GraphJam: pop culture in graph form = much geeky happiness.
I cheerfully tossed Andrea Buchanan’s Mother shock : loving every (other) minute of it and (perhaps less cheerfully) Susan Wicklund’s This common secret : my journey as an abortion doctor on my library hold list, intending to review one or the other. Neither of them has yet turned up, but coincidentally the library coughed up Identical Strangers: A memoir of twins separated and reunited instead and it is certainly a book that approaches the concept of “mother” from many angles.
Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein were given up at birth and were adopted into separate families, possibly because the adoption clinic’s consulting psychiatrist believed it was better for twins to be separated and possibly for the much less altruistic reason that she wanted to study certain aspects of heritability. The families were never told the children were twins, and it isn’t discovered until Elyse — in her 30s — embarks on a search for her birth mother.
You can imagine the issues of identity of self, of the family in which you were raised, of the family you’re now raising, of how to negotiate the new relationship with your twin, that would arise if out of the blue in your 30s it arose that not only did you have an identical twin, but the two of you may have been part of a bizarrely unethical scientific experiment.
Both twins write with amazing honesty (they alternate passages, so their individual voices remain distinct) about their experiences — I’m impressed that they were willing to put so much openness into their writing. It makes the book one part ruminations about self, family, and motherhood and one part mystery — why were they separated? Who was their mother anyway? It would be hard to say more without tossing in spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that. Recommended.
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Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery
by Alex Kuczynski
The initial tone of this book is wildly uncritical — she skims quickly past the notions that half the American population isn’t comfortable with their looks and are subjected to a constant barrage of images of surgically-sculpted perfection and gets right into the how-to without a backward glance at the deeper issues. Kuczynski is a journalist, not a scientist or an investigator, and she clearly goes for sensationalism over depth or meaning. For example, she leaves uncommented this interview with Dr. Suzanne Lepine, a Manhattan specialist in cosmetic surgery for, of all things, feet:
We live in a fifteen-second culture,” she said. “That’s how long it takes, I believe, for a man to look at you and decide if he will be in love with you. That is it. And if you’re wearing stiletto sandals and your feet look like hell, he’s not even going to give you the time of day.”
A man won’t love you, Levine reasons, or even give himself the chance of falling in love with you, if you have a bunion peeping out of your $500 evening sandal. Tough town, I said.
“Tough town, that’s for sure,” she said. “It sets its own standards. People overreact. I had one woman come in who wanted me to do liposuction of the toe. I mean, that’s even over the top for me.”
What happened to the patient?
“I told her to go see a shrink instead,” Levine said.
When I left, Levine asked me if I knew any good single men.
Yikes. Talk about the need for a psychiatrist and a smack upside the head with a book on feminist theory. To be clear: if a man rejects you on the basis of fifteen seconds’ worth of gazing at your unpedicured, unsculpted toes, your foot should be applied swiftly to his ass as you boot him out the door, not taken to a surgeon. (But I digress.)
In later chapters Kuczynski does a reasonable job at covering the risks of surgery and gives a fairly impassioned schpeel on the need for potential clients to check the qualifications of their putative surgeons; she doesn’t skip discussion of the risks at all. Still, she doesn’t ever really address anything beyond the who, what, how, and how much money of plastic surgery — the background societal issues remain unexamined. Which, to be fair, is probably beyond what might reasonably be expected from this book: Kuczynski set out to explore the world of plastic surgery, and given that parameter she’s done a fine job. It’s a very decent factual piece which would make a respectable accompaniment to some deeper analysis.
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Me: It’s time to go inside. We need to make some dinner.
M: Can I watch a movie?
Me: No, it’s not the weekend yet. Why don’t you play with your Webkinz on the computer?
M: Nooooo. I want to just sit and watch a movie.
D: Hey, I know. Why don’t you come upstairs and play with your Nintendo?
M: Noooo! Nintendo’s too active!
Just down the street from my office, and around the corner from D.’s old office, there was a falafel place with much promise. The area is high on all varieties of Asian but decent shawarma is a little thin on the ground.
I went there a couple of times and each time I had a terrible time getting my order. They’d take my order, nod confidently, do twenty-seven other things seemingly randomly, deliver orders to people before and after me also quite randomly, then eventually deliver me something close to but not quite exactly what I’d ordered and charge me a random amount of money for it. They had no process. It was like an extreme version of Starbucks’ tendency to produce drinks for three people who ordered after I did before finally coughing up something vaguely resembling my drink five minutes later.
The food at the falafel place was good but I quit going there: apparently I am too anal for that sort of free-for-all and it made me tense. It seems I need a visible and knowable process in my lunch preparations. The roti place, for example. You come in and line up in one clearly indicated line to order and pay. Then you switch to another clearly indicated line and wait for your food, which is prepared in order. It’s all very transparent and obvious. You know how long it’ll be before yours is ready, and then when it’s your turn you can watch and make sure you’re getting what you asked for plus extra hot sauce and no bag thanks. It’s all very pleasing and efficient.
D., however, ate at the falafel place regularly. Perhaps it’s all the time he spent in the Middle East but the place never gave him the same case of (admittedly mockable) nerves. Eventually, he said, a new guy started there and he had A System.
And so I went back, with high hopes.
This time they forgot my order entirely, although (as it was 2pm) I was one of only three people in the place and there were three people behind the counter.
We figured I was jinxed and perhaps D. needed to accompany me. But then D.’s office moved and the falafel place closed. Another mystery never to be solved.
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After he died, I was interviewed a lot, asked about Douglas. I said that I didn’t think that he had ever been a novelist, not really, despite having been an internationally best-selling novelist who had written several books which are, a quarter of a century later, becoming seen as classics. Writing novels was a profession he had backed into, or stumbled over, or sat down on very suddenly and broken.
I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don’t even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they’ll realise that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won’t forget. Who can dramatise the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.
Once upon a time a long long time ago there was a downstairs kitchen in our house. It looked something like this:
…and despite its extreme ugliness when we bought the house we fully intended to use it for a time, then switch to the upstairs kitchen temporarily while we renovated.
But no. Once we started running water and flushing the upstairs toilet — and after my poor mother had spent an entire day cleaning the downstairs kitchen — we discovered that over in that corner the cabinets were mounted on a sheet of plywood, which Safety-Averse Former Owner (SAFO) had affixed there many years ago. It was there to cover for the fact that there was a massive, sewage-leaking crack in the house’s soil stack (the big pipe that carries all your wastewater to the sewer) behind the wall. It had been flinging sewage into the wall for so long that below cabinet level the wall/plywood/whathaveyou had dissolved, and the cabinets were full of dust and dried sewage.
Ew. Even if we had been able to clean the cabinets adequately, that wall had to disappear to get the stack fixed, which meant the cabinets had to go. Also note the extensive water damage on the ceiling due to SAFO’s ineptitude with tiling the upstairs bathroom. And there was no insulation in the walls, thus no space for wiring for things like lights and dishwashers. We’d need to build proper frame walls for that. Plus the roof developed a leak that ruined more of the ceiling and another wall.
So we ripped it all out, down to the brick. There was sewage soaked through all five layers of kitchen flooring, right down to the eighty-year-old joists.
I have no handy pictures of this phase, but here’s a shot down into the kitchen from the similarly destroyed upstairs bathroom to give a sense of the level of destruction:
You can see some of the new walls being framed in the lower room — they’re the new-looking 2x4s.
Then we got the plumbing and wiring totally replaced, closed the door on the kitchen and worked on the upstairs bathroom instead, because it’s really irritating to only have a functional bathtub in the basement. Especially one in a room with no heating vent and with the cast-iron tub touching the two outside walls — in winter, the tub got so cold you could burn your feet on it.
The bathroom’s now done but for several very tiny details and its very pleasantness has thrown the irritatingness of the tiny upstairs “kitchen” into sharp relief. If you can count the number of people that can work in a kitchen without bumping into each other, our upstairs kitchen is a zero-bum kitchen. You get in your OWN way in there, what with the fourteen inches of counter space, no drawers, and half-broken stove.
But look! Here’s that same corner of the downstairs kitchen yesterday morning:
Whee, drywall! (You can even see a bit of the ceiling there.)
And after drywall comes paint, and after paint comes the floor (which has been stacked up in the basement for several years) and the trim, and after the floor and the trim comes a crew of nice men who will install, you know, a kitchen. And there will be much rejoicing.
55: Approximate weight of a sheet of 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ drywall, in pounds.
9: Height in feet of our kitchen ceiling
639: Approximate number of muscles in the human body
600: Approximate number of those muscles that will hurt the next day if you spend a lot of time lifting 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ sheets of drywall up to the ceiling, balancing with varying degrees of precariousness on ladders and the corners of tables, and holding the drywall sheets up there while they’re screwed down. This includes the muscles between your ribs (the ones that make it hurt when you breath), the muscles in your instep, the full pectoral suite, the full gluteal suite, and more. Many more.
39: Approximate number of muscles in your face. I am happy to report that you can drywall without pulling these.*
*Assuming your marriage is good, that is. I suppose if you spend the day frowning and hollering at your spouse while also holding sheets of drywall over your head, you may be risking your facial muscles too. And then how will you call your RMT, hmm?
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M: look! A robin! Do you know you are named after it?
Me: I see it! and yes.
M: I’m not named after anything.
Me: I suppose that’s true. Daddy isn’t either.
M: When I have a baby I’m going to name her after something. She’ll be called Tulip or Rose or Chrysanthemum or Petunia. Then she can do a flower dance after her name.
Me: What if it’s a boy? What will you call him then, Catnip?
M: Yeah. Lettuce or Catnip or Potato. Or Tree. Because we need more trees, and then he’d be one.
How odd to see this float through my inbox —
Quotation of the Day for April 4, 2008
“Its major importance would appear to be financial support of the surgical profession.”
– Alfred Sherwood Romer and Thomas S. Parsons, explaining the role of the human appendix, in The Vertebrate Body.
I remember doing a double-take on reading that sentence in that book, which is a formidable and otherwise utterly humour-free textbook. Thomas Parsons was a professor of mine, and a very good one, and in the vertebrate anatomy class in which we used that book he admitted to adding that sentence during the book’s revision.
As a professor he was old-school enough to wear a shirt and tie, but modern enough to wear his Zoology sweatshirt overtop and to get up on the lab counter to demonstrate the difference between reptilian hips and bird hips.
He taught me how to do excellent dissections with a blunt probe and an absolute minimum of scalpel, leading me to mutter disapprovingly when I later came across human bodies that had been dissected by scalpel-happy med students with no sense of subtlety.
He set insanely difficult bell-ringer exams, with specimens cut on the diagonal and all kinds of things where you’d waste half of your ninety seconds wondering what the heck the animal was, never mind identifying the bit of it with the pin in. His essay questions weren’t any easier. But then he’d scale up the marks so it was still possible to get a decent mark after all.
He had four season’s tickets to the opera and as his wife didn’t like opera he would take students. Not by invitation — by open call in class, first come first served. A brave thing, taking science geeks to the opera.
He was, in short, the sort of professor for whom you work hard not for yourself but because you don’t want to disappoint him.
He retired the same year I graduated and moved back to New Jersey to do some birding. I see he’s still doing that. We exchanged a few notes around the time I was applying to grad school. I’m sorry I didn’t keep up the correspondence, but it seemed he was settling very happily into retirement.
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I thought I’d read about the craft of writing for this month’s challenge.
Quotation of the Day for March 19, 2008
“I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”
– William Gibson, writer
I don’t think William Gibson’s quite nailed it. If I sat and wrote for as long as the average person watches television I still doubt there’d be much in there that would be publishable — and if there were, it would be nonfiction almost certainly.
The art and craft of fiction writing is mysterious. All the authors in the book I read — Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times — pretty much agree. Nobody could, or would admit to, the faintest inkling of where their ideas come from. Some sit each day and study others’ writing, some meditate, some follow their dog around — it’s all very entertaining to contemplate — but the headwaters of the stream of fiction remain a pleasing mystery.
From the book’s essays, I think Kent Haruf (p.89) comes closest to a cogent explanation of the craft of writing:
Still, I have to say, writing is all messier and more a matter of dead ends and fits and starts than a recitation like this one makes it out to be. And perhaps because writing fiction — this weird practice of telling artful lies, this peculiar habit of inventing imaginary people who talk and move and sleep and dream and wake up and kick and kiss one another — is so bizarre in itself is the reason why writers have to find bizarre ways to make it possible even to consider doing it.
So of course they have to write in their underwear and face the backs of dressers. Of course they have to pull stocking caps down over their faces. Otherwise they might as well do something practical and ordinary, become doctors and lawyers and ditch diggers like everyone else.
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If it’s a windy night, don’t put out your paper recycling until morning.
I’m not doing Earth Hour.
Yes, obviously I’m against climate change. But I think the whole Earth Hour notion is pointless and misguided for a number of reasons.
First, it’s yet more preaching to the converted. What’s the point of an event which caters only to those already sympathetic and in the know?
Second, it’s pointless. Turning off the lights for an hour is cute, but lights are only symbolic. My furnace uses more kilowatt hours than all the lightbulbs in my house put together. So does my stove.
Third, it’s a distraction, one of those things that makes people feel they’re doing something when actually they’re not. File it with those click-for-a-mammogram, click-to-donate-rice sites which exist to suck in advertising revenue far in excess of any donations. File it with driving a Prius, which is a. hardly clean to manufacture; b. only about 20% more efficient gas-wise than a normal car; c. reliant on electricity, which may well not be cleanly produced; d. a large chunk of metal taking up public space which could better be used for other things — i.e., it’s still a car. File it with switching to those hideous flourescent lightbulbs, which mean less heat produced, which means your furnace runs more and now you have hazardous mercury-containing waste instead of normal lightbulb waste, plus you get more migraines. You haven’t changed anything with any of these actions. They’re feel-good tricks that drive people to complacency and through their very triviality distract people from paying attention to the larger issues they’re supposed to highlight.
So yeah, I won’t be turning the lights out. But since I only ever have one light on at a time anyway, I doubt it would make much difference.