Archive for December, 2007

Coping with the Cold by Thinking About Florida: The Swamp by Michael Grunwald

December 29, 2007

IciclesWell, it may be the seasonal Seattle 40 degrees here, but it still feels cold. Not as cold as the windy arctic chill that’s descended upon the Midwest, though, from what I hear. But it’s cold enough that even my blog is snowing.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d focus on something hot, and tell you about one of my favorite recent reads: THE SWAMP: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald. This book, released in 2006, is an incredible history of the Everglades, from its first intrusions by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s, through its many attempts at drainage and development, through the hurricanes that would devastate the region, to the recent attempts to repair and restore the Everglades. Grunwald, an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post, writes:

The Swamp is “. . .the story of the Everglades, from useless bog to national treasure, from its creation to its destruction to its potential resurrection. . . It’s a story about the pursuit of paradise and the ideal of progress, which once inspired the degradation of nature, and now inspires its restoration. It’s a story about hubris and unintended consequences, about the mistakes man has made in his relationship with nature and his unprecedented efforts to fix them.”

Grunwald calls the Everglades “a moral test,” a test of:

. . . our willingness to restrain ourselves, the share the earth’s resources with the other living things that moveth upon it, to live in harmony with nature. If we pass, we may deserve to keep the planet.”

It’s rare that I read a book that reads so well not only as a living piece of history, but also as a work of suspense, of ethics, and philosophy, and yet remains exceptionally accessible. To anyone who has an interest in the history of the United States, Florida, the environment, or likes a good man vs. the environment tale, this book is for you.

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Political Writing: The Sequel

December 27, 2007

DonkeyElephantJust in time for the primaries, Valdis Krebs of orgnet.com has come up with another fascinating — maybe a little frightening — example of social network patterns and in this case, how they relate to political book buying. As I originally wrote about in the post “Has Partisanship Ruined Political Writing?,” book buying has split in a fairly straight-forward fashion into red and blue clusters, with only a few books bridging the gap between the schism. This latest network visualization shows the most influential books in each cluster using a “prestige metric” from social network analysis. Broken Government shows up as the most influential blue book, and An Inconvenient Book is the most influential red book, just beating out Power to the People.

Take a look at the visualization yourself. Which of the books, if any, have you read?

The Giving Season: Finding a Charity to Support

December 24, 2007

Star in the EastEvery year, I have more and more trouble coming up with a Christmas list of things I want. Let’s face it: I already have been blessed with far more than I could ever need. So every year, I tell those around me to give some money to a worthy charity in my name. But I’ve started to realize that shopping for a worthy charity can be almost as time-consuming as (gulp) heading to the mall. Unless a person has a collection of charities he or she already supports, it can be fairly intimidating to find a charitable organization that feels trustworthy.

The obvious answer is to look on the Internet for a charity database. But even here, there be dragons. One site I uncovered has very good information about a charity’s funding allocation — but you have to have the charity’s name first. Another site that purported to be a charity database was woefully incomplete; I searched for some well-known and more obscure charities and only a handful came up in their database listing. But then I found Charity Navigator, the recipient of today’s WordHappy writing award. This is my gold standard of website home pages: its design is chock-full of helpful, organized links without seeming too cluttered, and I was able to determine within seconds that I could find any information I wanted about a charity. It even offers a 2007 Holiday Giving Guide.

I chose Grameen Foundation USA, an organization that fights global poverty through microfinancing, as a test subject. Charity Navigator provided an organization and efficiency rating; a recent income statement; the name and salary of its leader; and the organization’s mission. Charity Navigator even included a sidebar link that would allow me to donate to that particular charity immediately. But wait, there’s more. The charity’s page also includes a listing of charities performing similar types of work. In five minutes time, I felt like I could competently donate and feel like my money would be well-utilized.

So a hearty thank you and a merry Christmas to Charity Navigator, the best written and most well-organized of any of the charity databases I uncovered. And to everyone else, have a very blessed holiday and if the spirit so moves you, blessings to you for the gifts you bring to others.

Duck, Duck, Goose: Great Food Writing for Christmas

December 22, 2007

I’m a total foodie. I have a collection of probably about 50 cookbooks, most of which I’ve prepared only a few recipes from. But the secret to a really great cookbook is that it will be as much fun to read as it will be to cook from — because that is a cookbook to which you will return again and again. Christmas Dinner

But that doesn’t help me with my more immediate dilemma: What to make for the Christmas meal this year. Turkey, the obvious choice. Duck, last year’s dinner which was full of juicy deliciousness. Ham, with a sour cherry glaze. It’s too hard to decide. I need guidance. I turn to one of my very favorite books on the art and science of cooking: COOKWISE: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking by Shirley Corriher. This was her first book, and it won the 1998 James Beard Award for Food Reference and Techniques. But despite her clear expertise on why and how things work in the kitchen, I have a much more shallow reason for turning to her again and again. She’s a great storyteller. And if you’ve ever seen her on Alton Brown‘s food science show Good Eats, you’ll be as hooked on her southern accent as you will her advice.

If you want an example of Ms. Corriher’s advice wrapped in a story, try this one out, where she describes making a duck for her first Thanksgiving away from home and family:

I made a batch of dressing and stuffed it into the duck. It disappeared. The duck looked three-quarters empty inside. I decided this would not do. The dressing is one of my favorite things, and I wanted plenty. So I made another batch of dressing and put it inside the duck, too. The duck still looked quite empty. I ended up stuffing four batches of dressing into that poor duck.

After the duck had been roasting for awhile, we heard this great rrrrrrrmmmmmp — a strange muffled explosion from inside the oven. I jerked the door open. There to my wondering eyes appeared a huge mountain of dressing with just a few duck bones sticking out of it. The dressing had absorbed fat and absorbed fat and absorbed fat and expanded and expanded and expanded until the poor duck literally exploded. We could find only an occasional piece of duck meat or bone amid all the dressing.

She goes on to describe what sounds like an absolutely delicious way to prepare the duck so that it does not explode. It involves a caramel Grand Marnier sauce that I will leave you to salivate over as you imagine it. But this is not what I’ve decided I’m making for Christmas. No, I found a recipe in my SIMPLY FRENCH cookbook by Patricia Wells for Beef Tenderloin roasted in an herb-encrusted salt crust. Make sure you call first before you show up for dinner.

What are you all having? And what are your favorite books about food and cooking?

Someone’s Been Hitting The Punch: Christmas emahtskcblvdt

December 19, 2007

I saw this highly entertaining holiday commercial from Amazon on YouTube today. I think it pokes fun at the ubiquitous practice of making everything into acronyms, using an old-fashioned, Lawrence Welk-ian kind of musical ethos. It’s either that, or someone spiked the eggnog over at Amazon. At the very least, it demonstrates a healthy corporate sense of humor, which is always lovely to see in a mega-company.

More Christmas Blessings: The Grinch and WebMD

December 17, 2007

The GrinchSo, depending on how you look at things, my December curse or blessing continues. On the curse side, I got felled this weekend by a surprise attack of appendicitis, requiring surgery and a weekend in the hospital watching infomercials. On the blessing side, I got through the surgery with nary more than a sore navel, so who am I to complain?

However, I must give WordHappy kudos to the no-nonsense writing approach of the WebMD website. When it’s 11:30 at night and you can’t remember whether it’s the lower right or left side you need to worry about with appendicitis, it’s a good place to find your bearings and decide whether a trip to the emergency room is in order. If anyone who reads this has other medical advice websites they find informative, helpful, and well-written, be sure to comment and tell us. It could be, quite literally, a life-saver.

As I channel-flipped through hospital television channels this weekend, there were many holiday offerings, but only one show was left to play to completion: the 1966 cartoon version of Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Do not be confused with the inferior live action film from the year 2000. There is only one true version. This cartoon for me beats Rudolph, beats Frosty, beats the Heat and Snow Misers, beats them all. The cartoon features quirky animation, one of the great anti-heroes of Christmas literature, and the voice of Boris Karloff. That’s like hitting the Trifecta of Christmas greatness! And even better, it manages lovingly to skewer the mass commercialization of the holiday and bring it back, if not to its religious roots, at least to its moral roots:

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Maybe it does, indeed. Thanks for the reminder, Grinch and Ted Geisel.

All I Want for Christmas is Customer Service

December 12, 2007

PresentY’know, I’ve been having holiday woes what with packages being misshipped and other shipping mishaps. It’s enough to make a girl think she’s being persecuted by the USPS. But what really honks my horn is when you call the Customer Service numbers at the fine online retail establishments to voice the problem, hopefully at least get a sympathetic ear if not a resolution to the problem, and what happens instead? The person on the other end of the line is reading from a script and sounds as if they could not care less that the item you ordered a month before Christmas is not expected even to ship now before Dec. 26th. It’s enough to make an otherwise reasonable person snap.

That’s why I particularly like this news bit I found on The Consumerist blog. Apparently, one A. Hildebrandt participated in Amazon’s post-Thanksgiving “Customers Vote” promotion and tried to buy a laptop computer, retail $1000, discounted to $299 for 250 randomly selected buyers. When neither he nor anyone he talked to reported success at trying to buy this laptop, he and others began to wonder if the prizes had been awarded at all, or just “snatched up by Amazon employees.” So he wrote a letter to the Executive Customer Service department at Amazon and copied Amazon president Jeff Bezos, complaining that now he would never be able to write his planned opus at the neighborhood Starbucks.

Here’s the good part. Hildebrandt actually heard back from Amazon, in the voice of one Autumn Walker of the Executive Customer Service department. Her written response, being both sympathetic and funny at the same time, earns her a WordHappy stamp of approval. After empathizing with Hildebrandt and confirming that neither she nor any of her colleagues won any rounds in the promotion, she writes:

I share your wonder that neither you nor any of the other 18 bloggers participating in your thread did not win the “Out & About” round. As a matter of fact, I was quite vociferous in like-minded protest. Perhaps the response I received to my own objections may clear this matter up somewhat: when I stoutly declared that some member of my voluminous family should have statistically won something, I was reminded of a common thread in our “Customers Vote” forum which states buying a lottery ticket only marginally increases one’s chances of winning the lottery.

Take heart; Norman Mailer wrote all of his novels by hand. And you’ve surely heard the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”? It would sound absurd to substitute “laptop” for the word “pen.”

You can read the whole, very funny, letter over at The Consumerist blog. If only I had been dealing with Ms. Walker over these last few days, perhaps my decidedly Grinch-y mood would have been more Cindy Lou Who-ish.

Muddling Through: A History of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

December 10, 2007

Christmas Tree Maybe it’s spending twenty minutes stalking a parking spot at the mall; maybe it’s the Christmas cards staring at me accusingly, taunting me to go ahead and send them anytime before the first of the year. But I seem to have Christmas on the brain this weekend, not necessarily in a good way. So I do what I always do when I get overwhelmed by the season — I pull out my THE JOHN GARY CHRISTMAS ALBUM and let this Bing-Crosby-like crooner transport me back to a more innocent age.

One of the songs on the CD is an old chestnut: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I’ve always loved this song. I think its lyrics are so lovely and understated. And I recall that last year, about this time, my magazine addiction Entertainment Weekly published a really fascinating article about the history of this song. Now, if I can remember an article from a whole year ago – considering I rarely remember when it’s time to buy more toothpaste – this must be some fine writing. And lo and behold, I was able to retrieve this article in EW’s archives with the miracle of technology. So consider this a WordHappy twofer: great songwriting and great journalism.

According to the EW article “There’s Something About Merry,” written by Chris Willman, the song underwent two revisions to make it “happier.” As originally written by Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me in St. Louis, Willman describes the first incarnation of the song:

For the now-famous scene in which Garland and her little sister, a 7-year-old Margaret O’Brien, are despondent over the prospect of moving away from their cherished home, he wrote an initial set of lyrics that were almost comically depressing. Among the never-recorded couplets — which he now describes as ”hysterically lugubrious” — were lines like: ”Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last…. Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.”

Even Judy Garland apparently couldn’t stomach something so sad, and convinced Martin to come up with a slightly less downbeat tone. This next version was the one imagines the possibility of a brighter future, but has the line, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Then, in 1957, Martin was approached about the song yet one more time by no less than Frank Sinatra. He wanted the “muddle through” line rewritten to match the jolly tone of his album A Jolly Christmas. So the line was rewritten again, now being sung, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

So now you know; in your debates where you and your friends cannot seem to come to agreement about what the words are to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” — you’re all right! For what it’s worth, the John Gary version – one of the finest interpretations, in my opinion – contains both sets of lyrics.

Now, back to those cards. . .

Best Christmas Movie Ever: A Christmas Story

December 8, 2007

A Christmas StoryAs the television gets deluged with viewings of every yuletide heartwarming movie known to mankind, my thoughts turn to pondering — what makes a great Christmas movie? [Note to readers who don’t celebrate Christmas: I don’t mean to give short shrift to all the great Hanukkah and Kwanzaa movies out there – I simply don’t know of any. Please enlighten us if there are!]

So what makes a great Christmas movie? For answers, let’s examine what, in my opinion, is the best Christmas movie ever: A CHRISTMAS STORY, based on the book by Jean Shepherd. It’s become one of those cult sensations; you’ll probably have to look hard to find a showing of it. But see if you can; it’s worth the hunt.

  • Focus on children. Face it — despite our best attempts to bring our families back to the true meaning of Christmas, kids mostly fixate with laser-like focus on one, maybe two, things: the coming of Santa and presents. A CHRISTMAS STORY honors this reality.
  • Acknowledgement of the nuttiness of the season: A CHRISTMAS STORY works in long Santa lines; the quest for the tree; the debates over decoration of said tree; the Christmas turkey; and every other fine holiday tradition that stresses us out.
  • A light heart. Yes there are lessons learned in this film. [SPOILER ALERT] Ralphie gets his Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, and then proceeds to shoot his eye out. Almost. But the movie quietly and subtly pays homage to the power of family as well with a light touch. You know as you watch it that this is a family whose members love and are loyal to each other.
  • Lines that you can quote by heart. I defy you to see this movie and not come out of it without immediate memorization of several favorite lines (a sign of great movie writing, by the way). My favorites:

Narrator Ralph: In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Mr. Parker: It’s a Major Award!
Swede: Shucks I wouldn’t know that. It looks like a lamp.
Mr. Parker: What is a lamp, you nincompoop? Tt’s a Major Award. I won it!
Swede: Damn, hell, you say won it?
Mr. Parker: Yeah, mind power, Swede; mind power.

Adult narrator Ralphie (referring to the leg lamp): Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.

The movie is the perfect combination of period nostalgia seasoned with a pinch of absurdity (Leg lamp, anyone?) and pure silliness.

Of course, you’re always free to come to your own conclusions. I welcome all comments to the Great Christmas movie debate.

Why We Need Writers

December 4, 2007

Yeah, maybe you’re whiling away the hours of the writers’ strike with your head buried in a good book. But I still miss my tv and film writers.

Think they’re dispensable? Take a look at this:

‘Nuff said.