Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Just like Seattle

My mother spends the winter in Naples, Florida. She reports that a trendy new coffee place has opened near her condo. Apparently it is decorated in the style of Starbucks and Tully's. My mom went in to check it out, and remarked to the barista "it looks like Seattle." The woman glanced out the window at the unseasonably gray sky and replied "Oh, it's supposed to clear up tomorrow."

Madness not limited to cows

A story on NPR's All Things Considered this afternoon contained a mind-boggling piece of information. The background: Japan banned imports of U.S. beef after the discovery last year that a cow in a U.S. herd was infected with mad cow disease. Japan will import only beef from cows that have been tested.

The obvious solution, one would think, would be to test cows being sold to the Japanese market. Which is exactly what one beef producer, Creekstone Farms, proposed to do. Now here's the mind-boggling part: The USDA has forbidden U.S. beef producers from voluntarily and at their own expense testing all their cows and giving the results to the Japanese purchasers. Don't believe me? Check out this report from the National Council for Science and the Environment.

The FDA and the USDA feels that voluntary testing by some "is not scientifically warranted" because the tests are for "health surveillance" and cannot guarantee that the beef is safe. Note, however, that the Japanese aren't requiring the producers to guarantee anything. They are just requiring them to test the beef and provide those test results.

This government stance is obviously intended to prevent scrupulous farmers willing to pay for testing from distinguishing themselves from their unscrupulous colleagues, who want to sell possibly diseased beef for as long and for as much as possible. (Don't test, don't tell.) Certainly, if the Japanese are clamoring for tested beef, certain segments of the US population would also be willing to pay premium prices for tested beef, and would likely shun the producers who declined to test.

Isn't it nice to know whose side the Bush administration is on?

Monday, December 27, 2004

Browsing the bargains at Martha's tag sale

One hallmark of a reversal of fortune is the garage sale, yard sale, or, as we called them when I lived back East, tag sale.

is closing its online retail unit, and doing it with a tag sale. I couldn't pass up this historic event; it turns out there are quite a few great deals. I just bought some fabulous wire wall organizers for displaying postcards and memorabilia. Thanks, Martha!

Countertops by Hagrid

The natural gas project for our street started with a loud bang at 9 a.m. I opened the backdoor just in time to see a terrified cat (Betaille) dash out of the yard. There were several trucks, guys with jackhammers, plus a vehicle with a small claw that was digging rectangles in the sidewalk. By noon they had tunneled from the street to the rear of our side yard, and the meter was installed.

It's not exactly invisble work. Though the tunneling is far underground, they dug up part of the lawn and garden in back of the house to bring the line to the house and up to the meter. Nothing serious, but they didn't seem aware that plants like hostas die back and are not visible in the winter (and now are probably buried two feet deep!) Oh well. It was definitely the least elaborate part of the garden.

Now they are roaring away two doors down.

Meanwhile, the Corian company called and ask if they could swing by. Our so-to-be-disposed-of electric stove is surounded by Corian countertop, including a couple of inches in back. The new Wolf stove will sit flush against the wall, so that extra countertop in back had to be sliced away. The Corian guy was about 7 feet tall, hefty and looked like a Northwest cousin of Hagrid. The normally shy kittens loved him. After he trimmed the counter, he helped me analyze why the adhesive between Corian counter and Corian backsplash over the dishwasher had separated. Answer: the guy who built the counters skimped and didn't put any supports for the Corian at the back of the dishwasher, so the counter was sagging. We agreed that Hagrid would recaulk and I would have the plumber pull the dishwasher so that I could install some supports against the studs at the back. Yes, I could do this myself, but it would be wiser to have the plumber here to make sure I don't damage the water hookup.

And, of course, the plumber will be here next week. The half-hour of Corian work was cheap, but the plumbing price (for running gas piping and valves to a dryer, a new hot water heater, and the stove—-plus venting the hot water heater to the outside) is mind-boggling.

My only gripe with our plumber (who is a very honest and savvy fellow) is that he always assumes the customer wants the basic appliance. During the original kitchen remodel two years ago I had to specially request a quiet dispose-all (for about $15 bucks more) and this time I had to grill him to get him to reveal that there are several types of 50-gallon hot water heaters, some of which have notably faster recovery (meaning that while you are taking a bath, they are heating up enough water for someone else to take a bath in 30 minutes). Of course, I requested a fast-recovery hot water heater.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Christmas blur

The Christmas holiday was certainly different this year. Zorg came out to social events with me three nights in a row, wrapped gifts, had me watch The Muppets' version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and even blogged about the pagan origins of Christmas.

We also watched The Happiness of the Katakuris, which I really enjoyed. I'd describe it as the Japanese version of the madcap and surreal British TV series The League of Gentlemen (under no circumstances to be confused with the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Best Christmas gift received: The book The Art of Looking Sideways.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Washington Post Style Invitational

Each week, the Washington Post Style Invitational invites readers to compete at clever word games, and publishes the bon mots of the previous week.

Last week's contest asked readers to send in quips beginning "If God had wanted..." My favorite was one of the honorable mentions:

"If God had wanted the people of the world to live in peace and harmony, God should have stuck to just one name." (Michael Levy, Silver Spring, MD)

This week contestants are given a list of the last names of the newly elected members of Congress and the members they displaced and asked to come up with a bill sponsored by any combination of these people and explain the purpose of the bill. Example:

"The Tauzin-Cleaver bill to promote safety in the kitchen."

You can do better! Dive in using this week's URL.

Thanks to our friend Mike in Bellingham for reminding me about the Style Invitational! He forwarded results of the most famous of the Style Invitational, in which readers were challenged to take a word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are some of their inspirations:

1. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

2. Foreploy (n): Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

3. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.

4. Sarchasm (n): The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

5. Inoculatte (v): To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

6. Hipatitis (n): Terminal coolness.

7. Osteopornosis (n): A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

8. Karmageddon (n): It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

9. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

10. Glibido (v): All talk and no action.

11. Dopeler effect (n): The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come very quickly.

12. Arachnoleptic fit (n. phrase): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

13. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

14. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you're eating.

15. And the pick of the literature: Ignoranus (n): A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

...and the cat came back

Kitty cloning. They say people don't understand that the cloned cat is not the same as the original. But I suspect it would be pretty darn close, particularly if you raised it in the same household. A cat's breed determines quite a bit of its personality (loyal Russian Blues, gregarious Abyssinians, gentle Ragdolls, our Kaylee and Zoe--with same upbringing, different fathers, and very different personalities) and the upbringing does most of the rest.

On the other hand, the $50,000 spent to clone a cat could get you a wonderful pound kitten plus pay for spaying, neutering and veterinary care for hundreds of strays. I miss Sam every day, but I wouldn't have preferred a Sam clone to any of our subsequent kitties.

Blame it on New Yorkers?

New York Times online requires that you sign up for a free subscription to read most articles. This piece, on the origins of American Christmas giving and the origins of protests about excessive commercialization of the holiday, is worth signing up for.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Rogue Waves

Glad I read this after the cruise, not before.

Obsessive, but not compulsive

Fixated on a ring? Medical students have diagnosed the mental problems of a "single, 587 year old, hobbit-like male of no fixed abode". Credit to Clive Thompson's blog for pointing out this medical journal article about Gollum.

A friend in the news

I'm a big fan of Post-Intelligencer columnist Robert L. Jamieson, who writes about the stories behind the news. Today's column is about our friend Sally O'Neill and what happened when she and other South Seattle motorists came across the scene of a horrific hit-and-run accident.

Santa Claus is coming!

On our street, the signs are all there. And they say "NO PARKING 12/27 - 12/30."

The moment I've been anticipating for nearly four years--the gas company is running a gas line to our house and I can get a gas stove! Actually, I've had a gas stove since October...but it's been in a warehouse, waiting for the gas company to install service and set in motion a chain of events involving the plumber and a Corian contractor. I estimate that by February 1, I'll be ready to cook my first pizza.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade

Christmas in Seattle wouldn't be Christmas for me without listening to Lord Buckley's "Scrooge." While other people trill Scandinavian carols or rock out with Bruce Springsteen or John Lennon, I let one of the grandmasters of rap bring a huge smile to my face.

If you think rapping began with young urban hipsters with extremely baggy pants, I invite you to look back 30 or more years to one of the wildest characters (along with Lenny Bruce) to wreak havoc on the New York (and Los Angeles) cabaret scenes in the 1950s.

I first encountered a Lord Buckley track on a Frank Zappa-produced sampler in the 1960s, but didn't discover "Scrooge" until Christmas 1984. I had just moved to Seattle with my first husband, a post-doc at UW, and I was working as a phone order-taker for Eddie Bauer at their Redmond headquarters (now a part of the Microsoft campus). It was Sunday afternoon, and I was driving to my shift on a near-deserted stretch of 520 (well, that certainly dates this story) while the DJ at KBCS-FM was interviewing Bryan Bowers. Bowers was telling a story that involved Christmas, an autoharp, and a refrigerator, and that segued nicely into "Scrooge."

"Scrooge" is a 9-minute monologue, and not something you can interrupt--particularly when it's the first time you've encountered it and you're trying to determine if your radio has been taken over by aliens. I turned into the parking lot at Eddie Bauer, and sat there in my car, listening to the strangest version of the Dickens Christmas story you could possibly imagine. It begins:

"Yes, me, I'm Scrooge and I got all Marley's barley,
and I'm the baddest cat in all dis world.
I been studyin' all my life how to Scrooge people,
and I guarantee I done some fine work in dat direction."

The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade, with "Scrooge," is not available on iTunes. But you can purchase a used copy of the CD on Amazon. Unfortunately, the audio sample on Amazon doesn't give a very good idea of the originality of Buckley's approach.

Better to check out the Lord Buckley website which includes transcriptions of his best-known routines, including "Scrooge." A convenient mouseover feature provides translations of the hipster jargon.

Merry Christmas!

What's that on the lawn?

Why the extension cord that fit under our garage door for exterior Halloween lighting doesn't fit now for Christmas lights is beyond me.

Meanwhile, some neighbors I've always thought of as fairly normal people have put something very strange, and extremely large, on their front lawn for the holidays. I looked out the window at midnight and couldn't believe my eyes. Here's a picture. (Click on page's "slideshow" icon to see the full-size picture.)

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Holidays with cats

We've given up on the idea of a Christmas tree this year, though it might divert Kaylee from her current obsession with removing all the push-pins (and, thus, all the items they were securing) from my office bulletin boards.

Sheba is the perfect holiday cat. Not only is she white, and very seasonal-looking with a green collar, but being deaf, she isn't bothered when I blast Christmas music from iTunes or one of the Live365 Christmas radio channels. She's purring along right with the Blue Light Christmas show now.

Enjoying the season vicariously, I took pictures of our friend Deb's elaborate Christmas decorations last night.

The return of the hummingbird

The hummingbird is back, enjoying the red flowers of our profilic pineapple sage. Our coastal climate allows me to grown pineapple sage year-round. It's currently in our back yard, but I plan to plant it in the front and side yards as well, cutting it back in the summer (it's invasive) but letting it fill in the empty spots during the winter.

According to The Hummingbird Project, Pineapple Sage (aka salvia elegans) is #1 of the top ten hummingbird plants, and the one most likely to be in bloom in cooler climates.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Who's Who

Seattle journalist Clark Humphreys (www.miscmedia.com) offers a fascinating and comprehensive history of the Dr. Who series. I'd had no idea that many of the early TV episodes no longer exist on video. Or that the first episode was filmed in 1963 and the series ran nearly 30 years.

Eek! Humbug!

Next year the Nation cruise is in November, which is ideal because I've arrived back from this year's Demember cruise with the feeling that I missed Christmas. What I've actually missed is the time I'd have spent shopping, attending parties, writing cards, decorating the house, and baking.

It feels like walking into a fancy party and realizing you're wearing your workout clothes. ("What's wrong with that?" Zorg will ask.)

My plan is to triage Christmas 2004 based on age, guaranteeing timely gifts and greetings only to people over 70 and figuring I'll have many years to make it up to everyone else.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Back on land

Delivered from the solicitous care of Holland America into the callous disregard of Continental Airlines, I know I'm on my way back from vacation.

Thanks to an unguarded wireless network in the nearby dignitaries waiting lounge, I've posted our trip pix.

The Nation seminars on the cruise were great, but the people were even better. We sat with fascinating people every night, culminating in last night's dinner hosted by Bob Scheer of the LA Times and his wife, Narda Zucchino, deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Though clearly tired from the week of presentations, Scheer steered the table into a lively discussion of each person's experience with the current political climate. Participants included an 82-year old activist from Southern California who stood up to the police while trying to register voters outside a Target store; a liberal couple from Blue Earth, Montana; a career Air Force officer whose assignment includes critiquing the Air Force from the inside; and his wife, who is embarking on a second career as a political activist, changing minds one at a time.

Yesterday wound up with a poetry slam, an ad hoc session dreamed up by Harvey Pressman, who had been entertaining all of us through the week with his progress in the cruise's Karaoke contest. Here's one of the winners:

The quality of discussion on a Nation cruise--
Is it better when we've won, or when we lose?

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Slow boat to Ft. Lauderdale

You know it's time to leave the cruise when you have chocolate on your room card.

Last night was the dessert buffet, which is less food than it is semi-edible sculpture. I skipped the artworks and had a Grand Marnier crepe, then sneaked off to the theater, curled up in a banquette, and watched Tom Cruise in Collateral.

Today we were scheduled to moor off the private island Half Moon Cay and get ferried over to the island for a variety of activities. My mom and I were slated for the morning glass-bottom boat trip. Skipping the "swim with stingrays" adventure, I'd then opted for the two-hour guided nature walk in the afternoon.

The captain came on the PA at 8 a.m. to announce that he was cancelling the island visit because the swells were too high, and they couldn't safely open the gangways to get us onto the little ferries (called tenders). Looking out our windows, I could see two of the tenders bouncing around below.

So, we are now slowly steaming--well, dieseling--toward Ft. Lauderdale where the cruise ends tomorrow at 8 a.m. The cruise director, a former stand-up comic, is printing out a new daily schedule of on-board activities and the staff, who had likely been looking forward to a day free of passengers, are beaming as cheerily as possible.

The lost lady of Deck 5

Cruises are stereotypically full of elderly. The Nation cruise is full of feisty, left-wing elderly. (For readers who are long-time residents of Seattle, just imagine the Group Health Cooperative's annual membership meeting)

In general, I'd describe these folks as slow-moving but quick-thinking. But I did encounter one old gal, the lost lady of Deck 5, who is rapidly approaching her pull date.

She was wandering around the maze of the spa/salon, looking for the swimming pool. While nudging her in the right direction, I asked if she were traveling with her daughter (as some of the old folks, like my mom, are). No, she said, her daughter lived in Germany--but was coming over at Christmas.

"She's coming to make me sign some papers so she gets all my money," the woman said. "I want to leave it to the Nature Conservancy and the Environment Defense Fund and the ACLU."

I suggested she set that up with a lawyer before her daughter arrives. "My son's a lawyer," she said. "He wants my money, too."


She went on to say she was sharing her cabin with a woman who snored loudly and kept her up all night. But I suspected there was another side to the story, as she related that when she woke up in the morning, she found that the roommate had already dressed and "sneaked out."

Upon reaching the pool, she decided she wasn't going to go swimming, but back to her room to get a book. I escorted her to one of the many banks of elevators on the ship, got in with her, stopped her from toddling off with me at floor 8, pressed 5, and told her the doors would open at her floor.

Oh, dear.

Facial voodoo

I signed up for a facial on the cruise. What utter voodoo! The woman covered me in a series of lovely scented gels (lavender, mint, and rose), then used little metal rollers on my face while I held a magnet in my hand. Then a tool that went "buzz" for deep cleaning.

The real voodoo came at the end when she explained to me why I desperately needed four little bottles of their products. The price? $247. I was sure I'd misheard her...no wonder they employ aestheticians with thick foreign accents.

Boo, Holland America.

At dinner I encountered two other women who reported similar experiences...in one case the aesthetician/sales vulture had simply handed her a bag with three bottles of product and a bill for $300. We all agreed to write letters, liberally cc'd, when we get back to shore.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Mom discovers Karaoke

Last night at dinner I sat next to an elegant older black couple from Northern California. She wants to get an iPod, and we were talking about music media and how it has evolved. I mentioned how valuable record album covers are, giving as an example the R. Crumb cover for Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Turns out the couple had been neighbors of R. Crumb and his wife Aileen for several years and her R. Crumb collection includes a portrait he did of her daughter.

Last night after dinner we stopped by one of the nightclubs, which was having the first round of a Karaoke contest. My mother had never seen--or heard of--Karaoke. One of the men from The Nation group was singing Sinatra's "My Way," and then did "If I Was a Rich Man," from Fiddler on the Roof. He was truly excellent, so my mom was not prepared for some of the painful performances that followed his. Eventually the club switched to dance music (contemporary, as in diva and hip hop) and my mom left and I went dancing until 1 a.m. There isn't that much of a nightlife on Holland America, but the upside is you don't have inebriated people crashing around the decks at night. At least, not yet.

Last night was the first "formal night" and some of the woman really dressed up. Emphasis was more on gowns than on expensive jewelry, so it was festive rather than elitist. Ironically, the ship also did a Monday night football (with hot dogs, etc.) in the theater, so quite a few husbands were absent from the dining rooms.

This morning I went to a digital photography seminar given by one of the ship's phalanx of photographers, a young Indian man with an Italian surname. I learned quite a bit--including how to use some features on my Digital Elph that had eluded me, and that there are some great features the Elph doesn't have.

The powerpoint presentation was done on a 14-inch iMac. Yes!

I'll try out some of the camera tricks when we go ashore tomorrow at St. Maarten.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The true value of the electoral college

The audience behavior at the first The Nation magazine panel on our cruise didn't make you optimistic about the left getting it together before the next election.

Fortunately, the panelists were far more coherent.

Some highlights:

Robert Scheer characterized the Bush voters as "an alliance of greed with phony Christianity." He was the most optimistic of the panelists, noting that "Bush is now clearly responsible for a mess: Iraq and the fall of the dollar."

Molly Ivins called for election reform so we could elect the president by direct vote, quipping "the only reason to keep the electoral college is so high school debate teams will have a topic."

The moderator, Calvin Trillin, confessed that he is not a First Amendment absolutist: "I think people who show slides of their trips to Europe should be arrested."

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Out to sea

The flight from Seattle to Houston was unremarkable. Continental has some of the skimpiest legroom in the industry, so we sat stoically in our little spaces. Cornflakes and milk were a refreshing breakfast, and the movie was Jet Li in Hero--the downside was the horrible color calibration of the dozens of tiny video screens on the plane.

We landed a little early in Houston, and I hiked to the far end of the vast Continental terminal to gate D3. Where, I found out, our plane to Ft. Lauderdale was no longer arriving. I hiked back to the new location, D8, and they loaded us on the plane. There was no air conditioning, and they announced the plane was being delayed for a repair. Then they announced that the plane was canceled. We got off, sat down, and then they announced our new plane would leave from a remote area of the terminal--an older section of the airport I recalled from previous plane changes. We hiked to the new gate, were I wrote a few Hanukkah cards, and then we boarded the new plane.

The passengers, a generally large and loud bunch, were pretty surly and rude at this point. The movie, Cat Woman, looked ghastly, so I sat and read Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson's classic SF novel). We arrived in Fort Lauderdale and waited, waited, waited for the luggage. I got a cab right away, though the driver was kind of creepy. It was only $10 to the Embassy Suites, and the hotel is a nice one: Spacious suite, great view over the city, good temperature control, great ilghting, and plenty of accessible electrical sockets for charging the computer, iPod and Treo. Though I usually avoid hotel restaurants, it was 9 when I got in and I didn't want to go wandering around the busy strip and end up at a chain. The restaurant was pretty much empty except for a loud party going on in the bar. I asked the waitress to put me somewhere quiet, and she took me out to the terrace in the atrium, where I ordered a small salad and the daily special appetizer: scallops and shrimp in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and basil. I called Zorg in Seattle and he put his cell phone on speakphone so Zoe and Kaylee could hear my voice. He said they clearly recognized it and were very excited. Too bad we can't do that for Sheba.

After I talked with Zorg, the dinner arrived. The salad was your basic overdressed Caesar type but the scallops and shrimp were one of the best seafood dishes I've ever eat in an American restaurant. The ingredients--the scallops and Roma tomatoes in particular--were top-notch and flavorful. But the preparation was exceptional as well. I'm guessing the seafood was gently sauteed in butter and then the sauce made up by deglazing the pan with the white wine and adding fresh minced garlic and basil (maybe some parsley) right at the end. My only question was if there might have been a seafood stock used, because there was such an abundance of sauce (and no signs of any artificial thickener, such as flour or cornstarch). I'd also guess that the wine was a sauterne--it did not seem particularly dry or tart, and was quite cooked down. Anyway the dish was a complete surprise, and perfect with the fresh, normal (no mango flavorings) iced tea. The waitress got a huge tip and I went happily up to my room to charge all the electronic gear and search (in vain) for the Sci Fi channel.

Not a bad 50th birthday.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Off to the islands

I'll be cruising on the MS Oosterdam through December 12. They supposedly have WiFi; you can reach me by email.

MSN Spaces constricted by censorship

I'm aghast and appalled but why was I surprised? MSN Spaces, the new blogging app from Microsoft, censors user blogs. We are being protected from offensive words like "cocktail," according to a Microsoft evangelist who does not appear particularly impressed by his employer's new product.

Of course, everyone agrees MSN Spaces is sure to catch on big. Bland and mediocre is the American way. If anything could stop blogs from being hip, this'll be it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Grinches, unite!

I love the holiday season, but I know some people who don't. This year, those grinches needn't grouch alone. Apparently there's a whole organization, with a website, devoted to Christmas Resistance. Ho, ho, ho!

Buy stickers and other agitprop, or read the amusing letters to Satana (and, no, that's not a typo) from both pro- and anti-Christmas visitors.