vendredi 30 octobre 2009


Happiness is not having to think up or wear a Halloween costume this year. I am done with that. I spent 22 blissful years living in cultures where the whole Halloween thing is either non-existent or reserved for a very small percentage of the population, generally young children.

In America, adults carry on the Halloween tradition. No wonder the French call us "grands enfants". The first Halloween I spent back in Seattle, we were invited to a Halloween party. On the day of, we decided to spend no more than two hours on costumes. I went as Patty Smith, and Walt went as Roy Orbison. Our decisions were based on what was in the closet and what could be cheaply purchased at Fred Meyer. I bought a pair of black skinny jeans and orange converse high tops, wore a white blouse I already had, borrowed a skinny tie and an electric guitar, and had my sister Carolyn cut a black wig into a Patty Smith-like hair style. Quelle simplicité!

The best thing about this costume was that it came pretty close to being normal clothing, so I didn't feel the discomfort that comes with wearing a constricting costume, elaborate make-up or giant wings or other appendages.

The next year, we were also invited to a party. We decided on our costumes about five minutes before leaving. Walt put his bathrobe on over his clothes and wore a pair of slippers. E basta! I put on a black dress, black boots and black stockings, and we stopped on the way and bought a black witch's hat at Bartell Drugs for about 5 bucks. There was actually another person at the party wearing her pyjamas (she actually had curlers in her hair).

We have no Halloween party to go to this year, but the World Series is on television. Anyway, I would probably not wear a costume even if I had a party to go to.

The best costume at the first Seattle Halloween party I went to was that worn by my brother-in-law Terry. He decided to "be" Truman Capote and I do mean "be". In addition to looking like Truman Capote, he had worked hard to imitate his voice and mannerisms, and had even memorized a number of Capote's famous quips. Best of all, he resolutely stayed in character all evening. He just became Truman Capote, embracing all of the existential implications. His wife, my sister Carolyn, went as Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. She stayed in character too. They inspired me to "be" Patty Smith all night. Of course, I had to explain to some of the youngsters who Patty Smith is (!). There was a photo booth at the party, so we did a lot of posing. Someone I have never met, who lives in NY, told the hostess of the party that I looked so familiar to him. She told him I was "Patty Smith" and he said, "That's it! She does look like Patty Smith." It's all in the attitude, as expressed in the pout.

Click on the title for Martin Scorsese's top 11 horror films of all time. It's from the Daily Beast and includes video clips from each one.

mardi 27 octobre 2009

You wanna live forever?

According to a recurring MSN article (click on title), here's all you need to know:

1. Maintain a relatively flat belly after menopause (if you're a post-menopausal woman and your waist measures more than 35 inches, it is time to take action)

2. Embrace technology: iPod, iPhone or Blackberry, Kindle or Nook-e-book (say it out loud), Twitter, Facebook...

3. Skip cola (even diet cola)

4. Eat/Drink purple foods; they're full of polyphenols (even red wine)

5. Stay away from burgers (and red meat in general - no more than 18 oz. a week - and stuff with nitrates, like hot dogs)

6. Get a little breathless for 40 minutes a day (run, swim, walk like you're being followed by a masher, avoid television or any other activity that tends to sink your butt deep into a chair for hours on end)

7. Walk instead of drive (if you drive, park as far away from your favorite retail habit as you can)

8. Clean your own damn house (and make your own dang quesadillas)

9. Be a flourisher, not a languisher (glass half-full kind of thing)

10. Be in a drama-free marriage or relationship

11. Hang out with healthy people (happy and physically active)

12. Be someone who was a healthy weight teen (not much anyone who isn't a teen can do about it now)

From a recent article in Le Figaro, we learn that from 3,760 in 1990 the number of people over age 100 in France rose above 20,000 in 2008 and could climb as high as 60,000 by 2050.

Autrefois, les centenaires faisaient figure d'oracle avec leur siècle d'histoire sur les épaules. On les auscultait à la recherche du secret de la longévité. Ils n'étaient qu'une centaine en 1900. Quelque 3 760 en 1990. Désormais, ils sont plus de 20 000 selon les chiffres divulgués aujourd'hui par l'Institut national d'études démographiques (Ined) dans son portrait annuel de la population française. Au cours des prochaines décennies, leur progression sera freinée, car des classes d'âge moins nombreuses gagnent les sommets de la pyramide. Mais les centenaires restent promis à un bel avenir.

Ils pourraient être 60 300 en 2050, selon l'Ined.

As tempting as it is to think so, I'm not sure this list holds the key to longevity. For one thing, the item about getting 40 minutes of exercise a day actually stipulated running, which is not good for aging joints. There are many ways to get aerobic exercise that do not involve running or putting undue pressure on the joints (tennis and other racket sports are killers); swimming and cycling are two examples.

And in France, one of the world's leaders in terms of producing "centenaires", people do not go in for running and self-punishing forms of exercise the way Americans do. People tend to walk more, get outdoors more, eat smaller portions, eat better quality food, etc. When I lived in Paris, I walked at least an hour a day without trying. I shopped for food daily, and walked to my neighborhood shops. And I had access to a much better healthcare system than in the US. This makes a huge difference. Plus, the French eat a lot of red meat, or at least eat it often. Our friend Joe, who with his wife Karen goes to France at least twice a year, says eating in France is like being on one of those protein rich diets. Lots of meat, deliciously prepared. Who can resist that?

There is nothing on this list about taking time to enjoy small wonders or simply taking time to do nothing but enjoy the silence. For some people (not me), contemplation is tied to religion and church-going. Whatever does it for you. But I think it is important to set aside some time to do nothing, every day.

Look at GG (top photo), who is going on 104. What's her secret to longevity? Running for 40 minutes a day? Are you kidding? Never! Embracing the latest technology? I think she decided to stop once she mastered the remote that controls the television. Maybe she just got the right genes. In any case, there is something to be said for resisting the temptation to hold grudges and judge others. That requires a degree of generosity and humility that may be the real key to happiness. And this attitude towards life may not lead to a longer one. In the end, it is about genes and generosity of spirit, regardless of what the list of 12 imperatives implies.

lundi 26 octobre 2009

Send a silly love song to the one you love, or anyone

Here is a funny little web site called Let Them Sing it for You. You can type in any words you want and your computer will sing them back to you, using voices that may sound quite familiar (because they are). It was created by Eric Bünger, as an interactive Web project for the Internet art platform SRc of the Swedish National Radio. Try it, you might like it.

dimanche 25 octobre 2009

Bizarre pool incident

So we get up to the YMCA for a swim, only to realize that a swim meet is going on. After being told the meet will go on for some time, but before we walk out the door, we are told that the meet is in fact "over". We take a look. People appear to be rushing out the side door and into the blinding light. So we take the obligatory shower and walk out to the pool area, where we are told that the pool will not open immediately: it has to first be vacuumed out because someone threw up in it. I guess that explains why the meet suddenly ended.

Overcoming a strong urge to barf ourselves, we decide to wait in the hot area while the pool is being vacuumed for vomit. For one thing, we need a quiet place to contemplate the very concept of vacuuming the bottom of a swimming pool. My doctor told me a couple of weeks ago that the YMCA pool has enough chlorine in it to kill any germ, so I'm not too worried about catching something like swine flu by accidentally swallowing an errant speck of vomit. But still, it is kind of icky to ponder. So we sit in the hot pool, enjoying the jets of water on our aching joints, and waiting for the clean-up to happen. Then we're told it will take until 6 pm to get the vomit out, at which time the pool and the Y close (always early on Saturdays for some reason I don't understand). Bummer. We take showers and dress without getting a workout. When we get to the front desk, we see people heading for the pool. It turns out that someone has now decided the pool will open before closing after all. But it's too late for us. The moment and urge have passed.

Neko was overjoyed at the news, as this meant a long, brisk, workout walk for her on Alki. And how can anyone complain about Alki on a clear, crisp fall day?

samedi 24 octobre 2009

Bizarre gardening accident

This is a good day for gardening. It isn't raining but it isn't too warm. Fall is here. Time to trim away the dead growth; time to get rid of the clay pot that exploded for no reason on the deck and replant the fabulously fragrant catnip mint that was growing there.

I understand why retired people excel at gardening and I don't, however. Gardening is above all a question of time and patience. You have to set small, achievable goals and accept that the job is never quite done. I find I don't have much time for gardening. Work, school, teaching, books to read. Luckily, I don't have any television shows that absolutely need to be watched by me.

I'm about to go to the pool and realize that I am sore from all this gardening activity. I think I injured something hauling dirt. Or maybe it was climbing over the deck rail to get onto the eco-roof, where I've got some verveine sprawling. In any case, the term bizarre gardening accident comes to mind. Speaking of which, you can't make this stuff up. Click on the title, which links to this true story:

A former drummer for the Swedish pop band ABBA was found dead with cuts to his neck in the garden of his house on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Police said Monday an autopsy showed it was an accident.

A bizarre gardening accident. Life imitates art.

lundi 19 octobre 2009

One Love

Happy Monday!

Playing For Change | Song Around The World "One Love" from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Leavenworth, Sleeping Lady (Early Fall 2009)

Seattle, Ballard Locks (Late Summer 2009)

lundi 12 octobre 2009

It's academic: ranking the universities

This is always controversial. THE (Times Higher Education) annually ranks the world's top two hundred universities and also does more refined rankings - for example, the world's top two hundred universities for the arts and humanities. The University of Washington comes in at 146 for the arts and humanities, which probably sounds fairly mediocre until you begin to look at the list and realize how many prestigious institutions there are in the US, not to mention the world. Harvard comes in at number one, which it always does.

So what are these rankings based on? THE uses six indicators with differential weightings:

1. Academic Peer Review: 40%
Composite score drawn from peer review survey (which is divided into five subject areas). 9,386 responses in 2009 (6,354 in 2008). 40%

2.Employer Review Score based on responses to employer survey: 10%
3,281 responses in 2009 (2,339 in 2008).

3. Faculty Student Ratio Score based on student faculty ratio: 20%

4. Citations per Faculty: 20%
Score based on research performance factored against the size of the research body

5. International Faculty Score based on proportion of international faculty: 5%

6. International Students Score based on proportion of international students: 5%

As for the weightings, we learn that "they are assigned by Times Higher Education based on their opinion of the importance of the measured criteria balanced against the appropriateness of the indicator to evaluate the intended measure."

In other words, it's kind of subjective and primarily based on a questionnaire that is sent out to a selection of the world's academics. Notice that by far the most important criterion is academic peer review - in other words, academics voting on which universities they think are the best. Based on....? This year, there were 9,386 academics who completed and returned the questionnaire. Basically, they were asked to make a list of the 30 best universities in the world in their area of expertise. So this is an opinion poll or a popularity contest. They can't cite the university that employs them, but what is to prevent them from citing the one that awarded them the PhD or even the prestigious BA/BS that got them into grad school? What does any of this have to do with the quality of the education a student might hope to get? That is an open-ended question, by the way. It sure doesn't seem obvious to me.

In fact, when you look at some of the other criteria - the number of citations, for example - it is hard not to conclude that the old maxim of "publish or perish" has not lost any of its power to shape minds and dictate behavior, and that the quality of the teaching provided counts for absolutely nothing, unless a link can be made between teaching ability and the ability to write articles that get published and, once published, cited by others in one's field.

So forget about teaching and forget about research. Focus on getting published. Focus on publishing articles "dont l’écrasante majorité n’apportera pas grand-chose à notre savoir collectif mais dont la multiplication dans des revues « savantes » et confidentielles permettra d’asseoir pour les gagnants de ce nouveau jeu la notoriété, les primes et les promotions qui, désormais, y sont associées. Ainsi, un chercheur en sciences humaines devra renoncer à écrire des livres, qui ne sont pas recensés par les bases de données bibliographiques, mais tronçonner sa thèse à l’infini en ne gaspillant pas d’un coup ses munitions intellectuelles”. [Translation:"...the overwhelming majority of which will not offer much to our collective knowledge but whose multiplication in the academic reviews read only by the initiated few will, for the winners of this new fame game, provide the basis for the prizes and the promotions that are associated with it. Accordingly, a researcher in the humanities would be well advised to forget about writing books, which only get cited listed in bibliographic databases, and focus instead on endlessly cutting up and dishing out his or her thesis, so as not to spend all of his or her intellectual artillery in one shot".] Incidentally, the quotation comes from an article that was reccently published by French historian Jacques Marseille on the French educational system. The citation was provided by Pierre Assouline (see blog list on the left on his literary blog La république des livres, in an entry on this year's THE rankings.

Judging by this year's rankings, it looks as if higher education is a pretty good mirror of economic trends. The US continues to predominate, but the Asians are making a serious run. Among French universities, Pierre Assouline finds it amusing (and so do I) that La Sorbonne is ranked 21st and Ecole Normale Sup 45th. Well, it's true that everyone has heard of La Sorbonne, while outside of France ENS (whose graduates include modern intellectual luminaries such as Sartre, Foucault, Bergson, Aron, Durkheim...) is apparently not such a household name, even inside academia.

If you click on the title, you will see the rankings. For the global rankings, the top three are Harvard, Cambridge and Yale. What a surprise! Not. The UW comes in at 80, sandwiched in between the universities of Glasgow and Adelaide, while WSU (at 366) is just behind Portugal's Universiy of Coimbra and just ahead of the University of Showa in Japan. It seems to be tied with Université Paris V, Descartes.

vendredi 9 octobre 2009

jeudi 8 octobre 2009

Encore un homme par qui le scandale arrive

Polanski and Letterman have nothing on Silvio Berlusconi (pictured above), with whom Michelle Obama refused to exchange more than a cold handshake. After shocking Italy with his antics involving underage girls and prostitutes, Berlusconi has lost the immunity that has protected him from prosecution since he became, for the third time, Italy's prime minister -- in part by cynically playing on xenophobic fears. One of his very first acts as prime minister was to get legislation passed protecting himself and a few select other politicians from legal action while in office.

Yes, it seems that Silvio too has a roving eye and loves the wild, wild life (Déjà fragilisé par le battage médiatique autour de ses aventures présumées avec une mineure et des call-girls, selon Le Monde). He is definitely down, right now, but I would not count him out just yet. Neither does the correspondent for Le Monde (click on title for link to article).

Nonetheless, if he loses immunity he could find himself once again before a judge (he claims to have been involved in more than 90 cases since 1994 and to have spent nealy 170 million euros to defend himself) for any number of pending matters, all of which involve actions far worse than referring to the Obamas not once but twice as "tanned":

– Television rights: he was indicted for falsifying accounting documents and corruption in connection with the purchase of television broadcasting rights.

– Subordination of a witness in connection with the lawsuit for the purchase of television broadcasting rights. Berlusconi is suspected of having bribed David Mills (a British lawyer) in exchange for false testimony. Mills was sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison last February.

- Berlusconi may also end up being indicted once a pending investigation in Rome wraps up. In this case, he is suspected of trying to buy votes in the aim of bringing down the government of his predecessor, Romano Prodi, who had only a weak majority in the Senate, between 2006 and 2008.

One of his call girls taped a conversation they had about his sexual performance. It seems the 72-year old PM ascribes his own prowess to genes. The 42-year old call girl from whom Berlusconi extracts some perfectly perfunctory compliments (a young man would ejaculate immediately, and she hasn't had it this good since she broke up with her boyfriend) has since been making the rounds on television. Which is funny, because if Berlusconi's attempts at bribery, corruption and cooking the books had actually worked, then Big Boss probably would have seen to it that she stayed far from the glare of the cameras.

mercredi 7 octobre 2009

Tel père telle fille

I figured it was only a matter of time before someone brought up Frédéric Mitterand's 2005 autobiography entitled La Mauvaise Vie, in which he writes about paying for sex with young male prostitutes in Thailand. Now he is Ministre de la Culture in Sarkozy's government and, from this pulpit, recently expressed indignation over the arrest in Switzerland pending extradition of Roman Polanski, for an "indiscretion" he committed 31 years ago on a then 13-year old girl. Notice the symmetry: 31 and 13. Angelica Huston weighed in on Polanski's misadventure, noting that the 13-year old was no dupe, but most people are horrified at the thought of a grown man drugging and raping a 13-year old, right? Am I right about that? So of course it is only natural that many people would be shocked by Frédéric's ardent and indignant defense of his friend Roman, though surely not surprised. Marine Le Pen stepped in the big steaming pile of doo doo first (see video clip), by passionately (almost hysterically) denouncing la mauvaise vie de Frédéric; she was soon followed by the official spokesman for the Socialist party. It is not surprising that Marine Le Pen, looking and sounding more and more like her father, would take advantage of such a grand opportunity to criticize the current government. It is cowardly of the Socialists to have waited for the Marine before taking a stand. But that's just politics as usual in France (and elsewhere, for that matter).

The trouble is, this ethical issue has now been usurped by the politicians, and the old left-right cleavage is all we can see. I hate Marine Le Pen, just loathe her. Even more than that, I hate finding myself in agreement with anything that comes out of her big mouth. It is not quite fair to say she started it; Mitterand should never have loudly defended Polanski. One of the commentators under the Le Monde article noted that whenever a French politician gives in to the literary temptation, his or her words come back to bite. There may be some truth to that. Given Mitterand's avowed sexual past, he probably should have just passed over Polanski's arrest in silence, or stated for the record that the matter was now in the hands of the US authorities seeking extradition. Now that Marine has brought his book to our attention, it is hard to see his earlier defense as other than self-justifying to some extent. When Mitterand's book came out, it was quite well received as an honest, well-written account of a man grappling with his own demons and doing so in a dignified way. He was interviewed on numerous cultural programs and praised for his candor on more than one occasion. His "mauvaise vie" was out there for all to see, brought to public attention by le concerné. What now?

I think there is something else going on as well. This whole business has created or revealed an ongoing malaise in France. The French are seemingly more comfortable talking about sex than - for example - we Americans are. To oversimplify, the French talk about sex with the same ease we Americans show when we talk about money. Every Frenchman is a libertin at heart, or feels he ought to be. Don't forget that the Marquis de Sade was a Frenchman. There is a tradition to uphold, and a reputation. There is both a sexual and a religious component to this: the libertin is first and foremost a free thinker who does not follow the laws of religion. And many, though not all, of those laws concern sexual conduct. I doubt that this philosophical stance translates into actual libertinage of the sort associated with de Sade. But it does translate into a societal compulsion to withhold judgement about the sexual conduct of others. However, when this conduct involves thirteen year olds or sexual slaves in third world countries, la liberté des uns se trouve face à face avec la liberté des autres. On what grounds does one defend the sexual liberty of Roman Polanski when its expression entails the coercion of a minor? How does a lover of liberty justify paying for sex with underage slaves, who are often kidnapped and held against their will?
That's the real French paradox!

mardi 6 octobre 2009

Don't fall in the bathtub

It seems that every year, when fall rolls around on schedule, people love to say that it is their favorite season of the year. I love fall, but I also love spring, summer and winter. Well, spring and summer at least. Winter is pretty grim, at least in Seattle. Paris is relentlessly grey in the winter, but there is so much going on, so many beautiful lights, and so many distractions and pretty things in shop windows that you can forget about the weather. And you can walk everywhere.

Back to fall. It is a lovely season, as seasons go, especially when it begins with an extended Indian summer, like the one we seem to be having here. But there is a downside: spiders. My tomato plants are a favorite place for spiders to build their webs, and so is my deck and the span across the front porch. Yesterday, I almost walked through a spider web and a big spider in my carport. They were blocking my car. I believe the spider had set a trap for me and/or Neko. Luckily, Neko is too short and I am too smart. Two weeks ago, I got behind the wheel of my car and nearly fainted when I saw that a small brown spider had built a web overnight between my steering wheel and my gear stick. What nerve! A week later, I came downstairs one morning to heat water for coffee and discovered a spider and web spanning the space between my faucet and the compost pot on the counter just next to it.

But the worst and most common spider experience, endlessly repeated and always traumatic, is when you push aside your shower curtain and discover a large spider lurking in the tub. I am always reminded of the scene in Annie Hall, where Alvy Singer says "Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick."

I know exactly what he means.

The spider in the photo above just happens to be a wolf spider, which is the species referred to in the clickable article in the blog title, which takes you to a National Geographic article from last spring. If you fear and loathe spiders like I do, then you might find it interesting. According to Danish researchers looking at wolf spiders in Greenland, their increase in size and hunting season (YES, SIZE AND HUNTING SEASON) may be due to global warming. No wonder that spider staked out its territory across my compost pot. It's all part of a vast conspiracy to keep me away from the bathtub.

lundi 5 octobre 2009

School Daze, Veggies and Indian Summer

Eat your vegetables!

I was asked last week how the vegetarian challenge was going. Well, it's going pretty well considering I live amongst carnivores. Neko has communicated in no uncertain terms that she vastly prefers steak, cooked on the outdoor grill, to all other forms of animal flesh. Okay, got that. The Big Carnivore is getting his meat on the fly and playing along with the vegetarian thing. I have some kind of meat (usually chicken or fish) at least once a week. It's all good.

Last week, TBC made his fabulous marinara sauce on one of the nights I had to teach. It was wonderful to come home to the aroma of lovingly braised garlic and those pungent San Marzano tomatoes, bubbling away. I made a tofu stir-fry one night (flavored with chorizo sausage for TBC) and butternut squash tacos another night. I had some leftover squash, which I had cut into cubes and roasted with olive oil, salt and a spice mixture (cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper flakes and other flavors) for the tacos, so I used it as the central ingredient of a soup. The secret to good soup is in the vegetables. I braised crisp celery, organic carrots, onion and parsnips in a little butter and olive oil before simmering them, and added the squash at the end.

The only meat night was after the great Mariner's game on Tuesday night. We went to Circa and I had the BBQ chicken salad. But they make it a special way for me, with the chicken grilled instead of marinated in the BBQ sauce, with the sauce served on the side. On Saturday night, we were invited to the neighbors for an evening of pizza and pool. We got two pizzas: a veggie pizza for the ladies and a meat-laden carnivore pizza for the men.

I'm soaking some black beans right now, but haven't decided what to do with them yet.

Do your homework!

School started last week. I love being back on the UW campus, and fall quarter is especially intense and exciting. Okay, so I'm older than the professor by at least a decade. And most of the students are a quarter of a century younger than I am, except for one fellow graduate student who seems to be in her 30's. I would sit in a classroom with adolescents if it meant being allowed to read Victor Hugo AND the Wall Street Journal. The subject is, roughly speaking, the first new media, which was print, and its social, cultural and political effects on France and Europe. We will be focusing on the notions of authorship, intellectual property and censorship. We begin with Victor Hugo's famous text, Ceci tuera cela, which in fact is a chapter in Notre Dame de Paris that was added in 1837. Basically, Hugo argues that the book will replace the cathedral. The implications are huge.

Carpe diem!

For now, the Indian summer is holding in the Pacific Northwest Temperatures are dropping, but the sun continues to prevail. Yesterday, we went for a long walk in West Seattle that took us along Sunset Avenue, down Bonair and up Admiral. The justly named Sunset Avenue features exceptional views of Puget Sound. There are many old "estates" that were built in the 1920's. One for sale right now has a 1.5 million dollar price tag. And a million dollar view. There is one vacant lot for sale - the last one on Sunset - and it is offered at a million dollars. The lot measures 7,300 square feet.

On the Seattle side of Sunset, a modern, sleek structure just sold for 3.6 million dollars.

It must be nice to have an unobstructed, glorious view of downtown Seattle, but it that worth 3.6 million dollars? I don't think I would want to live in a house like that. I would spend all my time feeling guilty about the lack of affordable housing for hard-working people and foreclosures on subprime loans.