Friday, April 29, 2011

House is mad it missed this.

Besides being generally creepy and giant-pill-bug-like, there's another reason to fear the armadillo - the little suckers can give you leprosy.

According to an article in the New York Times, a third of the leprosy cases diagnosed in the United States come from contact with armadilloes. The armadillo-contracted cases cluster in Texas and Louisiana. Even weirder, researchers believe that humans originally gave armadilloes the disease after arriving in America.

Dr. Richard Truman, a researcher at the Hansen's Disease Program in Louisiana (another name for leprosy. Hansen's, not Louisiana), was quoted in the article as saying that the disease came from "more than casual contact" with armadilloes. Which makes me wonder what sort of contact, exactly, could be considered casual with armadilloes.

Oh I was just walking here and saw this armadillo, though I'd pick it up and like, toss it around like a football for a while. Maybe put a little bowtie on it. You know.

No word yet on how this affect the taxidermied-armadillo-holding-a-beer-bottle-souvenir industry in Texas.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I need a tiny saddle.

True crime

So I have this obsession with reading the crime reports in the Living Local section of the paper on Thursdays. I don't know why. We live in a pretty safe neighborhood, at least, I feel pretty safe noodling around out there even if I don't usually go out after dark (not really because of safety concerns but because I fall asleep very very early).

But I always read the crime reports, and usually they're just repeats of "an assault was reported" or a "shoplifting incident was reported," although this weekend some guy jogging got knocked over and punched a lot, which is kind of hard to understand without more context. (Jog. Jog. Jogjogjogjog KICK PUNCH. Like that?)

Also, this week someone apparently tried to steal a stove. The report read "someone attempted to remove a stove from a business. When confronted by an employee, the person drew a gun and then fled."

Um. What? We don't have a stove store that I know of, so I'm having visions of someone, like, trying to pry up a stove from the kitchen of a restaurant and then someone being like oh hey what are you doing, you are lifting with your back, and you are not wearing one of those girdle-y things, we could be liable OH A GUN WHAT OKAY.

I think this neighborhood is safer, relatively speaking, than the old one where I lived although nothing bad ever actually happened to me or anyone I knew while I was living there. I did a lot more walking after dark there because I was not trying to pretend that nothing is real by sleeping all the time like I do now and I developed a pretty good strategy for avoiding crazy people, which is to act like an even crazier person. It goes like this:

Crazy person: Oh hi, I am crazy, I need money/a ride/cigarettes/to talk to you/your number/insert here
Me: drools
Crazy person: .....
Me: drools harder, makes one eye wander, yanks at hair
Crazy person: Okay. God bless, now. backs away

There was the ur-crazy woman though, who was like the distillation of all the craziness and sadness and despair of that stretch of Route 1. She was like the embodiment of the broken glass and scabby motels and empty lots and pollution of the highway. Ur-crazy woman was scary skinny, with skin like glove leather covered in ruts and seams, and she dressed like a toddler-ballerina-prostitute, in shredded tutus and pigtails and lots and lots of badly applied makeup, like she was trying to draw another face on top of hers. Ur-crazy woman noodled around by the sides of the highway and sometimes would dart into traffic or randomly walk across all the lanes and shriek curses at the cars in this weird, gritty voice that sounded way too big for her, and you would just kind of have to sit and wait for her to cross and be like did I lock my car doors, I sure hope so and feel very awkward and sad/angry on behalf of ur-crazy woman.

I don't live there now and I wonder sometimes if ur-crazy woman is still out there, shrieking and flipping off the cars, or if she finally got hit by one or put away, or if ur-crazy woman is in fact not really human at all, but is just getting crazier and leatherier and metastasizing into a human-shaped form of crazy cancer that will always be on that particular stretch of the highway.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Scary gifts

This book has been kind of making the rounds - including a great post by one of my favorite bloggers, Captain Awkward on the art of saying 'no,' and while I do not normally read any books that fall under the self-help or behavior modification category (unless someone wrote one called How To Get Everyone To Stop Being So Dumb All The Time, which I would be all over) I picked up a copy from the library last week.

The author has quite a story. He grew up in a household with a series of abusive stepfathers and psychopathic mother, and he's candid about knowing what it's like to be constantly attuned to tension in the air, which is something that any kid who's grown up in a turbulent household is familiar with (even now, I can't listen to debates on the radio - as soon as people start yelling and talking over one another, my stomach clenches up). De Becker founded a consulting company that has worked with the Secret Service, protective details, the police force, and large businesses on how to manage stalkers, predict domestic violence patterns, and predict and stop workplace violence.

Also, he quotes Edward Gorey. How cool is that?

I think De Becker's book became so popular because it tells us something we already know, and then assures us that it's okay - namely, that there are people out there are scary, odd, or just make us uncomfortable, and we're afraid of them, and it's okay to be afraid and to act on that, and that doesn't make us bad or mean people.

One thing I didn't expect is how much time De Becker spends on how women perceive fear versus men. He makes what I think is a very valid point, a point that people tend to ignore or dismiss, that women have an extra dimension of fear to their daily lives. Most guys, depending on what size you are or where you live or how much of a propensity you have for getting into brawls, don't have to be as hypervigilant about their physical safety as women do, but it seems like most guys (at least the ones I know) are blithely oblivious about this. De Becker not only points this out but emphasizes that men and women interact with people differently because of a whole host of factors, this being one of them, and that you don't need an excuse not to be nice to someone who is making you uncomfortable, even if it's just a gut feeling.

De Becker's not a writer, and the book suffers from the hasty editing that a lot of self-help books have (distracting typos, etc.) but his deconstruction of why people stalk, harass, and attack is really fascinating. There are even some genuinely fraught moments in the book, like when De Becker and the police are desperately trying to track down multiple murderer and stalker Michael Perry.

The book also talks a lot about how managers and companies can avoid workplace violence by actually reviewing references and backgrounds and not hiring people with a pattern of abusive behavior, but this portion of De Becker's book focuses exclusively on management, and unfortunately doesn't address what to do if you're stuck working with someone who makes you afraid, and this makes his take on workplace violence really out of balance.

Still, The Gift of Fear is an interesting book about a topic that affects everybody, and has a refreshingly realistic perspective on it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Trickery and lies

This little collection of short stories is from Susanna Clarke, author of the excellent and best-selling Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I love books that mimic and subvert literary conventions, and Jonathan Strange, an alternative history of England, was full of sly footnotes, references to other (imaginary) works, and an alternately tongue-in-cheek and utterly deadpan send-up of both the form and content of English writing. Clarke's England is a wild, fluid world, but she anchored her writing in the unflappable persona of Jonathan Strange, England's (second) greatest magician, a man of eminent practicality. Strange and his equally impeturbable wife Arabella make an appearance in one of the stories here, as does John Uskglass, the Fairy King.

Clarke's fairies are not the tiny, spritely beings of the Cottingley Fairies. Clarke's fairies are witty, charming, amoral, and frequently sadistic psychopaths. The book opens with the titular ladies of Grace Adieu, three proper, reserved Englishwomen who take drastic means to dispatch a threat to their idyllic existence. "Mrs. Mabb" and "Thomas Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower" show Clarke's fairies at their cheerful, deceptive worst. In "Thomas Simonelli," a particularly vicious fairy torments a small English village, and the description of his horrific retinue and decaying castle is particularly disturbing. John Uskglass does get his comeuppance from a humble peasant in the funny "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner."

The book itself is lovely, with a soft gray-and-pink embossed cover and delicate, Aubrey Beardsley-esque illustrations. Although the stories are light  confections compared to the dense, multi-layered Jonathan Strange, Clarke aptly displays her skill at simultaneously imitating and skewering literary conceits.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Muddy water


A Ramones impersonator is menaced by the flooding Potomac.

Sign of the times (or, apocolypse how?)

How I know the world is ending:

The iphone tracks your movements and stores the data.

No word yet on whether the next iphone will be implanted in your forehead and the back of your hand.

And, Bristol Palin scored an invite to the White House's annual National Correspondents' Dinner.

Everyone, stock up on whiskey, gold, and ammunition for the Dark Times ahead.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stop the music

Ronald Reagan is remembered for a lot of things. Whether you venerate or vilify him seems to depend how you feel about taxing the wealthy, but in And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts reminds us of the Reagan administration's other legacy.

I never lived in a world without AIDS. I was born in 1985, the year the first cases of AIDS were discovered in the military, which were attributed to using intravenous drugs or prostitutes (prostitutes and drugs, fine - just don't be gay), but Shilts' book does an excellent job of capturing the confusion, fear, despair, and anger that swept across gay communities in the early 1970s during the emergence of the disease. But just as importantly, Shilts presents a simply astonishing amount of information about how the worst health scourge to emerge in the 20th century - arguably the worst disease to develop anywhere, ever - was ignored, covered-up, or outright denied by America's public health community and the Reagan administration, the very officials tasked with safeguarding public health, up to and including Reagan's bumbling, incompetent Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler. 

It was only through the tireless efforts of a handful of dedicated doctors and virologists, along with a small group of activists, that the administration began moving, however slowly. Yet, as Shilts points out in the politics part of "People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic," resistance to education and research came from unexpected quarters, including the very community most affected by the disease.

And The Band Played On opens in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1976, with Danish doctor Grethe Rask. Dr. Rask was a surgeon in a clinic in Abumombazi - the same area where an outbreak of Ebola claimed nearly 200 lives before the WHO stopped the spread of the hemorrhagic fever. Dr. Rask, suffering from an mysterious disease, returned to Denmark and died of Pneumocystis, a non-fatal form of pneumonia. Pneumocystis killed Dr. Rath, but it wasn't why she died.

Shilts then moves to San Francisco's vibrant gay community in the summer of 1980, still mostly untouched by AIDS, which had started to infiltrate San Francisco and New York City. Shilts introduces the reader to the politics of San Francisco in the aftermath of Harvey Milk's death, a city where, unlike the rest of America, the gay community wielded real political clout, at least at the local level. 

By 1980, AIDS had begun spreading its web in Copenhagen, Zaire, Germany, Portugal, and Paris. Those who died died of common, usually non-fatal diseases, or bizarre ones: cytamegalovirus, Pneumocystis, salmonella, toxoplasmosis. Meanwhile, cases of Kaposi's sarcoma were showing up in New York City. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a small group of doctors who would become the leaders in the fight against AIDS began to track clusters of unusual diseases.

The early chapters of Shilts' work form a fascinating viral who-done-it, as doctors and researchers struggled to understand a disease unlike anything they'd seen before, a disease that used other infections to do the killing for it. The CDC took the lead in tracking cases of Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare skin cancer that was normally benign. Kaposi's sarcoma began showing up in Los Angeles, NYC, and San Francisco, coupled with more exotic diseases. As the number of infections began to mount, and doctors from both coasts began seeing more coincidences, the stakes got even higher.

Shilts introduces the important political players early, and shows how the gay community in San Francisco, dedicated to protecting their hard-won freedoms, formed a bloc against early efforts to educate people about the disease. In particular, shutting down the San Francisco bathhouses drew a line in the sand, and those who dared to step past it were publicly excoriated and condemned as homophobes, which is sadly ironic given the toll the disease would eventually take.

And from the Reagan administration? Radio silence, as the CDC and other federal agencies begged for funds. It wasn't until over 5,000 people in America were infected (and thousands more worldwide) and AIDS began threatening the heterosexual population that the Reagan administration grudgingly began to move, although its response was disingenuous. Advocates faced resistance from sources as varied as local politicians, the Moral Majority, blood bank owners (who, as Shilts points out, were instrumental in delaying tests to screen blood for AIDS, resisted efforts to disallow high risks donors from donating, and vigorously downplayed the dangers, even as those infected from blood transfusions sickened), and groups like AIDSpeak, who were ostensibly support groups but reacted to AIDS with denial and disinformation.

There is a simply astonishing amount of information in Shilts book. He shifts from New York to San Francisco to Paris to Africa, documenting the inner workings of the CDC and Louis Pasteur Laboratories and the minutiae of endless meetings at various levels of government. At some points, the information can get simply overwhelming and clogs the book's momentum, particularly after the first chapters. It's also heartbreaking - the sheer scale of the waste of life is overwhelming, although there are flashes of compassion, from the San Francisco doctors who valiantly sounded the alarm in the face of much resistance, to the volunteers who stayed with stricken patients as they died.

I can't imagine a world without AIDS - that simply isn't part of my paradigm. But Shilts' book does an invaluable job of explaining how, in the course of less than a decade, the world shifted from Before to After.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tortilla miracle

It's not quite Jesus, but would anyone make a pilgrimage to see a tortilla that looks like a Ninja Turtle?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Funny things I should have written about

So, I'm very sad to hear that one of my favorite dating (online and otherwise) blogs, Sexy Typewriter, is no longer going to be a dating blog (damn you, functioning relationships).

But it got me thinking of recent Hilarious Dating Experiences, of which I've not really had any, because I don't date anymore (thank you, functioning relationships). And I've never really been much of a Dater, anyway, because I am that most horrible of creatures, the multi-tentacled, insidious Serial Monogamist. Sure, go one a date with me - but only if you're cool with me locking it down for approximately the next two years, sucking all the fun out of your life, and then abruptly vanishing.

But, anyway, I did go speed dating with my friends, because 1) it's funny and 2) see number 1). I've never done speed dating before, or online dating, or any sort of organized approach to dating, preferring instead to find my partners the old-fashioned way - drunk in a bar. Which makes me the two-year hangover from Hell.

This particular speed dating service had it organized so that two women paired up and terrified  talked to one guy at a time. I'm not sure if this is done as a sort of homage to how cheetahs work in a team to bring down a gazelle, or if it's just a numbers thing - the Greater Metropolitan Area is skewed with more women than men (but we're nowhere near as bad as New York City, where you should just give up now). But it reminded me of college, because I went to a university that was overwhelmingly female - seriously, the ratio was something like 70% - 30% - and it was like some Lord of the Fliesian mashup of the Law of the Jungle and the Law of Supply and Demand, but with a lot more lip gloss. The guys? All they had to do was show up, not be in the fashion design program, and not have scabies (or be willing to lie about not having scabies) and they were treated to an endless buffet of Young College Girl.

The girls? Most gave up and went to the other universities on the weekends. It wasn't unusual to see carloads of guys from the barracks come cruising around, because the aura of desperation (which smells kind of like Victoria's Secret's most noxious vanilla perfume) permeated the air around campus, and it was easy pickings.

But back to speed dating - the organizers of this event had a combination of pity/terror on their faces as they handed out our little nametags. I so wanted to put a fake name on mine, but that was forbidden (and anyway they already had my e-mail address).

So we paired up and perched on these horribly incomfortable white-leather-covered cube chair-like things, where I kept sliding dangerously close to the edge. The women got to remain stationary while the guys rotated. The cubes were so close to the ground that you sort of had to cantilever yourself up and heave to get back on your feel, and it was almost impossible to avoid showing your underwear unless you contorted yourself into a pretzel. Seriously, these chair-like abominations were so close to the ground, my knees were about level with my face.

The most memorable guys from that evening included one wearing a red-and-white checked gingham shirt with a dark blue velvet blazer with elbow patches and jeans. And he was also baked out of his mind. Seriously, his pupils were the size of quarters. He bore an uncanny resemblance to whichever one of the English princes is a racist ginger. There was also a guy with a noticeable twitch, one who was so blasted that he nearly fell off of the couch, one who informed us that he would not ask boring questions like 'what do you do?' or 'what are you interested in?' (I was going to say monkey wrangler, and suspending myself from hooks in the skin of my back, but I think it's boring too!). And since I have this horrible tendency to talkalotandquitefast with big, expansive hand gestures when I'm nervous - which I blame entirely on my Italian mother, when we have an argument it's like we're all simultaneously trying to land a plane and referee a football game- the rest all looked like a gazelle that realizes it's all alone at the watering hole and there are ears peeking above the grass.



This is what a springbok does when it's scared. It's called pronking.


The women to the right of us got progressively drunker and drunker, and because this place had the acoustics (and general charm) of a VFW hall, their shrieks began echoing off of all the exposed cement and threatening to shatter our drink glasses.

Of course (thank you, functioning relationship) I was already approaching this whole experience wearing I'm Not Interested In You glasses, but my single companions were equally horrified.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dumplings


I made apple dumplings this weekend using a Cook's Illustrated recipe (which I will not post due to copyright restrictions).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pigness

I got this little pig at Freshworld. They're made out of sweet dough and stuffed with white bean paste, which I find reminiscent of marzipan (the pigs remind me of the little almond good-luck pigs at German bakeries), but less dense.

They're adorable - so adorable that as soon as I ate mine, I got sad that it was gone.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dirty secrets

I got a confession, y'all.

I listen to conservative talk radio. Every day.

When people get in my car and turn on the radio, they give me this wall-eyed look of disbelief, like, what, in your spare time do you launch kittens out of potato guns?

Why, yes. Yes I do. Except I make sure that they're wearing little helmets and tiny capes, so it's all good. I don't really know why I listen to WMAL, but I think it has something to do with the fact that the other alternative is the dreck on the FM dial and listening to that is roughly equivalent to using a rusty nail like a Q-tip. I can just tune it out much better, and besides, it has the added advantage of keeping me apprised to The Stupid that is out there. And let me tell you, The Stupid. It burns.

Today's stupid comes from the stupid factory known as Bob McDonnell, erstwhile governor of Virginia. From today's Washington Post: McDonnell Adds Abortion Restriction to Insurance-Exchange Legislation.

So, the Virginia legislature is working on a bill for health-care exchanges. The much-derided federal healthcare overhaul package created the framework for a system of exchanges, in which states could opt to manage healthcare exchanges for people who otherwise couldn't afford healthcare as an alternative to the federal system. The exchange, as envisioned, would allows individuals and small businesses to club together and buy healthcare, and people who were eligible could receive federal subsidies towards the purchase of their insurance.

Now, since McDonnell thinks the federal healthcare mandate is such a bad, bad, bad idea, he's created a duplicative bill that will - wait for it - allow Virginia to do exactly the same thing that Virginia will be able to do under the existing healthcare legislation.

Way to stick it to them!

However, when the bill reached the Governor for signature after it had been approved by the General Assembly, he added the amendment prohibiting 1) insurance offered through the exchange to cover abortion procedures and 2) prohibit insurance companies in the exchange from offering riders that cover abortion procedures.

And this is interesting, because yesterday I was listening to Mark Levin while I drove home, and he was fulminating about how the government mandates what kind of soda you can buy, and what you can feed your kids, and what kind of lightbulb you can buy, and what kind of health insurance you can buy. And that's awful! And terrible! Tyranny! Other words! Very loudly!

Which makes my tiny lady brain wonder how it can be so awful when the government does that, and so wonderful when the Virginia government does.exactly.that.

Not to mention that McDonnell's amendment is totally unnecessary. The Hyde Amendment already prohibits federal money from being used to pay for abortion procedures, so the Virginia health insurance exchanges would already be covered by that law.

The article includes this hilarious quote from Virginia Cobb, the spokeswoman for the Family Foundation of Virginia: "Taxpayers don't want to see the government entangled in the abortion issue in any way."

Wow, thank you. I too pay taxes, Virginia, and I didn't realize that you were the anointed Mouthpiece of Virginia Taxpayers. I am so glad that one person can speak for the seven million plus taxpayers of the state of Virginia.

But the funny thing is, if you take Cobb's statement and interpret it literally, I actually agree with her. Except her version of the government being unentangled in the abortion issues is for it to become entangled in the abortion issue. After all, if this amendment is approved (and sadly, looking at the current makeup of the Virginia legislature, it's likely) then the government will have to figure out how to go about enforcing it. Pore over the zillions of pages of insurance information produced by every participant? (And if someone would come and go through the nonsensical packets BlueCross sends to me, that would be great, because I have a master's degree in literature and I still can't interpret half the language in their policies!) Bust down the doors of insurance providers and demand to see their records?

Yes, the government does tell you what to do. It even tells you things like you can't murder that guy and do not drive this vehicle whilst drunk because it could end badly for you and others and you actually have to feed that child and other very onerous, totally unreasonable things. It even dictates what you can and can't buy! No, I cannot take my hard-earned after-tax dollars and noodle down to the corner and buy a bunch of cocaine, because that's illegal, even though it's my money.

Except abortion isn't illegal in America. And McDonnell wants to tell you - nay, force you - not to buy it. Which somehow, by twisted Republilogic, makes total sense.