Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Settle vs. Compromise

Voice-over narration:

In a world... where single women in their late 30's/early 40's have passed up plenty of good men...

I know this is an unpopular thing to say, but feminism has completely fucked up my love life... It's not that I would give back the gains of feminism for anything... It's just that I wish I hadn't tried to apply what I believe to be 'feminist ideals' to dating. p. 43

"...I want a husband and a boyfriend!" p. 279

What's so hard to accept about loneliness and desire for connection? Is there really something wrong with our self-esteem or our values if we want someone to share the literal and metaphorical driving with? We're so worried about 'settling', but then we find ourselves unhappily "unsettled"-- living in our single-person apartments, eating takeout for dinner in front of the TV, and hoping for a guy to show up so we can 'settle down.' (p. 59)

"Since when is getting 80% considered settling?... We create these fantasy men-- he's going to have this kind of career, this color eyes, be this age. How specific can you get before you rule out almost everyone?" p. 266

"...women generally have higher expectations than men...With women, the word "butterflies" came up again and again, but guys didn't use that word. Guys would say, 'I knew this person was the right person when we'd been dating for six months and she had to go away for a week, and when she was gone, I missed her so much. I thought I felt happier when she was around. I realized how important she was.' Women talked a lot about chemistry and fireworks." p. 279.

"So which is it-- do you want exciting, or do you want comfortable? What do you want long-term?" p. 283.

"He ordered tap water. He took the subway to meet me. He didn't even take a cab at night. He's cheap." In fact he was tall and handsome and wealthy, so I just said, "He may not care about bottled water or cabs, but if they're important to you, maybe he'd understand that...These are things you can discuss if you ended up liking each other. At least go out with him again." But it rubbed her the wrong way. She wasn't into it. p. 98

"The best husbands are the ones who have these unseen qualities, the kind of things you'll see over time, like kindness, patience, generosity, and honesty." p. 195
"That's an idiotic dating strategy...He's known her a week. How does he know he wouldn't like you better?"... I tried to feel reassured by my friends' comments, but instead they made me respect Sheldon more: the thought of 'better' didn't seem to occur to him. He had no so-called dating strategy. He was an ethical guy who didn't sleep with one woman and go on a blind date with another... p. 89.

"There was a lack of correlation between what people said they wanted on the questionnaire, and what they actually picked when they met a real, live person." p. 116

It did seem hypocritical-- I wanted men to accept me for who I was, but I wasn't willing to accept them for who they were. In the past, I'd always focused on what compromises I'd have to make to be with someone else, but I didn't seriously consider the second part-- that being with me wouldn't be winning the lottery either.... Like most women, I had friends constantly telling me what a great "catch" I was, that any guy would be "lucky" to have me, and that I should never compromise when choosing a mate." p. 126

"The culture tells us to approach dating like shopping-- but in shopping , no one points out the shopper's own flaws." p. 27

I'd mention the couch metaphor, and while my younger single friends had trouble understanding why this made me so happy ("He's like an old couch!?" they'd ask), my older married friends were delighted. p. 309

"Was it love at first site? It wasn't then-- but it sure is now." Anne Meara p. 195
Anne Meara has been married to Jerry Stiller for 55 years. Incidentally, they're Ben Stiller's parents.


That is how I would organize the trailer if the latest book to capture my attention were made into a movie. The provocative title is a bit misleading: Marry Him: The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb.

It's not really about "settling," a word that offends a lot of people. It's just about having more realistic expectations. It's about compromise, something that everyone does, all the time, if you interact (successfully) with other human beings.

Gottlieb, a 41-year-old single mother who had a child on her own, wondered why she and so many of her friends were having so much trouble finding the right man to marry. The endless supply of boyfriends they had in their 20's had disappeared, replaced by short, balding, divorced guys in their 50's. Now they regret having let so many great guys go for shallow or trivial reasons.

As one of those guys who plenty of women passed over when I was younger, a part of me feels some vindication at reading this book. But another part of me takes it to heart. Although I'm not the exact audience for this book, I know that there's a reason I'm 40 and single. I, too, need to have realistic expectations.

This is one of those books I could write hundreds more words about, but I think I'll let the "trailer" speak for itself. There are lots of thought-provoking points, anecdotes, data, and quotes about dating, relationships, and marriage in the book. Read it yourself if that kind of thing appeals to you. Discuss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bad Aunt

"I'm not a very good uncle."

This is a common refrain of mine. Sometimes I have to admit it sheepishly to single women who I have a crush on. It's not a very endearing trait-- being a bad uncle.

Not me

But is it true? It's not like I'm mean to my siblings' offspring. I don't insult them or beat them or tell them Santa died of a broken heart because they were wicked little urchins. My biggest offense is negligence. I just don't really take much interest in them.

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. "Oh, no," I said. "Disneyland burned down." He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late. -- Jack Handy
Also not me

I've always thought this makes me a bad uncle because every childless single woman I know absolutely dotes on her nephews and nieces. They can't wait to spend time with them, take tons of pictures of them, smother them with presents and auntly love.

Me... not so much. I'll be there for the occasional baseball game, school play, cross-country meet, or birthday, but compared to my single childless female friends, I'm as active in my siblings' children's lives as a neighborhood dog.

But I realized something recently. Not living up to my female friends doesn't necessarily make me a bad uncle, all it makes me is a bad aunt.

I can live with that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Innovative Disagreements

I've been roped onto a committee at work in charge of planning a staff development activity for our division.

The topic? INNOVATION!!

I suggested to the other committee members that instead of doing the same boring thing we always do, like hiring a monolithic speaker, we do something different like show fun, varied, and educational Youtube videos (1-3 minutes each) to illustrate the different ways people approach innovation.

The response from one of the committee members? "But we're supposed to hire a speaker!"

The irony was not lost on me: A committee in charge of presenting INNOVATION was resistant to a new idea.

I collected about 15 different videos on Youtube, and many of them emphasized how corporate culture crushes innovation because people are afraid to be wrong or make mistakes.


Have you ever been in a meeting with someone who seems to be your exact opposite? Like, every idea you have they shoot down, and vice-versa?

That's what this meeting felt like. She thought my ideas were boring. I thought hers were.

One video in particular I thought was really clever and insightful:

She said it was boring and stopped watching halfway through.

It's four minutes long. Four minutes! And it has cool drawings and interesting ideas about creativity and sharing and collaboration. And turtles!! Who doesn't like that?

It's not actually turtles doing it, but two "slow hunches" joining together for a new idea. Still... they look very happy.

Maybe I'm a nerd.

But I don't think it's too much to ask that people who work AT A COLLEGE get interested in diverse presentations and be open to a free exchange of ideas, which is what the video itself is talking about.


This story does have a happy-ish ending. My colleague/nemesis did come up with some good ideas that seemed in the spirit of innovation. We were able to compromise in a way that made most of us happy, I think.

For our upcoming staff development we'll still show some videos and do other activities that may or may not fall flat.

And we all learned a valuable lesson about teamwork, sharing, and corporate platitudes.

Most importantly, we learned this:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Library Enforcer

When I got to work Monday morning, I wondered what the over/under would be on the number of times I'd have to ask students to turn down the music on their headphones this week. I put it at 15.

It's a part of my job that I hate, but even more than that, I hate having to listen to that tinny, chirping beat emanating out of their ears from 30 feet away. People may be having a conversation at the same decibel level, but that doesn't bother me like the headphone music does. It's like a bee buzzing around your face. And really, if I can hear something buried in your ear from that far away, IT'S TOO LOUD! (This is not a big brother thing. I don't give a damn about your hearing. I just don't want to have to listen to your tiny music in the library.)

Toronto Transit agrees with me.

So I tap them on the shoulder, make eye contact, and do the universal sign for turning down the volume-- twisting my thumb and forefinger around an imaginary knob. When they remove the headphones and look at me, I say with a smile on my face, "Could you turn that down a little? I can hear it all the way over there." And point over to my desk.

They might get annoyed or embarrassed or incredulous, but they all comply. Sometimes they ask, "You can hear that?" as if I am some super human with canine hearing. Yes, sadly, I can. And I get really tired of having to ask people to turn down their music, but if I didn't do it, the library would be overrun with competing headphones blaring from every direction.


The only other policing I have to do in the library is about food. Since our library renovation, we now have an upstairs lounge with vending machines where people can eat and drink. But the main floor, with the computers and computer lab, is still off-limits for eating.

Not our sign, but I wish it was.

So when I see someone with food at a computer, I have to ask them to take it upstairs to the 2nd floor.

Which is what happened today. A student walked past my desk on her way to the lab with a (personal-sized) pizza she'd just bought at the campus Subway.

"Um, I'm sorry, but there's no eating in the computer lab," I tell her. She says, "Okay, I'm just going to put it in my bag." I'm not crazy about this idea, but what can I do? If she really puts it in her bag, she's not eating it.

Twenty minutes later, I go into the lab to attend to the printer, and what do I see? Pizza Girl, with the pizza box in front of her, chewing on something. (The pizza box is closed.) I say, "I told you there's no eating in here, and I see you eating. You'll have to take that upstairs."

She argues with me. "I'll put it in my bag and won't eat any more. I'm not hurting anyone." She's working on a group project with some other people. "I've been here since 10:00 this morning." (It's about 3:00 pm.)

"I understand that," I say, "But there are places on campus where you can eat and places where you can't."

I leave the room, fuming. The pizza in the room bothers me, but worse than that is the fact that SHE LIED TO ME. When she did that, she made this a power struggle, and now I have to be an asshole and call her on it. I'm not hurting anyone, she says. But she is. She's hurting me.

She's forcing me to defend a policy that, while I agree with it, certainly brings up some grey areas. A water bottle? Yeah, okay, I'll look the other way on that. But a fucking pizza? In the computer lab? I can't ignore that. I'm not in the mood to get into a policy debate over why we don't allow food in the library. It's been debated by faculty, staff, and administration for years. The decision was made. I'm enforcing that decision.

Two minutes later I go back into the lab. The pizza box is still sitting there, closed, while she works. I tell her, "Look, I can smell the pizza in the room. If someone else comes in and smells that, they get the wrong impression. You need to take it out."

She continues to try to argue with me, but thankfully, the guy she's working with is very reasonable and says they'll leave. He's polite and asks about the lounge area upstairs. (Unfortunately there are no computers up there.) Finally they pack up all their things and leave, and he apologizes for causing trouble. I'm thankful that he was there, or the situation might have escalated.

I came away from it feeling like the trollish little nazi who kicked some diligent students out of the library.

But seriously... pizza in a public computer lab? Isn't that common sense?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Things I Want You To Know About Eva Gabrielsson's Book

Stieg Larsson wrote some great books, and like the main character in his Millenium/Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Mikael Blomkvist, he was a tireless activist, leftist, feminist, and overall muckraker. According to his widow, Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson was not the same person as his alter ego, but Blomkvist was the journalist Larsson wished he had been.


That's one interesting thing I learned from Gabrielsson's book, "There Are Things I Want You To Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me.

Sadly, the book is more interesting as a primary source than as a literary work. The writing is as tortured and confusing as the title. It brings up more questions than it enlightens. Like, why are the first eight words of the title in quotes?

It's hard for me to get a handle on the tone of the book. I wanted to like her, and I really want to feel for her. She was Larsson's companion for 32 years. They never had kids or got married, but lived together for 30 years. When he died suddenly (of a heart attack at 50 years old), just before the first of his three (already written) books was published, she was not only left without the primary presence in her life, but it also lead to a dispute over his estate and the rights to his works with his father and brother.


I can't imagine how devastating and heartbreaking his sudden death must have been for her. And it sounds like his father and brother betrayed her and Stieg, trying to capitalize on the work of someone who, although closely related by blood, they did not understand very well. Because Larsson and Gabrielsson never married, she didn't get the rights to his works.

Brother and father Larsson. I have to admit, it's hard to look at this picture and imagine evil greedy Swedes.

It's a messy, complicated situation.

And yet, there are things about "There Are Things I Want You To Know..." that just bug me. It seems to ramble in lots of different directions, address questions I never had, as if she is responding to a heckler I can't hear. As if she's presenting a case to a jury, but we're only hearing half the conversation. There's a defensive, secretive, disjointed tone that you often get from crazy people.

Let me stress here: I don't know any of these people. I don't know Stieg, I don't know Eva, I don't know his father or his brother. All I have to go on is what Eva's written in her book. I obviously defer to her about what Stieg was like and what he would have wanted. And it's certainly within the realm of possibility that his father and brother are greedy relatives who just want to cash in on his work. I'm just saying that the narrator of her book comes across, sometimes, as an unreliable character. She puts details in the book that seem irrelevant, and then leaves out things that seem important.

She writes a lot about how their life together influenced his crime novels. She lists people, places, and things from his real life that appear in the books. She stresses all the things from the books that she has a personal connection to, as if to tell the jury, "See? I was important! He made a reference to me here, and here, and here!"

But one big question she never addresses, one I kept having, was Mikael Blomkvist's relationship with Erika Berger, an unusual but very close "open relationship" with a married woman. How much of that was fiction? Blomkvist is a commitment-phobe who gets a lot of women, but Gabrielsson never addresses this side of Larsson's alter ego in her book. It is a conspicuous omission. As if she is saying, "There are things I don't want you to know about Stieg Larsson and me."

And then there are the strains of anger and revenge throughout the book. Gabrielsson has a disturbing fixation on revenge. Granted, she says this is how Stieg was, and in that, I'll defer to her. She even goes so far as to perform an ancient Norse revenge ritual on some mysterious enemy of Stieg's, whom she never names, nor does she explain what heinous thing this person did. It's a bizarre chapter and makes for bad writing. Someone did something horrible, and they knew who they are, so let me tell you in detail about the ritual I performed.

I understand that she objects to the Stieg Larsson industry that has cropped up since his death. It seems to go against so much of what he stood for, and that must be painful for her. I'm sympathetic. On the other hand, I'm torn, because if it weren't for that industry, I might not have been exposed to his books, which I really enjoyed.

If nothing else, Gabrielsson's book has piqued my curiosity. I have to admit I haven't read anything else about this story, or even reviews of her book, before writing this post. I could be missing lots of stuff. Now I'd like to read what other people have written about Larsson, to see what a good writer and real journalist has to say about the situation. (There are a surprising number of biographies about him. The story behind his books seems almost as amazing as the ones he wrote.) I accept that, as Eva says, these people never knew Stieg, but maybe she is simply too close to him to present a coherent story.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Friday Fits

I can't believe it's been three years since I last wrote about my utter bafflement over the phenomenon that is Black Friday. Back then, a man was trampled to death by a horde of shoppers.

Instead of that horrible incident serving as a wake-up call for more reason and restraint in the world of mob consumerism, Black Friday has only gotten worse.

Several horrifying stories have come out this year, the most notable the one about the lady who pepper-sprayed fellow shoppers in order to get a video game.

I can't say much more about this than I did three years ago, but Stephen Colbert had some brilliant quips about it.

The Colbert Report

Stephen says Black Friday is the day when Americans "wake from their tryptophan-induced coma to trade gluttony for greed."

We are
spending money we don't have on things we don't need to give to people we don't like.

I'll buy that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Haxcellent Advice

I have a new favorite advice columnist. Her name is Carolyn Hax, and she writes for the Washington Post. I don't think her column even has a name, but I absolutely love how she cuts through the bullshit and zeros in on the issue.

Here's a great example:


Dear Carolyn: I have been dating a wonderful woman for a year, exclusively for six months. We are both 24. Our relationship is built on solid friendship; I love her fully and unconditionally.

I have reached a point in my life that I want to get married and begin a family. She makes me happy on every possible level and I could not think of a better teammate. Recently we have cooled off physically, and I attribute that to the end of the “honeymoon stage.”

I’m sure it is only my self-consciousness, but I fear the cooling down will continue beyond the normal leveling that I expected. I am fully committed to her, and she to me. We trust each other 100 percent. When I make comments about marriage and growing old together, she agrees that she also wants these things. However, when I have suggested that we move in together, she shuts me down.

She spends 90 percent of her time at my place. It makes financial sense and I believe we would both be happier. She claims she fears judgment from friends and family because we haven’t been together long enough to warrant their acceptance.

I find these sentiments to be petty and childish, and that is not her personality. She is the strongest person I know. We are adults. We know what is best for us. I fear she is being less than forthright but I do not want to accuse her of being deceptive. She has given me no reason to doubt her sincerity to date.

I have attempted to ask questions like, “Are you sure that is the only reason you are apprehensive?” and she tells me she is sure and drops the subject.

Am I worrying unnecessarily? Or is her hesitation to take the next step in a relationship that has been beautiful and fulfilling from day one a clue that she is not ready for these things? — Worried she won’t grow up

Carolyn's reply:

First: Stop busting her chops about moving in with you. She’s not ready. That’s fine.

Next: “I love her fully and unconditionally”; “happy on every possible level”; “We trust each other 100 percent”; “She is the strongest person I know”; “We know what is best for us”; “Beautiful and fulfilling from day one.”

Um. What if she makes a mistake? A sloppy, impulsive, hurtful, consequential cuss-up of distinctly human proportions?

Will you reconsider your entire opinion of her? Will you blame her for that? Will you believe she owes it to you to return to idealized form (i.e., “grow up”)?

There’s a fine line between thinking someone is perfect for you, and needing them to be perfect. It’s appreciating someone’s good qualities vs. refusing to accept the bad ones. Over that line is where most controlling behavior starts, and it’s a fine enough line that people who cross it rarely see when they do.

So please dismantle your pedestals — smash them — and worship the truth instead. She is flawed. You are flawed. The relationship is flawed.

To get you started: Your relationship hasn’t been all that since day one; you dated other people for months. Which is fine! And, you don’t know what is best for you; you know some things and guess at others, like anyone else. Which is fine! And she’s not the strongest person you know, given her immature living-together response. Which is fine! She’s 24, human, and you’re not the strongest person you know, either.

And: You don’t trust her “100 percent” — which is fine, since absolute trust is fiction — and even you don’t believe she makes you happy on every possible level. You’re plainly doubting her on legitimate fronts: sex, maturity, maybe even honesty.

The only way you’ll be able to weigh those issues rationally is if you accept that pan-happiness doesn’t exist. Here or anywhere.

Accordingly, finding someone good isn’t about finding someone with zero (or fixable) shortcomings; it’s about finding someone whose strengths elevate you, and whose shortcomings don’t aggravate yours or preempt what you want out of life.

That means you do need to trace the origin of her concern about appearances. Does she actually guide herself by them, or is she too . . . scared? dishonest? . . . to admit her real concern about moving in?

You can’t learn who she is if all you do is dance around the issue with “Are you sure?”-type feelers. Again — don’t press her to move in. Simply spell out your frustration with her answer and ask what’s behind it.

Then, most important: Be someone who can hear a difficult truth without making the truth-teller pay. If your response to bad news is to punish, withdraw or obsess — if your mind receives every outbreak of humanity as cognitive dissonance — then you’ve got important emotional work to do before you have any business committing to somebody else. The strength of a relationship isn’t in its proximity to perfection. It’s in finding intimacy and peace.

"worship the truth instead." Can she throw down some advice, or what?


And recently a friend sent me this video from my other favorite advice columnist, Dan Savage, who has similar advice on perfectionism in relationships, which he calls The Price of Admission:


What would I do without my advice gurus?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Knowledge vs. Intelligence

Here is my one-question IQ test: does reading the entire encyclopedia automatically make you smarter?

If you answer yes, then you're not very smart.

If you answer no, then you at least understand the difference between knowledge and intelligence.


This question comes courtesy of a fun but sometimes annoying book I'm reading: The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs.

Over the course of a year Jacobs reads the entire Encyclopeadia Britannica from A to Z: thirty volumes and 33,000 pages. He then writes about his quest in bite-sized chunks of interesting, funny, and trivial facts he learns as he works his way through the alphabet.

I appreciate his project. As a fellow trivia nerd, I think it's a cool and noble goal. Certainly better than, say, building the loudest car stereo or eating a 25-pound burger.

What I find annoying is how Jacobs is obsessed with being "smart," and he thinks the way to do it is to cram his head with facts. Being smart and knowing a lot of stuff often go hand in hand, but that's correlation, not causation. (A concept smart people understand.)

I don't know if it's just his shtick-- playing dumb and going for the cheap laugh rather than showing off his intellect-- but time and time again throughout the book, Jacobs illustrates how having all this knowledge does not make him particularly smart. He focuses so hard on trivialities that he fails to see the big picture.

For example, it irritates him that the logo for Rene Lacoste's brand of tennis shirts is described as an alligator, even though his nickname when he played was The Crocodile. Which one is it on the shirt, Jacobs asks, an alligator or a crocodile? Now, a smart person would get that the two animals are similar enough, and a logo is crude enough, that there's really no difference.

Is it a boy or a girl? How old? Have long ago did it eat?

But Jacobs starts his own journalistic investigation, calling the company and such, to get to the bottom of it. When one source says an alligator and another source says a crocodile, he is greatly distressed. What he doesn't consider is that the people themselves might not care or understand the difference between two similar animals. A smart person would understand that people often use the wrong words.

This is a theme that pops up a lot in the book. What Jacobs doesn't seem to consider is that knowledge itself is fluid. There's often not a clear definitive answer, but lots of different competing theories or interpretations. He has an almost pathological respect for the writers of Britannica, as if they are the final arbiters of all facts. If he really wanted to show how smart he is, he would illustrate his understanding of bias and where knowledge comes from. The world is complicated. The smarter you are, the messier knowledge becomes.
To be fair, it's possible that Jacobs understands all this. His book is popular literature, not an academic treatise. His whole "smart person" angle could just be a marketing gimmick. And he does bring up some insightful ideas about the process of reading the entire encyclopedia. The book is part memoir, and he does a good job of threading his own life through the new things he's learned. For example, throughout the year he and his wife are struggling to get pregnant, so entries that deal with stuff like gametes or fertility or reproduction, for example, get particular attention.

I do admire Jacobs for having the stamina to finish a project like this. I know I couldn't. I'm a slow reader and it takes me forever to read something-- even exciting novels that I really get into. I don't know how Jacobs could possibly read, pay attention to, and absorb 33,000 pages of dry encyclopedia entries. (Which I calculated is 90 pages a day for a year.)


Part of the problem might be that I'm listening to part of the book on an audio CD during my commute. The guy who's reading the book? He's very... shticky, like a bad comedian delivering lines in emphatic and excited tones. And the voices are just too much. Whenever he's quoting someone who's not the author, he'll adopt a terrible accent. His French or German accent sounds like a drunk frat boy at a party trying to imitate a foreign professor. He tries to sound haughty and British when he quotes the Britannica himself. The accents are so bad as to be distracting, so I end up not understanding a thing he says. It's annoying.

I got both the book and the CD from the library, which is an interesting experience in itself. I'll listen to some of it, then find the place in the book where it left off, and start reading again.

This process is complicated by the fact that the audio CD I got is abridged. I hate hate hate abridged audio books. It makes me angry to even know they exist. But I didn't realize this one was abridged until I started switching back and forth from it to the book, and noticed that lots of entries were missing. WTF?!?

If it were any other book, I would have immediately stopped listening to the odious abridgement. But with a book like this, with lots of bite-sized entries that don't necessarily advance a plot, I think I can pull it off.

It's not as impressive as reading the entire Britannica. But then again, my blog isn't nearly as impressive as his book.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lost in Stinky Decatur

I needed to go to the Decatur Conference Center for a work thing. So I typed "decatur conference center, decatur il" into Google maps and asked for directions.

It gave me an address and clear directions to it from my house. I printed them out, including a map of the Decatur area where I was going, in case there were some complications. It looked pretty straightforward, as Google Maps directions usually are.

So I left early, followed the directions, and got to the location early enough to allow for any unforeseen complications. As I got off the exit and drove through Decatur, I mused at what a gross, depressed city it was. Near my destination I passed a huge-ass factory.

Isn't Google Maps' webcam amazing?

I have no idea whose factory it is or what it makes. All I know is that it was huge and belched lots of smoke (from several different orifices) into the gray Decatur sky.

As I got closer to my destination, I noticed a stench that was inhuman. It vaguely smelled like a fast food restaurant, but only if you took all the good smells out of it. I know that doesn't make sense, but that's how it felt. Take whatever unpleasant smells come out of a processed burger, fries, and a coke, mix them together and magnify it by 1000. That's what it smelled like.

I put one and one together and assumed that the smell was coming from the factory. There were houses (and even a park) nearby and I thought, "Do these people have to live with this smell all the time?"

But I had other things to worry about. Namely, finding my destination. I knew at some point I was supposed to turn left into the conference center parking lot. But when I came to that point where I needed to turn, this is what I saw:

Not only was it impossible to turn left, there was no sign of the conference center. Was it behind those trees? I kept driving, thinking that maybe the map had misjudged where to turn. The center must be somewhere around here, I thought.

I drove around and around. Three blocks down the road, then back, then circled the area where the map said the center was supposed to be. I drove through a park. Onto a road called Lake Shore Dr, which I thought was funny, since I've recently spent a lot of time on another Lake Shore road-- the one in Chicago. This one in Decatur was less impressive.

I drove around a neighborhood, cursing the whole time. WTF, Google Maps? Where is this damn conference center? There were a few buildings around the park, like this:

Is that the conference center? I asked snarkily. I parked outside this building. I don't have a smart phone, so I couldn't consult any web sources. I tried to call people at my work, but no one was answering the phone.

Finally, I swallowed my pride and asked a local man. He said that the conference center was on this same road, but on the complete other side of town. I would have to drive all the way through town to get there.

Both of these locations are the conference center, according to Google Maps. Same address, same name, but they're 6.2 miles away.

WTF, Google Maps? I've had small issues with using web map directions before, but nothing of this epic FAIL proportions. What could it possibly have been thinking?

But that's the problem. It doesn't think. It's just a computer program, and in this case it couldn't interpret 4191 US 36 West.

As I drove to the correct location for my meeting, and showed up about 15 minutes late, I pondered who was at fault for this snafu. Was there something I should have done differently? Was I negligent in letting Google Maps tell me where to go?

What did people do before there were online mapping tools? Twenty years ago I surely would not have been expected to look up the address of a conference center in another city and find the directions on my own? No, whoever organized the conference would have sent me directions. In this case, they didn't even send me an address. All they said was "Decatur Conference Center." And in this day and age, that should suffice.

But it didn't.


If you're dying to hear about the elusive Decatur Conference Center, it's about as impressive as it sounds. Which is: not very. On their website they claim to be "down-state’s largest conference center and hotel." I think about the best thing it has going for it is its central location. After my adventure in finding the place, it was also hard to find my way around inside it. The signage was spotty and the place looked pretty run down.

Even their website is cheap and hard to navigate. They don't list any directions, or even an address, that I could find easily.

So I think I'll blame them for the Google Maps FAIL.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cross Examination

When I was in the 8th grade, I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school.

The book was okay, and I don't remember a whole lot about it, but one thing I vividly remember is how excited I got when the trial started and the defense attorney deftly picked apart a witness' testimony. He asked probing questions, logically deconstructed the witness' claims, presented conflicting evidence, and caught them red-handed in a lie. It was my first experience with that kind of rhetorical chess match, and I was heady with excitement.

I had fallen in love with logic.

To this day I still love those kinds of court room scenes in movies and books where an attorney gets someone to admit something that seems innocuous, gets them to verify it again and again, only to use their own words against them. There's something so powerful and compelling about catching someone in a logical fallacy or an outright lie.

Above all, I love truth. And I love it when people can extract truth in clever and intelligent ways, especially from those trying to hide or deny it.


So I am absolutely loving the climax of the Stieg Larsson Millenium trilogy. I'm at the end of the third book, and Lisbeth Salander and her lawyer are using brilliant logic and cross examination to catch all the mean, evil bastards in their own lies and smoke screens. I'm listening to the audio book during my commute to work, and every day I can't wait to get in my car to hear what's going to happen next.

It is the culmination of three books' worth of intrigue, machinations, and people trying to out-think each other. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a reporter who values research, doing your homework, and evidence to prove his claims.

As a librarian, I like that kind of hero.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jokes That Blow Your Mind

I love this cartoon.

And I love it on a much deeper level than you do.

Because I'm about to get all nerdy and deconstruct this joke. To me, it's about so much more than just Kermit having a hand up his wazoo. In fact, when I first heard about it, I did a Google image search for it, and I found two alternate captions for it. Here's the other one:

This one, while still funny, doesn't quite have the impact of "this will change your life forever."

That's what makes this joke so incredibly clever to me. It brings up this image of Kermit going about his life, interacting with people and the world around him, making assumptions about the nature of his existence, all the while there is a shocking truth just below the surface.

Are you really sure you want to know it?

Is Kermit ready for his life to be turned upside down? For everything that he thought was true to be challenged? That's some serious shit.

Not easy being green, indeed.


As I've written before, I'm fascinated by books and movies that are about ideas, things that make me imagine a world or reality that's different from my own. That's why the Kermit joke is so cool to me.

The latest book I read for one of my book clubs is like that.

Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is about a woman with memory problems. It's not a new idea. In fact, the book is a perfect combination between two movies, 50 First Dates and Memento.

It's like 50 First Dates in that the main character wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is. As the result of an accident, she has no memories of the past 20 years, so every day her husband has to remind her who she is, who he is, and why she can't remember.

Unlike 50 First Dates, which is a romantic comedy with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, this book has more sinister overtones. The main character becomes suspicious that her husband is hiding things from her, so she starts writing things down.

It turns into a race to see if she can figure out the mystery every day before she goes to sleep and her memory gets erased again.

The book brings up all sorts of questions about memory and identity. It's a fun and fascinating read with a nice twist ending.

Reading the book is not quite like discovering you have a skeleton hand controlling your brain, but it might make you think.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Police Brutality or Bad Propaganda?

A lot of my liberal friends have what I consider to be an unhealthy distrust of authority. Anyone who makes, supports, or enforces rules is "the man" and can't be trusted.

I don't trust or distrust people in authority any more than anyone else. I question authority, but no more or less than I question anyone else. My philosophy is: treat everyone with respect, regardless of their position, and expect it in return.

Not everyone shares this attitude. Some people bristle when they encounter a police officer and make assumptions that it's someone who gets off on power. Someone who will abuse that power if given the chance.

To be fair, they might come by it honestly. Maybe they've had personal encounters where the police abused or disrespected them. I've been fortunate enough not to have experienced that. What I do know is that time after time after time, people get in trouble not for their initial transgression, but how they respond to authority.


Above all, I value the truth. So when I see a story like the one I read in Smile Politely today, it bothers me. Because the whole thing just smelled fishy and sensational, starting with the headline: "Local activist's son beaten by Champaign police." The article recounts the story of Calvin Miller, an 18-year-old black kid who ran from police when they tried to stop him, and in the ensuing scuffle, got roughed up.

As it's written here, it's not a news story, but propaganda. Lots of facts of the case are obscured or downplayed. There's no effort whatsoever to tell both sides of the story. Photos of the teen with a swollen eye and on crutches are there to elicit an emotional response. There are so many holes in the story, so many unanswered questions it brings up, that I was more suspicious of the teenager's story after I read it. Which makes it not only propaganda, but bad propaganda at that.

According to the story:

  • A cop tried to pull Calvin over for "no apparent reason." How does he know that? He didn't stop, so there's no way to know whether there was a legitimate reason or not.
  • "...he walked into the courtroom with crutches. His right ankle was sprained, maybe fractured." How exactly does one hurt their ankle while they're being beaten by police? I've hurt my ankle many times, and it's always a result of me running or jumping. How is this evidence of a police beat-down?
  • "...the vehicle he was driving ran into the porch steps of a house..." Notice how this sentence implies that the vehicle itself was the agent of action, not the driver.
  • "The officer turned on his lights. Close to his mother’s house, Calvin kept driving with the hope he could make it there." What was he hoping to accomplish by driving to his mother's house? Did he think the police would stop their pursuit once he got there?
  • "After a couple blocks, he turned into a residential driveway on Arcadia. The police officer rammed him with his squad car, causing the car to lurch forward into the porch steps." First of all, why this house? Wasn't he trying to get home? And the story about the police car lurching his car forward into the porch? This lessens his credibility. Not only is this an outlandish account, but it shows how much he's trying to deflect responsibility.
  • "Calvin got out of the car and started to run toward his house. Police told him to stop and Calvin says he responded by getting on the ground." Why run? Then, why stop?
  • "Calvin put his hands up over his head, but the cop kept beating him, injuring him on his forehead, eye, and jaw. He rolled over onto his stomach and was placed in handcuffs. Lieb pepper sprayed Calvin directly in his face while he was handcuffed." I wasn't there, and neither was the writer of this article, so this is all speculation, even though it's written as fact. I'm pretty sure the cops will have a different account of things. What we do know, which is undisputed by both accounts, is that Calvin has already, prior to this moment, fled from the police twice (once in the car and once on foot.)
  • "He was then placed under arrest. Calvin was taken to Carle Hospital which failed to conduct any tests or even wash the pepper spray out of his eyes." I don't know how these situations work. But what kinds of tests is the hospital supposed to conduct? Is it standard procedure to wash pepper spray out of eyes? Is that possible? Again, I don't know the answers, but the way it's phrased makes it sound suspect to me.
  • "Calvin has no criminal background, but remains scared of the police." I don't doubt that. But how does running from them make the police any less scary? It seems this whole situation could have been avoided if he had not let his fear take over in the first place.
It's not that I support the police brutalizing a young teen. What I object to is the article itself, and how it makes an assumption (local police are thugs) and then does everything it can to push that agenda. There's no nuance or complexity. No respect for the complex issues involved in this case. No balance. No fairness. And it does everything it can to push emotional buttons, like showing pictures of Calvin on crutches or with a swollen eye.

These were all my reactions from reading the Smile Politely article alone. This was before I saw the News Gazette account of the story, which filled in some of the holes and directly disputed some of Calvin's claims. For example, police said they tried to stop Calvin after they saw him speed out of a parking lot, run over a curb, and run a red light at 1:30 in the morning. That doesn't sound like "no apparent reason" to me.

He jumped out of a moving vehicle-- which then slowly drifted into a porch-- and fled from police on foot. He jumped a fence and then was tackled by police. They wrestled him down and sprayed him with pepper spray. It sounds like his ankle problems were most likely caused by running from police and jumping a fence. Does injuring yourself as you run away count as police brutality? (As the Smile Politely article implies?) It seems entirely possible to me that the injuries he sustained-- a swollen eye and a bruised forehead-- could easily be explained by pepper spray and being tackled. It's not evidence that "police beat the crap out of a black kid", as one commenter of the Smile Politely article asserts.


There are other issues involved here. The local African American community doesn't trust local police, and there are many stories of the police using excessive force. A few years ago an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police. In that situation, as in this one, the kid panicked when he felt police were harassing him without cause. I tend to be very rule oriented, so it's hard for me to empathize when people don't follow the rules. One rule that I would think would be obvious is, "Don't run from police." On the other hand, if you've grown up feeling like the rules don't exist for you, don't protect your interests, I can understand not having respect for them.

I'm sympathetic, and I wish the police could do better community outreach to make the African American community feel safe. I'm not one of those racist pricks who thinks that these kids get what they deserve and it's evidence of moral decay among the blacks. I'm not going to use the phrase "black privilege" that one commenter on the SP article does to provoke racial tensions. We need solutions, not antagonism.

Which is why the Smile Politely article bothers me. It doesn't constructively build bridges, it's just trying to stoke racial unrest by implying that the police are racist thugs. It encourages the attitude that we should fear and distrust the police. And because it is so blatantly one-sided, it makes me question the credibility of the "victim" of what may or may not be a case of police brutality.

However you might interpret the incident with Calvin Miller, can't we at least agree that running from the police is a bad idea? That he made a potentially routine traffic stop way worse than it had to be? If you believe the local police are abusive, you're only inviting trouble if you antagonize them. Does Miller really believe that if he had simply pulled over when the cops turned on their lights, he would have been "beaten" by them? Does anyone? We'll never know, and because of that, his allegation of police brutality is a lot weaker.

Calvin Miller's father is a local activist who has "consistently appeared at city council meetings reporting on the brutality of the Champaign police," the Smile Politely article says. In the News Gazette article, the local state's attorney said that when she interviewed Calvin, he said his father had told him not to stop for police and call him if he's followed. I can't imagine feeling that much distrust and fear about authority figures. In a way, it seems that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Calvin was afraid of being beaten by police, so he ran from them, which resulted in him being beaten. (Or sustaining injuries, depending on which story you believe.)

We may never know what exactly happened. Even if there were 14 cameras recording the entire incident, I'm convinced you'd still have people arguing over what each frame proves. On the left you're still going to have people screaming police brutality and on the right you will have people saying this dangerous black kid got what he deserved.

It's more complicated than that. Let's be reasonable and try to solve the problem. It's not easy being a police officer, and it's not easy being a member of an oppressed group that has a legitimate historical fear of authority figures.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Defense of Food

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Those are the seven words that Michael Pollan uses to boil down the contents of his "eating manifesto," In Defense of Food, which is kind of a sequel to The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The Omnivore's Dilemma had a profound effect on my life, and after reading it I joined the local co-op and started cooking more, using more organic local ingredients.

I'm pretty sure In Defense of Food will continue this life-changing trend. What I like about the book is not so much the practical advice of what to eat, but the emphasis on changing our relationship to food and eating.

Pollan draws a clear line between "nutritionism,"-- breaking food down into its nutrient parts-- and, well, eating.

Eating is about culture, not nutrition. And back when people looked at food as a way of life-- rather than a delivery system for protein and vitamins and amino acids and saturated fats and antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids-- they were healthier. When we obsess about all those nutrient parts, we lose site of the big picture, which is food.

Food: how many ingredients are listed on these packages? Oh, right, there are no packages!

This idea of nutritionism reminds me of those old science fiction visions of the future where people would eat whole meals from a pill. Is that where we are headed? Do we want to be?

Pill on a plate: looks delicious!

The advice to "eat food" may sound silly, but Pollan considers most of what you buy at the supermarket today not food, but "food-like products."

Not food

We process food, which removes their nutrients, and then artificially stuff them with the nutrients they lost. This doesn't work. Despite our fixation on nutrition, this "Western diet" has proven again and again that it's not healthy for our bodies. Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity. There are a slew of ailments that skyrocket in a population once they start eating such a diet.

Pollan contrasts the American disease of nutritionism with the French diet. They eat a lot of stuff that, by our standards, should be bad for you. Meats, cheeses, wine. So why are the French healthier, on the whole, than Americans? They have a different attitude toward food. They eat real food, in moderation, and as an event. Eating is not simply a delivery system to getting energy (nutrients) into the body. It's a social and cultural experience.

There are a lot of other great points Pollan makes in the book, so I highly recommend you read it yourself. It's not a perfect book. In some parts he falls into the trap of nutritionism himself, for example when he argues why we need more Omega 3 fats in our diet. (In the next chapter he acknowledges this inconsistency.)

The main question I had was this: Yes, of course, eating whole foods is better than processed, but since our population is mostly urban, don't we need all of this processing of whole food to keep billions of humans fed? Is it even possible to go back to a more natural diet? I don't know the answer. But if we're going to feed those billions of people, it's the system that needs to change, and not just a few hippie liberal granolas growing food/plants in their yard.

Until then I'll continue to tweak my diet to include more food, and less food-like products.

Who left all the milk, cheese, meat and fish(!) out? That stuff's going to spoil! Ironically, this picture was probably made with plastic substitutes. They photograph better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Here's a story that has lots of different layers of politics. It's an example of how people of all stripes can be hypocritical and spiteful. This is my perspective as a librarian and a liberal.

My local library, the Champaign Public Library, is part of library consortium, Lincoln Trail*, which includes about 90-100 libraries that all share resources. This means that a patron of CPL can order books directly and online from any of those 100ish libraries, and vice-versa. For free.

*Lincoln Trail is going away-- being subsumed under a much larger system, Illinois Heartland-- but that's not relevant to this issue.

It is through this cooperative agreement that libraries work best. My patrons and your patrons get access to way much more material than they ever would if confined to the materials in your building. It's a microcosm of how civilization works. Cooperatively, we can achieve much more than we can on our own.


Since Champaign is the large population base of the region, it has more resources and social services than smaller communities around it. Some people choose to live in bedroom communities near Champaign so that they can avoid paying the higher taxes associated with "the big city." People in those communities have small meager libraries that don't require very high taxes. But some of them then come to Champaign and use CPL's larger collection, taking advantage of the library cooperative agreement. They don't believe in high taxes for supporting libraries, but then they abuse the library. They are hypocrites.

Of course, as in any cooperative agreement, some people game the system. The way I see it, that's just simply the cost of doing business; the cost of living in a society where serving the needs of the citizens is more important than denying them things. I'd rather that everyone get the support they need rather than prevent a few bad apples from taking advantage. Perhaps that is why I'm a liberal.

CPL's response to this problem has angered me. The first stage was to violate the consortial agreement (in spirit, if not in letter) and limit borrowing from nearby communities. I felt like this was a very bad move, borne out of fear and isolationism rather than the spirit of library cooperation. Once you start keeping score in a situation like this, the whole system breaks down.
I didn't like where it was heading.

I had arguments with other liberals who supported this decision, because their hatred of a few conservative hypocrites overrode their liberal ideals. I was shocked to be having this argument with people who I'd always considered to be passionate supporters of libraries.


Sure enough, that was just the first step. CPL is now leaving the consortium, starting their own catalog with the Urbana Free Library. Now the two biggest libraries in the Lincoln Trail system are taking their toys and going home.

It doesn't exactly illustrate my point, but isn't this adorable puppy a good respite from all this angry political talk?

Full disclosure: As a librarian at one of those smaller Lincoln Trail libraries, this bothers me. It bothers me that my patrons won't have easy access to CPL materials any more.

But it's not just about my patrons. This move also bothers me as a resident and patron of CPL. What people don't realize in these kinds of cooperative agreements is that the larger libraries are often "net borrowers," which means that their patrons actually order more things from other libraries than the other way around. (I know that is the case with my library and CPL. They're larger than we are, but they also borrow more materials from us than we borrow from them.) So patrons from both libraries will be affected. And as a CPL patron, I'm annoyed that my access to these 90-some other collections in the system is going to be limited.

Of course, none of this is evident in the press releases from the library. They make it sound like this is a great new development-- an upgrade in services. It's not.

Like the harsh immigration laws in Arizona, it creates walls and shuts people off. It's a unilateral, political decision made with a business model in mind, not public services. It's bad for patrons, it's bad for libraries, and it's bad for democracy.

Okay, so it may be hyperbole to compare my public library to Wall Street. But it's topical and illustrates my feelings.