29 June 2007

In which I complain about the weather again

May I just state, for the record, how indignant I am about Brussels' idea of summertime?

While the New York Times features articles about ice-cold thirst quenchers, web ads are full of bikinis and tank tops, and my sister has to install an air conditioner because it's too hot to breathe, here in Brussels a cup of tea, a fleece hoody, and a chenille blanket sound just about right.

Except they sound WRONG, because it's almost JULY, and I'm ready for a little bit of summer. I have actually been wearing my WINTER coat when I am forced to leave the house, and the bleak, cold rain just keeps coming. It hasn't let up for a week.

I wore a sleeveless shirt for M's party on Tuesday night, and actually got surprised comments about how "summery" I looked, everybody else having come bundled in coats and scarves and bearing gigantic umbrellas. It should not be surprising that one wears a "summery" shirt, it being "summer" and all, but of course here the term merits the ironic quotation marks. I just told people that since I didn't have to leave the house, the party being at our place, I could pretend for a little while that it's actually being seasonal outside.

If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's that in the absence of shorts and skirts I don't have to shave my legs very often, and folks, that is NOT much of a silver lining.

27 June 2007

Easy as (apple) pie

I talk on my cell phone for maybe, oh, an average of four minutes per week. I don't own very many videos on iTunes, listen to my iPod for what I'm sure is a below-average amount of time, and I have very little true need for mobile internet and e-mail access.

Yet, yet...

I find myself drooling over Apple's new iPhone. Such is the genius of their beautiful simplicity and design innovations. They find common-sense solutions to problems that I never even realized were stupid, but now do (because they've done it better)!

Just to pick one example, listening to voice mail is annoying both for having to listen to messages in order and for having to repeat the whole message if I missed the phone number at the end. The iPhone lets you listen to messages in any order (without dialing a number or getting a computer voice), and lets you scroll back to any moment in the message.

I love how it uses the widget-look in a situation where the widgets actually are incredibly useful (I love them on my computer, but use them for little besides quick math and checking the weather). Can you tell I just watched the "guided tour" of the iPhone online?

How do they keep making such cool products?

Anyway, sorry for being a little mini-ad today. But I'm actually quite astonished at myself, never having wanted a palm or blackberry for an iota of a second, and here I am salivating over something I don't need at all.

I'm sure I'll be able to wait a few years until the price goes down, AT&T service is better (I doubt the phone is available in Europe, anyway), and I have an actual need for the thing.

Still: drooling!

26 June 2007

Happy Birthday!

Today is the Mister's birthday! Three cheers and a hip hip hooray!

We started celebrating already last night, with a nice dinner out. Tonight a bunch of people are coming over to help us par-tay, and I'm baking a big carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Yum! I made cinnamon rolls (from scratch!) for breakfast this morning, and just in case we haven't consumed enough calories, I'm also going to make that artichoke dip I didn't get to for the dinner party a couple of weeks ago.

As M. pointed out, this year I am as old as he was the first time we celebrated his birthday together, precisely six years ago (although we weren't exactly together; I called him from a Paris hostel in the midst of a backpacking trip with my brother, and we all met up a few days later). If you're clever at math, and that made any sense to you, and weren't distracted by the parenthetical tangent, you can figure out how old he is, heehee!

Happy birthday, my love!

Cupcakes, a castle, and Queen

This weekend's highlights were: 1. watching my two-year-old nephew open his birthday presents in Vermont, and 2. getting locked in a citadel.

How, you might ask, and how?

The first was made possible by the wonders of videocam technology. We got to be there with the rest of the family as he ate the chocolate frosting off of his cupcake and then proceded to open various presents, with wide eyes and appreciative "wow!"s. How did people ever get by with just plain old e-mail--you know, in the olden days?

Then, on Sunday, we traveled to Namur, a city about an hour from here, because my choir performed there as part of the country-wide Festival of Music. Our rehearsals and performances didn't start until late afternoon, so the Mister and I took an early train and visited museums, and then after the first performance we decided to climb up to the large citadel overlooking the town and its two rivers.

Unbeknownst to us, it was well past closing time, and as we strolled through the complex of walls, hills, towers, paths, and stairs, a groundskeeper shouted to us that he was about to close the gate, if we wanted to get through. We crossed a small bridge that spanned a deep moat, walked through the wall via a tunnel, and he locked the gate behind us.

Still unaware of our predicament, we calmly attempted to descend a path winding around a church, only to encounter another locked gate. We climbed back up, and found a group of three girls who were in the same boat (or, ahem, moat) as us, having been ushered through the gate by the same keeper (who was now nowhere to be seen). They had tried an alternate path, which also led to a locked gate. Circling the immediate area, we could see that we were entirely closed in; we even climbed up the mound of an archaeological dig on the top of the escarpment, only to find a long, tall fence with pointy arrows on top of it. The other side yielded a nice view of the scarily deep moat.

I was beginning to get worried I might not make it to my evening concert! We finally called to a passerby through one of the locked gates, instructed her to find someone, and only after she had discovered everything was closed did another keeper happen to pass by. Phew!

After a quick refueling stop at an outdoor table, it was off to the evening concert, which was quite the event: four pianos, a choir, drums, sax, cello, clarinet, and soloists, at the beautiful Theatre du Namur. A rough English translation of the concert's title is "Crazy Pianos!" and it was indeed pretty crazy. We performed everything from the Beatles and the Blues Brothers to Gershwin, Orff, Mozart, Ravel, Fauré, and... Queen.

I have been asked by the editor of the choir newsletter to write a poem about the show. I said yes, and then was instructed that it "must be funny." I have written here before about how not funny I am, but hopefully I can come up with some drivelly couplets.

22 June 2007

Swimming, swooning, swaying

Look at me with this whole posting regularly thing! I go, girl!

Sorry. I embarrass myself and others when I attempt to be cool and/or funny.

Today's plans include an excursion to the indoor swimming pool that is ACROSS the STREET, but has yet to be frequented by these particular neighbors. We went in once to check it out, decided it looks good, and then neglected it entirely. I will have to buy a swim cap, which I have never owned or used before. I think I will find it amusing to put my hair into a rubbery bald-head thingo. Question: are you supposed to get your hair wet first, or will it stay in the cap while dry? If dry, what is the correct method for putting it on?

Today's plans also include an excursion to see Ocean's Thirteen. I can't believe they've continued the franchise this long, but at least 11-12-13 is more original than 1-2-3. I'm secretly a fan of heist movies (remember Sneakers? 1992? Loved it. The Thomas Crown Affair? Loved it.), and really rather enjoyed the first two Ocean films, and thus am looking forward to seeing this one. I mean, really, how cool is it when suave thieves plan elaborate infiltration schemes, and just when you think they've been busted, they show up with the stolen goods anyway? Although sometimes the plans stretch the limits of disbelief. OK, so they raised a whole house foundation that was was underneath a CANAL in Amsterdam. But now, I hear, they are going to simulate an EARTHQUAKE. C'mon, really?

I have yet to see the original Rat Pack Ocean's 11, but I did watch Jean-Pierre Melvill's Bob Le Flambeur (1955), which inspired the "original" Ocean's 11 and was an awesome French heist movie where a noir-y, smooth, trench-coated theif manages, with the help of his wily pals, to rob a casino. Sound familiar? Yep.

In unrelated news, I bought an iTunes album yesterday sort of impulsively, but am loving it: The Reindeer Section's Son of Evil Reindeer. Now, I don't get the band's name or the title at all, but I'm really digging the music and have been playing it nonstop. The reason I bought it is because I had heard "You Are My Joy" and couldn't get it out of my head, found the album, and went for the whole thing. (Most of the time, I stingily buy just a few tracks from any one album. Or just download the freebies.) If I were mechanically fancy, I would put the song on this website, but you'll just have to go find it for yourself.

But every time I listen to it, Bush's State of the Union address comes on right after (it was a freebie, and I had cancelled it mid-download ages ago when the address actually aired, and for some reason it finished downloading when I got this album). Sort of wrecks the mood, you know?

21 June 2007

Summertime, and the livin' is easy

Happy first day of summer! Although the earth is physically farther from the sun now than it is in the winter, the northern hemisphere is on the end of the earth leaning towards the warmth. Our tilted axis provides just enough of a difference (a 23-degree lean) to warm us up and usher in the shenanigans of sunscreen, tank tops, and lemonade.

Not that, you know, there's any sign of sun on the little gray spot of earth called Brussels.

Speaking of natural phenomena, I've been more and more scared lately by environmental reports of climate change and ecosystem devastation. Most scary are unexplained and swift disappearances of our flying friends: bee populations and bird colonies are being rapidly depleted, and no one knows why.

Not only will we have a major pollination problem on our hands, threatening all of the crops we depend on for food, but with the birds and the bees gone, how will we explain to children where babies come from?

19 June 2007

All ye like sheep

The concert I sang in on Friday night went reasonably well, and as expected I got some major spine-chills. The music we sang and the cathedral we sang it in practically guaranteed them. It was a full house, with people even standing in the back, and the response was enthusiastic.

But we had some creative challenges as well, most of them logistics-related. I have never seen greater choral chaos than I did that night while we were lining up in the back of the church. In the green room, the organizers had told us to go out to the church, and line up without talking. You must envision here some hundred-odd people attempting to put themselves in reverse order, and mentally reconfigure the five rows we had been sitting in during the dress rehearsal into the four rows that were in the front of the church on concert night, all while maintaning eight part divisions. We had not practiced entering or exiting, as is de rigeur for choirs in concert situations. It was mayhem, and last-ditch attempts of someone to corral us into correct order resulted in further confusion, and the women marched towards the stage in complete disarray.

When I arrived on stage, I found myself in the front row, which I knew was a problem because of my height. I switched with a short woman, but then found myself in the midst of the second altos, when I sing first. So once again I switched, this time after we had already been seated, causing an entire row of women to jump from their chair to the next one over, musical-chairs style. And this was just me; similar little dramas were happening the whole time.

After the intermission, we marched up again, this time theoretically in order since we had "practiced" once, but somehow an entire row of altos went around to the wrong side, and we all had to sidle past each other on the narrow risers. Verrrry classy.

Oh, and a couple of basses' chairs' back legs slid off the risers when we sat down during the Fauré Requiem, causing some shiny tuxedo shoes to suddenly appear in the air, and also frightening a lot of us. Fortunately, they were fine, but it definitely interrupted the mood, and we also discovered, during the soprano Pie Jesu solo, that the chairs were squeaky as a pile of mice and that some of us are unable to be utterly still so as to prevent said mice from squeaking their version of a duet with the poor soloist.

Alas and alack, I do think our physical blunders must have effected the singing, in part by breaking up the voice parts and resulting in the second altos somehow becoming separated from the flock, musically speaking, during one of the Duruflé pieces. My loyal audience members promise they noticed nothing, and more or less everything else went swimmingly.

After the musical adventures on Friday, M. and I continued to have a great weekend. Post-concert we went to a friend's birthday party, and Saturday we lunched with an Argentinian friend who lives in England and who was here briefly, and then went to another party in the evening with all the Spanish Parliament people, which actually turned out really fun. M. and I danced a couple of salsas, even though we don't actually know how! Sunday afternoon we strolled around with a group of our Catalan friends at the huge outdoor Portuguese festival in our neighborhood, eating grilled sardines and shrimp, empanadas, and lots of yummy egg-cream based desserts, and then Sunday evening we went to a friend's house to watch the three simultaneous soccer games that would determine the winner of the Spanish Liga...although Barça pulled out an amazing game, scoring five goals, Madrid unfortunately also had an amazing game, and thus won the big silver cup. With both Barça and Real Madrid supporters in the room, there were some intense moments. Anyway, that was our weekend!

And coming up this weekend, the choir has another concert, this time in Namur, and with a fun repetoire incorporating jazz, pop, and classical pieces (rehearsing last night, I discovered more intimately than I ever have before just how weird of a song is Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"). I just hope we can manage to walk on stage without falling over our "little silhouettos."

Why I don't eat meat

I've been a vegetarian for over five years now, although not a terribly strict one, because I eat any and all fish and seafood. I've been thinking about eating meat again, and while I've eaten a bit here and there--even trying my mom's classic sloppy joe while I was home in May (flavors of childhood! could...not...resist!)--I think not having an overwhelming desire to continue eating meat after doing so means that I shouldn't rush into it.

As part of the process, I've been mulling over how my reasons for not eating meat have evolved over these few years, covering the gamut from political reasons to personal taste to questions of health and lifestyle. Thus, when people ask me why I don't eat meat, the answer is never easy, especially (as is often the case) when I'm explaining it to Europeans and in Spanish or Catalan or French. (Although, hands down, the hardest three people to explain it to are M's grandmother and my grandparents, who live in corn-and-cattle country. M's grandmother has resigned herself to strange food requirements, as our Senegalese brother-in-law and our two nieces don't eat pork.)

While the "easiest" reason to give, and the one people most like to hear, is that I just don't "like" meat (because it absolves the interlocuter of any implied judgement), this is only partially true. I've never been a huge fan of red meat in the form of a juicy steak or ribs, and poultry is all too often a bland white canvas for real flavors (and thus can be abandoned altogether), but I've got quite a weakness for a tasty German sausage, or a flavorful pork tenderloin, or a sweet and salty baked ham. So in many ways eating vegetarian has indeed been a sacrifice, and the smells of cooked meat are often terribly tempting.

The next most commonly assumed response, especially in the US, has to do with "animal rights." Again, this is only true in part. I don't have any problem with killing animals for food, and I believe that if animals are kept in a healthy environment and killed humanely (see the work of Temple Grandin on this problem) then there is no moral obligation not to eat animals. More on this in a moment.

In actual fact, what prompted my somewhat sudden decision to eat vegetarian was the influence of my housemate at the time (I was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts), and a book she had on her bookshelf: Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé. (You can find information here on the book and the organization set up by her and her daughter.)

One Sunday afternoon, at home by myself, I read the book from cover to cover, and decided then and there to stop eating meat. I remember that I even called some "vegetarian hotline" number I found online to receive information about where to begin. I think I wanted to make it official, and since no one was around, I had the urge to call someone!

At that moment, the decision was a political one, wanting to do my part in re-adjusting the huge and injust imbalance of food distribution in the world, also addressing the environmental costs of food production. To put it very very simplistically, I think it makes much more sense to use acres and acres of wheat to feed a hungry world, instead of putting all of that equivalent energy and fuel into one cow. In other words, eating vegetarian is a more efficient way to eat, especially for fat Westerners who aren't exactly lacking in alternative sources of protein.

I still wholeheartedly endorse this point of view, and support the work of the Small Planet Institute (link above). But I have to admit that I find myself wondering if my unconsumed meat really makes a dent in all of this. I wonder if eating meat that has been produced locally and organically, not as the base of my diet but as an occasional treat, would be just as effective. (Here, of course, the problem is access. It seems easier just to be "vegetarian" in order to avoid what would be perceived as a snobbish insistence on local/green meat, questioning every restaurant chef and market vendor, dinner hostess and mother-in-law who provides my meat.)

But then I go back to some of the other reasons I have for eating vegetarian, the reasons that kept me going after the initial zealous decision. First of all, after meat dropped out of my diet, I felt great! I got more slender (although, ahem, I have certainly gained it back in the intervening years!) (oh, let's be honest: it was this year), and as an added bonus, I really learned how to cook. Because the experience coincided with my first on-my-own apartment, and my first real attempts to cook for myself, I was forced to get more creative with my meals and learn how to make some excellent dishes from my housemate's vegetarian cookbooks.

And then, of course, as I found out more and more about the meat-production industry (see, for example, Fast Food Nation, and any number of exposé articles on the unhealthy practices of feed yards and slaughtering houses), I became more and more glad that I wasn't eating meat. I won't go into any more detail, but the thought of the chemicals and waste products that go into making a chicken or a cow churned my stomach. And they still do.

So if I do start to eat meat again, I will try hard to know where it comes from, and what goes into caring for and feeding the animal before it becomes "meat." This is going to take some doing, as I don't exactly live next door to a farm. And I might have to retain a "vegetarian" cover so I don't have to be quite as pesky when we are guests at someone's home. But I feel encouraged by the fact that Europe in general has stricter guidelines about meat production, and the farm-to-market system in every neighborhood promises better quality meats than the plastic-wrapped supermarket stuff.

I guess I'm a little worried that if I do start to eat meat, it will become harder and harder to maintain these standards, and I'll eventually just end up giving into my bottomless appetite and willingness to try about anything by eating whatever kind of meat is offered to me, whether it is street food or at a cocktail buffet or even--gulp!--a McDonald's sandwich. Because the irony of the self-imposed vegetarian limitation is that I am SO NOT a picky eater, and I always want to try everything. (This was then and is now the principle objection of the Mister--who, by the way, has continued to eat meat all the while. We once had the wide-eyed owner of the restaurant in Barcelona called Organic pronounce our vegetarian-carnivore matrimony true love, because she could never marry across that--in her view--immense gulf.)

Anyway, the question of more easily maintained boundaries makes me wonder if I should just stick to not eating meat. In any case, I'm sure you can see why this already long process will likely continue to be drawn out for a while, and why I'm not even sure that I will go back to the meat-eating ways of my Iowan forebears, or my Iberian--um--postbears.

16 June 2007

Po-Mo novel-ties

I know I just wrote a book post, but here I am with another. This time, it's about three novels that on first glance have nothing to do with one another: Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, and Murakami Haruki's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The stories couldn't be more different (I apologize in advance for the absurdity of reducing complex novels to a few book-jacket sentences):

In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, a man wakes up from an accident with total amnesia of all personal memories, but can remember facts, books, all of his "public" memory. He spends days rooting through his childhood country home in Italy, re-reading old books and magazines, to recapture his family and personal past.

In My Name Is Red, a manuscript illuminator in 16th-century Istanbul is murdered, sparking off both a murder investigation and an inquisition into the nature of art as the Eastern styles are being influenced by the "Frankish" concepts of perspective, portraiture, and individual style. Each chapter is told in a different voice, including the voice of a coin, a tree, the color red, the murderer, etc.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a jobless modern-day Japanese man loses his cat and is suddenly deserted by his wife. He meets a curious string of people who might be able to help him get his wife back, including a 16-year-old suicidal neighbor, a psychic and her sister, a war veteran, and a fashion designer. The past and the present, the real and the dream world begin to merge into and emerge from one another.

What do these novels have in common, you ask? While reading them, my enthusiasm changed drastically from the beginning to the end. Reading the first two, I was completely enthralled at the beginning, and utterly tired of it all by the conclusion, almost ready to ditch the book altogether. The third begins "normally," and ends surreally, and is more complex, so my interest was more steadily sustained.

What all three also have in common is that I would characterize them as "postmodern" novels, in the sense that traditional notions of plot, narration, and temporality are violently skewed. I love that about them. Eco's book incorporates many visual reproductions, thus creating a simultaneous visual narrative; meanwhile, we question the narrator's reporting, due to his amnesia, his admitted need to reconstruct the past and thus present personality (an impossible task, of course). I loved the way the novel opened up questions of reliability, of present/past and public/private, of memory and history.

The Pamuk novel also plays with narration, this time using multiple narrators (even of objects, colors, and the dead) to accomplish its instability. The first and second chapters are titled, for instance, "I am a Corpse," and "I Will be Called a Murderer." The whodunnit plot, as well as a love story, drive the exploration of artistic technique and the clash of cultures. We hear from the murderer both in his guise as a murderer and as a respected artist, without knowing which speaker's voice is the same as the criminal's. I was really digging all of this. So clever, I thought!

But what happened in both the Eco and the Pamuk is that the story was abandoned altogether. By the end, the reader is lost in a murky chaos, unsatisfied and awash in the cleverness of the author's philosophical play with plot, narration, and temporality. Finding out who the murderer is somehow is a letdown. In other words, they're too clever.

The Haruki novel takes things from the reverse angle. It starts out as a straightforward story of a sad-sack guy, and descends into the worlds of his dreams, of visitors who explain the past, their letters, computer realities, television personalities, psychic connections, and more. I love that all of this is disturbingly surreal at times, yet is still logically linked to the quotidian details of a regular life, and the surreal seems to be explainable by the real.

What this novel does successfully that the others don't, in other words, is that the plot-drive is maintained, despite all of these flights of reality. The guy wants to find his wife and bring her back. And although the ending does not supply a hollywood scene of reunited lovers, it at least brings us back to that crucial point, recognizing that what the reader wants is not to be left with a big void, a big question mark. Even if there still is one (or many). Does that make sense?

Don't take this as a rant against postmodern novel techniques. What I guess I'm saying is that I think authors should somehow maintain a balance between narrative that questions narrative and narrative that provides a good story. Why do we read, anyway? It is both to find out "what happens" and to find out how we find out what happens, i.e., how the story is told. (There is a reason we read books even when we know the ending.)

Traditional novels, thrillers, love stories: these all focus mostly on "what happens," without drawing attention to the "how," even if the way of telling the story is breathtaking or original. Postmodern novels focus on the "how," playing with readers' expectations, sometimes abandoning the "what happens" altogether. I'm suggesting that novelists shouldn't abandon one over the other.

15 June 2007

Singin' in the Rain

Tonight I am singing in my first concert with the BCS, and am greatly looking forward to it. We had our dress rehearsal earlier this week, and although singing in a big cavernous cathedral-like church with mile-long reverb makes us feel like we are singing through butter, and forces us to take everything a notch slower (so it all doesn't become a dissonant mess), it is such an awesome feeling to finish with a big chord, cut off, and let the sound swim around in the air forever.

We're singing five pieces from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, four Duruflé Motets, Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, and the Fauré Requiem, as well as a contemporary piece by our conductor. It involves whole-note scales, chanting things, and big puffs of haaaahhhhh to create a windy effect; it's actually quite cool.

I'm always excited about choral concerts: they are the one performance situation that I don't rather loathe. I'm on stage with a large group of people, so it's not just me, and there's nothing like the synergy of an intently focused group of singers creating something bigger than all of them put together to make chills run up and down my spine.

When I was home, my mom and brother and I were reminiscing about the time when I sang in an All-New England's choir in high school and the choir royally messed up one of the pieces (it was one of these modern pieces, called The Creation, with a electronica tape, and the cue was wrong so the whole entire piece was out of sync with the tape). After the concert, I cried. I was so extremely disappointed that we had ruined the piece and in my mind ruined the whole concert. I remember being outraged that all the other kids were just laughing and gathering their bags to go home, seemingly unconcerned about the royal mess-up. Singing in choral concerts give me a high like nothing else, and that night was a low crash instead.

I hope I've learned not to take it so badly if a concert doesn't go so well, but I am looking forward to that euphoric musical high.

(Oh, and the post title is because we'll be singing, and I'm pretty sure it'll be raining. Yesterday it poured so hard I thought the frites stand across the street might float away.)


You know that feeling of finding a passage or a description in a book and thinking "that is so me," or "that is so true"?

I had that feeling some time ago, when I was reading Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. I'm a big McEwan fan lately; he's quite brilliant on the subtle motivations, emotions, desires and fears that go into any human interaction. The moment that flashed out at me this time was about anger, the psychology of arguing.

Mid-way through the book, a couple have an argument, a serious one, compounded by both coming home after a terrible day and neither being able to give or receive what they need from the other. Their attitudes towards arguing are described:

"She is especially bad at arguments. She has never been able to accept the rules of engagement which permit or require you to say things that you do not mean, or are distorted truths, or not true at all. She can't help but feeling that every hostile utterance of hers takes her further not only from Joe's love, but from all the love she's ever had, and makes her feel that a buried meanness has been exposed that truly represents her."

"His emotions are slow to shift to anger in the first place, and even when they have, he has the wrong kind of intelligence, he forgets his lines and cannot score the points. Nor can he break the the habit of responding to an accusation with a detailed, reasoned answer, instead of coming back with an accusation of his own. He is easily outmanoeuvred by a sudden irrelevance."

The funny thing is that I saw myself in both descriptions: the cost of uttering untruths or accusations seems far too much to bear (in that it breaks down a relationship that I value, in that I can't stand for anyone not to like me, and in that it might reveal how mean I really am); but I am also horrible at verbal repartee and always feel myself floundering in the flow of an intense conversation, trying to respond to one point when another one has already taken its place.

Friends have asked me, Don't you ever get angry? The answer is that I get angry, like anyone else, but I can't really remember ever having arguments or fights, those of the screaming match and slammed-door variety (mom, am I blocking out anything from the teen years?). When I do get angry, I almost always find it easy to get over on my own, or else bottle it up pretty successfully. I'm far more likely to cry than to yell. So even getting to the point of an argument is hard, and when there, the reasons described in McEwan's book prevent me from being a "good" arguer.

So, what books have given you a "that's me" moment?

13 June 2007

American justice

Even if I did believe in capital punishment, which I categorically do not, I think I would have to be swayed by the statistics about prisoners who have been wrongfully condemned, and then proven innocent by DNA evidence. According to The Innocence Project, an organization committed to vindicating the wrongfully accused, "DNA testing has proven that 203 innocent people spent nearly 2,500 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit." And these are just the people whose case has included some kind of DNA evidence, whose evidence has been kept on file, whose files have been revisted.

I am thinking about this because I just listened to an episode of This American Life on the subject, an episode called "Perfect Evidence." It's heartbreaking. The first is "the story of how one tragedy becomes two." In brief, this is how it goes: in 1986, a young, white woman is raped and murdered in Chicago, and the murder is heavily covered on the media, so the pressure to find the killers is great. Four young boys are considered as suspects.

Under police pressure, one of them unwittingly signs a confession that gets him a lighter sentence (the police tell him if he signs, he "can go home"). It later turns out the "confession" is taken directly from a crime profiler's description of what he imagines the murder scene to be like. The police copy the profile nearly verbatim, stick it in front of a suspect, have him sign it, and call the case solved. The confession fingers the three other boys as well, who are all convicted, even though there is little physical evidence, and what physical evidence there is doesn't add up (the blood type of the semen found on the scene does not match the blood type of any of the four: an "expert" witness lies about this in court, implying that the blood type does match). They go to jail, and spend fifteen years appealing their case, while they routinely get beat up because their crime is considered so heinous by the other inmates. One of them is stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick.

One of the (no-longer) boys reads an article about DNA evidence and a lawyer who is working on cases like theirs. They contact the lawyer, who spends hundreds of hours and $50,000 of her own money to prove that these boys did not commit the crime they are in jail for. She is told the evidence had been destroyed, but finds a contact within the police department who retrieves and shows her the physical evidence. Finally, they are released.

The story of these kids is so amazing for several reasons. First, because of the messed-up way in which the police conduct the investigation and the legal system conducts the prosecution of the innocent. Second, and this impressed me even more, because they aren't cynical about it afterwards.

After being released from prison, this is what one of the guys, Omar Saunders, says about his perspective on the American system of justice: "...the concept and principles on which the country is founded has always been on our side." The interviewer, surprised, says that it seems like he actually has more respect for the system since he's been in jail. His reply?

"...it's a lack of understanding the system that caused it. It's like if the police do something to me, I ain't gonna say go blow up the whole Chicago police force, because you got a lot of good Chicago policemen. That's why I always...they, the media said that we got out and that we spoke vehemently against the system. I never spoke against the system. I love America! I understand that the system don't operate itself. It's people. There ain't nothing wrong... America got one of the greatest jurisprudence systems in the world. In some countries, when you do something, they kill you. That ain't nothing to talk about.

"See, so my whole view today is I understand that, if we want to make America a greater place, it's gonna take people like us, to understand what the nation is based on, and do what the founding fathers did, when they thought that their freedoms were being jeapordized, and that their rights were being infringed. You do that by knowing the law. When you don't know something, people can take advantage. This is a beautiful different kind of republic."

This second story on the episode is about a 14-year-old boy who confesses to the murder of his sister. Yet, he didn't do it, and fortunately, is never even convicted because the real killer is found before the trial. Ira Glass and an expert on police questioning listen to the tape of the police interrogating this poor boy. The policeman talking to him, in a slow, kind voice throughout, tells him they have a machine, a "computer stress voice indicator" that registers the "tremors" in his voice and can detect if he's lying (which does no such thing but is a common psychological interrogation tool used on the naïve or ignorant), then tell him that the machine shows he is lying about knowing whether he knows who killed his sister.

There are many references to the "hard cold science" of the situation, saying that "technology is on our side." The computer doesn't lie. (But of course, humans do.) After hours of interrogation, they tell him that they have found his sister's blood in his room. This freaks him out. By this point, the poor boy is absolutely broken, sobbing in the most wrenching way, and instead of believing himself, is convinced that he killed her without his knowing. He has "confessed." It was difficult even to listen to, and according to the academic Ira Glass has on the show with him, these kind of interrogation techniques are perfectly acceptable to the law and commonly used.

While the story of Saunders and his friends, despite it all, left me hopeful, the shuddering sobs of the boy who confesses to his sister's murder will stay with me for a long time.

The episode, first broadcast in April of 2002, can be listened to here on the This American Life webpage. The stories on This American Life--and lately I've been working through my TAL archives--have consistently left me bowled over, like nothing else I read or hear.

Glaieuls du Chatelain

One of the first times I came to Brussels, M. and I decided to go exploring in the city. Friends had recommended Place du Chatelain as a chic, beautiful plaza, so we took the walk. I remember that it seemed very far away, and that when we arrived, it was a big disappointment, because it was basically just a big, oval parking lot, with a few boutique stores surrounding it. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, and it was a gray day, but still, we had expected something at least pleasant.

Today, I have just come back from Chatelain, where all of its vibrant magic was in full swing. The thing to know--which we didn't on our first visit--is that once a week the parking lot transforms into a fabulous market, and that the market is open only on Wednesdays. It's not the chaotic, bargain-basement market of Midi, or the quotidian market of Parvis St. Gilles, but an upscale charmer of a market, with expensive, luscious fruits piled carefully into baskets, artesanal breads, fancy olives and cheeses and fresh cookies, stands where you can eat Thai or Morrocan or Japanese, stands that sell glasses of chilled white wine, and acres of opulent flowers.

I met a friend there for lunch, and on my way back I was considering just how sharp the contrast was between that gray disappointment that I couldn't have located on a map, and today's joyful feeling of knowing where I was and where I was going, enjoying the smells and colors and sun. After I had Pad Thai with my friend, we each bought a half-kilo of gleaming cherries, and then she went back to work, while I strolled the stalls. Besides the cherries, I bought a soft mound of chèvre rolled in red and black pepper, a galette to munch on (sort of a cross between a Belgian waffle and a cookie), olives stuffed with garlic, and an armful of hot-orange gladiolas.

Speaking of the gladiolas, on my way home, I stopped in a nearby bookshop, and bought a tiny little book, a short story by Maupassant. I picked it up because I thought it might make a good read for practicing my French. And when I opened to the first page I saw that the first words were a date: my birthday. With that, I knew it should be mine. But back to the flowers: the nice ladies at the bookstore asked me about my flowers, where I had gotten them, and how much they cost. I was thrilled to have not only understood the questions but to have been able to answer. In turn, I asked them a question: what are these flowers called? Turns out that in French they are called glaieuls. I repeated after her, inserting a "d," like in English, but she said it again, and I said, "ah, sans le d! En anglais, c'est gladiola."

I also stopped at a computer store, a Mac Reseller, to ask about getting an iSight and a router. This conversation was also carried on in French! (Which is the only reason I am blathering on about this otherwise irrelevant detail.) Did you know that the iSight is no longer made? I didn't, but it makes sense, since the new macs have an incorporated camera. I'll have to find another webcam. Anyway, I once again managed to have this relatively (for me) complicated conversation in French, and so I am thrilled that a year of classes are showing some results. I have my final exam tomorrow, and the oral on Tuesday.

But the point of this post isn't really speaking French. It's more about the nice feeling of being in a place, of getting to know its beautiful corners, and making it my own. For me, it has been harder to do in Brussels than in Barcelona, where I feel that beauty is always spilling at my feet. Here, I have to look for it, and celebrate it where I can. And when it comes in the form of some hot-orange gladiolas, so much the better.

04 June 2007

The running report

Amazingly, I actually managed to get up at seven and go running with M! Not so amazingly, I was rapidly out of breath, and besides I had some mysterious stomach pains that weren't connected to the running, since I had them upon waking up and thought they would just go away. The didn't, so the whole exercise bit wasn't as robust as planned. Maybe I AM allergic to running. Psychosomatic effects? Still, I got up, and that in itself is something. We will try to continue the habit. The park is quite pleasant in the morning, and the temperature was about perfect, slightly cool but not at all cold. (Dare I say that getting up had something to do with making it public to the online world that I was planning to do so? Ah, the power of saving face.)

Today and tomorrow's extracurricular activities involve planning for a dinner party we are having tomorrow night: M's boss and two other European MPs, and their assistants, for a total of 7 guests, plus us. I'm trying to find a not-too-mundane but not-too-fancy dish to prepare, something that can bake in the oven while everyone arrives and we have hors d'oeuvres (cheese, olives, and artichoke dip) and the first course (either asparagus salad or beet salad, depending on what I decide for the main course). Some kind of lasagna? Another kind of baked pasta? Heeelp!

We went to Ikea on Saturday to buy more plates and wine glasses, since we had only enough for five people to eat on real dinner plates at one time. So at least no one will be eating their lasagna off of a napkin.

03 June 2007

There were at least five cakes

Is it really June already? Nearly a month worth's of life has gone by, and here Blogger sits, patiently waiting for some input. No complaints, its welcoming blank square just waiting for the words I type--waiting to turn them into the twenty-first century internaut's answer to the captain's log: the blog.

Fortunately, I saw many of my loyal readers (in other words, friends and family) while I was stateside for two and a half weeks, so my whereabouts haven't been too much of a mystery. I got to meet some of my friends' adorable babies for the first time (including one in utero), and the babies are as beautiful as they are. And I got to meet my brand-new nephew! He was born on the day I was flying to the US, and after I landed and my brother picked me up, my parents called to give us the good news.

I feel so blessed to have been around for the first weeks of his life. I know in the future it will be harder and harder to be there when nieces and nephews are born (assuming you're going to keep them coming, guys!), so I am definitely savoring this. It was also extremely fun to spend time with the newborn's brother, the most clever and winsome two-year-year old on the planet. FYI, I am completely devoid of any auntly bias whatsoever.

During those weeks, there was a wedding, and a house-moving, and a birthday, and mother's day, and my parent's anniversary, so we kept busy, I should say. I also attended a conference in Canada, and met some great people and delivered a paper that went over more or less well. I will have to tell you about the moment when they wouldn't let me board the return flight because the computer said I hadn't PAID for the ticket, however.

I'll take a rain check on that story. Right now, I have to go to bed, because I promised the Mister that I would get up with him in the morning and go RUNNING. I imagine those of you who know me may be laughing right now, but I shook his hand and made a DEAL that I would either go with him in the morning or go swimming by myself later in the day. I would rather impress him (he was quite doubtful--more about my early-morning wake-up skills than my running skills, as you yourself may be) than take the easy, watery way out, so I'm going to try to get to bed early. It might be tough, since I still have jet lag, and am not sleepy in the slightest, but where there's a will there's a way. And I need to run off some of the wedding, birthday, anniversary and mother-daughter bakefest-related foodstuffs that were ingested over the last few weeks. I'll give you a full report in the morning.