Thursday, December 31, 2009

Now Viewing: Avatar

Where do I even start reviewing this film? Countless film critics (professional and amateur) have already sung its praises in every way, shape, and form. But I saw it last night in 3-D, and thus feel the need to add my voice to the cacophony of people extolling James Cameron's latest epic.

And epic it truly is. In Avatar, Cameron truly creates a whole new world for his viewers. The quality of the film-making, the CGI techniques, the acting, the plot, the effects-- all are more than above par, and all become even better when you see the movie in 3-D. After putting on the 3-D glasses, viewers are quickly sucked in to the moon of Pandora, to the struggles between the human invaders and the native Na'vi population.

Sam Worthington delivers an impressive performance as Jake Sully, a paraplegic ex-Marine who replaces his recently deceased brother on the mission to Pandora, merging with his brother's Na'vi avatar and getting adopted into and slowly accepted by the local Na'vi clan. His teacher in the ways of The People is the chief's daughter, Neytiri, played to near-unrecognizable perfection by Zoe Saldana.

Most movie buffs agree that plot and script are not James Cameron's strongest abilities as a filmmaker, and to some extent that holds true in Avatar. In my opinion, I would say that although the script is fairly weak, he does get some great one-liners in, and the plot is also fairly strong. Parts of the story quite honestly harken back to a Pocahontas-style narrative, with greedy corporate humans coming in to drive out the native population by any means necessary in order to obtain the not-quite-cleverly-named "unobtainium," a tremendously valuable substance back on earth. Then of course you have the "Colors of the Wind" moments during which Jake begins to understand and appreciate-- and become part of-- the natural world of Pandora. When critics call it a tree-hugger liberal environmentalist film, I confess they have a point. Cameron clearly wants the audience's sympathies to be with the Na'vi people and their allies-- very few of the human characters are likable at all, unless you happen to have either a dollar sign or a gun for a heart.

But here's the thing-- most viewers probably won't really care about that, regardless of their political leanings. Because this movie is just that good. The visual effects alone will knock you back in your seat. The vistas off the mountains and waterfalls-- of which there are many-- are especially impressive. Cameron's Pandora is a spectacularly beautiful place, and I'm sure that if there isn't already, there will soon be a Facebook group called "I Want to Move to Pandora" or something along those lines. Then you have the not-unimpressive battle scenes, the love story between Jake and Neytiri, tragedies, some cynically comic dialogue-- all this plus the political intrigue makes for a movie that almost everybody will like.

Bottom line: Go see Avatar. And pay the extra money to see it in 3-D on the biggest screen you can possibly find (IMAX, if you can). It is truly worth it for the feeling of escaping the confines of Earth for three hours.

Two Lists and Two Columns

Just some quick hits today from my Reader-
  • Nicholas Kristof writes about how a reliable savings account can change lives in Third World countries. I still think saving money is something people need to learn how to do here, too.
  • Gail Collins bids a not-so-fond farewell to 2009 in "That Was the Year That Was." If you want to think about what a long year it was, remember that George W. Bush was still the president when the calendar switched to January 2009.
  • POLITICO presents: The Top 10 Weirdest (Political) Moments of 2009. And boy, are there some great ones. Starting with Obama getting sworn in twice and Sarah Palin resigning.
  • And always my favorite end-of-year highlight: TIME's list of the 25 Best Blogs of the year. Happily, Zen Habits (my favorite blog) made the list again. Sadly, I am not yet on there (haha). Maybe some day.
Happy reading, and enjoy the last night of 2009!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Featured Blog: The Julie/Julia Project

This is the now-famous blog that lead to Julie Powell's book Julie & Julia, and the 2009 movie that was based off of it. I watched the movie tonight (which is what lead me to track down the original blog) and loved it-- if I can, I'll do my customary review tomorrow, but bottom line was that it was both funny and sweet, throughly enjoyable and full of delectable-looking food. Made me want to be a cook and find a guy like Julia Child's or Julie Powell's husbands in the movie. Increased (if it's possible) even further my respect for the talents of Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. And most significantly, gave me hope that it is in fact still possible to make a decent chick flick-- as much as I shamelessly love the genre, most of the films that come out of it are totally awful. Wait-- okay, guess I don't need to review it tomorrow. That's a pretty decent summary review. But I'm supposed to be writing about the blog.

Anyway, I tracked down the original blog and started reading through it from the first post. Haven't finished it, obviously, but I find Julie Powell's writing both entertaining and endearing. It's a superbly written blog, and even though she hasn't posted since Julia Child died in 2004, it's still fun to go back and laugh (or cry, whatever's your taste) at her exploits and attempts at mastering the art of French cooking, Julia Child style.

A New Year...

...well, almost. But it's the time of year where not only do we analyze what is behind, we look towards the future. There are certainly predictions to be made politically-- even, arguably, resolutions-- but I will, for the moment at least, leave those to people wiser than I. The matter of personal New Year's resolutions is quite challenging enough.

I've never been a huge fan of New Year's resolutions, simply because they virtually always fizzle in a very short amount of time. Also, there are things in my life (as is the case for most of us) that I know I should change but don't particularly want to.

The main one of these, for me, is my exercise habit. I have (usually) good academic habits, decent eating habits, and workable sleep habits-- at least, I do better than some of my peers at university (although that really does not say much at all). But when it comes to exercise, I have a difficult time pushing into it. Partly I think that relates to my tendency to be very accident prone-- almost every time I start to really exercise, I seem to get hurt. Which has the general impact of turning me off the whole concept altogether.

Still, since I had major knee surgery this summer, the anatomical problems with my body are theoretically fixed. However, my doctor and physical therapist both warned me that unless I get serious about exercising and strengthening, I will never get to a higher level of fitness than the functional place I am currently at-- able to walk, including up and down stairs, but bending rather stiffly and unable to run more than a couple of steps comfortably. So I guess that's what you might call motivation to change this habit.

Encouragement to exercise aside, I have no idea yet what (if anything) I will be doing for my New Year's resolutions. I will think on it in the next few days-- 2009 isn't over yet. Leo Babauta at Zen Habits has created a new website ( dedicated to helping people achieve six designated resolutions, or changes in their lives, with some useful and simple techniques. Since he has provided tremendously useful ideas for me in the past, who knows, maybe I will jump in and give it a try. Just for a preview of an article on the site-- How to Form the Exercise Habit. Do check it out, along with the other stuff on the site, if you are contemplating seriously forming any new habits for your resolutions in 2010.

Now Reading: The Healing of America

Anyone who has been following my blog in the last year or who knows me personally knows that health care is the political issue that I am, by far, the most passionate about. As a Canadian who has spent most of her life growing up in the US, I have seen the good and the bad of both systems, and have come to the conclusion that health care is a right for the many, not a privilege to be enjoyed by the few. I have held this opinion for quite a long time in some form or other, but it was strengthened this past summer when it became apparent that the US health care system had contributed to the rapid demise of one of my favorite professors, Fred Holliday. Naturally, I have followed the debates around the country, in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate with some considerable interest, and have also done some reading of my own on the topic.

The most recent book I've picked up on the topic is The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid, a correspondent for the Washington Post. During his years at the Post, Reid has served as bureau chief in London and Tokyo, so he experienced the systems in those two nations firsthand. For this book, however, Reid examined the World Health Organization's rankings of health systems, and set out on an exploration of the pros and cons of the different systems that ranked higher than the US-- which is actually a sampling of pretty much every other wealthy industrialized democratic country in the world-- in terms of providing cost-effective, quality, universal health care.

For this book, Reid traveled to France, Germany, Britain, Canada, and India to investigate the cures they each would offer for his personal medical ailment, a stiff and sore shoulder, and to report on the nation's system as a whole. In doing so, he discovered that although each country (with the exception of India) provided universal health care, they each had different methods for doing so. The four systems of universal care that Reid outlined are the Beveridge model (Britain), the Bismarck model (Germany and France), the National Health Insurance model (Canada), and the Out-of-Pocket model (most low-income countries in the world, plus the US, in part). In actuality, Reid points out, the US combines variations of all these models for different elements of society, whereas it would really be most effective to create one unified system for everybody.

Reid has many fascinating anecdotes, facts, statistics, and discoveries that he covers in The Healing of America, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about health care systems elsewhere in the world, and about what the US could learn from them. Regardless, however, here are my top 10 takeaways from the book, in quick summary form:
  1. It's basically true that doctors nearly always get screwed by universal health care systems in comparison to what doctors in the US earn...
  2. ...but on the grand scale, they're not exactly badly off in most cases. They usually earn around $100k or more per year and live comfortable middle-class lifestyles...
  3. ...Although this ability is partly because they accumulate much lower (or nonexistent) medical debts from their education, and have to pay so little for malpractice insurance (because there are so few malpractice lawsuits).
  4. The presence of a moral imperative (Is health care a fundamental right?) is an essential part of the discussion around having a universal system. Economic discussions won't get the job done because they don't reach to the core of the issue.
  5. Health care "rationing" is a part of life. In any and every system on earth.
  6. In universal systems (Britain is an especially good example) there is a high incentive for good preventative care and low administrative costs. Not so in the US.
  7. One of the best ways to lower administrative costs is to digitize health records (see: France's carte vitale).
  8. In order for a universal system to work properly, you must have both an individual mandate and a guaranteed issue. In other words, everyone must buy into the system (to create a large enough risk pool, especially if using the Bismarck model) and insurance companies cannot deny a claim or coverage if you pay your premiums on time.
  9. Guaranteed issue is another good way to reduce those hefty administrative costs. No need to pay claims adjusters, etc., when you can't deny claims and must pay them quickly.
  10. No health care system is perfect; all of them have pros and cons. But the US can-- and, in my opinion, must-- do better than it does now.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Now Reading: The Know-It-All

A.J. Jacobs used to think he was the smartest kid in the world. Then he grew up and became a writer and editor for pop culture magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Esquire and started feeling like he had lost his thirst for knowledge. So what did he do? He decided to read through the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Y'know, a little light reading.

And thus begins Jacobs's memoir The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. Outrageously funny-- I literally laughed out loud all the way through the book-- and by turns sweet, intelligent, and wise, Jacobs mixes telling about what he is reading-- the memoir is, like the encyclopedia, organized alphabetically-- and what is going on in his life outside the reading material. This includes personal things, like his and his wife's struggle to get pregnant as well as Jacobs's own lingering issues with his father, and tangential quests for knowledge. During the course of this experience, Jacobs applies to Mensa, tries out for Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and meets to discuss the pursuit of knowledge with some of the smartest people in the world. These interviews included Alex Trebek, an intelligence expert, the founder of several of the highest-IQ clubs, and a five-time Jeopardy champion, among others. Each individual has a different perspective on the pursuit of knowledge-- some think Jacobs is wasting his time reading the encyclopedia, others think it could be a good thing-- but on several points, there is general agreement:

1) There is more than one type of intelligence.
2) Knowledge comes from everywhere, the encyclopedia is only one source.
3) The pursuit of knowledge is, in general, a very good and noble thing.

Those are ideas that I can get behind, for sure. As a life-long bookworm and as someone who loves learning, I can appreciate Jacobs's quest-- although I'm not sure I would be able to do it. However, there is something to be said for that kind of thirst for knowledge-- something that more people could stand to have these days, in my opinion. Bottom line-- The Know-It-All is a humor book, to be sure. But at the same time it manages to be fall-out-of-your-chair witty, it makes you think and even passes on a few intellectual tidbits along the way. Well worth the read.

Playing Catch-Up: Now Viewing

With movies, too, I have slacked off in my individual reviews. This is partly because two of my recent movie viewings were old favorites, but regardless, here's some quick hits on the movies I've watched most recently:

Love Actually: Probably my second-favorite chick flick, if I had to pick one (my #1 favorite, without exception, is You've Got Mail). A sweet exploration of the many different natures of love, as couples who interact in and out of each other's lives find true love in all its forms. "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere." With a stellar cast including Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, and Keira Knightley, a number of endearing plotlines, and a heartwarming message, Love Actually is a great movie for Christmas or any time of year when you need a reminder about the presence of love in the world.

White Christmas: To me, the #1 classic Christmas movie. Yes, I love The Santa Clause and A Christmas Story and all the others (although I have to admit that Elf kind of drives me up the wall), but it just doesn't feel like a real Christmas to me unless we watch this heartwarming Michael Curtiz film about a pair of post-WWII entertainers who bring their show and a great Christmas gift to their down-on-his-luck former general...and, of course, find love along the way. Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen, White Christmas instills me with feelings of nostalgia for holidays gone by-- not least of which, holidays where there was actually lots of real snow on the ground on Christmas Day!

Sherlock Holmes: I have been excited for this movie since I first caught the trailer back in September or so, and I was not disappointed when I went to see it in theaters yesterday. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as the famous detective and Jude Law portrays his partner, Dr. Watson. The original character of Sherlock Holmes was (to my recollection) a rather peppery, sarcastic, elitist and slightly crazy man-- a brilliant chemist, an observer, a cocaine addict, a boxer, a violinist, and fascinated by science of all varieties. The caricatures of him in popular culture since-- with the deerstalker hat and whatnot-- have in my opinion fallen rather short of this original character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so I was very pleased to see that this new Guy Ritchie Holmes film was much closer to the original character-- not a deerstalker hat in sight. The film's not perfect, of course-- for one thing, Holmes and Watson weren't nearly as funny as Downey and Law are in the film-- but it was a change that I could live with. Holmes's nemesis in this movie, Lord Blackwood (brilliantly portrayed by the sinister Mark Strong), was apparently gifted in dark magic, using his plots to kill people and build his power and influence, to a point in which he would use it to take over all of England (naturally). On the side, Holmes has to deal with his feelings for the clever criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)-- a character at the heart of the Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia," a woman who frequently manages to outsmart Holmes, or at least keep him on his toes. I was also pleased to discover that they framed the film perfectly for a sequel to come along next-- featuring the brilliant and devious Professor Moriarty, Holmes's number one nemesis in the stories. All things told, although far from a perfect film, I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and would highly recommend it to those who enjoy a pithy, clever, funny, action and suspense-packed mystery. Perhaps not a thriller of the highest order, but definitely a lot of fun-- most of all for the portrayal of the world's most famous detective as he was, just maybe, supposed to be portrayed.

Playing Catch-Up: Now Reading

Since I last posted about my reading material, I've read a couple of books and am almost done with a third, so I think I will just hit the two that I've finished now in this one post.

The History of God by Karen Armstrong: This book, frankly, blew me out of the water. It's been recommended to me a number of times through the years by various fellow bookworms, and I finally got around to plowing through it (although, on a personal side note, I think the doctors were a little confused when I was reading it while waiting for my surgery last week). Armstrong's book is a fascinating journey of the human perception of the divine in the three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Beginning with the earliest appearances of religion in ancient Mesopotamia, Armstrong shows how the Jews first developed the local polytheistic traditions into a blend of polytheism and monotheism, to a strictly monotheistic faith; then how Christianity developed out of that, and how Islam developed tangentially to both of those. She traces the traditions of the three faiths as they went through periods of mysticism and reform, of political strife and religious disagreement, right up through the Enlightenment and the development of atheism and fundamentalism as dominant thought patterns on religious matters. Always from an academic perspective, with theological, historical, and philosophical perspectives, Armstrong does a superb (and challenging) job of showing how, regardless of what you personally believe about God, whether God actually changes or not, human perception of the divine has shifted radically over time. While God has, in general, been an enduring concept, we have not all always thought about God in the same way-- and in my estimation, we probably never will. It's a challenging way to think about faith, but a fascinating one.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: The old children's classic, which I thought I would pick up purely in the interest of seeing how it compares (in March) to the new Tim Burton movie. I can guess right now that Tim Burton will make the film way more trippy than even Lewis Carroll could have imagined, but the book is so nonsensical to begin with, it would provide Burton plenty of material on its own. Wacky stuff-- but an excellent book.

Morning Reading (Slightly Delayed): End-of-Year Round-Ups

Continuing my recent trend of posting comic strips (which, I have to admit, is always the recent highlight of my morning reading), here is today's Garfield post-Christmas analysis. Thank you, as always, Jim Davis.

In other interesting reading, as always at the end of a year, pundits and journalists are having fun analyzing the year behind us and looking to the year ahead-- and, as this will mark the start of a new decade, there's some interesting pieces about the 2000s (or, as my old film professor called it, "the uh-ohs") as a decade.
  • Amusing as always, Maureen Dowd let her brother Kevin take over her NYT column today for a highly unusual (for this column) conservative perspective on the year's events.
  • Nicholas Kristof republished an old column today called "Johnson, Gorbachev, Obama" that is a truly excellent look at Afghanistan foreign policy, largely from an Afghan perspective. Well worth the read.
  • President Obama is in Hawaii for Christmas-- the first president to spend the holiday itself away from Washington in more than 20 years. But that doesn't mean he gets to escape the duties of the job-- as presidents throughout history have learned. The New York Times' White House Memo has a piece on "Taking Work Home-- Even When Home Means Hawaii." (Incidentally, for a great book on presidential vacation spots, check out Kenneth Walsh's "From Mount Vernon to Crawford.")
  • The Washington Post has an interesting piece on how Obama and the Democrats can possibly turn their challenging 2009 year around in 2010 and hopefully limit the losses in the House and Senate with a refocus on the economy and generally dialing things down from this extremely contentious first year.
  • The Post's Joel Achenbach also has a review of the decade we never expected-- the 2000s-- and where we've come since then.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Morning Reading: Miscellaneous Post-Christmas Round-Up

Happy Boxing Day! A delightful day where everybody heads for the malls and the movies to blow that Christmas cash. I'll be doing the latter, going with my little sister to see Sherlock Holmes this afternoon. Meanwhile, here's a few articles from here and there:
  • First of all, always the highlight of my morning reading, the comics. Calvin & Hobbes have a good one today, which I fully appreciate (see above, or click here for the link).
  • Ross Douthat of the New York Times has a good op-ed piece on "The Obama Way" and how hard he has been to characterize as a leader in his first year as president.
  • Teenagers are apparently "getting" that there is a recession going on this holiday, and cutting back on shopping-- much to the detriment of higher-end teenage clothing retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, but to the benefit of stores like Aeropostale, Gap, and TJ Maxx.
  • At Christmas, it's easy to forget about people of other faiths-- as much as many people pay lip service to Hanukkah, for example, the Christian holiday dominates. The New York Times has a thoughtful article today on the challenges of celebrating Christmas for recent converts to Judaism.
  • Count on POLITICO-- highlighting the "Top Ten Tweets of 2009" from the political and media world, the list includes Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Chuck Grassley, and more.
  • The story is still developing on the attempted (but thankfully failed) terrorist attack from yesterday-- a frightening story that reminds us once again that we do not live in an isolated bubble from the rest of the world, and that the world doesn't stop entirely on our holidays. My prayers for safety go out to all those traveling today.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Feliz Navidad

Christmas blessings to all of you in the blogosphere! This holiday is always a joyful and pleasant time of year, and has become increasingly peaceful in my house. Whereas my sister and I would have once upon a time been up at 7am to tear into our stockings, in recent years we have been taking a laid-back start at the more civilized hour of 9:30 or so. We have also scaled down to a smaller number of gifts, ones that gives each of us the most amount of enjoyment and represents our passions. For me, that means books, movies, and music; for my sister, photography books and pictures; for my mom, books and jewelry; for my dad, assorted consumables and some books and music. What can I say, my family likes good reading material!

One special Christmas blessing for me this year was getting a phone call from my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Ron, who is basically the family hermit/adventurer moved to Ecuador last year, and is rarely in contact by phone (although he does keep in touch via emails). However, he saved up some of his cell phone minutes and called up all of his children and grandchildren this morning. I enjoyed the chance to hear his voice, and also hearing about some of the local Navidad traditions. In Ecuador, Christmas is chiefly a religious holiday, and lacks most or all of the North American commercialism, which I think is something that we could stand to get back to a lot more. I love the tradition of gift exchanges, but I think it's gotten out of hand in the US. My grandpa called his experiences with Christmas in Ecuador a reminder of the simpler holidays he remembered back in the '50s and '60s. I'm not going to go into a cliched "Jesus is the reason for the season" rant, but I want to offer this as food for thought: Christmas doesn't have to be complicated or commercialized to be something special and memorable.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Now Viewing: State of Play

I have been wanting to see this movie since the trailers first caught my attention last winter; having finally viewed it last night, State of Play did not disappoint my expectations.

Russell Crowe stars in this film as Cal McAffrey, a Washington, D.C. journalist from a bygone age, driving an old car and typing on an older computer, valuing legwork and accuracy in reporting in an age where getting the story first is more important than getting it right. Acting alongside stellar performances from Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, and more, the cast of the movie carries but does not steal from the story.

And what an intricate story it is. In order to fully understand the plotlines, I feel like I would have to watch the movie two or three more times. But at its core is two seemingly unconnected deaths that turn out to be threads of a conspiracy that reaches deep into the heart of the Washington political and military scene.

Perhaps my favorite part of State of Play is the starring role it gave to the city of Washington, DC. Most movies that feature DC stick pretty closely to the occasional shot of the Capitol, the White House, and the monuments. State of Play goes significantly farther than that. Viewers familiar with Washington will recognize that the opening scene is shot in Georgetown, near the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Ave; they will smile at the inclusion of DC landmark restaurant Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street; and they may be able to note that the menu on Cal McAffrey's fridge is from Dupont Circle's Kramerbooks/Afterwords Cafe.

Current events-aware viewers will also recognize the movie's Washington Globe for what it is-- a thinly concealed Washington Post. Other thinly veiled references include frequent allusions to the Watergate office complex and McAffrey's use of a shadowy informant as a source on the inside of PointCorp, a private military contractor that is seemingly taking over the entire US Homeland Security operation (obviously meant to represent Blackwater, the real-life contractor that came under so much criticism in the last couple of years for their conduct in Iraq).

For politicos, DC lovers, and movie aficionados alike, State of Play is a thriller that will not disappoint in its capacity to engage your attention and keep you gripped for several hours.

(For another review of State of Play, be sure to check out my friend Bryan's review over here at his blog.)

They (Finally) Did It

The Senate passed their version of the health care reform bill in a 7 a.m. vote this morning along a party-line vote of 60-39 (Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning was not present). Merry Christmas Eve-- and now the exhausted senators get to go home for a little break before coming back to resume the perhaps even harder work of reconciling their bill with the House bill in the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Trailer Park

The first trailer for Sex and the City 2 was just released, and to my mind it reveals...nothing. Nothing that we wouldn't have figured out to begin with: you've got the four girls, significant others, New York City, extravagant clothes and locations...but what's the plot going to be? (Probably fairly weak, but fun for wish-I-could-be-Carrie-Bradshaw girls of all ages.)

Iron Man 2, as I have mentioned before, looks like it is going to be fantastic. Need I say more?

And have I mentioned how INSANELY EXCITED I am for Sherlock Holmes? It's coming out on Friday, starring the amazing Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. It appears to be quite true to the nature of the original Holmes (the boxer, the violinist, the drug addict), and should be quite an excellent film...

...Probably unlike Valentine's Day (you can guess when that's coming out), which looks like it will probably be a worse version of two of my favorite chick flicks, Love Actually and He's Just Not That Into You. Granted that I will probably see Valentine's Day at some point, and that it has some potential due to an all-star cast lineup, I think I would much rather make my Valentine's Day movie viewing this year something more along the lines of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief-- a promising adaptation of the first book in Rick Riordan's bestselling children's (pre-teen, really) book series.

Now Viewing: Cars

Having just had sinus surgery, I am taking my currently rather hazy brain as a good excuse to catch up on Pixar movies (not that I ever really needed an excuse...). I have long been of the opinion that Pixar just does not make bad movies-- even the few movies they've made that I didn't particularly like ("Antz" and "A Bug's Life") were still excellent.

Last night I watched Cars for the first time. I remember watching the previews for it when they first started to appear back in 2006, and I didn't think it looked particularly good. But I decided to give it a chance in my recent goal to catch up on movies, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only is it Pixar's usual top-quality animation that really brings the pictures to life, but the plotline was both engaging, sweet, and profound. Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a top-of-the-line race car living life in the fast lane (literally and figuratively) and loving that he didn't need to think of anyone but himself...until, en route to California for a big race, he got lost and sidetracked into Radiator Springs, a small town off Route 66. There, forced into community service to pay for some early wrongdoings, Lightning gradually learns that there is more to life than the fast lane-- that sometimes it's better to slow down and enjoy the ride.

A bit cliche, perhaps-- but the combination of top-tier animation, big-name stars as the voice actors (including Owen Wilson and Paul Newman), a great soundtrack (ranging from James Taylor to Rascal Flatts), and a good plot makes Cars a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sen. Burris: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Senate Style)

Morning Reading: The Health Care Debate Continues

Well, I was pleased to note the passage yesterday of the first procedural hurdle in the Senate for the health care reform bill (even if I couldn't blog on it because I was going in for surgery myself). This morning I am likewise pleased to note the passage of the second procedural vote-- but that sadly although not unexpectedly, the partisan line votes continue. Here's some reading on the topic:
On a separate topic, I find this religious debate going on at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to be very interesting. Run by members of the Orthodox Jewish tradition, prayer shawls and the reading of the Torah scrolls at the Western Wall (a remnant of the Second Temple) have traditionally been limited to use by men. The Women of the Wall are a group that is challenging this in public opinion and in Israeli courts. Will be interested to see how this turns out. See: "Jerusalem Journal- Challenging Traditions at the Heart of Judaism."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What's the Buzz?

You can tell a lot about a year by its say Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett in their New York Times piece "The Buzzwords of 2009."If that's so-- and I believe they have a good point with that idea-- then what a year 2009 was. From "teabaggers" to "death panels" to the "Octomom" and the Salahis, this past year was...nothing short of nuts. Check out the article here.

Stone Soup for the Holidays

Just in case you can't see the comic strip text, here's a link to the image too. Happy Holidays!

Morning Reading: Let's Make A Deal

The major story from the Hill from the last 24 hours is that the Senate has finally brokered an acceptable deal on the health care bill, winning the vote of the seemingly ultimate wheeler-dealer senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska. Adding more restrictive language on abortion (although not as restrictive as the Stupak amendment from the House bill) and increasing federal aid for Nelson's state, Majority Leader Harry Reid is hoping that he finally has his 60 votes. In my opinion, probably the biggest danger now would be one of the progressives opting to bolt from the bill on principle...but one hopes that they would wait for the actual vote on the bill for that, rather than blocking the cloture vote to end debate. From a progressive perspective, glancing over the summaries in the articles below, the Senate health care bill at its bottom line leaves much to be desired. But it could be a LOT worse, and from a more moderate perspective, this is actually a relatively fiscally responsible way to broaden the pool of individuals covered in the US. No matter what the Republicans (like my senior senator, good ol' Judd Gregg) are saying, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has given this bill the nod that it will actually decrease the deficit over the next twenty+ years.

Check out these articles:
In other interesting reading, the US Census Bureau has released the 2010 Statistical Abstract, and the New York Times has a piece highlighting various odd (and not so odd) bits of information from it, in "Counting Bits of U.S. Life." And-- in an older piece passed along to me by my friend Carolyn B., Nicholas Kristof has a piece on his blog about religion and women. It's a fascinating question, and I will write more on my thoughts on this issue later, but for now, here is a link to "Does Religion Oppress Women?"... and make sure you check out the link to Carter's speech too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now Viewing: Good Night, and Good Luck

Written, directed, and acted in by George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck is an homage to perhaps one of the greatest moments in television journalism, the clash between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Murrow, played to near perfection by David Strathairn (who deservedly received an Oscar nod for the role), was the quintessential newsman in the mid-1950s, working with producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) and a team of other journalists to bring one of the early and great news analysis shows to the air, See It Now. McCarthy (brought into the film via authentic news reels) was at the height of his influence in the anti-Communist tirades and Congressional hearings. Long story short, Murrow and Friendly's team reported on the senator's vicious techniques and self-contradictions. With unimpeachable integrity and at significant cost personally and professionally, See It Now undeniably contributed to McCarthy's downfall in the Senate.

Filmed entirely in black and white, Good Night, and Good Luck retains an extraordinarily authentic feel for its times. Although the history within the movie is not entirely accurate-- sticklers will note that Murrow's ultimate showdown with CBS head Bill Paley came later than is portrayed in the film-- much of the film seems to be predominantly on target. The supporting cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Frank Langella, and Robert Downey, Jr., is nothing short of spectacular.

In short: This film blew me away with the quality of its writing and acting, to say nothing of its subject matter. Good Night, and Good Luck instills a nostalgia for time when men were real men, women were real women, and journalism was courageous in its pursuit of truth. It is, in my opinion, a fitting tribute to Mr. Edward R. Murrow, and to the journalistic profession.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Good Day for Upcoming Movies

The trailer for Iron Man 2 has also been released as of today, and I gotta say, it looks fan-freaking-tastic. I cannot wait to go see it when it's released in May. Check it out here.

A Life-Changing Shift in Christmas Attitudes

The Advent Conspiracy is a new and growing movement of churches and individuals across the US dedicated to rethinking the Christmas season. Talk about the need for simple living-- Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas shopping each year, 45 times what it would cost to build clean water wells all over Africa. I hope this catches on-- as much as I loved the magical Christmases I had as a child, with the tree base covered in gifts, it's time to move past that young level of consumerism.

Harry Potter Sneak Peek!

Warner Brothers has released a sneak peek of the upcoming first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Having quite literally grown up with Harry Potter, I am super excited about these films; and as a movie lover, I am excited that David Yates is back to direct them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Recommended Reading: Obama's Christian Realism

For those who haven't already seen this noted on my Twitter or on my Facebook, David Brooks's column in the New York Times today was a superb analysis of the historical, philosophical, and theological roots of Obama's recent foreign policy decisions-- namely, the decision to expand the war in Afghanistan-- and the speeches he has made defending that at West Point and especially at Oslo. I highly recommend that you take a minute and read about "Obama's Christian Realism."

Now Reading: The Great Awakening

After I finished American Gospel yesterday, I decided that it was time to pick up and finish a book that I had started over Thanksgiving break, The Great Awakening by Jim Wallis. This is the sequel to Wallis's book God's Politics, which I read and loved last summer. Wallis, the editor-in-chief of Sojourners, a progressive evangelical magazine that stands for a Christianity that embraces social justice issues and moves beyond the current left-right political and religious divides.

Mr. Wallis and the Sojourners movement have had a significant impact on my solidifying political and religious views. In God's Politics and The Great Awakening, he has expressed the need for Christians to reevaluate their views on issues all across the spectrum, from abortion to the death penalty, from poverty to the environment, from integrity to family life. His centrist stances have won the respect of many, and served to make both books into bestsellers. Wallis's position on the issues and call for the faith community to take an active role in building a better world evoke the memory of nineteenth century evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Charles Finney. Wilberforce and Finney were both anti-slavery activists who drew much of their inspiration for their reform movements from their faith. Wallis and Sojourners are not quite as focused on any one issue, but rather are urging a wholistic view of the issues: health care affects the poverty levels, the environment affects health, political integrity and building strong families relate to EVERYTHING... in essence, in today's society, virtually every issue has been synthesized with another, and we cannot address each one in a bubble.

Perhaps I have extrapolated a bit from Mr. Wallis's point in that last thought, but at its core, The Great Awakening builds the foundations laid in God's Politics in urging the American religious community to pull itself out of the bubble in which it has been living. We cannot afford to ignore the important issues that are at stake in the world around us. We cannot afford to let things continue on as they are. We cannot afford to believe that God is private-- rather, as Mr. Wallis says, "God is personal, but never private." And, in a related thought, we cannot afford to only be active about an issue publicly but not be trying to make a difference privately (and vice versa).

I have found great food for thought in reading Jim Wallis's books and various related blog entries (which you can find here on the Sojourners website). I have appreciated his call to re-examine the Christian faith and our role in the public sphere, and I agree with many of his centrist stances on the issues. However, most of all, I appreciate his call to a renewed commitment to social justice and active engagement with the issues of the world today.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now Reading: American Gospel.

Greetings, blogosphere. I have returned from my semester's sojourn at college, and my long-awaited First Post of Winter Break is here. And what better thing to post about than books? I love to read, but vastly prefer the reading I do for pleasure to the reading I have to do for class. Something about the analytical papers I have to write and get graded on afterward. Anyway, the first book I picked up this break was Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Yes, that IS what I read for pleasure. I don't believe that taking a break from classes inherently means taking a break from learning.

Meacham is an excellent writer-- the editor of Newsweek, he has also written biographies like Franklin and Winston and, most recently, a biography of Andrew Jackson called American Lion. The book I just read, American Gospel, takes a historical look at the nature of religion in American public life, from Jamestown to Ronald Reagan. Citing documents written by many of the best-known Founding Fathers and some lesser-known ones, Meacham makes the case for the dominance of America's "public religion" in society-- the one that presidents have invoked since the country's earliest days, but that does not tie itself to any one particular religion. Meacham's core thesis here seems to be respectfully refuting the notion of the "religious right" that America is a Christian nation in its origins. Rather, Meacham writes,
The problem with their reading of history is that it is wrong. There is no doubt, as we have seen, that the Founders lived in and consciously bequeathed a culture shaped and sustained by public religion, one that was not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist but was simply transcendent, with reverence for the "Creator" and for "Nature's God."
To make his case, Meacham references a variety of early American writings, including the First Amendment (of course) and Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, but also Article 11 of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary (which explicitly stated that the government of the United States was not "in any sense founded on the Christian religion") and George Washington's letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport (saying that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance").

The Founding Founders designed the American democratic republic and the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom with the idea that a separation between the church and the state would avoid the religious strife that the rest of the world had experienced. American Gospel is Jon Meacham's call for a return to the roots of American perception of religion, and to the truest interpretation of these viewpoints and intentions.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What I Think of Twilight

I could go on and on. But I'll just leave it at this picture (above), and this video (below):

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

NO on One...and other Election 2009 round-up

This was the slogan behind the Maine movement to permit gay marriage in the state by popular referendum ("One" referring to its question number on the ballot). The initiative lost, dealing yet another blow to the gay rights movement. I am very disappointed with Mainers- in such a "live and let live" state, even if you can't see how this is an important civil rights issue, why are you messing with people's personal lives?
In other political news from Election Night 2009, Republicans swept the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey, sparking talk about whether this was a referendum on President Obama or not (I tend to think not too much- the Dems in both states ran a bad campaign, and NJ in particular has been very dissatisfied with incumbent Gov. Corzine). On the other hand, the special House races trended Democratic in California and upstate New York-- in fact, in a fascinating election, the NY-23 district elected a Democrat for the first time since the 1800s. Quite a mixed bag from the results last night. Will write on this more later, if I have time.

Monday, November 02, 2009


I don't know if it's the mental anticipation of a really difficult week getting to me already, but I am really, really confused by the pumpkin sitting in the lounge on my floor. Why? It's not the fact that a pumpkin is sitting in my lounge in general; it's fall, harvest season- pumpkins make sense. But somebody apparently took the time to paint the darn thing entirely green. What the heck? Somebody wanna explain this to me?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Canadian, Please...

This is a FANTASTIC video. You know you wanna...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Teachers Make- Taylor Mali

I may have posted this before. But I feel like this is such a worthwhile thing that I have to post it again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Really, Georgetown?

A Georgetown University sophomore posted a job listing on the university's job portal advertising for a personal assistant. The Washington Post picked up the story. I have to say, I understand pressure, but do you REALLY need someone to do your laundry for you? Why can't you be like the rest of us mere mortals and use it as a method of procrastinating?

Friday, October 09, 2009

I've been saying it all along...

Chivalry is not dead-- it's automated. And I am not the only one who thinks so-- Dante Shepherd over at drew a Venn diagram that shows that that hypothesis is correct. Check it out here! (Thanks to my good friend Mark for providing this link.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tom DeLay on DWTS

WARNING: VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. This may scare politicos and small children. On the other hand, he IS surprisingly graceful for an old, conservative Republican politician.

Funny Stuff

I feel vaguely horrible for laughing at this, but laugh I did. Thanks to Rachel for posting the link!
Watch and enjoy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Top Five Problems from Last Week

#1. "Keep the government out of my Medicare!" Really, have to be kidding me. I really don't think I have to elaborate on why this statement is a problem.

#2. "Obama is a fascist communist Nazi." Seriously? If you don't know the differences between those three ideologies, you should just leave the protest and go home. Do your homework before opening your mouth. Do not pass go; do not collect $200.

#3. The Birthers. You guys really can't come up with any more solid grounds to criticize the president? This conspiracy theory is both whacked out and out-of-date. Go away.

#4. Guns at town hall meetings. Sure, you have the constitutional right to carry them. But do you really need them at a town hall meeting with your congressman or senator? Are you expecting a war to break out? (Sadly, a war of ideas at least has broken out-- and I consider us very lucky that none of those guns were actually fired over the summer.)

#5. "You Lie!" When a US congressman feels the pressure and inclination to shout that at the President of the United States during an address to a joint session of Congress, something in the system has gone terribly wrong.

The Benefits of Spontaneity

If there is one thing I have learned in college, it's the immense rewards of opening yourself up to spontaneity. Sure, you COULD try to plan your life out down to the details. Sure, you can (and should) organize your time enough to stay on top of your work and other commitments. But I would contend that sticking too closely to that philosophy is a recipe for missing out on the best that college has to offer. The most fun times are often the completely random ones. The late-night conversations in the lounge that last for hours...even though you only came in to make a cup of tea. The quick chat with a friend after class that turns into an hour-long lunch. The fire drill that turns into an excursion off-campus for milkshakes with a couple of friends. The people around you and the time you spend with them are the stuff college is really made of. Maybe we can't afford to do it ALL the time...but why not try seizing those opportunities for fellowship as they come along? You may find you remember that conversation with a friend long after your classes are done.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


The good news from last night's inappropriate outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC):

"Mr. Wilson’s outburst last night has turned into a fundraising bonanza for Mr. Miller, who is challenging him again. Since last night, Mr. Miller has received more than $200,000 in contributions from across the country. (Update: By the end of the afternoon, the Act Blue fundraising Web site showed that Mr. Miller had received more than $466,000 in donations.) In a fund-raising e-mail sent out today, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, noted: “With only $300,000 last cycle, Rob got 46 percent of the vote. Joe Wilson’s antics have given Rob the opening to win in 2010.”"

I love these boys.

I don't know most of them personally. But I loooove the music of On A Sensual Note, American University's male a cappella group. So because they are so awesome, here are a few of my favorite videos of OASN, courtesy of the great YouTube.

Here they are singing "In the Jungle [The Lion Sleeps Tonight]" at Mr. Yogato, one of DC's greatest frozen yogurt shops:

And here is the classic song "Good Ol' A Cappella in AU's Katzen Arts Center:

And my favorite, from last year's Parents' Weekend concert, here is Michael Jackson's classic song "Thriller," complete with dance moves:

Serious AWWWW Moment

If it was possible to die of cuteness, this kid would have killed me the first time I saw this video. Flippin' awesome.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy Tribute Video

From the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Very moving video:

The End of a Legend

Politics goes on the sidelines for today, as the nation mourns the loss of the great Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, the last surviving Kennedy brother. Kennedy had been in the Senate for almost fifty years when he died last night of brain cancer. He was known as the "liberal lion" of the Senate, a man who never failed to strive for that which was best for his state and his country. Kennedy especially championed civil rights and, most recently, health care reform. I pray that his passing will revitalize the champions of real reform, and that the Edward M. Kennedy Health Reform Act will be passed into law within the next year.

This great speech came from the 2008 Democratic National Convention, right after Kennedy had undergone surgery for his brain tumor:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Summer Movies: #44-51

I've also finished a number of movies this summer. Here's the last part of the list of movies I saw this summer:

44. He's Just Not That Into You: Recent release based on a bestselling self-improvement book. One of the best romantic comedies I've seen since Love Actually...and it was really very much in the Love Actually mold, in that there were multiple couples who were connected to each other in random ways. Perfect movie that both guys and girls often like.

45. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Classic, classic Frank Capra film about an idealistic small-town man who is sent to the Senate as a replacement, and comes face to face with the corruption, wheeling-and-dealing, and compromising that is a part of political life. Must-see film.

46. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: The sequel to the first Bridget Jones movie. Not quite as good, but still entertaining. Bridget and Mark Darcy are blissfully happy until Bridget's naturally suspicious and jealous nature gets in the way.

47. Miss Congeniality: One of my favorite movies. Female FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) with "no discernible trace of estrogen" has to "turn into a lady" when she goes undercover at the Miss United States beauty pageant.

48. Citizen Kane: This is the movie that vies with The Godfather for the #1 spot on all the top 100 movie lists. A fascinating movie looking into the life of a wealthy, strange, and complicated man, who I believe was at least loosely based on William Randolph Hearst.

49. Ocean's Thirteen: The third movie in the Ocean's series. Not as good as the first, but better than the second. Danny and the gang take on a Las Vegas casino tycoon (Al Pacino) who has cheated Reuben out of a share in a new casino.

50. Under the Tuscan Sun: A beautiful movie based on a beautiful book...although both are quite different. In the movie: a divorced woman takes a trip to Italy, and winds up buying a villa in Tuscany and turns her life around.

51. Noises Off!: Hands-down, one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. The cast of a touring show starts out having trouble getting their act together on-stage; when the show finally comes together on-stage, everything goes bad off-stage. Starring Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, and John Ritter.

Summer Reading: Books #26-32

Well, the summer is done...and so my summer reading time is nearly done. Once classes start tomorrow, my reading will chiefly be academic, probably. Here are the books I read since last I posted:

26. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen: Continuing in my quest to read all of Jane Austen's books, this was an excellent one. A young woman whose mind is wrapped around novels (the trashy reading of the day) sees mystery everywhere...including in the home of the father of the man she loves.

27. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough: Since I was on an Austen-esque kick for a while, I read this book. Picking up several years after Pride and Prejudice ends, Mary Bennet is the only one of her sisters still single, and so strikes out on her own (much against the wishes of her brother-in-law Darcy) in search of injustice in England.

28. The Teapot Dome Scandal by Laton McCartney: Excellent work of nonfiction about the scandal that occurred when Big Oil financed the election of President Warren G. Harding and took over his administration, giving over naval oil reserves to oil companies...and the subsequent investigations into the players and the process involved. Still a highly relevant work.

29. The Power of Less by Leo Babauta: Regular readers will have heard me mention Leo Babauta before. He's the writer of my new favorite blog, Zen Habits. The Power of Less is his book of advice for simplifying your life to improve its quality. Excellent read.

30. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen: The book that launched the GTD cult. Productivity guru Allen offers advice that anyone can follow to streamline their lives and improve their levels of productivity. My boss at Barnes & Noble made all the managers read it this year. Very well done.

31. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen: Famous book on how American history textbooks revise and sometimes completely rewrite the history of this country, ostensibly to make kids more proud of their country. Loewen urges teachers and textbook companies to improve the quality and teach kids that history really is relevant and interesting.

32. Hood by Stephen Lawhead: All right, I admit it- I'm not done with this one yet. But it is excellent. Lawhead takes the story of Robin Hood, and puts it back where he and other scholars believe it originated: in the Welsh resistance to the Norman invasion.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back at University

Settled in back in the dorm. Same dorm, new floor. Seen many old faces and met a few new ones. Expect more of the same to continue tomorrow. Had delightful evening consuming s'mores with s'Methodists. My wonderful friends. And I gotta say...I really love this place. Plenty to do in upcoming days-- settling in, dealing with the knee, dealing with the start of the school year-- but right now, although I miss my family, it's wonderful to be back with my great friends here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This has had me laughing for a few days...

I admit it: I really enjoy ABC's reality show "Dancing With The Stars." I've always been a fan of ballroom dancing, and I like watching famous people try to learn to do it...especially those who are less than graceful (like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak last season). What has had me laughing since the upcoming season's stars were announced is the fact that, in addition to the usual run of actors, football players, Olympians, and models, former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is going to be appearing on the show! I have to wonder why the producers of the show would bring DeLay on. Maybe they woke up one morning and said, "We've never had a politician on the show. Why not get a disgraced former Republican House Majority Leader who resigned after being arrested for violating campaign finance law?"

Still, Jim Ellis says in a POLITICO piece that DeLay could be a force to reckon with on "Dancing With The Stars." I look forward to watching and finding out!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's Packing Time

I've never been a gigantic fan of packing, but I've gotten quite good at it over the past couple of years...reason being that every year, twice a year, I've had to load up some of my stuff into boxes and move to and from my university in DC. It's funny, too....freshman year of college you and your parents go overboard, trying to come up with ways to meet every eventuality, and you pack everything you could conceivably need, and the packing piles inevitably look like the local Wal-Mart blew up. By the next year, though, you figure out more of what is necessary and what is not. Yet somehow, even in this, my third year, I still feel like I might be taking too much. I know a lot of this stuff WILL be used (and I've definitely cut down the amount of books and clothes I'm bringing) but right now we're at four boxes, two under-the-bed bins, and one large suitcase...with the likelihood of one more box, plus a couple of assorted bags. Must try to remember to cut down still more...although if I wind up moving off campus next year, that probably won't happen.

Meantime, this is a sign that return to the routine of university is near! The beautiful thing about finding the right college is that it really makes you excited to return to school, for the first time in your career as a student. I mean, in middle and high school, the end of summer is something to dread. But for me, at least, that all changed when I got to college. While part of me always misses the lazy (ish) days of summer at home in New England, I enjoy getting back to being with my college friends, and even to the routine of classes and paper-writing and reading and activities. In DC in three days...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Laugh of the Day

A good laugh for a Sunday afternoon. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back

My friend Rachel noted in her most recent blog post just how fast her summer has gone. For me, this summer has been quite strange. It's really split into Before and After...with my knee operation being the signature dividing line.

Before Knee Surgery (BKS), I was working at my local Barnes & Noble. I celebrated my 20th birthday. Visitors from Nova Scotia came down to hang out. I cleaned out the clutter in my room and experienced the satisfactory manual labor of sanding and re-staining and varnishing two deck chairs. I started to learn to cook and bake, and read and watched movies. I drove around and hung out with different friends. It was a thoroughly enjoyable (if pretty low-key) summer.

After Knee Surgery (AKS), I spent the first two weeks pretty much just sleeping. I've read and watched movies (like before, only even more) and databased all our movies. People have come to visit me. I've spent time doing pool therapy and going to doctors' appointments. I've slowly started to relearn to walk, but have mostly just rested and let my leg heal.

I don't begrudge the choice I made to do the surgery this summer-- it was the right way to go, to get this taken care of while I had the means and inclination-- but I have to admit that it has made for a rather unusual summer. While I know that this semester will be challenging (especially since I'm not fully recovered yet, and heading back to school next week), I'm looking forward to getting back into the academic routine. Having something to focus my mind on makes being grounded by leg problems much more tolerable.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Health and the Hollidays

When I first encountered Professor Frederick Holliday last fall in Reflections of American Society on Stage and Screen, his boundless energy grabbed my attention. Prof. Holliday loved talking and teaching about film...and he almost never managed to stay in one place for more than five minutes. More importantly, he treated his students with respect, as equal partners in the learning process.

When the semester finished and I left his class, I kept in sporadic touch with Professor Holliday. In February, I learned from one of my friends (who had signed up for Prof. Holliday's class at my urging) that my former professor had fallen sick. His pain increased, and he soon could not finish the semester. A few weeks later, I learned why. Doctors had diagnosed Professor Holliday with Stage 4 metastatic kidney cancer.

Over the next several months, I followed updates on Professor Holliday's condition, provided by his wife. Regina Holliday fulfilled the role of caretaker; while continuing to look after their two sons, she fought for her husband's care as they went in and out of five different hospitals, dealing with the confusion of botched records transfers, pain management, and treatments. By May, Prof. Holliday entered hospice care; by June they moved him home. There, on June 17, 2009, Professor Frederick A. Holliday died at age 39, surrounded by family and friends.

Professor Holliday taught me a great deal about how film and theater reflect the culture of their times. He also taught me what a truly energetic teacher looks like, and what it means to be really passionate about a subject. More than that, though, his experiences with the US health care system at the end of his life showed me the full extent of the need for real reform.

Others have also taken this lesson to heart. Since her husband's death, Regina Holliday has been employing her gifts for art and advocacy by painting murals in D.C., depicting the need for health care reform. In the latest one, "73 Cents," she has painted her husband in his hospital bed, surrounded by his children, a nurse with her hands tied, and other symbolic figures representing problems in the current health care system. The title of the mural comes from a fact she learned while Prof. Holliday was in the hospital: that a copy of his medical record cost seventy-three cents per page.

The mural has caught some significant public attention as the debate over health care has ramped up in recent weeks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Mrs. Holliday to speak at a press conference for health care reform. The D.C. FOX affiliate channel, BBC America, and Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch column in The Washington Post also all featured the Hollidays' story over the summer.

Every time another news outlet tells the story, Mrs. Holliday notes this specifically: Before American University hired her husband, the two of them worked five jobs between them to support their family. None of these jobs offered health benefits, and even their combined income was not enough to afford family health insurance. As a result, Prof. Holliday had not been able to see a primary care doctor, so the symptoms of the cancer went unobserved by a medical professional. Had he been regularly receiving primary care, Mrs. Holliday maintains that doctors may have caught the cancer before it reached Stage 4.

The Hollidays' tragedy of health care deprived American University of an excellent professor, as well as a family of a loving husband and father. Their story is profound, and it comes at a time when health care has once again grabbed the national political consciousness. Few issues get more personal than health care-- most of us were patients when we were born, and will be patients when we die; many of us will also be patients at least once somewhere in the middle. A responsible government owes its citizens the chance to be healthy without going broke. No matter what the means of reform will be, I hope that any plan for "fixing the system" will include a comprehensive means of substantially reducing costs and radically expanding coverage.

In the meantime, the debate will go forward. Professor Holliday would have liked that, I think-- his classes always included lively discussion of a range of issues, and his wife is already actively participating in the current discourse. Civil discussion is the lifeblood of a good education as well as of a functioning democracy... that's just one more thing I learned from the Hollidays.


More reading and viewing of the Hollidays' story:

Reading About Reading... and more

I like lists of book recommendations. Maybe it's genetic (both my parents have library science degrees), maybe it's because I just kind of normally developed into a bookworm, I don't know. But here's a few lists of recommended books I've been looking at. I think I might devote next summer to working on the list of 30 books to complete before you're 30...

Here's a few other good articles I've been reading today:

Do YOU want a public option?

I do. Which is why I added my name to this TV ad/petition that's going out to pressure Democratic senators and representatives to support a public option for health care reform.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More Health Care Ups and Downs

I really hate to give Sarah Palin any more airtime than she deserves (which is NONE), but Keith Olbermann just does such a masterful job of denouncing her "death panel" comment for what it is-- dangerous nonsense-- that I have to post this video. Palin, meanwhile, is vigorously defending her belief that the Obama administration has it in for less productive members of society.

On a related note, I am sad to take notice of the internal memo that The Huffington Post claims to have obtained that shows evidence of a previously-denied deal that the Obama White House made with big pharmaceutical companies. This from the presidential candidate who decried special interests. We'll see what comes of this, if anything.

Meanwhile, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has an important opinion piece up about "How to Fight Healthcare Fearmongers and Demagogues." The most important way: we need a coherent and comprehensible (as well as comprehensive) plan. And we need total honesty about it, what it will cost, and why (really, why) it's so important.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Uplifting Reading

For some uplifting and encouraging reading, today I recommend:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And this is why I love NPR...

With the current debate on health care raging, one thing opponents of universal care LOVE to do is demonize the Canadian system. They pull in Canadians who complain about the system, and tell the horror stories of how they were forced to wait for care in Canada and so came to the US for treatment. In its wonderful role as a fact-checker and myth-debunker, an NPR affiliate station went up to Canada (specifically, to British Columbia) to answer the question, "Does Canada's Health Care System Need Fixing?" Here's an excerpt from the full article, which you can see by clicking on the question in the last sentence:

Canada has a universal health care system that's paid for through income taxes and sales tax. All Canadians are covered, and they can see any doctor they want anywhere in the country with no copays or deductibles. Some things aren't covered: optometry, dentistry and outpatient prescription drugs. Many Canadians have private insurance to cover those services, though some struggle to pay for them out of pocket.

U.S. critics of Canadian health care like to call it socialized medicine, but it's more like socialized insurance — meaning the risk is pooled together. And while the individual provinces and territories set their overall health budgets and administer the health plans, the delivery of medical care is private. Doctors run their own businesses and then bill the government.

Emphasis mine. The article does address various pros and cons, and it does a fine, balanced job of presenting the Canadian system of health care.

On a similar note, Consumer Watchdog advocates "Open[ing] Up Medicare To All" as a means of addressing the problem of so many people being uninsured, and presents some solid figures on how Medicare has been a more cost-effective institution than most regular insurance agencies (among other numbers, Medicare spends 2% on overhead; most private insurers spend 25-27% on overhead).

Meanwhile, back on NPR, Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute writes "Health Care Reform? Maybe Next Year." Not because it isn't needed, but because of two factors:

It's not that we don't need health care reform. Right now, Congress basically conditions health coverage on your ability to get and keep a job. That's not health insurance. That's survival of the fittest.

But there have always been two things standing in the way of Democrats' plans for universal health insurance coverage: math and politics.

Emphasis, again, mine. Finally in this morning's health care reading, Charles M. Blow writes in the NYT about the "Health Care Hullabaloo" and how Democrats are losing control of the debate, thanks to the apathy from most of their own party. To which I can only say one thing: This is very, very sad.

Goals: Academic Year '09-'10

I like to use these last few weeks before school begins to settle in my mind what my goals are for the year, and the means I plan to use to accomplish them. Last year, for instance, my goal was basically to get the GPA I needed to get to retain my scholarship at school, and some of the habits I instituted were working more during the day than at night, and not letting myself get tangled in too many commitments. This year, I'm posting my goals here so that I can keep them in front of my eyes, and in a public forum where you can keep me honest.

  1. Boost GPA. I'm now safe in terms of my scholarship, but it's time to aim higher for personal best and future gain. Shoot for 3.6+.
  2. Regain use of right leg. If the surgery I had this summer is to do any good, I must exercise to regain strength and mobility, and thereby a higher quality of life in the long term.
  3. Live frugally and well within my means. I have been gifted with generous scholarships, but must spend money very carefully-- especially while unemployed.
  4. Think about what I want to do next. I am halfway through my college career and it's time to look at the logical next steps for after I graduate.
  1. Maintain a regular, early-ish waking time. Don't waste the day by staying up late and then sleeping for a long time just because I have later classes.
  2. List top three priorities every day. Get them done early so that the rest of the day is free to deal with whatever comes up.
  3. Do not go on the computer before getting up, showered, and dressed in the morning.
  4. Shut down the computer every night.
  5. Work ahead, work ahead, work ahead. Procrastination is the enemy of relaxation, sleep, and solid work.
  6. Use a 30-Day List to limit spending habits. (30 Day List rule is that when you decide there is some nonessential item you want to buy, you write it down on a list with the date you record it, and are not allowed to buy that item for 30 days. If, after that amount of time, you still want it, you can budget it in wherever it works.)