Monday, May 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

This has been a lovely weekend. I ran on the treadmill first thing Saturday morning - interval 4.4/6.5 straight through for 30 minutes. Spent most of the day enjoying the sunshine in my apartment, lazing around while finishing up the latest Dr. Who episode and listening to an audiobook, and occasionally tackling a small chore as the spirit moved me. In the late afternoon, I grabbed my rollerblades and moved it outside, skating up to 45th Street and back, accompanied by the last few chapters of The Red Pyramid.

I'd thought of going further north, initially, since there were so few people out on the bike path. But that all changed at the Intrepid, where suddenly the way was clogged with pedestrians, arm in arm, strolling at paces that would drive snails and tortoises to frantic impatience. So I turned around and headed back. I almost bailed out at 14th Street, lured by the shops at Union Square... But I realized there was really nothing I truly needed - or at least, nothing that couldn't wait until tomorrow since this is a three-day weekend.

As evening fell, I walked among the memorials at the southern tip of Manhattan. The open sculpture of the Universal Soldier commemorates the Korean War. Another sculpture, of men clinging to a sinking vessel, commemorates the U.S. Merchant Marine. Both were dedicated in 1991.

Sunday, I went to church. It wasn't exactly crowded, but the pastor praised us all for being there rather than at the beach. Or perhaps, to be more precise, he appeared to be pleasantly surprised that there were so many of us there instead of at the beach. I'm not sure this was the right approach, psychologically speaking, to encourage faithful summer attendance. (Although at least he wasn't excoriating the absent.)

Afterwards, I spoke with a few folks from "the gang" - and although I didn't do anything with them afterward (the guys were talking of a Bro Day), I somehow felt a lot more connected than I have been for a while. On the way to Brooklyn, I stopped by Union Square and picked up a replacement pair of earrings for the beloved set I'd lost, one at a time, over the past two years. It's been a while since they offered this style, and I was very happy to find it again. I might need to have them altered with a more secure fastener, but in the mean time I decided to use the little plastic beads they use for display to keep them on my ears.

In Brooklyn, I felt really at home. Which I was. Technically this was supposed to be a race-watching event, although I have to admit I'd already forgotten long before I arrived what kind of race it was supposed to be. I thought vaguely that it might be some sort of horse racing event, like maybe the Kentucky Derby. In fact, it was a lovely indoor picnic with friends old and new, and a television quietly displaying the Indy 500 in the background. It was really good to see some folks I haven't seen in a while; I felt like it helped repair bridges I hadn't even known were broken.

I had just enough time to make it to see Kung Fu Panda 2 with a few other friends. The movie was fun, and I went for dessert with U-chan and her mom afterward. U's mom is becoming a real card shark - she is forgoing her usual activities in New York City (i.e., art classes) and spending all her spare time playing bridge! U's husband has finally gotten into the local union (hooray!), although of course there is still no smooth sailing as the parent organization is demanding 20 years' of dues, based on his one brief summer as an apprentice in a different union in another state. Not that he was ever a member of any union until now. And not that he obtained any advantage from this brief, long-distant apprenticeship as he went through all the usual struggles to get into his union here. In fact, I think you could even say (metaphorically) that he really paid his dues - I am convinced that he fully earned his place in this local union through hard work, no shortcuts. I hope they treat him well.

Today, I was supposed to go hiking in Beacon, NY. But my organizer friends were strangely disorganized, perhaps because there were two divergent forces. The hikers just wanted to go hiking, while the non-hikers had a grand plan that encompassed the local art museum and dinner. And there was lots more confusion about transportation and who was meeting whom where. I went to bed last night to the news that one hiker and two non-hikers had canceled, and awoke this morning to peals of thunder. A great excuse to stay home, which turns out to be exactly what I wanted to do. But in honor of the hike that was not to be, I did 5.5 miles on the elliptical machine. I'll enjoy a late lunch of chickpea masala with spinach and watercress. Ah, bliss!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer Reading

It was really liberating to go to the Jersey shore just for the evening last night. This is because when you live in Manhattan, car-free (as opposed to care-free), you know that going to a place where they don't have decent public transportation is going to reduce you to a state of helpless dependence. Your friends are perfectly happy to pick you up - but then you (a) interrupt whatever they are doing and/or (b) are at the mercy of their schedule.

It turns out there is an easy solution to this. You look up the numbers of all the local taxi companies (there are only 5 or so serving the entire county, barring the limo services). You bring them with you, and Presto! - instant mobility.

So I took the ferry to Atlantic Highlands yesterday after work, sitting outdoors in the gorgeous sunshine, which is good - and gets even better if you have the sense to sit in a location where you are protected from the wind.

En route, I listened to another chapter of a book by Rick Riordan (The Red Pyramid). The Red Pyramid's premise is that some modern kids discover that the Egyptian gods are real! And that they (the kids) have a strong connection to them (the gods)! Mayhem ensues!

This formula is somewhat familiar to me, since I previously read Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, in which a modern kid discovers that the Greek gods are real! And that he (the kid) has a strong connection to them! Mayhem ensues!

The books have some clever (and cute) touches. For example, in The Lightning Thief, we learn that Mount Olympus is accessed by taking the elevator up to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. In the Red Pyramid, we learn that the Egyptian gods generally steer clear of Manhattan because there are already other gods there.... That's a nice self-referential touch.

So far, I like The Red Pyramid better than The Lightning Thief. Maybe the Egyptian gods are cooler or more exotic to me than the Greek gods (undoubtedly true). Or maybe the warring narrators help - there's less self-conscious hipness somehow, and it might be because the narrators are sniping at each other. And maybe it's because I'm listening to professionals reading the book - rather than reading the words on paper and thus imagining voices to go with the sometimes snarky tone and comments.

Speaking of which, here's a snarky sentence that really caught my eye in The Lightning Thief:
"Even from far away, I could see people being chased by hellhounds, burned at the stake, forced to run naked through cactus patches or listen to opera music."
At first glance, it's mildly amusing to pretend that opera music is classified with the other tortures on the Fields of Punishment in the Greek underworld. But it's a totally gratuitous dig.

It's not credible, for one thing. If he's far away, how does he know that people are being forced to listen to opera music? (Unless he can hear it, in which case, he would presumably be wracked with suffering too.)

Moreover, the young adult demographic to which the novel is geared is not known for familiarity with opera. That is, they do not know enough about opera to form their own opinions about it. That's not to say they don't have "an opinion" (e.g. that opera is dull or for old fogies), but it is not their own opinion - it is a cliche or assumption they've picked up from others. That's not to say that they would necessarily enjoy opera if they actually went and listened to it. They might or might not. And they might find out that they like certain composers or certain genres or certain specific operatic works - and not others.

But this easy assumption that opera music is painfully boring or unpleasant, pitched like an easy softball lob for an easy laugh to a young audience that has not been meaningfully exposed to opera, seems a bit unfair. It's a cheap shot, a cheap laugh.

The phenomenon is not unique to The Lightning Thief, of course. C.S. Lewis captured it nicely in The Screwtape Letters:
"Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it."
You see this on Broadway, where merely saying the name of a politician from the "other" political party brings easy laughs - no one has to actually think up a clever remark or a punchline, the joke is assumed to have been made. (Obviously, all politicians from this party are corrupt and/or stupid, so you don't need to establish that or any other scenario.)

It's the same when people mindlessly repeat criticisms of a particular sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice who has been singled out for scorn. You don't have to like this judge. You don't have to agree with the judge's views. You don't even have to inform yourself of what the judge's views actually are (instead of assuming you already know the judge's views without actual inquiry or investigation). But if you are going to attack this judge personally -- if you're going to question the judge's intelligence (as so many people do), you'd better have a good basis for your conclusion. This judge made it to the highest court in the land, appointed by a U.S. President, with consent from the U.S. Senate. At that level, with that kind of scrutiny, mere patronage or preference does not explain the appointment. So when people assume based on only the insinuations and snide remarks they've seen or heard in the media that this judge is stupid, it makes my blood boil. If they've heard the judge lecture, or if they've read the judge's opinions, or if they've met the judge, then they may have some basis to assess the judge's intelligence. If they haven't, I'd really rather that they respect the fact that they don't know and have no real basis to know.

But I digress. I was in New Jersey for my friend's 40th birthday. It was wonderful. I hadn't seen her family in ages, and it was so good to catch up. Her grandmother has just turned 99, her daughter is almost 2. Both adorable.

My friend's husband planned the party and managed to take her totally by surprise (with the connivance of numerous friends and relatives). The tents and tables and food were all set up outdoors in their backyard. It had the feel of a community beer garden (appropriate since he does in fact brew his own beer), and there were plenty of small children running around. Good food, good company, good times.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Hunger Games (SPOILERS)

I got The Hunger Games audiobook from the library after about 5 people recommended it to me. I devoured it, and signed up for a Hunger Games fan podcast to re-enjoy the discovery. I then put in a request for the Catching Fire audiobook, but before that came in, I found the third book of the trilogy at the library Saturday. So of course I got that out and finished it in one day. It's an amazing story - a gripping dystopian future, but not necessarily far-fetched.

I liked the first book better than the third, and I don't think that opinion will change when I read the second book. There's something a little bit horrible about the way the author puts her characters through their paces into worse and worse dangers, piling loss upon loss. (I felt this way about Buffy the Vampire Slayer too - was it really necessary to destroy each character's chance for happiness over and over? But I recognize it is needed for serialization or something.)

But in this post, I'll focus solely on the love story aspects of the Hunger Games trilogy. What started me thinking about this was a review (probably in the NY Times if memory serves) which claimed that Peeta and Gale are too thinly drawn to be full-fledged love interests for Katniss, and that her choice of one of them at the end was arbitrary.

It's true that we see things only from Katniss' perspective, and she is not very aware of her own emotions, let alone those of those around her. She is emotionally stunted, which is understandable given her circumstances. She grew up in desperate circumstances, in the poorest section of the poorest of the 12 districts. [For those not familiar with the story, it takes place in the country of Panem (ironically, "bread"), in North America; there is an all-powerful, privileged Capitol near the Rockies, which controls 12 forcibly subjugated districts.]  Once Katniss' father died, she essentially lost her mother to a deep depression, and she nearly lost her sister as well. So she is a child of 16 who has been bearing adult responsibilities - the survival of her sole remaining family (her mother and sister) - for 5 years. She grew up subject to the Capitol's whims, including the gloating cruelty of the Hunger Games. With all this, she came away with a sense that she could not count on anyone other than herself. And a deep skepticism about basic human kindness and affection, a sense that all human interactions can be explained away in transactional or economic terms. Although she herself obviously had a deep capacity for love, she could not acknowledge this softness, this weakness, for any human being (or even any living creature) other than her sister. Moreover, she did not dare to hope for a better life - given her experiences and world view, she was not a girl with romantic longings or a romantic interpretation of the world or those around her.

So of course, Katniss cannot give us a deep understanding of her two suitors. The only way to deepen their portrayals would be to write some chapters (or a sequel) from their perspective, or at least an omniscient third-person narrator.

And yet, even based on the information we receive from imperceptive Katniss, it is clear from the beginning who was the better match. The one whose heart is as generous as Katniss' - the one as ready to die for her as she was ready to die for her sister. The one who has somehow come up with a deep capacity for warmth, kindness, and compassion (probably due to his father's influence). The one who came back to Katniss after everything, after full rejection, knowing that she would probably never choose him, might never be able to choose at all. It is telling that only one of the two suitors did this. He really could not bear to live without her, while the other suitor gave up and went on to build his life elsewhere. This fact was in the DNA of their relationship from the beginning. Gale never had that - he liked Katniss, maybe loved her in his way, but he always had his own agenda. He was always, on some level, looking out for number 1.

Broken, broken children who nonetheless break the power of the evil Capitol and the evil Rebellion. And it's only then, after everything is broken and slowly, painfully heals and regrows, that this conversation can take place:
- You love me. Real or not real?
- Real.
And eventually - a decade later - to trust the future enough (now that the Hunger Games are history) to have kids of their own. Truly, an amazing story.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Long Beach Island Redux

Weekend at the shore with my FAPC peeps. I woke up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning, which was not part of the plan. (The plan was to relax, catch up on sleep, etc.) So after lying awake for a bit, I went outside and looked at the stars. That was very cool. Love a starry night. Also it was chilly. Luckily I'd propped the door open, so I went back inside and set my iPod on the playlist entitled "Sleep" and listened to it for 1.5 hours until it was over. Then I gave in, got up, and headed off to the beach.

I love the pines growing right at the edge of the sand:

And the open expanse of sand, sea, and sky:

I walked up the beach for a little over an hour, hoping to reach the north end of the island. I passed a few pairs of fishermen. But ultimately it was further than I imagined. I made it to the border of Barnegat Light, where a sign announced that I needed a beach badge. (Really? Even totally out of season??) But if I wanted to make it back in time for breakfast at Harvey Cedars, I needed to start heading back. I decided to return on the road since it would be faster.

There were some interesting place names. Ladybug Lane was decked out with images of ladybugs - very cute.

I also liked this one, maybe it was a case of buyer's remorse or a close encounter with a home improvement contractor:

There were also some cool mailbox decorations. I really liked the submarine one. And the shark. Most had a somewhat nautical or beachy theme. But not this one:

The cat was also rather unusual - and the paw prints were a nice touch:

I liked the Lee street signs, both east and west. They're not exactly long streets, since they cut across the narrow part of the island (perpendicular to Long Beach Blvd.), but they're still given the dignified appellation of "Avenue". Just like Fifth Ave or Park Ave, so they're in good company.

The town of Harvey Cedars hosts two tempting cafes (the Black-Eyed Susan looked particularly charming) and two ice cream parlors. It also turns out that Harvey Cedars hosts two Christian retreat centers -- one Catholic (Maris Stella Retreat and Conference Center) and one Protestant (Harvey Cedars Bible Conference). Or maybe I should say "at least two" - there could potentially be others I missed. I guess you can say Harvey Cedars doesn't do things by halves!

Back at the ranch, there were Biblical looking rays of sun coming down through the clouds:

We had time for a rousing volleyball game where we played as seriously as we could with our skill level (and without keeping score).

There was also time for quiet meditation:

And a campfire with smores:

After we ran out of chocolate, we sat around singing for a while. We started with somewhat annoying Sunday School songs (maybe it would have been less annoying and more nostalgic for me if these songs had actually been part of my childhood), but moved on to a variety of tunes. For the most part, I didn't know the TV theme songs (surprise, surprise), but the pop songs were good.

Sunday morning, with the seagulls guarding the bayside dock:

The gang, serious photo:

The gang, hamming it up (much more natural, IMHO):

A last look back and a fond farewell:

It was a good retreat. We laughed, we cried, we played volleyball and Catch-Phrase, we sang, danced, and worshiped, we moseyed on the beach and splashed around in the icy water. And we didn't even get sandblasted in the process.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Goodbye, Letterman

For years, every time I walked by this sculpture, I thought of the "Adventures of Letterman" cartoon from The Electric Company:
Faster than a rolling "o"
Stronger than silent "e"
Able to leap capital "T" in a single bound!
It's a word, it’s a's Letterman!

My wonderful silent "e" always made me smile. Always.

And it never, ever, occurred to me to think this sculpture was anything other than an "e" ... until today, when I was admiring it and someone walked by saying "Yeah, we're at the red '9.'"

I looked around, and there was only one big red thing in the vicinity. I suddenly realized that she must be talking about my "e". I was horrified. How could someone not know this was the letter "e"... or ... hmmm ... uh oh... With a sinking feeling, I walked around the sculpture and saw that maybe it could be interpreted as a "9" if you were open to that interpretation:

And unfortunately, this interpretation is further supported by the name of the Brasserie right next door. I'd never asked myself why they gave it this name. But all of a sudden it became clear.

Alas, poor Letterman! I knew him, Horatio - a hero of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Patsy's Pizzeria

Nice dinner at Patsy's. Sharon introduced us to their olive pizza (Everyone, this is olive pizza. Olive pizza, this is everyone.). It was delicious!

Then Dawoun whipped out her camera without warning. But I figured, what's good for the goose . . .

A/k/a: Ha! The candid photographer gets candidly photographed!

The Visit

Downtown Playgrounds

We explored the downtown area a bit. There are playgrounds everywhere, if your eyes are open to them.

Wonderful sun-kissed days.


I don't think of myself as a person who can tell stories very well. But I ended up re-telling the beginning of The Hobbit to my little nieces. It's the part where Bilbo, who most emphatically does NOT crave any adventures, thank you very much, nonetheless invites Gandalf to tea and then is rewarded with 13 dwarves showing up to consume all the contents of his larder and hire him on as their burglar.

I wasn't sure if my nieces were familiar with the story, so I didn't use the actual character names (I would not have been able to remember all of them in any event!). I didn't remember the exact sequence of events, or the exact contents of Bilbo's pantry, so I just made up the details consistent with the basic thrust of the story... and consistent with treats that young children might enjoy. The girls loved it. Mind you, they will likely become a far more critical and discerning audience in the future. But what a thrill to find that I could put together a story that was sufficiently entertaining for them now!!!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Day at the Museum

I've been meaning to take pictures of the mosaics at the natural history museum subway stop for years. Finally, I had an excuse!

We only got to look at a few of them, but they are all so good.

Here's a snake:



Gotta love the ladybugs:

A visit to the aquarium:

Inside the museum, we went to the special exhibit on the human brain, and tried some of the interactive stuff. I liked the language lab, where we could listen to a native speaker of (for example) Igbo pronounce a word, see the sound pattern, and then record our own attempt to repeat the word. We could then compare the two sound patterns (visually) and also play back the recording for comparison with the original audio. Lee turned out to be really good at the image recognition test.

We also looked at the sea creatures exhibit (featuring a small but life-size blue whale, fitting since we had just learned in the dinosaur exhibit that whales are actually ungulates).

We passed through the gift shop on the way to see my favorite part of the museum

Yes, the masks from tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Just love them - especially the ones with hinges and inner designs

This is a really cool skirt as well:

Afterward, we stopped in to Central Park:

Monday, May 02, 2011

Carousel and Candyland

We thought we'd go to the carousel at Bryant Park and then enjoy a leisurely lunch on the grass before seeing a show. Unfortunately, the lawn was closed. Fortunately, the carousel was open. The first time, I rode with them (on a rabbit). Lee took the cat and Clara took a horse:

The next time, Lee snagged the frog, which is pretty cool as well:

I don't remember ever noticing the butterflies before:

We had some extra time, so we stopped in to look at Toys R Us, which featured a strong candy theme with Willy Wonka:

and an M&M car on the ferris wheel:

Then we got free samples at the Hershey's store, and bought two small pick-it-yourself bags of M&Ms at (where else) the M&M store, and enjoyed them across from Rockefeller Center:

The girls liked the show; Ruth did a great job of preparing them for the experience in advance by getting a copy of the Broadway cast recording album and printing out a plot synopsis. Once again, I found the Lion King really magical - for reasons old and new. I love the puppetry. I love that there are dancers playing all the vegetation. The song "They Live In You" still thrills me with its bittersweet beauty and truth.

In fact, the music of the Lion King was basically the soundtrack to our weekend. As we played the album at home, Lee was studying the song titles and really pinning down what was happening when. The girls typically sang along, of course, and if we were in a place where we couldn't actually play the recording, they certainly didn't mind singing a cappella. (And neither did we!)

On repeated hearing, I found that I loved the album more and more. Scar gets a lot of very "showbiz" tunes, most likely to help take the edge off his villainy (he is a pretty bad guy, after all). For the first time, I noticed the operatic qualities of "Stampede" -- in fact, it reminded me of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" overture. Amazing. Even some of the songs I'd found less enjoyable initially - or even somewhat annoying - were richer, deeper, and funnier than I'd originally thought.