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In Pursuit

February 28, 2010
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The only Olympic event I ever showed any interest in as a girl was ice skating – mostly for the glittering leotards, the cheesy pop music, and the grace I would never possess. Interest quickly chilled to resentment (damn those ice ballerinas and their triple salchows), and it wasn’t long before the Olympics was just some program that interrupted my primetime schedule for a month every couple of years.

Last week I visited my great-aunt in Irvine, and before we went out to dinner she went to finish the laundry, leaving the Olympics on in the living room. Since I had nothing better to do while I waited, I sat down in front of the T.V. – and found myself sucked into the Men’s Cross-Country Pursuit, or ‘NASCAR in slow motion on cross-country skis.’ The competitors looked like drunk ducks struggling uphill against a strong breeze. It was riveting; I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Completely ignorant of the rules, I was forced to rely on the overly-caffeinated commentators, whose manic glee for the tortoise race was infectious, even if I had no idea what was going on. At first I thought it was some sort of tag-team sport, where three players from each country moved as if they were riding in an invisible bobsled. Occasionally the skiers came to a slight slope, which gave them enough momentum to pass one another on the curve – if they had the stones.

Watching the men waddle through the melting snow, I tried to figure out why I was so intrigued. They trekked in a mostly straight line, weren’t allowed to knock one another into the ravine, and never seemed to collide in a fiery blaze. Why didn’t the men in the back spare themselves the burning calves, the aching arms, the frostbite, and go home – or at least back to the lodge for a mug of hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows?

Then I realized: it was a metaphor for life. Like these men, the rest of us toil circuitously for ages, trailing pack leaders, looking for any opportunity to break out and go for the gold, and regardless of our position in the line, we just keep plodding forward. Johan Olsson of Sweden, one white spandex suit among many, found his opportunity in the changeover from “classic” skiing to its virtually identical counterpart “freestyle” skiing, and grabbed a vital ten second lead.

And suddenly, I was Johan Olsson. Struggling through the snowdrift of school, and work, and ceaseless adult responsibility, I, too, was just waiting for my moment in the sun. As Olsson increased his lead to a dazzling twenty-five seconds, so far ahead of the others that it was a foregone conclusion, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s hope for me after all.’

Then with only (only?) five kilometers to go, Olsson’s incredible lead started to melt. The Russian was gaining on him. Olsson’s fellow Swedes had been holding back the pack in order to give Olsson a fighting chance for the gold, but they couldn’t keep the Russian down. Then it was the German. And then, out of nowhere, Olsson was robbed by Marcus Hellner, his wingman and fellow Swede, who put in a last minute burst of speed to win!

What was the point of going through all that torment only to have some 24-year-old upstart come out of nowhere to take the glory? The commentators kept saying that bronze-medal-or-no-bronze-medal, this was the best run of Olsson’s career, as if that were some sort of consolation prize. ‘But he lost!’ I wanted to shout. ‘He came in third! And he was so damn close, it was his! How dare Hellner take this victory from us?’

But, of course, Olsson was all smiles, triumphant and celebratory. And maybe he was right to be beaming. Coming in third out of some fifty-odd skiers – not to mention qualifying for the Olympics in the first place – is a triumph, no matter what color your medal.

It would be nice to think Johan Olsson taught me something about being a gracious loser, about trying your hardest no matter what, even if it means settling for third place. About taking opportunities where they come, even if they don’t take you where you want to go.  Also, to stop kvetching about my life when there are people out there who strap planks to their feet and trudge in a circle for 30 kilometers.

But secretly I imagine he’s plotting Hellner’s downfall like the second runner up in a Miss America pageant, and I am right there with him.

Five Books I Love That Also Depress the Hell Out of Me

February 26, 2010

1. Anything by Jane Austen. Now, I love Jane. Love her. Sort of want to be her. I love her wit, and fact that every story ends with a wedding, but by the end of her books, I’m always stuck with the realization that men like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightly don’t actually exist, and the world is filled with Mr. Collinses. Maybe that’s why Mansfield Park is so surprisingly satisfying. The heroine gets what she wants, but at the same time, her man isn’t exactly Prince Charming.

2. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card. This is an excellent book, but the fact that an entire civilization of people agree to give up their existence for the chance of a better future – and that two people in love have to sacrifice that for the greater good – gets me every time. It was one of the first books that ever made me cry.

3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. I blame Pilot for making me such a soft touch where animals are concerned; I get choked up when the fictional demons of fictional characters are killed. And the ending to the trilogy, while fitting, is so tragic.

4. Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Great book. Loved, loved, loved it, so rich and nuanced. I loved the way he expanded the Oz universe. But unlike its musical counterpart, it does not have a happy ending. The last section of the book was not as enjoyable as the complicated start, and I like the way the musical handles it better.

5. Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I got so worked up over this series as I read the first three books during a college road trip that I haven’t been able to bring myself to read Feast of Crows. I can still remember the emotional roller coaster they put me through. I had purchased the first on the suggestion of a Barnes & Noble cashier and read it on the trip up the coast in the backseat of my Dad’s car. We were somewhere in Northern California when I made him stop at a book store so I could go get the other two. But when I finished (and talk about devastating) there was so much time before the next one came out, that I couldn’t put myself back in that place again, so I never finished.

Though now that HBO is bringing The Game of Thrones to the small screen, I might have to try again.

JAP

February 23, 2010

For a long time I thought ‘JAP’ was a peculiarly capitalized, derogatory term for someone of Japanese ancestry. I’m not sure when I realized that JAP was actually a derogatory acronym for someone like… me. Though my father was born Roman Catholic, I am a Jewish American Princess in every sense of the slur, and though my kind typically hail from the Eastern Seaboard, I’m sure that as a spoiled only child with a menorah in the china cabinet and a mezuzah on the door of my ivory tower, they can’t revoke my membership card.

I feel no shame in admitting that I fit the stereotype. Whatever I lack in Jew, I make up for in princess: I like the good life – particularly the rampant consumerism that pervades the U.S., and I will not apologize. I prefer to eat in restaurants that have at least one other location – for menu stability – am never more than five miles from a Coffee Bean™ mocha latte, and will be among the first to volunteer when scientists implant computers into human brains for faster internet access (providing the computers are user-friendly Macs and not virus-laden PCs. I have standards.) I like to sleep in my own full-sized bed on sheets of Modal – a bio-based textile made from reconstituted cellulose of  beech trees which stay cool even in the summer – and am literally allergic to the outdoors. My one and only sleep-away camp experience ended with dehydration, food poisoning from handpicked blackberries, and profound disappointment when I came in fifth in the horseback-riding competition. (I was robbed.)

Despite all this, I intend to take a ten-day trip across Israel, land of milk, honey, and no bacon.

It’s actually my JAP-status that allows me to take the trip. As the proud owner of one Jewish parent, it doesn’t matter that I don’t go to temple. All Jews (regardless of religiosity) between the ages of 18 and 26 can travel to the Homeland for free if they apply with the Birthright Israel Foundation. More than 230,000 Jews have gone before me, which is enough of a track record that I feel reasonably secure.

Since I’m Jew-lite, I bring this up to a friend over Facebook, hoping for a little insight into the experience before I make my final decision.

“Have you been on the Israel Birthright trip?” I ask. She had a bat mitzvah, she reads Hebrew, she knows what matzoh is. These are the markers by which I judge Jewishness.

“No, but I really should,” she replies. She turned twenty-five in February, she’s running out of time. Right then and there we decide to go together. The relief I feel is immediate and immeasurable. I’ll have a familiar face to accompany me on this epic journey, someone who will report back to my parents if I disappear on the road to Galilee.

“I’ll forward you the last e-mail I got,” my friend says. Like most of the Trip Advisors, the website declares this group open to Jews with all levels of religious exposure, and also states that the participants will stay in 3 and 4 star hotels. Are Jewish stars any different from American stars, I wonder? What does a hotel have to do to earn (or lose) one of these stars? Are we talking Hiltons or Best Westerns? Or, dare I say, Motel 6?

Further scanning of the website reveals that in addition to the 3-and-4-star hotels, one night will be spent sleeping in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Negev Desert.

Jesus Christ.

I hate sand. I’ve always hated sand. What if I’m trampled by a herd of rampaging camels? What if I get bitten by a rattlesnake or stung by a scorpion, and my poor friend has to suck the venom out simply because she has the misfortune to share a tent in the desert with me? No doubt she’ll also be forced to pat me awkwardly on the back as I empty my stomach into whatever the Bedouin equivalent of a toilet is. How am I expected to survive the night without running water?

I’ll have to go ten days without a flat-iron – allowing my short hair to resume its natural state of frizzy, unmanageable curls – since everything we pack for this trip will be carted around on a daily basis; one extra pound could be the difference between survival and a hernia. This horror is compounded by the fact that my makeup case and hairdryer will take up space that could be better occupied by socks and underwear, to say nothing of the bug spray, sunscreen, asprin, English-Hebrew phrase book, English-Arabic phrase book, Kleenex, digital camera, hand-stitched moleskin travel journal, down pillow, Aquafina water bottles, first aid kit, Sees chocolate bar, contact lens solution, contact lens case, glasses, prescription for another pair of glasses should anything befall the first pair, and bottle of Bacon Bits (still technically kosher, since they don’t actually contain bacon). Something tells me I’m just not going to have time to apply eyeliner in the morning.

There’s a preliminary itinerary posted on the website too – from the roofs of Jerusalem’s Old City to an archaeological dig site, to floating on the Dead Sea, the tour is endowed with an almost militaristic schedule.  A lot of marching, a lot of climbing, very few snack breaks.

I am a city girl, born and raised in Los Angeles, and I drive everywhere. I get lost without MapQuest, never bother to wash my blue Honda Civic as it will only get dirty again, and know my way around town based on a location’s proximity to a shopping mall. Walking is something only done by fitness freaks, the granola-munching, smoothie-sucking, hemp-wearing hippies of the hills.

Too many things can go wrong in the world, especially for an American citizen traveling abroad – film has taught me that. On the rare occasions when friends manage to drag me outside my comfort zone, I’m usually too busy imagining the worst case scenarios to enjoy myself. There’s always the threat of  a cyborg who’s come from the future to kill me, or a volcano erupting in the middle of the La Brea Tar Pits, a zombie outbreak that forces me to chop the heads off of some of my dearest friends, or an alien invasion that leads to a hostage situation and questionable torture methods.

Because of all these threats to my life, the world in which I travel is a series of ivory towers; familiar, secure places, removed from the ills of the world. Above it all.

But the trouble with being above it all is that you’re always missing out on something. How many people have walked past my tower without looking up? How many times have spectacular opportunities crossed my path, only for me to be ignorant of their presence? No one’s coming to my rescue; even with a flat-iron, no one’s climbing my hair. This princess has to rescue herself, and this trip, ten days in a part of the world that is so unlike my own, is my chance to bust out, knot my Modal sheets together and toss them out the bay windows – leaving the hair dryer behind.

Five Things That Really Bug Me

February 19, 2010

1. People who brush their teeth in public restrooms. There’s something so unhygienic about this personal hygiene movement. I mean, I understand not wanting to have garlic breath at your next conference, but the people who bring whole kits to the bathroom – with a tooth brush, toothpaste, dental floss, and mouthwash – irk me.  It’s not your personal bathroom, people. I don’t need to know that you’re spitting into the same sink where I wash my hands. Isn’t that what spearmint gum and altoids are for?

2. Men who wear belts and still can’t keep their pants up. Seriously. There is no men’s fashion dumber than having your boxers exposed just above your belt. Belts are designed to keep pants in place at the hips. If you must look like you don’t know how to dress yourself you can a) ditch the belt, and b) at least make sure you’re wearing clean underwear for those of us who are forced to see them. Ick.

3. Clothing companies that advertise with naked people. To me, ad campaigns like those of Abercrombie & Fitch and Joe’s Jeans say, ‘Our clothes are so awful, even the models won’t wear them.’ Or, ‘Maybe you’ll be so distracted by the nudity that you won’t notice how much a pair of pants costs.’ Either way, I find it less than inspiring.

4. That celebrities seem surprised and hurt when they’re discovered having affairs. Aside from the fact that most celebrities are outed by their own publicists for the exposure, how can any of them be shocked when they’re caught? In today’s world, we know everything about everyone, and if we don’t, someone can find out. Then it’s gone across the world in seconds. I’m far more offended by the fact that they think they’ll get away with it than the affairs themselves.

5. Getting accosted on the street by people who want my money. When I donate to charity, it’s an electronic donation so I don’t have to get a spiel or see pictures of sad orphans. There are more than enough causes in the world, and there just isn’t enough time to do something about all of them. You have to pick your battles, and I already picked mine.

Join me in my irritation, won’t you?

Five Things I Simply Don’t Care About Despite the Hoopla

February 12, 2010

1. That Taylor Lautner is now legal. I care more about the fact that thousands of people were counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday, and what that says about us as human beings. He’s not even that hot.

2. That John Mayer has sworn off social networking after breaking down on stage because he used the N-word in a Playboy article. Or something. I once won free tickets to see him in concert from Star 98.7. The man is a talented musician, but in all other respects, it would seem he’s an idiot.

3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains Clearly they’ve run out of remote islands to put stupid people on, and have been forced to get gimicky. My question is, how is one supposed to tell the heroes and villains apart? Oh, right, I don’t care. Why is this show still on the air?

4. How many cats or cows you have on your imaginary farm. I spend enough time playing Bejeweled Blitz that I’ve resisted the temptation to get sucked into any of Facebook’s time-intensive games, but I seriously don’t get the appeal of Farmville. People are always finding stray cats and stray cows. Is it because you can arrange your crops to look like a swastika?

5. Whether or not a pickle can get more fans on Facebook than Nickelback. I actually like Nickelback. Not to the point where I’d shell out money to see them in concert, but there are several Nickelback songs  on my iPhone. I have no idea what they did to incur the wrath of Facebook, but most things to do with the music scene go completely over my head.

Chuck This

February 10, 2010
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(Watch out, SPOILERS for “Chuck vs. the Mask”)

The season came out of the gate strong, I thought, and I certainly missed the computer nerd-super spy. I loved the inclusion of Captain Awesome into the world of espionage, and maybe that’s what was missing from this week’s episode.

I still love Chuck. It’s a fun hour of escapism, and I’ve been a ‘professional fan’ for too long to be surprised when my ships don’t pull safely into harbor. It happens. (Remember that list I made of TV pairs? Most of the people on it died before the full consummation of their relationship, so let’s maintain a little perspective.)

Because I’ve studied writing, and television writing specifically, it doesn’t bother me when relationships take a turn for the worse as long as it serves the story. This is my primary issue with last night’s episode. Chuck and Sarah are over – for now. Fine. They have plenty of issues between them, I get it, and I accept it. Gotta keep the tension up. Chuck gets a new love interest? Also fine, though he was confessing his love for Sarah not too long ago.  Hannah’s not horribly annoying, the chemistry works, and her introduction wasn’t too forced.  The show can’t afford Kristin Kreuk for much longer, so I’m not exactly worried about her taking over.

Sarah and Shaw. Sigh. Here’s where things falter.

We open on a vault, and a ninja pulling a Mission Impossible. For a yet-to-be-explained reason, the handsome agent Shaw is attempting to steal a gold mask that very much resembles something I made in elementary school. He’s wearing a black ski mask in the attempt to deceive the audience into thinking that this ninja is a bad guy, so that the reveal is shocking! (Didn’t work. Even Brandon Routh’s eyes are too good-looking and easily recognizable.)

Alarm bells go off. The ceiling opening through which Shaw is suspended begins to close – and his winch isn’t fast enough. He’s trapped, and a convenient monitor on the wall informs him that decompression is starting. Despite the fact that one percent of the oxygen seems to disappear every second (logically giving him 100 seconds to live), Shaw has about an hour before he runs out of air, so he calls in reinforcements.

His savior, Chuck, is busy at the Buy More, flirting with new girl Hannah. I only watched about a year of Smallville back in the day, but I definitely prefer Kreuk in this role. She’s spunky, and obviously crushing hard on Chuck. Chuck is oblivious to this, even though the woman has just come from an IT job that sent her all over the world and is now working in a retail store in Burbank. There’s only one reason she would do that, and even though Chuck’s not always the sharpest pencil when it comes to the fairer sex, I find it hard to believe even he would miss that.

Unfortunately spy business takes precedence over flirtation, and Sarah arrives to drag Chuck to the museum where Shaw is suffocating. Hannah, who was promised she could accompany Chuck on his next Nerd Herder install, decides to follow. No apparent ulterior motive, though her work ethic is a trifle suspicious.

Together (unbeknownst to Hannah) they save Agent Shaw from a vacuum, and thanks to whatever magic they worked on the museum’s security system, both are invited to the party which will unveil the golden mask of Alexander the Great – but not as guests. They’re on call.

(As my father pointed out, the museum doesn’t have its own private IT guys? Well, why should they – they don’t have security guards either.)

Since Chuck is already assigned to the control room, and Casey is hanging out in the van, per usual, Shaw assigns himself as Sarah’s date for the evening. He’s been bringing her coffee, and notices that she likes to chew on her swizzle sticks. Sarah looks distinctly uncomfortable.

Unfortunately for Chuck, right after Hannah makes a move on him (in terms even Chuck can’t ignore), she notices that his ex-girlfriend is wandering around the museum. Chuck abandons her to do spy stuff –  the Ring operative is in the museum, and is intimately acquainted with the good Agent Shaw, so Chuck has to don the harness and lower Sarah into the vault to swap out the real mask for a fake. (Something about the Ring smuggling something or other in the mask so it won’t be searched by customs. Uh huh.)

After the usual snafus, Chuck makes the swap and hurries back to the control room to smooth things over with Hannah, who refuses to be smoothed. She returns to the Buy More, angry, and Chuck stops by Castle, to see how Shaw and Sarah are doing with the mask. They find the hidden compartment, and manage to release a toxin, forcing the super-secret-hideout to shut down for contamination.

Meanwhile the token bad guy for the episode really wants his mask back, so he lures Hannah back to the unguarded museum, ostensibly on a computer emergency, and locks her in the vault with only an hour of air. What a coincidence! Sarah and Shaw only have an hour to get the antidote and reverse the effects of the poison. Fortunately for Chuck, both routes take him to the museum, where he and Casey plot to placebo the bad guy.

Back in Castle, Shaw admits he was hitting on Sarah, with the coffee and the kissing of her neck at the party. She admits she liked the kissing. I groan.

The writers want to give Sarah a new love interest? Fine. But it shouldn’t be Bryce Larkin 2.0. In addition, the relationship doesn’t make sense. One of Sarah’s primary reasons for not being with Chuck is that they’re both spies. Shaw is not only a spy, he’s her superior. And it seems like he’s still dealing with the death of his wife, who’s not long in her grave. I was enjoying the dynamic he brought to the team – before he woke up one morning and decided he wanted to sleep with Sarah.

Ship or no ship – this is just lazy plotting, which can pretty much be said for the entire episode. It wasn’t the worst thing ever, as some might be claiming, but it wasn’t as sharp as, say, “Chuck versus Operation Awesome.”

Back at the suspiciously small and glass-free museum…

Setting off a smoke grenade, Chuck manages to convince Bad Guy that he’s been poisoned too – only to discover that he doesn’t know where the antidote is. They start smashing vases, and Chuck smashes the right one over B.G.’s head. Shaw comes rushing in with Sarah in his arms, even though he’s dying in a rush, and Chuck hands over the antidote before he finally goes to rescue Hannah. She’s swept off her feet, and forgives him for everything.

There’s a miscellaneous subplot about Morgan and Ellie’s concern for Chuck, but other than the sad puppy face of Morgan when he discovers Chuck and Hannah making out, it’s pretty unimportant.

Not one of their better efforts, but for all the Chuck/Sarah fans freaking out and suggesting boycotts, it’s not over ’til it’s over. And even then there’s fan fiction.

For more thoughts on the subject, I recommend Maureen Ryan’s Watcher article (in which she and I have basically the same opinion), and this article: Chuck versus the Entitled Fan Base. Serve the story before serving the fans. When done properly, they’re the same thing.

Reporting for Duty 2: Scenes from a Courthouse

February 9, 2010

They got me after all. Imagine my surprise and utter horror when I received a ‘Failure to Appear’ notice from the jury service in the mail. Lousy bureaucracy. Like it was my fault that their automated voicemail system informed me I didn’t have to report for jury duty the week of December 28th, but failed to tell me the whole week was null and void because I didn’t call in until that Monday? Or that by New Year’s Eve the system had become stuck in some sort of time loop that I suspected a certain Doctor might have had a hand in? My fault that it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and therefore impossible to get ahold of an actual human being? (Well, yes, that last one was sort of my fault since I’d purposely scheduled my jury duty for that very reason.)

The Hollywood Courthouse telephone operators were entirely unsympathetic to my plight, and so I am forced to show up at 8:45 on February 8th, 2010, or Pay. The. Price. I can only assume this means they would have slapped me in handcuffs and started selecting the jury for my trial.

While I sit around waiting in the jury pool, mocha latte in hand, Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey in my bag, iPhone out, I glance around the room, and realize this is an excellent opportunity to hone my people-watching skills.

Along the wall closest to the door is a bank of three computers. A long, detailed letter sits open on the desktop in front of one man in a striped red shirt and white socks with black sneakers. He has sunglasses perched on top of dark hair, and sips from a traveler’s mug of coffee – black, probably, with maybe a hint of cream.

He has Mail, and by the look of it, I say it’s from a loved one, perhaps some relative or lover in a foreign land – like Canada, or Mexico – who writes once a week with a full account of his or her days, and a paragraph or two about how much that person misses the man in the red striped shirt. This epistle is so important that the man can’t wait until he gets home to read it.

He rests his chin on his fist, as he scrolls down the very long message, oblivious to the room full of strangers reading over his shoulder. I imagine that the two words at the bottom of the note are ‘Take care,’ or ‘Love always.’

Or maybe it’s just a memo from his boss about the company’s new policy on sexual harassment.

On his left, a woman in a coral t-shirt tucked into her black jeans, with eighties hair pushed high away from her forehead, touch-types her way around Yahoo. She doesn’t seem to know what she’s looking for, one finger at a time, but has a look of permanent bewilderment. She forgets to sign in, holding up the proceedings for everyone.

The impassivity of the jury clerk is impressive. Maybe he’s on some sort of medication that turns a man into the walking dead. Instead of brains, the word that groans from his lips is, “Forms…”

Mr. Shiny-Shoes (which don’t match his charcoal grey hoodie) is impervious to any sob story, heart hardened against even the most ardent tears. He has his routine and upon completion of his paperwork, pops a DVD into the television with a ‘Do Not Touch’ label, though the contraption is so large and boxy, its not as if a person would get very far.

According to the informative video, which is populated by actors pretending to be jurors, California is the greatest state in the Union. I had no idea. Nor was I aware that being a juror is often a “deep and moving experience,” so much so that jurors keep in touch, writing one another long, detailed letters about the illegal activities of their neighbors, no doubt.

The video wants to make it clear that if you (and it means you, Juror #6) are peremptorily dismissed from the courtroom, it’s not personal. Except when it is.  And don’t feel too bad, because it doesn’t mean you don’t get to be a juror – there are other courts that might take you, even if you mouth off about gun control.

Also important to remember: no personal investigation of the crime. Don’t leave the courthouse and travel to the crime scene to get your CSI on. Nancy Drew, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and other amateur detectives would be quickly excused from jury service, but Edward James Olmos, Camryn Manheim, Harrison Ford, and Jamie Lee Curtis were not.