succumbing to peer pressure

Saturday, December 08, 2007


I have received several thoughtful gifts this year, all of which, of course, I appreciate. But the one that made me smile the most was Scrubya soap - "...all proceeds from each bar go to organizations that are cleaning up after Dubya. So add water, lather liberally and repeat till November '08!"

Evolution of a birthday

Sudiptya, very lovingly, posted this today (yesterday) to which I feel the need to respond

At least in my own head, I feel like I have a reputation for being greedy and petulant on my birthday. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to fill my life with the sorts of friends who rise to such an occasion. But a little history lesson first. I, of course, blame this center-of-the-universe attitude on my upbringing. My parents (perhaps more accurately, my Mom) love to throw a party, so I remember that I had to pick my birthday idea/theme by November. There were lots of excellent, memorable parties - horseback riding, ice skating, my sweet sixteen at the local YMCA, etc. Initially, I was sort of bummed about celebrating my birthday away at college, since I was used to being spoiled by my family. But I rapidly came to realize that college birthdays were as good as/better than at-home birthdays. For one, birthdays in college (and, apparently, grad school) seem to last for a week or more. People call you, send e-mails, offer to take you out to breakfast, lunch, coffee, etc. for several days on either day of your actual birthday. In undergrad Mom set up a deal with the local coffee house (where I spent most of my time) so that my friends and I could spend a few hours gorging on coffee and pastries and they would send her the bill. Much as I genuinely appreciated that, I suspect that she enjoyed being able to throw me some sort of 'party' nearly as much.

This year Kathy decorated my office with balloons and streamers and signs, so my entire department kept popping their head in, laughing a bit, and wishing me a happy birthday. Tonight I invited my closest friends over, to (allegedly) sit still a bit and enjoy each others' company. There wasn't all that much stillness, but there was lots of laughing and teasing and enjoyment. There was also a fair amount of comparison of ages. Much as I joke about being old (parts of my body are already requiring physical therapy) I really don't feel 27*. There was talk tonight about dissertations and defenses and funding and jobs and all sorts of other real-world types of things. And I realize that out in the real world 27 is well on the way to being a full-fledged adult, but in my little grad school bubble I'm going to keep clinging to crappy tv and ridiculous sleeping patterns and hooded sweatshirts and inappropriate t-shirts and all the other trappings of childhood. I've got plenty of time to grow up.

*last week I was completely convinced that I was turning 28 today. It's not that I'm in a hurry to grow up, just that, apparently, grad school is making me dumber, or less able to do math, or something.

**I know, there's no ** to which this links. But I was just thinking how fucking lucky I am. I've been to Bonnaroo three times. I have the sorts of friends who decorate my office and take me out for brunch and stay up until 3am laughing with me. I have parents who are proud of me and call me and like to talk to me and I like talking to them. I have an advisor who believes in me and actually thinks I need to slow down a bit rather than working harder and faster. I have the sort of job where I can take the day off, sleep in, and go shopping. Just because I want to. Really, honestly, life is good.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A better alarm clock

Dude. I think I want this highly customizable gadget (a different alarm time, radio station, and snooze duration for every day of the week!) even more than this one that runs away (and was designed by nerds at MIT).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

People can take your breath away, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad

The Bad
Thieves stole $50,000 worth of toys and electronics from the Empty Stocking Fund, a local organization that provides gift packages to underprivileged children during the holiday season.

The Good
Local radio station Project 961 (the Chuck Palahniuk of radio stations) is hosting a 50 hour 'lock in' to raise the money back for ESF. At the moment, they're at $71,000! The stories from listeners are awesome and heartwarming - everything from little kids donating their allowance to a guy who worked out a $16,000 donation through his grandparents' charity organization!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Right to Health

Scott (over at Lawyers, Guns and Money) has up an excellent piece about the Constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment:

Given the recent death of Henry Hyde, allow me to point out again that the constitutionality of the Hyde Admendment is a much more difficult question than it might seem on first glance. It is true that Americans don't have to right to health care spending per se, but this doesn't end the dispute. As Justice Stevens noted in his dissent in Harris v. McRae -- which upheld the Hyde Amendment -- "When the sovereign provides a special benefit or a special protection for a class of persons, it must define the membership in the class by neutral criteria; it may not make special exceptions for reasons that are constitutionally insufficient." To take an obvious example, Americans also don't have the constitutional right to a state-funded education, but when the state provides one it cannot provide one to white people but not black people. And as the fact that the feds are willing to shell out for dick pumps at $450 a throw makes clear, abortions are not excluded from Medicaid funding for a legitimate neutral reason, such as the procedure being insufficiently important or too expensive. It can't be because it's too dangerous, because 1)an abortion performed by a trained professional is safer than carrying a pregnancy to term and 2)the Hyde Amendment makes the procurement of unsafe abortions more likely. The Hyde Amendment does not have a justification related to the criteria of the program; its sole purpose is to obstruct the exercise of a fundamental right.

(his post was prompted by this post linked from Feministing, which would definitely be funny if it weren't just so damn infuriating - "But $450 penis pumps for old guys is totally good use of our government’s money. Erections for all, abortions for none!")

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Big Book Entry

So before I get to all the other things I've been reading and buying and borrowing, let's catch up on that much-delayed Harry Potter post, shall we? Oh, and spoilers (should anyone still be avoiding them) ahead.

Harry Potter
I always knew that I would eventually jump on the HP bandwagon (I do, after all, love reading, and these were rumored to be tremendously good stories). I wasn't anti-Harry Potter so much as I was just neutral Harry Potter. I believed that other people loved and were touched and moved by these books. But having missed out on the initial excitement, I a) had other books at the top of my To Read list and b) feared that expectations had been set too high to really enjoy HP. After so much delaying, I figured I may as well just wait until all the books were out, so as to indulge in a lot of instant gratification. There was a moment, a few weeks before the seventh book came out, when I considered plowing through the first six as fast as I could, as I figured that would be the only way to maintain the possibility of surprise at the very end. In the end I delayed until a few months after the last book was available, yet somehow still managed to remain in the dark about the final conclusion (I did, however, know that Snape kills Dumbledore at the end of the sixth book before ever starting the series. Although it would have been nice to have this as a genuine surprise, it was also interesting to read all the books with this in the back of my mind).

What finally prompted me to pick them up was a friend organizing a movie marathon - I definitely wanted to read the books before seeing the movies, and as this friend will be graduating and moving away soon, and therefore I want to spend as much time with him as possible, I was finally motivated enough to start reading.

First, let me say that I'm really glad that I delayed for as long as I did. Because I knew enough people who spoke so highly of these stories, and I had heard how they each get better, I was interested enough to stick with them. Because otherwise, I'm sorry, but I think I would have stopped after the first two. There's nothing wrong with the first two, they're perfectly good children's stories. But precisely because they are children's stories, I just didn't care all that much. There wasn't yet enough there for me to be emotionally invested in the characters or their stories. That happened in the third book, which, although not my favorite, will probably always have a little place in my heart for being the one that made me keep thinking about Harry, Ron, and Hermione after I had put the book down.

My other problem with the first two books is totally unfair and arbitrary - Harry and his friends are just too young. I'm a sucker for the difficult-coming-of-age story and love a teen hero who has to step up and grow up too fast. So I don't know why 11 was too young and 13 wasn't; I have no good rhetorical argument for why the things I enjoyed in all the other books were precisely the things I didn't like/couldn't buy in the first two (Harry having to figure things out on his own, rely on his friends instead of grown-ups, being let down and/or mislead by grown-ups, etc.) but there you have it.

So book three I love for making me wonder what Harry, Ron, and Hermione were up to while I was walking to class and at the gym and anywhere else other than reading. Book four I respect for effectively changing the tone. As scary as three was with Sirius after Harry I was still in the children's book world of believing that everything would work out in the end. Kudos to Rowling for killing Cedric at the end of book four and really bringing home that things were only headed downhill from here. Book four was also the first time I cried, over one of my favorite scenes (a scene I'm still annoyed was edited from the movies, which I'll get to in a bit) - Molly Weasley is by far one of my favorite characters, and I just loved the moment at the end of four when she consoles Harry. I love that her character demanded a pause from the action, a moment to recognize not only physically all the horrors Harry had been through but emotionally how incredibly unfair his life had been and continued to be. Made space for him to be a kid, however briefly.

Book five is my favorite - I love that everything goes to shit, and Harry is whiny and petulant about things large and small. I love that Fred and George rise up, and use their class-clown-antics for good. I only wish that Umbridge had gotten the sort of righteous comeuppance that she so richly deserved. (I kept hoping it would happen in one of the last two books too - kept envisioning Voldemort threatening her life and Harry saving her and her finally being forced to admit just how wrong she had been. Sigh. Even as an adult I keep hoping for fairness in the world.)

Book six is ok, but it's where I slowed down, perhaps out of fatigue after Sirius's death and in anticipation of Dumbledore's. But finding out that Snape was the half-blood prince was quite satisfying (I was going to be supremely annoyed if any of the red herrings had turned out to be true).

And finally, I completely get why everyone I spoke to before embarking on my HP marathon described book seven as being really satisfying. I'll admit - I felt that to keep the story honest, at least one of Harry, Ron, or Hermione had to die. But I also didn't really want any of them to die. So I'm perfectly happy with the way Harry accepted death, but didn't die. Honestly, it could have read like a cop out, but somehow it didn't. I predicted most of the other deaths, except that I didn't think we'd lose both Tonks and Lupin - that was like a punch to the gut. But at least I did get the very best Molly scene ever - Molly, mother to all, finally taking on Bellatrix and being a total badass about it.

So, overall, thoroughly satisfied...but (you saw this coming, right?) I believe that just as there are Elvis people and Beatles people, there are Rowling people and there are Tolkien people. Sure, you may enjoy both, but you're always going to prefer one to the other. So one of the other reasons why I kept putting off reading HP is because inevitably whenever people recommended it to me they would go on and on about just how creative Rowling was. To which I would inevitably think, that may be true, but no one is ever going to create as rich and complete of an imaginary world as Tolkien (hi, multiple appendices of lineages and fully developed languages with pronunciation keys). So I'm a Tolkien person. Rowling is impressive, and certainly deserves all the fame and praise she has received, but I'm just never going to be convinced that she wrote a 'better' story than Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, I don't have to. A while ago I found a lovely essay online (which, of course, I can't find to link to now) that settled the debate in my own head. The two don't have to be in competition, as they wrote very different stories with very different audiences and goals in mind. HP, for all its grown-up themes and enjoyableness, is, after all, a children's story. And a modern-day children's story, written for 21st century kids. Who knows who Tolkien was writing for, but in his head, probably just his own literary, dorky, friends.

And lastly, the movies. Good lord, the movies. The movies that just get progressively worse the more they make. Now, typically, I am very sympathetic to the tough decisions that inevitably get made when translating page to screen. I get that characters and subplots and scenes all must be cut to fit the medium. But I swear, it's like the people making these movies haven't even read the books, or if they have, they don't understand things like character and plot development (I'm fairly sure Rowling is involved, at least at some level, in the screenwriting, so frankly, this really bothers me). The first movie would have been passable except, of course, that I was pissed that Hermione's key scene during the conclusion was cut (Ron is critical for his knowledge of chess, Hermione is critical because it's her logical abilities that solve Snape's puzzle). As far as I'm concerned, cutting out a scene in which a female lead displays logical skills is both offensive and irresponsible. There are few enough of those scenes aimed at kids as it is! We need all of them! Of course, everyone else has already mentioned that Snape's lack of screen time is going to get increasingly difficult to overcome when the storyline requires him to become a fully developed main character. Also, in the third movie it seemed that pretty CGI scenes were preferred to scenes that actually developed characters and plots, such as filling in more of the backstory of Sirius and his and Lupin's friendships with Harry's Dad and Harry's emotional development in general. I know they're movies aimed at kids, but that's no reason to pander.

Everything Else
Whew. Ok, so I finished the last Harry Potter book on the plane coming back from NYC two months ago. So, what have I been reading since them? Well, mostly catching up on magazines, to tell the truth, but there have been a few other things in there:

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett - this is one of the earlier discworld novels, and it amused me to use it as a transition out of the HP world of wizards. Although dressed up as a lovely feminist story, I'm afraid it mostly fell flat. It's full of the sort of heavy-handed ideas I would have loved and found subversive in high school but which I'm frankly unimpressed with now. Wow, I'm an elitist asshole. But so it goes. I really enjoy Pratchett and the discworld, but this one just felt clumsy.

The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen - historical fiction about an isolated northwestern town that chooses to further isolate itself by self-imposing quarantine during the 1918 flu epidemic. One of my profs loaned this one to me (actually he was reading it when he wrote his pandemic flu theme song), and it's great. As an added bonus there are some nice parallels between the current political climate and the one experienced then surrounding WWI.

Although I haven't quite finished The Last Town on Earth, I have rather uncharacteristically dipped into two other books (I pretty much always stick to one book at a time):

This is My Best, Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan - April surprised me with the one ages ago, and I've finally started flipping through it. Since it's organized as a series of essays by authors about their own favorite work I've found it tempting to pick up when I only have time for a few pages.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A citizen's guide to hope in a time of fear, Paul Rogat Loeb - this one has been on my wish list for a while, and I was finally unable to resist when I saw it at my favorite local bookstore back in WV. I read the introduction and the first selection and can already tell this has been bumped to the top of my To Read pile. It's organized into sections, each one aimed at a different stage of activism, a different stage of burnout. It is just what I need in my life.

I've also recently acquired Freakonomics (on loan from Dad) and picked up Fire (a collection of essays by Sebastian Junger) at the sale table here at school. Oh, and I'm working my way through the Buffy Season 8 comics (hey, I said I was a sucker for the teenage hero).