Archive for May, 2008

I’m Okay, She’s Terrific: Beth Lisick’s HELPING ME HELP MYSELF

May 31, 2008

Helping Me Help MyselfI just finished reading the best book, a book that had me snarfing milk out my nose as I read it at the breakfast table. I know, it’s rude to read at the table, but so be it.

Beth Lisick lays her cards right on the table in the introduction of Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. She writes:

I’d gone through my whole life being okay with being okay. And though I’d never read a self-help book before this year, I always liked picturing a world where the self-help movement had ended right there, with everyone feeling overwhelmingly, satisfyingly okay. . .

. . .[H]ow does a skeptic dive into the world of self-help?

I know I’m not alone on this. Surely my friends and I weren’t the only people who used to sit around at 2:00 a.m. watching Tony Robbins informercials for amusement.

But dive in she does, for reasons I’ll let you discover in your own reading. Lisick takes twelve months to test the waters of various aspects of self-helpdom, giving each a one-month trial. She samples the business coaching of Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People); the Venus/Mars relationship advice of John Gray, and the fitness whirlwind approach of Richard Simmons, to name but a few.

What I loved about Lisick’s writing in this book was her unflinching honesty about herself. When she goes to a Suze Orman seminar for financial help, Lisick writes:

I think about how Suze’s approach is extremely accessible to the average working joe, but how so many of her tips don’t compute in my world at all. She talks about “regular” expenditures like pet grooming, gym memberships, manicures, haircuts, and my favorite, window washing. I feel like if I could afford regular window washing, manicures, and haircuts, I might as well also own a yacht.

But what made me revere Lisick and want to invite her and her family over to hang out was her determination to avoid giving in to her preconceptions, either about the self-help millionaires or their target audiences, until she’d had a chance to know what the fuss was about. For example, when she tells her friends she’s going to go on a Richard Simmons “Cruise to Lose” week, most of them ask how she’s going to deal being on a ship with a “bunch of fat people from Middle America?” She writes:

It’s not that I’m trying to protect anyone’s feelings, really, but my first thought is: Will there ever be a day when people stop using the phrase “middle America” as code for “unattractive, fat, white, conservative people with bad clothes”? Did I leave anything out? Sheeplike. Trashy. Dumb. Christian. Any why are they so sure that’s who’s going to be there? Part of me wants to sign up for the cruise just to prove everyone wrong.

Do yourself an enormous favor and read this book. You’ll feel better from laughing, and may even learn a thing or two.

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Great Posture for a Fat Chick: A Wii Fit Review

May 28, 2008

Wii Fit Ski JumpI’ve had my Nintendo Wii Fit game for almost a week now, and let me just start by saying, according to Wii Fit, I’ve got amazing posture for a fat chick. And still, even despite that backhanded virtual compliment, I love love love this game.

Why, you might be asking, is a blog devoted to good writing spending precious procrastination minutes talking about a video game, for pete’s sake? Because I am going to talk about the writing.

But first, the basics. Nintendo’s Wii Fit uses a balance board/weight scale on steroids as its literal and figurative foundation. First thing you do is step on the board and stand there while the game weighs you and figures your BMI. Then it tells you in this terribly chirpy little Wii voice whether you are underweight (as if!), normal (I wish!), overweight (getting close), or obese (head of shame). Worse, the game then adjusts the size of your mini-Mii to match your grouping. The only way to handle the embarrassment of an electronic gadget telling you you’re obese is to have a sense of humor about it. Thus, I’ve dissociated the virtual Mii from the reality ME – I just refer to her as “Fat Mommy” and get on with it.

The games are divided into four categories: Yoga; Strength-Training; Aerobics; and Balance games. I’ve had more fun than a person should be allowed to have playing the balance games. In the Soccer game, you have to lean to the left and right to hit soccer balls with your head, while avoiding thrown shoes and pandas. The first time my Mii got hit by a shoe in the head, I laughed so hard I fell off the board. Oops.

In my opinion, where the true greatness of the game lies, however, is in its yoga and strength-training exercises. And this is where the good writing comes in. A male or female trainer guides you through the exercises (both are buff and kind of hot in a desaturated color, non-threatening kind of way, although the male’s voice is a little wimpy). You can opt for a demo, or go straight to the exercise or yoga pose itself. These exercises and yoga poses manage to hit every learning modality effectively. You can visually watch and imitate the trainer; you can read the instructions or listen to them from the trainer; and you can practice hands-on. The trainers’ cues are brief but thoroughly comprehensible, even for someone who is new to an exercise or yoga pose. Even more amazing, in a HAL-like fit of immediate biofeedback, the balance board registers how stable or unstable you are, prompting the trainer to offer suggestions on the spot on how to remedy the problem.

I can also attest to the universal appeal of the game to closet video gamers like myself (not so closet anymore, I guess, if I’m admitting it on a blog), video game shirkers like my hubby, and children. The game has become the new carrot/stick in our discipline modality – “If you don’t do what I ask now, you won’t be allowed to play Wii Fit.” Sweet.

Do I think this is THE fitness answer? Nah. It’s fun, but it takes almost as long to navigate between options as it does to participate in the exercises and games; thus, to register a 30 minute workout can take up to an actual 50 minutes. But as an adjunct to an already existing exercise program, and as a biofeedback tool to make us more aware of our bodies, it’s the bees’ knees. Even if it does call me fat.

Memorial Day: Honoring the Fallen

May 26, 2008

Memorial Day PoppyAs nifty as it is to have a three-day weekend filled with festivals and music and sunshine, hitting Monday morning by turning the alarm off and nabbing that extra half hour of sleep, I can’t help but wonder if we sometimes forget the meaning of the holiday. Fortunately, I have the Grand Mac Daddy of the inspirational battle speech all ready to go for us all.

According to David Merchant’s website on Memorial Day History, the day appears to have originated in any number of cities and towns following the Civil War; what all the places had in common, however, was the coming together of people to honor those who had died serving our nation during wartime. The day was officially proclaimed and observed in 1868, with all the Northern states recognizing the day by 1890. The South honored their dead on a separate day until after World War I. We can thank Congress for our three-day weekend, who in its National Holiday Act of 1971, deemed that the holiday would be celebrated on the last Monday in May.

For your Memorial Day inspiration, consider the words of William Shakespeare from his play Henry V; or if it serves you better to hear the cadence of the words, watch Kenneth Branagh breathe life into the speech in his most excellent film adaptation of the play:

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered–
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

For all who have given their lives in service of this country, thank you.

Interview Update: Justin Roberts Hits the Big Leagues

May 18, 2008

Justin Roberts Pop FlyJust a quick note for the Justin Roberts fans in the crowd: He was the subject of a story for the Major League Baseball website, MLB.com! Written by Doug Miller, the article profiles Roberts and the origins of the title song off his new CD, Pop Fly. While this is justifiably cool for Justin Roberts, I feel compelled to remind you all, we got the scoop before MLB did. Heh heh heh.

Putting a Face to Catastrophe: NPR’s China Earthquake Coverage

May 18, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about writing about tragedy, whether as a reporter or as someone who is part of the story. How difficult it must be on so many levels to be witness to suffering on such a mammoth scale. How hard it must be to balance the urges to flee to the comfort of home and family, to stay and help however you can, and/or to report dispassionately on the scenes unfolding before you without inserting yourself into the story.

These thoughts have filtered through my mind this week in the aftermath of massive earthquake in China on May 12 that has left more than 50,000 dead or presumed dead. NPR‘s Melissa Block and Robert Siegel happened to be in Chengdu, approximately 60 miles from the quake’s epicenter, recording stories for a series on Chengdu for All Things Considered. Both have reported extensively in the days following the quake of the scale of the disaster. For me, Melissa Block’s stories in particular have haunted me for days following hearing them. In a story that aired May 14, she followed a couple for an entire day as they searched for their parents and 2-year old son in the rubble of their apartment building. Then today, perhaps knowing that her audience needed some evidence of anything positive to emerge from these events, she reported on some of the miraculous survival stories emerging from the chaos.

In the first story, “Couple Frantic to Find Loved Ones,” the story follows Block in real time as she accompanies Wang Wei and Fu Guanyu to their family’s apartment building:

On Monday, Fu Guanyu dropped off her young son, Wang Zhilu, at his grandparents’ house so she could go to work. Minutes later, the earthquake hit.

She rushed back home and saw their apartment building in ruins. She says soldiers came right away to help, but they had no equipment.

Two days later, the heavy machinery is on the way. As an excavator clears a path, Fu and her husband Wei Wang search the debris, calling for their son.

At the story’s start, the final outcome is unknown, so we find ourselves as listeners hoping against hope that this story will end happily in reunion. Devastatingly, it does not.

In today’s story, “Small Miracles Rise from Earthquake’s Rubble,” Block allows herself to comment on her own reactions of the week, in as much as she admits that she hasn’t begun to process the scale of the disaster. She describes a story going around about a photo of a baby rescued from under the body of his mother, who died kneeling over him in protection:

And, according to Xinhua, in a story that just defies belief, but that you hope is true, the rescue workers also found a cell phone. The mother had tucked it into her baby’s blanket. She had typed a text message on the screen. The message said, “My dear, if you can survive, please remember I love you.”

I cannot pretend to know the emotions and conflicting thoughts that Block, Siegel, or any other reporter over there has felt this week. I do know that both these stories left me in tears, and that according to the comments I read on the NPR site after the May 14 story, many drivers were observed pulling off the road to cry. So by putting a human face to a tragedy so massive that it would be easy to dissociate ourselves from it, NPR, Block, and Siegel should be commended. It’s not only great reporting, but it’s necessary reporting.

Hungry for Great Food Writing: Orangette to the Rescue

May 14, 2008

SoupWith Mother’s Day behind me, it’s been back to the grind. The weather’s been warmer out here in the Northwest, but not exactly what I would call inspiring, and there’s been bad news round the globe this week. It’s enough to make a girl feel a little down. Certainly enough to make me run for some comfort food. But wait! I’m trying to eat more healthily and lose some weight. What I really need is some food writing that makes me feel the same way that comfort food does.

I’m happy to say, I’ve found my food writing fix. I’d read an article in the June 2008 issue of Bon Appetit on making homemade jam simply by Molly Wizenberg, also known to foodies as the genius behind the much-loved food blog Orangette. The jam article made me immediately mark my calendar for the U-Pick berry months and fantasize about fresh, warm, homemade strawberry jam oozing off a steaming buttermilk biscuit. My next move was to check out the Orangette blog. Her archives go on forever, so points taken from me for picking up on this so late. But better late than never.

Here’s what’s fantastic about Ms. Wizenberg’s blog. She sounds normal. She doesn’t sound like some prissy know-it-all who’s going to make me feel incompetent for not never having heard of green garlic. Instead, she sounds like an otherwise relatively well-adjusted human who happens to really dig cooking and food, and who can also write really really well about it. Check out a little bit from her post on soup (from 4/21/08):

It’s hard to know what to say about soup. I mean, it’s soup. It’s a liquid, sort of, but it’s eaten with a spoon. It’s not a steak, or chocolate, or fancy cheese, or an ice cream sundae. It’s what people eat when they’re sick or miserable or old, wearing dentures that clack like sad, weary castanets. Soup is a hard sell. But if I could, I would eat it every day. Sometimes, actually, I do. I never get tired of soup.

She goes on to describe a spinach and green garlic soup that she recreated from a bowl she’d had in San Francisco. Now, we could at this point head into “I’m so much more accomplished than you” territory, at which point, I’d have looked elsewhere. But she admitted to (a) having never bought green garlic before, (b) being cheap enough to wait to buy said garlic at Whole Foods until the price went down, and (c) not being all that great at recreating dishes. Then she goes on to give the recipe of this soup, which I will be trying one of these days.

So, if you’re looking for comfort food without the calories, give Orangette a read.

Music for Mamas: Great Songs for Mother’s Day

May 10, 2008

Mother and ChildIn the last Mother’s Day post before the big day (which probably for most moms, is still pretty much the same as any other day, and is just fine), I thought I would list a couple songs that pay tribute to moms everywhere. Once again, I blanked after I came up with a couple songs. I could cheat and start looking at country music lyrics, where mamas everywhere are revered. But since I don’t listen to much country music, it didn’t seem right.

The two songs that I remember, though, are terrific songs for celebrating mothers. Without further ado, here they are:

“Loves Me Like A Rock,” music and lyrics by Paul Simon (from the There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, although Alison Kraus and the Cox Family do a great cover of it on their I Know Who Holds Tomorrow album) – Besides its lazy swinging beat, what I love about this song how it talks about the mother’s constancy of love through the years. From the little boy to the man to the president, his mama loves him like a rock. Not a clod of dirt that’ll disperse with the rain, mind you, a ROCK:

When I was grown to be a man (grown to be a man)
And the devil would call my name (grown to be a man)
I’d say now who do, Who do you think youre fooling? (grown to be a man)
I’m a consummated man (grown to be a man)
I can snatch a little purity
My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Like she loves me like a rock
She rocks me like the rock of ages
And loves me

“Good Mother”, music and lyrics by Jann Arden (from her Living Under June album; you can hear the song on her MySpace page) – Jann Arden is one of those criminally underrecognized pop/folk rock singer-songwriters of the Patty Griffin genre. In “Good Mother,” she writes about all the sneaking minutiae that can undermine your spirit – unless of course, you’ve had a mother who taught you to be yourself:

I’ve got money in my pockets,
I like the color of my hair.
I’ve got a friend who loves me,
Got a house, I’ve got a car.
I’ve got a good mother,
and her voice is what keeps me here.

Feet on ground,
Heart in hand,
Facing forward,
Be yourself.

So for all the moms out there, especially including my own, whom I feel is the very best mom of all, happy Mother’s Day.

Jumpin’ On the Bandwagon: Loving the Mom Song

May 8, 2008

As the second part of my Mother’s Day bonanza of posts, I recall getting forwarded the link to the following video by comedienne Anita Renfroe. Called “The Mom Song,” and sung to the William Tell Overture, it’s fairly likely that you may be among the seven million people who’ve seen it on YouTube. Just in case you haven’t, however, or even if you have but need a refresher of what you’ll likely say as a mom or hear from a mom in the next 24 hours, enjoy the following clip:

Dearest Mommy: Film Mothers Who Rule

May 7, 2008

Movie momI had this great idea for a series of Mother’s Day posts: write about moms in movies, books and song who’ve inspired me. But then, disaster struck. I blanked. I couldn’t think of them. Try it yourself – you’ll see. You may see a film and think, “Boy, I LOVED the mom character in that film.” But dredging it up out of the memory of tomorrow’s schedule, the character story lines in LOST, the names of the seven dwarves, and other ephemera — ooph. It can give you a headache.

Be that as it may, I persevered, googled everyone else’s list of Mother’s Day movies, and came up with my short list of films where the moms rule. My only requirements for inclusion were that (a) I actually had to have seen and enjoyed the movie; and (b) I had to have felt the movie was not blatantly manipulative in its depiction of the trials and tribulations of motherhood (i.e. thus disposing in my own eyes of perennial weepy favorites like Terms of Endearment and Beaches).

So what made the short list? Reflect upon the following moms with aplomb:

Mrs. Parker, aka Ralphie’s mom (Melinda Dillon): In A Christmas Story (1983), Jean Shepherd created the quintessential all-time-great mom. As played by Dillon, Mrs. Parker knew the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse (Victor – “Everybody knows that.”), knew when to hide Ralphie’s fight with Scott Farkas from the Old Man by distracting him with football, and allowed little brother Randy some alone time to hide under the sink. She is a model for us all.

Beatrice Henderson (Debbie Reynolds): In Albert Brooks‘ riotously funny film Mother (1996), he and Monica McGowan Johnson wrote a fully-realized character in Reynolds’ Beatrice. The main character John (Brooks) has moved back home after two divorces and a failing writing career, only to discover in some achingly mortifying ways that his mother has her own life (She tells John about a date, “We’re not intimate, dear. We just have sex occasionally.”) and own unfulfilled dreams. Brooks has said of the film:

There are two kinds of mothers on the planet. The first kind thinks that every single thing their children do is perfect and their children are God’s gift to the world. And then there’s the other kind. This is about the other kind.

By the end of the film, John and the audience come to realize that John and his mother have deeper ties than he has known, and that her love for him is realistic but unwavering.

Lillian Gilbreth (Myrna Loy): In Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952), Loy portrays the wife of efficiency expert Frank Bunker Gilbreth (Clifton Webb). The true story of the adventures of a family with twelve children (written by two of them – Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey) the mom is portrayed as being an efficiency expert in her own right, and the bastion of sanity in the storm of chaos that twelve children brings. To be truthful, it’s been years since I saw these films, and summaries of these classics are hard to come by. But I recall loving Myrna Loy in that film, and in awe of how she handled the running of a household big enough to be its own school. Note: If you rent this movie, rent the early version. The 2003 film with Steve Martin is cute enough, but the original is the real charmer.

Now you have my picks. What are yours? Who are your favorite movie mothers?

Fun at the Apocalypse: Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance

May 5, 2008

Last Last ChanceDrug addiction. A superplague pandemic. Chicken farms. Vikings. Reincarnation. Does this crazy melange of elements sound like the makings of a comedy to you?

Well, it is. A darned fine one, in fact. I have to confess, when a friend recommended Last Last Chance, the debut novel by writer Fiona Maazel, and I read that it was about drug addiction and recovery, my first reaction was “Ugh.” Having never been there nor done that, I can’t say addiction/recovery novels are up there in the top tier of favorite genres for me. But, I trust my friend’s judgment and taste, so started to read. I loved it, but think I gave myself whiplash from the number of times I shook my head going “Wha-huh???”

The novel’s protagonist is Lucy, daughter of a former scientist at the Centers for Disease Control who took his own life after vials of a plague he’d developed were stolen from his lab. Lucy is the kind of person who misses her best friend’s wedding because she transposes the dates – or maybe is too high to remember the date. But she’s got nothing on her mother Isifrid, whose habit makes Lucy’s own addiction look like the Tinker Toy version:

It was not often I looked at her anymore. The woman in my head had been gone for so long, I seemed to forget Mother didn’t die with her. Surely no one would believe they were the same person. The woman in my head could open a beer bottle with her teeth. No chips or cracks. She’d leave the house with no makeup and get praised for it. A guy who made wigs for celebrities frequently petitioned for her thicket of hair, which she could wrap around her head like a scarf. How long since I’d seen that woman? At least fifteen years. But I still missed her.

The reason I chose that excerpt is that it shows how, as messed up as this family is – and trust me, I haven’t even dented the surface of the dysfunction – there is an underpinning of love that steadies the novel in all its whacked-out craziness. Lucy’s mother Isifrid, her grandmother Aggie, her half-sister Hannah, and Lucy are painted with very deft strokes, so that even as you cannot believe how screwed up they are (except for Aggie, who’s a rock), you still really like them and root for them.

Maazel has written a seriously dark comedy that leaves you cringing as you laugh. But she manages to insert some true poignancy into the book as well. The ending of Last Last Chance is one of the most moving conclusions I’ve ever read in a novel. It’s that good.

So even if the strongest drug you’ve ever ingested is Tylenol Maximum Strength, and even if thinking about chicken farms has you contemplating veganism, find this book and read it. It’s a wild ride.