2.28.2005

Condoville

We looked at condos yesterday with our new broker. It was our first time being targeted and purposeful and equipped with our own expert, and I found it kind of maddening. We drove around for three hours in our neighborhoods of choice, armed with printouts and a plan and whatnot, and every time I saw a sign for an "open house" I wanted to suddenly whip the car around and run inside. I enjoy the anxiety of sizing up the street while parking the car, wondering if I really want to go in, and then the surprise of picking up the info sheet once inside the home. "What?" I usually think to myself. "$650,000? I bet I could fix it up and sell it for more!" Then I like to mill around, look through the windows at the cement back yard, and amble on out after asking the selling broker a question or two.

This was totally different. I had a checkbook in my pocket and no real control over the agenda. Anything we entered we could buy, since our broker only took us to places within our preapproval range. She gave me lots of new and startling information, especially about last-minute negotiations during the offer and what to skip, like a home inspector. I thought that sounded crazy, but because this is such a competitive market, it happens all the time around here, she tells us. She laughs a lot, which we later figure must help her put at ease the dozens of strangers riding around in her car all week.

With odd, unpredictable hours and a seemingly constant sense of urgency, being an agent seems like a really strange job, but I think/hope she does it pretty well. I was grateful we didn't have any of the distracted, polished, made up, sleazy agents who run the open houses we used to visit on our own.

Still, at the end, with three definite "no's" and two "probably not's," it was all we could do to drag ourselves out for a hot fudge sundae at Ranc's.

Weekend reviews: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Desk Set, and Donnie Darko, the Director's Cut. I personally adored all three movies, but the last one is an honest standout. I recommend this one even over the original.

And I made halved roasted brussels sprouts with toasted walnuts, browned butter and some brown sugar last night...OMG.

2.25.2005

Woah

Thanks to the blog of Dave Weinberger, I've discovered this amazing website. Amazing! I hope that no one gets the wrong idea when I say that it chronicles the rise and fall of baby names over the last decade. My name isn't in there, but your name might be! What an awesome online visualization of data...
The Name Voyager
So cool...just type in "TR" to change the scope...

2.23.2005

Don't Fix What's Not Broker!

We met with our first buyer agent last night, a broker named L.B., and she was great! When I woke up at 4am dreaming about real estate, I knew I was done for. Our book says we're supposed to meet with a bunch of them, but I like this one. And, anyway, our book was published in 1999, when home buying was apparently profoundly different. Right off the bat we found out that no one uses private mortgage insurance anymore. Fascinating. All those hours of me studying the data on PMI, out the window. One thing the book did help us learn, though, is that you should never, ever see homes without representation. The last six months of open houses didn't really matter for that, but now we're more serious. Next up: meeting the mortgage guy.

2.22.2005

Delicious Food, Delicious Unfinished Construction

You know what I love about three-day weekends? Roasting. You just can't properly roast something on a weeknight unless you want to eat at nine. Last night we took an hour or so and roasted potatoes, sweet onions, and salmon, and cooked down a recipe for spicy kale on the stovetop (which I would have roasted if I knew how). Man, nothing like salmon roasted in butter and spicy kale. Pairing fish with dark greens is a good way to go; on Friday it was fried catfish with lemony spinach. I love fried catfish.

Three days, three movies: Shall We Dance?, Hitch, and Men With Guns. Men With Guns is so incredibly compelling and evocative; I say put it on your Netflix queue today! The other two, well, maybe.

On Saturday I was definitively punished for wanting to go on a Chinatown date after an afternoon of knitting (I can knit now! A little!). We were walking by a kitchen with street-level windows and promptly saw a man picking up huge living frogs and chopping their heads off. I know the ethical argument, which is that I should be cutting the heads off of catfish and salmon, and yes, sure, but it was a, searching for the right word here, surprise? to suddenly witness this act towards a pile of poor old frogs. It's not like they did anything wrong. We went to a different restaurant, where I was told that the only thing without MSG was vegetable fried rice. I got it, because I'm so horrifically bad at being put on the spot (especially by waitstaff, as Blue points out). And it wasn't that good. Nothing against Chinatown, but we made it a short date.

The next day, Sunday, we drove down to the Cape. It was beautiful and sunny out, and the beaches were gleaming with bright sunshine. We watched the waves crash on shore until we couldn't stand the cold wind and then we took a little hike on a trail around the dunes. Cape Cod is so much quieter than most places I've ever been. There just isn't distant truck noise or humming airplanes, somehow. The feeling of distance was very real and welcome. We hung out in a cafe in nearly-deserted Hyannis for a while and read the Times over a delicious lunch before seeing what is perhaps the coolest thing I've seen in this last six months of home-hunting.

Picture a huge, beautiful house overlooking a stunning expanse of marsh. Canoe-able, kayak-able, teeming-with-birds-and-plants marsh. It's an open house, so you talk your husband into going in even though it's clearly about a mile out of your price range. As you get closer, it becomes more apparent that the house isn't quite finished, and through the many windows and skylights you can see that, in fact, the walls inside aren't even finished. They are just beams. We went right in. I grabbed for an info sheet and scanned for the list price, expecting, perhaps, a little above a million...but it was $387,000.

The seller was walking away from the project. Electrical was in, new windows, some plumbing, heat ducts. No insulation, no drywall, no doors. It was awesome. We slowly walked through the whole house, and looked at the beam construction, the three bedrooms, the closets, fireplaces, the common space and kitchen area. We imagined everything---where everything would go, how long it would take us to drywall just the master bedroom, how many hanggliders and kayaks we could fit in the garage, with its 13-foot ceilings. Sunshine poured in through the skylights as we looked at the marsh through the big front windows. It was so wonderful. Then we mourned, mourned not having a relative who was a local contractor, or a stray aimless sibling who was interested in rebuilding, and we left, clutching the info sheet and our many dreams.

2.18.2005

A Rare Look at Powerhouse Bigotry!

FINALLY, the transcript of Larry Summer's remarks has been released, and I'm surprised to report that it is a really revealing, important document. I didn't expect to be as taken aback as I was, but it very clearly communicates a remarkably myopic viewpoint from this leader, one that is almost certainly silently shared by many leaders. I was shocked when early on in his speech he compared the plight of women in science to the deficit of white men in the NBA. And it just got "better" from there.

I would have made this speech in a such a different way. It's not that the topics he explores are so terrible, but his approach and conclusions are abominable.

The thing that people seem to forget is, women are fully half the world's population, so when he says it's like Jewish people being underrepresented in agriculture, it just doesn't seem like a fair comparison. Women are almost unequivocally underpaid and out of the real competition because women get pregnant, have children, nurture children, have to have half their mind occupied with child-rearing for a decade or so, etc.; they simply have to if our species is to continue. Not all of them, of course, but the vast majority.

It seems like people try to ignore the fact that pregnancy is a big deal (with bedrest orders you can be incapacitated for half a year) and having a toddler is very consuming; even if you work full-time, you still have to be vigilant about, say, a sick child. Meanwhile, men inevitably jump ahead in the workplace. It's absurd to say it's innate--there are plenty of women and girls interested in science; more importantly there is not enough social support to cope with both lifetime scholarship and lifetime motherhood. Not to mention being someone's life partner.

Summers does refer to that problem briefly, saying that Harvard supports the 18-year-old children of faculty but not the children who are 6 years old. But what if he'd come into his speech having really thought about this in new way for him, challenged his own assumptions, laid out the obvious hurdles like childrearing. What if he had reenvisioned the workplace for women, or reconceptualized the published female scientist--what if she got incentives and recognition for having a toddler and still publishing a paper, or something? He had so many opportunities to be creative, and instead he was just...not very bright.

I have to admit, I'm grateful to Summers for slipping up and saying what he really thinks. That means we can address it rather than just letting it linger as a silent, endless, complicated problem.

2.17.2005

Protest Art in Watertown!

Really! There's protest art in Watertown! On my way back from Dunkin' Donuts this morning I noticed the store windows of the old yoga place filled up with honest-to-god angry art about the war in Iraq. It is not easy to stomach, but hey, it's art! My first in two and a half years in Watertown! Is it good art? Do I care? I will take what I can get!
Early Spring Fever

I've been excited about this weekend because it's three days, not in New York, not doing stressful, solitary writing, with nothing but the hubby and the open road. But for all the ideas of places to go (Maine to cross country ski, Vermont to dine, Western MA to browse books and hike, New Hampshire to climb, Cape Cod to house hunt), I repeatedly dream of heading down the street to Mt. Auburn Cemetery to see "the birds and the flowers." There are no flowers. The birds are limited to crows and hawks. But in my mind, the cemetery is an explosion of daffodils spotted with stray purple crocus and Baltimore orioles. It's not like that here, at my apartment, but down the street, some stubborn part of my brain is quite convinced that spring has hit and is here to stay. Sigh, poor little New England subconscious, dying for some warm air.

2.14.2005

Lose Weight the Fast and Easy (Well, Easiest) Way

On Oprah, the benefits of a diet without any "white food" are being extolled right this very second, and it brings me to a topic I've wanted to blog about for a while: The Good Diet. Well, at least as far as I and a couple of my friends have figured out. On Oprah's diet, bread, potatoes, pasta and rice are out, and no one can eat after 7:30pm. The thing is, once they're off the diet, the subjects are going to eat eat carbs again because, well, they're good, and we need them, and any active person expecially needs them. A co-worker of mine is on a diet where she only eats fruit one day, only dairy the next, etc. It seems unnecessarily hard, and not particularly helpful. According to every expert I've ever heard, the bottom line to losing weight is to have fewer calories incoming than outgoing. It's actually really uncomplicated.

And it's even more uncomplicated with two instruments: first, BalanceLog by Healthetech, which I installed on my PDA. They even have a free two-week trial on their website, which sold me! The second tool is less crucial but still great: a heart rate monitor. With the monitor, I can occupy myself at the gym by keeping my heart rate between 140-160 beats per minute, and estimate my calorie burn (usually about 800/cals an hour). With BalanceLog, I can figure out how many calories are in what I've eaten, and budget for what I really want. With a limit of 1420 calories a day, I can usually set aside 170 of them for an 8 oz glass of wine in the evening. Things had to get sorted out at first; I figured out that I'm fine eating light cheese, light sour cream, light tortillas, fat free refried beans, less milk, more salad, more seafood, and baked potatoes as long as I can have a 180 calorie doughnut or a hunk of dark chocolate. You just have to shift things around, and it works. And it works a hell of a lot better than only eating fruit three days a week, or cutting out carbs.

I can't testify yet that I'm great at not being on the diet, but I do know how to estimate a cup of pasta by eyeballing it, and that it's 220 calories with tomato sauce. To me, that's a life skill (yeah, I may have a Master's degree, but I'm telling you, this is a life skill)...one that fruit-eaters and low-carbies don't have.

2.13.2005

Frank Rich on Sentimentality

I believe fairly strongly that there is no better writer than Frank Rich, at least no better writer addressing the important subject matter of culture. I guess that's a big qualifier, but to me very little is more important or more interesting than culture. It dictates social norms and therefore very nearly our entire human experience (for those of us living in a mediated culture, that is, which includes anyone reading or writing anything called a 'blog'). Yes, on an early date, I argued with my husband that Madonna has a kind of influence--populous influence--that rivals Newton, because she reached so many more than the elite(and she reached them too). Today, like every Sunday, I find myself amazed that someone as smart as Rich gets to reach such a broad audience. How lucky we all are!
From "How Dirty Harry Turned Commie," 2/13/05:
What really makes these critics hate "Million Dollar Baby" is not its supposedly radical politics - which are nonexistent - but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no "Rocky," and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism. Always a sentimental country, we're now living fulltime in the bathosphere. Our 24/7 news culture sees even a human disaster like the tsunami in Asia as a chance for inspirational uplift, for "incredible stories of lives saved in near-miraculous fashion," to quote NBC's Brian Williams. (The nonmiraculous stories are already forgotten, now that the media carnival has moved on.) Our political culture offers such phony tableaus as a bipartisan kiss between the president and Joe Lieberman at the State of the Union, not to mention the promise that a long-term war can be fought without having to endure any shared sacrifice or even too many graphic reminders of its human cost.

2.09.2005

Freezing Your Family in Time

Last night we saw Tom Perotta speak at the Belmont Public Library. It was fun. We sat in the front row, and had seltzer and cookies with a mob of about 50 middle-aged women (and a few men). He read from his dark, twisted novel, Little Children. We got to ask questions, and I asked him things about writing, about outlining and novel ideas and writing process. Later he asked if I was a writer, that it was writers who always asked those sorts of questions. I don't chat very well with people I admire; I never have. I told him about my children's book and slid a copy of Little Children across the table for him to sign. I even forgot to tell him how much I liked Election.

He was really funny and wry and satisfyingly grim about Belmont. Of most value to me, however, was hearing about him writing his first published book, about childhood in the 70s. He imagined his mom looking over his shoulder the whole time, disdainful and angry about his descriptions of growing up. And then he published it anyway. And she was disdainful and angry about his descriptions. "But she forgave me," he said. "And I learned an important lesson with that book. I don't need to censor myself. I can write freely."

In Esme Cordell's speech on Sunday, she said that the greatest gift a family can give a writer is the freedom to write about them. She said, "I didn't get that gift, so I had to settle for the second best gift, which is forgiveness."

I'm hampered pretty strongly by that, myself; I haven't gotten the first gift, at least not from my father, who has given me the opposite message in fact, that it's really not OK to write about him as a dad. He stopped reading this blog, in fact, when he ran across a reference to him that I'd considered totally harmless. I'm generally careful about the blog, but my own personal essays, and my novel, are searingly raw and personal, and I find myself constantly holding back from seeking wider feedback because I don't want to offend anyone. Thankfully, my mom and husband couldn't be more giving or tolerant about being written about. But then again, maybe that's because they know the bulk of the material is gonna be about my dad. I love him, of course; I love all of them. But I just want to write about my life, and that means writing about their lives, too, sometimes.

2.08.2005

I'm in Copyfight

I'm in Copyfight today! Now if only I kept my website updated so I could be proud of people visiting it....

Not coincidentally also in Copyfight today, a story on how Chicago's otherwise-fabulous Millenium Park is coming under copyright. So much for public art!
Big Mystery

For weeks and weeks now, I've had a growing number of hits on this blog from this site:
http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.mumm.ac.be/~serge/www-pug/pictures/puppies3.jpg&imgrefurl=http://cedargretchen

It's totally bizarre, except that I do like pug puppies. Also, the computers referred to Crawlspace from that location are situated all over the place: Russia, Canada, the West Coast. Note that the actual URL refers to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, specifically the North Sea Mathematical Models Management Unit.

I've ignored this, chalking it up as one of the many oddities of the Web, except that in the past week or so the average number of site visits has more than doubled, to 44, which doesn't sound like a lot, but this is a nice, small blog, and I like to keep it that way. And, nearly all the excess volume is attributed to random hits from that weird URL. So, what's going on? Computer geniuses (you know who you are), help me out!
But Blog Titles Not So Much

I have been enjoying coming up with titles recently. I think I have a real skill for making events and descriptions sound sexier. My boss is teaching a class in the fall at my old grad school, and ran her original title by me yesterday. "ICT Matters: Knowledge for the Next Generation." I encouraged her to drop all acronyms (especially for Information and Communication Technologies, which is a boring set of words) and think about sexier, more exciting terms. For instance, it might just be me, but I think that "New Media" is still a very interesting term. It always draws me in. "Technology" is less engaging. I also like big concepts and forward-thinking expressions. "How about something like, 'In the Grip of New Media: Race, Gender and Class?'" I asked her, before offering up a few more ideas. In the end, she came up with a revision far better than any of my suggestions: "New Media, Power, and Global Diversity."

'Power' is perhaps the quintessential sexy word, and underlies nearly all transactions. It feels like a new arrow in my quiver.

Blue had a bunch of daffodils on the table when I got home from New York, buying them closed so they would slowly open for me during his time in Florida. A little early, they are blossoming in a glorious yellow, with a perfect spring scent.

Tonight we are going to our neighboring community of Belmont to see Tom Perotta read from "Little Children," his book about the stifled, anxious, repressed rich parents who live in Belmont. Tom also lives in Belmont. We may also someday live in Belmont. It is such a great book.

2.07.2005

It's Like I've Met My Tony Robbins

Esmé Raji Cordell, in a bobbed auburn wig with bangs and a buxom gingham dress, hopped up on stage yesterday for the closing keynote of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Winter Conference. With her face projected behind her on a giant screen, she spoke electrically about all the ways she procrastinates her writing. She drops her nine-year-old son off at school and then she watches him go inside and wishes she could go with him, remembering her five years as a teacher in Chicago. When Esmé was 24, she wrote a book called Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year.

After 36 rejections over five years, the book got published, and won awards, hearts and minds while angering school boards and alienating principals. It continues to be deeply popular. "With diet and exercise, I plan to outlive most of my enemies," said Esmé demurely. She went on a tour of 45 cities to talk with other teachers about the experience of teaching, and when she came back, she was rewarded by the Chicago school system by being utterly blackballed. "One principal told me I could work for him, but I'd have to stop writing," she said. "So I declined, but now I make fun of him at large conventions." She went on to open a room in Chicago that focused on storytelling, reading books aloud, and sharing story ideas. While on maternity leave, she had former students and neighborhood kids come to her apartment to bake bread while reading books about baking bread. They read about plants while planting. They read books about everything. "Johnny Appleseed planted seed by seed, and that's how he changed a whole landscape," she said. "Seed by seed. Every time I read a book aloud, I'm planting a seed. I'm JAP-py Appleseed."

Eventually, Esmé wrote "How to Get Your Child to Love Reading." Yesterday, standing at the podium in knee-high go-go boots, Esmé sang full-throated (and impressive) versions of the songs she loves to procrastinate to, but eventually she calmed down, and made a statement I really believe in. "Children's books are the great equalizers in education." By this she meant that the great ideas don't have to be cooped up in the silos of good schools, but instead can be open and accessible to everyone. With people like Esmé around to hand them out good books, even the poorest kid can get her eyes on some really good ideas.

2.02.2005

Only one quick thought...

...before I head to New York to see children's writers, the men laying the foundation for the Gates, the busy streets, Little Italy, the chinatown bus, and Jessica: See Million Dollar Baby, and see it soon, before the spoilers reach you. It's just so good. I give it six out of five stars.

PS: I also highly recommend this excellent article on changing worklife from today's Times. It's a very obvious point, actually, but so unspoken that that the old expectations make me continually nervous.