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Monday, February 28, 2011

Today In A Bookstore ...

Six months ago, everyone was talking about “the little book that could.” And Hollywood was abuzz about the indie movie version as well as a deal with Sony Entertainment to make a Hollywood adaptation that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp were all chomping at the bit to be attached to.

It’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (adapted from its original title “Men Who Hate Women”) by the late Swedish author, journalist, and activist Stieg Larsson.

The book … part of a trilogy known as the "Millennium series" … chronicles the exploits of noted journalist Mikael Blomkvist, a respected investigative reporter and publisher of the political magazine Millennium in Stockholm. In this novel, Blomkvist has just lost a criminal libel case against a billionaire Swedish industrialist and his career is in ruins. While awaiting the start of his prison sentence, he is approached by representatives of Henrik Vanger … an elderly man and former CEO of another huge Swedish manufacturing conglomerate. Intrigued by the contact, Blomkvist meets with Vanger to discuss a job offer writing the Vanger family biography. And although the writing assignment is legit, Blomkvist’s real assignment … known only to a slect few … would be to use his investigative skills to solve the decades-old disappearance (perhaps murder) of Vanger’s favorite niece, Harriet. At first, the principled journalist refuses, but a substantial paycheck is promised as well as evidence that will help him prove that he was wronged in the libel suit. Begrudgingly, Blomkvist accepts the job.

Running parallel to Blomkvist’s rollercoaster life is a young woman named Lisbeth Salander. Troubled as a youth and actually institutionalized for psychological reasons, Salander works as a freelance researcher for a security firm … the same firm that did a comprehensive background investigation on Blomkvist before Henrik Vanger hired him. Salander is abrupt, socially awkward, and heavily inked, but she also possesses incredible deductive skills, as well as computer hacking abilities she uses covertly to enhance her work. But because of her turbulent past, she is technically a ward of the state and has a guardian who oversees her finances and other life activities. Recently, Salander is assigned a new guardian by the name of Nils Bjurman, a closet sadist who extorts sexual “favors” from her and eventually rapes her. Unaware of her keen intellect and resourcefulness, she exacts a telling revenge on Bjurman and then needs to distance herself from both the man and the city of Stockholm.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist has been meeting with dozens of members of the extended Vanger family and is finding bits and pieces of a growing mystery. Something seems sinister in the Vanger clan and he needs a researcher to help sort things out. Blomkvist and Salander eventually become associates, he with a strong attraction to her unique personality and she in the dubious position of knowing literally every detail about her new “employer.” The relationship blossoms over plot twists, the intricacies of international business fraud, a tour of much of the Swedish landscape, trips to other continents, and a trail of subtle clues that ends in secret identities, family betrayal, and serial murder.

I cannot begin to describe how fascinatingly intricate and interwoven this novel is. The first 15 pages were brutaly slowl, but from page 16 I could not put the damn thing down. If the publishers had made the book waterproof, I would have showered with it. The main characters are so flawed you just want to sit down with them and buy them a coffee and a muffin and have them pour out their hearts. The Vanger family is as screwed up as it gets, yet I was dying to meet every one of them. And the descriptive writing used to explain basic Swedish politics, economics, and history was welcome … not overdone.

The real treat in this book is that the author lived much of what he wrote about. Larsson, whose first works were actually in the genre of science fiction, had a varied career as a political activist, photographer, and graphic designer for a news agency. In 1995, he started the Swedish Expo Foundation, a sort of political watchdog organization with a scathing foundation publication entitled Expo … incredibly similar to Millennium in his books.

And like the character Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson authored countless articles on violence against women, the incompetence of investigative journalists, the immoral nature of big business, and growing political extremist groups. His work was so volatile that he had much of his personal information removed from public records to protect his identity and he and his family and close friends received numerous death threats.

And probably the most sad note of “life imitating art” is that when Larsson was 15, he witnessed the gang rape of a girl and was powerless to stop it. That experience and the guilt he felt helped craft the “Lisbeth Salander” character (the real-life rape victim’s name was Lisbeth) as well as his lifetime support of women’s charities.

As I said, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of three books, released in Sweden in 2005 and in the U.S. (English translation) in September of 2008. The sequel publication, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released in Sweden in 2006 and in the U.S. in July of 2009. The follow-up, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, made its Swedish debut in 2007; U.S. fans embraced the book in May of 2010. I promise you if you read the first one, you will sell your mother-in-law (who wouldn't?) for the other two.

And of course, Stieg Larsson’s personal story continues to gain momentum. The three novels were published posthumously after his death in November of 2004. They were basically just a project he worked on after his “regular job” for fun; only just prior to his death did Larsson look into the possibility of publishing his Millennium works.

Fans are currently delighted in the fact that, according to some sources, Larsson’s long-time lover has in her possession a notebook computer with three-quarters of a finished fourth Millennium novel and extensive notes on a fifth and sixth book for the series.

Larsson and his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won dozens of awards including the Glass Key Award (2006) for best crime novel; the prestigious Boeke Prize (2008) in South Africa; the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award (2008) for international author of the year; a Galaxy British Book Award (2009); and the Anthony Award (2009) for best first novel.

Additonally, Larsson was honored in 2009 by the General Council of the Judiciary in Spain for his contributions to the fight against domestic violence. He was listed as the second best-selling author in the world in 2008, and in 2010 USA Today named Stieg Larsson “Author of the Year.” Larsson’s “Millennium series” books have sold more than 27 million copies in more than 40 countries, and he was the first author on record to sell more than one million e-books on the popular Amazon.com.

POINT OF RANT: Get ye to a bookery and buy the damn thing ... or hit up your local library and put your name on the waiting list!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Today On Television ...

As a kid, it takes so very little to make an ordinary day a GREAT DAY! For me, it was riding forever on my bicycle, corn dogs for supper, new comics on the rack at the pharmacy, and an afternoon episode of Lost in Space.

Lost in Space (LIS) was a TV series that aired for three seasons ... September 15, 1965, to March 6, 1968 ... on CBS. For 83 hour-long episodes, viewers shared the sci-fi adventures of the Robinson family, a hardy group of Earthers attempting to reach a habitable planet circling the nearby star Alpha Centauri. The back story was that in the launch year of 1997, the overpopulated Earth was in crisis and there was a new space race to colonize other worlds. After discovering habitable worlds nearby, the Robinson family was selected from more than 2 million volunteers to embark on the first U.S. deep space exploratory mission.

Leading the project is Professor John Robinson (played by Guy Williams), an astrophysicist and pilot with additional training in applied planetary geology. Accompanying this adventurer is his family: wife Maureen (brought to life by June Lockhart of Lassie fame), a degree-holding medical doctor and biochemist; daughter Judy (played by Marta Kristen), a 19-year-old beauty and budding musical theatre performer; daughter Penny (enacted by Angela Cartwright), an innocent 11-year-old who loves animals, enjoys classical music, and sees life as a fairy tale; and son Will (portrayed by Bill Mumy), a 9-year-old prodigy in electronics and robotics. Rounding out the crew is U.S. Space Corp Major Donald West (played by Mark Goddard), a no-nonsense pilot who brings a practical military presence to the exploration team.

In the pilot episode, the Robinson family is safely launched into space in their silver, saucer-shaped spaceship called the Jupiter II. But as I mentioned, in the series there were many foreign powers that did not want the U.S. mission to succeed. Enter Dr. Zachary Smith (beautifully portrayed by veteran actor Jonathan Harris), a doctor of intergalactic environmental psychology, an expert in cybernetics, and secretly an enemy agent for a mysterious foreign government.

Smith sneaks aboard the Jupiter II prior to launch and sabotages a critical piece of equipment, the Class M-3 Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot (performed by Bob May and voiced by Dick Tufeld). He reprograms it to awaken after so many hours to destroy the ship’s navigation controls and to kill the Robinson family and Major West who are “asleep” in suspended animation capsules. The plan is perfect except that Smith becomes trapped aboard the Jupiter II. His extra weight throws the ship off course and into a meteor shower. Smith manages to revive the family but forgets about the Robot. The mechanical man awakens and in a heated battle, the ship is damaged and left “lost in space.”

LIS was created and produced by Irwin Allen, an Oscar winner known as the “Master of Disaster” for his producing and directing credits on The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and The Swarm. In 1961, Allen had critical success with the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In 1964, he turned the movie into a blockbuster TV series. LIS was intended as an outer space version of the classic Swiss Family Robinson, mixing the pioneering spirit with key fantasy elements and flashy special effects.

followed LIS with equally-successful series like the more cerebral The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). In the ‘60s, Irwin Allen was known in the industry as the most successful science fiction producer of the decade.

As I mentioned previosuly, the show ran for three seasons but wasn't picked up by CBS for a fourth. In the ratings, LIS was fairly successful, with the show ending its third season in 33nd place. That SHOULD have made it a "keeper." Most television historians believe that LIS was cancelled because of budget considerations. The show was expensive to make with lots of special effects, visiting guest stars, and tricky lighting and camera set-ups. Episodes during Season Three of Lost In Space averaged $165,000 ... an incredible amount in the day. Additionally, the interior set of the Jupiter II was the most expensive set for its time ... around $350,000 ... and was costly to maintain.

Some insiders familiar with CBS programming at the time remember that 20th Century Fox Television (responsible for filming the series) was recovering from huge budget overruns from the mega-epic Cleopatra. Budgets on other TV and movie projects were being slashed right and left to balance the books. This only made the production of LIS more problematic.

And on a completely separate front, actors June Lockhart and Guy Williams had lost interest in the series, Williams in particular because of the increased campiness and focus on the “Dr. Smith” character.

But even though the LIS set went dark, the concept stayed alive and strong. A series of novelizations were printed and well-received. A cartoon version was attempted. An LIS comic series scripted by Bill Mumy was extremely successful. In 2003, the WB shot the pilot for a new LIS series, with some major changes like no Dr. Smith, an additional son named David, and a very high-strung, mysterious, and downright dangerous Major West character. The series was not picked up.

And in 1998, New Line Cinema produced a Lost in Space feature film. The plot was similar but more grim … Earth was decades away from being unable to support life so the mission of the Robinson family was of global importance. The special effects in this movie were truly awesome, the Jupiter II was redesigned and streamlined, and the primary roles were given to some amazing actors such as William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Matt LeBlanc, and Gary Oldman. And in honor of the inspiring series, several original cast members made brief cameo appearances.

Oh, and by the way, at the time that CBS was deliberating over Allen’s spec show … originally titled “Space Family Robinson” … CBS execs were also looking at a second sci-fi possibility on which they passed … Star Trek!

I watched the show in re-runs so none of that mattered. Plus … as a kid … I was just interested in the entertainment “value” of the show.

Upmost for me was just the adventure. The Robinsons faced perils both planetside and flying through the cosmos. They encountered monsters, energy barriers, dangerous space stations, maniacal robots, and the very earthy dilemmas of just maintaining food, water, and shelter. Also, always underlying everything was the high drama of the “Dr. Smith” character. He was evil. He intended on killing the entire crew and almost succeeded. And throughout 83 episodes, his laziness and self-centered drive to return to Earth puts the Jupiter II and its crew in constant danger. So why, even as a little kid, did I like this guy? Why was I always hoping he’d do the right thing? And why was his silliness actually funny and charming?

And there were tons of other elements to add drama. During the first two seasons, each episode ended in a live-action freeze frame with the cliff-hanger announcement "To be continued Next Week! Same Time-Same Channel!" For me, in re-runs, “next week” was the next day. I can’t imagine how nuts a kid must have been watching the original airings. A week was like an eternity!! Seasons Two and Three sported high energy opening credits ... I can still close my eyes and picture the groove "countdown" sequence. And throughout the series, most of the music was composed and directed by famous composer John Williamsand other talented contemporaries.

A second and more subtle point of attraction to LIS for me was the campy undertones. Although the show utilized great effects and wonderful props, the writers and directors still employed these unbelievable themes that just made the show so enjoyable. One whole show revolved around a villainous talking carrot. Another told the story of Penny being sucked into the craziness of an intergalactic beauty pageant. There were pirates, space hippies, a humorous Scotish ghost with gout, cowboys, carnival workers, junk dealers, a race of tiny robots, and more. Maybe these “juvenile” elements are what made the show exciting for viewers 6 to 60.

Also, during its second season, LIS went timeslot neck-and-neck with “Batman,” one of the biggest TV phenomena of its time. Batman was well known for its level of camp, so perhaps LIS had to evolve to compete.

I also dug Lost in Space because of all the gadgets. There were laser guns and pistols, a cool force field generator for defense, an amphibious solar-powered vehicle codenamed the Chariot, a Space Pod (modeled after the Apollo Lunar Module) that flew between the orbiting ship and the surface of planets, and a jet pack for planetary exploration.

The Jupiter II itself was a mighty gadget. The ship was nuclear-powered, generated an artificial gravity field, and had two decks. The “upstairs” housed the flight deck with guidance controls, environmental controls, the central communications equipment, the primary hatch, the huge rotating “astrogator,” the small armory alcove, and the cryogenic tubes. The “downstairs” contained the hidden “atomic motors” (which we did get to see in one very eerie episode where people were disappearing called “The Space Creature”), living quarters, laboratory and research facilities, a galley, and a repair/maintenance berth for The Robot. The Jupiter II also had many Jetson-esque qualities. Meals were programmed into a computer and came rumbling out on a conveyor belt in seconds. The dishes were cleaned and sanitized just as quickly, while “auto-matic laundry” units cleaned, folded, and packed fresh clothing in plastic bags with equal speed. During emergencies, there was a dispensary unit that provided reflective mylar blankets, spare parts, emergency “protein pills,” and medical supplies.

But what enchanted "young me" the most about the ship was how the decks were connected by both an inset ladder and the coolest open-air elevator I had ever seen. My family had a two-story home, I thought. Where was our elevator? I want an elevator and I want it now!

The most incredible piece of equipment on LIS though, by far, was The Robot. This character probably developed the most during the series, transforming from a cold, heartless machine to a valued crew member with seemingly human emotions. He laughed and cried, displayed a sense of humor, sang and played the guitar, and generally cared for the Robinson family he was duty-bound to protect. On the more practical side, he was extremely strong, possessed an incredibly sophisticated system of scanners and sensors, could translate alien languages, was able to discharge powerful electrostatic blasts from his claws and emit defensive smoke screens, and could run a number of air, soil, and other analytical tests. And in the episode “Trip Through the Robot,” we actually got to travel through the Robot’s “guts” … it was AWESOME!!

There were a few minor points of interest also. During the first season, Penny adopts a chimpanzee-like alien as a pet. She names the creature “Debbie,” but it is often referred to as “Bloop” because of the only sound it can make. Secondly, the set designers and Irwin Allen himself were well known for being “frugal” with set dressings and costumes. Monstrous aliens from one episode would appear several episodes later but with a bright new paint job and the addition of horns or antennae. Or a one scene of the Jupiter II taking off from the surface of a planet was reused dozens of times. Heck, some of the effects from LIS were literally spliced into the film of Allen’s other series in later years. It was kind of a game to me to spot the “recycling” that went on.

But … as with most things in life … there was a major plot point that I just couldn’t grasp. Even today, when channels like BBC America or Syfy air LIS re-runs, I just can’t grasp the reasoning. Why … WHY … did handsome and learned Professor John Robinson take his family with him? What a drag! He and Don West could have been partying across the heavens. Maybe it's because I have a selfish nature and wouldn't want to share the adventure. Or maybe it's because I had an aloof older brother off in his own adult world, another older brother who thought science fiction was “stupid,” and an older sister who “accidentally” caused me grievous bodily harm from time to time. What good would they be against a talking carrot or a crafty merchant who sold chunks of time? What good, indeed!

POINT OF RANT: "Danger ... Danger, Will Robinson!" ... you should have fought harder to be in the movie version.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Today In My Pantry ...

When I was in college, money was so tight that pulling a $5 bill out of my wallet made an audible squeak. My roommates and I used to grocery shop together and it was cheap all the way. We bought this store-brand white bread that flaked so badly that I swear a third of each slice just filtered away. The off-brand peanut butter we kept on hand always had an oily water on top of it. And the generic macaroni and cheese dinners we purchased by the case … they weren’t even that scary orange color of the namebrand types. Once prepared, they produced a sickly dark yellow colored meal … like poorly cared for teeth. And turkey franks … the thought of them makes my stomach quake.

So when I had a job and was living on my own, I swore I would avoid all the “poor foods” of my past. So why, when I was putting away groceries the other day, did I notice five boxes … 60 packets … of Ramen noodles?

Ramen is a type of hand-pulled buckwheat noodle that originated in Chinese culture. For more than a century, restaurants serving Chinese cuisine have offered simple dishes of ramen in a salty broth flavored with pork bones. Portable food stalls and carts serving ramen to workers and shoppers at lunchtime have been common throughout Asia since the 1950s.

The “ramen” we Americans are familiar with actually comes from Japan. No one really knows when ramen was introduced into the diets of the Japanese, but it had a huge effect. Japanese ramen utilized the same Chinese-style wheat noodle but soaked the noodles in a variety of meat- and fish-based broths. Ramen noodles come in various shapes and lengths … fat, thin, or even ribbon-like, as well as straight or wrinkled.

Additionally, ramen tended to be very region specific … even to the point where various cities or villages were known for a separate ramen “formulation.” Traditional ramen in Japan was seasoned with soy sauce or miso (a savory/sweet condiment made from fermented rice and fungi) and topped with such items as dried seaweed, green onions, sliced pork, kamaboko (cured white fish), sesame seeds, and even corn. In Tokyo, though, ramen is made with thin, curly noodles served with soy-enhanced chicken broth and adorned with such things as spinach, egg, and menma (fermented bamboo shoots). While in the city of Fukuoka, ramen in the Hakata district is famous for its milk pork broth, dense straight noodles, and common garnishes of crushed garlic, pickled mustard greens, and beni shoga (pickled ginger).

Eating ramen gained great popularity in Japan in the first half of the 20th century, although it was still mostly consumed only during special occasions and on holidays. To meet this growing demand, many restaurants dedicated solely to the intricacies of producing ramen sprang up all over continental East Asia.

In 1958, ramen was revolutionized when Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder and chairman of Nissan Foods, invented instant noodles. This new creation … dried or pre-cooked noodles fused with oil … allowed anyone to make ramen at home by simply boiling them for between 2 and 5 minutes. The popularity of ramen skyrocketed overnight. Soon ramen was a staple at bars, karaoke establishments, and even amusement parks. At first, flavors and toppings remained traditional, but in the 1970s the manufacturer expanded the flavor profiles to include curry, miso, and shio (salt ramen). In 1971, the company went a step further with its “cup noodles” concept … a waterproof polystyrene cup containing noodles and seasoning. Add boiling water and a ramen meal was born!

In the ‘80s, the new instant ramen products were fine-tuned … flavors were expanded based on market research and a variety of dried toppings (shrimp, pork, egg, etc.) were added. At this time, Nissan Foods and its competitors began to saturate foreign markets with their ramen products. In the U.S., regardless of the brand, the crazy instant noodle called “ramen” became incredibly popular because of its low cost and ease of preparation. While lower income families embraced the product quickly, ramen was universally accepted by harried college students, on-the-go Moms, and busy office workers and executives. Today, ramen is as common as "baseball" and "apple pie." There are entire cookbooks dedicated to utilizing ramen noodles to the fullest. And some schools and break rooms in office buildings even have vending machines that sell cups of ready-to-go ramen. Common flavors in the United States include chicken, pork, beef, mushroom (have never seen it), shrimp, roast beef, roast chicken, chili, chili lime (actually sounds tasty!), vegetable, and "oriental" (soy flavored).

But ramen isn’t just a part of American life. Instant noodles have become a popular food item in many parts of the world, sometimes tweaked to fit local tastes. As of 2008, it was estimated that more than 94 billion servings of instant ramen are consumed annually worldwide. And because of the popularity and generally-inexpensive nature, sales data and consumption rates of ramen noodles are considered by some economists as a secondary economic indicator (SEI).

In places like Australia, Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong … all with substantial Asian population segments … ramen is a mainstay in grocery stores, quick marts, etc. Instant ramen is also gaining popularity in Russia, Ethiopia, the UK and Ireland, the Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Poland, and many other locations. In Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, ramen is less popular, quite expensive, and only available at specialty food and ethnic-specific markets.

Some nations have REALLY made ramen their own. Germany has developed ramen varieties that favor beef and button mushroom (YUM!) varieties. Malaysia and Singapore have combined a love of ramen with the popularity of curry and seafood to create flavors like chili crab. In Brazil, ramen is commonly a creamier foodstuff, incorporating peppers and stronger spices. Likewise, countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh favor bold flavors like masala, chicken tikka, and coriander-heavy curry. And in Indonesia, strong flavors also rule with popular ramen varieties like chicken curry and beef meatball. In fact, at one time one food company offered 30 varieties of ramen, all reflecting traditional and spicy Indonesian dishes.

In South Africa, a milder variety of ramen is popular among on-the-go individuals, with flavors like beef, chicken, cheese, and prawn. In Peru, ramen combines basic local flavors like chicken with greens and creole-style hen. And in Mexico, ramen is treated more like an inbetween-meal snack, boasting strong flavors like lime chicken and chili shrimp.

One extremely creative ramen development occurred in Thailand. Because of the noodles’ popularity, manufacturers teamed up with the Ministry of Public Health to add iron, iodine, and vitamin A to popular ramen brands in an effort to “fix” some local dietary insufficiencies. Also unusual in Thailand is the fact that ramen is often consumed without further cooking as a snack food … like we eat potato chips!

So … confession time … chicken ramen with red onion, sun-dried tomatoes, and broccoli added to it is awesome. I also throw in a bunch of smoked paprika, three dashes of hot sauce and a bit of wasabi. When I think about it, I have ramen about twice a week. Thus the five big boxes.

POINT OF RANT: I need a vertical-focused storage system for my ramen. Come on, Nissan Foods ... get on that!!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Today Above My Bed ...

I am a vivid dreamer. More like a wild, crazy dreamer. I used to keep a journal beside my bed to write down the things I could remember from my nightime mental antics. But then I would read them the following day or so and I thought I was channeling M. Night Shyamalan. So I bought a dreamcatcher and hung it over my comfortable queen. If anything, the dreams got even more wild. I guess my subconscience is supposed to be a raving lunatic.

The dreamcatcher, or “dream snare,” is an arts and crafts creation of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) culture that dates back centuries. The word “asabikeshiinh” is an inanimate form of the Ojibwe term for “spider.” Tribal stories tell of an elder who had a vision of Iktomi, or the searcher for wisdom. Iktomi appeared to the spiritual elder as a spider. As he spoke of the cycle of life and how each stage is filled with both good and evil forces, Iktomi took from the elder an offering … a wooden hoop adorned with feathers, beads, and horsehair … and began to spin a web. When his story was finished, Iktomi returned the hoop to the elder and advised him to use the web to help his people make good use of their ideas, dreams, and visions. “If you believe in the Great Spirit,” Iktomi said in the scared language, “the web will focus your dreams but trap the bad dreams like a spider traps its prey.”

From this vision, it is believed that the elder tribesman shared his vision and soon it was tradition for grandparents to craft and present dreamcatchers to newborn grandchildren. The basic belief was that a dreamcatcher placed above or near the bed of a young person would sift their dreams and visions. Good dreams would pass through the strands of the web and slide down the feathers to the sleeper. Bad dreams … known to be “both confusing and confused” … would get lost in the net, perishing in the light of dawn.

The Ojibwe peoples … like most Native American tribes … held strong beliefs in the power of nature and the importance of dreams. Vision quests and sweatlodge events were commonplace. Members of the tribes kept representations of visions (drawings, weavings, jewelry, beadwork, etc.) close at hand, believing that these items secured the protection, guidance, and assistance of various spirits throughout their lives. As part of this dream culture, other tribes like the Cherokee, Lakota, and Navajo adopted the crafting and use of the dreamcatcher. Today, many New Age mystics and practitioners have culturally appropriated the dreamcatcher and its believed powers.

Typically, a dreamcatcher is made from a willow hoop … a shape associated with strength and unity … on which is woven a loose net or web. The hoop is bent into a circle or tear shape usually about 3 ½ inches in diameter or smaller. The webbing … usually leather, sinew, nettle fiber, or fine yarn dyed red … is attached to the frame in a manner similar to snowshoe webbing, but in the approximation of a spider’s web. Additional personal and sacred items are often incorporated into the web design including beads, arrowheads, and semi-precious gemstones … only one gem per dreamcatcher because there is only one Creator in the web of life. Feathers hanging from the frame or lattice lines themselves act as conduits for the dreams to travel from the ether to the sleeping individual. Traditional dreamcatchers are made from natural elements and are not meant to last forever, collapsing as the infants on which they are bestowed enter the “Age of Wonderment.”

I have three dreamcatchers, all purchased at the Great Mohican PowWow. It’s an annual event in Ohio that mixes wonderful storytelling and music and dancing from various tribes with a healthy dose of awesome food and revenue-generating arts and crafts. The day I attended, the weather was flawless and the people were out in droves. I had the best time and actually learned a bit about several beautiful and diverse cultures that reside right here within my own regional borders. I also got in like four months worth of peoplewatching. There were scantily clad people of all ages and kids running rampant. There were hucksters selling all manner of things. There was crazy chanting and wild dancing. And the tattoos ... it was like a parade of the most intricate artwork I have ever seen.

My dreamcatchers are very simple but do incorporate some synthetic elements … I’m hoping they and their “powers” last a while. One dreamcatcher … adorned with a glittery brown agate … hangs above my headboard. Two smaller ones … one that actually has stunning blue jay feathers … hang above my apartment door and large living room window respectively. I figured if those pesky bad dreams were gonna try and get to me, I might as well lay multiple traps.

Now, don’t go thinking I’m a hippie or anything. My overall being is very rational. I know that dreams are the results of an involuntary biological combination of chemicals and neural processes that occur during sleep. Since 1952, science has associated dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a time when our sleeping brains send out signals extremely close to when we are awake. Also, during REM sleep our bodies secrete certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine to prevent dreams from generating dangerous body movements. Most people dream about two hours per night.

Honestly, my feet are planted in several camps. The biology of dreams makes perfect sense to me … stress relief, expression of the subconscience, etc. But why can’t other forces use our sleeping state as an opportunity to interact, imparting visions or moments of divinity? There’s room for both.

POINT OF RANT: I hate spiders and cobwebs, so why am I surprised that I still have bad dreams when I basically have a “spiderweb” talisman hanging over my head?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Today On My Doorstep ...

I’m going to apologize upfront because this post was thrown together pretty quickly, but when something so cute happens in life you just want to share it.

I’ve been preparing myself for weeks for the upcoming farcical holiday which is Saint Valentine’s Day. I’ve endured literally decades of heart-shaped disappointments and embarrassments on this mid-February day. As a child, I vividly remember having a dismal turnover in one particular valentine box which I had designed to be a simple loaf of bread. Maybe the high-brow conceptual nature of the receptacle threw the other children off. Or as an adult, I recall each and every patronizing "awwww" that was bestowed on me by friends and co-workers because I was without a “special someone.” Or worse … the times I had a “special person” but didn't realize how cheap and unimaginative they were. Or the most horrible experience … where I was with a friend at a bar and was completely unaware of the date. The pub was having this Valentine's Day promotion where they randomly selected a “couple” and sat them at this special booth. There were streamers and champagne and a complimentary lovers’ dessert. And of course there were lots of pictures and Polaroids taken and intoxicated patrons chanting “kiss ... kiss … kiss!!” Can you say “mortified?”

Valentine’s Day is nothing more than a 24-hour period designed to boost business in certain commercial establishments and to torture the independent, free-thinking soul. Historical information is so sketchy that the “saintliness” of its origins cannot be confirmed. Supposedly, Valentine’s Day is an amalgamation of four men with the name Valentine: Valentine of Genoa, who died around 307 AD; Valentine of Rome, a priest martyred in 269 AD; Valentine of Terni, a bishop martyred in 197 AD; and a Valentine killed in Africa.

Unsubstantiated stories regarding the exploits of St. Valentine paint a picture of a clergyman persecuted by Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius gave St. Valentine the opportunity to convert to Roman paganism. When he refused, Valentine was executed. Before his death, accounts say that Valentine performed a miracle by healing the blind and deaf daughter of his jailer. Later, around 500 AD, Valentine was sainted by Pope Gelasius I.

The significance of February 14 is also open to historical interpretation. This date is supposedly when St. Valentine was laid to rest. And in ancient times, mid February was a well-known time of year. In Greece, it marked the end of Gamelion, a month dedicated to the marriage of Zeus and Hera. In Rome, the Lupercalia … a rite connected with fertility … was observed between February 13 and February 15.

Over the centuries, the story of St. Valentine has fallen victim to interpretation, hearsay, and the literary creativity of 14 century writers. One prominent version has of the myth has St. Valentine imprisoned and executed not for practicing Christianity but for performing secret marriages among young Roman soldiers and their lady loves. Emperor Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers and was thus infuriated by Valentine’s impudence and disobedience.

Another very popular variation on the story is that while imprisoned for his Christian beliefs, Valentine fell in love with the blind daughter of the manager of the jail. On the evening before his execution, Valentine wrote this girl a note and then healed her sight so she could read it. The note read “from your Valentine” and became the unofficial first Valentine Day’s card ever written.

Through the years, the connection between St. Valentine and love and romance grew stronger. In 1382, Geoffrey Chaucer coined concepts that would plague us for centuries. In his poem "Parlement of Foules," the line "for this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate" created the terms Valentine's Day and love birds.

On Valentine’s Day in 1400, an experimental court was created in Paris to deal with love contracts, marital disputes, and violence against women. Judges for the “court” were selected by a panel of women based on poetry readings.

In 1590, author Edmund Spenser used the line “she bathed with roses red, and violets blue” in his “The Faerie Queene.” A collection of English nursery rhymes in 1784 brought the phrasing closer to the “roses are red, violets are blue” we all know and … well, tolerate.

Around 1600, William Shakespeare referred to Valentine’s Day in his work, “Hamlet.”

In the very late 1700s, British publishers were producing limited lines of cards with romantic verses and sketches for young men unable to find loving words of their own for their sweethearts. Paper valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that factories were created to handle the demand. Specialty papers and lace were often used, as were imagery like Cupids, doves, and hearts. Reduced postal rates in England’s early 19th century started the tradition of mailing valentines to friends and family.

The creation of mass-produced valentines was adopted in the United States around 1847. Around 1950, the practice of exchanging cards in the U.S. was extended to all manner of gifts ... roses, chocolates, candies, teddy bears and other stuffed animals, balloons, and even diamonds and expensive jewelry.

Today, according to the U.S. Gteeting Card Association, more than 1 billion valentines are exchanged each year in this country, including valentine exchanges in schools and the rise of Internet e-cards.

Valentine’s Day has been adopted in most countries across the globe, but sometimes with little regional and cultural twists. In the UK in the region of Norfolk, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with “Jack Valentine,” a character that knocks on the rear door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children. In Wales, many people celebrate St. Dwynwen's Day, the patron saint of Welsh lovers, on January 25 instead of (or as well as) traditional Valentine's Day. In Romania, the traditional holiday for lovers is Dragobete, which is celebrated on February 24. In Egypt, many people celebrate Valentine's Day on February 14, and the indigenous Eid el-Hob el-Masri on November 4. In Israel, the Tu B'Av, is considered to be the Jewish Valentine's Day and is usually celebrated in late August. In Brazil, the Dia dos Namorados ("Day of the Enamored, or "Boyfriends'/Girlfriends' Day") is celebrated on June 12.

Countries in Asia were a bit slower to embrace Valentine’s Day, but many nations have created complex and interesting traditions that combine Eastern and Western flair. In Japan, the holiday was first introduced in 1936. The custom of giving chocolates was embraced after a few years, but it was only women who gave chocolates to men. Careful practices quickly developed over the type and amount of chocolate given to each person. For example, a woman might give inexpensive chocolate to an unpopular male co-worker, but she would use great care when choosing candies for her favorite uncle. In the ‘80s, a successful campaign was launched to create White Day. Celebrated on March 14, Japanese men are expected to “reply” to Valentine’s Day gifts on with white chocolates or non-chocolate candy. But again, there was a system. Some sources say that, on White Day, men are expected to return gifts that are at least two or three times more valuable than the gifts received on Valentine's Day. Not returning the gift is perceived as a man placing himself in a position of superiority. Returning a present of equal value is considered a method of terminating a friendship or relationship. Chocolate as a break up message … COOL!

In Taiwan, the tradition is like that of Japan … but in reverse. Men give gifts to women on February 14 and receive reciprocal gifts … hopefully … on March 14.

And my all-time favorite … in South Korea, citizens celebrate Valentine’s Day (February 14) with women giving chocolate to men, and White Day (March 14) with men replying with non-chocolate candy to women. But then we have Black DayApril 14 … where people who did not receive gifts on either Feb. 14 or March 14 go to a Chinese restaurant to eat black noodles (jajangmyeon) and "mourn" their single life. How appropriate!!

So now it’s Sunday … February 13 ... St. Valentine’s Eve … and I have not sent a single Valentine or purchased one solitary chocolate or treat for anyone. At about 7:15 p.m. I was relaxed and watching some TV when there was a knock on my door. I answered it to behold my seven-year-old niece bundled up from head to toe. She pushed back her hood, removed her gloves, and smiled at me. “Here,” she said as she handed me a plastic bag from a local supermarket.

“Where’s your Mom?” I asked.

“Outside in the car.” She waited a few seconds expectantly and then added, “Look inside.”

I pulled the bag open and inside was a small box covered with colored pasta and sealed with glue or modgepodge. I lifted the lid and inside … resting on a bed of tattered cotton … was a candy necklace.

“Thank you sweetie. It’s really pretty.”

My niece just giggled as she struggled back into her gloves. “You don’t wear it, silly … you eat it. It’s for Valentine’s Day. I made Mom stop by cause I wanted to make sure you knew I loved you.”

I was so humbled. I think I’ll be hitting the store tomorrow. At least for one special valentine.

POINT OF RANT: If I’m celebrating Black Day, the restaurant damn well better have a liquor license!!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Today On The Top of My Dresser ...

Quite simply, I am an advertiser's wet dream! "Marketing 101" explains that the whole goal of marketing and promotion is to put a crowbar into the space between a consumer's self-image and their ideal image and pry and pry until their wallet flies open.

While tidying up my bedroom this past weekend, I bumped into my dresser and nearly caused an olfactory Armageddon. Resting on top of my cheap, hand-me-down storage chest are 19 ... yes, 19 ... bottles of cologne. And not the cheap stuff either. At some point in my life, some media campaign convinced me that the secret to wealth and health and romance and success is to splash myself with rare botanicals and unusual oils. I have become one smelly cog in the multi-billion dollar fragrance industry.

Cologne is the manly cousin of perfume since it most commonly denotes a fragrance applied to the male body. There really isn't that much difference between perfumes and colognes. Both are blends of essential oils, aroma compounds (mostly botanical in nature), fixatives, and solvents (for dilution) in an ethanol base. The difference lies in the concentration of ingredients. A perfume typically contains about 20 percent essential oils; formulations can range as high as 40 percent. A cologne is blended with a range of 3 percent to five percent essential oils, with 5 percent being the industry standard. And as with most things in life that smell, the higher the concentration of aromatics the more intense and longlasting the scent.

The practice of using fragrances for cosmetic purposes has existed for more than 4,000 years in places such as India, Egypt, Cyprus, and Persia. The term "cologne" was coined in Cologne, Germany, when an Italian perfume maker relocated there in 1709 and created a popular fragrance which he named "Eau de Cologne" to honor his new hometown.

Modern perfumery became a serious business in Europe sometime in the late 19th century.

Fragrances (like cologne) are often described in musical terms, with "notes" mixing into a "medley" of harmonious scents with varying intensities and evaporation rates. Most fragrances possess three levels of notes or accents: top, middle, and base.

Top notes (sometimes called "head notes") are the first impressions you get when smelling a cologne. They have small, light molecular compositions and are the most volatile part of the cologne mixture, meaning they are the quickest to evaporate as the solvent (alcohol) portion of the fragrance drys on a man's skin. They often form the basis for categorizing the fragrance or even provide a focus for how the scent is marketed. In musical terms, top notes are the overture that attracts a potential wearer. Men's colognes are commonly divided into the following groups based on the overall "tempo" of the top notes:
  • Citrus: aggressive but pleasant formulations using lemon, grapefruit, lime, orange, apricot, etc.
  • Aromatics: think floral, but with a light and masculine twist created with jasmine, geranium, lavender, lotus flower, peach blossom, etc.
  • Musk: a heavier, more sensual fragrance derived from musk oils and distilled botanicals
  • Spice: imagine the earthy smells that kick up your cuisine ... clove, nutmeg, sage, basil, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, pepper, and more
  • Oriental: an unusual blending of exotic spices (like saffron, ginger, and mint) with intriguing sweet notes (vanilla, amber, and tonka beans) and heavier botanicals and resins (myrrh, tobacco, etc.)
  • Woodsy: combinations of grasses (like vetiver), clovers, mosses, leaves (birch, juniper, etc.), and woods like sandalwood, cedar, agarwood, and patchouli, that create outdoorsy aromas
  • Fresh: blends of woody and light citrus elements with strong marine notes
Middle notes are richer and more subtle, producing scents that last roughly 10 minutes to 30 minutes after the initial cologne application. Sometimes called "heart notes," these compounds represent the spirit and nuances of the musical concert itself ... substances that allow the top notes to fade gracefully and the base notes to mature properly.

Base notes are the finale ... the fully-developed scent. Typically, the properties of a base note cannot be perceived until 30 minutes or longer after initial application. Many base notes are formulated to produce a residual scent that may last for hours.

I first embraced cologne about the same time I realized ... hey, if I don't shower enough I really smell. Like most young men of my generation, we wore Brut "gifted" to us by our fathers and heavily-marketed "he-man" scents like Stetson. I also have unfortunate memories of wearing something called "Vanilla Musk" ... it smelled like a sweaty pig that knocked over a bottle of cheap vanilla extract while escaping from a restaurant kitchen. Go figure!

In college, everything scent-centric came from Polo or Nautica. Once … in grad school … I remember paying an unholy price for a new cologne called Joop that I saw in a sexy magazine ad. I bought it at Macy’s and wore it constantly and without restraint. I don’t know how its cloying combination of cinnamon, jasmine, honey, tobacco, and vetiver didn’t set of some type of biohazard alarm system at the university. Or the poor souls who sat near me in lectures.

But back to my current obsession … and not Obsession. Along the front edge of my dresser top sit seven distinct bottles. They comprise my five “everyday” options and two “special occasion” selections of cologne. The "Fab Five" are Cool Water (Davidoff) with its refreshing lavender, menthe, iris, and musk; Prada Amber Pour Homme with a potent interplay of orange blossom, saffron oil, sandalwood, leather, myrrh, and vetiver; Lacoste … my freshest, cleanest scent … with notes of soft citrus, clover, and sandalwood; Slate (Banana Republic) boasting standout accents of sage and ginger; and Burberry Brit with an ethereal manliness created by combining bergamot, ginger, green mandarin, tonka bean, nutmeg, and tobacco.

My two special occasion scents are heavier and very expensive. But to be honest, they are worth every penny because when I wear them I truly have a stronger sense of confidence and purpose. It may be all in my head, but who cares. For day time events, it’s Angel for Men (Thierry Mugler) with a powdery scent that weaves together crazy notes like dark chocolate, coffee, and caramel with the earthiness of mint, coriander, lavender, and natural tars and resins. For dinner parties and date nights, my go-to spritz is Unforgivable (Sean John) … with dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ingredients like Sicilian lemon, bergamot, Moroccan tangerine, grapefruit, iris, amber, sandalwood, Tuscan basil, and even the essences of cashmere, champagne, and rum.

But like any good strategist, I have several back-up “plans” to provide the perfect scented counterpoint to my many moods. These include: Very Irresistible (Givency) with robust Virginia cedar, mint, and grapefruit; the lemony and lavender sparkle of Good Life (Davidoff); the patchouli, green apple, and watermelon mixture of Kenneth Cole; Antidote (Viktor & Rolf), my one “oriental” option that starts with the zing of grapefruit and pepper and finishes with vanilla and soft musk; the brisk aromatics of Zegna; the cardamom-inspired simplicity of Echo (Davidoff); the floral beauty of Chrome (Loris Azzaro) with jasmine, ylang-ylang, light fruits, and gardenias; the original John Varvatos scent with the complexity of dates, tamarind leaves, sage, vanilla, and leather; Gucci Pour Homme II with an initial strike of bergamot and violet leaves followed by a dark fade into black tea, cinnamon, and tobacco; Contradiction (Calvin Klein) with its hints of lavender and amber dueling with a spicy blend of lime, sage, and nutmeg; and two light fragrances … Sake and Sugar Lemon … from Fresh that employ unusual notes such as langsat fruit, yuzu, ginger, lotus and lychee flowers, and oak moss.

As I mentioned, at one time I wore cologne with the subtlety and excitement of a blind man driving a car down a busy street. I think every man has that phase. But over time, I have picked up a few tricks and tips and toned down my aromatic misbehavior.
  • TIP 1: Less is more! Cologne should be applied sparingly. If someone you interact with can identify the brand of scent you are wearing, then you’re wearing too much!

  • TIP 2: Think strategically! Heat activates many of the notes in cologne, so cologne is best applied where the underlying blood vessels are closest to the skin: wrists, neck, behind the ears, and chest. These locations are often called “pulse points.” And because heat is a factor, consider that the scent you wear changes with the seasons and the time of day … even in situations like a naturally-ventilated room vs. an air-conditioned office, cologne can smell quite differently.
  • TIP 3: Application is key! If you are using a spray-nozzle type of cologne, three quick sprays are the maximum. If your brand of cologne comes in a more traditional bottle without a spray nozzle, cover the opening and tip the bottle to lightly wet your fingertip. Do not exceed more than two finger applications. Some grooming specialists suggest that, regardless of the dispersal system, the cologne should be tipped or sprayed onto the fingertips and lightly patted onto the skin. Rubbing the cologne will cause the natural oils of your skin to mask the notes within the fragrance.

  • TIP 4: Don’t douse the duds. Avoid spraying cologne directly on your clothing. Fabrics can affect the scent negatively, and the oils in most fragrances can produce stains.

  • TIP 5: Be aware of your total “scent profile.” If you use after shave or shampoos with strong scent components, they will affect how you and others perceive your fragrance of choice.

  • TIP 6: Cologne is NOT fine wine. The typical shelf life of a quality cologne is 3-5 years. Botanicals and other components deteriorate over time. Try not to use it past that timeframe.
And my best tip of all …
  • TIP 7: Test-drive your aroma!! NEVER purchase a new fragrance the day you encounter it. Because of dozens of factors including mood, climate, marketing efforts, etc., you can easily be swayed into dropping $60 or $70 dollars on something that really isn’t you. When shopping, try out a few scents. But please … ask for samples to try at home away from all the competing bottles, flasks, and decanters. Or wait a week and return for another “spritz.” Maybe even try the same product at a different store.
POINT OF RANT: When I tell this story, why do people act like "cologne" is a bad word?