Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nickname central

We have a habit in our house of giving each other little nicknames on a hourly or minutely basis. If Corin is wearing sunglasses, he's "Mr. Cool" or if he's wearing his fireman helmet, we say, "Look at you, Snazzy Hat!" and the like.

Corin will sometimes repeat these nicknames (as he does the end of nearly every sentence we say to him), but we figured he had no real concept of what we were doing.

Until today, when, after stuffing his face with a chocolate-covered cookie (TimTams!), I took him to the bathroom to wash his hands, he took a look in the mirror at himself, and said "Hey Cookie-Face!"

I double-checked with Amanda to see if he wasn't just repeating something she's said, and it was indeed a complete original. To prove the point, when he went back out to Amanda he said, "Hi, Chocolate Fingers!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


We bought Corin a ukulele after he kept wanting to play the "small guitar" of the violin, which is much more fragile, whenever Amanda played the big guitar. One of the reviews on Amazon mentioned that a new ukulele (at least of the quality we could afford) takes a while to hold its tuning, and at the beginning you might need to re-tune every few minutes. (This of course has led to Corin un-tuning the ukulele every time we hand it to him, since he thinks fiddling with the knobs is the first step — meaning it's doubly hard to keep in tune.)

At any rate, that reminded me of something I recently read in "A Perfect Mess," which I still have a dozen more interesting bits to share with you all.

Growing up with my only instrument being the piano, which is tuned only occasionally, I never really realized how of a big deal tuning is in an orchestral performance. I found this explanation from Abrahamson and Freedman to be fascinating and eye-opening (the full passage is on pages 300-306 if you want to read the whole thing):
"Those of us who aren't musicians, or at least trained in music theory, might think ... that sour notes, whether sharp or flat, are the sort of thing that good musicians leave behind in junior high school. ... Or perhaps you know enough to realize it's not quite that simple. Temperature is a factor, for example, in that instruments tend to heat up over the course of a performance, which changes their tuning. The change depends on the surrounding temperature, how much and how loudly the instrument has been playing, and whether the instrument is in sunshine or close to stage lights, among other factors. ...

"At the heart of the matter is the fact that there's really no absolute, universal meaning to "being in tune" — it's a variable, inconsistent, dynamic judgment. ... It's exactly this sort of inescapable messiness that helps imbue performances with the sort of variation and unpredictability that can leave audiences mesmerized one day and bored the next. ...

"Until the eighteenth century, keyboard instruments were tuned like other instruments, ...tuning the keys so that when a scale is played one note at a time, the scale will sound pleasing. ... Owing to an odd glitch in the relationships between the different sorts of notes that seem perfect to our ears, chords that sound lovely when played on one part of the keyboard can produce wobbling and other clashy effects when played on another part. ... These small differences don't much affect the integrity of the scales, but they end up hobbling some of the chords as they are ... transposed into a different key. ...

"Through the seventeenth century, composers simply avoided these troubled chords. .... By the eighteenth century, a number of composers started to embrace ... [an] alternate technique, called 'tempered tuning'. ... The result is that scales no longer sound quite right when played note by note ... but because the note-to-note jumps are more consistent than they are with 'just tuning', a chord that sounds good in one key will sound pretty good in any other key. ...

"A slightly tweaked version of well-tempered tuning called 'even-tempered tuning,' in which all the jumps between notes are made perfectly consistent, finally became more or less standard for keyboard instruments in the 1850s. ... (Bear in mind, therefore, that when you hear a performance of music written before the second half of the eighteenth century [Bach, etc.], you're probably not hearing exactly what the composer intended. ...)

"Unlike pianos, virtually all the standard instruments in an orchestra enlist just tuning to get those pleasing progression of single notes. But the problem of aberrant harmonies between multiple notes played simultaneously doesn't go away; with many instruments playing many different notes, there's plenty of opportunity for the notes to clash. ... A trombonist or trumpet player or violinist ... has to shoulder a share of the responsibility for avoiding interpreting notes in a way that unpleasantly combines with those of other instruments and has to do it by adjusting tuning on the fly [emphasis theirs] throughout the performance.

"How big an alteration is called for depends on the instrument, the note, the key in which the note is being played, and the specific qualities of sound that the musician and conductor hope to achieve. ... Almost everyone in the orchestra is constantly making these adjustments and readjustments in response to the music and to each other. ... That even the pros can occasionally be more inspired than usual in this endeavor is all part of the magic of the performance."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Limited imagination

Corin could play (and does play) trucks all day long, but when he wants me to play trucks with him I quickly run out of steam.

"Pbbbbbbbbbbbb, pbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb," I make the noise of the car engine and race it along. Then I add, "His car must run on farts."

"No pooted! No pooted!" he retorts.

* * *

"Oh, no, the bus rolled over! Weee-ooh weee-ooh! Mr. Bus Driver, were you drinking again? Yes, officer. Sorry, officer."

* * *

"Here's Evel Knievel in the brown truck, and he's going to jump all the other cars! Ker-chunck! He's airborne, he's going to make it! He ... he ... no, he smashes into the last car!"

He has no idea what to make of this. Apparently I know how to amuse only myself with trucks.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Our real estate agents: Kristen and Rosemary, duo extraordinaire

This post is long overdue — unconscionably overdue. Back in September, when we finally closed on our condo and excitedly posted about the big day, I had meant to follow up with a series of thank-you speeches, giving credit and thanks to the people who helped us through the whole insane process. But somehow actually moving got in the way of any long and thoughtful posting, and I never caught up on that. It's time to rectify the situation.

Our real estate agents were Kristen Meyer and Rosemary Pham, who were at every point our advocates and our warriors. With Amanda and me being more the shy, retiring types (especially in areas where we have extremely limited knowledge, like buying a house) we were beyond blessed to have these two in our corner.

We had started the house-hunting process on our own, using online listings to determine what was available in our target area and budget, and had a pretty good sense of which place we wanted to place a bid on. We thought that all we really needed was someone whom we felt comfortable with to actually show us the condo and our few backup choices to confirm our selection, send through the paperwork, and collect the commission. Indeed, it ended up being less than a week before we had met Kristen to when our offer was accepted; we had joked at the time that it would be her easiest commission ever.

Do not joke about home-buying. Ever.

Kristen and Rosemary more than earned their dollars on this one, navigating us through an incredibly difficult loan process, being the grease in the gears as more than one party involved took their time and it looked like things were stalling out or grinding to a halt. They poked and pushed and prodded at the wheels of progress until everyone was doing what they needed to be doing to see the sale through to completion.

Our other tireless worker was Cristie Stapp at Eagle Home Mortgage, who handed our loan and helped us jump through the hoops of the ever-changing legal restrictions in the wake of the mortgage crisis that were impeding the sale. Her vast knowledge put us at ease at a time when we were quite easily and quite rightfully panicked about the whole thing, but we always knew we were in the best possible hands with her, and if the loan hadn't been made with her, that there was nowhere on the planet that it could have been. She saw us through and didn't disappoint, and we were glad that Kristen had recommended her.

What first interested us about Kristen as we were reading through various online profiles of real estate agents was that she had placed several famous musicians in homes in Seattle that matched their unique tastes and needs. She seemed to be someone who specialized in the offbeat, in the match of person and home — and while we are hardly rock stars, we felt that we weren't the typical buyers either. Other agents we met tried to dissuade us from our idea of living on Alki, trying to push us toward other areas of West Seattle where we could have a bigger house with more square footage and what might be a better investment value. But we have certain values in life — one is that bigger isn't always better, another is that making a home is more important than investment portfolio, and another is that having plenty to walk to within a block of you is absolutely important since we otherwise tend to forget to get outside the cave. Other agents wanted us to change our priorities and personalities, but Kristen saw us for the eclectics we are and was eager to match us with the perfect place.

As I mentioned before, we aren't the most assertive of people. Often, even when we want something strongly, we sort of float the idea as more of a question into a conversation. A lot of times people take this as mere suggestion, but Kristen was able to listen on the right frequency and interpret our weird style of communication properly. From day one we felt comfortable with her and with her ability to be our proxy and representative in all negotiations and arm-twisting, applying all the leverage we ourselves are unable to muster.

Kristen was always there to be a listening ear as well, letting us talk through frustrations, but never letting us wallow in them, always presenting a series of options for the next step. I was unprepared for how much of an emotional wringer the home-buying process is, but we never had to feel awkward or tentative around Kristen or Rosemary or to hide our insecurities. As first-time homebuyers with jitters, we felt completely safe letting them guide us through the emotional roller-coaster.

Rosemary works in tandem with Kristen, sharing clients together and taking over for each other when the other is on vacation. Kristen actually ended up being on vacation just a day or two after our offer was accepted, and Rosemary took over rather early on. I had thought we might need to re-explain a lot of things with a new person and catch her up to speed but she was completely in sync, not only with the business stuff but all about us as people, too. They work together in sympatico so well that I never had to worry that we'd be on a different page with Rosemary than with Kristen. I suspect some sort of psychic link-up.

What we most appreciated in the end was the amount of personal attention. Not only would both Kristen and Rosemary be available at a moment's notice to talk or answer questions — we never once had to leave a message that we felt floated away into the ether like with many of the other people and companies that we had to deal with in the process — but they were also proactive in calling us and seeing how we were doing and if we needed anything. I had expected that whoever we chose as agents would satisfactorily complete what the job required, but Kristen and Rosemary went beyond the job description and became coach and counselor, too. It never felt like a raw business transaction, but a journey we were on together, with them guiding the way. Anyone who sees you through tough times with grace and humor is going to earn your respect and trust, and Kristen and Rosemary have ours. If you are looking for a real estate agent in Seattle, they come with our unqualified and enthusiastic support.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Things Corin ate today

...and actually picked out for himself from the cafeteria and the refrigerator:


ranch dip

cheddar cheese

fruit salad (melon, pineapple)





Things he turned down: french fries, chicken, burger.

Who was that masked man?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Corin bits

* Corin has named his two baby dolls: "Co" and "Rin." Amanda's suggested "Coco" and "Rinny" to temper the meglomania.

* Over at First Year Blogger, which for the past two-plus years has been filled with random typings from Corin when he wants to borrow our computers and imitate us, now has its first word: /MV/HHellllllo. (It finally occurred to me that since Corin knows his letters, I could actually prompt him to start typing words. Cool, huh?)

* At the mall tonight, as we were walking around with Corin on Amanda's back, Corin kept repeating the last few words of every sentence in our conversation. "...back from there," he would parrot. "...for the car."

I turned to him and asked, "Are you just repeating words?"

"...repea— Yes!" he said with a huge grin.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I haven't posted any of Corin's latest YouTube obsessions lately because they've been either preschool stuff like the Wiggles or really bizarre things like the song below — nothing I want to admit that he likes. But in the interest of posterity, I've been convinced that I have to share this one with you all.

(For the record, assuming that the cartoon is scientifically accurate — and I have no reason to think that it isn't — the blood must be from crabs cutting up his mouth, not him biting on crabs, since crab blood is white with a bluish tinge.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Alki Beach in winter

As we have the beach to ourselves again for the winter, with rain and chill keeping most people indoors, I remembered that last winter I took the camera out with me on walks with Corin to capture all the different variations of clouds, fog, bright skies, mountains in the distance, and colors of a winter beach in Seattle.

I finally got around to making them into a little video, which I've watched four times and each time is different: seeing the sky change, the mountains or lack thereof, the colors and moods, the bustle of beachwalkers, patterns in the sand. Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Corin bits

Writing those decade lists knocked me out of commission for a while; I had meant to post a few Corin anecdotes in between but didn't get around to it. Here are three that I remember from the past couple weeks:

* Corin has started playing with his toys as if they are characters. Before it would always be him, playing with his train object. Now, the train objects are different characters (thanks, Thomas the tank engine) and they interact with each other. Pretty fun to see that leap.

* Corin calls the guitar the "guitarg."

* One day Corin started saying something that sounded like "Apa shuffle! Apa shuffle!" Not knowing what in the world he meant, I decided to riff off of the Chicago Bear's Super Bowl Shuffle and made up words about Corin and Apa. It's his new favorite thing to make me do now, even though I keep faltering out on verses as I can't think of rhymes. I think his favorite is my '80s-style beat-boxing. (You will notice I don't do this in public.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The decade in television

While I was writing my decade-end movie list, three thoughts occurred to me: First, I was seriously considering adding the Emma Thompson film "Wit" to the list, but then I remembered it was actually an HBO special, not a theatrical release, and I waffled. Second, I made a comment in the article about the lack of outright comedies in my top faves, and that most of my laughter came from television over the past ten years. Third: I never really write about television out of force of habit, because back when I started writing about art, once a television program had aired, your chances of seeing an exact episode again were slim. This past decade has seen an explosion of TV shows available on DVD, so most of the stuff below I value from this decade is easily accessible. So, without further ado, 17 projects from TV and/or short-length entertainment I loved (and 4 runners-up):

Best HBO specials:
"Wit" — An adaptation of an off-Broadway play, this film follows the conversations and inner monologues of a professor of literature as battles ovarian cancer in a hospital ward. The typical sympathies aroused by this scenario are turned on their head, as the suffering patient refuses pity or kindness, but approaches death with the same level of rigor and scrutiny as she does her favorite texts. She prepares for a fight, not just with death, but with hospital staff and caregivers who well-meaningly want her to quake and blubber at death, by sharpening her skills of wit. Even as we come to see the cantankerous woman eventually as a full person who does have an emotional side, she has asked us to face the questions of death ourselves, and has shown us that fear in the face of death is hardly the only appropriate response.

"Naked States" — Artist Spencer Tunick was a nobody when this documentary was being filmed, but he had a germ of an idea for what he wanted to create with his art. His interest in photographing the human shape was hardly novel, but he added a new element of daring to it: nude photography outdoors. He decided to take nudity out of the art museum, where it was perfectly acceptable, and combine it with nudity in public, which was decidedly not acceptable, and let the sparks fly. Today he is best known for assembling thousands of people in cities across the world for nude photo shoots, where the colors and shapes of bodies filling streets and parks and waterways make for extraordinary landscapes. In this film, he mostly starts small, photographing one or two or twelve people at a time, running from cops, trying to convince people on the street one at a time to take their clothes off. What's most amazing about the film is not Tunick's story necessarily, but the comments of the models who agree to pose. It is such an act of liberation, restoration, and healing to a great number of them, especially to several women who had been through painful or humiliating experiences and become ready to accept their bodies and their selves again as valuable, worthy, beautiful beings. It ends up a portaiture of courage.

Best BBC series:
"Coupling" — I've written before about my love for this sitcom, which is so much more than just a sitcom. It's a clever foray into the use of narrative structure to sell a point. The series employs a set of gimmicks to great effect: split-screen stories, stories told backward, re-translated conversations, flashbacks and dream sequences, which seem random and confusing until it all ties together at the end in a perfect bow. The series also employs one of my favorite comedy bits: the run-on-talking-because-you're-nervous monologue, leading to a great number of unbelievably over-the-top lies or confessions, including the keeping of ears in a bucket. On top of all that it's a sweet love story of two people (and then another two people) finding out they belong together. I never get tired of re-watching it.

"The Office" — This is a comedy of embarrassments, both embarrassments on behalf of those who have no shame reflex, on behalf of those who are picked on, and on behalf of those who take a risk and get shot down. It should be extraordinarily uncomfortable to watch, and the laughs should be nothing more than mere schadenfreude, and yet the show has a big heart, big enough to bless all the characters with small moments of breaking through and moving on.

Best explore-the-world documentary shows:
"Mythbusters" — I never tire of watching Adam, Jamie, Kari, Tory, and Grant ask questions about how the world works, challenge everyday assumptions, and discover surprising results. Even more than the fun of watching stuff blow up is the training of the mind toward curiosity.

"30 Days" — Morgan Spurlock's follow-up to his documentary "Super-Size Me" is this show, which has Spurlock or a suitable substitute taking a walk in someone else's shoes for a full month. Spurlock goes to jail for a month, lives on minimum wage for a month, lives on a Native American reservation for a month and more in his quest to understand the lives of people so dissimilar to him. Other shows find a devout Christian living among Muslims for a month, a couple lives in an electricity-free commune for a month, a pro-choice advocate lives with pro-life activits, and an outsourced American worker goes to India to work his old job. The guinea pig nearly always comes through the experience with a better understanding of other people, and with more compassion, even if their personal opinions and beliefs remain the same. The show points to how insular we have a society has become in only talking and relating to people who make us comfortable in their similarity, and how much we miss out on.

Best short films (that I've seen, which is admittedly not many, but of the 30 or 40 these are ones I could watch forever in a loop):
"Rent-a-Person" — The conceit of this film is a young entrepreneur who starts a business renting out homeless people to drivers who want to travel in the HOV lanes. It's also a musical. And a love story about two bathroom attendants who finally meet and fall in love. And it's about picture-frame models. All in just 12 minutes — twelve funny, sweet, twisted, lyrical, and perfect minutes.

"Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death" — This one I actually have watched forever on a loop: I rented it from the library and Corin loves it to death, literally playing it 20 times in a week. And I find I'm still not bored of it. The Wallace and Gromit shorts of the '90s were some of my favorite comedy, and while I was a little disappointed with the feature film "Curse of the Were-Rabbit," in that it went on too long, and the mini-shorts "Cracking Contraptions," which went on too short, finally the two inventors are back at their proper 30-minute length after ten years. The structure, plotting, animation, jokes, whimsy, pauses, absurdity, liveliness and tenderness have never been better.

Best American sitcoms:
"My Name is Earl" — In the history of art, stories of forgiveness and reconciliation have been in short supply. It is much easier to write grittily or cynically or observationally than to write aspirationally — in particular because noble aspirations are always so sweet and treacly. "My Name is Earl" is not a sweet show by any means, amping up the bad-boy outrageousness to balance out the central tenet of the show: a ne'er-do-well visiting the people he harmed in his life to ask for their forgiveness and try to make up for the wrongs he did. It's simply stunning to me that this show made it on TV at all, let alone for four years. I wrote in more detail about my favorite episode, which centers on the theme of grace, here.

"30 Rock" — When I saw the first episode of this show, I had an impression of Tina Fey as being smart, strong, sexy, and devastatingly funny, and to see her play Liz Lemon, the exact opposite of that (mild, mothering, awkward, and unintentionally funny) initially turned me off the show. Then I began to see clips, and commercials, and a few episodes here and there, and began to get the show: absurdism at its finest. The humor builds layer upon layer, starting out merely absurd, then becomes self-referentially absurd, and then is popped by a cold dose of sensibility. This isn't setup-setup-gag of old-school comedy, it's gag-gag-did-you-see-that-gag modus operandi of the 2000s.

Runners up (only by a hair, and probably mostly because they're on everyone else's best lists): "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development"

Best American dramas:
"House" — This show has gone through so many different phases: a procedural drama about disease and medicine, a character study about the poor social life of a genius, a reality-show-style competition between doctors to land a dream job, a buddy comedy about best friends razzing each other with pranks, stories of love and broken love, meditations of faith and lack thereof — what could have been a repetitive formula (and occasionally, I'll admit, it has dragged for a few episodes until they've switched gears) has found new life over and over again, in large part thanks to Hugh Laurie's impeccable comic timing, with covers a multitude of errors. This current season, the sixth, started with a feature-length episode titled "Broken" that just might have made my top list of the decade for movies had it been theatrical, it was that good.

"Joan of Arcadia" — This one kind of surprised me by ending up on my list, but the story of a teenage girl who hears instructions from God through a series of seeming strangers was always so full of hope and enthusiasm that it has remained strong in my mind. It's kind of "Quantum Leap"-ish (another favorite) in its approach, in that Joan will have to try to help somebody out in each episode, only she doesn't know who or how; she can only follow seemingly odd instructions from God that puts her in the right time or place or frame of mind in order to help when it's needed. It also reminds me a lot of that "wax on, wax off" stuff from "The Karate Kid," in which mundane and repetitive motions are used to train for a larger purpose. The show was just so full of the message that there is a purpose behind things that you can't understand, even if the show was a little gimmicky and not exactly reflective of ordinary religious experience, that I miss it quite a bit.

Runners up: "Nero Wolfe," "Firefly" (which partly includes the potential of what "Firefly" should have become with two or three extra seasons)

Best animated show:
"Futurama" — (This actually premiered in 1999, but 3/4 of the episodes were in this decade, plus 4 DVD full-length films, so I'm counting it.) Set in the year 3000, this show had license to comment on any trend, issue, subculture, or dramatic staple by magnifying it to the nth degree. In a world where bureaucracy, callousness, adventure, invention, and hedonism have all multiplied to complete excess, the show finds laugh after laugh in the extremism but is nevertheless grounded by the familial affections that the rag-tag spaceship crew/package delivery service has for one another. It's as if "The Twilight Zone" (another "what if" science fiction show tackling the zeitgeist of the day) had a recurring cast that you grew to know and love.

Best fake shows:
"Da Ali G Show" — Before Borat hit the big screen, he was one of three characters on "Da Ali G Show," which Sasha Baron Cohen used to prank unsuspecting authority figures. He's slightly less offensive, though, on TV, and that's the version I enjoy rewatching most, interspersed with faux-rapper Ali G and faux-fashionista Bruno in equal measures. You get a sense of just how talented Cohen is, using every angle and trick in the book to try to point out follies of the self-styled gatekeepers of propriety. It's my favorite of many of the Candid-Camera-style shows this decade, the one with the most intelligence and subversiveness.

"The Daily Show" — A show with a similar purpose, but pulling it off in real time on a day-to-day basis: pointing out all the contradictions, posturing, disingenuousness, and bravado of the country's politicians (yes, both right and left, although the right gave them a lot to work with this decade). This is such a necessary part of political discourse, the ability to call out professional liars on their lies, and the mainstream media only rarely does it, treating all spouting by politicians to be opinion to be debated even when the facts are wrong. It's been reported that watchers of "The Daily Show" are better informed about actual policy, issues, and the content of bills than watchers of most any other news show, which is kind of sad.

Best online exclusive:
"Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" — Not every short-form entertainment has to hit the tube or the festival circuit anymore: it goes straight to the masses via the internet. This 43-minute wonder hit the internet for free in three installments, was then taken down, then made its way to Hulu, and now can be purchased on DVD-on-demand via Amazon. A stunningly well-executed musical about superheroes and supervillains (with virtually no effects budget) that takes the rare tack of making the hero a blowhard and the villain a lovelorn loser, it is alternately sad, funny, heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Best comedy special:
"Jim Gaffigan: King Baby" — I have to admit that I'm not all that plugged into the comedy scene anymore, so my pickings are slim, but Jim Gaffigan's stuff ranks among my favorite stand-up of all time, so it's worth mentioning. (I also first encountered Eddie Izzard this decade, but in looking up YouTube clips of some of my favorite bits I discovered they were almost all from his '90s specials.) Gaffigan celebrates the slovenly American persona with such relish and pride that you almost feel noble to be a white-bread, bacon-eating, terminally lazy, ketchup-hoarding everyman. But his real brilliance is in his high-pitched audience-member critic voice with which he comments on the stupidity of his own observations, making you laugh at yourself for ever considering his idea for a split second that all food should be wrapped in bacon. Gaffigan sums up the modern sensibility so well: He's not just a lazy slob, he's a self-aware lazy slob.