The opinions of the opinionated. Let's take a look at food, cinema, fragrance, baby products, legal decisions, booze, cars, and whatever else catches our interest.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Science Fiction, Science Fact

Please skip this entry unless you're a total nerd like me. I am so excited that science fiction writer Neal Stephenson included Luca Turin's tunnelling electron theory of olfaction in his newest novel, Anathem. It happens on page 590 of the first edition when one of the scientist/monks informs the hero that of course, the nose is a quantum device.

Of course it is!

It grabbed me because I'm such a fan of both men. Turin is a biophysicist and a perfume critic, and his theory of how the sense of smell works is as compelling as his writing about the art of scent. Stephenson, starting with the magnificent first chapter of Snow Crash, turns science and math into great storytelling. Seeing Stephenson refer to Turin's theory in was like finding out that my two good friends already knew and like each other.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Golden Girls, Hip-Hop Edition

Watching the American Music Awards last weekend, I was struck by an odd pattern I recognized in the names chosen by some hip-hop artists: old-lady names for young black men. It's as if they're choosing their monikers from an old Lutheran church newsletter, circa 1961.

Nelly: He's been around a while, and I still don't get it. In gay slang dating back to the 1940's, nelly or nellie describes stereotypical gay effeminate behavior. Pretty much the opposite of this dude:

Another association for the name is the character Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. Nelly's gonna wash that man right out of his hair, perhaps by killing him execution-style.

I'd never heard of Flo Rida before watching the awards, but his name is a hoot. So many levels of (unintentional? intentional?) queerness. First, as a riff on the state name Florida, it's a great drag name, competing in my mind for favorite status with Bertha Venation (that To Wong Foo movie) and Ida Slapter (a drag performer in Puerto Vallarta). Seond, it conjures up bags of frozen potatoes, a la Ore Ida, with which it rhymes beautifully. Finally, he shares a first name with Flo, Polly Holiday's wisecracking waitress on Alice. Smack your chewing gum and say, "Kiss my grits, m***er f***er!"

I was worried that my third example of the oldladyfication of hip-hop was a strech until I visited the official website of Lil Wayne. I looked in vain for the apostrophe that would indicate that "Lil" was a contraction of "little." It isn't there. I have to conclude that Lil is in fact short for Lillian. Lillian Wayne is quite a pretty name.

I bet she makes a mean casserole for those church suppers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Listen To The Music: Bread and cheese

Welcome to Listen To The Music, an occasional feature in which I'll puzzle out the lyrics of the songs we know and love.

Peaking at #4 on the charts in 1971, Bread's "If," written by group member David Gates, has some lyrics worth a listen.

Question: If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?
Answer: You can, just use water-based paint so I can shower afterward.

Declaration of Committment: If a man could be two places at one time, I'd be with you/ tomorrow and today/ beside you all the way.
Analysis: Dude, tomorrow and today are two different times, not two different places. You can be with her tomorrow and today, so long as she's not still mad at you for getting paint all over everything (see above).

Two-Word Reviews: Coco Rico Coconut Soda

Needs rum.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dear Julie

My friend Julie has a blog, too. She shares stories of her family moving from Washington to Southern California, and her kids' difficulties and triumphs in adjusting. I love her writing and her humor. A recent post was an unabashed love letter to Disneyland and how she loved introducing her kids to it. What started as a comment on her post became an email, and as it grew longer, a post on my own blog.

Dear Julie,

I really loved your post about Disneyland. I think it's funny that you and I never went there together, maybe some summer in college, because I've always felt the same way: Disneyland is important! When I was a kid in Tucson, we would go as a family every 2 or 3 years, and I remember it being such a big deal, almost like a holy pilgrimage. I think the my parents' attitude about it rubbed off on us, since they were both big fans, too. They'd taken long road trips as kids in the 50's to visit Disneyland when it was new, and they've been going ever since.

There were some things we all loved as a family, particular things my dad taught me to love. Though it's gone now, the Penny Arcade on Main St. had all those beautifully restored and maintained mechanical orchestras, arcade games, 3D photo viewers, nickelodeons, and the thing that shocked you when you grabbed the handles. Dad would give me a bunch of change and we'd walk around trying everything. He loved the mechanical orchestras, and I did too, and what a weird coincidence that I married a man who is crazy about them as well. Dad had one favorite area in Pirates with one drunk pirate mumbling to himself, and I love going back and seeing him still mumbling away. Mom took me on Storybook Land while Dad and Sandee rode the Matterhorn.

We rode Adventure Through Inner Space first. We always visited Pirates and the Haunted House twice each.

I must have been about twelve or thirteen, certainly old enough to handle disappointment, when a family trip to Disneyland had to be canceled. I remember walking casually away from the dinner table into the kitchen so nobody would see that I'd unexpectedly burst into tears. Dad noticed and I could see his surprise. I remember explaining to him that Disneyland meant so much to me, and that I was embarrassed to be crying, but I couldn't help it. He was taken aback, but I think he understood.

When my husband and I started our lives together, one weekday morning when we were both between jobs, I asked if he wanted to go to Disneyland for the day. Within hours we were walking down Main St. grinning like idiots. He called his mom and asked "Guess where I am?!" while I sang "Small World" loudly in the background. We've since been back probably a dozen times in eight years, together and with friends. When none of us was making much money, we discovered that splitting lunch making duties made for a great mid-afternoon break in the picnic area outside the park. Disneyland food has never been much good, so sitting down to Brooke's tuna salad, my homemade butterscotch cookies, cheese, crackers, fruit salad, chips and salsa is a great improvement on Tomorrowland's rubbery hamburgers.

I am a worrier and always have been. Even on vacation, stray thoughts of work sometimes keep me from losing myself in the moment. A vacation in Puerto Vallarta was less fun and less relaxing for me because another resort guest reminded me of a client with a very difficult upcoming trial. Every time we settled under a palapa on the beach, I would see my client's unintentional twin stroll by with an umbrella drink. My client was back in California in custody, but I felt like he came to Mexico with me. Kind of a downer.

I can lose myself in Disneyland, especially an uncrowded off-season weekday. (Hint: go in February on a Tuesday or Wednesday. No lines!) I still over-analyze everything, but I have fun thinking about how California Screamin' takes off so fast (magnetic induction) and how Walt's vision of a riverboat trip still feels complete when the Mark Twain comes back around the Tom Sawyer Jack Sparrow Pirate Huck Finn Johhny Depp Merchandising Island.

Criticisms abound about Disneyland and the unfocused and disappointing California Adventure park. Two websites in particular, the Reimagineering Blog and Mice Age are worth a read. Disney walks along fine lines between what should be restored or replaced, where money should be spent or saved, and how much merchandising the visitor can stand. The Disneyland of my past won't be the Disneyland my son will see. I'm disappointed that I'll never ride Adventure Through Inner Space again, and I think the addition of Disney cartoon characters to Small World is appalling. Tomorrowland is a confused mess, and the Paradise Pier area in California Adventure is barren and uninteresting.

Star Tours doesn't belong in a Disney property, based as it is on a story of a totalitarian state overthrown by violence -- how un-Disney can you get? Funny that Disney never licensed the Star Trek stories and chose Star Wars instead. Roddenberry's vision of the future was more in tune with Walt Disney's, less about epic space battles and more about how progress and open hearts and minds can shape our destinies.

But I love it. The castle still looks great, and some of the new stuff, notably Soarin' Over California, It's Tough To Be A Bug, and the gorgeous undersea-themed carousel are new favorites. It's great to ride the submarines again. The Honda Asimo robot show, tucked into the Innoventions building, reminds me of Walt's original idea for Tomorrowland and Epcot in Florida -- an optimistic glimpse at our future.

Though there's a little too much Pixar-themed merchandise for my taste, I gotta shout it: To Infinity and Beyond! Disneyland will always be a part of my life.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New Car Smell

Stinkum Review: Mustang and Mustang Blue

My 2008 white Ford Mustang was a gift to myself as my 40th birthday loomed near. I snapped cel-phone pictures of it and sent them to friends under the caption "The Midlife Crisismobile." It's been a fun set of wheels, especially for my long highway commute, and my only regret is that getting the baby seat in the back is a pain. It had that "new car smell" at first, mostly plastic and rubber. Come to think of it, perhaps new car smell is like mixing Claiborne's Lucky You (plastic) and Bvlgari Black (rubber) together? Sounds like a vicious combo! After a mishap with a broken bottle of Disney's Mickey Mouse -- yes, there is a Mickey Mouse cologne -- my car smelled like soap bubbles and cookies, the notes of a cologne aimed squarely at toddlers. Luckily the makers of Mouse anticipated spills and overzealous sprayers and it faded quickly.

Turns out Ford licensed the Mustang name to Aramis/Lauder for scent branding, two scents to be exact, both sold in drugstores. I got a bottle of Mustang online for US-$12.50 and tried the second release, Mustang Blue, at the local Rite-Aid.

The bottles are hefty curved rectangles with machined metal caps, and the logo is right off my car. The both come in padded tins, for no good reason but another opportunity to show the galloping horse, enbossed and chromed on the tin but just printed on a sticker for the bottle. The caps are strong design -- matte dark metal with three "speed lines."

Mustang isn't special or surprising, but it isn't bad -- the topnotes are as expected, mostly citrus and lavender. The lavender stays strong throughout the drydown. The base is supposed to be cedar, tobacco, and patchouli, and though I'm new to the fragrance game, I know patchouli when I smell it, and the dreadful Berkeley oil of my college years isn't present. Thank heavens! Someone with a patchouli oil habit had a locker near mine at the rec center, and I would hold my breath when I went to get my swimsuit and goggles. So no patchouli, just woods at the end of Mustang. I would call it a barbershop kind of fragrance, clean and classic but not very pretty. My own tastes lean toward spices and vanilla, so I don't see making this a regular morning spritz.

Mustang Blue is a different story. Clean it ain't. Downright dirty. Too dirty for me. The topnotes are herbal, but more importantly, mechanical. Burning oil, rubber gaskets, and hot metal join pine, basil, and mint, all sharp herbal scents. It's one of those novelty scents like most of the Demeter fragrances -- Demeter offers funny stuff like jelly bean scents, Play-Dough, Gingerale and Bonfire (both favorites), and now Mustang Blue brings us HOT REVVING ENGINE.

Mustang Blue is downright assaultive. I had to wash it off.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Now Rent This: These Little Town Blues

Welcome to the first Now Rent This: my opportunity to suggest movies you likely haven't seen, but will enjoy as a rental. So log into Netflix and let's start building up that queue. Today's theme is films set in small towns.

When the legacy of Sheriff Chris Cooper's father is called into question by the discovery of a body in the desert, he learns that the past can intrude rudely into the present. John Sayles' 1996 mystery Lone Star is one of my favorite movies because it creates a complete world within itself. The tiny border town is a character in the drama, every corner of the place containing some of its secrets. Watch for a single scene-stealing appearance by Frances McDormand. Unquestionably a writer's movie, the script is simultaneously wordy and incredibly spare -- there isn't a wasted phrase anywhere and everything said has meaning.

If you've never seen The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946, it's time. I plan to write several blog posts in the future aimed at those who have little or no interest in classic movies. I certainly understand their apprehension. Older films have different conventions from those made today -- slower pacing, unfamiliar speaking styles, and all that black and white -- and these conventions seem strange and distancing to many of today's viewers. With our soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, controversy about PTSD and the health care our veterans receive headlining the news, it's appropriate to take a look at arguably best movie about soldiers returning from war.

Three soldiers return from World War II to fictional Boone City, a perfect EveryTown USA, with an old high school and a new golf course. They fly home in the belly of a decommissioned bomber, surprised at the changes and nervous about landing back in their old pre-war lives. Iconic performances from Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Harold Russell keep the story rooted in drama rather than melodrama. Watch for a rather shocking scene in the drugstore when a political discussion turns violent. Seventy years later, it is easy to forget that the decision to enter WWII was not unanimous. The more things change...

You've probably never heard of Wildflower, a 1991 TV movie made for the Lifetime network, the retirement home for Designing Women and Golden Girls reruns. Actress Diane Keaton directed this small-town tale of a brother and sister who discover a neglected teenager hidden by her parents in a shed. The surprise here isn't the darkness-to-light story, since we've seen that a hundred times: think Lena Olin in Chocolat, Agnes Gooch, Sabrina, Awakenings, and every chick flick with a makeover scene. The surprise is the performances. Some newcomer in only her second film role plays Ellie, a girl with an unwavering sense of right and wrong. This newcomer, Reese Witherspoon, has a lot of potential. Also a pleasant surprise is Susan Blakely, a pretty blond actress who has been working consistently since 1972, playing heiresses and doctors and murder suspects on the small screen. Here she plays an abused wife in a loose cotton sack dress, in sore need of a facial and a mani-pedi, and Blakely really gets to act. What would her career have been like had this been an early role for her?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Product That Makes Al Gore Cry

A generous acquaintance with two year old twins gave us pairs of cribs, carseats, strollers, high chairs, and a changing table in anticipation of the arrival of our son. Along with this largesse came a Diaper Genie, a tall vertical diaper pail with a twistable dial on top. The Diaper Genie is a device with a dirty purpose, and it holds a dirty little secret.

I was dismayed to see it. I had heard of it, and knew the basic principle: the Genie contains a nearly-endless tube of plastic bagging. As each diaper is placed in the machine, a little mechanism lets you twist the bagging around it, sealing in the stench. Each stinkbomb is separated by a new twist of the plastic. When the pail is full, a little blade cuts the tube, you tie a little knot, and throw the long twisty thing away.

Here are the problems. Each diaper is now wrapped securely in a wasteful length of the plastic bagging. Once it reaches the landfill, it will remain seperate from other waste, unexposed to the air and bacteria that will break it down. Time slows for each diaper and its contents. How long will it remain there, untouched by the natural processes that would return the organic matter to the soil?

In a better world, baby waste would go the same place as adult waste. Sewer systems and even septic tanks ultimately follow nature's course: wastes are broken down by bacteria, and water and organic matter ends up back in the ecosystem. The advent of disposable diapers circumvents this process for baby feces: wrapped in plastic, absorbed by chemical gels and layers of padding, the cacapoopoo sits in the landfills. Thanks to the Diaper Genie, one extra layer of plastic seals it from the outside world.

Our generous friend gave us three of the plastic bag refill cartridges as well. We decided to use them up since they'd already been purchased. And here's the point in the story where Al Gore mists up.

The darn thing works. It works very well. There is no diaper smell in the nursery, only that wonderful roses-and-vanilla blend that scents baby powder and lotions. It's easy to empty and add the refill cartridges. We put a Curious George sticker on it, and now it's even cute.

Of course, the day came when we ran out of refills. Should we buy more, and join the conspiracy against smaller landfills? Should we turn in our Diaper Genie, our seductive environmental criminal who steals away the poopie-stinkies like a thief in the night? Has my "criminal" metaphor gone to far?

We bought more. So here I sit in my glass house, juggling two throwing-stones and a dirty diaper. I criticize the product -- an odorless diaper pail comes at a high environmental cost. Ultimately I criticize myself for accepting that cost.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Farewell, My Lovely

My father bought a Canon A1 camera, a 50mm lens, and an aftermerket zoom in 1981. At the time, the A1 was arguable the most advanced consumer 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera out there.

For the uninitiated, SLR cameras work under the principle that the photographer peers through the main lens when framing his shot. What he sees in the viewfinder is the image that will end up on film. This works though a quickly-moving mirror that flips up at the magic moment to expose the film. (This explains the classic "moment of darkness" that accompanies the shwick-shwack noise we associate with photography. Think of every movie in which someone takes a picture.)

The A1 was a magnificent camera, offering a level of flexibility that attracted amateurs and professionals. Exposure could be aperture-priority or shutter-priority, meaning the photographer could choose the size of the lens opening or the shutter speed, and the camera would calculate the appropriate other measurement. Best of all, it had a "Program" setting, for which both shutter and aperture were automatic. All measurements showed up in the viewfinder in small, perfect red LED numbers, just below the image. It felt space-age at the time, and still feels clear and precise.

It had features galore, too many to name here. You could stop-down the lens, actually closing the aperture to see the exact depth of field for your shot. Two self-timers. Exposure compensation. Double exposure!

Over two summers, I took charge of the Canon. We added a polarizer -- great for shots with water or sky. We bought special-effect filters from Cokin, a pre-Photoshop way to mask out parts of a shot and surround a face with flowers or change colors, all done in the camera without a computer. I still have a perfectly masked photo of myself playing cards against myself, a twelve year old me in both sides of the frame. Ah, the fun of the self-timer, the double exposure tab, and the Cokin filters! In high school, the Canon and I shot night skies, friends suspended mid-air over swimming pools, parties and pets.

My father had less success with the A1 than I did. Not for lack of trying, he found the tiny dials and mysterious abbreviations a bit baffling. Eventually he switched to easier point-and-shoots, and now has a magnificent little Sony digital with which he makes artistic close-ups of printed pages, his own Polariods, and shopping-mall trashcans. He blows up tiny corners of the frames to make spectacular abstract prints. Amazingly, he does this without a computer -- a nice reminder of the in-camera effects we used to get from the Cokin filters.

Last year my dad presented me with the Canon and all its accessories, thousands of dollars of gorgeous equipment in mint condition, now worth only a few hundred on eBay. He has gone completely digital. My photography remains a mix: I have a point-and-shoot digital, my stereoscopic slide cameras from the 1950's, and a new digital Canon camcorder to capture the baby. Unfortunately, I see no place at the table for my first love, the Canon A1.

Today's SLR has auto-focus, auto-exposure, modes for fast action and nighttime skylines, auto-bracketing, white balance manipulation, and more. Most importantly, they are all digital. The lure of hundreds of photos on one chip, no wasted film, cropping and editing on the computer is too strong for me. My next camera will be a digital SLR, capable of everything the A1 did but without the constraints of film. I will never run another roll through the Canon.

Should I sell you on eBay or let you sleep in endless retirement in the closet?

You taught me the true joy of photograpy. You taught me to consider the light and the dark. Stopping-down the lens taught me the concept of depth-of-field better than a semester of photography class. 36-exposure rolls of film taught me to take care with each shot. Farewell, my old friend, made obsolete by the digital revolution.