Category Archives: Friends and Foes

Best and Worst of 2013!

It’s the beginning of a new year, a golden opportunity to revive a blog (maybe with a resolution to post once a month?) and talk about the year that’s over. So here are my most and least favorite things about 2013.

Part I: Odds and Ends, Netflix, Best Day, Villains, Bestworst Frenemies
Coming in future blog posts: Heroes of the Year, Books of the Year

Most Incriminating Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Coworker: “We used to be responsible for shooting all new employees.”

Weirdest Out-of-Context Remark Written Down in My Notebook

Friend: “If there’s anything I don’t want in my uterus, it’s hyenas!”

Worst Menu Description

At Club Soda in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which for the record is not a club but a very enjoyable restaurant, New Holland Dragon’s Milk beer is described as a “black lager.” Oh, I thought, a nice lager will do nicely with the appetizers and whatever I order. “Are you sure?” the waitress asked. “That’s the darkest thing we have.” “Well yeah,” I said, “it says it’s a black lager, so I guess it’s black.”

It wasn’t a black lager. It was a 10% ABV bourbon barrel aged imperial stout. So that was a surprise.

Best Illegal Photograph

Speaking of Fort Wayne, I took this picture at its art museum, after the guard said photography was forbidden, but also after he turned around to talk to somebody. It’s a blown-glass piece by Stephen Rolfe Powell.

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Also, one of the last ten photos taken with my old camera (which was also my first camera).

Worst Imaginary Food

In August, I had a dream that a peanut butter chocolate brownie was going around sexually harassing women. It moved around by pivoting on its corners, and the divide between the chocolate and peanut butter layers of the brownie served to help it wink, make kissy-faces, and otherwise express itself in a creepy fashion. (Since people have asked: I was not drunk or otherwise in an altered state.)

Best Use of Netflix

TIE: Enjoying the awesome new show Orange is the New Black, and savoring an awesome old show which I somehow had never seen before (I blame you, Mom and Dad!): Cheers.

Worst Use of Netflix

In case you’re wondering, Strippers Versus Werewolves is a movie where strippers fight werewolves, but only after an hour of dithering and preparing to fight and talking about the pointless explanation for why the strippers have to fight werewolves.

Worst Thing About a Great Thing About Netflix

Netflix has Columbo! But it’s missing the first two episodes!

Best Overall Day

September 14, 2013, started out looking like it would be good and only got better. My friend Rory and I were visiting our friend Anna in Houston, and Anna got invited to a friend’s house in the suburbs for a barbecue cookout pool party. We went to Target–Rory and I needed to buy swimsuits–and then to the party, which turned out to be a couple people fixing strong drinks and a few middle-aged guys who apparently spend all their free time perfecting barbecue recipes. You’d be hard-pressed to find better meat and side dishes in any restaurant. I was so busy chowing down and enjoying conversation I didn’t even get in the pool. But we didn’t have much time, because once we’d stuffed our faces there, we had a wedding to go to.

Yeah, there was that too. Our friend Catherine Bratic married her love, Mike Benza, at a bash which can be described as extremely wonderful to attend. I’d never been to a wedding before. I’ll probably never go to such a lavish one again. String quartet, seared ahi steak canapes, bubbly, and the groom’s family dancing enthusiastically to “Call Me Maybe”.

Oh, hey, Catherine and Mike have a blog about their life in France, so go read that.

Top Five Villains of the Year

5. Whole Foods. The hippies at Whole Foods are great capitalists. That $15 bottle of wine you got at Whole Foods is $11 at Spec’s. I recently encountered chicken breasts for $15.99 per pound. They have some stuff most grocery stores don’t (like good feta cheese), but the fact that my nearest and most convenient grocery is a Whole Foods kind of stinks. Maybe they would have avoided this list if they didn’t always run out of fresh-baked wheat bread before I show up. Argh!

4. Jonathan Franzen. What if a writer who aspires to greatness builds his reputation on trenchant critique and dissent, but actually he’s just a grumpy sourpuss who hates everything? Then you have Jonathan Franzen. I need to give him a fair chance; my something like five attempts to read either The Corrections or Freedom have all failed by page 5 because of the suffocatingly smug prose, but hey, maybe he’s a self-important malcontent with something to valuable to say! There has to be at least one, right?

3. Macy’s. I walked in, picked a tie off the table, and put it on the counter. The saleslady forced me to spend another half hour looking at more and more ties in every conceivable color, until she had decided to charge me for something like five, before I finally said, “I just want one” and bought the one I had started with. She gave me one good bit of advice (“You’re skinny, so wear a skinny tie”) but wasted my time endlessly, and even worse, she asked for my customer account info, which I forgot, and in the ensuing badly-explained process she signed me up for a credit card, which she did not tell me about and arrived in the mail as a surprise, and charged my purchase to it, which was easy to forget about because I destroyed the card three minutes after receiving it.

Basically, Macy’s wants shopping there to be as unpleasant as possible. It’s the Blockbuster of stores.

2. Ted Cruz. This list would be nonsensical without Ted Cruz. In lieu of discussion, here is a picture of his “smell my fart” face:

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re smelling comes from my office’s fajita buffet.”

1. Barack Obama. This was a bad year for Obama, and for all of us. The “red line” remark about Syria almost brought us into yet another hopelessly doomed war, before one of the world’s wisest and most distinguished elder statesmen stepped in with a plan to avoid international conflict. No, wait. It was Vladimir Putin.

Take a moment to think back to 2008. Would you have ever guessed that Vladimir Putin would stop Barack Obama from getting involved in a disastrous war?

And then there was Obamacare doing a belly flop Corgi flop, as illustrated in this video so that you can laugh through your pain at the total disaster that is our healthcare system:

And hey, we’re not even to the worst part yet! The worst part is that Barack Obama presides over, and completely approves of, a surveillance system which would make any third-world tyrant jealous.

Here’s a quick recapitulation adapted and expanded from my previous blog post on the subject, including more recent news stories:

(a) Spoken words from domestic telephone calls are “routed into a system” and stored; (b) government officials can listen to domestic calls “simply based on an agent deciding that,” possibly with approval of a court that approves 99.91% of requests; (c) phone call and email metadata for American citizens is kept and stored permanently to track your contacts, location, and other valuable information; (d) the U.S. government collects emails, chats, video chats, search records, and other desired internet information data from all the major web companies; (e) evidence accidentally (and illegally) collected from American citizens is totally legit to use in court; (f) the NSA may spy on American citizens unchecked in extreme emergencies (as chosen by the NSA itself); (g) spies can violate attorney-client privilege in U.S. court cases; (g) all encrypted material must be kept, since the system “requires” it; (h) data by or about U.S. citizens can be forwarded to domestic authorities if it contains evidence of any crime, terrorism or not; (i) electronics shipped to U.S. addresses can be stolen, clogged with spyware and malware by secret agents, repackaged, and shipped to the customer who thinks (s)he is getting a clean new computer; (j) spies spying on their significant others is so common that it’s code-named LOVEINT; (k) the NSA shares Americans’ data with Israeli intelligence; (l) the NSA uses Americans’ phone call and email data to make diagrams showing people’s social networks and friend-groups; (m) the government makes sure that basically everything made is easy to hack, like Internet encryption and iPhones; (n) specific targets have included the leaders of Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil, plus al-Jazeera, the World Bank, and everybody with a phone in Norway.

There’s so much illegal or unconstitutional activity here that I can’t imagine the courts getting through it all anytime soon. Here’s a full list of revelations with news sources. And the government can get away with it, because it’s too enormous a misdeed to stop, because there are billions of dollars in funding, because nobody can prove in court they were specifically targeted unless the government says so, and because “national security! Top secret info!” is the easiest, sleaziest defense.

Someone recently told me, “You sound like a conservative.” Nope. Kind of the opposite. But Barack Obama should be impeached.

Top and Also Bottom Three Frenemies of the Year

Ah, yes, frenemies! Those people you love to hate and/or hate to love.

3. 512 Brewing Company, Austin, Texas. This one’s simple, 512: Cascabel Cream Stout is my favorite Texas beer. But it’s not available in bottles and it’s only available in winter. How can you be so cruel?

2. Larry Klayman. The guy who sued the government over mass NSA phone data collection, and just won Round 1 after a ruling by Judge Richard Leon, is actually a fruitcake who sues everybody all the time because he sucks. Previous lawsuit victims for this sleazebag civil rights hero: Rachel Maddow, Facebook, and his own mother. He’s been banned from two courtrooms and he says Obama is “evil, plain and simple.” Obama’s not evil, Larry; he just sucks at being good. He also told Obama to “put the Qu’ran down and come out with your hands up.” So yeah, there’s that. Every so often, even a blind rabid insane hate-fueled asshole squirrel finds a nut.

1. Dark chocolate peanut butter. Why oh why does eating have to have consequences?

Coming in Part II: Heroes of the Year!

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Friends and Foes: February

Spurred on by always-a-friend Carina, who noticed I hadn’t given you notice of my friends and foes for February, here’s a hastily-written summary to catch you up to speed!

Friends

Road trips. Gosh, making playlists is fun. Two friends (not the monthly kind, the permanent kind) and I are road-tripping to Florida in March to catch spring training baseball, and I’ve been forced to rediscover the joy of the mixtape. The five mixtapes, in this case. There’s one which is al(most al)l songs from Phineas and Ferb; there’s one which is all about New Orleans; and there’s another with a theme of whales. Yes, whales. Not the entire disc, of course, but thanks to Caitlin Miller I do indeed have a rockin’ song pertaining to whales and I decided to build a whole CD around it. This is music geek heaven.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. I’m only just over halfway through this massive book, but it’s a fascinating, hugely informative read, and well-written, too. Pinker’s thesis is that violence has been in decline through much of human history and is in its steepest decline now–that all the wars, failed states, and drug murders of today represent glorious progress compared to the past. His case is built with evidence the way Niagara Falls is built with water: it’s massive, unstoppable, and seemingly never-ending.

I’ve learned a lot of interesting side factoids from it, too. For example, Switzerland had a nuclear weapons research program for over 20 years.

And their reactors were much better-disguised than Iran's.

Putting creme de menthe in chocolate chip cookies. Trust me on this one, folks.

Foes

Ryan Braun. Sorry, but I still think the National League MVP is guilty of using illegal performance-enhancing substances. I will wait for the written judgment explaining the verdict in his favor, but from this ill-informed point of view I don’t see why he was cleared.

Parents who drive their kids to the bus stop, then have their kids sit in the car with them until the school bus is actually rolling up. C’mon, people. Save some gasoline and make your wimpy kids suck it up. Most of the time when I see parents doing this, it’s not even cold or rainy.

Windows, apparently. My laptop no longer recognizes wireless internet connections. The Toshiba support people are worried that I’ll have to restore the computer to factory conditions. This doesn’t sound good.

Special Bonus Category: Frenemies!

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. By rights they should be enemies, because these two men have plans for America so divergent from what I believe in that they’re repulsive to me. Mitt Romney, the iconic “one-percenter” whose tax rate is roughly equivalent to mine with a little help from the Cayman Islands, hopes to, as a top priority, create an economic conflict with China. One of the Obama administration’s signal foreign-policy achievements has been talking China into seeing America as a necessary colleague and partner. So naturally Romney, who plans to declare China a currency manipulator as soon as he takes office, thinks that “they’ve walked all over” Obama. That misread alone could, if it became policy, tank the economy.

And then there’s Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum lives in a world where George Clooney should not be kissing Billy Crystal on national TV.

Ewww, man-cooties!

Of course, Rick Santorum also lives in a world where all universities are “indoctrination mills,” public schools are a malevolent threat, feminists chase women into abortion clinics and careers, and Satan is coming to get America. He’s not really opposed to higher education; he’s opposed to education.

So what elevates these folks to the frenemies category? The Republican Party needs to wake up to the fact that many of its positions (including more or less every word they speak about social issues and income inequality) are going to lose it an entire generation of voters. Romney and Santorum, in their very different ways, represent all that is wrong with the party. So I find in them a slight sliver of friend–because they are so good at exposing much that is so bad. They’re muckrakers, by mistake.

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Friends and Foes: November

This was fun to write last month, so here’s a new installment in the what-now-must-be-a series. Apologies for the slight delay, but here are my friends and foes in the month of November.

Friends

Asakusa. Wouldn’t you know: Fort Wayne, Indiana has a superb Japanese restaurant. This is especially shocking because Fort Wayne previously had scarcely any creditable food at all. But Asakusa supplied udon as good as any I’d had and other fixings; my father’s sashimi came on a preposterous wooden boat, too.

Having Thanksgiving on a Friday. Not only do you have an excuse for not shopping, but there’s also less awkward day-after-Thanksgiving griping about the food! Actually, by a weird twist of fate, this year I had Thanksgiving dinner on Friday and leftovers the day before. There can only be one explanation: I am in control of time-travel technology.

Barack Obama. Okay, this is not about politics. This is not about Obama’s governance. I just had a thought the other day: there has been no Obama sex scandal. How hard is it to be a politician and keep your pants on at the appropriate times? “Oh, come on,” you say, “it can’t be that hard.” But then there’s Herman Cain, paying off his mistress for thirteen years behind his wife’s back; Newt Gingrich, having an affair behind his wife’s hospital charts; Anthony Weiner, getting a little too intimate on Twitter; John Edwards, pulling a Newt Gingrich; Mark Sanford, running away to Argentina; Eliot Spitzer, hooked on hookers; John Ensign, paying off those in the know; and who was the last Democratic president? There are more or less three major politicians around today who still have squeaky-clean sexual records: Mitt Romney, probably because he was born without the part of the brain that loves things; Ron Paul, because he’s Ron Paul; and Barack Obama, who’s youngish and dashing and has a great smile and more power than he thinks he has but keeps his belt buckled. So until we find out what Barry’s having on the side, I think it’s appropriate to say: kudos.

Sarah Nixon. My co-worker kindly reminded me about the existence of National Novel Writing Month exactly five days before it began, giving me just enough time to write a good outline. Just kidding: I figured out the idea for my story on the evening of October 30, and on November 1 didn’t really know the names or behaviors or relationships of any characters at all. I had to pause halfway down the first page to figure out the name of the person giving the opening monologue. This is what veterans of the write-a-novel-in-a-month process call “pantsing” (going by the seat of your pants), and I can now confirm that I did indeed successfully finish an entire novel in a month with no planning at all. Call it writing in the second degree. Thanks, Sarah!

This is what pretty much my entire month looked like.

Everyone who put up with me doing nothing but write a novel for a month, even if it meant waiting longer to get replies to letters or emails or requests for Christmas gift ideas. Seriously, folks. Thank you.

Foes

Patricia Ladd. Patricia was my nefarious archenemy in a slightly imaginary race to see who could finish their NaNoWriMo novel first. Patricia’s devastatingly devious device to defeat my dazzling debut was derailed due to a delayed day one, but she defied the disparity by devilishly discharging her drama with dizzying dispatch. In other words, I had a head start but she finished first. For that rough beginning, Patricia can blame an amazing wedding and a tactfully unblogged-about honeymoon.

Some English website that apparently was selling the complete Haydn string quartets and the complete Haydn symphonies for $5 each but they fixed the pricing error before I could get home from work and find out about it. But the people who did order in time actually got their copies sent to them at that price. Moral: I should shop more at work?

Amazon.com. For shipping all the Christmas gifts I ordered to my former address by default. Okay, I probably could have paid more attention, but I hadn’t had anything shipped there in 20 months. Why would that be my default?

Bud Selig. Thanks to the Houston Astros’ impending (2013) departure from the National League (NL), baseball’s two leagues will have an equal number of teams. That’s a worthy goal, but it also means that literally every baseball team within nine hundred miles of my home will play in the Artificial League (AL). Consider:

What the heck, baseball? Some of us do think that the designated hitter rule is just a subsidy for fat, old, creaky people who never learned how to be an athlete but expect to get a job in athletics anyway. (click to embiggen)

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Friends and Foes: October

So I haven’t written a real blog post since moving back to the USA in August. It’s at last time to bust that drought and give any remaining readers a friendly reassurance that I am, in fact, alive and enjoying myself. Maybe a good format for an update would be to craft a list of my newfound friends and enemies here in the States.

Friends

Texas weather. Hey, it’s gotten gorgeous. Reasonable temperatures in the shade and in the evenings–I’ve been eating outside a lot at lunch and dinner–and this weekend we actually managed five inches of rain. The fifty-some consecutive days of 100+ temperatures are over.

Patricia Ladd. For her possibly life-saving reply to my vitally important question about the possibility of cross-species zombie attacks.

Typos. My new job is proofreading standardized tests for students in places as diverse as Florida, Illinois, and the United Arab Emirates. When a test form comes my way with no errors in it, I feel slightly disappointed. On the other hand, every typo makes me think, “aha! I’ve just earned my check!”

See, the thing is, I pretty naturally edit everything I read anyway–like last month, when I counted the typographical errors in David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest (amazingly for a book so huge, only 6). It still surprises me a little bit that somebody would actually pay me to do something that comes so naturally to me. It’s like getting $14 an hour for breathing, or eating cookies.

Anyway: typos are most certainly my friends. And speaking of friends at work:

Whoever had my office desk before I did. Not only did (s)he leave two entire desk drawers full of nearly every kind of office supply (all but a stapler), (s)he also left behind a cheap pair of headphones. Huzzah! Now I can listen to music at work without using my enormous fancy-schmancy high-falootin’ wrap-around noise-cancelers!

One more Friend at Work:

The awesome cafeteria sandwich guy. He cheers for the sandwiches he makes the way most people cheer for football teams (e.g., “chiipootlaayyyy maaayyyyyooooooo!!”).

Queen Mary, University of London. For making my master’s degree official and even thinking my thesis worthy of a “Distinction.” As of October 5, I really officially am totally, completely finished with my year in London.

The St. Louis Cardinals. Anybody who defeats the Philadelphia Phillies is a friend of mine, at least temporarily.

Foes

The Philadelphia Phillies. (VANQUISHED)

Roast beef. How can something that looks so richly flavorful taste so bland?

Roast beef promises so much and delivers so little.

William Jennings Bryan. My family and I watched the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary Prohibition on PBS last week, and one of the many striking things about the series–like the stubborn misguidedness of prohibitionists in the face of their program’s failure, the power of women in making Prohibition happen (and the closeness of the Prohibition and women’s rights movements), and the impossibly cinematic life story (and wife story) of bootlegger extraordinaire George Remus–was that here, again, was William Jennings Bryan, busy being wrong.

Few Americans–maybe no Americans–have ever been as brilliant, as oratorically electric, and as centrally important to their era while simultaneously managing to be wrong about everything. WJB was wrong on his populist economic policy, wrong on his beloved Prohibition, wrong on nationalizing the rail system, wrong on religion being the only font of morality (his main extrapolitical cause), and wrong on evolution when he prosecuted it in Dayton, Tennessee. Do we admire WJB for the resolve, eloquence, and courage with which he was boundlessly wrong, or do we just sort of frown and wish he had gotten it all right?

Preservatives. I think I blogged about this once already, but the fact that bread-based items from the grocery store don’t expire for a month is really creepy. It’s like if Michael Bay created a loaf of bread on his storyboard, only if Michael Bay had invented pre-sliced white bread in plastic bags, you could probably push a button and turn it into a 32-foot-tall hamburger.

(artist's rendering)

Forget about the computers taking over the world. Start worrying about mutant superpower-endowed bread.

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