An Update on the Bullying

After all the support I’ve received from family, friends, acquaintances, and completely strangers, I feel like I owe all of you thanks and an update on the situation.

The short of it is that Dr. Lecter will no longer be bullied by these little boys, and the administration is now well aware that if it should happen again, I will hold them accountable for it. Also that people are really fucking dense.

On Wednesday after I first posted about this (and as a result, got 3 hours of sleep due to excessive stress and crying), I received replies first thing in the morning from Dr. Lecter’s teacher and guidance counselor, both expressing horror about what had happened to her as well as surprise, having not heard reports of it elsewhere. They each escalated to the assistant principal and asked me to wait for her to follow up with me. I thanked them for being on top of it and asked them how Dr. Lecter’s safety on the playground would be ensured while they dealt with the situation. I also left a voicemail with the assistant principal asking her to call me about this. And in the event that they fucked up, I asked Clarice to keep her eye on her sister if the boys were out at recess playing.

I heard nothing until 4pm, when the assistant principal called me back. She told me that in the morning, she’d gone to speak to Dr. Lecter’s class, emphasizing safe behavior and how to ask the recess aides for help (but critically, not “Don’t tie other little kids up and drag them around the blacktop”). She’d also gone to Clarice’s class and emphasized “If you see something, say something.” Which seemed a little insulting to me given that those kids HAD seen something and said something. Then she assured me that after Wednesday afternoon, the ropes would be gone from the playground.

I went speechless for a few seconds because I was stunned that this was the solution she was offering me. My inner ragebeast was thinking, “Great. What the fuck are you going to do when they pelt her with balls, or throw mud at her? Are you going to remove all the goddamn mud from the playground, you thick sack?” So I told her, a little impolitely and derisively, that removing the ropes hardly solves the problem. Then I laid out my issues point by point:

  1. It wasn’t made clear to me whether or not this issue had been flagged up with the bullies’ parents or not. If my kid were bullying some other kid, you bet your sweet bippy I’d want to know and stop that shit ASAP. But I tend to give other parents the benefit of the doubt, that if they know their kid is being a dick, maybe they don’t want their kid to be a dick.
  2. The knowledge that a child is getting bullied doesn’t get disseminated to the staff watching the kids at lunch or recess, which means that lunch and recess are prime times for kids to bully and not be held responsible for it, because with all those kids to watch and so few staff, how are they supposed to be vigilant about bullying behavior when they don’t know it’s happening?
  3. Bullying that happens on the playground that actually IS witnessed by the recess staff doesn’t get communicated back to the teacher or guidance counselor. Which is actually two problems:
    1. Lunch/Recess staff have no authority. All the kids know that the things they do won’t get reported anyway, and they can get away with just about anything without any real consequences.
    2. Recurring bullying disappears into a vacuum during Lunch and Recess.
  4. Given that all the kids know that there aren’t any consequences, after these kids are disciplined, they need to publicly apologize to my kid so that they’re held accountable for their actions, and so that all the kids in the school know that there are consequences.

She acknowledged that those were all good points, but I don’t think she really heard me because I was so pissed off and having a hard time controlling my tone of voice. Then she said that she did speak to all the kids in the morning, and that all the teachers were now aware, and that Dr. Lecter’s teacher had spoken to her first thing after recess on Wednesday and said, “I can’t believe those boys did it again–”

“WAIT,” I said. And keep in mind, I was at work in the hallway at the time, which is the only reason I didn’t succeed in exploding her with my fiery psychic rage lasers. “Do you mean to tell me that it happened again today?”

There was a moment of silence. And then a very quiet, “Yes, there was an incident today.”

“So, even though I raised this issue this morning, and even after I asked how you were going to prevent this from happening anymore, it happened again?” At this point I was so angry I was visibly shaking.

So then she promised me that she was going to speak to the boys Thursday morning, well before recess, and that they would not be allowed to play with the girls, and that she would call me and apprise me of the situation once she’d handled it. I agreed and hung up because I didn’t trust myself to continue speaking rationally. I called Dr. Lecter’s father (who was out of town), and then told Earl, and then decided that I needed to go home and get my girl.

On the way home, Earl and I came up with my game plan over the phone, and being a teacher and the son of school administrators, albeit English ones, he had all kinds of insights. I didn’t follow the game plan exactly because I just wasn’t equipped for it, but this is what we came up with: I would send another email to the principal, vice principal, teacher, and guidance counselor expressing my concern over their policies, and that my confidence in their ability to keep my child safe was shaken. I would tell them I would be going to the school Thursday morning and would be happy to wait until an administrator was free to discuss with me all the lapses in their processes that led to my child being dragged around  a playground not once, but twice, even after I’d raised the issue with them. I would ask them to show me the bullying forms they’d filed and what corrective actions they’d taken to mitigate the bullying behavior according to their bullying policy, which they had a legal obligation to uphold, all in an effort to see how the processes had failed. And if they were unable to reassure me that their processes would keep my daughter safe, I would have no choice but to escalate to the Superintendent.

When I got home, the girls told me the story of what had happened at recess: unprovoked, the boys had tried to tie Dr. Lecter up again, but Clarice and a couple of other kids (including Dr. Lecter’s one and only friend) stopped it from happening, with Clarice physically taking the ropes from the boys and throwing them back in the jump rope bin (after which the jump ropes were removed from the playground forever, HOORAY PROBLEM SOLVED). I sent my email that evening, to which they replied that they’d be in meetings all day, but could meet with me after school, which I agreed to.

On Thursday morning, I got dressed in my most I’m Fucking Serious clothes, and after a quick discussion with a mutual mom-friend, decided to contact one of the bullies’ moms, whose email address I happened to have via room parenting and knew to be pretty cool. I assured her that my issue wasn’t with her or her son personally, but that I felt the administration had done both of our children a disservice: mine in protecting Dr. Lecter and hers in letting her know that her child was engaging in this kind of behavior. I told her that it was possible that they didn’t want to involve her until they knew for sure that he’d done it, but then she said, “Yeah, but that’s still something I would want to know. How can I have a dialogue with my child if I don’t even know about it?”

It was right around then that I started feeling bad about all the swear words I used about the boys.

I told her I would keep her updated, went to work, actually managed to get some shit done, and then went to the meeting, where I was greeted by the assistant principal, the teacher, and the counselor. They started off by telling me that the boys were kept in from recess and made to write reflections about what they’d done, and had talks with the counselor about what they did, why they did it, if they’d ever stopped to think about how it made Dr. Lecter feel, and that sort of empathetic thing (to their credit, two of the boys apologized to Dr. Lecter without prompting). Shortly after that, the assistant principal contacted the boys’ parents. I told them that all sounded good, but that I was far more concerned about the systemic problems, because I figured once these kids’ parents were told, they’d be all over their asses.

They looked genuinely surprised, oddly. Thanks to some coaching from Earl, I summoned enough energy to be reasonable and cordial and clinical, never once losing my temper. If it became an emotional issue, the problem resolution would become more about mollifying an angry parent and less about solving a problem with the process. I basically repeated the exact same points I’d already said to the assistant principal over the phone. Only now with the counselor and teacher there, suddenly there was comprehension and it was treated like new knowledge. They were writing down notes and underlining shit and everything. In addition to the things I’d already pointed out, I told them that once they’d revised their policies and plugged up the holes, I wanted to know what the revised policy was and that it should be communicated to all the parents of the school (mostly so that parents would know exactly what’s supposed to be enforced). I also told them that instead of telling the kids who’d done the right thing that they needed to do the right thing, those kids needed to be praised.

I walked away feeling pretty positive about Dr. Lecter not getting bullied anymore, but then I realized I’d completely forgotten to bring up the issues with the bullying forms. Earl was incensed that for nearly two days, they’d failed to meet their legal obligation to keep my daughter safe, and that there was nothing in place to keep kids from being bullied in the future. I thought about this, and honestly, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Why hadn’t all this been brought up as problems before? And if they had, why hadn’t the systemic issues been resolved? What are the bullying forms used for if parents are the ones filling them out, but teachers and staff are supposed to when they occur? Why are parents only contacted when children are disciplined, rather than after the bullying has been alleged, which can be takebacksied if it turns out to be nothing (“Joey gave me the STINK EYE! He’s BULLYING me!” “KATIE gave me the STINK EYE FIRST! SHE’s BULLYING me!”)? How do I go about getting them to realize there’s a problem when it took so much effort just to get them to realize how crap their lunch/recess coverage is? It just feels like this monolith of uncertainty, and I don’t know where to begin attacking it.

So I’m going to have a chat with the moms I’m acquainted with at school and gather more data. For the time being, I feel confident that Dr. Lecter is ok. I sent messages to the parents of the kids I know who stood up for her and asked them to please thank their kids for being so kind. I told Clarice over and over that I was so proud of what a great big sister she is. I told Dr. Lecter that ok, maybe she’s weird, but kids just needed to learn to see past the weird and then they would understand the awesome. And maybe that she should stop picking her nose in class, it’s gross, I told you so. Also that chasing kids around the playground with boogerfinger doesn’t win you any friends, but to keep the weird and lose the rude.

She’s smiling again, and I’m sleeping again. I’ll worry about the monolith later.

My 7-Year Old Is Being Bullied, and I’m Taking It Harder Than She Is

Update on the bullying and the hopeful cessation of it.

My apologies. I haven’t written a blog post in months because work has sucked all my brainpower away. But the software is due to be released relatively soon, which means I have more energy to devote to non-work things. Like blogging about things that have nothing to do with pie.

My youngest, Dr. Lecter, has always marched to her own drum. She comes by lateral thinking instinctively. She’s probably got ADHD (inherited from me) and last week we discovered that she’s also got trichtotillomania (inherited from her father). Her different-drummedness has never bothered her until this year when she found that she didn’t like only having one friend, and that friend isn’t in her class this year. Even that was tolerable because they could still play together at recess or after school. But as it turns out, that wasn’t true.

Her teacher sent me a note last Friday expressing her concern about Dr. Lecter. She’d been pulling at her hair increasingly more, and was acting out at lunch. The school guidance counselor had a talk with her and discovered a bald patch on the back of her head. We found that there were several triggers: anxiety over schoolwork, anxiety/stress over not being able to participate in PE because she’d worn the wrong shoes, sadness over no friends in her class, and most significantly, anxiety over 4 little fucking asshole boys picking on her. The guidance counselor pulled each child into her office individually and told the boys they had to leave her alone, and told her to stay away from them. They apparently ignored the guidance counselor because that same day at lunch, they yelled at Dr. Lecter, telling her she was “so annoying.”

I’ll be honest: my child doesn’t always play nice. She’s not great at taking turns, and she’s not spectacular at sharing, and she used to throw crying fits when she didn’t want to do schoolwork, especially writing assignments, so she’s probably got a reputation for being difficult. But she’s not the Stinky Kid, nor is she the Paste-Eating Kid. She’s just the kid with a really strong stubborn streak and maybe less than stellar manners. But she’s also funny, and affectionate, and clever, and sweet, and diabolical, and a really fun person to know. And no matter what her faults, she doesn’t deserve to be treated like shit by other kids.

Today she came home from school, and I asked how her day was. Sullen, she jerked a thumb at her sister and said, “I’ll let her tell you.” Apparently a group of boys including her bullies had tied her legs up with jump rope and dragged her around the playground. It was bad enough that a group of girls who didn’t know Dr. Lecter intervened, with several running to tell the Recess Aides (who aren’t teachers, but volunteers or something), and several others physically holding her so that the boys couldn’t drag her around anymore. The boys let go of the rope, and these kind girls helped untie her, and kept the boys at bay from coming at her again. The Recess Aide threatened “really big trouble”, but the boys laughed it off and ran away. Only one boy was caught and made to apologize, but it seems nothing came of it because despite my already-open lines of communication with Dr. Lecter’s teacher and guidance counselor, I didn’t hear a peep about this from them.

I’ve sent a controlled message to them, asking what we can do about this in as non-confrontational a manner as I can manage, but really. If adults did this sort of thing to each other, they would be charged with assault. Let’s be real: I am seething. I want to turn the full force of my maternal rage on these boys and their parents.  Mostly, I want answers. How are parents able to raise children so incapable of understanding that putting their dirty fucking paws on another child is wrong? Do the parents of bullies ever accept responsibility for what their child has done, or is it always, “Oh, kids will be kids”? How the fuck was this allowed to happen with adults supervising? Are these motherfuckers going to be punished, and receive actual consequences for acting like tiny crapbag Neanderthals?

The biggest question of all, the reason I can’t sleep right now, is will my baby be ok? Will these shitsticks leave her alone? Will my efforts to teach her Friend-Making Skills (sharing, paying attention when someone’s talking, letting other kids have turns, not grabbing) pay off? Will she get over the anxiety of having to start a task and not feel the compulsion to pull her own hair out? Will other kids figure out how worthwhile a little person she is? I had a minor meltdown at bedtime tonight thinking about all these things, and I broke down into tears in front of her. She patted my arm and snuggled up against me, and said, “Oh Mommy. I’ll stay here with you until you feel better.” So yeah, part of me knows my mighty little girl will be just fine.

But the rest of me is heartbroken for her.

The Case for More Women in Tech, and How It Relates to Pie

Hoo boy. I started writing this post while I was drunk and it made no sense, so I started over. Don’t write while drunk, people, unless it turns out funny.

We just pushed the beta release of a new (huge) piece of software out the door and, not unlike birthing a 9lb 4oz baby, it took a lot of medication, a lot of not sleeping, and a lot of goddamn pain in the nether regions. And I’m not even a developer.

I graduated with a computer science degree knowing that I didn’t want to write code for a living. I could do it competently enough but it wasn’t what I enjoyed in the slightest. What I enjoyed was breaking shit and trying to figure out why that shit was breaking. But actually producing shit? About as appealing as producing an actual shit. We’ve recently (finally) realized that we don’t have enough QA staff in proportion to developers, and after a few rounds of interviews spanning the last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that good Quality Assurance people are really fucking hard to find.

Ideally, a QA person quickly understands how things work, thinks outside the box about how those things actually work (or should work), and communicates well enough to explain why a problem is a problem. Those qualities seem pretty straightforward, but for some reason those kinds of people are not doing QA. I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, but they need to start thinking about a career in QA because my team needs them. We need them about 3 months ago.

My desperation leads me to the part where I implore more women – and very importantly, little girls – to enter the tech field. I am sure that the recent #shirtgate incident is not all that far from your minds yet. It’s true that the number of women in the sciences is stupidly low. It’s true that there are many places where being a woman in the industry is more difficult than being a man in the industry, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual work and everything to do with the environment. There are those who believe in gender-based abilities, where boys are good at certain things, and girls are good at certain things, and so boys like certain things, and girls like certain things.  Then they grow up, and the next thing you know, men are engineers and upper management and like strippers, and women go into liberal arts and like diamonds.

Those people are full of shit.

I was raised by a father who earned a PhD in Physics from Brown University and a mother who earned a Masters in Sociology, and their academic demands on me were high. My mother’s math skills were never very good, but she never sympathetically told me, “Oh, math and science were hard for me. It’s ok if you don’t like them either.” Oh no, she Tiger Mommed the shit out of me and said, “You have your father’s math genes and your mother’s linguistic genes; you have no excuse for not excelling.” A friend of mine recently told me that her mother once said to her, “If you don’t do well in math, YOU WILL TURN INTO A PROSTITUTE.” Our mothers’ methods and words may have been a little heavy-handed, but the message was that there was absolutely no reason why the sciences were beyond our capabilities.

So clearly I don’t buy into the gender-based brain differences. The cool thing about brain plasticity is that as your behaviors and experiences change, your brain activity and neurochemistry change. If girls are taught from an early age to fear math and science, or to shy away from exploration and investigation, of course their brains will work differently as grown women compared to grown men who’ve been taught to fear or shun emotions as boys. This is not to say that the differences are necessarily bad, but the argument that one gender is hardwired to be better at some things than another gender is baseless.

But my plea for more women in tech is about numbers. QA is not just about finding bugs and filing them anymore; QA is about knowing the product inside and out from both the customers’ perspectives and the developers’ and being the liaison between the two. In order to do that effectively, having a sufficiently technical background – knowing how to read and write code, and software engineering in general – is huge. And the more of those kinds of people there are in the candidate pool, the fewer people who can’t satisfactorily answer my interview questions I have to reject.

But maybe you think am the one who is full of the shit.

That’s fine. Sometimes I am, and I have a cup of coffee, and everything is all better. But say you do think that gender-based brain differences are A Thing, and that said differences are not only complementary but predetermined  (in which case, I suggest you read this article or this article or this book or this explanation of brain plasticity and neuroscience  in conjunction with this article). Well then, those behaviors you stereotypically assign to women are perfect for QA. Multitasking? Facilitating communication between analytical and intuitive processing? Knowing where things are located? Awesome. If you’ve ever had to fuck with a hash table, come in and interview.

Which brings me to pie.

A common probing question to find out how people think is to ask them how they’d QA a coffee machine or a vacuum cleaner or a blender or some common household appliance. I hate this question because you can just do a 15-second Google search and memorize the answers. So I make up inventions that don’t exist (but TOTALLY SHOULD) and ask them the same sort of thing. My machine of choice at the moment is a catapult that launches pies. Even better if they aren’t familiar with a catapult (it’s surprising how common this is) because then I have to explain the difference between the ballista or a trebuchet or a mangonel, and they have another dimension to think about. My favorite interviewees are the people who either exhaustively come up with test case scenarios for a few aspects (like usability or performance), or come up with a few test cases for a comprehensive number of aspects (performance, usability, acceptance, adapability, portability, security, etc). Such test cases might include:
– Is the catapult built to the customer’s requirements?
– Is the catapult built to the design specs?
– Are those specs still good?
– Does the catapult meet government restrictions for catapults?
– Does the catapult support the weight of the pie?
– How heavy a pie can it handle?
– What happens if I try to launch more than one pie?
– How many times can I launch a pie before the catapult breaks down?
– How easy is it to break down and set up the catapult?
– What’s the farthest I can launch a pie?
– Could launching a pie kill a person?
– How easy is the catapult to operate?
– Are there child-safety features on the catapult? Do they work?
– How easy is it to move the catapult?
– How easy is it to aim the catapult?
– Can a customer stack a pie on his existing shark and launch a shark with a pie on its head?
– How much torque is needed to release the potential energy in the catapult?
– Can the catapult be adapted to work indoors?
– Can you lock the release lever so that only authorized personnel can launch pies?
– Does the pie stay in the bowl/bucket until it’s launched?
– Does the pie not splatter until it hits its target?
– Say I wanted to launch a Baked Alaska Flambé – could the catapult handle fire?

If this is the way your brain thinks, get into QA please, because QA needs you. If this is the way your child thinks, foster that inquisitive mind and encourage him or especially her to pursue math and science. Though it’s totally ok if they do something that isn’t QA, like maybe mechanical engineering, because pumpkin catapults are nice, but I still don’t have a pie catapult.

United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #10: Art & Fashion

FINALLY! I disappeared down a rabbit hole of wedding invite calligraphy and lice removal (unrelated) and haven’t been able to blog as prolifically as I’d like, but the invites are out, and the lice are contained (or at least, I desperately hope they’re contained now) so I can turn my attention to the last topic in our 10 Things I Love About My Country: Art and Fashion. Freakin’ Steve and Suzie.

I’ve been dreading this one. I’ll be frank: I’m an intelligent person, and I’m not afraid to openly declare this about myself. I know a lot of things, and the things I don’t know, I grasp fairly quickly. But when it comes to art, I am SO STUPID. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what ‘composition’ is or the point of abstract art or how art is supposed to make me feel when I’m looking at what is basically horizontal stripes. I can’t say that I’ve ever looked at any piece of art in any sort of medium that has remotely moved me the way music or a novel or even poetry – another area where I’m stupid – have.

However, as Art Stupid as I am, I can at least recognize when other people find it genius. And this distinction is where I fail even worse when it comes to fashion. Most of what I know about the fashion world comes from Zoolander and Project Runway. I probably know enough so that I don’t look like a complete degenerate walking down the street, or to wear crop tops with high-waisted pants, but generally this is the flowchart that guides what I put into my wardrobe:

Jenny’s Fashion Flowchart

So it is with this caveat that I present this final list of 10 Things I Love About My Country: I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But hey, I’ve seen people pull all kinds of crap out of their blogging asses, so if they can do it, I can do it.

1. Tavi Gevinson/Rookie
Tavi Gevinson started a fashion blog, Rookie, at the tender age of 12 (she’s now 18) and quickly became a fashion icon with the attitude of “I wear what I like”, favoring retro/vintage looks. She appeared on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! which is probably the only reason I’ve heard of her. The site had the potential to become a place of fluff and little substance, but under Tavi’s guidance became a community not just focused on fashion, but also social awareness and affirmation. She also brings her feminist slant to a population of young women at a time in their lives when such exposure can be highly influential. There’s quite a bit of pop culture, relationship advice, and the general shooting of shit that girls like to do as well. It’s the kind of site I wouldn’t mind finding my eventually-teenage daughters visiting one day.

2. American Gothic (Grant Wood, 1930)
American Gothic is one of the more famous paintings to come out of the United States. Even an unwashed philistine such as myself has heard of it and can summon its likeness just at the mention of the name. I love that this painting has been parodied by The Muppets, The Simpsons, LEGOs, Beavis & Butthead, Mickey & Minnie, and – would you expect anything less from the internet? – cats, among many others.

There’s a lot of stuff in this painting having to do with repeated themes and statements about hard work and domesticity, but it would be disingenuous for me to discuss them with anything resembling authority. I’ll just stick to liking the man’s overalls and how much he looks like Henry Fonda circa On Golden Pond.

3. The Landsdowne Portrait (Gilbert Stuart, 1796)
Gilbert Stuart’s more famous portrait of George Washington is the one that appears on the $1 bill. But I’m fond of this larger, more detailed portrait for personal reasons. It’s displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which was one of the places I took Earl on our first date.  The painting serves as a big centerpiece for the presidential wing, and the loop to see the exhibit gets an enthusiastic start because the first thing you see is George Washington with his hand extended like he’s showing you in.

There are a lot of elements to this painting having to do with Washington’s federalist and democratic policies, as well as  lot of symbolism having to do with power, loyalty, and to some extent, literacy. These things go completely over my head. My favorite thing about this portrait is Washington’s thin-lipped grumpy expression, owing to his poorly-fitting, hurty dentures.

4. Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell is best known for his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. He also did quite a bit of work for the Boy Scouts of America, but we’re going to ignore them because they’re huge assholes on the subject of homosexuality. After his illustrations, he’s also known for four paintings inspired by FDR’s State of the Union address in 1941. These paintings are now outdated, showing only happy Christian white people, but the Freedom from Want painting is a huge family sitting down to eat a proportionally huge fucking turkey together, and anything depicting a huge turkey for dinner is going to be my favorite (Rockwell’s own opinion was that Freedom of Speech was the best one).

But of all his works, my favorite Norman Rockwell works are his depictions of Santa Claus. Nobody captures his eyes (how they twinkle) or his dimples (how merry) or his cheeks (like roses) or his nose (like a cherry) like Norman Rockwell. I have a copy of A Visit from St. Nicholas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas…”) where the illustrations are entirely repurposed pictures by Norman Rockwell. It actually belongs to my children, but when they aren’t looking, I totally paw through it and savor the pictures like a mug of hot chocolate, only in print.

5. Layered Hair
I have strange hair. It’s not thick and coarse like the hair so many other Asians have; it’s light and kind of fluffy, but not exactly thin and fine. I also have a long oval face, and very long hair looks terrible on me. So until my sophomore year of college (not too long after The Rachel), I was battling between long hair that went flatter the heavier it got, or short hair that made me look 7. Then my best friend introduced me to the person with whom I’ve developed one of the most loyal, devoted, and steadfast relationships of my life: my stylist, Kim.

Kim and I have been together for 18 years now. I followed her through 3 different salons before she found a place to stay where she has more control of her hours, and isn’t subjected to the despotic tyranny of a Turk named Sugar (seriously, that was his name). Nobody else ever touches my hair except maybe Angela, the shampoo lady, who has these sinewy bundles of mighty lamb-leg for forearms, because 10 minutes of getting your hair washed by Angela is like 40 minutes of sex.

We’re at the point now where I tell Kim, “I’m tired of this. Can we do something that isn’t Mom Hair?” and she just starts coloring and cutting. In those 18 years, I have had layered hair in some form or another, whether a layered bob, or a reverse bob, or short layers, or long layers, or some kind of flippy do. It works great because it gives the illusion that I have a lot of body and volume in my hair when really it’s just a good cut. I barely have to do anything. Even now, when my hair has rather abruptly decided that after 37 years of being straight, it would like to be wavy, layers are serving me well.

6. Bill Watterson
Bill Watterson is the genius behind Calvin & Hobbes, for which I will love him forever. Of all the comics I followed, I remember Bill Watterson’s announcement that he was discontinuing Calvin & Hobbes most viscerally, and in a sense, when Bill quit comics, I did too. My favoritism for this particular comic strip over others has many reasons: the ribbing and affection between Calvin and his anthropomorphic stuffed tiger, the clear intelligence of Calvin despite his poor performance in school, the mad brilliance it took for Watterson to dream up Calvin’s snowman creations, the never heavy-handed social commentary, and frankly, how normal Calvin’s Mom & Dad were. That my youngest, Dr. Lecter, bears a lot of similarity to Calvin isn’t lost on me either. One day she’ll do this sort of thing to me, and I’ll be part insulted and part delighted:

7. Georgia O’Keeffe
She says her flowers aren’t all about vaginas, and I of course respect the artist’s position regarding her own art work. But they really do look like vaginas. I can’t do a writeup about her vaginal flowers better than this post, so I’ll just leave that there. But what I like about her flowers-that-are-not-vaginas  is that she helped make vaginas ok to talk about openly in a non-sexual, normalized way. Even now, I like that I can just throw the word “vagina” out repeatedly and casually, to the point where my kids are completely comfortable talking about vaginas and pubises and penises as proper biological terminology for anatomical parts. Not long ago, I had this discussion with my then 8-year old Clarice:

Clarice: Mommy, where do babies come out?
Me: The vagina. But sometimes they get stuck and then they have to be cut out just above the pubis. Like you were.
Clarice: Oh. Doesn’t that hurt?
Me: Yes. It hurts lots.

Easiest sex talk ever. Except that we never actually discussed where the baby came from. I’ll let you know how that goes some day.

8. Boy Shorts
As my flowchart indicates, I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear. I don’t even really care about rolling into the grocery store in yoga pants and the CHEERLEADER sweatshirt I stole from the Lost & Found at volleyball nearly a decade ago. On rare occasions involving illness, I’ve worn sweatpants to my No Dress Code office before, and in the past, pajamas, and quite possibly, gorilla slippers. Clearly, fashion is not a priority at all. But as with many things, I do have my limits, and my Giving A Shit threshold begins at Visible Panty Line (VPL).

If the reprobates at Home Depot are to be believed, men seem to like looking at butts. I can believe this, because even despite identifying as heterosexual, I like looking at butts. I can’t stop people from looking at my butt, but I can stop them from knowing exactly what kind of underpants I’m wearing based on how the buttflesh gets indented by the elastic and then highlighted by the pants, or skirt, or dress. Many people get around VPL by wearing thongs. But what if I don’t feel like having my nether regions flossed that day? What if I wake up and just don’t feel like perma-wedge is going to help my productivity?

I wear boy shorts! They’re like boxer briefs for women, but shorter and cuter, and because the cut of the leg hole is so low, nobody can see what kind of underwear I’m wearing!

Except now I’ve told the entire internet what kind of underwear I wear, so there goes that mystique. WAY TO GO, JENNY.

9. Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz has the questionable distinction of photographing John Lennon with Yoko Ono just a few hours before he was killed, and also getting thrown under the bus by Miley Cyrus after Disney got angry about her be-sheeted photo shoot with Vanity Fair. She’s also taken many other photographs of famous people from Queen Elizabeth II to R2-D2. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, she has a distinct style and you can see her influence in work produced by photographers who’ve come after her, like this wonderful picture by Art Streiber of the Princess Bride Reunion:

I don’t understand painting or sculpture, but I find photographs much easier to digest, and I love Annie Leibovitz’s preference for capturing what people do rather than who they are.

10.  Mount Rushmore (Gutzon & Lincoln Borglum, 1927-1941)
I nearly put Mount Rushmore in my Architecture list, but I couldn’t defend it as a building or some kind of civil structure. But as an enormous sculpture, I think it definitely qualifies as art. It’s a controversial choice given that it was carved out of a granite mountain resting on lands – sacred lands – seized from the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. Slightly less controversial than the Crazy Horse Memorial, but still not without issues.

And sure, if you ignore the part where the United States dispossessed indigenous people of their land, there’s still the issue of why the presidents featured in the monument – Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Teddy), and Lincoln – were chosen: for preserving the Republic and expanding its borders. So let’s think about this: the US government kicked native people off the lands they’ve lived on for generations, decided that it should deface that land they’ve just taken, and then make the nut-kicking choice to celebrate that occupancy by vaunting the very people who enabled it! It’s just so American, to sweep in, displace others, and pat ourselves on the back for it. In fact, I just had a discussion with a friend about whether the Man Booker Prize has been ruined by including Americans (I still say no, because #NotAllAmericans, and I think Earl is convinced now too).

So why the fuck is Mount Rushmore on my list? Well…as a piece of sculpture, it’s still pretty impressive. Aside from all the (murderous, barbaric, atrocious, brutal) expansion business, each of those presidents did great things for the United States. Plus, you look at those giant heads and you think, “Yep, that’s totally Teddy Roosevelt.” It’s instantly recognizable and infinitely spoofable. It’s about as American as American gets except for the tragic lack of apple pie.

And it always comes back to pie.

Here ends the series. It was a great deal of fun, if not exhausting! Huge thanks to Steve and Suzie for the brilliant idea, both in concept and in topics, and letting me play along. I’ve enjoyed learning things about Scotland and England, and I sincerely hope I’ve done the United States justice. Now to stop slacking on those pie-related posts!

United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About Steve’s Country #9: Films & TV

Well, the referendum came and went, and with it,  40% of Scotland’s hopes for an amicable breakup with England. Now they’re doing the equivalent of that couple that reconciles with lots and lots of therapy, for which I wish them the very best. However, this does mean that Steve and Suzie can still watch the Olympics together, waving the same flag and cheering for the same athletes.

Unfortunately this series has left us all a bit drained. We’ve racked our brains thinking of our respective countries’ favorite inventions, and architecture (and if these search stats are accurate, BOY do people like igloos), and language, and customs, leading to now with #9 in the series: our favorite TV shows and movies from Scotland, England, and the USA. But what do we do when we’re drained? Well, we go on vacation somewhere and pretend we’re not from where we’re from. In essence, we switch. This week, I am Scottish!

I have a confession: I am not Scottish. I can’t even do one of those “Oh, yeah, I’m part Cherokee, part Irish, part Scottish, part Norwegian, and part Dutch” things white Americans are so fond of doing because I’m 100% full-blood Chinese. So, dear Steve, my apologies ahead of time to you and your Scottish brethren. My only goal was to avoid putting Braveheart on the list because it’s too obvious.

1. The Wicker Man (1973)
I much prefer psychological horror over monster-based horror movies. Even better if monsters serve as the backdrop to the psychological horror, as is the case with 28 Days Later or The Descent. There’s also something attractive about that ’60s and ’70s shaky camera cinematography that makes the footage seem more raw and voyeuristic. But beyond that, this movie has Scottish people dressing up in creepy costumes, and nakedly squirming up against the wall trying to sex-osmosis the policeman on the other side, and people fervently worshiping phallic symbols. If not for the whole sacrificing virgins thing, they almost sound like my kind of people.

Even though there is a tragic dearth of bees, this version is so much better than the 2006 reboot. Among the many mistakes the later version made were the far more absurd storyline and making the neo-pagans joyless about the ritual where they dress up like furries, but the greatest mistake of all was moving them off the coast of Scotland to off the coast of Washington State. Because there’s no brogue in Washington State.

2. Trainspotting
Some people, like Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential election, like to criticize this movie, saying that it glorifies the world of drugs and drug addiction, but I’m pretty sure that if New Jack City hadn’t already discouraged my curiosity in drugs, Trainspotting killed off any that might have remained. I have a really difficult time watching people do drugs on screen after watching this film now (I’m not even going to try Requiem for a Dream), but it was really gritty and engaging, and it portrayed subculture in a way that didn’t make me want to roll my eyes, like how On the Road made me feel. Also, it’s full of Scots, and Ewan McGregor is nice to look at.

3. Gregory’s Girl
This movie came out in the early 80’s and had to be re-recorded for American audiences because the accents were so thick (by which I mean “awesome”). It’s an endearing film that might be thought of as Napoleon Dynamite If It Had Been a Teen Rom-Com. It’s a fairly progressive story for its time, too, with a girl’s athletic prowess rather than her sexuality being what attracts the eponymous Gregory. He’s also encouraged to respectfully pursue and be pursued by love interests without scheming or silly tropes. And he has an adorable relationship with his little sister where she offers him dating advice because he’s that helpless. Altogether a very sweet movie.

It’s probably also the last legitimately Scottish TV show/film on my list.

4. Highlander
Come on. If Braveheart wasn’t going to make my list, Highlander had to. It has everything:
Good songs? Check, check, check, check, check, check, and check.
Tagline? Definitely: “There can be only one.”
A really really terrible horrible bad guy? Yes, very!

James Cosmo playing a gruff Scottish paternal figure again? Yup.
A movie so Scottish that they made a French guy play a Scot and cast a Scot as an Egyptian Spaniard? Aye!

I’m really fond of this movie. Not so much the sequels or the television series, but the original will always be a classic.

5. Brave
Ahhhh, a Disney movie that spits in Romance’s eye. I watched this movie with my daughters and came out of the theater very pleased. For years I’ve been complaining that hardly any Disney movies celebrate the mother-daughter relationship, and definitely none of the animated ones. It’s always “Daddy’s girl” this (Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, AladdinMulan), or “special boy” that (Lion King, TarzanFinding Nemo). Even Frozen‘s focus on the sister-sister relationship had a predecessor in Lilo & Stitch. But finally,  a story about a mother’s devotion to her daughter and vice versa! A heroine who cares more about being true to herself and her family than when her prince will come! A female character with messy curly hair! And cake as a major plot point to boot!

Ok, so maybe this movie and the last are more about Scottish characters than they are Scottish films, but I think they still count.

6. Gargoyles
We’re starting to stretch things a bit now. Gargoyles was a fantastic cartoon series that ran from 1994-1996. It blended folklore and literature together into a dramatic cartoon series about a clan of gargoyles who turn to stone in the daytime and come alive at night, breaking out of the stone. The six gargoyles comprising the clan living in modern day Manhattan were originally from medieval Scotland, but were cursed to sleep in their stone forms until their castle rose above the clouds.

Enter a Manhattan skyscraper, a transplantation of said castle, the super rich and morally bankrupt guy who paid for it, and thus we have a plot.

It wasn’t just the folklore, the numerous nods to Shakespeare (Oberon, Titania, Puck, and Macbeth all feature as characters, plus monikers of Iago, Banquo, Fleance, Lennox, and Macduff), and the camaraderie of the gargoyles though. The cast of voice actors included or guest-starred a significant portion of the bridge and Engineering from the Enterprise NCC-1701-D (Jonathan Frakes, Mirina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, and Colm Meany). Kate Mulgrew and Nichelle Nichols also made regular appearances. Other non-Star Trek stars such as John Rhys-Davies, Tim Curry, James Belushi, Paul Winfield, Hector Elizondo, Roddy McDowall, and James Avery lent their voices to the show.

I have talked this show up to Earl now to the the point where I plan to binge-watch it with him. I encourage everybody else to do the same.

7. DuckTales
Scrooge McDuck. Totally Scottish. Except for that one time when he got amnesia and started talking with an American accent. That was a terrible day. I’m leaving you with the scene I love and remember best, when Scrooge throws a fucking tantrum, yelling the same thing over and over again, thus forming my earliest impressions of Scottish people. I mean, if people were ducks.

8. So I Married an Axe Murderer
I know, I know, I’m severely pushing the boundaries on this one, given that Mike Myers is Canadian and Brenda Fricker is Irish. I’m not even quite sure why Charlie Mackenzie’s parents, Stuart and May, were written as Scottish other than to give us wonderful moments like this:

So I Married an Axe Murderer is one of my most favorite movies of all time. I love that Mike Myers indulges himself by playing his own father, portraying him with that same gruff exterior we see in Scrooge McDuck and Groundskeeper Willie. But just like Uncle Scrooge taking in his three nephews and Groundskeeper Willie saving the wee turtles, Stuart Mackenzie has a wonderfully sweet moment  amidst the gruffness where, at his anniversary dinner, he first yells at all his guests to shut up and then toasts his wife with an understated yet tear-inducing speech.

Who’s ready to get married now?? Can we get married in Scotland instead, Earl? Earl?…No?

9. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
Don’t look at me like that. I know this is an American show that airs when it’s late (late) on the east coast, and that the Scottish host became a US citizen in 2008. But he still sounds Scottish, and has Scottish bands on his show, and even filmed once from Scotland. I don’t get to watch this often because it’s on so late (late), but when I have been able to catch it, I have loved it. Craig Ferguson is so personable and decent and open about his issues with grief over his father’s suicide and mother’s death, and his recovery from alcoholism.  And he’s funny and honest!

Just watch this and see if you aren’t moved by his compassion:

10. Goldfinger
Hear me out! According to Ian Fleming himself, James Bond was born to a Scottish father and Swiss mother. The greatest Bond of all – and I feel confident in saying that everybody who disagrees with me is wrong – was Sean Connery, the same suave Scot who made an Egyptian-Spaniard sound splendid.

I grew up on James Bond movies. Somehow my parents were content to let me watch movies about intrigue and sex and violence and poisonings, and even from that early age, I recognized Sean Connery’s supremacy over the likes of Roger Moore, George Lazenby, and Timothy Dalton. Of the James Bond movies that we serially and repeatedly watched, I remember You Only Live Twice and Goldfinger best. And of those two, I loved Goldfinger best. I don’t even care about the anti-Korean racism that was Oddjob’s literary provenance. On screen, he was this scary guy wearing a scary bowler hat doing scary things to golf balls.

But the counterpoint to Oddjob’s kidney-chopping brute strength was James Bond’s unflappable ingenuity, who, like Westley vs. Fezzik, devises alternate methods to overcome Oddjob’s physical brawn. For that bit of gumption, we can thank two Scots: James Bond for having it, and Sean Connery for selling it.

Besides, they made a video game out of it. That means the movie was awesome.

Well there’s my attempt to be Scottish. Whether I was successful or even convincing is questionable, but I guess ignorance has its advantages sometimes, because it was a heck of a lot easier than picking my favorite American TV shows and movies.

What have I missed, actual Scots? What American movies and TV would you add? Americans are welcome to weigh in as well! Whether you weigh in with Scottish or American TV & films is up to you, though.

United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #8: Actor & Actresses

Yay! Scotland didn’t break up with the UK! I do hope everybody gets what they want out of even having the referendum.

It’s Week 8(ish) for  Steve and Suzie and me! They’re spectacularly Scottish and awesomely English respectively, and I’m American, and here we are once again listing our favorite things about our countries. This week it’s actors and actresses! Also, from this point on, when I say “actors”, I mean “actors and actresses”.

I thought actors would be easy, but when I started mentally cataloguing my favorites, I ran into two problems. First, I don’t really do the Hollywood thing. I don’t watch that many movies anymore, having not a lot of spare time with two young children running underfoot. It’s a 2-ish hour commitment that I just can’t make when I could curl up with a book for 30 minutes and fall asleep. Second, I found my favorite actors to be largely English. There’s just no escaping the anglophilia.

Then, when I thought about my favorite American actors, I found myself reluctant to talk about some of them because as famous white men, they already receive a ton of accolades (and a lot more money). I thought about taking a page from Steve’s playbook and listing my favorite actors acting “American”, and realized I’d have to put David Spade (Joe Dirt), Jeff Foxworthy (The Jeff Foxworthy Show) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) on the list, and Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t even American.

So here’s the criteria I’ve settled with: I’m going to list my favorite American actors who aren’t famous white men. Because what’s more American than the people on whose backs and with whose support America was created??

1. Jennifer Lawrence
I’ve talked about my Jennifer Lawrence hard-on before, I think. I like how frank she is and how she seems to remember her roots. I like how she speaks plainly and doesn’t seem to care what people think, but not in that Rihanna I-Don’t-Want-To-Be-Your-Child’s-Role-Model sort of way. I like that her name is actually “Jennifer Lawrence”, and she didn’t feel the need to change it to Ginnifer or some stupid shit like that. And I like that despite her young age, she’s already so actively involved with charities.

Favorite Film Role: Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook
Next Most Favorite Role: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
Favorite Off-screen Moment: the Post 2013 Oscar Awards Interview and when she left the red carpet to comfort a crying fan.

2. Whoopi Goldberg
Oh Whoopi Goldberg. I don’t even care that your liberal heart bled all over the stage of The View, or that weird thing with Ted Danson where he left his wife for you, and then you wrote that weird act where he yelled racial slurs and put on blackface to roast you. You win my heart forever for stabbing Q in the hand and playing a singing and dancing nun in Sister Act. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your iconic portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple.

Favorite Film Role: Celie in The Color Purple, Shenzi in The Lion King
Next Most Favorite Role: Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation
Favorite Off-screen Moment: Any time Whoopi got into an argument with Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View.

3. Pat Morita
You didn’t even know he could speak perfect English, did you? DID YOU?? Or that he was held in an internment camp?

Everybody loved Mr. Miyagi. To this day, I still say “squish…just like grape“. Yet he had a complexity you couldn’t possibly be aware of. I once saw this B movie starring Pat Morita – the name escapes me now, and I can’t be bothered to figure it out – playing an evil mob boss with several ladies of the night in his employ. The only scene I can recall, because it shattered my pristine vision of a wise, kindly Mr. Miyagi, is the one where one of these ladies starts to give Pat Morita’s character a massage. She says, “There are two-hundred and six bones in the human body!” somewhat vapidly, reaches under Pat Morita’s towel, ostensibly to “massage” his “stiffness” away, and then coyly says, “Make that two-hundred and seven.”

And thus, by memory the saintly old man who patiently taught a poor kid karate was squished, just like grape.

Favorite Film Role: Arnold on Happy Days
Next Most Favorite Role: The Emperor in Mulan
Favorite Off-screen Moment: His legacy. Pat’s daughter’s piece about how playing Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid brought him both success and destruction

4. James Earl Jones
One thing common in all my favorite actors is diversity. James Earl Jones can do drama, comedy, action, fantasy, commercials, or anything else he damn well pleases. He can play good guys, bad guys, good guys who act like bad guys, or bad guys who act like good guys. His voice acting skills allowed him to run the gamut in fathers, from a shitty dad like Darth Vader to a dad so devoted that he’d risk his own life, die, and then force his incorporeal spirit to appear just to give his boy a pep talk.

“You are my son” just wrecks me every time. Also, look at all these accolades!

Favorite Film Role: I can’t choose, so I’m listing several. Darth Vader in Star Wars, Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian, Terence Mann in Field of Dreams
Next Most Favorite Role: The king in Coming to America, Frank Couzo in Best of the Best
Favorite Off-screen Moment: When the poor guy thought he’d won a Tony in 2012

5. John Leguizamo
Another very versatile actor on both stage and screen, John Leguizamo has the kind of face where I can’t decide if he’s very handsome or very haggard. I recently saw Chef with Earl, and I was impressed that I could buy him as a sous chef as easily as I can buy him as a gangster, or a singing dwarf, or drug dealer, or a soldier. He’s brilliant and eloquent, and he’s a family man, and he supports funding for the arts, and he says things like this:

“Latin people for Republicans are like roaches for raid,” he adds. “It doesn’t make sense. [Republicans are] not for us. You’re not for my values. We’re working class people mostly and blue collar. We’re your cops, we’re your firemen, we’re your carpenters and the things we need – we need to protect our unions, we need to protect our Medicare, we need to protect the working class person.”

Favorite Film Role: Sid in Ice Age, Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge!, Chi-Chi in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Love Julie Newmar
Next Most Favorite Role: Tybalt in Romeo + Juliet, Benny Blanco in Carlito’s Way
Favorite Off-screen Moment: Whenever he explains how he developed Sid’s voice. Also, the fact that he knows the difference between “nauseated” and “nauseating”

6. Jodie Foster
Jodie Foster is one of the few child actors who didn’t grow up to be a complete mess. The first movie I ever saw starring Jodie Foster was The Accused, which could very well be one of my earliest feminist influences. The only reason her portrayal of Sarah isn’t my favorite film role is because I haven’t had the nerve to see it again; I remember the visceral fear and feeling of betrayal she conveyed though. I have had the nerve to watch The Silence of the Lambs over and over though (hence pseudonymizing my children “Clarice” and “Dr. Lecter”).

She’s also had quite a bit of success as a director, and gave me such lovely lines as “Listen to me, Jane. If anything happens to him, anything at all, I’ll kill you. Now, I don’t mean that I’ll just hurt you. I mean that I’ll kill you.” This line from Little Man Tate was probably one of my earliest notions of motherhood, or at least the kind of mother I wanted to be.

Favorite Film Role: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs
Next Most Favorite Role: Dede Tate in Little Man Tate, Sarah Tobias in The Accused
Favorite Off-screen Moment: Jodie Foster’s 2013 Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech

7. Joan Chen
“Who??” you ask. Her most famous role was probably as Pu Yi’s opium-addled wife in The Last Emperor. Joan Chen later developed an acting career on both American and Chinese screens, and later began rejecting American roles that were offered to her because she kept getting cast as the stereotypical “omg ur so exotic” dragonlady. In my opinion, her most overlooked role is the fleet-footed quick in the movie that brought us the sport of JuggerThe Blood of Heroes. Which is apparently called The Salute of the Jugger now. Talk about diverse roles! Here, watch Joan scramble around with a dog skull, and see if you can spot Vincent D’Onofrio not long after he decided his rifle was his best friend:

Favorite Film Role: The Empress in The Last Emperor
Next Most Favorite Role: Kidda in The Salute of the Jugger (formerly known as The Blood of Heroes), Yee Tai Tai in Lust, Caution
Favorite Off-screen Moment: Michel Martin interviewing Joan Chen on Tell Me More

8. Sigourney Weaver
I don’t think there’s a more badass heroine than Ripley. No superpowers, no wads of cash. Just grit, iron-clad resolve, and skillful taping together of a myriad weapons into one BFG. But then Sigourney Weaver did the voiceover for the American productions of Planet Earth, and although nobody can out-narrate Richard Attenborough, she did a remarkable job of it. She’s played a variety of roles as well: high-powered women, scientists, a huge asshole, a blond bombshell, and more. In my heart though, she will always be this maternal hardass right here:

Favorite Film Role: Ellen Ripley in Aliens, Gwen DeMarco in Galaxy Quest
Next Most Favorite Role: Dana Barrett in Ghostbusters
Favorite Off-screen Moment: Sigourney Weaver’s interview on the Graham Norton Show.

9. Forest Whitaker
I know Forest Whitaker is easy to hate because of his work on Criminal Minds, but I love him. The crazy thing is that I haven’t even seen his most notable films, like The Last King of ScotlandThe Butler, or Ghost Dog. He just seems like the nicest fellow, which I suppose made it really handy in selling Idi Amin as a nice guy at first. He’s an utter sweetheart in Good Morning, Vietnam and Phenomenon, but then he’s good at being a jerk too! Maybe that’s thanks to James McAvoy (holler, Scotland!). Here, see him go from genial to bloodshot and scary:

Favorite Film Role: Edward Garlick in Good Morning, Vietnam
Next Most Favorite Role: Nate in Phenomenon
Favorite Off-screen Moment: When Forest Whitaker didn’t call anybody in on the clerk who aggressively patted him down and accused him of stealing even though he would have been perfectly right to, because he didn’t want the clerk to lose his job. Instead he asked that the store change their policy of TOTALLY NOT RACIALLY PROFILING! (The clerk was fired anyway).

10. Zoë Saldana
What? Not Alfre Woodard or Angela Bassett or Cicely Tyson or Regina King? Nope. I give it to Zoë because how the hell did she go from playing the last-minute principal ballerina in Center Stage (am I the only one who can’t resist watching this terrible movie whenever it comes on?) to Uhura and then to the voice actor for a giant blue alien with a tail? I haven’t made it to Guardians of the Galaxy yet, but I’m really looking forward to seeing her pull Gamora off. Just watch the intensity of her face in this even though she’s wearing all that gear for the graphics modeling!

Favorite Film Role: Neytiri in Avatar
Next Most Favorite Role: Eva in Center Stage
Favorite Off-screen Moment: This interview, where she’s a big nerd and swears a lot.

Ok folks. Whom have I missed? 🙂

United We Stand: 10 Things I Love About My Country #7: Customs

No no, nothing to do with the Border Patrol or Homeland Security.

And here we are at week 7 with Suzie and Steve where in light of the Scottish referendum for independence, we appreciate 10 things across 10 topics about our respective countries (Suzie is English, Steve is Scottish, and I am American of the US variety). This week we discuss customs and traditions that we love, and at first I thought I’d struggle with this list. But then I gradually realized that things regarded as customary or traditional were so ingrained in me as part of my American life that I’d taken them for granted as customs.

This list comes at an appropriate time because a huge proportion of these customs take place in the fall. Or autumn, as it were.

1. Punkin Chunkin
Punkin Chunkin is a competition held in Delaware where contestants compete to see who can hurl a pumpkin weighing 8-10 pounds (3.629-4.536 kg) the farthest. You may think this strange, but if you do, you’ve clearly never fired a pumpkin cannon. Following in the grand legacy of the potato gun of launching produce as projectiles, the mighty pumpkin hurling machines come in the form of air cannons (using pressurized air), catapults (using springs and such for potential energy), trebuchets (using counterweights for potential energy), and centrifugals (spinning the pumpkin and releasing it, sort of like a hammer throw). So while Punkin Chunkin’s provenance came from really bored people seeing how far they could throw pumpkins, nowadays it’s an exhibition of excellence in physics and engineering, capped off by pumpkins getting obliterated with a satisfying splatter. And it’s all done for charity and scholarships. And maybe bragging rights. And amusement.

Look for it on October 24th-26th at the Dover International Speedway.

2. American Forwardness
Without dating a UK citizen, I may not have recognized this characteristic as something Americans customarily exhibit. Of course the generalization varies from region to region, but it seems we have a reputation for being straightforward and speaking our minds. To cultures adept at nuance and subtext, we Americans can appear simple and clumsy, or even oafish; if I hadn’t grown up in a Chinese household, I may not have understood this perception. But it should speak to the strength of this quality in the American fiber that despite growing up in a Chinese community, the American side of me found the subtlety of my Chinese people maddeningly tiresome. Compare these arguments, which are actual arguments I’ve had:

I. Fraught with subtlety
Mother: I think you should stop dating that boy.
Me: Why?
Mother: Because he said “Good morning” to me when I came home.
Me: Why was that bad?
Mother: Because it’s the evening.
Me: And why is that bad?
Mother: By saying “good morning”, he was saying that I came home too late. He was criticizing me.
Me: …Mom, did you happen to notice that he says “Good morning” no matter what time of day it is or who he’s talking to? It’s sort of his own little joke.
Mother: He should still apologize because I perceived offense.
Me: Even if he didn’t do anything wrong?
Mother: <noncommittal grunts indicating that she might think about retracting the whole business later and that any further discussion would eliminate her brief pulse of contrition>

II. Not fraught with subtlety
Earl: It sounded like you were patronizing me.
Me: Well that was wrong, and I’m sorry.
Earl: Thank you.

I know which kind of argument I’d rather have every single time. Now that I’m a little tiny bit older, I can appreciate both straightforwardness and subtlety. Having stated that though, Earl can attest that on the whole, I am straightforward with little filter, and exhibit very little subtlety. He calls it refreshing, and we can revisit that assessment in a few years once it stops feeling so fresh.

3. Honoring the Military
Having such a large military has the interesting side effect of being respectful of that military. It isn’t just that we have Veterans Day (when we honor all soldiers who’ve served in the military) and Memorial Day (when we honor our fallen soldiers). There’s also a pervasive attitude that our soldiers are heroes and deserve to be treated as such, even if Veterans Affairs has a habit of dropping that ball. Veterans and soldiers on active duty are invited to stand at baseball games and are applauded for their service. Children in school are encouraged to write to or email soldiers serving abroad to maintain morale. For a year or so, I raided library sales in order to ship books (and a package of beef jerky; for some reason they always wanted jerky) to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Criticism of the military is usually lobbed at the administration behind the military but not often the military itself. We really appreciate our soldiers here, and their little dogs too.

It might be a bit of a strange custom, but one that I rather like.

4. Tailgating
Speaking of strange, it might seem bizarre to congregate in the parking lot of a sports venue hours before the actual sporting event to drink beer and grill food together. But socially speaking it’s actually great fun. For some reason, setting up a table in front of your tailgate with a group of your friends, eating an insane amount of meat, and playing games of both the drinking and the Cornhole variety with hordes of other people doing the exact same thing really charges up the atmosphere. Sometimes the tailgating even out-entertains the game everybody’s there to see, especially if you show up prepared.

5. The Super Bowl
Forget about the fact that a large number of people watching the Super Bowl didn’t even follow the postseason, let alone the regular season. Forget about the fact that behind the Champions League, which features teams from lots of European countries, the Super Bowl is the second most televised sporting event in the world. Forget about the fact that you’re coming off the high of finishing third in your fantasy league despite having never fantasy-footballed before and Yahoo! doing the autodraft for you. The Super Bowl is a ridiculously fun tradition for two reasons: the party, and the commercials.

I have known people who plan their year around the Super Bowl, and advertise their parties 6-8 weeks in advance to eliminate the possibility of competing parties. “What are you doing for the Super Bowl?” is a common refrain come January. Super Bowl parties are great because enjoying the spectacle that is football, and Janet Jackson baring a star-studded nipple, and Joe Namath wearing a fur coat to the coin toss, are things that are so much more enjoyable with friends. Additionally, because the Super Bowl is always on a Sunday, and kickoff is between 6 and 6:30 Eastern, it’s very easy to make Super Bowl parties kid-friendly so that the entire family can go.

But Super Bowl commercials! Companies pay enormous amounts of money for prime time slots because Super Bowl commercials are perennially a huge draw for a huge viewing audience. Here, have some of my favorites.

Oh lordy I need a tissue now.

6. Trick-or-Treating
I don’t know how other countries do Halloween. Maybe they focus more on the whole Samhain harvest thing but here in the United States, we dress our kids up in ridiculously cute costumes and send them door-to-door around the neighborhood gathering candy for us. They think this is great fun, and at the end of the night we make them hand over their hard-earned loot to us and tell them we’re doing it for their own health lest they binge on candy. Then as soon as they’re asleep, or at least not looking, we filch the good candy out of the stash and leave those weird fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls for them. This racket is so successful that  if Halloween falls on a weekday, neighborhoods will often move Trick-or-Treating to the nearest weekend. The kids think they’re being done this enormous favor of staying out later when, in fact, they’re being milked for maximum candy-begging.

Truly, Trick-or-Treating is just a mask for the older, greater tradition of child labor.

7. Groundhog Day
Every year on February 2nd, people gather around a hole in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania waiting for a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil to emerge. It’s more like a title than an actual name, like The Dread Pirate Roberts. The tradition says that if he emerges from his hole and sees his shadow, then we have another 6 weeks of winter left to go. If he doesn’t see his shadow, we’ll get an early spring. Bill Murray starred in a movie based on Groundhog Day playing a meteorologist who relives the same day over and over and over again, reporting on and experiencing the Groundhog Day celebration until he figures out how to end it (no spoilers!). “It’s like Groundhog Day” now exists as an idiom to indicate tedious repetition.

As prescient animals go, Punxsutawney Phil is pretty lousy. He’s been making predictions since 1887 with an accuracy rate of about 39%. I’m not sure why we keep turning to him with such regularity when other animals like Paul the Octopus can hit an accuracy rate of ~86%. The only explanation is that we’re just slaves to the custom.

8. The Pledge of Allegiance
Every child in the United States says the Pledge the exact same way with the exact same cadence: “I PLEDGE allegiance…TO the flag…of the U-NI-ted States of America. And TO the Republic…for WHICH it stands….ONE nation…UNder God…INdivisible, with liberty and justice for allll.” In general this is because every morning, kids across America recite the Pledge before school begins. To non-Americans, this can be quite off-putting and creepy, the major criticism being, “Do these children even know what they’re saying?” Well, no. They don’t. But that doesn’t mean our kids are being raised as neo-fascist automatons (at least, not politically – just corporately).

Collectively, the citizens of the United States have an incredibly strong sense of patriotism. We’re taught to recite the Pledge, and when our malleable minds are ready for it, to understand what pledging allegiance means. We’re also taught to respect our anthem whenever it’s played and to feel proud whenever we see our flag waving. However, this patriotism doesn’t obviate the ability to decide we’d rather not say “under God”, or be objective and see our country’s faults. In fact, I’ve referenced many of these faults in my posts (e.g., our shoddy healthcare system, our inability to provide fair education for all children regardless of socioeconomic status, the fact that only 19 states allow same-sex marriages while the remaining 31 are either fighting constitutional bans or fighting the overturning of constitutional bans, our inability to protect children from being shot at school).

But when something happens and we need to come together as a nation, we do so easily and rapidly. I remember the day after September 11th, I drove to work sad and barely able to contain the tears: I’d been commuting when the radio announced that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit the day prior, so traveling along the same route had been a bit of a trigger. But driving under the overpasses, I noticed that someone had already put an American flag up on each one. I remember seeing a picture of a neighborhood street where before September 11th, only one house was flying a flag, but after, every single house had a flag on display. I also remember seeing messages of sympathy and condolence from citizens of other nations holding Americans flags up. What I felt was this amalgam of sorrow, and comfort, and pride, and gratitude. Even now I can’t think about it without getting teary. A similar sort of galvanization occurred after the Boston Marathon bombings with “Boston Strong”.

We get mocked a lot for the whole “‘Murica!” thing. And I get it; we can be a little creepy and gung-ho, and sometimes dense (Holla, Steve!). But it’s not always misplaced or misguided, and sometimes our patriotism is something to be proud of.

9. Square Dancing
When I was in 6th grade, which back then was the last grade of elementary school, we were forced to file into the gym and learn how to square dance. I have no idea why. What exactly is the relevance of lining up, dreading which boy you had to touch next (unless it was the cute boy Jason, omg, squeal!), listening to a caller drawl out instructions like “Swing your partner, do-si-do, promenade, and bring her home!”, and coordinating our movements with those instructions?

It wasn’t fun. I didn’t enjoy it. But the reason it’s on this list is because just about everybody of my generation was forced to endure it. It didn’t matter where you lived geographically; neither California nor Maryland are really hotbeds of folk dancing, yet I’m told we all had to honor our partners. Grand right and left. Follow our neighbors. It pains me that these calls and not more useful things occupy my memory. If there’s anything that joins people together, it’s mutual suffering. And that’s what square dancing is.

10. Pie on Holidays
I know I already covered Thanksgiving in the food list. But I owe it to my blog to pay tribute to the pie. It is custom to have pie at both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Pumpkin or Sweet Potato are required, and Pecan and Apple/Pear are very welcome. Some people like to buck tradition and serve non-traditional foods. I once served two ducks and a rockfish for Thanksgiving, so I completely understand this iconoclastic behavior.

But never skip the pie. Or I will kill you.

You may serve desserts accompanying pie (I highly recommend sticky toffee pudding) but you may not skip the pie altogether. To do so is to drive a dagger into the very heart of the holidays. If you don’t have pie at the holidays, you might as well tell your children you snapped off one of Rudolph’s antlers, and went back in time and coughed on Squanto, and that that Grinch book was written with you in mind. Those chains on Jacob Marley, were they caused by his greed, or the paucity of pie stemming from his greed? When pie is the last course served for Thanksgiving dinner and thus the last memory of the meal you’ve just partaken of, what is it you’re really giving thanks for?

It’s pie, that’s what.

Custom of Shame: Black Friday
When American capitalism forces retail workers to leave their families early on Thanksgiving so they can sustain abuse from overzealous shoppers buying electronics, when it’s possible to keep a running tally of the number of casualties taken due to Black Friday, and when people are encouraged to spend their money on an intentionally short supply of goods that aren’t even top-of-the-line instead of staying in with their loved ones, it’s time to put that shitty custom to bed.

Shop Cyber Monday people, or wait for deals later in the month. It’s just not worth the loss of reason and humanity.

Well that was freakishly long. What are your favorite customs that I may have missed?


How to Ship a Pie

I had a gay pet turtle once. He was actually my brother’s, but I took custody when he moved to the other side of the country (my brother, not the turtle). That gay turtle  (let’s call him Turtle) shared a tank with another male (let’s call him Other Turtle) which is how I found out Turtle was gay. He  reached sexual maturity earlier than Other Turtle and soon started displaying the Turtle Mating Ritual. Here’s how it’s done, if you want to try:

1. Stick your hands out like you’re measuring about 18 inches.
2. Spread your fingers apart
3. Flip your hands inwards so that your thumbs are now pointing down and your palms are facing out.
4. Vibrate and wiggle your hands at someone who looks receptive.
5. Have all the sex.
6. Imagine how much drama and questioning that bit of non-verbal propositioning would save if people did that to each other instead of the normal, more awkward avenues.

But sadly as it turned out, Turtle’s love was unrequited, and Other Turtle had no interest. Or maybe Turtle was really just displaying social dominance behavior, because one day after about a year of this mating ritual, I found Other Turtle with all his legs and neck mangled. Turtle had bitten him until his poor limbs resembled ground pork. I did what any good turtle owner did: I took him to my nearest herpetologist and nursed him back to health by shooting his little turtle arm with little syringes of antibiotics and rubbing some powder that the herpetologist gave me on the open wounds.

But what to do about Turtle? Clearly he wasn’t happy, either because Other Turtle was not a female or because Other Turtle kept rebuffing him. Releasing him into the wild would have been irresponsible. I did some research and eventually found a pond in Florida that served as a sanctuary for turtles where he’d be able to swim around all he wanted and vibrate his horny little claws at his pick of female or gay turtle.

“You can ship him here,” the pond owner said.
I blinked. “Come again?” I asked her.
“Oh sure, I’ve received a lot of turtles this way. You can ship him UPS.”

She then proceeded to explain to me that all I needed to do was to get a Rubbermaid bin, load the bin up with wet paper towels, nestle the turtle in the paper towels, punch some holes in the top, place it in a box, pad the box with newspaper, and then ship the whole damn thing overnight, being sure to mark “THIS SIDE UP” everywhere as appropriate.

I don’t remember all the details, but I can tell you that I followed her instructions explicitly. I can’t recall how much it cost, nor can I recall if I lied to the UPS center or not. I suspect I did.

Not long after that incident, I had a baby, Clarice (that’s a pseudonym). Clarice was an enormously fat baby when she was born, at 9lbs 4oz (4.196 kg). She also had transient tachypnea her first week of life, which made her extra sleepy, which in turn made her nurse less, which in turn left her dehyrated. In the NICU, they fattened her back up with formula and the paltry offerings I could pump, and instead of my sleepy infant, they handed back to me this constantly and ravenously hungry beast. As a result of her barely satiable appetite – and I know I’m very fortunate in this regard – my boobs learned to produce a shitton of milk.

If you turn your head sideways, you can see her face sag from all the milkfat ❤

So much milk that when I went back to work pumping twice a day (even more fortunate – hooray for progressive work places!), I had to change bottles halfway through or else the bottle would start overflowing. I ended up freezing so much milk that not only was it at risk of going bad (frozen milk has a shelf-life of 6-12 months), it was also crowding out all my fucking meat. I wasn’t about to throw it out, no way. The hospital told me that shit was ‘liquid gold’, and I worked hard (by which I mean I ate hard and drank buckets of water) to milk myself like a cow, but a cow with opposable thumbs.

I did more research and found a sort of nearby milk bank that would be happy to accept my donation provided that I passed all the health screenings (I did). They asked how much I had to give. I told them I had about 375 ounces (2.93 gallons/11.09 L) I needed to move out of my freezer. They said, “We’ll send you a big box.”

A DHL box with a cooler inside arrived along with a label and instructions for how to ship frozen breastmilk overnight to a milk bank. They told me to procure dry ice to pack with the breastmilk and to ship the whole thing as late in the afternoon as possible so that the box wouldn’t be sitting somewhere all day, thawing.

I don’t remember all the details of this operation either, but I can tell you that I followed their instructions explicitly as well. It cost me nothing but the price of the dry ice. And I didn’t even need to lie to DHL about it.

Not long after that, I became obsessed with pie. I loved pie so much that I wanted to share pie, and offered it as a prize for a contest, the details of which are inconsequential. The winner, sadly, lived in Austria. And at the same time, a friend living in the Netherlands offered to send me authentic stroopwafel in exchange for one of my pies. I wanted to keep my word, and I also really wanted stroopwafel, so I drew upon my prior experience of shipping turtles and frozen bags of breastmilk and shipped those pies to Europe. I’ve since shipped pies to Finland and various states in the US, and having learned quite a bit about the process, I now share my knowledge with you. First, a few things to clear up:

  • It’s not cheap. If you must ship pie, only make pie-worthy friends one or possibly two shipping zones away.
  • It may not be completely legal given customs restrictions and licensing for food-handling/distribution.
  • Dry ice,  which is widely available in grocery stores now, will only explode your package if you seal the living shit out of it and give the sublimating gas no room to expand/escape; with a styrofoam cooler and a cardboard box, you should be fine. Just don’t put it in a air-tight container. UPS only cares if you have > 5 lbs (2.268 kg) of dry ice.
  • When they warn you not to touch dry ice, they are serious. You know that chicken breast you forgot in your freezer from 2010? That could be your freezerburnt finger.
  • Some pies don’t thaw nicely after being frozen. Fruit pies, cookie pies, and chiffon pies survive pretty well but forget about custard and cream pies.
  • I usually bake my pies first and then ship them rather than send a pie to be baked. Generally the people I ship pie to are people I like, and making them wait another hour for the pie to bake after waiting for it to ship and thaw seems cruel.

You will need:

  • 1 frozen pre-baked pie, baked into one of those disposable aluminum tins (shipping a pie is the only legitimate excuse for using one of these)
  • 5-10 lbs dry ice (I’m not saying you should lie to UPS, no no. Of course not. I’m saying that a large portion of it will sublimate, so that by the time the dry ice reaches its destination, it may very well be 5 lbs, at which point “It’s 5 lbs” would no longer be a lie)
  • a styrofoam shipping container with accompanying shipping cardboard box – the inside dimensions should fit the pie and a block of dry ice. 12″ x 10″ x 7″ should be sufficient (the outside dimensions will be about 15″ x 13″ x 10″)
  • lots of spare cash

1. Make sure there’s no bank/federal holiday occurring in the time span over which your pie will be shipped.
2. Seal your frozen pie in a zipper bag and place it in the cooler.
3. Place the dry ice on top and stuff the empty spaces (not densely) with wadded-up newspaper. CO2 is denser than air, so the cold sinks rather than rises. However, if you’re afraid of squishing the pie, it’ll stay frozen just fine if the dry ice is under the pie.
4. Cover the cooler, but don’t tape it shut. Tape the box shut, but don’t go crazy hermetically sealing it or anything. It’s not unlike Thanksgiving: leave room for the gas to escape.
5. Take it to your favorite shipping center, and of course DO not LIE about the contents of the box and say that it contains anything other than pie and ONLY 5 lbs of dry ice! Heavens no. 3-day shipping should be fine. I’ve had people receive their pies frozen solid after 3 days and still have enough dry ice to play with.

In theory, this should work with any frozen food item, but I haven’t tried it with anything but pie because I don’t love any other food item enough to share it with that much enthusiasm. Frankly at this point, it’s either share it, ship it, or vibrate my claws at it.