Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I'm in love with an old married sports commentator.

I have hated sports my whole life. I was born into a wimpy, brainiac family and I will likely raise myself a bunch of wimpy, brainiac children who will spend their lives, as I have mine, shaking their heads condescendingly at the sports-obsessed masses. Part of it's just sour grapes, no doubt. I'm not naturally gifted in that way and don't want to invest the effort it would take to improve, so from age six I start convincing myself that I don't care that I'm always chosen last for dodge ball (couldn't throw, couldn't dodge -- absent when I should be present and present when I should be absent).

Another factor is that I was a dancer. Tap dancing for six years, ballet for ten, three en pointe. Mine was a higher physicality, you see: culture, refinement, elegance, grace. Not base competition -- rather, motion for motion's sake; the human body as artwork, not as cog in a pinball machine. Except....the further you get into dance (ballet especially) the more that "you're only competing against yourself" mantra disintegrates. There may be no scoreboard, but there is very much a competition heating up, and its dark side is starvation and obsession. Sports have got steroids and obsession. Boils down to pretty much the same thing.

Another reason I've hated sports is that it always stole the limelight away from academics, which I'm good at. I watched athletes in high school get ridiculous amounts of attention while barely passing their classes, and it annoyed me. I went to college and was rankled to find that the center of campus was the stadium. So I avoided football games on principle --I would not sully myself by entering that pagan temple. (Except when Grandpa was in town and forced me to bow before the pigskin gods. Grandpas trump principles.)

And of course, a lot of sports I simply find boring. This is no doubt partly because I have never bothered to learn the rules or play the game myself, so it just looks like a bunch of thick-necked chumps running around aimlessly. Just like ballet can be boring if you've never experienced the painful price paid for that smooth, effortless penchée.

But it's kind of lonely in this sports-free zone. Not that I need or want one more thing to fill my time, but you feel a bit defective when the whole world is electrified by something and you don't even feel a spark. I don't want to catch fire, but I would like to at least feel the heat now and then. Understand a little bit what all the hubbub is about.

So along comes my new hero, sports commentator Frank DeFord. Apparently he's been around for decades and even writes for Sports Illustrated, but I just recently started catching his "Sweetness and Light" bits on NPR as I drive to work on Wednesdays. He is smart and witty and he loves sports; he is not ashamed to celebrate them and he is not afraid to ridicule their absurdities. He is, simply, the man who might finally drag me down from my snobbish heights with minimal kicking and screaming. Here's a funny bit I found in the Washington Post about his sportswriting career:

As a writer, the worst two things that ever happened to me were, number one: I had a happy childhood. Number two: I belong to the absolute and utter majority, bland across the board. I have no personal injustices to rail about. An agent of mine once said to me, "Frank, you are the last of the tall, white, male, WASP, Ivy League, heterosexual writers." Oh, we were Huguenots on my father's side, but the last time any of us was burned at the stake was 300-odd years ago, so it's hard to work up any angst or compassion for me on that account.

Perhaps this is why I ended up writing about sports. I didn't set out to be a sportswriter, but once I got into it I found that I rather liked having a cross to bear. If you've never been discriminated against, it's refreshing -- finally -- to be a brunt of prejudice. You see, generally, people -- especially those of the literary persuasion -- look down on sportswriters as sort of genial dunces. It is instructive to note, as I have pointed out often before, that it is actually impossible for sportswriting to be any good. This is because, if a sportswriter somehow manages to write a piece that seems the least bit competent, he will be complimented thusly: That was so good you can't really call it sportswriting!

And he's right -- I am one of those very snobs. I guess that's because sports seem so unimportant -- so unrelated to anything Real. But I love to read Roger Ebert's thumbs-down reviews just for the quality smackdowns, so what's the difference between unreal sports and unreal movies? With Frank at the helm, I'm prepared to believe that there's Something to the world of sports. Maybe only a little Something, but Something. And Something is infinitely more than Nothing.

Or maybe I'm just in love with him. (Check out that hair!)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

This one's for you, Hsin.

Apparently that last posting was a bit heavier than I'd intended, so here's a cute little pudgelett to take the edge off: my niece. Yeah, I know -- you think your baby is the cutest baby in the world, but unfortunately you'd be wrong, as I'm sure you'll have to admit now that you've seen mine. In this shot she was singing an aria to milk, glorious milk. She has a five-octave range, especially at night.

My sister has a four-syllable name (Elizabeth) and gave her baby a four-syllable name (Alexana, last two syllables rhyming with "sauna"). I love my sister, but not enough to spend four syllables of my time on her -- she is "Liz." I love my niece, but the same applies. As I'm not the biggest fan of "Alex," I've settled on "Zana." If you can think of a good one-syllable alternative, I'm all for conserving my Precious Time. That's why I blog, after all ;)

Zana's still little, and I only see her on weekends, so I don't have a lot of great anecdotes yet. I was present for her birth, which was amazing. I only got in on a technicality -- someone had to hold the video camera, apparently (!!!), but it was an honor nonetheless. And a good case for epidurals. And a bad case for Intelligent Design.

When October rolled around and Sharon and I were planning our Halloween party, the question arose of the all-important First Halloween Costume. Liz, who has a sense of humor, reasoned that the baby played a cute little bug every day of the year, so for Halloween she of course needed to come as the complete opposite of pink, cooing babyness. What would that be, you ask? A psychotic Jack Nicholson, of course! I sewed her a little straitjacket costume and she came to our party with spiked hair, in the custody of her mother (a rather smiley Nurse Ratched). My mother has not forgiven me for aiding and abetting in the uglification of her first and only grandbaby. But as lobotomy patients go, she was quite adorable. And she loved the party, even though it was past her bedtime -- she didn't cry when the giant Twinkie walked in with the priest, nor when confronted with a gruesome electrocution victim, nor even in the face of Death himself.

Zana is going to be completely insane. She will fit right in.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

At the risk of sounding like a bitter ol' hag...

I have a friend, raconteur extraordinaire, who has made a name for herself with scalpel-point observations -- cutting unlikely bits out of the fabric of the universe, then placing them before you and explaining why they are Relevant. One never leaves her presence without a handful of pithy morals, a recent humiliating episode from her life that makes you feel much better about your own, a naughty joke or two, and at least one Key Life Lesson. And somehow she conjures all this from that same world we all inhabit. Every few weeks she attends church in my congregation and the most useful of our conversations are those in which she reframes the people and situations I encounter every day, capturing innuendos and subtexts that had whizzed right by me.

We are both on the elderly end of the LDS single female population, so the conversation always features some banging of our heads on the cement wall called The Male Mind. Tonight we were talking yet again about What Men Want, and she offered as an illustration something that I could have seen, but had missed. Last week she visited my ward and noticed a guy in Sunday School who was sandwiched between two girls. On one side was a skinny blonde hottie, and he had his arm around her possessively. On the other side was a plump, intelligent brunette. The whole hour of the lesson he had his arm around the blonde and never said a word to her, while talking continually to the brunette.

"That is what men want."

And to be academically honest, she backed up her anecdote with data: a survey of males revealed that the vast majority of them, if forced to choose, would rather be married to a brainless, gorgeous sex toy and fill their intellectual/conversational needs with an platonic woman friend than marry the woman they most enjoy interacting with and forgo the Angelina lips.

Oh no. I feel my inner b**** switchin' on, and nothing says "lifetime of loneliness" like a spiderwoman who wears her venom on her sleeve. Quick! Somebody find me a Harvard researcher who can debunk this stupid poll!

I guess I should be grateful to know that a good number of men at least desire some interaction with a woman of brains. But I don't want to be someone's mental mistress! I want to be someone's witty wife and seduce him with Andrew Marvell and raise him a brood of sassy back-talkin' babies!

Good thing Saturday's almost here -- I can tell it's time for some good old fashioned Jane Eyre therapy (Eyre-apy?) Time for a nice long dose of Gothic sap. Time to regress back to early puberty, when the universe could be counted on to make me the perfect cosmic match -- smart and fiery and smitten with my magnificent brainy plainness.

Why didn't anyone tell me that Edward Fairfax Rochester was so very FICTIONAL??? (Interpretation: someone please tell me that he's not so very fictional!)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Too late to blush.

Okay, here's the deal. I studied Arabic for three years. The language nearly destroyed my will to live and I am currently on hiatus for sanity purposes. However, people are constantly asking me how my studies are going and I am constantly having to explain my failure to master the language in spite of years of study (and good grades, I might add). By way of justifying this failure of mine, I routinely quote someone who was quoted to me by my first Arabic teacher. This quote was intended to comfort us neophytes as we simultaneously memorized long lists of non-standard plural nouns and beat back suicidal thoughts -- she told us the quote was from a recent BYU student who was fluent in 15 languages, including Arabic, and was under consideration by the Guinness Book for the title of "most languages spoken." As this useful quote goes, Language Guy was asked what was the most difficult language he had learned and he responded that it was a close race between Mandarin and Arabic, but if he were forced to choose, he'd go with Arabic.

You can see why this is one of my favorite quotes. Family and close friends have heard me parrot it more than once.

So, a couple weeks ago I was thinking of that oh-so-useful quote and decided that as a self respecting writer-slash-amateur-historian I really ought to track down the original quote and be sure I've been quoting it correctly all this time. I googled it, found it easily, AND.....

....up popped the picture of someone I knew. He had been in my church congregation until recently. He had eaten dinner at my house. "Whoa," I thought.

It was just kinda cool until I started replaying our dinner conversation in my head. It was a few months ago and the memory is very vague. But I do know that we were having one of those standard getting-to-know-you chats -- you know -- where do you work, what are you studying in school, blah blah. I remember him mentioning that he loved learning languages, but he didn't come out and say that he was this freakishly gifted linguist.

And I can't be sure, but I THINK I QUOTED HIM TO HIMSELF. It's just the sort of conversation where I would be likely to insert that quote. Oh man. That would be really ridiculous, you know, to essentially be saying, "you people can't possibly fathom how hard Arabic is, but I shall attempt to educate you anyway," and then proceed to illustrate my point by quoting one of the very people I'm trying to "educate." Excuse me while I remove my red plastic nose and sweep up the shards of my dignity.

If I did quote him to himself, he did a great job of not laughing. Or maybe not. If I was in the midst of a me-me aria, I might not have heard a stifled snicker.

Oh well. As the Arabs say, if you can't change it, blog it.

They also say

Better a handful of dry dates and contentment therewith than to own the Gate of Peacocks and be kicked in the eye by a broody camel.
Ha! Gotta love those transcendent observations on the human condition. But I digress.

Back to the twin topics of foreigners and blushing: it seemed to me that the characters in Anna Karenina did an inordinate amount of blushing. I can't tell if this is because they lived in a more innocent time and therefore more topics were blushworthy. Or maybe it's some genetic quirk in Russians specifically. Or maybe Tolstoy thought bashful blushiness was an admirable quality, and likely to help keep one from the throes of an adulterous affair. At any rate, if Konstantin Levin weren't a fictional character, he would be blushing enough for the both of us.

But for now, I blush alone.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

But I'm NOT a serpent -- I'm a little girl.

Today I tried my new contacts for the first time. I've been sporting a pair of semi-pretentious horn rimmed hipster specs for the last couple years while my left eye healed from an ulcer caused by years of irresponsible contact wear.

My correction is very strong (nearsighted), so my glasses are a dramatic concave and make the whole world look smaller to me, including myself, when I look in the mirror. I knew that everything was going to look bigger with the contacts in, but I was unprepared for just how much bigger.

I gained ten pounds in ten seconds. My head, which has always been big, now rivals that of the Great and Terrible Oz. I went shoe shopping and spotted a pair that I liked. I estimated it was a couple sizes too big for me. Nope -- a size too small.

On the plus side,* every can of food at the grocery store was 50% bigger. However, with my new economy-sized butt, the last thing I need is bonus food.

I'm not sure if I want to enter this reality on a permanent basis. At first I told myself in a reasonable tone, "You look just the same to everyone else as you did yesterday. Everyone who loved you before will still love you, even with that MASSIVE NOGGIN." But now it's evening and I've taken out the contacts and re-donned the glasses. The fearsome tiger has become a housecat again and my construction worker hands look all dainty again and...illusion is bliss.

A couple of days ago the history group I belong to had a presentation by a bookstore owner here in Salt Lake who was intimately involved in the buildup to the Mark Hofmann forgery murders. He spoke of the excruciating process of forcing himself to accept that his close friend and business associate was a forger and murderer. The discussion made me think of a quote from Mark Hofmann I'd once read. He said that he didn't see why his forgeries were such a big deal. If something looked identical to what it claimed to be -- if it fooled everyone -- then for all intents and purposes it was real and arguing otherwise was splitting hairs.

While I hate to side with a coldblooded killer, I think I'm going to continue to spend a good deal of time in my rose-colored glasses. In them my reflection looks almost exactly like the real me, tweaked just enough to make me feel a little bit better about myself. That little bit better means that the real me -- the one with the Bozo-sized feet -- has a lot more confidence and fearlessly struts her chubby stuff. When she's confident, reality matters less and good things happen in spite of the pesky factonistas. The illusion of one world softens the edges of the other. Glasses are a lot cheaper than liposuction.

And I can only imagine how expensive head-reduction surgery must be.

* I just noticed a Freudian slip in this posting, and while I feel compelled to fix it, the historian (and the comedian) in me feel compelled to give it a footnote. Instead of "On the plus side," I had typed "On the plus size." Ha! Rather telling of my state of mind, no?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who says big sisters are pushy?

More like "pully."

Enough about me -- let's talk about me.

It was lonely before I had siblings. Just me and the snowbunnies.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Testing, testing.

I wanted to try out video on my blog, so here's a home video clip taken a little while before I was born (hence large-tummied Mommy in mumu). I'm glad I was fetal at the time and didn't have to witness the weedy back yard of the newly purchased house, nor the hideous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" on the back of my dad's cowboy shirt.

Hooray for Dad for buying the video camera and insisting on its use over the years. Hooray for my sister and me for getting the old reel-to-reels transferred to DVD. Hooray for little brother for transferring bite-sized clips to the family blog. And the biggest hooray for Mom for keeping us all alive long enough to master this newfangled technology!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"I believe in women -- especially thinking women."

I'm excited about Nancy Pelosi's swearing in as House Speaker today. Not because women necessarily do things better than men, but because women are half of the human race and so need to participate in running the world on all levels. And while I'm not well educated on Hilary Clinton's platform, the idea of a woman President is pretty exciting as well. I wouldn't vote for her just because she's a woman, but I definitely will give her campaign my extra careful consideration just because she's a woman.

The current fervor surrounding these new milestones in women's lib brings me back to one of my favorite historical figures, Emmeline B. Wells. She lived in my neighborhood a hundred years ago and now lies buried a few blocks away from my apartment, in the Salt Lake City cemetery, under a tiny low-lying gravestone overshadowed by the massive pillar that honors her third husband, Daniel H. Wells (another of my favorite historical figures, but irrelevant to the present topic :) Daniel was prominent in Utah politics and Mormon church leadership and his name is well known locally to this day. Emmeline, despite what her insignificant gravestone would suggest, was far more widely known than was her husband: in addition to serving as president of the LDS Women's Relief Society, she was a local and national women's suffrage leader and close friend and advisor of Susan B. Anthony. Her efforts to expand women's rights and her organization of a wheat storage program that saved thousands of lives in post-WWI Europe brought her wide renown in her time, including an invitation from Queen Victoria and a house call from President Woodrow Wilson. But curiously she is largely unknown to modern day Utahns. I was excited to learn from Natalie, my fellow Utah history buff, that a full-length biography has finally been devoted to Emmeline. And for those who aren't interested in tackling a whole book, there is also a DVD recording of a recent stage play about Emmeline's remarkable journey from abandoned child bride to literary, political, and religious leader and one of the most important players in making Utah the second state* to give women the vote. She was also the longtime editor of the early LDS women's journal, The Women's Exponent. In it she wrote

Millions of intelligent women are deprived of the vote simply because nature qualified them to become mothers and not fathers of men. They may own property, pay taxes, assist in supporting the government, rend their heart-strings in giving for its aid the children of their affections, but they are denied all right to say who shall disburse those taxes, how that government shall be conducted, or who shall decide on a question of peace or war which may involve the lives of their sons, brothers, fathers, and husbands.

Despite her difficult marriage situation as an emotionally unsatisfied plural wife, she remained a staunch defender of Mormons' rights to practice polygamy, and on more than one occasion had to be rescued publicly by Susan B. Anthony for holding this unpopular conviction, which many thought was incompatible with thinking, educated, independent women. She had experienced firsthand the ways that polygamy allowed women both the essential Victorian social standing of wife and mother and the freedom to focus on developing their strengths in the broader world by outsourcing some of their housekeeping and childcare tasks to "sister wives" when necessary. Ironically, she discovered, polygamy was creating a culture of remarkably progressive women who were no longer enslaved to every whim of their husbands and as a result could focus more on participating in the workings of the outside world. A funny quote from her on this topic:

All honor and reverence to good men; but they and their attentions are not the only source of happiness on the earth and need not fill up every thought of woman. And when men see that women can exist without their being constantly at hand... it will perhaps take a little of the conceit out of some of them.

As an obscure teenage convert to the LDS church she received a blessing that said she would live to do a work that had not been done by any woman since the beginning of the world. Her story is really that remarkable.

In the modern age I can vote and be treated equally in the work place and get a superior education and travel wherever I want without a chaperone. I don't need to be attached to a husband to be taken seriously. And today the Speaker of the House is a woman.

What next, Emmeline?

* 4/6/11 CORRECTION: This mistake has been bugging me for awhile, so I'm fixing it. Emmeline Wells was a key player in making Utah the third state to give women the vote. The Utah Territory had been the second state-like entity (after Wyoming Territory) in giving women voting rights in 1870, but those rights were repealed by the federal government as part of its anti-polygamy legislation. Wells was not involved in the initial 1870 Utah Territory suffrage debate, but was part of the push to reinstate women's voting rights as part of Utah's constitution in 1896. By that point, Wyoming and Colorado had given women the vote.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mary and Mary, quite contrary.

Okay, last go on the Christmas topic.

Ninny gave me her 2006 calendar, printed in Florence, which had lovely images of the Madonna. She told me I had to do something "creative" with them, so the challenge was displaying some of them in a way that would look nice without turning my abode into a Shrine to the Cult of the Virgin.

The first challenge was the baby Jesuses. It seems that most of the baby Jesuses in medieval and Renaissance paintings are sort of creepy looking. I don't know why this is. Maybe artists didn't get much naked baby sketching time in art school and so were clueless when confronted with a difficult, squirming little bug in the studio. Maybe they were hesitant to give the Son of God a regular drooly baby face and intentionally made him look like a sage 30-year-old trapped in an infant's body. Or maybe it's simply that cuteness standards have changed over the centuries. Whatever the case, I couldn't bring myself to look day after day at any of the baby Jesuses in the calendar. The Botticelli one wasn't too bad, and neither was Raphael's. There was a certain charm to a couple of them: in one the baby gripped Mary's thumb and in another he's playing with her hair. But even the better ones were a bit too eerie and adult looking -- I was afraid if I put them up on my wall I'd start having Chucky nightmares.

So I ruled out the paintings that had babies. I started arranging the Madonna-only paintings on the floor in different combinations and realized that Mary was almost always in a red dress with a blue mantle or head scarf. There must be some symbolism there (any Catholics out there wanna enlighten me?) I decided to go with four painting details that showed just the bust of Mary. I chose these particular ones because there were two pairs that sort of echoed each other. All four show Mary looking down and to the right. Two of them show her with brown hair, in near profile with her head bowed at the same angle, and two show her with blonde hair, in three-quarter profile with torso straight forward. I thought those similarities gave the grouping a nice balance and I offset the two columns to play up their meek downward glances. I really like how it turned out -- thanks to Ninny for this lovely addition to my home decor. The one on the upper right looks like a young teenager (and Mary probably was a young teenager at the time). The one on the upper left looks much older -- closer to my age. My favorite is the lower left -- Raphael. A blonde Jewess. Hmmm. Here's to artistic license.

And none of them look like Miranda Richardson. Maybe it's their relative lack of disappointment. Maybe it's because their slightly unsettling infants have been cut out of the shot, leaving them less anxious all around. I imagine baring your breast to the Creator of the Universe, though he is tiny and benevolent, might conceivably cause a little unease. Like the Siamese cat we used to have -- I hated to have her in the room when I changed clothes, because she looked like she knew what was going on, even though I knew that that was a ridiculous notion. Oh, wow. This is getting sort of blasphemous so I'm going to return to...

...the topic of religious art. It seems like there's less and less of it that isn't complete schlock. Even the new art in the most recent LDS international art competition, which had high standards overall, was peppered with a good amount of cutrate Norman Rockwell Mormonia. Or maybe I'm overly critical of my age -- maybe it was equally bad in the Renaissance and the trash was sifted out by the passing centuries, leaving us the lovelies that show up in Florentine wall calendars. At any rate, with enough snarky commentary, even kitsch is enjoyable. When shopping online after-Christmas sales for tree ornaments, I came across a blog with a sidebar dedicated to tacky religious art of the modern age. They have a page called Cavalcade of Bad Nativities dedicated to such horrors as nativities made up of nothing but snowmen, or cats, or owls. Eek and double eek.

And in a final tribute to bad devotional art, here is a picture of a really tacky Last Supper wall clock I acquired at a Christmas white elephant gift exchange several years back. I kept it until just a few months ago because it was just so gloriously awful that I couldn't bear to part with it. I even created a mini "Tackiness Shrine" in my walk-in closet with this clock as the centerpiece. I mean, LOOK at it. They mounted the clock hands in Jesus's chest, so at noon they obliterated his face. At the bottom of the holy scene was the word TAIWAN in large gold letters. Encased around it was a baroque arrangement of white and red silk flowers, and on the hour it chimed the Hallelujah chorus. It was truly masterful in its badness. Some days (especially when I recall Monty Python's hilarious skit about Michelangelo's tacky Next-to-Last Supper painting) I wish I hadn't thrown the Last Supper clock away. Who knows -- two milennia from now it might have been considered great art....

Monday, January 01, 2007

In denial.

Tonight is the last night that Temple Square is lit for Christmas, so I'm posting some photos that I took there a few nights ago when I had a few unanticipated hours to kill by myself. I've lived in Utah my whole life and have seen the Temple Square Christmas display many times. There were many years that we never bothered to come downtown to see the lights because we were a bit bored with it. But living a couple blocks from Temple Square and getting used to the lights as part of my backyard has made them magical again.

In the past few years they've started putting up nativities from various countries. This year there was a flat wooden painted set that reminded me of Polish nativities that I've seen. It had a charming man bearing a basket of what looked like bread. Bartholomew the Bethlehem Bread Man with buns for the baby?

There was also a nativity with roly-poly figures that looked like Weebles -- I think it was Korean. A "flight to Egypt" display that looked Mexican showed Mary and Jesus riding in a donkey-drawn cart under a colorful parasol, Joseph walking by the side with sombrero in hand. And there was a colorful nativity made from fabric and metal that looked like it was from Africa. It had the best wise men I've ever seen -- carrying brightly wrapped presents and wearing funky hats. One of them had a tall stripey Cat-in-the-Hat hat.

And then there was the "traditional" white nativity next to the reflection pond. I stood in the snow for over ten minutes waiting for people to move out of the way so I could get a good shot of the nativity with the whole sparkly scene around it. But people just kept stopping to look at Jesus, and they usually looked for a long time. After awhile of impatient waiting I was struck with the irony of trying to clear humanity away from Jesus so you can get a good exclusive cover shot of him. If there had been paparazzi in Jesus's day, they probably would have looked something like me, tapping their toes from a distance, waiting for the photo op. I laughed at myself and moved on.

Another fairly recent addition to the Temple Square display is rows and rows of luminarias with words in different languages pin-pricked in the sides. They look like they're made of paper, but can't be, as they survive the winter wet. The Arabic ones were especially beautiful, but done in calligraphy that overlapped on itself so that I couldn't pick out any words that I knew. This one says "Love, Hope, Joy."

And of course the temple was lovely as ever, looking like a jeweled crown set down in the middle of a glittery pile of pirates' loot. I was particularly pleased with the shot of its reflection in the pool full of floating candles. At the bottom you can see the coins people have tossed into the pool.

Yes, I'm in denial that the Christmas season is over. My tree is still up, crispy, and only vaguely green. But it still looks lovely lit up at night. And the curbside tree collection for my neighborhood isn't for another week, so that's my official excuse. If you walk by the lit tree in my window and my blatant disregard for the new year bugs you, go ahead and call the Christmas police. I dare you.