Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Little Shout-Out

I try to avoid stealing blog ideas, but I'm about to make an exception. Recently, the great Jamiesmitten linked to Goodbye Art by Phil Hansen. This guy is fantastic. Basically, he makes temporary art and then destroys it. In addition to photos documenting his art, he also has videos showing how he made it.

Here's his portrait of Amy Winehouse, which he carved from frozen red wine, filled in with frozen white wine, then melted:

And here's his portrait of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, which he made from Oreo cookies:

Many, many thanks to Jamiesmitten for introducing me to this guy!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


My wife subscribes to numerous magazines, most of which I don't read. However, there are times when I find myself in the bath or eating breakfast, and an issue of Oprah, Glamour, Lucky, or Romantic Times Book Review just happens to be sitting nearby. While I sometimes read a bit, I often just get a kick from checking out the article titles. For example, this month's Romantic Times Book Review really captured my eye. Its cover features an African-American author, Kayla Perrin, next to the legend "SINGLE MAMA DRAMA: A NEW SERIES WITH A NEW ATTITUDE."

Okay, let's just forego the obvious racial undertones swirling around "Single Mama Drama," shall we? I want to move on to the richer waters of "A new attitude." How refreshing to find a book with a new attitude. And by an African-American woman, no less! Goodness knows that African American women aren't known for having "attitude," and there are (happily) no cultural stereotypes encouraging them to display "attitude."

What's next? "Bookish" brunettes? "Bubbly" blondes? Perhaps a "mysterious" Asian babe or a "spicy" Latina? Could we possibly throw a "fiery" redhead in the mix, just for good measure?

I could belabor the point with a lot of meaningless discussion, but I'll just short-circuit all that and admit that I'm dying for the day when "bodacious" brunettes will enter the lexicon, alongside their equally under-represented sisters, "brilliant" blondes, "sexually-repressed" Latinas, and "ploddingly logical" redheads.

Hey, it could happen.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias

Well, Ella had her latest "procedure" on Friday and came out with flying colors. Unfortunately, the operation--a combination endoscopy and choledochoscopy with a side of general anaesthetic--didn't do jack, but at least she is no worse off than she was before. I intend to write far more about Ella and the delights of modern medicine, but that is for another day. For now, I want to offer some thanks to the wonderful little people, the ones who are there for us in our time of need, yet never get the appreciation they deserve. I'm not talking about the doctors, the nurses, or even the cute lil' candystripers. No, I'm talking about the hospital food service employees.

When I was a kid, it sometimes seemed like we lived at the hospital. Ella was born with a liver defect; for much of her first few years, we were constantly seeing doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In fact, for her first few months, Ella and my mother actually lived at the hospital, in a nice, big room on the seventh floor. It was kind of like a hotel, if you ignored the IVs, the medical waste disposal bags, and the nurses dropping by at all hours. On the bright side, they had custom soap. On the downside, it was iodine-infused and had a nasty reddish-yellow color.

We lived about forty-five minutes away, in Fairfax, but my father would drive my sisters and I out there every evening. At first, we would hang out with the baby, but that would inevitably grow boring, so we started wandering all over the place. We'd bounce on the chairs in the huge atrium area, practice sneaking around the sensors on the automatic door openers, and raid the goodies that the chapel always put out. We came to know all the little hidden spaces in the hospital, got on a first-name basis with the cleaning staff, and made friends with most of the nurses. Best of all, we became huge fans of the cafeteria.

The hospital cafeteria was 1970's fern bar chic, with light-wood tables and dividers, recessed lighting, and hunter green walls. It felt like a sophisticated watering-hole, particularly when my father would hand me a few dollars and send me off to feed my sisters. The food was always frest and delicious. Most of it was prepared in-house, and the staff was generally cheery and glad to help. In fact, it was so good that, even years later, my father was still able to bribe us with a visit there. Many were the times that my sisters and I were convinced to be silent or bear up through a test with the promise that we would go to the cafeteria afterwards.

Another side of the cafeteria, which I'd forgotten until recently, was the fact that it was incredibly cheap. My parents used to hand me five or ten dollars to feed myself and my sisters, and I always brought back change. Admittedly, this was the early 1980's, and Bethesda was a military hospital, but it still had really good prices. To this day, I still feel like I'm being cheated when I have to pay more than a couple of bucks for lunch. My only excuse is that the hospital cafeteria trained me to be a cheapskate.

Fast forward a few years and I recently found myself hanging out at the Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Pennsylvania, waiting for my sister to come out of her procedure. The waiting room was filled with nervous people waiting for family members, and I felt like, at least in my case, misery doesn't necessarily love company. Having finished my book and the magazine that I packed, I decided to explore the hospital.

From previous visits, I already knew that Geisinger had two restaurants: an extensive, full-service cafeteria on the second floor and a smaller mini-restaurant on the first floor. Ella's friend Wiley, an older gentleman who used to work at the hospital, mentioned a lesser-known cafe on lower level 2, near the children's ward. He told me that it was the most pleasant place to eat, so I decided to put it to the test.

Wiley was absolutely right: the cafe was a sunny little spot with only about five or six tables. The food offerings were minimal, but were perfectly prepared, and the service was fantastic. I got an italian sausage sandwich with fried onions and red peppers, a cup of potato cheddar soup, and a piece of apple pie. Along with a bottle of water, the whole thing ran me about five or six bucks, and the cashier was incredibly cheerful. I found myself a clean table near a sunny window, savored my comfort food, and thought about how nice it is to have a hospital cafeteria when you need one.

I know that many hospitals aren't blessed with this kind of outstanding food service. Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where Georgia was born, didn't have a decent cafeteria, and the food service at Montgomery Regional Hospital consisted of a couple of cruddy candy dispensers. However, the two hospitals in which I've had to spend the most time have both had outstanding, reasonably-priced places to eat. While I don't really look forward to going back to the Geisinger hospital for Ella's next operation, I have to admit that I'm glad the cafeterias will be there.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Maybe a little too dark...

Nota Bene: So I decided to write a Walletpop post about saving money on funerals. However, my wife argued that this was more ideally suited to my blog. Having organized my parents' funerals, I discovered fairly early on that dark humor was my way of getting through the tough times. However, the wife thought that this seemed seemed a little insensitive. Looking over it again, I think that maybe she was right. If graveyard humor (combined with money-saving tips) is not your cup of tea, please hold off on this one--I promise to post something new within a day or two.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death, an expose of the funeral industry. In her book, she examined the numerous ways that undertakers worked to squeeze pennies out of families, methods ranging from price-gouging on caskets to miscellaneous charges, to selling coffins that were too small and cutting off the corpses' feet to fit.

Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although many of Mrs. Mitford's criticisms were taken to heart, funerals are still obscenely expensive, and funeral homes charge premium prices for everything from astroturf rental to flower transport to dressing the body. If you're an orthodox Jew, things are looking bright, because of the religious restrictions against embalming and caskets with metal, but for the rest of us, funerals are one of those things that you should probably start planning for now.

However, even in this most final of ceremonies, there is room to save and personalize. I'm not talking about extreme ideas, like doing your own embalming or holding the wake in your family playroom. After all, embalming takes years to master, and nothing kills a party like...well, you see where I'm going. However, there are little things that can make a huge difference.

For example, if you're working on a funeral, you might ask family members and friends to hold off on the flowers. Apart from the fact that these "floral tributes" cost a fortune, you will also be responsible for trucking them out to the cemetery. In all likelihood, you will probably end up subcontracting this out to the funeral home, who will do so at a premium. Instead of having your loved ones invest in flowers that you will neither enjoy nor keep, you could suggest a good cause for them to donate the money to, or request that they simply show their love by being there for the service. While we're on the subject, you might want to shop for a cemetery that doesn't require underground vaults. In addition to interfering with the natural decomposition of your body, these monstrosities massively add to the cost of your funeral.

You also might consider making your own casket. This is a great way to save money, get in touch with your worries about death, and build an awesome piece of furniture. Also, it will save you a lot of money. Even discount coffin companies (yes, they do exist!) charge $700 and up, and prices can go well over $20,000. Let's face it, that's a lot of money to shell out for something that you're only going to use once!

Essentially, a casket is nothing more than a wooden box, approximately six feet long, and about 12"-18" square. Depending on how you accessorize it, it can make a great bookcase, an oversize coffee table, a large hope chest, or even an entertainment center. While you can create something much more elaborate, this can also be a very simple carpentry project. In addition to several kits, MHP Caskets carries a wide selection of casket plans at very reasonable prices. If you want something a little more elaborate and fun, you might take a peek at Casket Furniture. In addition to a wide variety of kits, they also offer some truly fantastic pieces, including a casket coffee table, a casket phone booth, and casket sofas. Granted, most of these items are aimed at the Goth market, but they are available in beautifully-finished light wood, which means they'll blend well with all your Ikea furniture. Best of all, you'll always be prepared for a visit from your in-laws...or the grim reaper!

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Something Funny

I try to avoid talking about politics. This isn't because I don't have strong political convictions or definite ideas about the path my country is following. Rather, I think that political discussion has largely been replaced by dogmatic trumpeting. All too often, I see two people holding intractable positions and refusing to budge. For discussion to work, both sides have to be willing to listen, and both sides have to be willing to change. I feel like that is, simply, no longer the case.

One thing I will say, however, is that I'm really getting tired of people coming up to me, wide-eyed, and pointing out yet another of Bush's scandals. Where were these people four or five years ago, when these disasters were news? Yes, North Korea has nukes. Yes, American soldiers have been torturing arabs. Yes, the government given no-bid contracts to Bush's oil buddies. Yes, yes, yes, this was in the news years ago. Where were you then?

Sometimes, I feel like my country is like Rip Van Winkle, waking up after a few years of sleep and trying to adjust to all the changes that have happened. However, I still don't know what the sleep was, or why everyone seemingly ignored all the truly heinous things happening in the early part of this decade. It's like Bush was a cross between the Wizard of Oz and a Quaalude-wielding fratboy, using misdirection to convince everyone that we were on the path of righteousness. The drugs have apparently worn off, and everyone is blinking their eyes and wondering why our asses hurt so much.

Anyway, I'm getting off my soapbox. All of this was, actually, a lead-in for this satirical short, which made me laugh until my sides hurt. The creators seem to have hit all the major points of the last few years, which makes it both a nice little parody and a "We Didn't Start the Fire" style chronicle of the Bush administration. I hope you get a kick out it.

(The link above connects to the actual film. Below is a shorter, somewhat butchered You Tube version. Unfortunately, the visuals and the voice-over don't match up in this copy!)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Christmas Values

Although I am a liberal, and therefore officially immoral, I have always considered myself a values-based kind of guy. And during this season, when the long, frozen winter nights give me a lot of time to think about my values, I like to consider the things that are really meaningful.

Values are fundamental and basic. They can't be bought or sold, and they're the things that stay with you long after everything else has become meaningless. That's why, even though I don't have a lot of money, I would gladly give it all--every cent--just to watch Horatio Sanz being raped by a bull elephant.

It's not just his utter lack of talent, or his smirking self-satisfaction, or even the fact that he used up one (at least one) space on Saturday Night Live, a space that could have gone to a superior performer. Frankly, Sanz's inability to even perform his way through even the shortest skit without giggling at his own buffoonery has made him the ultimate example of a fat guy sliding through on a jolly stereotype and a high-lipid diet.

Boy, I sure do hate Horatio Sanz.

All of this, however, is a preface to my tale of a true New Year's miracle. While there aren't any performers who I despise as much as Horatio Sanz, I also have a particular cold spot in my lower intestine for the comic stylings of Jimmy Fallon.

One of my favorite moments on Family Guy occurred when Peter beat the crap out of Jimmy Fallon. I know it wasn't the real Jimmy, and that it was animated, but it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling to watch that self-satisfied overgrown class clown get his comeuppance. I always thought that Jimmy a real-life Zack Morris, a self-obsessed preppie who somehow got lucky enough to land a spot in the middle of SNL. Surrounded by a array of more talented and unique Screech Powers', he couldn't quite hide his smug self-satisfaction, his contemptuous belief that the rest of the world should just love him because he's so damn cute.

This New Year's Eve, however, my friend Joey introduced my wife and I to Fallon's outstanding imitation of Barry Gibb. I don't know what blend of luck, pop culture, Justin Timberlake, and random serendipity combined to make this possible, but Fallon does a truly beautiful job sending up the egomaniacal genius behind so many falsetto tunes. In his scabrous portrayal of grotesque aging seventies self-importance, Fallon touches on transcendence.

Incidentally, if this link doesn't work, just google "barry gibb snl." Really, you've got to check this out. If it fails to get you the first time you see it, wait 24-36 hours and try again.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Please excuse my silence over the last few weeks. I could offer all sorts of excuses, but I won't. You, my loyal readers, deserve the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And now, without shame or hesitancy, I will give it to you:

I was locked in a life-and-death struggle with 2007.

I imagine that this seems to be a joke; on some levels it is. However, there is more than a grain of honesty here. Over the course of the last year, I have had a car stolen, have lost a pet, have been in lockdown in my office because of a crazed gunman, have dealt with stark poverty, and have had to deal with dozens of smaller (albeit equally challenging) setbacks. Frankly, somewhere around the middle of September, it occurred to me that 2007 was doing its absolute best to kill me. I can laugh about it now, having emerged as the clear victor in this power struggle, but it was a pretty disturbing realization, particularly given that I then had to survive for another three and a half months.

Actually, to be honest, I laughed about it in September. Still, on some level, I believed that it was true. And, as every month offered its own surprise disaster, each of which nearly bankrupted us, I started to wonder if my September joke was really all that funny. Still, up until December, I was pretty healthy, and was able to laugh off my own suspicions about the evil plans of 2007. Then, on Christmas Eve, as the year wound to its close and the finish line was in sight, I picked up a brutal little virus that, in the words of Monty Python, opened the sluice gates at both ends. I initially thought that it was food poisoning, and spent most of Christmas day lying in bed and groaning, in between hurried visits to the bathroom. The 26th was better and, by the 27th, I was feeling healthy enough to return to work. Then, on the 29, I got a return of the nasty stomach bug and ran back to the bedroom. As the days went on and I was reduced to a diet of bananas and applesauce, I wondered if 2007 was, indeed, going to get the better of me. On Sunday, just as I was almost beyond caring, I rallied, and was once again able to eat solid food and walk more than a few steps without collapsing from exhaustion.

I'm now feeling a lot better. George, the wife, and I rang out the old year with our wonderful friends Jen and Joey, who were visiting from California. We visited Totonno's pizzeria, chasing the transcendent pizza with some wonderfully nasty Chinese food, locally-brewed beer, and copious amounts of champagne. Feeling flush with my victory over 2007 (and more than a little buoyed by the bubbly), I decided to dance on the grave of the last year, and stood outside the front door with my wife and friends, yelling "Feliz Ano Nuevo, Bitches!" to the world at large. As the salsa music blared and our victorious yells echoed from the tenements around us, I said a silent prayer of thanks for my survival, not to mention the fact that my neighbors were kind enough to refrain from shooting at us.

Today I awoke feeling downright bouncy. I ran all over the neighborhood, picking up breakfast items for the people in my house and generally enjoying the fact that I had survived to see 2008. I have no doubt that this will be a better year than the last, and I hope that your new year is as wonderful as mine!

Happy New Year,


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