Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Health and the Edwards Campaign

Up until now, the field of Democratic candidates has been looking like a two-way race. Gallup polls are showing Hilary and Obama as owning the field, with the group of other contenders so far back as to be almost invisible. This is a very disturbing picture, in my opinion, because I really have my doubts about either of these two being able to actually win. This election should be a slam dunk for Democrats, but without an electable candidate, we could still lose. This is pretty sad and shocking given the fact that the other party are the ones who gave us the Monkey's Butt that we have now. We desperately need someone who can actually pull this off.

Cancer may be an unlikely ally in that battle. John Edwards has not, until now, been considered much of a threat in the Democratic primary. After all, many argue, he's already lost twice (one primary and one vice-presidential run) and he lacks the name recognition of other candidates (doesn't the one argument negate the other?) No matter why, the truth is that Edwards does not have the numbers (according, again, to polls) to be a serious contender. However, the recent announcements about his wife's battle with cancer seem to have thrust him to the forefront once again.

While late stage cancer is not something to be talked about lightly, one cannot help but wonder what effect it might have on the presidential campaign. Some see the Edwards' determination to continue as heroic while others maintain that it is a mistake even to continue under the circumstances. No matter where we stand on this point, the race has already been altered by the mere fact of the media attention surrounding this situation. For her part, Elizabeth Edwards is determined to ensure that her husband continues with his presidential bid.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Snow and Petals

A little while ago I was walking out to the mail box after school. It was raining gently, and I was enjoying the sprinkling of pink petals coming off the cherry trees. Our whole neighborhood is dusted with pink right now. Suddenly I noticed that the cherry petals were actually mixed with snowflakes because the rain had turned to slushy snow. It was definitely a haiku moment. Snowflakes and cherry blossoms. There can be no doubt that it is spring in Washington.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dan Savage Rocks!

Everyone but everyone in Seattle has heard of the alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger. Politically liberal, culturally edgy, and completely uninhibited, the little paper has become a symbol of Seattle's vibrant alternative scene. The Rock/Pop band Presidents of the United States even did a song based on the "I saw U" section from the back of the paper. Many have a soft spot for this local tradition. What most people don't know is that much of the creative force behind The Stranger comes from none other than local celebrity, Dan Savage.

Dan Savage first came to the attention of most Seattle residents when he began writing the sex advice column "Savage Love." Totally unfazed by any strange question, Savage is usually encouraging of people with strange predictions (in one of his books, for example, he tells the story of the man with the cake smashing fetish) so long as they do not harm anyone else. However, he is also often brutally honest with those who engage in physically or psychologically dangerous behaviors. His message is usually "feel free to be who and what you are, but do not lie to others about it, and do not make excuses for your behavior." This is very refreshing stuff in the world of advice columns.

Since beginning with "Savage Love" (now nationally syndicated) Dan Savage has broken out into the literary world as well. Aside from his editorship of The Stranger, he has also written several books about his columns, his relationship with his long-time boyfriend, and their adoption and parenting of their son. His writing has incredible (even shocking) candor, wonderful dry humor, and a way of being incredibly sweet when you least expect it. I would highly recommend The Kid and The Commitment, and I am looking forward to reading Skipping Toward Gomorrah. These books are not for the faint of heart, but they are excellent reading if you can take the raunchier bits.

I was reminded of my fondness for Dan Savage when we saw him on stage recently as part of the "This American Life" show. I tried to include a section about his performance at the time, but it turns out that his is too big a topic to fit comfortably. One might say that he is fast becoming a major landmark on the Seattle cultural scene. Personally, I hope there is much more to come.

Friday, March 23, 2007

This American Life is on TV!

Of course I have not seen it yet because we don't have Showtime, but I'm hoping my friends will be kind enough to record them for me. Slate has a review of the new show, but, unfortunately, it is not as glowing as one would hope. I believe The New York Times also had a review piece. However, I am a loser and did not have the time to read it. Still, we did get to see several pieces when we went to the live show, and I felt like the stories translated beautifully to TV. I'm not sure why the reviewer from Slate can't see the brilliance of 5th graders with fake movie cameras.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Amazing Grace

Friends and family will tell you that I am a complete killjoy when it comes to the movies. I have never enjoyed horror, and in the last few years I've lost my taste for all but the most campy violence. I'm also not a huge fan of the really stupid releases (I know, I know, I sound like an Ohio farmwife), so going to the movies with me can be a bit of a challenge. Take the latest slate of currently showing at our local theater:

1. Zodiac (Ooo a movie about a serial killer. No thanks)
2. Wild Hogs (A Time Allen comedy about a biker gang. Ewww)
3. Ghost Rider (Nicholas Cage is a regular guy by day and a flaming skeleton at night.)
4. 300 (An ultra-violent and very poorly rated action flick. No thanks)
5. Norbit (Where can I even begin? This movie cost Eddie Murphy the Oscar. Think fat suits)

I could go on, but I'd rather spare you the entire list. In short, the regular theaters are full of violent, puerile pieces of you-know-what. The solution, you're thinking, is to go to the art houses, but that does not necessarily guarantee a good film. It can also be a challenge to get to an art house since they can't survive more than a few miles away from a university. That is why I was surprised and pleased to discover Amazing Grace at a nearby theater.

This movie is, first and foremost, not remotely stupid or puerile. It is the true story of William Wilberforce who campaigned for more than twenty years to abolish the British slave trade. The one complaint I read from a reviewer is one of the reasons I most like the movie. It does a very good job of being historically accurate. Wilberforce really was consumed by a desire to reform the various evils he saw in society, he really was good friends with England's youngest Prime Minister, Pitt, and he really did marry his wife after knowing her only a few days.

The sharp dialog during the parliamentary debate scenes is quite entertaining. The roles are well cast with actors you will recognize, but not often be able to place at first glance. Most importantly, it is satisfying to watch a true story in which someone did something right, made a serious change for the better, and still lived a long and happy life. There's also no a single potty joke in sight.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Big Dreams and Small

A few days ago we did an activity in Language Arts class (we do that a lot). A small part of the activity (a throw away piece really) required kids to say what they want to be when they grow up. I added it to the activity just because I thought we needed something more personal, but in the end it turned out to be one of their favorite parts (who doesn't like to talk about themselves in Middle School?) It was also very interesting for me to listen to their responses.

My low performing block said things like superstar athelete, game designer, model, superstar rocker, famous artist, music store owner, and superstar actress. You can tell that most of these kids either haven't really considered the question seriously, or they have a VERY optimistic view of their own potential.

My advanced block, on the other hand said things like mechanical engineer, neuro surgeon, biomedical engineer, corporate attorney concert pianist, and, I am not making this up, urban planner. I'm sure there's a lot of wanting to be just like Mom/Dad, but it's still a pretty serious set of plans. This whole conversation got me thinking about several sort of open-ended questions:

1) Does anyone actually end up in the job they imagined for themselves as a kid?

2) How much should you push the BIG dreamers to think on a more realistic scale?

(If you put all your effort into being a fabulous sports star, and you prepare for no other life, what happens when your knee gives out, or you just plain aren't good enough? At the same time I don't want to crush their little dreams. "I'm sorry Bobby, there is no way you can be a famous actor because you are short, funny-looking, you lack any kind of drive or determination, and you aren't bright enough to survive in that world. What about a job at a gas station?")

3) How much should you push the realists (Is this the best term?) to think about taking a few chances and being a little creative.

4) How much does socio-economic status determine a young person's opinions of what is possible and what is desirable in a job?

5) How much does self-image have to do with selections? Do kids who feel like failures choose really impossible dreams so no one will be surprised when they fail to achieve?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This American Life

M, R, and I recently went to a live version of the radio show This American Life. We are big NPR fans, and this show is a quirky, entertaining, strange glimpse into the lives of ordinary and not so ordinary people. The strength of the show is partly in the odd stories they manage to find, but it's also in the way the stories themselves are told. The timing is always perfect, and the music is carefully chosen to evoke emotion. This is the kind of radio show where you sit in your car after getting to your destination because you want to hear the end.

However, the reason for the live broadcast was a new and different twist on the old idea. This American Life is going to television. I think I can safely say that NPR fans are more than a little nervous about this idea. How would it translate? Will its quirky charm be ruined? Can pictures really do justice to these stories? Do we prefer to provide our own mental pictures of these story-telling whackos? We are a deeply skeptical people.

The live show began with the great man himself, Ira Glass. As the hos, Ira is usually just the glue between the stories. However, his personality somehow permeates the show to the point where you can't imagine it working without him. He introduces, he narrates, and sometimes he interviews. He is very good at his job. However, it turns out he really does have the face for radio. To put it bluntly, he's goofy looking.

We get to see some clips from the TV episodes. The bits with Ira interviewing are, um, not so good. He is really funny-looking, and his presence takes away from the stories the people are trying to tell. However, when they switch to him introducing the stories from a desk in a weird place, you think "A ha! This is the show I know and love!" The animated sequence is very good, the interview with the teen who doesn't believe in love is an absolute howler, and even the cow story turns out well. I have great hopes for the TV version of our beloved piece of NPR.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Oh the Cacophony!

Last week I had to teach my very fist orchestra class. Those who know me are shaking their heads in disbelief right now because they know that I have absolutely no background in music. Nevertheless, there I was teaching 7th graders how to be in an orchestra.

It seems that the regular orchestra teacher was away that day on a field trip. She planned the absence far in advance, and the she put in for a sub just like any other teacher. However, the night before she was to be away the sub pulled out, and her absence went uncovered. No teacher likes to have an uncovered absence, but specialists especially hate it due to the amount of preparation and specialized knowledge their classes require. In other words, open orchestra position equals bad.

When an absence goes uncovered, the school secretary then must find enough teachers who are willing to use their preps to cover. First she goes down the list and asks all the people with first prep if they can take the first period. Once she has someone for first, she starts looking for second, and so on down the line. I have fourth period prep, so I was asked to cover 7th grade orchestra. I went up to the music rooms with no small amount of trepidation.

The sub plans told me that the kids were working in ensemble groups. I was to "move around making sure they are playing correctly (?!) and commenting on their work (?!) " I could do the move around part without too much trouble, but the rest was entirely beyond me. Also, the wall of sound in those rooms was immense. Even when the kids were playing nicely, the sheer number of different pieces being played at once made things very interesting. I have the greatest respect for our music teachers now.

All the kids seemed (?!) to be doing well, so I just smiled and nodded a lot, and let them get on with things. I have to say that they are a very sweet group of kids. Does music make good kids, or are good kids just drawn to music? When the period ended, no one was any the worse for wear except possibly my ears. I am just glad I was not the person covering 6th period where a student cello fell to the ground and cracked in half. Apparently that person had sobbing 6th graders all over the place. There is never a dull moment in the music rooms.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rovers And The Chef In The Hat

M has already blogged about this one, so apologies to those who read both.

M and his team won a techie award recently, and their prize was dinner at a VERY fancy restaurant. Therefore, on a recent weeknight, several of us convened at Rovers, one of Seattle's snootiest destinations. Now I must admit that I was quite curious about this place since I've heard the Chef in the Hat in the radio more than once. The Chef has a very amusing spot on a local show where people call in and tell him the ingredients in their pantry, and he tries to help them figure out what to make for dinner.

You might drive past Rovers for years and never even realize it was there. It is tucked back behind some other buildings and off a little courtyard. The building is just a restored old house with nothing overly decorative to make it noticeable. However, once you get through the front door you understand. It is not a flashy or eye-catching place, but there is an air of elegance that cannot be mistaken.

We were seated at a long table with no other diners nearby, and the restaurant did not seem overly busy on that night. The menu is, well, impressive in that there are only a few offerings, but they are really something. The cheap item on the menu is the three course tasting dinner at $45. Next are two different five course menus at $80 each. The final choice is the $135 eight course menu. I was absolutely thrilled to see an entire five course menu for vegetarians. THANK YOU CHEF IN THE HAT!

Trying to reconstruct the courses in my memory is proving a bit tough (the exact menu is not available online), but I will do my best. The first plate was three tiny offerings of caramelized onions, celeriac salad, and cold soup. These we each no more than a bite, and they were deliciously flavored. I believe the next course was a blood orange and cucumber salad. This plate was beautifully presented with lovely swirls of dressing and orange juice, but it could have been more flavorful for my taste.

The next course was a carrot custard with ginger and sautéed cauliflower. I thought this would be weird, but it was actually very tasty. The cauliflower had interesting flavors, and it went perfectly with the smooth and creamy custard. The third of our official courses (the little plate was a freebie) was root vegetables and chestnut puree over a rich and luxurious onion sauce. This was probably my favorite of the dinner dishes, and I cannot begin to describe it.

Right now you are probably thinking "Wow! I can't believe she's still going on about this!" and that is pretty much exactly what I thought about dinner. The courses just kept coming. I don't know how the eight course people managed. The hibiscus ice that came next was tart and sweet at the same time, and it did a great job of refreshing us for the next course. The "main" dinner entree was a chard tart with various tasty sauces. Once again, the execution was flawless, but by this point I was starting to lose my perspective.

Dessert was a trio of perfect little gems. A chocolate truffle thingy, a lemon tart, and a cherry clafoutis (I had to look up the spelling on that one). They were, of course, wonderful and sweet without being too much. I especially liked the lemon tart, but they were all so good that I would order any of them on its own.

On the whole, this meal was pretty much flawless. The location, the service, the food, were all simply amazing, and I really cannot agree with the complaint that the people are snobbish. However, I'm not sure any food can be worth the price. In the end, each dish cost about $16, and I am quite convinced that I would not be willing to pay that price unless it were the most special of occasions. Nevertheless, any time The Evil Empire would like to pay the bill I would be there in a heartbeat.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Happy Birthday Auden

February 21st would have been the 100th birthday of the great poet W.H. Auden. He is perhaps one of the most important and prolific poets of the 20th century, and many people know his work even if they do not know his name. Auden was born in The U.K., but spent more than half his life in the U.S. and died an American citizen. His poetry often celebrates various aspects of the U.S. during the jazz age. His beautiful love poems were often written with careful neutrality to conceal his homosexuality. Auden's style is widely considered to have influenced the next generation of American poets, and he personally mentored many young students who would later become well-known in their own right.

Much of his poetry really is quite wonderful, but he often made his readers work for understanding. Critics often try so much to "get" him that they lose sight of the actual meaning. Slate actually mentioned that a poem was "... with Augustinian theologies and the raiments of Kirkagarde." Which strikes me as a very silly thing to say.

Perhaps his most famous work, "Funeral blues, is a truly heartbreaking, but also delicately beautiful piece. Many people recognize it from its use in the movies, but it is best heard in a recording done by the author. Both the original title of the poem and the person for whom it was really written are subjects of great debate:

Funeral Blues
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever,
I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

What Time of Year is This?

Yesterday was March 1st. Usually this signals a hint of possible spring on the horizon. Not warm sunny days, mind you, but at least a patch of blue sky or a few blooming crocus. Yesterday, however, the crocus were trying their best to bloom through a good inch of snow. Most of the region only got a little hail or slush, but in our neck of the proverbial woods it came down hard and stuck.

On Wednesday night I was heading over to see a friend, and I left our neighborhood with the sun shining and the pavement dry. However, just about a fifteen minute trip later I was actually slipping and sliding up a hill as it hailed all around me. Several cars around me needed to pull off to the side because they didn't have the traction or momentum to make it up. I was feeling very happy about being in a front-wheel drive car at that moment. There was some spinning and slipping, but I made it in the end. Heading home a few hours later, our sidewalks were still dry. Then, just an hour or so after I got home, it all began to fall with a vengeance.

We still have snow on the ground around our house and around school. Even having temperatures up in the 40s hasn't melted things very quickly. I would REALLY like to think that this was our last little flirt with winter, but that remains to be seen. The real question is will next winter be quite so exciting?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ethics Panels Run Wild

The ethics of ethics appear to be out of hand at American colleges and Universities. Yesterday, the New York Times has an interesting article about the way college ethics panels are expanding their powers over an ever-greater sphere of academic study. The power and questionable value of ethics panels was a common discussion in my graduate classes, so my interest was peaked by this article.

Ever since the horrors of Tuskegee colleges and universities have made an attempt to provide protection for people participating in research. Panels were formed to review proposed research projects, and to vet them for any possible danger or abuse to participants. Originally, these protections were intended to cover biomedical research with human subjects only. However, as the years go by it seems that the scope of these panels has increased dramatically. For example, virtually all psychology, sociology, and anthropology research has been subjected to oversight for some time. One could certainly make the case that these schools work in areas where harm could come to study participants in the form of mental distress or exploitation.

However, when these panels begin to encroach on fields such as history and art, people begin to think twice. There are hundreds of stories about stupid requirements or even research completely denied because of panel decisions. The article has several of these stories, but my favorite is about the anthropologist who wanted to study a pre-literate tribe. The panel required that he have them read and sign a consent form first. Do you think the members of the panel even noticed the irony?