Monday, November 29, 2010

Frost, again

So my plan was to update you all on my exciting world of reading every Monday. So here's this week's update: I finished reading Justine, which I didn't really enjoy, and I've been busy reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Enjoy probably isn't the right word to describe this reading experience, but I ran five miles this morning before work, so my brain isn't managing to think up a more appropriate word. However, for your benefit, I'll clarify. The story is engaging, it's keeping me entertained, and I really think Lisbeth rocks. I mean, she got shot in the head and lived. So, I'm enjoying myself.

But, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, I'm not going to focus on my reading this Monday, but instead on the fact that for the second time in three days, there was frost on my car! (It may have been there all three days and I just didn't get up early enough on Sunday to notice it.)

So, for the first time since I've lived in San Diego, I've had to warm up my car in the morning. Not only was it 39 degrees outside, but I'm not sure where any of our ice scrapers are. I know we own about six dozen of them, but none of those are in my car. They're probably up to no good with all of the umbrellas that we own that have been hiding from us since we moved to California.

I bought my first car in the summer of 2000. It was a used, teal-colored Toyota Corolla. A good friend of mine named it Millie. It was the middle of some sort of heat wave/drought, which seems to hit New Jersey every summer, and I walked into the auto parts store and asked to buy an ice scraper. I'm pretty sure the guy thought the heat had gone to my head, but then, responding to the strange look he gave me, I informed him that I was moving to Montana in a week, and the first snow was likely to occur on September 15 (I think it was actually the 23rd that year).

Somehow, over the next several years, I acquired more ice scrapers. Maybe they make good stocking stuffers? I don't know, but what I do know is that this morning, I could have used one. Fortunately, I bought my most recent Toyota Corolla (blue, and still un-named), in Oregon, where, I was informed, they install larger-than-standard heater/fan/vent systems (I'm totally on top of all of the technical auto-mechanical lingo), to help with the constant wetness that goes on in the Pacific Northwest. So, the good news is, that it took all of about 17 seconds to melt all of this wimpy California frost!

Take that, mother nature!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Having some work done on our house

In case you didn't get it from the title of the post, we're having some work done on our house.

Captain America finally warmed up to the idea of hiring other people to do stuff. I've been a big fan of this policy all along, because I don' t like to get my hands dirty and because it's my American duty to improve the economy (which is why I also have a personal trainer, a massage therapist, a chiropractor, an esthetician, and a cleaning lady; you're welcome, Mr. President).

Mark, the handyman hired to do this round of house-related stuff, is a little odd. His work seems competent enough, which is the point. Captain America is of the opinion that it's moving slower than he anticipated, but I think it's fair to say that the first rule of home-ownership is that everything takes longer than anticipated. It took longer to find the house, for crying out loud!

However, it would probably take us even longer if we were doing this stuff ourselves, and we would probably average, oh, I don't know, about one argument every hour or so. So, we're not only improving the economy and our house, but we're saving our marriage. That alone sounds like money well spent.

On Sunday, Mark's odd behavior included informing me of when he took his lunch. I suppose this is appropriate, as we're paying him by the hour (okay I realize that may sound strange, but he gave us an estimate of what the total cost for our project will be, and how long it would take, and the end result is that we agreed to pay him every morning for the work he did the previous day). Mark doesn't seem to know me very well, which is probably a good thing, but what he doesn't get is that it doesn't really matter to me when he takes his lunch or for how long.

Mark also informed me that I reminded him of some TV-preacher's wife, whose name is Victoria. I'm not sure if he knows what my name is, or if maybe we're the only two people who's name starts with a "V" that he's ever heard of, or maybe he's just happy with the simple things in life.

On Monday, Mark had a moment of panic, packed up his stuff and left randomly. He was supposed to go work for the salvation army, but he felt bad that he hadn't finished our bathroom, so he came over to do that instead. We told him it was no big deal if he went to his other job, because really, he's a handyman...if stuff at our house takes longer than he estimates, then of course it's going to mess up whatever's scheduled with his other clients.

Here's the conversation between Mark and Captain America regarding Monday's mini-meltdown, as far as I can recreate it:

Captain America, upon seeing Mark pack up his things: Mark, what's going on?

Mark: I've gotta go. These people are pulling me in too many directions.

Captain America: Did you get a call from the Salvation Army? Do they need you? Is that why you're leaving?

Mark: I think you know what's going on.

Captain America: No, I don't know what's going on.

Silence from Mark.

Captain America: Is there something you need to tell me?

Mark: No.

So. I'm hoping that Mark was feeling a little stressed because our project was taking longer than anticipated, which was preventing him from doing other things, and that the "these people" weren't voices in his head. Or that if he really does have some sort of mental illness, that he's got a plan to manage it.

Mark wasn't supposed to come over yesterday, but for whatever reason, he called to say he could.

My sister wanted to come over to make a lasagna.

I tell Mark this, to give him a head's up, because Sister was going to show up before I got home from work/the gym/etc, which prompts another randomish conversation with Mark:

Me: Hey Mark, my sister is going to come over later today, probably between 5 and 6 to make lasagna. If you're not here, no worries--she has a key, but I just wanted to let you know in case you're still here. She's taller than I am.

(In retrospect, I realized that probably wasn't much of a description, and I was going to say, she's the other girl, who sort of looks like me, in all of the photos all over the place, but I really didn't want him to think he should be staring at my photos to figure out what my sister looks like).

Mark: Okay. Why is she coming here to make lasagna?

Me: She says her oven's broken or something.

Mark: Why is her oven broken?

Me: thinking: what do you care? says: I don't know...maybe it's not heating evenly.

Mark: She should get it fixed.

Me: thinking: Duh. says: She's probably told her landlord.

Mark: She rents? Her apartment complex should fix it.

Me: thinking: Good grief! I have to go to work. It was just supposed to be an FYI. says: I'm sure she's told them.

Mark, unsure: Well, okay.

I'll be very interested to hear what sorts of conversations Captain America had with Mark, and even more interested to hear if Sister gots to meet him. I already warned her, he's missing a tooth.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Happiness Project

Today I finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It's actually a pretty quick read; the reason it took me so long to finish is that I started it on this sort of strange ebook system the library has, but which isn't compatible with my Kindle, so I was reading on a computer, which I don't really enjoy doing, and so I didn't finish, and the waiting list for the actual book at the library was really, really long.

A couple of reasons I really liked this book are that Rubin doesn't assume her way is the right way; she simply talks about what worked and didn't work for her, and makes suggestions that are easy to transfer to other people. For example, she has a one-sentence gratitude journal. One sentence a day isn't a whole lot to write. And the journal doesn't have to be gratitude. The level of flexibility she presents is refreshing, as opposed to other self-help books that make specific instructions as to what you should do.

Another reason I liked this book is because it's more realistic than, say, Eat, Pray, Love. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I could solve/come to terms with most of my problems if I could take a year off to travel. Rubin isn't perfect, which she constantly points out. This is good, because it allows the reader to forgive herself as well.

I made extensive notes as I read this book because there are a number of ideas I'd like to try incorporating into my own life, but I find myself completing this sentence with, when I have time. Then I think, I should make time. Of course, this should-thinking is one thing that doesn't fit into a happiness project: it is at exact odds with being yourself, which is paramount for figuring out how to be happier.

One thing Rubin points out about herself is that she's an excessive note-taker when she reads, even if there seems to be no point. I'm an excessive list maker. Once, a girlfriend of mine who is also an excessive list maker and I were discussing this tendency. Her husband is a doer. While we were talking, we watched him just decide to polish their silver. We commented that we would have thought, I need to polish the silver, then we would have put it on a list with a date to get it done. Which is not to say that we're not productive; we just go about it a different way.

I think the biggest takeaway from The Happiness Project, is to figure out who you are, what works for you, and how to make that your happiness. I don't really like science. It's not that I find it boring, per se, but I just can't get excited about it. I have another friend who has devoted her life to science. I love when she teaches me something new: she makes it at my level, she only tells me what I need to know, she provides good examples, and she's really really enthusiastic. She's my Hermione Granger. She gets that her passion isn't my passion, but that I can appreciate that passion within her. I no longer feel like I should love science when I'm with her, or that I'm less intelligent than her because I don't, but that this passion is one of the many things I LOVE about her. I think this works out better for everyone involved.

I'm not actively trying to start my own happiness project, but with the new year looming, I am thinking about what I want to accomplish, what I want to make a priority for the year. I guess this is, in a way, a sort of happiness project: isn't happiness sort of the point of any attempts at becoming a better person?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sometimes my life is just strange

I'm what I call a "stuff out" sort of in, I leave stuff out until I'm finished with it and then I put it away. I'm really not messy, but if it's not in front of me, I'll forget to do it. Which is why, for example, my Filofax is always on my desk at work...otherwise I'd forget to check it before I leave and I wouldn't know if I had to do something later or not. This clearly saves valuable brain space, as I'm not bothering to waste time remembering every little thing I need to do. Which means I can use more of that brain space at work actually working. Or something.

Anyway, as you can imagine, there is a lot of stuff on my desk. Because my job is, in a nutshell, to put out fires, I rarely actually get anything done, and only occasionally do accounting-type things, like journal entries. I also tend to bring a lot of "snack" type foods for lunch...fruit, oatmeal, smoothies, peanut butter crackers, get the idea. So frequently I'm struck with the idea that the fastest way to clean off my desk is to eat everything on it. But once I say that thought in my head, it strikes me as being very, very funny.

Or maybe this is just the first sign that I'm progressing down a slope of mental decline that can only culminate (or I guess, anti-culminate) in becoming a drooling, incoherent, puddle of a person.

**As an update, I tried to find a picture or clip art of some sort of disembodied head eating office supplies, which is what is going on in my imagination. All sorts of random pictures come up if you google that. I actually DON'T recommend it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Weekly book update

Wow! I'm behind on this!

A few weeks ago, I read Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich. If you like Janet Evanovich, you'll probably like this book. It's pretty silly, but all of her books are fairly formulaic, and the characters aren't particularly complex. This is unfortunate because many of her characters are unique enough that if there was just a little more depth to them, it would boost her writing up a level. As it stands, her writing is of the poolside/airplane reading variety.

I've also done a bunch more reading in The Science of Harry Potter by Roger Highfield. I am not a total science type, so parts of the book are much more interesting to me than others, which is how I always found science class to be. The following are some parts of the book that I found particularly interesting.

On page 121, in the "Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans" chapter, I have learned why people tend to "sympathy vomit." As an aside, while I definitely do NOT like the odor of vomit, it does not cause me to wretch with sympathy, so let me know if you need me to hold your hair. Anyway, here's what the book says:

Vomiting is designed to make us expel toxic substances that have been eaten. Because people lived in small communities for most of human history, it is likely that if a toxin affected one person in a group,others would be struck down, too. If someone started being sick nearby, it was a good thing that his tribemates also emptied their stomachs,for they had probably shared the same meal.

While this is not a particularly appealing notion, it does make sense. Mystery: solved!

The foreword of Part II discusses the many short comings of the Muggle mind, and this line made me crack up: Alas, dear reader, when it comes to mental ability, Muggles are quite a few twigs short of a broomstick.

In the chapter titled "Stars, Mystic Chickens and Superstitious Pigeons," there is a two page section on what is labeled The Magic of Chance and Stone Age Sorcery. Basically it talks about how humans tend to find patterns where there really aren't any and that we're easily swayed by what is, in fact, simply statistical probability. The example in the book is that if 10 million people are watching a psychic on TV, and the psychic predicts that viewers' watches will stop at a certain time, statistically, some of those watches will stop, but because the owners of those watches will be surprised that it happened to them it will be considered "proof" of the psychic's ability.

But, the section goes on to explain, the reason we're so prone to think something is a coincidence when it really isn't is that our brains are basically hardwired the same way they were when we still lived in caves. That is to say, haven't we all answered the phone at some point and said, I was just thinking of you? Of course we have, because we all know a lot of people. Statistics indicated that at some point when our phone rings it's going to be a person we were thinking about who is calling us. But our selective memories edit out all the times when we were thinking of someone and no one called.

But, when we were far less cool, and didn't own phones, and only knew the 15 other people in our tribe, it would be much more of a coincidence if we happened to be thinking of someone and they came over to our cafe for morning coffee and danish. So, "our brains became calibrated to detect patterns, and gasp with astonishment at a level of coincidence which would actually be quite modest if our catchment area of friends and acquaintances had been large." Apparently, this calibration hasn't been adjusted for modern life.

Additionally, as far as I've read, there's no explanation as to why this calibration exists, just simply that it does, and because of it people think they experience coincidences that are simply statistically probable situations.

And, honestly, that's all I've got. I'm trying to do more reading, and I'm currently back with The Happiness Project, but I seem to have a lot of other things going on in my life at the moment, and it's sure to get busier what with the holidays coming up and everything. Although I'm scheduled to have the whole week off at Christmas! Woohoo!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Strange World of Flying

We just returned from San Francisco, where Captain America and I spent a wonderful six days with family and friends. We had absolutely no issues getting through security at the airport, our flight left on time, we flew Virgin America, which generally rocks, although we're totally not hip enough for it, and then we watched our plane circle over San Diego on the screen on our monitor.

And then they flew us back to LA.

And then they put us on a shuttle.

Which drove past our house to the San Diego airport.

Where we took a cab back to our house.

Successfully tripling the time it takes to get from San Francisco to San Diego.

We were stoked. One less thing on the bucket list. You know what would have been even better? If we flew to Chicago first and got stuck in a snowstorm.

Alas, it was foggy in San Diego. I thought planes can land in the fog, but our pilot explained that they need a mile of visibility for instrument landing, and they only had a quarter of a mile. So I guess I'm glad they took us to LA, as the San Diego airport is apparently not the easiest to land in, even in the best of conditions, what with the buildings and the bay and all.

So, you can imagine the (slight) ironic humor I felt after having boarded said shuttle and proceeding to spend the next 30 minutes driving out of LAX, when I read in Justine:

So I made a sort of inner surrender to the situation, lit a cigarette, and watched the long dissolving strip of the Corniche flow past us.

If only we had a water pipe. Inshallah.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

So here's something I find interesting...

I'm sitting here reading The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, which is actually quite good once you get past the first 80 pages or so. The book is divided into four parts, and each part has a series of chapters. I'm in part 2, chapter 6. I'm referencing all of this in case you bother to look up what I'm talking about and you have a different version of the book than I do. 'Cause I realize that's a likely scenario.

Anyway, General Cummings is talking with his aid, or whatever, Hearn (clearly I've never been in the army) about "what makes a nation fight well." (As a completely random aside, what are the quoting rules when part of what you're quoting is completely normal...for instance, I was going to paraphrase and say, what makes a country fight well, but since I haven't finished reading the chapter, I'm not sure if the distinction between "country" and "nation" is important. Furthermore, that's not much of a paraphrasing, so then I was going to start the quotes on the word "nation" because, while I suppose I could think up other ways to say "what makes" it seems unnecessary. So I'm at a loss as to where I was supposed to start my quotes, so I thought I'd err on the side of conservativeness and risk quoting too much.)

Okay, back to what I actually find interesting.

Hearn suggests that "what makes a nation fight well" is likely to be how the people in the country identify with that country.

The General says that that's only a small part of it, and that the big determining factors for how well a country fights in a war are directly proportional to the number of men and the amount of resources it has. And the other piece is that an individual soldier is more effective the poorer his standard of living was in the past.

It's this last piece that I find rather interesting, especially in light of the war going on in Afghanistan.

I imagine I'd make a pretty terrible soldier, for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that I grew up in an environment that fostered thinking. I would just like to clarify: I'm not saying poorer people are dumber; what I'm suggesting is that families with means are not struggling to meet daily requirements like food and heat, and thus can put some of their child-raising energies into other things, like encouraging their children to ask questions, to develop healthy interests in things, and to think for themselves. The stresses my parents faced in raising my sister and me were not of the can-we-afford-new-shoes variety, but more of the what-activities-can-we-sign-them-up-for-so-they-develop-normal-skills-AND-sleep-through-the-night kind.

But I wonder if Americans as a whole are so much better off than many other places, such as Afghanistan, that we fight from a different place mentally. Maybe the Afghans are so desperately poor that, even if they don't necessarily understand what they're fighting about, maybe it's something new, interesting, exciting, or simply something they can rally behind that diverts their attention from their poverty.

Way back when I read Three Cups of Tea, I was astonished to learn that it was something like a 5th grade education for women that separated the women who would give birth to terrorists and the women who would, both by example and by force, send their children to school to become educated, thoughtful, productive members of society.

A 5th grade education. I know there are Americans who don't get that far, but I don't know any. I remember 5th grade. It wasn't that complicated. But I can understand how it would be to a person who didn't have what I had growing up, a person who didn't own a small library before they actually learned to read, who developed language skills singing songs about Thumbkin, who attended puppet shows and reading groups at the public library, and most importantly, who was never denied an opportunity based on her gender.

I'm not trying to knock the American military, but considering this war has been going on for nine years now, I am sort of wondering if we're going about fighting it the wrong way. I'm not a military strategist, so I don't actually have any suggestions of my own, but it seems to me that people who do know about this sort of thing, like our military leaders, might try to come up with some new ideas, since the old ones aren't working too well. In my own life, I don't continue to do things that didn't work out well the first or second time around. This isn't a deep philosophy or anything, this is simply learning what does and does not work for me. And what works for me, or what works for me in one situation, may not work for everyone, or in every situation. It's all a learning process, but the point is to learn from what doesn't work, not to keep doing it.