Thursday, December 29, 2011

The cookie that made me happy today

Work has been very dull this week and the time goes by very slowly with only a couple of people in the office. After work today I had a doctor's appointment, all in all it has been a very dull week. I left the doctor's office this evening and headed to take the Metro home when I walked by an Au Bon Pain. I am not proud to admit this, but I saw a photograph of a cookie on their sign out front and immediately diverted my course into the restaurant in search of the cookie on the sign that I was determined to make mine. It was an instantaneous reaction and sudden realization that I could not live one minute longer without having one of these cookies. The advertisement was for two new filled cookies - one was two sugar cookies with chocolate hazelnut filling between them, the other was called Florentine with Caramel Creme. It was the sugar cookies with hazelnut that derailed my original plan to go home, so I sought one out and put it in a bag to take to the cashier. While carrying out my mission, I couldn't help but notice the Florentine with Caramel and that was looking even better but I have no idea what kind of cookie that is. It looked a bit like gingerbread so I was not willing to take my chances. I have to be in a certain kind of mood to enjoy gingerbread and I haven't been in that mood for several years.

I took my impulsive cookie purchase up to the friendly cashier and asked her about the florentine cookie. She was not a native english speaker, so we had a bit of a communication problem at first. I asked:

What is the florentine cookie like?

She responded: Yes, we have them. They are over there.

Yes, I saw them over there, but what do they taste like? [she looked very confused by this point, so I go with another choice of words] What flavor?

She says, "Oh, you can try one."
Me: "Oh - no, no. I don't know if I would like them, I'm just curious what they are like."
She says, "Try it."

Suddenly I am the one looking confused because I'm not sure how I am supposed to try the cookie when I don't see any samples or understand how I am supposed to do that. I respond as I usually do in awkward social situations, with an attempt at humor, "Just go up, take a bite and put it back down? Haha."

Completely serious, she says, "Yes."

And I don't know what to do. Certainly it can't be Au Bon's policy to allow people to sample the food and if it is, I suddenly have second thoughts about purchasing their baked goods from now on. But she sees I am confused, "No, don't put it back. But try one. If you don't like it, you can throw it away and I won't charge you for it." (but remember, she had an accent so it sounded much cooler, like "...throw eet avay...")

For some reason, this was a very difficult task for me. First of all, I wasn't ruling out the possibility that there was a language barrier miscommunication happening here, although it sounded pretty clear that I had her permission to take a cookie off the shelf and take a bite. Still, I couldn't walk over there. I had to take a step, turn around... "I'm going to do it." She smiles, "Okay." A couple more steps, "Seriously, I'm going to take a bite." She is now laughing at me, "Do it!" So I grab the Florentine with Caramel Creme and I take a bite and it was not like gingerbread at all. It was like sweet heaven. "Ooh, that is good! Thank you for that, I will take this one, too." And now I am buying two cookies because even though I was completely over the hazelnut, I already had one in my bag. She rung me up and said, "It is my New Year's present to you." and I'm pretty sure she didn't charge me for the second cookie.

I love this woman.

I know this is a silly story and over the course of a lifetime, we all touch the lives of others temporarily and everyone has a few anecdotes like this one where an everyday transaction is turned into a truly pleasurable experience. This was the best thing to happen to me all week. After waiting 15 minutes in the cold for a bus that was late, then another 15 minutes in a doctor's office waiting room, I was accustomed to being ignored. The cookie was such a small gesture, but this interaction with the Au Bon Pain employee brightened my day. Of course, a free cookie will often do that, but it was more than that - the whole interaction was a bit silly, between me thinking it was a miscommunication, to my natural inability to violate everyday decorum and take a bite off of something without clear intention to pay for it. It was fun. I had fun with her. Not to mention, that was a magically delicious cookie.

I thought about not mentioning the specific name of the restaurant because it did occur to me that she could possibly get in trouble for giving away a free cookie. But in the unlikely event that the Au Bon Pain corporate people happen to read this blog, I think they will understand the value of giving away one cookie when it results in someone telling anyone who will listen what a fantastic day she is suddenly having thanks to one kind person at an Au Bon Pain location. Even if it is a grown woman who doesn't know what florentine cookies taste like, yet allows photographs of baked goods dictate her every move. Yep, that's me in a nutshell. Mmm... nuts sound delicious right now. Gotta go, thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Diary of a sleep study inmate

I think it is a weakness of this blog that it doesn’t have any one common theme, it is just random thoughts about my life. I am always conscious of how much less interesting that must make it for people who have not met me personally and from time to time I consider what direction it would take if I followed one common subject matter. One topic that seems to come up far too often is medical problems. I wish that were not the case, but at least I can take comfort that once I reach senior citizendom, I will have found my niche and should have a very robust blog full of aches and pains and ailments. I will make a fine senior citizen someday. Of course, by then I probably won’t even have to type anymore, I will probably be able to hook some wires onto my head and a program will blog away with whatever is on my mind. It will probably look something like this photograph from my latest medical endeavor:

I'm a robot. Beep boop beep.

On Wednesday afternoon I walked through a monsoon to arrive at the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders at 9pm. I did not leave until after 6pm on Thursday. I don’t know yet what the results were, but I sure hope they find something because that was a very time-consuming and unproductive amount of time spent in a doctor's office.

The reason the visit was so time-consuming is because there were two different tests. The overnight test was a Polysomnogram, which involved wires all over my body – mostly on my head, but also on my finger, face, legs, chest and I can’t remember where else. Throughout the night they monitored my brain waves (creepy!) and my movements to find out why I am always so damn tired. And I am tired all the time. I told them that, but they wanted more clinical information, which is why I had to stay for the entire afternoon.

After sleeping all night with all of the monitoring equipment, they woke me up around 8:40 on Thursday morning and removed all of the wires & sent me off to find breakfast with goop all over my head. I looked like a walking scene from Something About Mary. Yuck. Oh well, I’m sure they’ve seen worse at Whole Foods.

When I returned with breakfast and lunch for the day, they hooked me up to more wires and more goop. The second part of the visit was a Multiple Sleep Latency Test. This involved fewer wires and a series of five naps. Basically, they wait for you to come back from Whole Foods and set you up with a bunch of wires and send you to go back to sleep 90 minutes after you just woke up from a full night’s sleep. Twenty minutes later they interrupt you (either from your nap, or from staring at the ceiling b/c you can’t sleep) and they turn the lights on and make you stay awake for another 90 minutes before they send you down for another nap. Well, that’s not exactly true. They have to do some sort of calibrating before and after the naps, so you lay down and

“Relax with your eyes open. Now relax with your eyes closed. Without moving your head, look to the left, to the right, to the left again, to the right again. Blink five times. Grit your teeth. Relax. Grit your teeth again. Relax. Stick your chin out as far as it will go. Relax. Stick your chin out as far as it will go. Relax.”
This happened before and after every nap. It was weird and I had
these wires all over my brain and I kept thinking to myself, “Can you read my
mind? Are you reading my thoughts right now? Are you recording what I am
thinking? Stalker!” And then of course I couldn’t help but consider if they could read my thoughts, which led me to think of demented and gross things - like what I saw monkeys doing with their excrement at the zoo. Or horribly violent scenes from movies. I’m quite sure that they were not able to read my mind. Not only because I don’t think that sort of science exists, and if it does they’d have to inform me first (although, I was not very thorough in reading those HIPAA forms!), but also because they would have had me certified as insane if they had read my mind. I couldn’t help it. The more I tried not to think of crazy things, the more craziness that would enter my brain.

Anyway, after all of the blinking and the gritting, the lights went out and I put on my fancy eye mask to block out all the light and tried to fall asleep. The first three times, I fell asleep for sure. The last two, I’m not sure if I did or not. After 2pm and a full night’s sleep with repeated naps, it was harder to fall asleep, but when I heard a voice on the intercom telling me to wake up, I was not sure if I had been asleep or not. I suppose I was, or I would’ve remembered being really bored laying there for 20 minutes. I don’t know what they will find after they analyze the data, but I can’t imagine it is normal to get over 9 hours of sleep and still be able to fall asleep upon command. But what do I know? I’m not a doctor.

The weirdest part of the visit was the last dream I remember from my overnight study. I was sound asleep but in my dream I woke up and I was in a hospital. It wasn’t the same hospital bed I was actually in, it was more like a WWII-era hospital with nurses in crisp white uniforms and paper hats. In a movie, it would probably be the set for an asylum for the “Criminally Insane.” But a dream nurse woke me up into a dream world and sent me downstairs to join some other people. When I sat down with the other patients, another nurse came down to tell us that there was a tornado warning, but there was nothing to worry about. I looked out the window and saw a dark funnel cloud in the distance. I said, “Nothing to worry about? It’s coming this way!” and it was – the black funnel cloud quickly moved closer and I said, “We need to get down to the basement! Get away from the windows!” and some of the younger kids said, “Cool!” and ran outside to check out the tornado. I was freaking out and telling everyone I was from Iowa and I knew what a friggin tornado looked like and that was a funnel cloud. Everyone looked at me like I was nuts but I started running toward the basement as the dark cloud enveloped us and passed us. Nothing changed, the building didn't shake and suddenly there was sunlight. It was just a dark cloud. No tornado. As I sat there thinking, “What the f…” I heard the voice overhead, “Okay, it’s 8:40, we’ll be in to disconnect you so you can grab some breakfast.” Freaky.

Between my vivid dream and my crazy thoughts of having someone read my mind, perhaps this blog should focus more on psychological issues. Then again, maybe I'll just leave it alone. I'm too tired to think of a theme.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Straight up

I never realized how often I drop things until it became too painful to pick them up. The once-automatic act of picking up after myself became a daunting task. Think of how many times you drop something - a set of keys, a piece of paper comes off the desk, a napkin off of the kitchen table. No big deal, right? You just swoop down and pick it up. Not me. As soon as that item hits the floor I go through a battery of considerations, do an impromptu risk assessment and then formulate a plan for how to recover the dropped item. You just don't consider how handy bending is until you lose the ability to do so.

I didn't know it at first, but what I was dealing with was two herniated discs and mild spinal stenosis. For weeks I just thought it was back pain and if I rested for a bit it would get better. In the meantime, living with it was horrible. On the first day I walked into my apartment and accidentally dropped my keys on the floor. I took a deep breath and just stared at them. I stared at the floor the way you would stare down the Grand Canyon if you had just dropped your cell phone and were working up the courage to rappel down and retrieve it. It's so far down. I'm going to hurt myself. I may not make it back up. What am I going to do? Can I live without my keys? Can I just leave them on my floor forever and have someone make a new set for me? Perhaps I should just make dozens of sets of keys and when I drop one I can leave it behind as collateral damage - leaving the world littered with sets of keys. That seems like a reasonable solution. Anything sounds better than bending over.

Of course, I did not make a dozen sets of keys - I would need the original key to cut the duplicates. I had to slowly bend my knees with my back remaining upright and feel around on the floor to pick them up and hang them on the nail. It was a laborious task. It didn't stop with keys, either. I started to wonder if I've always been a klutz and never realized it. Every day I would drop something. The worst was when someone else dropped something by my feet. The polite thing to do would be to pick it up and retrieve it for them. Sorry pal, you are on your own. If someone dropped something on the Metro and it slid below my seat, I would just kick it back to the person. I would try to explain that my back is screwed up and I can't bend over. But the damage was done. It's really not polite to kick something at a person after they drop it. Especially when you're as uncoordinated as I am, and the item would likely get kicked past them, or somewhere within a 3-foot radius of their location. Precision is not one of my talents. It sucks when it's painful to be polite. It was not completely debilitating. I could still go to work, I just had to get up from my desk and walk every couple of hours so I didn't get sore.

One day, after a long day at work, I came home to find that a delivery person had slid a menu underneath the doorway of every apartment in my hallway. What the hell kind of masochist would do something like that? That's just great. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get this off the floor? I am going to have a pizza menu on my floor for all of eternity. What was that delivery person thinking? It was as if someone had vandalized my apartment and I had to figure out how to fix it. Cruel, cruel delivery driver.

The pizza menu stayed on my floor for a couple of days. I finally went through the process of getting x-rays and an MRI on my spine to determine what was causing the pain and that's when I learned of the spinal stenosis. The orthopaedic surgeon showed me the MRI results and pointed to a white line leading from my spine to my right leg. "Do you see the white lines? Those are nerves. Now look on your left side. Do you see how that nerve just stops?" It was creepy to see what's going on inside my body, but it answered a lot of questions. The herniated disc was bulging right into the nerves and cutting them off. Along with the back pain being on my left side, I also had been feeling like my foot was asleep. I often untied my shoelaces and loosened them because my foot hurt, and I thought I had just pulled the laces too tight and cut off my circulation. It turns out that it was not a circulation problem, but my nerves were affected by the back problems. At times it feels like I am walking on something underneath my toes. I must have taken my shoes off and straightened my sock a dozen times because I thought it was my sock bunching up below my toes. But my socks were never bunched. I was feeling something that was not there. I guess that is how the jumbled nerves manifested themselves. It felt very uncomfortable, but not painful like the back pain. The back pain was the worst.

One thing that was very hard for me when dealing with back pain, was that it was all internal. I didn't have a cast on my leg or a brace around my neck that clued people in on my delicate state. If someone didn't know me, they would think I'm an able-bodied young woman in my twenties. Looks can be deceiving. What looks like a 25-year old body on the outside, feels to me like it's 75-years old. I take public transportation everywhere and I struggle with finding a seat during rush hours. I have started waiting until later and taking the train when it is not as packed. When I get to work, I now take the elevator to the second floor instead of the stairs. It makes me very self conscious because I'm sure it just appears to other people as if I'm lazy. Some friends have recommended carrying a cane or wearing a neck brace, just to make it easier to find a seat on the Metro and on the bus. I can't bring myself to ask someone to give up their seat. How do I know they are not suffering from some internal injury as well? Who am I to pick and choose who should give up their seat for my ailing back? I never do. I just suck it up and go on and it seems to get a little better every day. If I have learned one thing from this experience, it is that you can't always tell when someone who comes across as rude or lazy is actually just dealing with pain in the best way that they can. If I have learned two things, it is that bending is awesome and is not to be taken for granted.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

19th Century filmmaking meets 3D magic

Last night I attended a screening of a rare PG-rated Martin Scorsese film that did not include Leonardo DiCaprio. I love Scorsese's films, but Hugo is undeniably a kid’s movie and this is not my preferred genre. It should come as no surprise that my favorite character in the film was played by Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen.

While I do prefer a film that is geared toward adults (but to clarify, not the “adult film” genre) there are elements of Hugo that I genuinely appreciate. I love old films, and when I first saw the poster for Hugo, I recognized the resemblance to the iconic scene with Harold Lloyd from the 1923 silent film Safety Last!

What I did not realize was that this film has more than simply a subtle tip of the hat to a silent film, but it is a bit of an homage to the early filmmakers. I was delighted to see brief images of various films ranging from the late 19th century through the time that the film takes place – in 1930s Paris.

The story centers around two children who meet in a train station in Paris. Hugo, an orphan who lives life in constant fear of a relentless Station Manager, and Isabelle, who lives comfortably but her only knowledge of adventure is informed by what she reads in her library books. What follows is a fantastic adventure as the children gather clues in search of more information about Hugo’s father and Isabelle’s godparents.

Their adventure leads them to the world of movies where they learn more about the wondrous world of cinematic techniques from pre-WWI filmmaking through the contemporaries of the film's setting, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Did I mention that this entire homage to early films is done entirely and beautifully in 3D?

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Hugo's brief tribute to early films through rose-colored (3D) glasses. The labor that was taken to create special effects in the 19th century and most of the 20th century created an imaginative world that is lost to today’s technology. Hugo reminds us that while the techniques may be obsolete, every generation takes their film pioneers for granted. In a time when reality TV passes for entertainment and 3D effects are now being employed by movies like Jackass to show the audience a high-tech, virtual groin-kick, it is poignant to look back at the painstaking work that filmmakers put into creating and editing their art before the computer age. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic, but I can’t help but think that every new advancement in special effects has only served to lower the overall expectations for the next generation. This movie is a perfectly good example. Visually, this film is stunning to watch. The 3D effects are used beautifully. But, while Martin Scorsese is a brilliant filmmaker and children may love Hugo's story, the film was most effective in reminding me that he is no Georges Méliès. I mean no disrespect with that statement, quite the contrary. This may well have been Mr. Scorsese's intention all along.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not a film review: Pariah at Lincoln Theatre

Tonight the Lincoln Theatre in DC hosted a screening of the new film Pariah, followed by a Q&A panel discussion with writer/director Dee Rees, producer Nekisa Cooper, and actors Adepero Oduye and Kim Wayans. I was not sure what to expect from the film, but I was very excited to see Kim Wayans in a dramatic role. I have fond childhood memories of watching Hollywood Shuffle and In Living Color with friends when we were not quite sophisticated enough to understand all of the adult humor, but just old enough to love it and repeat catchphrases for years to come. (But I ain't one to gossip, so you didn't hear that from me!) The Wayans are an immensely talented family and Kim's dramatic performance was enough to bring me to the Lincoln Theatre tonight. Yet, there is so much more than Kim's outstanding performance that make this film worthwhile.

In short, the film is about a 17-year old girl (Alike, or "Lee") coming to terms with her lesbian identity, and struggling with the expectations and influence of her family and friends. All of the actors in the film do a spectacular job of bringing very real characters to life on the screen - each battling their own personal challenges.

Pariah is an impressive film. Writer Dee Rees has brought very rich and complex characters to the screen in a relatively short debut film (86 minutes, according to IMDB) I see a lot of movies, and most of them rely on a standard formula. In the first 30 minutes of most films, you can often predict certain elements - you know who is going to fall in love with who, the tragic flaws within the characters begin to develop and you begin to take things for granted on where the plot is going. Pariah constantly kept me guessing. Judging by the title and subject matter of the film, I was repeatedly trying to predict the "gotcha" moment or dramatic climax that was going to happen next, but I was always pleasantly surprised. The flow of the film is such as life. I never knew which direction the story was going to go, just as Lee herself never quite knew how to handle herself in those situations. The interaction between the family was so familiar that there were scenes that had the audience laughing that may not have been intentionally humorous, but something as small as a reaction of a spouse, parent or sibling felt so familiar that the theater filled with murmurs of laughter. It felt like a shared experience because on some level, we have all had the same awkward interactions in our own lives. It is this familiarity that makes the movie feel so real.

In a word, "real" is the best way I can describe the film. It is not just the overall feeling of the film, but in the literal sense as well. During the Q&A discussion after the screening, writer Dee Rees explained that she based the film on her personal experiences. While it is not completely autobiographical, she shared many experiences and struggles of the main character. It portrays the experience of many people in the LGBT community who have struggled with their sexual identity while looking for love and suffering their own family conflict, but it is such a personal glimpse, that it is easy to relate to the characters and what they are going through. Anyone who has felt that they did not fit in and has ever struggled with the expectations of family or friends will likely see a part of themselves in Lee. During the Q&A, an audience member explained that she was of the same generation as the mother (Kim Wayans' character) in the film, and it helped her as a parent to see the other side of the struggle in accepting children for who they are, rather than who they are expected to be. After this comment, Dee Rees' response was so genuine and touching as she explained that is the reaction she had hoped for when working on the film - To reach people and allow them to understand the main character's internal struggle and coming of age, while constantly dealing with the labels that other people have projected onto her.

It is a very impressive film and the filmmakers made it clear that it will have a very limited release beginning in December, so word-of-mouth is very important in encouraging people to see the film. I don't know how persuasive of a case I have made since it is getting late and we all know I am challenged when it comes to film reviews anyway. So what I am saying here is - I encourage you to see the film. More information about Pariah can be found here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

How many states have you been to?

I recently took an Amtrak train from Washington, DC to Chicago. I take this trip once or twice a year and I have never suffered from lack of conversation. You meet interesting people on a train, and when you are stuck together for 18 hours, people tend to be fairly social. On this recent trip, I had both seats to myself and was excited to be antisocial and start a new book I've been wanting to read. But as I got settled in, I couldn't help but hear the introductions being made by new seatmates all around me. On the other side of the aisle a young man in his twenties chatted with a woman who appeared to be in her forties. Even though I was immersed in the world of ESPN, his voice carried across the aisle as he asked her: How many states have you been to?

It struck me as a naive question. Or rather, a question that would be asked by someone who has not traveled much. I would not expect anyone to know the answer to that question off the top of their head unless they had a fairly short list themselves. The woman also seemed surprised by the question and didn't know how to answer right away until she said, "Jeez, I don't know. I travel a lot. It would be easier to name the ones I haven't been to." She then rattled a short list of the usual suspects - Montana, North Dakota, Utah, etc., and I didn't hear more of their conversation because I was already in my own little world, trying to count on my fingers - how many states have I been to? I had no idea. Not that many, really - but enough that I couldn't name them all without looking at a map. So, when I got home I printed out a map of the U.S. and grabbed a set of colored pencils and started to color in the states I have been to. They have to be places I have actually visited and not just spent time in a layover at the airport - that would be cheating. When I finished my map, there were seventeen total, plus the District of Columbia, of course. The stark whiteness of the remaining states made me realize how little I have traveled in my life. It immediately became a new addendum to my bucket list. It is not unreasonable to visit all 50 states within one's lifetime. In fact, I think it's a fantastic and patriotic goal. Whenever I think of vacations and travel, I always fantasize about other countries and wondering where I should get my passport stamped next. It's a shame that I haven't made time for a weekend trip to West Virginia, or visited relatives in North Carolina. All the times I have had a layover in Atlanta, I have never stepped out of the confines of ATL, as evidenced by the gaping white region on my map between Virginia and Florida. I have never been to the south, never to Texas, and haven't hit the Pacific Rim either in the U.S. or otherwise. This is a very sad and boring map.

When I returned to work the following Monday, I asked a coworker, "How many states have you been to?" She gave me a strange look and I told her that I had overheard someone ask that question on the train. She agreed that it was an odd question. Then, after we mutually speculated on the lack of world experience of the person who had asked the question on the train, she said, "Dammit, now I'm curious" and printed out a map and started circling the states she had been to. She printed out another copy for me because she wanted to see where I had been and compare. Just like myself, and the woman to whom the question was originally posed, she said, "It doesn't count if you're just driving through, right?" Of course not. Same as the airport rule - it would be cheating. She had been to 23 states, but most of the whiteness remaining on her map was in the Midwest - where most of mine is shaded in. It makes sense, she is retired from the Coast Guard so her remaining states are landlocked.

This conversation took place over a month ago and I often spend time daydreaming about where I should take my next road trip and knock out some more of my bucket list. Whenever I receive an email from one of the airlines advertising last-minute airfare, now I look to see how cheap the prices are to places I have never been. Just in case opportunity presents itself to take a spontaneous vacation/bucket list trip. Apparently I am not the only one who has kept the map handy. My coworker came to my desk excitedly a few weeks ago and said that she had to take a work trip to visit Missouri. Now she could mark one more state off of her map and she's almost covered half of them! She's not going to St. Louis, or any city that she was excited to see. But the thought of crossing another state off of her list felt like an accomplishment. As it should. This is a big country, diverse in geography and culture. And we are fortunate to have the freedom that we can just take a road trip and see what the rest of these United States have to offer. Someday I will hit all 33 of those remaining states, and I hope you will too.

I still wonder about the person who originally asked that question. My immediate thought was that he must not have traveled much in his life, but he was on an Amtrak halfway across the country so I'm probably judging too hastily. It is possible that this was his first big trip, or maybe he just knew it was a thought-provoking question. It certainly provoked a lot of thought in one person sitting across the aisle, quietly eavesdropping. Whatever his motivation, I'm glad he asked it. I intend to keep this little map handy for a long time. And when I start to feel like I need a vacation, I may just have to keep my passport locked away and take a little road trip. Maybe I will even find myself on a different Amtrak route next time around. I know just what question I will ask when it comes time to make small talk.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hindsight and speculation from the murder in Bethesda

A verdict was reached this week and Brittany Norwood was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of her coworker, Jayna Murray. This brings to a close the trial that has kept me riveted, disturbed, and deeply saddened. Ever since the first information was released with Norwood's claim of being a victim, I have been trying to wrap my head around what happened on the night of March 11, 2011 at an upscale yoga clothing store. It did not take long for the jury to reach a consensus that Norwood was guilty, but there are two more people who have been receiving a great deal of judgement and criticism: Two employees of the neighboring Apple store who submitted their testimony about what they heard the night of the murder.

It had been widely reported that there were employees next door who had heard the screams of young Ms. Norwood that night. This week during their testimony, more specifics came out and we learned that they heard not only screams for help, but specifically: "God help me. Please help me." The two employees listened on the other side of the wall and one person called the other one over to confirm that they both heard it. For reasons no one seems to be able to determine, neither of the employees called the police or took any action. They later learned with the rest of the world that the screams came from Jayna Murray, whose body was found with at least 322 wounds. By all accounts, this was a disturbing and brutal attack. It is impossible not to be haunted by the question - If those two employees had dialed 911 that night, would Jayna Murray still be alive? They may be asking themselves that question for the rest of their lives, but it will never change the reality. The police were not called that night. Jayna Murray was murdered. Brittany Norwood has been convicted. And hindsight will not heal the broken hearts of the victims family and loved ones. This is a sad, disturbing tragedy and my heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by this senseless act of violence and tragic loss.

When I say that my heart goes out to everyone, I mean that statement to be inclusive. Sadly, there are many people who have no sympathy, but only contempt for the two employees who heard Ms. Norwood's screams that fateful night. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak asks, What's scarier: The slaying or the bystanders who did nothing? That is easy, Ms. Dvorak. The person who took the life of another person and lied to the police about being a victim to avoid being caught stealing. That is scarier. There is no question who the villain is here. Yet, if you read the comments after Ms. Dvorak's opinion piece, you will read hundreds of comments blaming the employees next door. Presumably by hundreds of people who would unquestioningly do the right thing in that circumstance.

It is easy to speculate what we would have done in that same situation, especially with the specific and graphic information we have received from the testimony. But we have not been in that position, and I hope that none of us will ever find ourselves in that quandary. I like to think that I would have called 911 after hearing those screams. In college, I lived next door to a couple who fought constantly. When my roommate and I heard things being thrown and glass breaking, we called the police more than once. I think it would be my natural reaction. But I don't know. I can say with near certainty that I would never have expected the reality - that the screams coming from the yoga store next door were the sounds of a woman being brutally murdered and stabbed 322 times. Even having read testimony and seen photographs of evidence, I still find this act of violence unbelievable. It is impossible to comprehend the events that took place that night. Yes, the employees should have phoned the police. For whatever reason, they made a terrible, horrible, tragic decision not to get involved. And yes, it is possible that they could have saved Jayna Murray's life that night. That is something they must come to terms with. But that is not the same as committing an act of murder.

As much as we would like to understand why the two people in question decided not to call the police that night, in the end it does not matter. If there is anything positive that can come out of this horrific event, it is the lesson to be learned by all of us. If, God forbid, you do ever find yourself next door to a suspicious altercation, think of Jayna Murray and her family and pick up the phone. I can only speculate what I would have done if I were in that position on the night of March 11th, but I can say with absolute certainty that if I should find myself in that position in the future, I know exactly what I will do. Two people exercised very poor judgment that night. Their inaction is not akin to murder, but they clearly made a mistake. Let us all learn from that mistake and not take anything for granted.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Air travel drama without leaving home

I don’t know what it is about me that attracts such horrible luck when it comes to air travel, but today I learned that my luck is so bad, I don't even need to get near an airport. Just booking a trip online is an enormous hassle in my cursed world.

I spent so much money today. I scheduled two upcoming trips – one to go home to see family for the holidays and another to visit friends in Minnesota. (Yes, Minnesota in the winter. That part is not bad luck, but bad timing. Brrr.) Christmas is two months from now, so I have reached the point where the airfare is going to steadily increase as the date comes closer. Even two months in advance, a round-trip ticket to the airport nearest my family is between $800-1200. (Well, technically there was another option that had me leaving around 4 in the afternoon, taking two layovers and finally arriving at my destination at 8am the next morning, but I do not consider spending the night in the airport to be a viable option only to save $75.) So, for the fourth year in a row my holiday trip will be split between an overpriced one-way ticket to my home airport and 22-hours on Amtrak. This trip still cost me $500 and an entire day of my life will be spent on a train or in a station, but I will probably get a lot of reading done. So that’s something. It’s very frustrating to spend that much money when I only have one vacation day plus the three day weekend to take off of work. But, what can you do? That’s what happens when you move 1,000 miles from home.

The trip home wasn’t the real problem, though. The bad luck became apparent when trying to schedule the trip to Minnesota. I began thinking about it when the airfare was around $200, but then I didn’t get all of the details worked out in time and when I booked the trip today, the price had gone up considerably. I think this is the first time ever that I have paid extra to take a non-stop flight, but it is Minnesota in winter and I need to be there by Friday evening so I didn’t want to risk a layover nightmare. I found a suitable flight on one of the travel sites and when I tried to book it, I received an error message that said that the flight availability had changed. I tried again and saw the same flight was still available, but now it was $35 more expensive than it was 30 seconds ago. So, I went for a similar non-stop flight, same thing – the error message came up with the change in flight availability. $35 more expensive. So, I went directly to the airline’s website to check availability and prices.

The airline’s website prices were the same, so I took a dreaded 6:30 a.m. flight to save some money. When I went to check out, I learned that if I apply for their credit card, I will receive $50 statement credit on this purchase. I look over the credit card terms and there’s no yearly fee for the first year, $95 each year after that. I shouldn’t apply for another card because I already have three hard inquiries on my credit report because I consolidated some debt onto some new interest-free cards, so I know it will lower my credit score, but $50 is $50. I applied for the card and received an approval message and the information I needed to use the card right away. Okay, it’s worth it to save fifty bucks.

I must have thought my luck had changed for a moment because of course I should have known I would not save $50 from an airline website. When I tried to use the new credit card for the purchase, I received an error message that I could not use it because the pre-approved credit limit was only $200 and the cost of the ticket exceeded that. Fantastic. Now I have a new credit card that will eventually have a yearly fee, I have a hard inquiry lowering my credit score, and I don’t even get the $50 credit. Great. What the hell was I thinking getting a credit card associated with an airline? With my luck, it is going to get lost in the mail and someone will steal my identity before I even get a chance to use the thing. Oh well. I hope whoever steals my identity doesn’t have their heart set on anything that costs more than $200. And God help them if they try to use it to buy plane tickets with it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I mentioned last week that I wanted to write about the movie Drive, but was kind enough not to subject you to my weak attempt at a film review. It's a film that is worth seeing, but I left the theater thinking, “I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.” I can’t imagine anyone having a different reaction. It’s a film that is very hard to classify, and leaves you thinking about it for days to come. I think reviewer Catherine Bray sums it up much better than I can.

Anytime I see a movie trailer with lots of action, explosions and badass scenes, I have a visceral reaction and want to jump off my couch and head out to the movie theater and see it immediately. Even if the plot is absurd (see: Real Steel), I get sucked in by all the action. The trailer for Drive is full of action, but it does not belong in the same class as the average action film. They tend to be designed for entertainment purposes, not to provide depth or soul searching or Oscar nominations. They exist just to add some good, fast fun to our mundane lives. Drive definitely does not fall into that category, and there are extended periods where it is not action packed at all. Much of the story focuses on development of relationships between the characters with very little dialogue and with a musical score that I hated. The character development added to the depth of the film and the fact that the actors did not depend upon dialogue made Ryan Gosling’s performance so much stronger.

Perhaps it is the early quietness of the film that makes the action so much more exciting. There are moments when it seems like not much is happening, and suddenly you are watching fast-paced action and brutal violence. I do not just throw around the label "brutal violence", either. I'm talking American History X, teeth-on-the-curb-scene brutal. It’s intense. Ryan Gosling is intense. His character speaks so infrequently that when he does, it is not to be taken lightly. Even what seems to be casual conversation with a small child watching cartoons reveals something about the core of his character. The filmmakers do not dumb things down for the audience, but when it is all said and done, you are left to decide for yourself how you feel about the movie and the characters. Or, like me, you may have to take a couple of days to process. I think that is the mark of a good film. When you walk out of the theater and continue to think about what you have just seen.

Apparently I am not the only one who had a ponderous reaction to the film. On October 9th, someone inexplicably threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during the Open. It was revealed a few days later that the dog pitcher was inspired by Ryan Gosling’s character, which inspired him to do something “courageous and epic.” This is rather bizarre, as there was no hot dog throwing in the film. In fact, I don’t even remember anyone eating in the film at all. It’s hard to determine how that connection was made.

But the reactions to the film go beyond the hurling of mystery meats. The Hollywood Prospectus at has a great article about a lawsuit inspired by the film. I don't know what that says about the film, but it's definitely having an affect on audiences. Perhaps not the affect the filmmakers had hoped for, but an inspiration nonetheless. But I don't write film reviews, so you'll have to see it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Film reviews are hard to write

I have been to the movies four times in the last seven days. Four times! I don't mean watching movies on an HBO binge, I actually went to four different theaters in the DC Metropolitan area and watched four different films. That seems like a lot.

The reason I bring this up is because I have been considering how to bridge a gap between life and blog. When I had some severe cashflow problems, I sought out advance screenings for movies in the area as a form of free entertainment. In exchange for standing in line for an hour or more and sitting in less-than-ideal seats, I have been able to see films before they are released to the public. I recently realized that having seen so many films, I talk about movies a lot. I'm starting to feel a sense of responsibility to continue to go to screenings because so many people approach me and ask if I've seen a film, or if I can recommend a good film for a date, or if it's suitable to see with children, etc. I am beginning to enjoy being the go-to movie person. The demographic at my workplace is such that I have very (very!) little in common with most of my coworkers. Movies are universal. You can talk to anyone about them. It has given me a chance to get to know my coworkers a little better and gives us something to talk about. It has been nice to have that experience to talk to about to friends and coworkers.

Since I have seen so many new flicks, I have considered writing movie reviews on the blog. A night at the movies is an expensive endeavor these days. A film for two people with beverages and refreshments can set you back $40 or more. That is a lot of scratch for a two-hour (on average) experience. Since I have the privilege of seeing some of them in advance, it feels natural to write about them before people go out and spend their hard-earned money. But film reviews are hard to write. If you give away information in a review that the filmmaker intended to reveal organically, you are doing the reader a great disservice.

Perhaps I'm just bitter. On weekday mornings I listen to the Tony Kornheiser radio show and he has someone on once a week to talk about movies. I am not a fan of this woman. In the not-so-recent past, she spoke about a film that I wanted to see very badly. I had been anticipating the film and the day before it's release she said something to the effect of, "They do a great job of building suspense. You will see the shaking of leaves and the destruction left behind, but you never actually see the monster until the end of the film."

I was so pissed off.

It may not sound like a huge spoiler, but I assure you that it is. All of the care that was taken by the filmmakers to build that suspense is now marred. The whole point of suspense is to keep the viewer in a state of anticipation of what is to come. Walking into a film knowing that the monster is revealed at the end takes away some of that edge-of-your-seat action. It blemishes the overall experience. I never forgave her and I still haven't seen the film.

Last week, the same reviewer started to talk about another film that I intend to see and after Mr. Tony asked a general question about the film, she responded, "Yes, but there is a twist. I don't want to be a spoiler, but..." (the ellipses indicate the point at which I darted across my desk and turned the radio off.) I appreciate her use of the word "spoiler" this time to give me time to shut her off. I still don't forgive her for ruining that other film for me though.

Some of my best filmgoing experiences have happened when I walked into the theatre with little information, unburdened by expectations and was dazzled by the way the film came to life. Attack the Block was the most recent dazzling experience for me. As soon as I returned home after seeing an advance screening, I sat down at my computer to write a review and tell all of my blog readers how fantastic it was. That happened in June; it has been sitting unpublished as a draft ever since. I couldn't bring myself to post it. Every paragraph is full of spoiler warnings and detailed information. It's crap. You may think that this blog is filled with blather off the top of my head, and to be fair, some of the time it is. But I do write and edit pretty carefully. I couldn't bring myself to take anything away from someone who may see the film. Even if it's at the expense of not telling people how great this film is.

After seeing Drive recently, I feel compelled once again to try my hand at movie reviews, but let's face it - there are plenty of resources for that sort of thing on the internet. Does the blogosphere really need another amateur writing film reviews? There's plenty of that out there already. So, I won't clog the blog with my own pathetic reviews, but I'm going to try to make more of an effort to share information about some of the better films I see (and possibly rant about some of the worst.) I will try my best at being responsible and attempt to enhance your filmgoing experience by providing you with links to actual reviews that are better than anything I could come up with. I have seen some good flicks this year, and I never give my endorsement lightly. I will spare you from having to read my awful attempts at reviewing a film, but I could at least do you a solid and let you know when I see something good (seriously, I have been to the movie four times in seven days. What else do I have to write about this week?)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Time for another air-travel-debacle rant!

I have notoriously bad luck with air travel. This afternoon when I was about to board a plane and heard the overhead announcement that there was no more room in the overhead bins, I knew how checking my bag at the gate would turn out. I had seen those dirty sock for the last time. I took a quick mental inventory of what was in the bag: Dirty socks and underwear, t-shirts, a couple pair of jeans and tops I had just purchased, and two new bras. Oh dammit, those were expensive bras. This is going to suck. There was nothing irreplaceable, all of the important things like credit cards and gourmet popcorn were in my handbag under the seat. Still, it sucks to have your luggage go rogue from the airline.

The line of unfortunate souls was long as the gate attendants tagged everyone's luggage and wrestled it away from them. When it was my turn, the attendant asked, "What's your final destination?" "Washington, DC" and she wrote DCA on the luggage tag and handed me the baggage claim number while the other attendant scanned my boarding pass. My suitcase and I were soon parted en route to a layover in Philadelphia.

When I boarded the plane, my feeling of impending doom was replaced by annoyance as I counted the number of empty spaces in the overhead bins. There were five alone in first class (God forbid!) and then one, two, three, four on my way to my seat and another one right above my head. They must have really wanted that bag because there was plenty of room for it but they stole it fair and square. This is clearly not a glass-half-empty airline because that overheard compartment was not even close to being full.

I arrived at Philadelphia airport prepared for my two & a half hour layover, but I noticed an earlier flight to DCA within 55 minutes. I became convinced that my luggage would end up on that flight and then sit in the baggage claim area in DC for 90 minutes before I even arrived. I tried to get myself on the earlier flight along with the bag. I walked to the opposite end of the terminal to talk to a customer service agent who told me that there was room on the flight, but it would cost me $50 to switch and I would be separated from my checked luggage. "Actually," I told him, "My luggage is the reason I want the earlier flight. I was already separated from my luggage and it will probably beat me home." He told me that was unlikely because the person who marked the luggage at the gate would have noted my flight number on the tag. I assured him that she did not even look at my boarding pass, nor did she clarify which of the three DC-area airports I was flying into. She asked where I was going, wrote DCA, and sent me on my way. He and I then had a ridiculous conversation.

Well, she would have put your flight number from your boarding pass to put on the tag when she checked your bag at the gate.

I assure you, she did not.

Well then she had the master list and got your flight number from there.

No, she had no list.

Well... regardless... if you want to book the earlier flight, you'll need to pay the difference, which is $50 and you will be separated from your luggage.

Actually, I'm more concerned about losing my luggage than getting home early, so if you can assure me that my luggage will be on the later flight...

OH, NO NO NO! We do not make that guarantee.

But you just said...

We can not make that guarantee. Too many things could happen, especially when they are checked at the gate.

Okay, then can you assure me that there will be security at the baggage claim so that if it does arrive early, it will be flagged and not put on the carousel for someone else to take it?

OH, NO NO NO! We can not guarantee against theft. I don't know what the security is like at that particular airport, and it can happen that someone picks up the wrong bag.

So really, their slogan should be, "Give us your bag and hope for the best!" Brilliant.

I kept my original flight (and my $50) and no surprise, when I arrived my bag was not on the carousel. I went to the baggage claim office and she scanned my ticket claim, couldn't find anything, asked me where I came from and told me that more bags were coming in from my flight and she sent me back out to the carousel from whence I came. After watching other peoples' luggage take a few laps, I walked back into the office and another attendant was at the counter so I had to repeat my ordeal. She tried to send me back out to the carousel again but I assured her that my bag was not there. She had a dozen unclaimed bags - mine was not among them. She then asked for my address and phone number and handed me a receipt and said, "Your bag will be delivered to you." What? When? "Tomorrow." Okay, so where is it? "It has not been scanned yet so there is no tracking information." So basically, they told me they had no idea where it is. They put these bar codes on the bags, but then don't scan them unless they end up somewhere unclaimed. Not only is it a bad system, but everyone I talked to acted like I was a huge inconvenience to them. My inquiries about luggage that they forced me to hand over to them and they proceeded to lose - was a huge inconvenience to them. No one apologized, no one did anything to try to explain, they all told me to wait longer and sent me on my way. So, I looked at the receipt she handed me:

Dear Customer,
We sincerely apologize for the delay of your baggage. (Finally! An apology!)

...Most delayed bags are recovered in less than 24 hours, so please remain confident that you will be reunited with your property very soon. Please know that our Baggage Service Specialists are doing everything possible to reduce the amount of time you are inconvenienced. (No, they're really not.)

...If the delay exceeds 24 hours, the tracing of your property will be overseen by a dedicated team of specialists from our Central Baggage Resolution Office. You can expect periodic updates from a Specialist during the tracing process.

I was sent on my way to wait at home for my luggage. I was not happy, but I did stop by the arrivals screen before I left and saw that the next flight from Philly was due in 30 minutes. So, I headed to the airport T.G.I. Fridays and amused myself until the next flight came in and then headed back down to the baggage carousel. Sure enough, there was my little red bag. Reunited and it feels so good! It did not arrive before me as I expected, it arrived after me. I checked the tag since the customer service representative was so insistent that a flight number had to have been written on there. It had a flight number, but it wasn't mine. I googled the flight. It was from DTW to CLT: Detroit to Charlotte, two cities I did not travel through or even near.

I'm really annoyed by the whole ordeal. I understand that these things happen because in all honesty, they usually happen to me. But never with this much disregard and condescension. From the "full overhead compartments" that were not full, to the baggage claim representatives who didn't give a flying frank what happened to my bags, I was really disgusted with the whole experience. Under normal circumstances, I would have turned around after claiming my bag from the carousel and letting the attendants know to cancel the delayed baggage claim, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. The whole thing was so screwed up, that I'm actually curious if I will ever hear from anyone at the airline again in regard to my missing bag. Apparently the bar code was never scanned, so they have no record of it at all. They don't know if I claimed it, or if someone else took off with it. I'm very curious to find out if they will follow up at all. I am guessing that they're not going to get in touch with me about my luggage, they will wait for me to contact them. Well, I'm done contacting them and going through their runaround. I am confounded by the lack of concern and am curious if I hadn't claimed the bag, if my dirty socks and underwear would have taken another vacation through Michigan and North Carolina.

I wish I was one of those people who could stand at the counter and make a scene until someone takes action or gives them a free flight or hands over the contents of the cash register just to get them to stop complaining and go away. I don't have it in me to do that. When I listen to someone who does not give a crap about the problems that their company has created for me, it's not in my nature to scream at them until they pretend to care. But it's unfortunate that without raising your voice, you're treated like a doormat after spending a lot of money to travel. The people in the baggage claim in front of me were getting the runaround and told to go to the Air Canada terminal. When they asked where that was, the person behind the desk didn't know and told them to go look on the map. Is it too much to expect that they might have a map of their own behind the desk for situations like this? Or perhaps some sort of world wide web of information that they could use to ask Google? Perhaps I ask too much. I should just be happy that for the low price of $200 for a one-way ticket, I was able to fly halfway across the country and keep my belongings as well.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

GRE? GRRrrrrrrr

My GRE experience is over and I am confident my scores will indicate that I am an individual who is of average intelligence, and has never heard of math. Barbie’s right, math IS tough.

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) has recently undergone a complete revision and they were in need of guinea pigs to be among the first students to take the new test. Always on the lookout for a bargain, I took advantage of the half-price enrollment fee and paid $80 instead of the standard $160, in exchange for being one of the first to take the test and possibly waiting a little longer to get my results. I’m not planning to go to grad school anytime soon, so what the heck – I have the time and it made sense to pay $80 now and get it out of the way before I start looking into programs. It made good sense to take advantage of the lowered price of the test. In retrospect, maybe not the greatest idea.

The big problem with taking the test before having a clear picture of future goals in grad school: Motivation. Part of the rationalization process for taking the test now was to avoid having to take it while I’m stressed out and feeling the pressure of knowing the scores would be scrutinized. What I failed to consider was how much of a motivator stress can be. I signed up for the test three months in advance, bought a study guide, and proceeded to pace myself as I studied for the test. I read through the review guide, slowly making my way through the test-taking strategies and running through the extensive vocabulary words. Suddenly I found myself with one week before the test and I realized – I have completely ignored the math sections. I haven’t done any of the practice tests or worked through the sample questions. I work six days a week, so I knew that I had one lone Sunday that was unspoken-for before test day, so I continued to pace myself so I could devote myself to study on Sunday.

Sunday came, and so did a migraine. Ugh. My head hurt so badly. I took a few Ibuprofen and started to watch football. And then I watched more football, and then some more. Eventually it was 6pm and I hadn't done any studying. So I start to combine my football viewing with studying. Cam Newton had 432 passing yards. A football field is 120 yards. Therefore, Cam Newton passed 3.6 times the length of the total field. I can do this!

On Monday when I got home from work, I settled in to take a practice test and started with the math section. I then proceeded to freak out. The Princeton Review manual told me that I would be tested on math that I learned in junior high and high school, which was a comfort. It was less of a comfort to realize that it’s been 20+ years since I’ve learned some of this stuff. I’m so bad at math, I didn’t even sit down to figure out the amount of time it had been since I last reviewed these math problems. Algebra was learned in freshman and sophomore year of high school. High school was a long time ago. Therefore, the Algebra principles I once learned are < 1% of my brain. Panic ensues.

At this point, I started to get stressed out and I can confirm that yes, stress is excellent motivation to study. The casual approach to an important test may not be the best approach. I think I did alright on the Verbal Reasoning sections, and the Princeton Review helped me prepare for the two written essays. Most of the verbal section was like doing demented Mad Libs with words I am vaguely familiar with. The Quantitative Reasoning section allowed 35 minutes for 20 questions, and I ran out of time in all three sessions and started guessing on the remaining questions. I'm glad that the new GRE has the option to skip questions and come back to them because some of the math questions were extremely intimidating. I saved those for last. Then I guessed.

In the end, I'm glad to have the test behind me and I will find out my scores in November. Whatever my post-graduate plans are, I can be sure of one thing. They do not involve math. And if they involve a decent GRE math score, I will probably have to shell out another $160 to take that test again. Maybe I didn't save any money after all.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drive by

I have been studying for the GRE and have neglected to write anything for the blog this week. So instead, here's a picture I took in Costa Rica last year while stuck in traffic:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Undergarments overanalyzed

I don't get it. The question is not so much why would a pair of underwear say that, but more importantly: Who are they talking to? If you are unable to see the photo above, it is of a pair of Victoria's Secret boy short panties and the backside says, "Your boyfriend says Hi."

I'm not sold on the idea of grown women wearing underwear that talk, but usually they say things that make relative sense. For example:

"Total Fox", "Above Average", "This is perfection." These are self-referential and they describe the object inside of the underwear. It is the garment equivalent of the "My son is an honor roll student" bumper sticker. When you see that, you know that proud parents are inside the car. Same principle. But "your boyfriend says hi" is just confusing. Is he inside of there?

Under what circumstances will someone see you in your underwear whose boyfriend will also see you in said panties? Are you sleeping with bisexual men who are in a relationship with each other? I suppose you could moon people while wearing your VS boy shorts, or simply hurl them at someone to let them know that you're moving in on their man. All of these things are extremely ill-advised.

In this age of web 2.0, why anyone would use panties to communicate a message to a third party is beyond me. That doesn't seem very practical. The only thing you need on the back of your underwear is the days of the week. Sunday through Saturday, baby. Just make sure they are clean.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Metro advertising - overanalyzed

When I see the words, "...your life depends on it" next to a photo of a vigilante serial killer, I take that threat seriously. As in, if I do not get my ass to the Reston Town Center for the Light the Night Walk, I will be chopped up into tiny pieces and disposed of discreetly. This is the visceral reaction I have when I see this billboard.

To be fair, it does say "Michael C. Hall" under his photo, and not "Dexter Morgan." The actor is a Cancer survivor after undergoing treatment for Hodgkins lymphoma, making him a perfectly appropriate and passionate spokesperson for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This information brings a new level of respect to the message, "Walk because someone's life does," when coming from the actor.

The problem is, if you conduct a man-on-the-street interview and ask people to identify the person in the picture, I'm guessing the majority will recognize him as either a serial killer or a mild-mannered funeral director. If you think that the general public is able to disassociate actors from their characters, talk to Entourage's Rex Lee. If he lives to be 100 years old, he will forever be greeted with shouts of "Lloyyyyyyyd!"

The advertisement is really quite brilliant. Between Michael C. Hall's personal life and his on-screen persona, the message can be deconstructed as:

WALK as if your life depends on it. Because if you don't, Dexter will find you and kill you.
WALK because someone's life does. No really though, Michael C. Hall is a Cancer survivor and this is a very serious disease. It's the right thing to do.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ten years later

Tonight I was fortunate to attend an event at the Newseum in honor of the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Charles Gibson was the moderator of a panel of guests, including Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush's press secretary at the time; Victoria Clarke, who then served as the Pentagon spokesperson; and Jim Miklaszewski, chief Pentagon correspondent for NBC News and the first person on the scene to report that the Pentagon had been attacked.

The panelists each gave us their recollection of where they were when they first heard the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, and how the events unfolded thereafter. Charles Gibson also told of his experience as anchor of Good Morning America that morning. Each of them were in the unique position of being called upon to explain to others what had happened, while they themselves were finding out with the rest of the country. And not always receiving accurate information. I think Ms. Clarke summed it up the best at the end of the evening by repeating a quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan after the Kennedy Assassination. "We will laugh again, but we will never be young again." She thought to herself as she drove past tanks on on the Key Bridge on her way home that evening, "I will never be young again."

After ten years, I still have not come to terms with the events that transpired that day. It feels foolish for me to say that, I was living in Iowa and I did not know anyone who was directly affected by the attack at that time. I was so far removed from the events, but ten years later I am still taken aback by memories of that day. I do not live in fear, and it is hard to put into words. But Ms. Clarke's reference sums it up well. Something was taken from all of us that day. We are forever connected to the memories of that horrific day. Even those of us who did not suffer a direct loss of a loved one, we are not the same people we were on September 10, 2001.

A few weeks ago, a coworker walked into the office in the morning, visibly shaken. She had taken the commuter train into Washington, D.C., as she does every day. She was hesitant to admit what was bothering her, but she whispered very softly what had happened on the train that morning. She spoke quietly for fear of being overheard, and she told me the reason she was so shaken. She said she was on the train sitting next to a Muslim man with a full beard and he was holding prayer beads. She noticed this right away and sat down next to the quiet man and reprimanded herself for the immediate mental connection she made to Muslim terrorists on 9/11. Then, the man gripped his beads and began to pray quietly. She noticed the large duffel bag at his feet. She sat next to him and became more uncomfortable as he rocked in his seat, put his face in his hands, looked up to the sky, and prayed much more actively. At this point she felt very afraid. As she told the story, she was puzzled by emotions - is she a bigot? Is she intolerant? She knew it was the holy month of Ramadan at that time, but it was also days after an unexpected earthquake and days before a hurricane was expected to hit the area. The whole world already seemed to be going crazy and all she could think of was that she was on public transportation in the nation's capital and the man next to her was making his peace with Allah before bombing the train.

She got up and moved to a different train car and struggled with overpowering emotions. She felt bad to have judged someone who she understands was probably just praying during Ramadan. At the same time, if her fears were truly instinctive and he had something suspicious in his bag, she could have neglected to save lives because she erred on the side of political correctness. She asked again if I thought she was a bigot after having told me this. Yet she still had strong feelings from what she witnessed, it felt like a rational fear.

I know her fairly well, and I do not think she is a bigot. I told her so, and I don't think her reaction is her fault. She didn't react that way because of some internal hatred toward Muslims, she reacted that way because her immediate mental connection to Muslims was to stories about terrorist activity. We do not see a lot of representation of moderate Muslims in our culture. Muslim representations are now what Soviets were during the Cold War. I told her that if she would have alerted a conductor and had the entire train offloaded and delayed everyone's commute while the man's parcels were searched, simply because he was praying in public, then she could be headed down the road of intolerance. She didn't do anything about it, but she was afraid and struggled with the "what if" feeling of the possibility that her fears were not unfounded and the danger was real. She struggled with her emotions for the entire day, but I think that her concerns would have been a common reaction among many non-Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world.

On Tuesday, Muslim author Irshad Manji was interviewed on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Thoughts of my coworker's experience filled my head as she spoke of "the most dangerous four letter f-word in the English language: Fear." She continues,

I see among broad-hearted Americans (non-Muslim), FEAR about asking questions of Muslims and Islam because they are afraid of being judged as bigots for doing so. And I see among liberal Muslims like myself, fear of going on the record about our views b/c we fear either of being called traitors by Islam supremacists, or “terrorists-in-waiting” by Islam bashers. So you can see that there are layers of fright all over the place and frankly, I think the next ten years need to be about reconciliation but not just between Muslims and non-Muslims, also between honesty and conversation. If we can’t have honest conversations in which you guys are allowed as non-Muslims to raise uncomfortable questions, then we’re never going to get to the root of what it takes to reconcile.

While I never expect to fully be able to contemplate the events of 9/11 or the effect they have had on the world, I owe a debt of gratitude to people like Irshad Manji, and the panelists who spoke tonight of their experiences. It is true that we will never be young again, but we still have plenty of room to grow as a country. In the days after 9/11, Americans were united in ways I have not seen before or since. Charles Gibson mentioned that his daughter was a few blocks from the World Trade Center and she witnessed countless acts of kindness and humanity as people helped one another through the fog of debris. Ten years later, it is incumbent upon us to help one another through the residual fog of fear.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Her name is not really Sally

The management at my part-time job has been on a hiring frenzy lately. Between back-to-school shoppers and the upcoming holiday season, they have decided to nearly double the size of the staff. It has been a bit of a challenge to learn everyone’s name. I've started to call everyone by the name Sally.

One thing I have learned after 10+ years in retail – Don’t get too attached to coworkers. They come and go pretty quickly and there’s an awkward breaking-in period. Just when you get used to bonding with the same people, they move on and are replaced by new hires. The new Sallies always ask a lot of questions. I think it’s important that they know where the bathroom is, the rest they can figure out on their own. I’m not a complete jerk, but generally I don’t go out of my way to be nice to Sallies.

These days, a lot of the new employees are over-qualified victims of a bad economy. Some of them will tell you upon your first encounter, “I have a degree in engineering. This is only temporary for me.” Others you can assume by the look of contempt on their face that they are clearly taking a position below their intended path in life.

But then, who isn’t? Everyone is underpaid and it is the rare individual who is fortunate enough to find themselves 100% fulfilled, challenged and compensated. It just doesn’t happen very often. Most of us fall into a sliding scale of acceptance of what we do for a living versus our dream job.

Over the weekend, I worked with three people I had never met before. After working a busy cashwrap with one such person, I was struck by how comfortable she seemed and how effortlessly she interacted with customers. She didn’t have any questions and seemed completely in her element. When we caught a free moment, she formally introduced herself, “I’m Sally, by the way.” This was after we had been working side-by-side for 30 minutes. Most of us sneak a peak at a nametag when we’re learning names, but I appreciated the friendly gesture.

We chatted a bit and I was surprised to find that despite her apparent expertise, she’d only worked there a month. She said she had been working in several different departments within the store that she didn’t like as well. She quickly clarified, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to have a job in a bookstore. This is a nice place to work; I just enjoy some departments more than others. Well actually... I’m just happy to work. Period. I moved here to live with my mom after I graduated and wasn’t sure if I’d find anything, so this is great. I’m very happy to be here.”

For a moment, I thought maybe she meant that she had just graduated from high school. Not because she looked that young, but because she was so upbeat about working at the bookstore after graduation. There is a different tone that is generally used by recent college grads to convey this information. I am accustomed to the undertone that says, “This is not what I had in mind when I spent years of my life and thousands of dollars on an education.” Her tone did not imply anything at all. Everything she said came across at face value – I’m happy to have a job. Things could be much worse.

Her peculiar optimism led me down a line of questioning that confirmed she had just graduated from college, at a school in the same conference as my Alma mater (Go Big Ten! (except Michigan)!!) Her mother is currently living in the DC Metro area, so she moved in with her mom and has been sending out her resume in DC and got this new job with the recent hiring blitz.

She admitted that her situation was not ideal. She would like to have a job in her field and earn more money. She doesn't want to sleep on an air mattress in her mother's small apartment forever, but for now - she's able to contribute and she's willing to work hard to move up. She'll work hard while she's at the store. Whatever she's doing, she does her best to make herself invaluable. That's the best way to work her way up. And she's happy to have a job, that's the first hurdle.

These are all her assertions, not mine. And she continued on about her situation without an ounce of cynicism. I was stunned. Sure, we all remind ourselves that things could be worse - but that's usually after feeling sorry for ourselves for a while. This girl still had the ambition of a recent college grad - despite taking a less-than-ideal job, despite the air mattress, despite the compromised hourly wage. I was impressed. I told her I knew a few people and would pass her name along for potential entry-level jobs.

And on Monday morning, that's exactly what I did. Now, you should know, I'm not usually any more proactive about job referrals than I am at introducing myself to new coworkers. If your Facebook page is updated constantly throughout your work day with new YouTube videos, I'm not a good person to come to for a reference. I would never suggest someone for a job unless I was confident that they would work out. Yet, Monday morning, there I was sending off multiple emails to anyone who may have entry-level office positions that pay more than what Sally is making now. And I don't even know her.

I sent an email to a friend working for a placement agency and she said she will contact Sally about possible administrative positions, based on my "glowing referral". It was at that point I realized how much I have taken for granted. Can this girl even type? I assume so. She pushed the buttons on the cash registers quite efficiently. It is a safe assumption that anyone with a liberal arts degree has experience in writing and typing papers, using the Microsoft Office suite, and using multiple databases and research materials. But it is still an assumption.

What is it about her that makes me not only wish her well, but actively put forth the effort, despite any knowledge of her qualifications? I only spent an hour with her, some of it while at work and some in the breakroom (we didn't have the entire conversation on the sales floor. Give us some credit!) I was really inspired by her positive attitude and her work ethic. It wasn't just to help her out, but felt like I was helping anyone who is fortunate enough to employ her. Who wouldn't love to have an employee with that kind of attitude and ambition? That's really all I was thinking of when I spread the word about this great potential employee. Clearly I wasn't thinking about any skills or experience, because I don't have a clue what kind of experience she has. Perhaps I should have asked a few more questions before boasting about her.

I wish I could end this story with a happily-ever-after, that one of my friends hired her and now she's worked her way up and is running the company. That would be impressive since it's only been three days. I'll give her a little more time and keep you updated. Whatever happens, I'm sure she'll land on her feet. And I hope she never loses that great attitude. But I'm still not going to get too attached to her. There will be a new Sally next weekend. I'm sure of that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Post-quake pics

The earthquake this afternoon seems very anti-climactic now that I've heard from so many people across the country who learned about it on the news. By the time my coworkers and I figured out what was happening, it was over. The only exception was one coworker who has lived on the west coast who instinctively said, "It's an earthquake! I'm getting under my desk." and she immediately vanished into thin air. That took all of a few moments and the next few hours were spent like this:

The folks who drive to work were unable to leave because no one was able to enter the parking ramp until it was deemed safe. I considered taking the rest of the afternoon off, then I looked around and imagined the same crowd in the Metro station, which is exactly what I would have been met with. So we continued to wait.

Traffic became gridlocked as far as the eye could see and emergency vehicles showed up along the block. Every employee stood outside of their buildings in varying levels of panic. The defining moment of the afternoon happened when one employee took a close look at the emergency vehicles and said, "It's going to be okay, everyone. It's going to be okay. The Printing Police are here!!"

Upon closer examination:

No disrespect, but we do not work for the GPO, nor do we have any association with them. I can't even name all of the different police forces we have in this city, but I'm guessing on the hierarchy of important people, the GPO force doesn't get deployed to the VIP section of town. That's all I'm sayin'.

In the end, most people I know had a similar experience and we are all lucky to be safe and sound with a new story to tell. As I took these photos, a coworker complimented me on "keeping my cool throughout" and wandering around taking photos while the smokers were on their fifth cigarette and the non-smokers were bumming cigarettes from the smokers. I reject this compliment because sometimes I think that it is stupidity that keeps someone cool in a potentially dangerous situation. I blame it on my childhood. I grew up in a house next to the railroad tracks, so shaking buildings do not trigger any panic reflex. But I still always wonder if I would have taped the penny to the tracks, would it really have derailed a train and killed everyone on board like my brother told me? I'm pretty sure he was lying, but that was one I opted to err on the side of caution rather than call his bluff. Plus, you could still buy one Swedish Fish for a penny back in those days so that seemed like a better investment.

I think I'll eat some Swedish Fish right now and start surfing the internet for some earthquake stories more interesting than mine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My favorite atheist

Penn Jillette was at Lisner Auditorium this evening to promote his new book, God No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. I am a big fan of his Showtime program, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and I've always admired the guy for being open-minded and outspoken. These are two qualities that rarely go together, but make for a powerful combination.

Open-minded people (and Jillette is no exception) as a general rule, openly and respectfully accept other peoples' beliefs - even when they are contrary to their own. They welcome the opinions of others and are willing to concede that they are not always right. This quality does not often run hand-in-hand with being opinionated and outspoken. The outspoken people are generally the ones who are absolute and unyielding in their beliefs. In any forum, it always seems to be the extremes on either side of an argument that are given the most attention. America loves the crazies. Unfortunately, the voices of the extremes often drown out the masses, who are generally in the middle. Certainly this is true in politics where the far left and the far right battle it out, while America is forced to choose the candidate that they find least objectionable. I see this drowning-out of moderate voices first-hand living in DC. There are often protests on the National Mall and thousands of people march and hold signs supporting their cause. Yet, the protest signs that make their way onto television are the photos with Hitler mustaches, or anything that seems in any way extreme or offensive. Those are the representations that are shown. Meanwhile, the masses of people who are holding boring signs that say, "Down with [that bad thing I'm here to protest]" do not make their way into the national consciousness. Most of us fall into that middle, boring category. While Penn Jillette is open-minded, he is far from boring. At 6-foot-7 with a commanding voice, he is hard to overlook; which is good because he brings forth an important message.

The book focuses on his atheist beliefs, but for me it is not his atheist beliefs nor his libertarian beliefs that make him an important voice. It is his unique ability to understand perspective.

I have an atheist friend who gets very upset when someone says to him, "God bless you," or "I will pray for you." He gets genuinely pissed off. To him, the other person is projecting their beliefs onto him. They are making an assumption about him and he rejects their prayers. Jillette, on the other hand, understands that the person is speaking from their own beliefs system. He explained his understanding that if someone believes that a saved soul will go on to everlasting life, it would be like watching someone standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. If you saw an oncoming train, you would do everything you could to persuade them to move out of the way. Even if they said, "There is no train coming. I don't believe there is a train. Richard Dawkins says there's no train," you would still do everything you can to save the person from the oncoming collision. He makes this comparison to Christians and proselytizing. They are speaking from their own understanding of the world. Unlike my friend, he sees this for what it is - a caring gesture. Certainly one that he does not appreciate in the way that they would like him to, but the gesture itself he can identify as coming from a place of caring.

One thing that drives me crazy about many atheists (including my friend and also Bill Maher, who is not my friend but I watch his HBO program) is their condescension toward religious people or believers. This is where Penn Jillette is exceptional because although he has strong beliefs, he also allows everyone else to be entitled to their own beliefs. He acknowledges that there is a fine line between having a civilized debate and stating the facts as you understand them, versus trying to manipulate an argument in an effort to win someone over to your side. His approach is to have a civil conversation and exchange ideas, not to disregard everything the other person says and try to bring them over to your side. This is how most debates seem to go, and it is sad. I wholeheartedly embrace Jillette's philosophy. It is the exchange of ideas that bring progress, not reiteration and condescension toward those who do not believe as you do. That form of communication does not solve problems or change anyone's mind, it simply ends in an uncompromising stalemate. [See: United States Congress]

Mr. Jillette seemed to speak off-the-cuff, but when you pay attention, you notice some very carefully-chosen words. A few times when speaking about stating facts or "the truth," he always followed it up with, "as they/I understand it." That is an important distinction that you rarely hear acknowledged. When people speak the truth or state facts to back up an argument, they are facts or truth as they understand them. Everyone understands the world based on their own personal experience. So it is possible for two people to have an argument and both be stating facts as they understand them, or the truth as they know it, but remain in complete conflict and disagreement. It doesn't always mean that one party is wrong and the other is right. We are all individuals, and just because someone's understanding of life does not match your own, it doesn't make their viewpoint any less valid. Just different. All we can do is respect one another's opinion and perhaps enlighten someone by communicating our own understanding; or agree to respectfully disagree. There are many things that Jillette spoke about that he disagreed with but did not condescend or disparage. To some it may have sounded like he was defending them, but it was something far more civilized than defense of another argument. He respectfully disagreed with many things, and that is something I do not hear often enough.

The good news of the evening was that although there will not be a new season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the duo has a new show coming out soon. It will be on the Discovery Channel (or, the Disco Channel as he would like everyone to refer to it, since that is how it appears on his TV menu.)