and so has the state of young adult fiction. I can say unequivocally that a book like the fantastic Will Grayson, Will Grayson didn't exist when I was younger, but then again, very few young adult books were even written for boys, let alone books with gay characters in them. (Heaven forbid!)

High school student Will Grayson is struggling to survive without making waves. Of course, given that his best friend is the very large—and very out—"Tiny" Cooper, avoiding making waves isn't too easy. He is attracted to his friend Jane, but is afraid to let her know or act on his feelings because it lessens the risk of getting hurt. But as the high school gears up for the performance of Tiny's autobiographical musical, Tiny Dancer (possibly the gayest musical ever), Will feels everything unraveling. And then one night, in the strangest of places, he meets another high school student, also named Will Grayson, who has come to meet a guy he has been chatting with over the internet. But the "other" Will Grayson's life is far more complicated.

I absolutely loved this book. Narrated in alternating chapters by each Will Grayson, the story is funny, heartbreaking, hopeful and ultimately, amazingly memorable. It looks at relationships (romantic, platonic, even those with your parents), struggling to be happy, struggling with unhappiness, fear of rejection and breaking out of your shell, without ever being preachy or cloying. I read the entire book in one day and immediately fell in love with the characters. If I had any criticism, it's that I finished the book too quickly. I'd love to know what happened to the characters after the story ended.

I only wish I had people like this—and books like this—in my life when I was growing up. Things might have been a little easier...

With Friends Like Elisabeth...

It should come as no surprise that I'm quite liberal on social issues. And while I should be tolerant of those with different views from me, I must admit, when I hear political pundits and others wax poetic about the glories of conservativism and the small-mindedness of those on the right, I get angry.

One person who angers me completely is Elisabeth Hasselbeck. But why she's currently on my s--t list has nothing to do with what I believe are her misguided political views. It has to do with her recent attack on ESPN sideline reporter (and erstwhile Dancing with the Stars contestant) Erin Andrews. Like most women on DWTS, Andrews' costumes have consisted of less and less, well, costume, as the show has progressed. But instead of remembering that she got her start on television wearing a bandana as a bikini top for weeks on Survivor, Hasselbeck chose to lash out at Andrews' state of undress, in light of the fact that she was a victim of a stalker earlier this year.

Said Hasselbeck:

"As inexcusable as it was for that horrific guy to go in and try to peep on her in her hotel room ... I mean, in some way if I'm him, I'm like, 'Man! I just could've waited 12 weeks and seen this--without the prison time!'"

Now, maybe Hasselbeck, in her move to what she perceives as the moral center, has decided that scantily clad women on television are somehow inappropriate. But to say that somehow Andrews needs to remain buttoned-up because she was stalked falls into the worst blame-the-victim philosophy out there, as if Andrews is somehow responsible for her stalker's actions. Women who have been raped often are reluctant to report the crimes against them because they feel as if they were responsible, or are afraid others will point the finger at them. But once these women were victimized, there is no reason for them to remain under the cover of darkness for the rest of their lives.

Of course, after the uproar over her remarks, Hasselbeck apologized to Andrews privately and, in a show of crocodile tears, on The View as well. And while that is supposed to make everything better, I'm sure it won't be long before she's criticizing some other woman whose behavior doesn't mesh with her ideals. But hopefully she'll think twice before venturing into this territory again. Or maybe she'll remember her bikini days...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Book Review: "Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever" by Justin Taylor

I'm becoming more and more a fan of short story collections than ever before. It's funny—what I used to find most problematic about short stories, the fact that I would get invested in characters only to have to give them up within a few pages, I'm starting to enjoy more and more. A good short story collection really gives you insight into many memorable characters and situations, and while there are certain stories you wish to be longer, the collection is often like a buffet—sometimes there will be things you really like and other times you hope the stories will pass quickly.

Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever definitely upheld the buffet notion for me. Justin Taylor is a young writer with tremendous, tremendous promise. There are some absolutely fantastic stories in this collection, which features mostly twenty-somethings as main characters. As you might imagine, some of the stories touch on disillusionment, dysfunction and a general lack of motivation, but many of these stories are beautifully written. Some of my favorites include Tennessee, a story of family dysfunction and the need for belonging; The New Life, in which a teenager turns to the supernatural to try and keep his crush from slipping away; What Was Once All Yours, which combines religion and typical high school behavior with fantastic results; and In My Heart I Am Already Gone, in which a fairly rudderless guy is offered money from his uncle to kill their sick cat. I like that Taylor isn't afraid to draw his characters as complex, flawed individuals. Not all of Taylor's stories work; I am not a fan of really experimental fiction and a few of the stories follow that vein, but many stories are very brief, so it isn't too much of a challenge to muddle through.

If you enjoy short stories, I'd definitely recommend this collection. And I look forward to seeing what Justin Taylor accomplishes as his career progresses!

God Bless YouTube...

YouTube, and other sites like Hulu, have really changed the way many of us look at the world. It's refreshing to know that if I missed a great performance on American Idol, a comedian's memorable monologue or a celebrity meltdown, I can often find it online the next day. And when I'm feeling nostalgic for, let's say, theme songs from television shows of the 1970s and 1980s, I can find nearly all of them, right there. (Except for One in a Million starring Shirley Hemphill, Shirley of What's Happening fame. That one can't be found.)

But what I also enjoy about YouTube are the glimpses into everyday people's lives, as they sing along with or dance to their favorite songs (bless you, Shane Mercado) or pursue their quest to become internet celebrities.

Two recent videos I've enjoyed include the University of Oregon's all-male acapella group, On the Rocks, with their rendition of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance:

and even more amusing, a group of US Air Force Academy cadets performing a dance(?) routine to Ke$ha's song Tik Tok: