Saturday, February 28, 2009

Flashback Friday: Photo Shoot

For today's Flashback Friday, I went straight to my cache of photos of awkward teenage moments. I really don't have that many of them (photos, that is - I had plenty of moments), but there are a few goldens in there. Today, I bring you pictures of my friends and I taking pictures of each other, for no other reason than that it was fun.

In this age of digital cameras, I don't know if such an activity exists anymore. Back in the day, however, it was considered a fun thing to do to just get together with friends and take pictures. There was all the excitement of fooling around with your buddies, the care taken in posing for the shot, and the anticipation while you waited for the photos to be developed. You can see how this might not work with a digital camera - you can have fun with friends, sure, but when you can take a dozen practice shots and delete them all before the real one, and then download the results instantly on your computer, the "specialness" of the activity is kind of diminished.

This was in early 1997, though, when I was 15. Digital cameras may have existed back then, but they hadn't filtered down to everyday teenage usage yet. So it was that with a regular film camera, some friends and I got together for a fun-filled evening of...taking photographs.

See what I mean about having fun with the poses?

Ooh, artistic.

Aww, how sweet.

Where is that shirt?!? It was pretty much my favorite shirt ever (or the one just like it with blue sleeves) and I have no idea where it is now. Although maybe that's a good thing because I would probably wear it every day if I had it.

OK, this one is actually from Halloween when I was 15. I think I hadn't gone trick-or-treating for a couple of years, then I went that year, and maybe once more before I graduated from high school. I haven't really taken the time to form an opinion on the subject, but I think I'm OK with teenagers trick-or-treating as long as they actually dress up as something. Did my friends and I pass that test? Let's see, we've got, um, a girl in pajamas, a girl with white face paint, a princess, a...nurse? I'm something like a 60s girl, then there's army girl, and ski girl. Not too shabby!

I would give candy to us. Would you?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Coming soon: My Adventures in...

We've been in the job-finding process for a few months now, but it's finally come to an end. Come fall 2009, Jeremy, Doctor of Philosophy, will be working at - well, I'll just let Andy Bernard from The Office tell you. It's more fun that way. You have three tries to figure it out.

1. Blank

2. Blank

3. Blank

Real world, here we come!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Caveat emptor

Well, it took them a year, but they finally did it: even the ghetto-brand ice cream cartons now contain only 1.5 quarts of product. It all started with Breyer's last March. Now, if you want to purchase more than 1.5 quarts of frozen dessert in one container, you'll have to splurge on one of those huge tubs of rainbow sherbet in the bottom of the freezer case. This is something that Miriam has been begging me to do for some time now, so perhaps it's not such a bad idea. Still, it is a sad day for us consumers who refuse to be blinded by fancy new packaging and filthy corporate lies about consumers demanding smaller ice cream carton sizes. If it had a smaller price tag to go with it, then maybe. Maybe.

I'm sure we all remember the Cadbury Egg conspiracy that was brought to our attention by an alert reader the last time we had this conversation.

Now, whenever I walk down the seasonal aisle at the grocery store, which is currently stocked with Easter goodies, it's all I can do to avoid staring down the Cadbury Eggs with suspicious, narrowed eyes as I pass by. I feel betrayed, somehow.

Betrayed by delicious chocolate surrounding a gooey, soft fondant center. Yum. Maybe I'll be able to get over it sooner than I thought...

Edited to add: You know, while we're on the subject, what is the deal with the new low-calorie soups that are all the rage these days? Last I checked, soup was something I ate to get full, not something to skimp on. It's like someone inventing light bananas, or light garbanzo beans. If I'm only getting 100 calories from a bowl of soup, I'm going to end up eating something else, too, which means that soup isn't a good value anymore. What gives?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review: Guests of the Ayatollah (Mark Bowden)

I don't know how I manage to go about living my life, totally oblivious to the fact that there are books out there that I would love that I don't even know exist. In Plain Sight was one of them. Guests of the Ayatollah is another.

I saw it on my friend's reading list somewhere or other and while I have little to no interest in Iran proper, the Iran Hostage Crisis has always held the promise of fascination for me. As in, I always thought that if I knew more about it, I could really be fascinated by it. But I never did know more about it, until now.

Guests of the Ayatollah: The first battle in America's war with militant Islam, by Mark Bowden, is an exhaustively researched, meticulously recounted, gripping tale of the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 66 American diplomats were held hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days in 1979-1981. The ordeal took a major toll on President Jimmy Carter's bid for re-election in 1980, and the hostages were purposely released by their captors the day after he was no longer president. It informed a generation of Americans, for better or worse, on Iran, Iranians, and the Iranian Revolution. The crisis also kick-started the creation of the Islamic Republic.

This magnificent book is like some sort of super hybrid of three of my favorite books, Taken on Trust, Lone Survivor, and The Arabists.

First, there's the hostage component, of course, which reminded me of Taken on Trust. Bowden shows us, bit by bit, how certain individual hostages reacted to their captivity. Some responded with composure and level-headedness, and strove to create relationships with their guards. Others withdrew inward. Still others lashed out with violence, uncooperativeness, and profanity specially tailored for their sensitive Muslim audience. Some were held in solitary confinement for long periods of time, and maintained their sanity by teaching themselves foreign languages, memorizing song lyrics, tracing geometric patterns on the wall and then coloring them in, or using their imaginations to redecorate/remodel their homes in America.

And they read books. Lots of books. One of the hostages admits outright to the author that being held captive wasn't so bad, on the whole, as long as he was allowed to read books. Other hostages could agree with that statement only in part, as they were beaten and interrogated in addition to being held against their will in uncomfortable makeshift quarters within the embassy and, later on, in prisons across Tehran.

Just as Terry Waite (author of Taken on Trust) was prepared, in a way, for his captivity by having been involved in mediating hostage situations in the past, many of the Iran hostages drew on their training and experience. A few had even been held hostage briefly before, in Iran or another country. Many had read books detailing hostage survival tactics. Some were CIA- or military-trained. Still, I can imagine that there is little you can do to harden yourself to the reality of being completely cut off from the world; so much so, in fact, that you are reduced to gleaning what news you can from the batch of Valentine's cards your captors pass on from an elementary school class in Vermont. That is how one of the hostages found out that there had been an attempt by US special forces to rescue them.

Another element of the book is the thrilling account of the takeover itself, as well as (later on) an extraordinarily dangerous rescue mission undertaken by special forces, both of which reminded me of Lone Survivor. I don't want to say too much about the rescue mission lest I spoil the story for you. Obviously, it was ultimately unsuccessful, but the surprising way in which it unfolded makes for very suspenseful reading. It also shows that, as evidenced by Lone Survivor, US special forces and the technology they use have come a long, long way in the last 30 years.

Finally, there are the stories of the people themselves - the places they'd lived, their families back in America, and the circumstances that brought them to Iran in the first place. This was reminiscent of one of my favorite books, The Arabists. I never expected to be so interested in the personal details of a few dozen random people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in late 1979, but Bowden manages to find the life threads that make them relevant human beings.

I was especially moved by the several hostages who had devoted their careers in large part to the people of Iran, only to find themselves held captive by the more radical elements of Iran's society. These Americans, who often spoke Farsi fluently (and in one case, was married to an Iranian), found that their hard work to build bridges of understanding between the US and Iran was meaningless to the hostage-takers. Even more tragically, these Americans' well-meaning Iranian contacts and friends were often rounded up and arrested or even executed.

At the time, in the United States, there was a segment of public opinion that held that the hostages had all chosen to live and work in Iran, and thus had willingly undertaken any risks such an assignment involved. Bowden does a good job of showing how that was not necessarily so, and also illustrates that even if that were the case, they still deserved all the care and consideration due to a representative of the United States overseas. He also describes the wider picture of how Americans at the time viewed the crisis, and President Carter's response to it.

I found myself very interested in the role that the hostages' foreign language abilities played in the crisis. Those who spoke Farsi alternately used it to communicate with their captors, or tried to keep their fluency a secret as long as possible so as to be able to eavesdrop on them. Others spoke Turkish, or Thai, or other foreign languages, and used them to their advantage as well and as often as they could. Using a foreign language to survive a hostage situation was not a topic covered in any of my linguistics classes in college, but maybe it should be.

All of these elements - the hostages' experiences, the rescue attempt, and the story of the individuals - are woven together to create a literary whole that is at once informative, compelling, and illuminating. Often, when Jeremy asks me to tell him the interesting parts of a book I'm reading, I'm able to condense the book into a few clever tidbits, and that's the end of it. With Guests of the Ayatollah, I would need to give a summary of just about every page to be able to do it justice.

Bonus discussion: to revisit the question I asked in my post about Taken on Trust, what would you do to better yourself in solitary confinement? Read? Exercise? Draw overlapping circles on your wall and then color them in? Scrape a hole in the wall using a shard of glass so you can communicate with the hostage next door? Lose so much weight that you are unrecognizable upon release? Sleep? Antagonize your guards? Ingratiate yourself to them? Please elaborate on your answer.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Flashback Friday: A Knight to Remember

Today's Flashback Friday is more of a happy trip down memory lane guided by photos, rather than a story with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Enjoy the awkwardness that is 19-year-old Bridget.

While we were at the BYU in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Jeremy and his brother lived in a house south of campus called The Reagle Beagle. The fact that the house had a name doesn't mean that it was structurally more special than any other house south of campus. In fact, I once heard one of Jeremy's roommates say that their house was so run-down and tainted by accumulated college student filth that if there were any children living there, they would be removed by the state.

I'm sure there's a story behind the misspelling of "Reagle" in the house's name, but it's not a story I'm familiar with. Let's assume they were going for "Regal Beagle."

In any case, this house was full of male college students who loved to plan and put on elaborate events. In my time dating Jeremy while he lived there (or dating Jeremy while his brother lived there, as was sometimes the case), I can recall an organized pre-dawn excursion to hike Mt. Timpanogos, some kind of Valentine's extravaganza, a Halloween costume party/dance at which a king and queen were crowned, a trip to a remote cabin where they played revolutionary war-style paintball, a few football games, and the two events I'm writing about today: a Christmas sweater party, and a faux high school dance.

First, the Christmas Sweater party.

As you can see, they went all out on the decorations. The mandatory attire for the men was a Christmas sweater. I think they got them all at a thrift store, and the more doo-dads hanging off of them (sequins, small Christmas ornaments, pom-poms, teddy bears, puffy paints, etc.), the better. In some cases, the hanger marks in the shoulders of the sweaters from their time hanging on the rack at the store were still very visible.

One of the roommates dressed up as Santa Claus and we all got our pictures taken with him. This is Jeremy's brother Scott (the one who escaped from a Russian hospital).

...and here are Jeremy and I. I'm not sure why Jeremy is not wearing a Christmas sweater. Maybe he wasn't actually living there at the time and thus was exempt from the rules.

The other memorable event was the faux high school dance. We all dressed up in formal attire and went to dinner at a soon-thereafter defunct restaurant on University Avenue called The Blue Coyote, or Coyote Bleu, or something like that. Then we went back to the Reagle Beagle for a dance and also to have our pictures taken:

The theme, if I recall correctly, was "A Knight to Remember." Or maybe it was "Medieval Nights," as seen on this classy backdrop. Either way, there was a theme, and it involved a corny pun on k/night.

The backdrop, by the way, was painted on the actual wall. I believe it was a part of that room's decor independent of any high school dance-themed activities that sometimes took place. Impressive, I know.

There are other stories I could tell about the Reagle Beagle and its occupants, and maybe I will someday. There was the mystery of how the house was approved by BYU and yet managed to have both girls and boys living under the same roof (but on different floors), or the night that Jeremy and a roommate went after an intruder with a cast-iron frying pan and a tennis racket, or that revolutionary war paintball activity, of which I have video footage...

Perhaps another day.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two things re: Library

1. I was gathering library books to return this morning and noticed that Miriam used her stickers to glam up one of Jeremy's books:

I guess Bear Grylls looking all exhausted and survival-y on the cover just wasn't feminine enough for her. I hope the next library patron who checks out the book appreciates the girly touch, because I forgot to remove the stickers before I returned it.

2. When I walked into the library this morning, I had to run the gauntlet of loiterers who are somehow always hanging around outside the building. I know the library is a public place and all, but it seems like I shouldn't have to wade my way through crazy people (or, in the afternoons, cussing teenagers) obstructing the stairway just to get inside.

Today, one of them apparently took notice of my two female children because he started singing the "don't call me daughter" refrain from that Pearl Jam song. He just repeated that line over and over again until we were inside and out of earshot.

Bonus: I found a clip of my favorite Bear Grylls moment. Jeremy and I quote him on this all the time if we happen to eat something that tastes disgusting. Skip to 1:04 to hear his impression of what a scorpion tastes like. I love the timing of how he says it (the relevant part is between 1:04 - 1:15).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Dark Knight, at long last

I finally saw The Dark Knight the other day. The decision to see that movie was months in the making. It came out in theaters while we were in Middlebury, and Jeremy went to see it without me. Before you feel bad for me, realize that this was by my own choice. Seeing movies in the theater is overrated, especially when you are 9 months pregnant and need a bathroom break/seat position change every five minutes.

After seeing it, Jeremy told me he wasn't sure I would like The Dark Knight. This made me very sad - I loved Batman Begins and had been looking forward to its sequel for three years. Now I was hearing, from Jeremy as well as other sources, that The Dark Knight was scarier, more violent, and edgier than its predecessor.

So I didn't see it. Meanwhile, it seemed like everything I read about the movie confirmed what Jeremy had already told me about it - that it was dark and frightening - with one major difference starting to appear. Some reviews and discussions described The Dark Knight as being the embodiment of evil - the anti-good in cinematic form (I would link to them, but By Common Consent's archives aren't working). Others took the polar opposite view, that The Dark Knight was all about finding the humanity, honor, and compassion in mankind. It was this dichotomy of opinion more than anything else that finally made me decide to just see the darn movie already.

I started out watching it sitting up on the papa-san chair with some background lights on, while folding laundry - the ultimate non-committal movie-watching mode. In fact, I almost turned it off a few minutes into the opening bank-heist scene. It was scary, and violent, and bad, just like they said it would be.

But I didn't turn it off, and before I knew it, my unfolded laundry was cast off to the side and I was fully engrossed in this exciting, stirring, ultimately life-affirming movie. I didn't expect to realize so decisively which camp I was in, but I went to bed that night smiling, and happy to be mulling over some of the movie's brilliantly illustrated lessons on the nature of good.

I don't know that any of the reviews or commentary I read about The Dark Knight used the term "feel-good movie," but that's what this film was for me. I realize that movies involving psychotic clowns, villainous superheros (or heroic villains, whichever), and the systematic murder of public officials are not generally considered to be inspiring subject matter, but in The Dark Knight, they are. This is a movie full of teaching moments, full of scenes and situations that provoke us to consider what we are made of, and what we are willing to do to stand up against evil.

In one of my classes in high school, the teacher had us watch large portions of the movie A Few Good Men to illustrate certain principles of rectitude, honor, and right vs. wrong. The Dark Knight could easily take its place in such a classroom.

The thing is, The Dark Knight is still everything its detractors say it is. It is gloomy, violent, and at times soulless. And yet, I found it to be strangely uplifting, hopeful, and ultimately life-affirming. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion of this movie, so I'm not trying to tell anyone that they're wrong. I'm just trying to tell you not to let anyone convince you not to see this movie. See it, hate it, and come back here to say, "I told you so."

Or see it, love it, and have some awesome moral concepts to ponder. The choice is yours.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Flashback Friday: The Great Lotion Security Breach of the Early 1990s

My brother Daniel with baby Miriam. He loves doing bunny ears in photos, even on a 3-month-old infant.

Today's Flashback Friday story takes place right here in the good old US of A. In fact, it takes place in the house where I grew up, in the area of Portland, Oregon.

You met my brother Daniel back when he won a bunch of (fake) money gambling in a Gold Rush town in Alaska. In that Flashback Friday, I mentioned that one of the special things about Daniel is that he has Cornelia deLange Syndrome (CdLS). Another special thing about Daniel is that he is extremely sensitive to smells.

I don't mean extremely sensitive in a medical sense. I mean that he has an intense, personal, irrational aversion to scented lotions, soap, perfumes, etc. He would probably be disgusted by scented hand sanitizer if any of us were brave enough to use some in front of him. I grew up with the Daniel-given nickname "Lotion #1" (Lotion #2 was my sister Teresa), in honor of occasionally using, well, lotion.

I have memories of Daniel walking around the house for weeks at a time with a kleenex taped over his nose so he didn't have to smell us with all our scented lotion. He would put a kleenex over the mouse of the computer whenever he had to use it, so he didn't have to risk transferring any lotion onto his hand. If either of us girls had just taken a shower, and the bathroom smelled even the slightest bit like girly shampoo or soap, Daniel would turn on the fan to flush out the smell. In fact, he would turn on the fan just about every time he walked by the bathroom, whether it "reeked" or not, much to the frustration of all the rest of us. Just about the worst thing anyone could do was put on lotion in his presence. Knowing that we did it when he wasn't watching was bad enough for him - to do it right in front of him was sure to inspire an anti-lotion tirade and a big show of covering his nose and fleeing to his bedroom. Daniel's bedroom was a haven for him, a sanctuary free of lotions and perfumes and other vile smells, a place where he could be safe.

Irrational? I suppose. Annoying at times? Certainly. The perfect setup for a prank? OH YEAH.

One day, I guess enough was enough. My little brother Steven decided to take matters into his own hands. I don't know if my sister Teresa and I were accomplices or merely witnesses; to avoid incurring any further wrath from Daniel than I already have during my lifetime, I'll plead the latter.

To set it up, Steven waited until Daniel left his room. Then, he grabbed a bottle of girly-scented body spray from our bathroom and snuck in. Daniel slept on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed (a situation which has since changed, perhaps as a result of this incident), so to remain undetected, Steven climbed up to the top bunk and hid himself under the covers. He waited silently and patiently until finally, Daniel came walking back into the room, completely unsuspecting. He sat down on the edge of the bottom bunk and started reading a book or listening to music, two of his favorite activities in this, his personal haven from lotion.

The minutes passed. Steven remained hidden on the top bunk, scented body spray in hand. At just the right moment, just when Daniel was sure he would not be assaulted by Lotion #1 or Lotion #2, Steven stuck his hand out from under the blankets, and pumped out a few sprays from the bottle. Slowly, microscopic droplets of Vanilla Flower Splash or whatever descended to settle on the nearest hard surface, which happened to be Daniel, directly below.

It took a few seconds for the enormity of what had just happened to sink in. One moment, Daniel was reading quietly. The next, his head had snapped up and his senses were on high alert. Teresa and I were hidden nearby and we were already pretty much giggling hysterically.

"Oh my gosh," Daniel said. And then again: "OH. MY. GOSH."

"What is that?!? What is that SMELL?" Then he was up and off the bed, searching for the source of the security breach. At this point, Steven blew his cover from laughing so hard and hopped down from the top bunk to escape.

He ran out of the room. Daniel ran after him. Teresa and I stood by and laughed and laughed and laughed.

I'm sure my parents heard the commotion and took care of the situation, probably by punishing Steven somehow. Which I suppose was the right thing to do in the interest of fairness, but you have to admit, the prank was a stroke of genius.

To this day, I am still occasionally called Lotion by Daniel. Sometimes, in moments of greater affection, it is shortened to simply "Losh." I like to think that Daniel thinks back to the Great Lotion Security Breach of the Early 1990s with fondness, but it's possible that maybe, just maybe, it is his own personal day that will live forever in infamy.

This is why we can't have nice things.

You can still de-lurk yourself as part of De-Lurk Day here.

A couple of months ago, I got Miriam a set of small plastic models of glow-in-the-dark planets to hang from her ceiling. I had planets hanging from my ceiling when I was a kid, and I have nothing but good memories about it. Mine were made by hand as a kind of craft project, which I remember vividly, but I was older than Miriam at the time. I decided that for now, the pre-made plastic planets would do very nicely.

I brought home the kit, which included nine planets (it was manufactured prior to the abolition of Pluto as a planet, apparently, or else they just felt sorry for it, as I do), special clear string, and sticky tack to attach the planets to the ceiling.

I must have opened the package, meaning to put it up right then, and then got distracted, because when I went back to do it an hour or two later, the package was empty and the planets were nowhere to be found. Or rather, they were to be found - one under the couch, a few in the corner of the living room, one on the kitchen counter, etc. I guess Miriam was really excited to get started all by herself. At least the string and sticky tack were undisturbed, right?

Over the course of the afternoon, Miriam I managed to track down all the planets. When I finally had them all together, I went to gather the string and sticky tack. They were gone.

Days went by. I found the sticky tack, which Miriam tried to commandeer, and she did end up getting a chunk of it, but I confiscated the rest.

Months have passed, and I have yet to find the string. The planets are sitting in the back of a drawer in the kitchen. I put the sticky tack somewhere safe, I think. Maybe someday those planets will end up on Miriam's ceiling, but it's not looking too good.

Today, Miriam got two little wind-up fish to play with in the bath, as a little gift from Grandma. She played with them all afternoon, waiting impatiently for evening to come so she could take them in the bath in all their wind-up swimming glory. She was so excited about it.

After a few hours, one of them broke.

When bath time finally came, we couldn't find the other, non-broken one.

This is why we can't have nice things.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's De-Lurk Day!

Fact: I don't personally know all the people who comment on this blog.

Fact: I don't personally know all the people who follow this blog.

Fact: People visit this blog from such far-off places as
Chahar Mahall va Bakhtiari (Iran), New South Wales (Australia), Maharashtra (India), and Waukesha (Wisconsin). I don't personally know anyone who lives in these places.

So I'm declaring today to be official De-Lurk Day on My Adventures in Tucson!

Do you read this blog on a regular basis, or is today your first visit? How did you find this blog? Did you search for "politically correct term for eye boogers" and end up here? Did you click through from a friend of a friend of a friend's blog? Did I sit next to you in fifth grade, or live next door to you in college, or go to church with you in Syria? Or do I see you every day and not even know that you are reading this?? Now is your chance to come clean and tell me that you're reading this blog.

Even if you've never commented before, drop a note to tell us a little about yourself, and how you got here, if you want. Sometimes I feel like you think everyone knows everyone on here, and you don't want to intrude on our party. The truth is that there are a great deal of you who I don't know, and some of you who I "know" only as a blog friend - and only because someone had the guts to de-lurk and comment.

Feel free to comment even if you're a regular here on My Adventures in Tucson, so that we can all get to know each other a little better.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Let's talk versions

The other day, a friend asked me what I thought the best movie version of Jane Eyre was. It got me thinking: What is the best movie version of Jane Eyre? I've seen three adaptations myself, and that's not even all that have been made.

And for that matter, what are the best movie versions of Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Sense & Sensibility, and Pride & Prejudice, each of which has at least two out there?

I've decided that I really only have a favorite version of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park. The rest are all good (and bad) for varying reasons. Let's take a look, Jane Eyre first.

Apparently, this one was released theatrically, though where I was when that happened, I have no idea.
Strengths: Charlotte Gainsbourg is awesome and her French lessons to Adelle are wonderfully authentic. And as Jane Eyre, she is actually, you know, plain. The scene after the fire in the bedroom (not a metaphor) is really, really good in this one.
Weaknesses: None that I can readily recall, which might be a weakness in itself. I don't know if this version can be my favorite if it's not memorable.

This one reminds me what literary adaptations were like before 2005ish, when they all of a sudden became rather big-budgety.
Strengths: I love Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton. Think about all the book-movies you've seen, and they probably star one or the other of these two in some role.
Weaknesses: This version is kind of low-budget, and it shows. I like this version more because I want to than because I actually do.

Ah, the coup de grâce, the decisive favorite: Masterpiece's 2006 miniseries version.
Strengths: For sheer length, this one gets major points. It is a miniseries, so it's longer than either of the other two versions. That means more attention to the smaller plots, like Jane's visit back home at the death of her aunt, or the whole preacher/cousin/lover thing. This version is beautiful, too, and has some great tension - and humor - between Jane and Mr. Rochester. It was the only one where I could really see why she would like him so much. In the other versions, it seems like we're just supposed to take the movie's word for it that Mr. Rochester is lovable underneath all that gruff.
Weaknesses: Sometimes I feel like the new Masterpiece movies just find an actress who is alarmingly, strangely beautiful, and build up the story around her. This Jane was a bit distracting (but not as bad as Cathy in the new Wuthering Heights. Egads!).

Sense & Sensibility. You know my feelings on this version. A recap:
Strengths: The scene where Colonel Brandon catches Marianne after she sees Willoughby. The setting, on a rugged beach landscape. Willoughby seems a little more evil and less benign than in the Hollywood version. It's a miniseries, so it's longer. The music is beautiful. Hugh Grant is nowhere in sight. And so on.
Weaknesses: I still didn't really go for Edward. Maybe my problem is more with the character than the actor. Alan Rickman fails to make an appearance in this movie, which I think we can agree is a fault no matter what.

The seminal 1995 version.
Strengths: Alan Rickman, a beautiful soundtrack, Kate Winslet in all her moody, melancholy, gorgeous glory, and that scene where she weeps over Willoughby on a hilltop in the rain.
Weaknesses: Length, for one, and the fact that there is no kissing in this movie, at all (unless you watch the special features, and there's just one weird kiss between Edward and Elinor that rivals the infamous Little Women kiss for awkwardness).

Pride & Prejudice, the 2005 Hollywood version. I confess I was skeptical of the new kid on the block when it had the audacity to...well, to be made, after the A&E version was so awesome. But you know what? After a few viewings, I decided I liked it. A lot.
Strengths: The director set the story a few decades earlier than has traditionally been done, in part so that he didn't have to use those unflattering empire dresses on all the actresses. Bravo! This movie's version of Elizabeth and Darcy definitely grows on you, and the scene in the gazebo in the rain (what's with the rain in all these movies?) is fantastic in all its subdued passion.
Weaknesses: Caroline Bingley was too much of a snot in this one. And Wickham bugged. Also, the kissing scene at the end is so stupid. I just don't ever need to see Darcy's calves, thanks.

The king of all Jane Austen adaptations. An American family we knew in Jordan hosted a yearly Pride & Prejudice party and invited all the ladies to attend. It was the most highly anticipated social event of the year. At least it was for me.
Strengths: Too many to list, really. This movie is so good, Jeremy and a group of his male friends actually got together and watched it at our apartment in Syria, even though there were no females present to impress.
Weaknesses: The empire-waist dresses.

I wrote about this one before: Persuasion.
Strengths: They really glammed up the story and made it faster-paced than it probably should be. Some might put this under the "weakness" category. I don't know; I think it really worked. Captain Wentworth certainly was more dashing, and I liked how they showed his side of the story a little more. Again, there is a neat scene in the rain. The music is good. It has one of the more...interesting kiss scenes I've ever noticed in an Austen adaptation:

Weaknesses: It doesn't have as much oomph as the other version. Everybody is a little bit too good-looking.

The original version. I guess it was a TV movie for the Brits and a Hollywood movie for us Americans.
Strengths: I think Ciaran Hinds is at his best in this version. Amanda Root is just pretty/ugly enough to do a great job playing Anne. Mrs. Clay has crooked teeth and freckles. The Crofts are just as lovely as they are in the book. In fact, this adaptation's greatest strength may be that it is astonishingly faithful to the book.
Weaknesses: This may seem trifling, but the dialogue is really hard to understand. I had to watch it with subtitles to be able to really comprehend what was going on in the movie. I heard it was filmed with no artificial lighting, too, which is great on principle but makes for kind of a murky picture at times. Also, what's with the circus on parade at the end?

Mansfield Park, the Austen novel with the most boring heroine. This version was included in the Jane Austen Season.
Strengths: Honestly, none that I can think of. Everything this movie does well, the 1999 version does better.
Weaknesses: Quite a few. A blonde Fanny Price, for starters.

The awesome version. When I was a sophomore in college, one of my roommates worked at Blockbuster Video. That came in really handy when our entire apartment wanted to rent Mansfield Park pretty much indefinitely. I love this movie.
Strengths: Hmm, where to start. All the acting is brilliant, Henry Crawford is actually a pretty viable option for Fanny at one point (and as a bonus, you can debate forever whether he ever actually reformed and had good intentions, or not. The other version, and the book, only show him as a rake). Basically, this movie is better than the book. It also features the best almost-kiss scene I've ever seen. If you've seen a better one, I don't believe you.
Weaknesses: My only real damage with this version is that the director tried to inject a lot of social consciousness into the story and so there's a couple of disturbing images near the end.

Until it was re-featured as part of Jane Austen Season a year or two ago, I think this version of Emma was pretty unknown.
Strengths: Mark Strong (no pun intended). He's the actor you've never heard of who you love in everything you see (think Septimus in Stardust). His Mr. Knightley is a little bit angrier than Jeremy Northam's, but that just makes it all the sweeter when he ***SPOILER ALERT*** marries Emma in the end.
Weaknesses: Kate Beckinsale bugs, even before she was famous.

The Hollywood Emma. One of my favorites, but not Jeremy's. He hates this movie beyond all reason.
Strengths: Beautiful costumes, hair, production design, etc. A lovely film. It's quite funny at times, too. Good music. Spirited pacing. Emma Thompson's sister as Miss Bates. Obi-Wan as Frank Churchill. This movie has a lot going for it.
Weaknesses: Jeremy doesn't like it. I really should ask him why.

Did I miss anything?

Flashback Friday: In which a middle name saves the day

Where to start with this Flashback Friday? Let's get three things out in the open:

1. Most of my pregnancy with Miriam was spent in Damascus, Syria.

2. We gave Miriam the middle name Damascus. Middle names are great like that - you can have it be something totally obscure, wacko, or awesome, and no one has to know about it unless you tell them.

3. Syria is a police state. It also has a secret police, the mukhabarat, who somehow maintain a simultaneously invisible yet ubiquitous presence throughout the country. Except I don't really get the "secret" part since they have an office in the Muhajireen neighborhood of Damascus, and everyone knows about it and where it is. In fact, there are occasions in one's life in Damascus when you have to go there to obtain permission from the secret police to do something, which brings us to our Flashback Friday story.

In the summer of 2007, we were living in Jordan. Late in the summer, my mom and brother came to visit, and we decided to take another trip up to Syria. Jeremy, Miriam, and I had already visited Syria a few months before, and it was great to see all our old favorite haunts, walk around in our old neighborhood, eat at all our favorite restaurants (The Barfait, below), etc.

It was especially fun for everyone to meet Miriam, and for her to visit her namesake.

Jeremy had too much to do in Amman, so the four of us - my mom, my brother Steven, Miriam, and I - set out for Damascus. One of the main things we wanted to do while we were there was visit the war-ruined town of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. The actual ruined area is under the administration of the United Nations, and you're not allowed to visit it unless you get a permit from - you guessed it - the secret police, the mukhabarat.

Jeremy and I had visited Quneitra a few years before, and so I knew that getting the permit could be a time-consuming, annoying process. Worse, it wasn't even guaranteed. The secret police could deny us a permit for whatever reason they chose, or made up. Basically, we just had to go to their office, hand over our passports, and hope for the best. Jeremy and I had managed to do it once before; I only hoped I could do it again, this time with my mom and brother and Miriam along for the ride.

Early in the morning on the day of our intended visit, we made our way to the secret police office (that still sounds wrong to me somehow). There had just been an election (I am seriously not putting that word in quotes lest I anger someone, somewhere) and so there were posters like this hanging up all over town:

Actually, wait - no, this was just a poster hanging outside of a glass shop. The posters of re-elected President Bashar al-Assad looked more like this. And they were everywhere:

So we felt very much like Big Brother was watching us, even as we made our way to Big Brother's office to beg for a permit to Quneitra.

As usual, there was a gaggle of armed guards hanging out on the steps of the building. We handed over our passports and settled in for a wait of indeterminate length, trying to keep our distance from the men brandishing large firearms.

To our collective amazement, only 15 or 30 minutes had gone by before one of the secret police came out and told us that our paperwork had been processed and approved, and another worker would bring it out to us shortly. I couldn't believe it! It was definitely our lucky day.

When the worker came out with our passports and permits, it turned out to be no other than one of the senior secret police. I have no idea if he was the actual top guy, or just one of his higher-up minions, but he was dressed snazzier than all of the other workers and he certainly had an air of authority about him that was not derived from having a gun on his belt. I remember realizing at the time that he was head of something, but I couldn't say for sure that he was the #1.

He handed over our paperwork with supreme graciousness, and then turned to my 1.5-year-old daughter, Miriam Damascus.

"Miriam Damascus," he said. "What a beautiful name. Welcome to Syria, Miriam Damascus."

It was pretty much the most deference Miriam had ever been shown in her tiny life. This secret police top gun was just enchanted by the fact that Miriam's middle name was Damascus, and he had come all the way out of his office in great state just to tell us so. I'd never been happier about having given her that name.

With our paperwork complete, we were free to catch a minibus to Quneitra. It's just about the least happy tourist destination I've ever been to, but it still has a certain melancholy appeal:

We had a very good visit, and a very efficient one, thanks to Miriam and her middle name.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Woombie review: six months on

According to my blog traffic reports, my post reviewing the Woombie has eclipsed the one about having my tonsils removed for random stranger search hits (the one about my brother the Twilight extra is still insanely popular, but that's a whole other story).

In order to give the masses more of what they want, here is a follow-up to my previous Woombie review.

Magdalena has been using the Woombie for about four months now. When we started her in it, at about two months old, I was only using it for occasional naps since it didn't swaddle tightly enough for use at bedtime.

When she was almost four months, she was basically done with the traditional swaddle. She could get out of it in a cinch, and then she would fuss until I wrapped her up again. Enter the Woombie.

It was perfect. She was nice and contained, but could have her arms wherever she wanted them within the Woombie. She couldn't get out of it at night. It was so dang easy to put on. We were all happy campers.

Now Magdalena is six months old and she is still sleeping in the Woombie. It's a bit tattered and stretched out, but it does the job well enough. I think that at this point, she would probably be a better fit in the bigger size Woombie - or at least the longer version - but I think we'll just have her wear this one until she's out of it for good.

To recap: I love the Woombie even more now than I did when we first bought it. Magdalena sleeps in it for every nap and every bedtime (in the crib). The only downside is that the Woombie is wearing out - the elastic around the neck is kind of stretched out and the velcro is worn out, too. I think the newer Woombies have a snap instead of velcro, so that solves that problem. I hope the manufacturers eventually find a more durable elastic, too.

Here's the Woombie website. It's still somewhat of an abomination, but it's worth the eye strain to order one.

For English, say "bababababa!"

Does anyone in this day and age actually make phone calls in an atmosphere of absolute silence? I confess I am increasingly frustrated by voice-recognition phone menus that register every background breeze, cough, off-phone conversation, or (most likely) crying/squawking child as an item of input. I called T-Mobile today to see what they could do about the 5+ spam text messages Jeremy and I each get per week. I wouldn't care about the spam except that we don't have text messaging on our cell phone plan, so we pay 20 cents for the privilege of hearing about how we can make our debt disappear.

I was trying - foolishly, apparently - to multitask, so I called T-Mobile with my phone in one hand and a moderately fussy Magdalena in the other. Big mistake. I got as far as requesting English for the language and informing the automated system that I had a problem regarding text messaging. Then Magdalena started squawking into the phone. Next thing I knew, I was being transferred to someone to speak about a broken phone.

I wish they would just give us the old-fashioned option of pressing numbers to tell the system what we need. After Magdalena re-routed my call with her baby noises, I tried to cheat by pressing '0' repeatedly to get a live human on the line to help me. It didn't work. I guess the people who design those systems have realized that's what we were all resorting to, and so they eliminated '0' as a valid response.

Sometimes progress just isn't a good thing.

Monday, February 02, 2009

John Adams and The Virgin Queen

Since when is Laura Linney the most fabulous actress alive? Last I checked, she was Meryl in The Truman Show. Now she's knocking my socks off as Abigail Adams in an HBO miniseries adaptation of David McCullough's book, John Adams. Go figure.

And how about Paul Giamatti? What was it about the guy who played the slovenly apartment manager killing cockroaches under the sink in Lady in the Water that just screamed "John Adams!!" to the people who made this movie?

I guess it doesn't matter. Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti are fantastic, giving perhaps the seminal performances of each of their careers, in HBO's sumptuous drama about the birth of the United States of America. So are the actors who play Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Sam Adams, and...well, every character in the whole dang movie. (Jeremy didn't care for Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, but that may have been because neither of us can really get over him as Falcone in Batman Begins. Our fault, not his.)

There's something to be said for watching a movie about a story you already know, inside and out, and still being enthralled by it. In this case, it's the same old story about the first Continental Congress, and it being a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1776, and navigating treaties with England and France during our own revolution as well as the latter's.

Except it's not the same old story, not quite. John Adams brings it all to life in thrilling detail, and reminds you of the stuff you don't remember - or never learned - in your sophomore year US History class (or, God forbid, American Heritage at the BYU).

John Adams' story manages to be both remarkable and mundane at the same time. As a friend put it, it's the story of a guy who tried his best to do everything right, and everyone still kind of hates him.

The entire miniseries is seven parts; parts one, two, six, and seven were my favorites. The middle chapters suffer from the same affliction as John Adams himself during that period: ennui. Watching the episodes where he's in France trying to rally support for the American Revolution even as nobody is interested in his message gets a little slow and frustrating at times, as I'm sure it was for John Adams when he was living it.

The soundtrack for the miniseries is excellent, too. It reminded me quite a bit of the soundtrack for Last of the Mohicans, which is definitely a complement.

And with that, John Adams makes 1776 redundant and silly, which means you never have to watch 1776 again, which makes me happy. Sorry, mom.

Ah, yes. Queen Elizabeth. I've seen this character played by no fewer than six actresses that I can recall. Think about it - there was:

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (and Elizabeth, which I haven't seen),
Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I (too edgy for me so I didn't finish watching it),
Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (but let's face it, it was just Judi Dench playing herself, in costume),
Glenda Jackson in Mary, Queen of Scots (and Vanessa Redgrave, who apparently used to be young, is Mary),
and some child actress in Anne of the Thousand Days.

The sixth actress is Anne-Marie Duff in The Virgin Queen, a BBC/Masterpiece Theatre production from 2005. I didn't think any actress could really do anything different with the same old tired character of Elizabeth I, but Duff succeeds spectacularly in The Virgin Queen. Even though this miniseries is essentially the same story we've all heard a dozen times before, I found it to be fresh, compelling, and somehow different, mostly because her excellent performance informed the tone of the entire movie. I loved it.

Well, I loved the first half anyway. I haven't seen Part 2 yet, so this review is kind of cheating.

The other awesome thing about The Virgin Queen, besides the casting, costumes, and efficient restructuring of certain plot elements (I'm sure we can all agree that it is far more dramatic for Queen Mary to be pregnant, die of a tumor, and with her death make Elizabeth a queen in one fell sweep rather than have those events spread out over several years), is the music. The composer, Martin Phipps, is apparently one of my favorite soundtrack people, though I didn't know it until now. He is also responsible for the lovely music from several other miniseries (just take a look at his filmography).

Also, The Virgin Queen is filled with stirring moments such as this one, when Elizabeth is overturning Mary's ruthless Catholic regime:

"As for religion... Henceforce, all services will be conducted, not in Latin, but English, starting with my Coronation. How can my people understand the power of prayer unless they first understand its meaning? If they are to accept the Protestant faith, it must be through persuasion, not purges. Let the Catholics keep their crucifixes and robes, if they wish. There is but one Jesus Christ. The rest is trifles."

Inspiring, no?

So there you have it. Two movies about the upheaval, formation, and reformation of nations, featuring brilliant actors, compelling stories, and evocative soundtracks. What's not to love?


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