Friday 5: Consumption

From here.

  1. What is your paper towel consumption like?
    I try to be pretty conservative with them, but I always have used a lot. However, I get those half-sheet-perforated rolls from Costco, which means I pay less for them and use less when I can. For some things, I’ll even tear a half-sheet in half. And on the occasion when I use a paper towel to dry a bowl or mug or something, I dry the paper towel and use it later for the same purpose once or twice more. I do use them for a few things I suspect many people don’t. I use them when I prep food in place of a cutting board most of the time, and I put a few beneath my rice cooker when I’m making rice or quinoa, since I have one of those cookers that doesn’t have a lockdown lid. And it’s a small little rice cooker, so it gets a bit splashy.
  2. What condiment do you use most often?
    Undoubtedly soy sauce, what most people around here call shoyu. Like most of my Hawaii compatriots, I put it on (and in) most savory dishes, although I’m making a few lifestyle changes and decreasing my sodium intake may have to be part of that. It’s really the one change I don’t want to make, though. so I’d like to see how things go.
  3. What is your sticky note consumption like?
    I’m well stocked but I only use maybe one every other day under normal circumstances. In the middle of big projects I’ll use more. I ran out of my favorite, most productive Post-its a few weeks ago: 2-inch by 3-inch melon-colored stickies. They served me really well. So far I’ve only seen them as part of a three-color pack on Amazon. Not the way I’d like to purchase them.
  4. What’s your coin jar setup?
    My coin jars used to be my rainy day fund, but now they’re my end-of-pay-period feed-myself strategy. I’ve never liked carrying change, especially as a bus-riding commuter and pedestrian, so I have a jar at home (actually a plastic, quart-sized Baskin-Robbins container) and one on my desk at work (actually a paper coffee cup until I find something I like better) and I empty my pockets into them upon arriving at either place. I’ve had to drain them both in the week before payday each of my last three pay periods. It’s been a rough month and a half.
  5. What’s something you’ve purchased recently that was lower in price than usual?
    I recently stepped into a Jack in the Box to get a chocolate shake while I waited for a bus. The cashier recognized me from years of my patronage at a JitB near the school where I used to teach and she gave me a 10% discount. That wasn’t much of a savings but it was a really nice gesture. She didn’t even tell me she gave me the discount but I noticed the price I paid was lower than the price on the menu, and then she explained what she’d done.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2014)

“Lydia is dead.” These are the first three words in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, so I am not spoiling anything by quoting them here. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is an overachieving girl who hopes to be a doctor. She’s won science fair prizes, taken courses at the community college, and hung the periodic table of the elements on her wall. She appears to be the center of her family, a favorite of both parents Marilyn and James, a co-conspirator of sorts with her twelfth-grade brother Nath, and worshipped by ten-year-old sister Hannah.

We know before Lydia’s parents know that she is dead, and now our task, along with her family, is to figure out why. And there’s a lot of evidence to sift through. She is one of only two Asian students in her 1970s Ohio high school. She’s been hanging around with a senior boy known to spend time with many girls in the back seat of his VW Beetle. Her father, mother, and siblings are each carrying secrets that could explain Lydia’s death, but this is a family that leaves uncomfortable things in the past and never speaks of them again.

This not speaking to each other is poisonous. Ng writes in the third-person omniscient point of view to get us deep into each character’s tragedies, first picking at scars but then tearing them open and pushing us inside to get a look around. It’s a tough read. James has issues about being a Chinese American in parts of the country where he’s the only one. This means Marilyn, the Caucasian wife he met at Harvard, has issues of her own, some of them reaching back to before she met James. Their children suffer the trickle-down consequences of their parents’ issues, then add their complications, until our hearts break for each separately, then for each relationship in this wonderful but damaged family.

Ng’s writing is reason enough to read this. Her prose is smart but not overly literary, as novels in this upmarket fiction genre tend to be. She lays the symbolic visuals on a bit heavily, but she’s careful not to broadcast them too loudly, so that as the complexities of each character’s alienation unfold, we feel a kind of horror at the results while caring deeply for the people, perhaps granting some clemency for their bad decisions.

Who is most to blame for Lydia’s death? It’s not an easy question to answer, but weighing the considerations is one of the novel’s rewarding experiences, not in the way that a good whodunnit is rewarding because we solve the tricky mystery ahead of the protagonist, but in the way a good story is when it gives us characters we like and sympathize with, and enough rationale to enable our judgments. It’s excellent book group fodder for this reason.

A challenging read because of the content, but satisfying because excellently conceived characters.

Four stars of five.

Friday 5: Sandwich or Nah?

From here.

  1. Why is or isn’t a hot dog a sandwich?
    First, a quick definition which is more like a starting point. A sandwich is something to eat between slices of bread, however those slices came into existence. An open-faced sandwich is a sandwich, but this is what I mean by a starting point: you can modify this definition by modifying the nomenclature.

    Now, if you have some egg salad in a bowl, it’s just egg salad. It becomes a sandwich when you put it between slices of bread. Egg salad by itself: egg salad. Egg salad between slices of bread: egg salad sandwich. Hot dog in a bun: hot dog. Hot dog outside a bun? Still a hot dog. The addition of bread does nothing to change its name, so it’s not a sandwich, but I am totally fine with people thinking it is.

    Because I make my own bread, I often slice hot dogs lengthwise and lay them flat on some bread and make a sandich this way. It’s a hot dog sandwich. If you go to the ballpark and ask for a hot dog and they hand you one of my hot dog sandwiches, you have the grounds for riot incitement.

  2. Why is or isn’t a hamburger a sandwich?
    Sort of the same reason a hot dog isn’t a sandwich. Take the patty out of a hamburger and you still have a hamburger. So not really a sandwich, although I admit that when I order a Big Mac at McD’s and don’t want the combo, I say, “May I have a Big Mac, just the sandwich?” This is because a hamburger really is a sandwich, but it has become its own thing, elevating it into a new category although it still has the sandwichness of a sandwich.
  3. Why is or isn’t a wrap a sandwich?
    It’s not a sandwich because it doesn’t have bread. A tortilla is not bread. It is a breadlike thing, but you can make tortillas with flour, fat, and water. You can’t make bread with those ingredients, no matter that one such creation is sometimes called “unleavened bread.” Unleavened bread is essentially a cracker, not bread.
  4. Why are or aren’t Oreos and ice cream sandwiches sandwiches?
    They are called sandwich cookies and ice cream sandwiches, but that’s a metaphorical use of the term sandwich, as when we say we were sitting on the couch, sandwiched between Julia Roberts and Anna Kendrick. We’re not a sandwich even if we’re “sandwiched,” because that’s a metaphor. An Oreo is a cookie, not a sandwich. An ice cream sandwich is an ice cream dessert, not a sandwich.
  5. Why does or doesn’t listening to an audio book count as reading the book?
    From a practical, general standpoint, it’s the same thing, especially if reading is about content. But from a developmental, experiential standpoint, it’s not the same thing at all. Running 26.6 miles is a marathon. Riding in a car 26.6 miles covers the same ground but is not. You can say you traveled the same route and saw the same stuff, but you didn’t run a marathon. If you listen to an audio book and want to say you “read” it, that’s fine with me if we’re just chatting about the content. However, it’s not reading any more than sitting in a bus for 26.6 miles is running.

    As an educator, I care deeply about this, especially since I worked for ten years with students who had dyslexia and other language-based learning differences. If I assign a novel and all I care about is that the students know the content, an audio book is fine. Heck, CliffsNotes are fine. But that’s seldom the case. I want students to experience the book the way the marathon runner experiences the 26.6. Especially if the students are in school, where everything is about development. Reading Johnny Tremain in eighth grade makes you a better reader of Of Mice and Men in ninth grade, which makes you a better reader of To Kill a Mockingbird in tenth grade, which makes you a better reader of Pride and Prejudice in twelfth grade. If you don’t do any of the assigned reading in any of those earlier years, you will not read Pride and Prejudice as well when you’re a senior, and you’ll wonder why you can’t get your SAT verbal scores up in the four months you have before the college application deadline. It’s because you kept riding the bus for those 26.6 mile trips.

Review: Krush Groove

Krush Groove (1985)
Blair Underwood, Sheila E, Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys, Kurtis Blow, New Edition, LL Cool J, Rick Rubin.

Krush Groove is a fictionized telling of the early days of Def Jam Records, surrounded by a fictional story of real-life people. Blair Underwood plays Russell Walker, the film’s version of Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, but Joseph “Run” Simmons plays the fictional version of himself, Run Walker. It’s a little weird, but don’t overthink it because this is a film that doesn’t want to be overthought.

What it does want, at least when viewed thirty-two years after its release by a forty-eight-year-old music lover is to elicit nostalgia for a time when the slate was still kind of blank, to inspire sadness at the losses of Jam Master Jay and the Human Beat Box and Adam Yauch, to be compared favorably to the other hip-hop films of the mid-Eighties, and to make me appreciate the music a bit more than I might have at sixteen

Krush Groove Records can’t keep up with demand for its hip hop records, so Russell borrows money from a big-time hustler. When the stars of his label jump ship to a big-time label, Russell finds himself in big trouble, unable to pay back the hustler. Run, who’s competing with his brother for the affections of Sheila E, is unsympathetic but of course they make up, thanks to intervention by Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. It’s not that good a story, but the movie is in the spaces between.

One of my complaints about Beat Street was that the music all sounded canned, completely out of reality in what were supposed to be live performances. I don’t know if they recorded the live tracks live in this film, but it sounds like it most of the time. The Run-DMC tracks sound harder than the versions in my iTunes. They sound live, too, when they’re performing on stage. This is a huge improvement, and it improves performances of the Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J. The treatment isn’t given to New Edition or Sheila E, which is a disappointment because I love the way Sheila E sounds live, and the lip-syncing scenes are low points.

I never cared much for early LL Cool J or any Fat Boys, but I really dug them in this movie, so I’m going to check them out soon with new ears. The film does a nice job of making almost everyone sound better than I remember them. A fun, entertaining trip back.


This Mortal Coil

It’s been a rather crazy couple of weeks. My parents both got sick with the flu a few weeks ago and my dad got progressive worse. He was finally convinced to see a doctor days after he should have gone in, and they admitted him for a one-week stay. It was his first stay in a hospital since he was five.

Just getting him physically to the ER was a major challenge, the details of which I’m saving for my Pulitzer-winning play. It’s a really good thing he was in his best shape since his retirement, because this illness really took it out of him, and he’s still recovering. But at least he’s home and I suspect he may be driving himself soon.

Then I got sick two weeks ago with a bad chest cold. Missed four days of work at a time when I really didn’t want to be missing any. I saw a doctor and she cleared me to go back to work, but the routine BP check blew past 200. I’ve never had a high BP reading in my life, but they took three readings during my visit and the low was 191. So the doctor ordered some blood tests, the results of which I got later that evening. Everything was in the normal range, although my cholesterol was high normal and my HDLs low normal.

Then the next day two more results came in, and my hemoglobin is high. I’m in the prediabetic range, so of course the doctor wants to put me on meds to bring that down. Because I’ve spent the past two years sloooooowly getting back into decent shape, I’m hoping these numbers are actually an improvement on what they would have been two years ago. If I’m trending healthiER, I want us to talk about getting me off the meds over time, if my body responds well to them and if I can continue my super super gradual lifestyle changes.

What happened to my dad could happen to anyone; none of it was a function of anything specific to him, as far as I can see. It brings up the importance of being in good shape not just because life is better that way, but because when something physically traumatic happens, the kind of thing that can happen to anybody, your chances of surviving are so much better. He’s convinced that he’d be dead if he weren’t in such good shape. I’m not willing to go that far, but he does have a point.

Review: Talk to Her

Talk to Her (2002)
Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Spanish with English subtitles.

Here’s something you don’t see every day.

Benigno is a nurse who never leaves Alicia’s side, talking to her, sharing details of the dance performance he saw the other night, giving Alicia massages, and washing her hair. He’s been at it a while, tending to her while she’s in a coma, so he is quick to befriend a new arrival, to give (usually unheeded) advice to someone in a similar situation.

Marco is a writer who meets a famed woman bull fighter. He’s intrigued by her story, and although she is at first not at all interested in speaking with him for a profile, he does something heroic and they become lovers.

If I’ve learned one lesson in my years of watching admittedly not that many western European films but probably more than most of my countrypeople, it’s that love is justification enough for just about anything. And if you’re watching a Spanish movie where the love is established early in the film, the anything is soon to show up, and it’s probably unlike any anything you’ve already seen, even in other films by the same director.

Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her seems to challenge my assumptions. Does love justify anything? Well how about this, and how about this? I’m being vague for a good reason, so I’ll say no more about the story and add that the performances of the two leads, Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti, just excellent, especially Grandinetti who plays Marco. His stoic coolness given to tears at moments of great beauty are the sexiest thing in this movie, and there are nude women in this film.

There is a moment where Marco loses his cool, yelling at Benigno not to do something Benigno says he wants to do, and to see all of Marco’s passion come out this way in this moment is admirable. It makes you kind of fall in love with him except that you’re already in love with him.

As in Volver, there are a couple of moments that make me wonder if Almodóvar has an eccentric alter ego who takes over the controls on the film for a day or two here and there. There is a scene from a black-and-white silent film whose imagery made me say (aloud, when nobody else was around), “Why is he showing us this?” and soon after a close-up shot of a lava lamp that made me say, “Are you even serious?”

But this is a movie about love, and I almost love this movie, so I’m going to forgive Almodóvar those moments, because a director who shows you stuff you’ve never seen and makes you go “Wow” is going to also make you say “What the heck?” once in a while. Also because love is ample justification for just about anything.


Friday 5 for August 25: 5 of Whatever

From here.

  1. How tidy are your kitchen cabinets?
    Some of them are extremely tidy because they’re empty. I decided years ago I didn’t want to have cabinets full of stuff that’s just stored and never used. So the cabinets over my stove and fridge are empty. The cabinets over my counter space are not tidy but organized. I have a liquor shelf,
    a canned goods shelf, and a dishes shelf, but they are not arranged neatly or really at all.
  2. What’s an art project you did in school that you remember fondly?
    I took photography my senior year, and it was one of the best courses in all of my schooling. Long hours in the darkroom with my classmates were fun, frustrating, and deeply rewarding, but it all started with an optional photography project in my ninth-grade basic art class. Those of us who had access to 35mm SLR cameras could learn to develop black and white film and then print photos in the darkroom.
  3. What’s the best thing you ate on your most recent trip?
    I haven’t traveled for quite a while, but I think my most recent trip was to the Big Island, and when I travel to Hilo all I can think about is food. I had the corned beef hash at Ken’s House of Pancakes three times. Best corned beef has on the planet.
  4. What’s the dumbest non-political thing you’ve seen lately?
    I was writing an article for our staff newsletter and in preparation, I watched the “Thriller” dance scene in Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30. That scene is super, super dumb, but it always makes me smile. I hate that I like it so much.
  5. What’s soemthing in your home that’s lasted longer than you expected?
    The TV I bought in college (that’s 1993) finally died last year, making the $200 purchase come down to $8.70 per year. Good bargain. And yeah, it’s still in my house. I’m waiting for a good electronics recycling fair on a weekend when I have a car.

Review: If You Are the One

If You Are the One (2008)
Ge You, Shu Qi, Vivian Hsu, Gong Xinliang. Written and directed by Feng Xiaogang. Mandarin with English subtitles.

Qin Fen is a middle-aged bachelor, newly rich thanks to a silly invention he’s sold the rights to. With no need to work anymore, he places a personal ad in search of a wife, very specifically outlining what he wants (modern on the outside; traditional on the inside) and doesn’t want (no female entrepreneurs), while providing details of his own strengths and weaknesses (honed survival skills but not very good-looking).

We’re very quickly treated to one of those parades of candidates, none of which are very promising. One respondent is a gay man, another only meeting guys to guilt them into buying cemetary plots. Qin Fen’s doesn’t feel the need to pretend about anything, so he’s very direct in these meet-ups about what he likes and doesn’t like about these potential spouses. He doesn’t have time to play the dating game, so he’s quick to rule out those who simply aren’t what he’s looking for.

Because of his lack of pretension, and because he has a wry, understated sense of humor, he kind of hits it off Platonically with Liang Xiaoxiao, the first of his respondents who is truly beautiful (she rates herself a 6; he says she’s a 9). She’s a flight attendant, and this is her first attempt at meeting someone through the personals. While she’s also direct about what she’s looking for, she has a softspoken, detached way of speaking, like she’s distracted by something going on beyond Qin’s field of vision. They decide rather quickly that he’s not what she’s looking for. But he makes her laugh, and if they aren’t meant to be lovers, they seem well-suited for friendship.

If You Are the One is a film about how this relationship evolves, and because of Liang’s complications it is sometimes painful to watch, and because of Qin’s likeability it is also fun. They make each other laugh, and they drive each other kind of crazy. It’s neat how the ground rules are set from the moment of their meeting: they will be honest with one another. In a way this honesty is the obstacle, as they tell each other things we think of as stuff you don’t talk about early in a relationship. In another, it allows them to develop a genuine fondness for each other, something American romantic comedies often avoid, choosing instead for some kind of deception or misconception to define the early stages of romance.

This is a cute, sweet movie with actors I really enjoy, and I look forward to seeing its sequel.


Review: Volver

Volver (2006)
Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In Spanish with English subtitles.

The most striking thing about Volver is the nearly complete absence of men. They are present, but only to give the women someone to despise, someone to be admired by, or someone to provide them opportunity. There isn’t any romance, and the only friendship is with a woman so close to the central family she may as well be family. No, this is a movie about family.

At its center is Raimunda, a 30-ish mom to teenaged Paula. They have a typical mom-teen relationship, arguing over too much time on the cell phone and you-never-tell-me-things-anymore. Raimunda’s husband is a loser from the moment we see him sprawled on the couch finishing his umpteenth beer. He’s not worried about having to get up for work in the morning because he has just been fired and that’s fine with him.

Raimunda is closest to her sister Sole, who is older by several years and seems to have taken on most of the filial responsibility for their only remaining elder, an aunt named Paula. Aunt Paula is stricken with occasional dementia, and Sole is clearly stressed out with worry. If not for the daily visits and attention by Aunt Paula’s neighbor Agustina, either Raimunda or Sole would have to take their aunt in, a move which they are on the verge of making anyway.

There are unspoken tensions between all the women in this family, and writer-director Pedro Almodóvar gives us plenty of time to try and figure them out. Disagreements pop up about seemingly inconsequential issues, but little hints are dropped in the dialogue. Did someone go away for a time? Was there a division in the family? It might feel like something of a puzzle except we don’t have enough to piece anything together. Instead, we are carried along while these women sort through their tensions.

It might also feel like a tease, but the director is establishing believable relationships so that when we and the characters are confronted with the naked truth, their responses are real.

I have a couple of major issues with the direction here. Anyone who’s discussed movies with me for thirty minutes knows that I’m fine with film as a medium for the appreciation of women’s beauty. The world is a beautiful place, and film is a visual domain, and why not use it to celebrate all the many ways women are beautiful? Yet Almodóvar appreciates his actresses in a way that’s intrusive on our experience with the world he creates. For example, in one scene where Raimunda is washing dishes, we are confronted suddenly with an unexplained overhead shot that points right into Penélope Cruz’s cleavage. It’s not a POV shot, since nobody’s watching her from the ceiling, and it does nothing for the scene except to say, look at this gorgeous cleavage.

Cruz is a stunning woman with enormous eyes, a lippy smile, and yes, physical endowments that two of the female characters in the movie even comment on. But we have multiple opportunities to see them in context, the way the characters see them, and this isn’t one of those movies whose viewers are paying specifically to see breasts. Those movies are fine, and I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share, but everything in its time and place, you know?

I’ll add that Almodóvar takes it a little too far in showing us young Paula as well, although clearly not in a gratuitous way. These are POV shots, and they are important to the story, although they don’t just make a point: they make a point and then highlight, star, and underline it, and it’s just too much. Thankfully, while the character is in her teens, the actress was in her 20s when this was filmed, so it doesn’t creep over into borderline illegal territory.

My second major problem is a scene where Raimunda sings a song, and Cruz is lip-syncing to a track that’s so obviously not Raimunda’s voice that the scene is almost unwatchable. A horrible decision.

Still, a good movie with some fine acting and a look and feel you don’t get every day in American film. Madrid seems to be colored with a completely different box of crayons from the one we have in our American stores. The sunlight, wind, and sky all seem like they’re a different world, and it’s rather a lovely world to be part of for two hours. Oh, and not a movie for kids. There are themes of sexual assault, so approach with caution if you’re sensitive.


Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Laura Harrier, Jacob Batalon, Kenneth Choi, Tyne Daly, Gwyneth Paltrow. Directed by Jon Watts.

The hype is deserved. Spider-Man: Homecoming does highlight Peter Parker’s teenaged immaturity, and it does play out like an 80s teen movie with songs by The English Beat and A Flock of Seagulls. Its star, Tom Holland, even has a young Michael J. Fox thing going on and there’s a scene (with a meta video clip) that pays tribute to Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

And yeah, it’s somehow even fresher a breath of air than The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield seemed when it hit theaters just five years ago. I wrote that Garfield’s swinging through the city seemed more fun than I’d seen it before, and somehow Tom Holland’s seems even more fun than that. Perhaps I’m suffering from a long-running recency bias, because Emma Stone seemed a more heartbreaking love interest than Kirsten Dunst, and Spidey’s new crush, played by Laura Harrier, is even more heartbreaking than Stone.

If that’s the case, I cannot be the only one. This movie is fun, and it’s funny, and Spidey has a new sidekick named Ned, who’s played by a Filipino American actor from my homestate of Hawaii, and that’s pretty cool too.

The villain is the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton in kind of a fascinatingly crude costume that’s sneaky agile. Keaton is a fine villain, and good performances by charismatic supporting actors boost the overall quality of the film to a level consistent with the other titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most notable are Marisa Tomei as a hot Aunt May, Martin Starr as the academic decathlon coach, and Zendaya as a quirky classmate. I don’t know how long he can keep saving movies, but Robert Downey, Jr. holds this one together in a supporting, but almost always spiritually present role as Peter’s mentor. It’s almost unfair, the way he’s really the steadying influence. It leads one to wonder if Holland has what it takes to carry a movie himself.

Thank goodness we’re spared the origin story in this one, although the movie does run long at two hours and thirteen minutes. I could have done with shorter action sequences, especially the climactic showdown with the Vulture. May I also be among the first to say enough already with the Stan Lee cameos? Enough!

A fun movie, almost a tonal, thematic opposite to the other huge summer superhero movie I also enjoyed, Wonder Woman.