paranormal stateI’ve been catching snippets of this new A&E television show Paranormal State. The show chronicles the investigations taken up by a number of paranormal enthusiasts and mediums. I’m not sure if I’ve seen enough of the show to actually know the thrust or structure of the show, but I have seen enough to get the idea that it mostly consists of adults holding flashlights up to their faces, sitting in a circle, and listening for weird noises and claiming to get chills.

“Do you smell that?” one of them will say. “I smell tobacco! There is a spirit here!”

It’s very similar to a fourth grade sleepover except that they have some sort of a thermal sensor, which seems to be a vague way to detect ghosts. I find it mildly interesting, although much less interesting than one of A&E’s other shows, Intervention, which I am ironically addicted to.

In any case, as I was lying in bed not sleeping last night, with the heavy footsteps of our upstairs neighbors above me and the sounds of boring, floral bedspread sex coming from our neighbors across the way, I realized that if a city apartment was actually ever haunted, no one would really notice.

Every time I hear weird sounds late at night, I immediately accredit them to any one of the weird families and couples that reside in our building or any one of the sketchy structural problems our apartment suffers from. If there were a ghost, who perhaps tried to freak me out by speaking in tongues through the wall, I’m just going to assume it’s the vaguely Eastern European family upstairs, talking in their sounds-like-Russian-but-definitely-isn’t-Russian language. If there were a ghost who tried to freak me out by making strange tapping and creaking noises, I wouldn’t be able to differentiate them from our crazy radiator noises. If there were a ghost who blew tobacco smoke into a room in order to alert me of his presence, I would probably just assume that our chain-smoking landlord was within a 50-yard radius of our building.

I love the image, though, of frustrated ignored ghosts trying so hard to haunt loud, rickety apartments to no avail. After a few years of fruitless attempts to scare the crap out of people, they would take up ghost checkers or ghost knitting. A few years after that, the murder they’re trying to avenge or the spooky message they are trying to relay would be forgotten. They would probably sit around and watch Paranormal State, too, and think about how easy those rural farmhouse ghosts have it.

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Again, as if there was indeed a force greater than just us humans, life tried to speak to me for the second time today. I applied for a freelance job today and heard back from the guy in literally under five minutes.

We met after work today at his offices and I’m hired. And here’s the force-greater-than-just-us-humans part: this one little project pays almost exactly to the dollar what my regular office job paycheck is.

It made me think, as I sat on the couch this evening and got to work on my new freelance assignment, what’s the difference between these two checks (other than the fact that one is for 80 hours of work and the other is for roughly 10 hours of work)?

The answer is that I truly dig it. I enjoy even the most boring of the creative non-fiction writing genres. I enjoy sitting on my couch with my lap top and cat and Ben typing away in the other room. I enjoy that with each new project I get to learn about a whole new subject and world. Oh, and I enjoy choosing which hours I work and whether or not to wear pants while I work.

And here’s the thing: even though I never ever, ever hear back from real full-time jobs that I apply to, I’ve gotten the last five out of five freelance gigs I’ve applied for. Again, capital-L Life is probably banging his head against his desk right now. (Life has his own desk, right?)

The tiny hitch lies in the fact that freelance work doesn’t come regularly. It’s risky. But I might be ready to take some risks after a year and a half of no surprises. Even if it means getting a second job as a clown or stripper or, if push comes to shove, the dreaded clown stripper.

I know this blog has gotten a little more journal-y than usual in the last few days, but this is all I can really think about. Tomorrow I promise I’ll write about something else. At least for one entry.

Sometimes it feels like capital-L Life is a little frustrated with how I ignore the little hints and clues he gives me about what I should be focusing on. He’ll give me a light nudge or poke and I still sit there doing nothing (or working on a spreadsheet). Then he’ll get more and more obvious with his point.

Today, for example, he seemed to be jumping up and down, wildly waving his arms, and shouting at me to pay attention to what he was trying to tell me. My manager emailed me my annual Personal Growth And Development Questionnaire, which I am to fill out for my yearly evaluation tomorrow. It reads:

1. What are your goals/ambitions?

2. How do they fit with the needs of our business?

3. What are you going to do to achieve your goals/ambitions?

Now, this survey is meant to be answered in the context of my job as a marketing assistant — for example, the first question could be answered with, “Become a marketing manager for a textbook company” — but I can’t even imagine what to write or how to answer them seriously.

And, if I look at the questionnaire in a more general way, outside of this company, I only get excited at the possibilities. I have a lot of “goals/ambitions”! And exactly none of them fit with the needs of your business! Thanks for asking!

Maybe I should mail myself this questionnaire every year, just to keep on track.

Apparently it’s yearly review time here at work and upon looking at my bank statement this morning, something was peculiarly different. Moments later, my (good, non-emoticon) boss called me up and informed me that my performance over the last year earned me a raise (this is normal, I think pretty much everyone gets one).

It’s almost as if they could hear my soul dying from inside my cubicle and decided to do something about it.

But how much is this raise? Is it enough to raise me out of my enraged and depressed funk in which I’m pretty sure I am wasting my youth, energy, and, ultimately, my life? Is it enough for me to rethink this office job stuff?

No. It’s a $24 bump per paycheck. $12 a week. Not even enough to push me into the coveted four-figure paycheck. In other words, it is the most demoralizing raise ever. It is two movie tickets (no popcorn, no sodas). It is FIVE PERCENT of my monthly student loan bill. Most importantly, it does not compensate for the extra work, effort, time, and energy I’ve had to put into my job.

And did I mention that we’re only allowed one raise per year? And that my job has no upward mobility? This is the last bump I’ll see for a while.

The good news is, though, that it serves as a kind of wake up call for me. Even if I am rewarded for my hard work at the office, the reward only further reflects everything else about my job. Four percent of a pile of shit shit is a marginally bigger pile of shit. If I’m going to be poor anyway, shouldn’t I be poor and happy?

I mean, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Twelve extra dollars a week is $12 I didn’t have before. But at the same time, it makes me feel like Sisyphus, if Sisyphus was given a spreadsheet to fill out and each time he finished it he was handed a blank spreadsheet.

I think a big change might be coming – I’m just not quite sure how to act yet. Either way, I’m planning on taking a week off from work to simply calm down and evaluate things. Who knows, I might even write a less self-centered and money-focused whiny blog entry. We can only hope for the best.

italica extra virgin olive oilThere are a few mistakes in life that I have trouble learning from. One of those mistakes is buying things that are on clearance in the grocery store. Sure, you might be able to get away with clearance clothing or clearance houseware without a problem, but food that is on clearance… there’s just something off about that.

Of course, when I was at the grocery store this weekend, looking to buy extra virgin olive oil, I put my fears aside and purchased Italica Extra Virgin Olive Oil with added Omega-3. So what if it was suspiciously half-off — olive oil is probably the most expensive grocery item that we buy and this olive oil has been enriched with Omega-3 fatty acids! What could possibly go wrong?

Fast-forward to last night as Ben and I are cooking dinner. He’s in charge of the turkey burgers and I’m putting together a couple of sides — a salad and some whole wheat pasta tossed with cheese and olive oil.

As soon as the oil hits the pan, the kitchen started smelling like a fish market. I wonder momentarily if the last time I used the pan seafood was involved before the real culprit was discovered. Apparently, when they say “enriched with Omega-3,” they really mean “we just added some fish juices. It’s kind of gross.”

I continued with the pasta and we sat down to dinner. Perhaps, I thought, there was just a hint of fishiness that wouldn’t show through the pasta and cheese.  I asked Ben if he smelled fish, and he claimed that everything was normal. Then he bit into the pasta and put down his fork.

“Yep,” he said. “Ugh.” 

Since I don’t believe that any food could possibly be so bad as to be inedible, I went ahead and tried to take a few more bites. My mouth felt like the dumpster behind Red Lobster, if that dumpster had been sprinkled with cheese.

Let this be a cautionary tale: there is good reason that NEW! product is half-off. You just might not know why until it’s far too late and your apartment smells like low tide.

I’m trying out a new little feature today – a little bulleted entry that’s kind of like a to-“done” list of things that affected my day. Let me know how it goes. Is it too boring, indulgent, or both? Let’s hope for both!

  • I finally walked up to Guy Talking On His Cell Phone At The Gym. I walked up to him and I didn’t say, “Please don’t talk on your cell phone,” or “Your constant cell phone usage ruins my cardio workouts at least three days a week,” or, “The gym is for working your body, not your mouth.” But, no, I walked up to him, looked him in the eyes, and simply said, “CELL PHONE” and walked away. He then made a couple of lame comments about me to his friend but I take comfort in the fact that he didn’t have the nuts to walk up to me and say anything to my face. He’s in the running for a Douchebag of the Year Award, no question (that’s going to be another new blog feature, maybe).
  • I got in separate fights with both of my parents over politics today. I don’t like this. We’re all stubborn, and, although my parents raised me with Southern values, I was raised, geographically, in Boston. You know what that means. I know they’re wiser than me and in a way know better, but I also know that I truly feel and know what I feel and know. Mostly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about these issues with my parents and that I should have restrained myself. Mostly, it’s taking every inch of my will (will comes in inches, right?) not to have BROOD officially endorse Barack Obama in the coming days. We’ll see how this pans out – I also don’t want to bring politics to my blog just like I don’t want to talk with my parents about politics. Kind of.
  • Both of the above points obviously stem from how badly my job has been going since the big merge on January first. I no longer have time to rest or think or even take lunch (or write regular blog updates! Or write in general!) during the day, and the whole time I’m bitter about the fact that I’m working with twice the book list, twice the bosses, and the same exact pay. I need something. I shouldn’t be crying every day when I get home from work and I shouldn’t be lashing out at my parents or even at Guy Talking On His Cell Phone At The Gym, even though I’m somewhat sure he should be shot to keep his chatty genes from being passed on. I just feel very enraged these days. Anyone have New York City job leads? I’ll try anything that involves keeping most my clothes on. I’m serious. I know a few of you will write (maybe both my dad and Ben’s dad) and tell me it’s not so bad, but I also know that if I fill in one more fiscal spreadsheet, I will lose a part of my soul. I need something different. I need to lose a different part of my soul for a change.
  • Being enraged also means being emotional in general. Today I came home from work and found that Ben had cleaned the kitchen. I don’t mean that he simply washed the dishes, I mean that he cleaned even the inside of the refrigerator and, therefore, emptied about a dozen terrifying old leftover Tupperware horrors that have been sitting there for months. These horrible leftovers were so terrifying that I’m not sure I could have done it without crying and jumping up and down a little in that grossed out way. But as you can guess, when I walked into the kitchen after work today I cried. Because I am an emotional wreck with a great boyfriend.

I felt like making something a little fancy tonight — you know, one of those French recipes that calls for a 1/2 cup of white wine, giving you the excuse to drink excessively from the rest of the bottle while you cook?

So I looked through the new Best of Cooking Light book that Ben got me for Christmas and found some great pictures of pan-roasted pork loin with leeks and decided to try it out. I wrote down the ingredient and headed to my grocery store, totally forgetting what a ghetto wreck my grocery store is.

My ghetto wreck of a grocery store was only offering  12-pound pork loins when I needed a two-pound pork loin.  And after asking the butcher who in the world buys 12-pound pork loins other than the owners of orphanages, I also found that although I needed six leeks, the store was only currently carrying one bunch of three sad looking ones.

In other words, due to my very Queens food market, I was left making something pretty different from the original idea. The good news is, though, that it tasted delicious and was much faster than the original – it takes about 30 minutes instead of two hours. I got four pork chops instead of a huge pork loin and did things a bit differently with the sauce. Here we go:

  • Three leeks
  • four boneless pork chops
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 tablespoon of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • salt, pepper, and fresh parsley to taste

Cut off the roots and tops of the leeks, leaving only the light-green and white middle. Chop and rinse while drinking a glass of white wine, which you absolutely needed to open because the recipe calls for it later. Put the leeks, butter, and water into a large, deep saucepan or wok. Cook on medium heat for 15 minutes, or until the leeks are tender. Put aside in a food processor.

In the pan the leeks were just in, heat the oil on high. Salt and pepper the pork chops and place in the pan. Brown each side for one minute then add the wine and turn down the heat to low. Cook each side on low for three minutes or so. Drink another glass of white wine while it’s out.

Give the food processor a few quick on-and-offs, just to thicken the leeks and chop them up a bit more. Add the leeks to the pan, scrapping the bottom to mix in the pork juices and drippings.  Simmer for a few more minutes and add some fresh chopped parsley on top.

We ate ours with some green beens and a couple of twice-baked potatoes. And a few glasses of white wine.  Although this dish seems initially bland or leek-y, it’s really very elegant and tasty – I could see making this for a dinner party, if I ever had one.

I have been trying for over a year now to synchronize my monthly subway pass with my monthly birth control refill. The plan is just plain genius: two things that I have a tendency to forget about would work together so that I forgot neither. If I tried to get on the subway and found that my card had expired, it would immediately alert me that I needed to refill my birth control prescription. In the same way, if I first realized that I needed to refill my prescription, I would then know to renew my MetroCard.

However, things just aren’t that easy. I feel like I’ve been trying at this forever – and putting in real thought and effort. But life has a way of getting in the way of things I’m trying to do to make life get in the way less. The dream seems very far away now – and the dream of synching these two things up with my rent (Can you imagine! The genius!) seems even more impossible.

Then today, with my subway pass running out weeks before my prescription despite my best efforts and most intricate plans, I realize that I need to move on.  Give up, if you must. And I wouldn’t consider myself the giving up type.

It’s like when I tried for years to achieve an underwear drawer that consisted of 100% matching bras and panties. People in the movies do it – why should it be that difficult? I have many pairs of matching socks and even two to three matching outfits – why shouldn’t I have a collection of cute and coordinated underthings?

But it’s impossible. It’s cold fusion. It’s a wild horse with a free flowing mane that you will never catch or tame.

Basically, it’s math. The elastic on underwear and the stretch on the bras have different life spans! And do you want to throw out perfectly good pair of underwear before their time? Or throw away a well-fitting bra just because its partner in crime lost a well-fought battle against my waistline? Sure, I could purchase bras that are all the same style and color and matching underwear that was all the same style and color (maybe black or white or beige) but that would thwart another impossible ongoing life goal of mine, which is to look cute and different all of the time.

I have to get it through my head so that I can focus on other things: I will never have all matching underthings. I will never have a well-organized Tupperware set – the ones where the lids snap together so you never lose them and so that you can store then easily. I will never buy fruit and eat it all without 70% somehow going bad in the bowl, before my eyes, as if I’m helpless to eat it – not matter how much fruit I buy at the grocery store each week.

I don’t throw in the towel all that often. On a larger scale, I’m pretty sure that I will one day fulfill my career aspirations and become satisfied with my station in life. But these smaller things – these subway pass Tupperware things will never come to be. It’s something I have to come to terms with.

It helps for me to think of people I know who do have these little things under control. You know, those people with the perfect fruit bowls and weekday lingerie sets? They’re always a little creepy, right?

musicophiliaI come from a family of scientists: my parents both have doctorates in microbiology, my brother’s field is bioinformatics (the double-nerd study of biology and computer science), and my sister is currently studying psychology. I grew up on science, I love science – it just happens that I’m a writer. Alas.

As a science family, though, we all deeply love Oliver Sacks. My dad (who also has the writing gene somewhere in there) discovered him years ago and all of us grew up reading his books, with our family-owned dog-eared copy of An Anthropologist on Mars being our collective favorite. (You might be familiar with him from his non-fiction work Awakenings, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro).

So, it follows that I got Sack’s new book, Musicaophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, from my dad for Christmas (my brother and sister, funnily enough, both brought copies of the same book with them to read on the plane).

Sacks is, for me, a perfect meeting of a science writer and a writer of creative non-fiction. He has an equal interest in telling an affecting, human story and with exploring how (and why) the brain works. While lots of science writing is dry and objective (as it should be) and while mainstream feature writing often ignores the more complicated science stuff, Sacks is a rare talent who has a penchant for story telling and for explaining the newest research on the brain. He doesn’t condescend, and he doesn’t mind forming personal relationships with his subjects.

In Musicophilia, Sacks focuses on the mysterious and fascinating connection between music and the brain. Through studying musical oddities in patients, he hopes, we can hope to better understand our greater relationship with music – something that, although it is universal among cultures, doesn’t seem to have a clear function or origin.

For example, the book opens with a middle-aged man who is struck by lightening. He isn’t badly hurt, but since the accident, he’s been obsessed with the urge to play the piano. He’s never really played before or had an interest in music, but suddenly he’s up all night composing and trying to get better. Why has this happened? Why is he unaffected except for this urge, which takes over his life? Brain scans show that his left frontal lobe has been damaged and Sacks hypothesizes that the left hemisphere of the brain might actually inhibit the more creative and musical right side of the brain. Left brain damage might lead to more “freedom” in the right brain.

The book moves on from there to cover a huge spectrum of diseases, phenomenones, and rarities – spanning from music therapy for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, to people who suffer from musical hallucinations, to people with perfect pitch, to people with amusica (to them, music sounds like noise – Nabokov suffered from it), to musical savants. The structures of the chapters are very satisfying to me: they start with a story of an individual and then, by the end of the segment, lead to a more general description of the science behind the patient’s symptoms.

One of the more fascinating chapters covers children with William’s Syndrome, which affects about one out of 10,000 people. These people, who all have strangely elfin features, suffer from severe mental disabilities: they can’t add 5 + 3, they can’t draw a square, they can’t tie their shoes. They have IQs around 60. However, they also tend to be very verbal, very social, and exceptionally musical. Most have perfect pitch and start composing as toddlers. Unlike some cases of severe autism who show a more mechanical and isolated musical talent, patients with William’s Syndrome love to play music in groups – within a community. Sacks visits a camp for children with William’s Syndrome – which is a constant drum circle, sing-along, and musical wrapped up in one.

As in all of his tales, Sacks is sure to find the hope and humanity in even the most difficult patients. One man, an amnesiac who has a short-term memory of only a few seconds, can only stay present within himself while he plays the piano.

More importantly, Sacks doesn’t see his patients as freaks or abnormalities who are simply interesting to read about, but rather as windows into how we can collectively understand how we function. In Musicophilia, I was truly moved by what I read – both by the humanity of the patients and by the awesomeness of the science.

kate bosworthI watched snippets of Superman Returns tonight on HBO, after having seen it in the theater last summer. I’m not going to waste your time by pointing out the terrible special effects, the gaping plot holes, and the baffling ending that I am sure cannot be explained to me logically by anyone.

But I do want to talk about this one thing, because I’ve seen it a lot lately and it is driving me crazy: why are female love interests today getting younger and younger while the male leads stay the same age?

I think Superman Returns is the best example of this phenomenon, since this movie supposedly takes place five years after the original Superman movie (which was released in 1978. Now, in the original movie, Lois Lane is painted as a no-nonsense career women – a reporter high up on the ladder at a big city paper. Margot Kidder (below left), who plays the original Lois Lane, was 30 when the movie was made and might even look a bit older than that in the movie. It might be a stretch, but it’s somewhat believable that she could be writing big articles for the paper at that time.

Now let’s fast forward to Kate Bosworth (above right), who plays Lois Lane in Superman Returns thirty years later. She was around 23 when the movie was made, and she looks around that age in the movie. But she’s got a five-year-old kid and it’s been five years since Superman was around – this should land her in her mid-thirties, at least. Instead, she looks a solid ten or fifteen years younger than she should.

I might be able to suspend my disbelief that some 23-year-old has landed a huge job at a city paper, but now I’m supposed to believe that she got five years younger instead of five years older during a five-year span of time? Is she also from a different planet? And am I also supposed to believe that, if she’s 23 now, that she was 18 when she got the job at the paper and originally met Superman? That’s harder for me to accept than a guy who wears a cape and blue tights and carries around commercial jets.

Even more than that, am I supposed to believe that she’s gotten more glamorous, less charmingly odd, and less practical after the birth of her bastard child and as time passed?

Who knows, maybe this has to do with the fact that I’m a brunette. Who tends to photograph weird. Or that I am not nearly as skinny as either Bosworth or Kidder. But seriously, I think it might be a scary sign of our times. For a long time we’ve know that actresses tend to “lose their value” as they age much faster than their male counterparts, but this is getting ridiculous.

I mean, we’re getting a strong, quirky, smart, career-minded character in Lois Lane, but in today’s standards we have to also make her barely legal? What do we tell the girls in this country, who are going to think that they and their aspirations expire right before they’re old enough to rent a car? That they should hurry up and get married before they become invisible at 25? That they should skip college and get to man-finding?

And don’t be that one guy who mentions that Juliet was 12, because I don’t want to hear it. Juliet might have been 12, but she was also dumb and immature enough to kill herself over a dude when she should have been pursuing her own dreams, taking guitar lessons and gossiping on the phone, had phones been invented.