The Queen’s English

Queen Anne the Politics of PassionI am an avid reader, and feel driven to finish just about any book I start. I will slog my way through a tome, because I.Am.Not.A.Quitter. I will grant myself permission to give up on a book I’m not enjoying… but rarely take myself up on the offer. It’s a sickness, really.

Case in point: I recently completed Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, by Anne Somerset — a heroic feat that took approximately three months. While I appreciate a thorough biography of an important British monarch as much the next history major, at 640 pages this one sometimes felt like breaking rocks in the midday sun.

Queen Anne only lived to age 49, and was in ill health for most of her adult life. Truth be told, given the length of the book and the level of detail provided in it, I sometimes hoped that if her gout didn’t hurry up and kill her, a Jacobite would slip something into her food to move things along.

Kensington Palace is one of my favorite tourist stops in London. It has some great exhibitions about former residents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. There’s also an enormous portrait of Queen Anne (who died at the Palace in 1714) on the ground floor that has always intrigued me. A plaque near the painting states that Anne gave birth to 17 (!) children – and survived none of them.
Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

An even more compelling aspect of Anne’s life was her relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I must admit it was a big reason I bought the brick. Er, I mean the book. All I knew going in was that the two women enjoyed a passionate friendship that bordered on scandalous, followed by a falling out of legendary proportions.

Eighteenth century gossip can be juicy, but this tale of friendship gone south wasn’t illicit, at least according to Somerset. The Queen and Duchess wrote each other extravagant “love” letters (complete with pet names) that were the style of the day for BFFs, but over time Sarah’s access to Anne and the massive wealth it brought her and her husband, turned her into an evil monster. With a barbed tongue like hers, she’s lucky she didn’t wind up in the Tower.

How about a little gratitude with that attitude, Duchess?

A less gossipy topic in Queen Anne is the extension of the two-party system during her reign. This is where things got painful. Whigs and Tories were constantly tussling. It is exhausting to read about — not to mention boring, like a scoreless baseball game in the 12th inning. Everyone is tired, and has work tomorrow. Can’t one side drive in a run, already?

There was plenty of partisan intransigence accompanied by backroom deal making for personal gain, and a blatant disregard for public wellbeing or sentiment… unless an election was on the horizon. It’s a relief that politics doesn’t work like THAT anymore, am I right?

I struggled to keep score, Tories vs. Whigs, and rolled my eyes because history really DOES repeat itself. I wonder if, in 300 years, historians will write about bare knuckle brawling between Republicans and Democrats bringing the U.S. government to a near standstill. If our political partisanship feels petty and tedious in 2016, is there any hope it won’t put future generations into a coma? Will they struggle to understand sequestrations, or decide it’s not worth the bother? Will they confuse Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the way I did Godolphin and Harley?

Edward VII in 1868I respect Queen Anne as a scholarly work and a useful tool to historians studying 18th century Britain. But if you are looking for a biography of a British Monarch that is lighter lifting, check out Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. It’s got it all — family drama (including mommy issues), gluttony and lust. Despite its whopping 768 pages, I finished it in just a few weeks.

I’m taking a break from biographies for a while, and have started reading My Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes.

Will I finish it?

All signs point to… YES.



One look at my DVD collection will tell you: I love westerns. I’m a particular fan of the black and white ones, in which the antagonists are outlaws and bandits — not indians. My modern-day political correctness is like the “River D” cattle brand (Red River, 1948). It’s here to stay.

My all-time favorite western is Shane (1953), but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Hondo (1953), 3 Godfathers (1948) and Stagecoach (1939) are honorable mentions.

Fandom started early for me. When I was a kid my family attended church regularly, and western TV shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s were part of my Sunday after-church ritual. I watched The Big Valley, Maverick or The Wild Wild West – whatever was showing on our local UHF station.

Yep, this was technology’s frontier age. If you wanted to change the channel – there were four to choose from — you stood up, walked over to the television and turned a KNOB left and right until you were (relatively) satisfied with the reception. It was another century, after all.

These days, cable TV brings me more than 1,000 channels with programming in multiple languages and ever-increasing states of visual clarity. (HD! 4K!) There’s always something new to watch. Yet hidden among the home shopping, 24-hour sports and news networks I’ve discovered a retro gem – Bonanza! You can find it on MeTV and INSP (“wholesome entertainment, movies and classic shows”), sandwiched between the likes of The Waltons and Car 54, Where Are You?.

Bonanza lasted for 14 seasons (1959-1973) and ranks as the second-longest-running western series of all time. It told the saga of the wealthy Cartwright family, living on the biggest ranch in the Nevada Territory shortly after the Civil War. The stern-but-kind patriarch Ben (Lorne Greene) had three sons, each by a different mother who died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter. He was sort of a catch, but kinda not really. Falling for him could be hazardous to your health. Lucky for Ben, he had a nice face.

tv classic 1960s 1950s western

Because I discovered Bonanza long after its heyday, it’s easy to think of it as a sleepy little show. Guest stars sometimes delivered cringe-worthy performances, but a few heavy hitters stopped by too. Jerry Newton, before he became Wayne, sang “Scarlet Ribbons” in the Virginia City saloon, and it was beautiful. Teresa Wright (The Best Years of our Lives, The Pride of the Yankees) was Katherine Saunders, Ben Cartwright’s fiancée. She broke his heart, but at least she made it out alive.

George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) made two appearances. Mariette Hartley appeared four times. Once she was Ben’s love interest who also survived (barely). The following season, she fell for his son Hoss. Thanks to the magic of DVR technology, I am able to record and binge watch Bonanza, so I notice when guests return often as new characters.

“Hey, that’s Jenny Carlisle! Why does everyone keep calling her Miss Lola Fairmont? Is Pa gonna go for his six-shooter when he sees Hoss kissing her? Will there be a father-son throw down out by the barn?”

Those of us with keen eyes and ears – as well as memories – notice other things too, like the appearance of the theme song from Little House on the Prairie in later Bonanza episodes. (Michael Landon – aka Little Joe Cartwright — launched Little House shortly after Bonanza was finally canceled, so maybe he got a good deal on the rights.)

What’s more, despite his immense wealth, Ben wore the same outfit for 14 seasons – right down to the green neckerchief he would take on and off throughout the day, for reasons I’ve never understood. His sons were similarly one-note, style-wise.

The Cartwright men got shot a lot. Bullets often grazed them, usually on their foreheads. When the wound was more serious it was in the back, reminding us that they were the GOOD guys. (Bad guys shoot people in the back; good guys get shot in the back.)

Thankfully, the Cartwrights were miraculously quick healers.

Another interesting take away: Regardless of personal wealth, everyone in the Nevada Territory apparently carried Louis Vuitton suitcases. I suppose the age of conspicuous consumption was not yet underway in 1960’s, so maybe viewers didn’t recognize when a new saloon girl stepped off the Overland stage with a $4,000 piece of luggage. But it’s pretty amusing to see now.

The church at Bodie California State Park.In a couple of months, I am taking a Bonanza pilgrimage of sorts, to Lake Tahoe and the Cartwrights’ old stomping grounds — Virginia City and Carson City. I’ve always wanted to visit Bodie, a gold-mining ghost town nearby. (It’s on my Bay Area bucket list.) I’ll consider it a victory in self-restraint if I leave Nevada without a Ponderosa snow globe in my suitcase.

Until then, I’ll keep visiting the ranch from the comfort of my couch, and watching the Cartwrights tame the West, one guest star at a time.

Ponderosa map

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

“Is it just me, or are they speaking Chinese?”

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

This weekend was a long one in the United States, with many businesses closing Monday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an important holiday that can feel a little déjà vu-ish, falling so soon after Christmas and New Year’s Day. But we unlucky few who have to work on Presidents’ Day are desperate to make the most of it, because we won’t see another public three-day-weekend until Memorial Day in late May. (“Mon dieu,” gasp the French!)

Thanks to El Nino, I spent a lot of the weekend curled up on my sofa binge-watching football and Netflix – “Making a Murderer” and “House of Cards”. Today there was a break in the weather, just long enough for me to head downtown and catch a movie – “The Big Short”. That’s when things got kind of crazy/funny.

I knew something was up when I arrived in the theatre, and the screen was black. No ads, no previews. When the movie finally started, the studio name appeared… in Chinese characters. Then the production company… a Chinese name I didn’t recognize. Actors emerged, singing in a karaoke bar. There were subtitles.

Was it possible that a movie about the collapse of the U.S. mortgage securities market could only get backing from China? I read “The Big Short” a few years ago, and was racking my brain. Was there a Chinese character in the film? Someone who liked to sing sappy pop tunes in public? Neither scenario made sense.

Soon, other moviegoers started to whisper and giggle. Quite a few rushed to the exits, assuming they were in the wrong theatre. Eventually, the movie stopped and an usher arrived to apologize, they had accidentally queued up a Chinese language film called “Detective Chinatown” that was scheduled for later. The correct movie would start in a few minutes.

As the usher was leaving, one patron shouted out, “OK, but what about the previews???” I’m pretty sure he was serious. It was a very San Francisco thing to do. We go to the movies for the WHOLE cinematic experience, especially since some of us pay $30 just to park at the cinema. Plus, without previews how will we know which movies to expect next Christmas?

If “Detective Chinatown” is among the coming attractions, I think I’ll pass. When a “Variety” review starts with “A budding Chinese Sherlock Holmes meets his dumbass Watson in Bangkok…,” I know it is my time to rush for the exit.

Detective Chinatown movie poster

The Change Up

House Hunters International on HGTV, image of Paris
I am in the process of planning a trip to Belgium — hopefully full of frites, beer, and waffles slathered in chocolate. Last night, to “research” my destination, I dug deep into my nearly 40 recorded episodes of House Hunters International for inspiration. (As a perpetual renter in a city where property prices are INSANE, it’s the only HGTV show that doesn’t completely depress me.)

HHI follows an expat couple or family (usually American) as they navigate byzantine housing markets in some of the world’s most desirable and exotic cities. Participants present a local realtor with their wish lists and budget constraints, and in turn are shown just three properties from which they must choose.

A few things are almost inevitable:

  • Each adult in the equation will have a different wish list for his or her new home, and the biggest point of contention will be modern vs. quaint/historic/charming.
  • The house the participants left behind – usually in Texas or the Midwest — was big, with a spacious open kitchen central to their family and social lives. Mom/wife will cling to this ideal like grim death, refusing to entertain (pun intended) the notion that guests could gather and socialize in a dining or living room, adjacent to a tiny kitchen.
  • The old homestead will also have had a massive backyard, shielded from the prying eyes of nosey neighbors by mighty oaks or acres of cornfields.
  • “Home” will be less expensive than the destination city. I’ve yet to see participants from San Francisco. It’d be too boring to watch a couple high-fiving during a walkthrough, and giggling over how much money they’ll be saving in Hong Kong/Paris/Melbourne.
  • At least one property will feature a toilet that is separate from the bathroom. This will provoke confusion and/or consternation in my countrymen, accustomed to having several bathroom suites to choose from whenever nature calls.
  • Participants will plan for a constant stream of visitors, requiring a guest room and (if possible) a bathroom. “Yes it’s $200 over budget, but we can’t expect Great Aunt Gert to stay in a hotel if she comes!”
  • Nobody will be satisfied with the size of the fridge.

Mini European Style Refridgerator

Also certain: whichever property I say will win out, I will be wrong. I rarely pick the house that’s over budget – but some participants do. I say, more money spent on housing means less spent on gelato, shoes and train tickets.

The fact that no one follows my telepathic advice can be frustrating. What really chaps my hide, though, is watching people with the chance of a lifetime – an adventure in a beautiful, historic city like Brussels or Antwerp – fret because life will be DIFFERENT.

Because that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

If the fridge is tiny, you can hit the market daily and become great buddies with the lady who sells stinky cheese. And if your kitchen is too small for entertaining, invite friends over just for drinks.

If your kids’ rooms are smaller than in the US, I promise they won’t be scarred for life.

Besides, they should be running outside on the cobblestone streets, eating waffles slathered in chocolate – not hanging out in their bedrooms.

Change is good.

Fortune Cookie: Change is good

One of the Family

Puzzle photoMy friends and family know I’m a genealogy wonk. Some nights I become engrossed in researching one ancestor or another, until I finally look up at a clock and realize I’m famished and exhausted because… I’ve been head down for hours without a break. I promise myself I’ll eat or drink something, just as soon as I finish one last census search…

Like I said, I’m kind of a geek about this stuff.

I also love television series like “Who Do You Think You Are” on TLC, and “Genealogy Roadshow” and “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. These shows often (but not always) focus on celebrities, and zero in on just one or two ancestral lines that reveal Civil or Revolutionary War connections. Occasionally, a celeb will have a ne’er do well, bigamist great-great grandfather or something – but that’s not the norm.

Smiles, everyone. SMILES!

I’m fascinated when celebrities are clueless about their lineage. In other words they’re JUST LIKE THE REST OF US, bless their hearts.

When I dream about how I’d spend a Powerball jackpot, top of my list is hiring baby-faced genealogist D. Joshua Taylor to document my family tree. Knucklehead celebrities would apparently rather blow their loot on tiny dogs that fit in their Prada purses, or gold-plated Cadillac Escalades. Go figure.

Today I read about Ben Affleck’s alleged attempts, during a 2014 guest appearance on Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots”, to suppress that he descends from slave owners. (This was exposed by WikiLeaks. I can only assume the group has run out of serious transgressions when it targets PBS.)

According to leaked emails, Gates felt pressured to ignore Affleck’s slavery connections, and worried about his own professional integrity and credibility if he did so. In the end, he chose to focus on a more illustrious Affleck ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, and whose discovery made Ben “very proud”. Maybe the patriot ancestor had a better narrative than the slave-owning ancestor — but now we’ll never know.

Researching your family tree is a crapshoot – emphasis at times on “crap”. Too bad Ben didn’t ask me for pointers:

  • Genealogy is not for the faint of heart: Most of my family discoveries have been fascinating and exciting, but a few make me cringe a little. Each of us has 32 three-times great grandparents. (That’s the Civil War generation, in my case.) Odds are they won’t all be Union war heroes and captains of industry. Get over it.
  • Descending from slave owners or criminals feels crummy: I get it. Even though YOU didn’t own slaves, rob a bank or abandon your family, an ancestor doing so can make you feel guilty. If the prospect of uncovering a black sheep is very upsetting, family research is probably not for you.

Let Ben Affleck have his revisionist history. I see my family tree as a jigsaw puzzle to solve. I didn’t choose it – it belonged to someone before me, and I just found it on a shelf in the attic. Some pieces are missing, and I may NEVER find them. So I complete what I can, and celebrate my ancestors – even the cads and rogues — because without them, I wouldn’t be here.

Cartoon of Darth Vadar in front of a computer screen, researching his family tree. He exclaims "So, Luke has a sister!"

TV’s Sunday Best

Black and white photo of three women watching a small television, probably 1950 - 1960.Sunday is my favorite night for TV watching. That’s in part because I prep for it. I am generally well-rested and relaxed on Sunday evenings, after two days off work. I’ve spent time outdoors. To do’s like laundry, housecleaning and meal prep are checked off, and I can sit with a cup of tea or glass of wine in my hand, feeling accomplished and caught-up.

Really, though, it is quality programming that keeps me a Sunday night shut-in. Sunday has, at different points, been home to Mad Men, Homeland and NBC Sunday Night Football. And for the past few months, it has offered a buffet of anglophiliac delights on PBS.

Two favorites had their season finales last night: The Great British Baking Show, and Downton Abbey (Season Five).

A set photo from the Great British Baking ShowThe Great British Baking Show is exactly what it sounds like: a reality show in which 12 amateur British bakers compete by whipping up (pun intended) exotic creations, such as Kouign Amann, Schichttorte and Povitica, as well as standards like tea scones. Timing is always tight, and the judges are always uncompromising.

I scoffed initially, and ignored the first few episodes. What could be more boring than watching a bunch of people baking things – especially for someone like me, who is more partial to savory than to sweet? But the desserts were beautiful, and the contestants were so supportive of one another — if they were any nicer, it would have been called The Great CANADIAN Baking Show. One of the bakers, Martha, was just 17 years old and preparing for her A level exams while competing. When she fell behind during one of her final bakes, competitor Richard helped her finish in time.

So Shark Tank, it was not. It has been such a hit in the U.S., I expect we’ve not seen the last of The Great British Baking Show. Until then, bakers… ready, set, bake!

Next up: Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show from the first episode, thus witnessing trials and tribulations of the Crawley family spanning decades. (For the past few seasons, those have felt like some long decades.) The plot often drives me nutty, but… I AM NOT A QUITTER. I know I should cut my losses and walk away, but just can’t shake the hope that the next episode will be better. (I blame Mad Men for this possibly false hope.)

Creator Julian Fellows is well-known for his adherence to historical details. Formal table settings and hemlines at the fictional Downton match the rigid requirements of the day, but social mores are all over the place. Lord Grantham freaks out if his tie is the wrong color at dinner, yet when daughter Edith has a baby out-of-wedlock, then “adopts” her from her foster family, he greets the news with a shrug better suited to Parenthood.

edith-marigold-downton-abbeyPoor Lady Edith. She was left at the altar by fiancé number one, then impregnated by fiancé number two, who was killed by Nazis before he could make an honest woman of her. Also, Poor Edith is sad because she has the meanest sister in all of England.

What is there to say about Lady Mary? This season, she cut her hair short, and took up the same cold, opportunistic ruthlessness she abandoned when she married Matthew. She juggled two suitors, tearing one (Lord Tony Gillingham) away from his betrothed, and sleeping with him… then deciding he was boring. What’s-her-name could keep him after all.

Mary even invited herself to their wedding!

And, she was mean to Poor Edith, who is a better mother to her fake foundling than Lady Mary will ever be to her legitimate, little…um… baby boy Crawley. (Just kidding, I know his name is George but that has a lot less panache than “Marigold”.)

Yes, Tony Gillingham was boring, but so was the other guy courting Mary, whose name really DOES escape me. He resembled Tony so much that I couldn’t keep the two straight. He went from potential second husband material, to a sidekick in Mary’s schemes to dump Tony, to… just… gone. Mary is not one to hang on the vine, though, and last night we were introduced to a third charming, dark-haired (naturally) man at a fancy shooting party. He likes Mary, and driving fast cars. I smell trouble.

This is all standard stuff at Downton. Hapless, mundane storylines run on and on, but they don’t resolve themselves in a satisfying way. They fizzle out, long after the audience ceases to care.

Lady Edith is pining for Marigold!

The village is building a war memorial!

Daisy likes reading!

Let’s just hope we’ve seen the last of the Bates family’s legal woes. Neither of them murdered anyone, OK? That storyline was the biggest, smelliest rotten tomato (or should I say toe-MAH-toe) of them all.

Downton returns in 2016, and despite my misgivings I’m sure I’ll be watching, if only to enjoy the sight of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson flirting! Score one for the old folks!

For now, I’ll get my Sunday night “Masterpiece” fix from the much-hyped Grantchester. James Norton plays a dreamy country vicar named Sidney Chambers, who spends far too much time loitering at the local police station. He solves approximately one crime per week… but his sermons are usually crap, because he doesn’t have time to write a good one.

Also, he has the meanest housekeeper in all of England.


Sweet Talk

Woman's feet on a bathroom scale.A few weeks ago, nearly everyone in my office was cleansing. All around me, colleagues detoxing from sugar, caffeine, gluten, fat – you name it – belched $10 kale juice, while I drank Diet Coke and scarfed down all manner of “bad” carbs. At home, I consumed too much wine and snacks, slept badly and skipped the gym.

I’m not sure what got into me, but I had taken a pronounced detour from the detoxers, and my “thin” clothes that I’d worked so hard to fit into last year, had become a pretty tight squeeze.

Then I hit the trifecta. Or did I enter the Bermuda triangle? Not sure, I suppose time will tell.

First, I read The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, by Tory Johnson. The book received mixed reviews, but I’d heard it was a fast read so…

Tory’s story begins on the day she is “invited” to breakfast with a senior executive at ABC, where she is a weekly contributor at Good Morning America. Tory knows what’s coming: She’s about to be told to get thin – or else. Because she is the primary breadwinner for her family, she decides to finally get serious about food issues she’s struggled with since childhood. The Shift tracks her one-year weight loss journey.

I’d be fibbing if I said I enjoyed the book overall. For starters, it is a chronological account that resembles a monthly journal. That’s a writing style I don’t care for to begin with, plus let’s face it: Diets (the non-fad ones, anyway) are monotonous as they stretch over months and months. That’s why diets are so hard, they are relentless! Who wants to read about one, blow-by-blow?

Also, Tory can be a little cheesy, like when she waxes romantic about how losing weight improved her sex life with her husband. It’s enough to make a Harlequin romance writer roll her eyes. On this topic I say, less is more.

That said, the book is unique in that it makes no promises, and offers no gimmicks. In Chapter 11, Tory acknowledges “the delusion of a quick and easy fix… There is no instant gratification, just hard work and patience.” This is not the message most folks who buy diet books want to receive, so I applaud her for not pulling punches.

Even if the writing is not inspired, The Shift is unique in that its focus is mostly on what’s going on in Tory’s head, rather than the physiology of weight loss, or tricks and shortcuts to losing 50 pounds in an absurdly brief period of time. If you have ever struggled with your weight, you might recognize some of her patterns – which she sheds, one by one.

Food for me, now, is fuel. It does not have to be amazing, entertaining or exciting. Each meal does not have to be like a trip to the county fair or a fantasy segment of Top Chef. I’ve had enough “Wow!” meals to last a lifetime. I want a different set of “wows” now.

How many times have we heard a friend (or ourselves) promise they’ll start a diet tomorrow, because tonight’s meal (with extra bread, butter, wine and dessert) is “special”? Tory Johnson may not be in line for a Pulitzer, but she’s a pretty good truth teller.

80% of products in US grocery stores are spiked with added sugar. 1/3 of Americans will have diabetes by 2050.
Photo: UCSF

If The Shift provided food for thought, it was just an appetizer. I followed it up with the movie Fed Up, a stinging indictment of the food industry lobby, and government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, for their contribution to America’s obesity epidemic. As with The Shift, the information provided in Fed Up is not all new. Most of us know by now that sugar – in all its sneaky forms – is unhealthy. It’s been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. But there were still a few gob-smack moments for me.

I felt sick as loving, well-meaning parents featured in the film fed their families “low fat” processed foods, loaded with sodium and sugar to make them taste good. It was heartbreaking to watch their obese children sob in confusion, because they were getting heavier despite making what they thought were good food choices. The kids believed the advertisements for reduced fat products, and blamed themselves for their lack of weight loss success.

I was also struck by a rather obvious question posed by producers: Have you ever wondered why food labels list the recommended daily allowance of all kinds of ingredients, except sugar? (Um, no. Sadly, I never even wondered.) The fact is, most processed, packaged foods contain more than the recommended daily amount — six teaspoons for me. Telling consumers this might interfere with consumption, so the food industry lobby has opposed such transparency.

So today I embarked on the 10-day Fed Up sugar-free challenge, applying greater scrutiny to food labeling than I ever have before – and it’s already super freaking hard! Day one’s excruciating a-ha moment: Even plain Greek yogurt has sugar. In some cases, a lot of it. My favorite brand is Athena, which has eight grams of sugar. That’s one third my target maximum for a NORMAL day.

I’m a diehard (or hardboiled?) egg lover, but I am not sure I can eat eggs for breakfast for the next 10 days. Face Greek yogurt has just four grams of sugar per serving (one sixth of my recommended daily amount) and there’s some in my fridge…

Oh yeah, this thing will be hard.

Part three of my trifecta: for the past two days San Francisco bus and subway drivers have held a “sick out”, leaving passengers waiting up to one hour for a ride to work. I sometimes walk home in the summer, but have always steadfastly refused to consider walking TO work. (I’ll get too sweaty! My hair will go nuts in the fog! I have too much to carry! I’m wearing the wrong shoes!)

View of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Buildin, from Broadway at Jones Street.
View of downtown San Francisco from Broadway at Jones Street.

This week, I’ve had no choice but to walk, and of course it’s been fine. I show up at work with more energy, and according to my Jawbone Up the round trip pushes me past my daily goal of 10,000 steps, even if I’m a total slug for the remaining 22 hours of the day. Commuting on foot also offers stunning reminders of my good fortune, to live in such a beautiful city.

I can’t promise I’ll walk to and from work every day, once MUNI drivers go back to work. But my new goal is to walk at least one direction.

Sometimes we are inspired to change. At other times, change is thrust upon us. Right now, I’ve got a little bit of both going on – and I’m trying to grab on with both hands.

Seriously, though. Can anyone recommend a sugar-free Greek yogurt? Does such a thing even exist? (FYI, I draw the line at buying my own cow. Or goat.)

Old Habits Die Hard (With a Vengeance)

The Power of Habit book jacketEvery January 1st, most of us set out to make behavioral changes — often with humbling results. For many, an annual list of resolutions can look more like a pie-in-the-sky bucket list, with no identified means of successfully reaching our goals. I’ve written about this before.

Of course, it’s one thing to map out very thoughtful, specific lifestyle changes we need to make… and altogether another to make them. Why is breaking bad habits, and picking up good ones, so difficult?

The answer may lie in the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It turns out even the most introspective, well-intentioned and strong-willed among us are going about this self-improvement business all wrong.

Extensive research into the physiology behind human behavior has proved that habit forming is one of the most primal brain functions of men – and mice. Once patterns associated with habits develop in our basal ganglia, they are there to stay.

For example, a mouse can be trained to run a maze each day with greater and greater speed and efficiency, to reach a piece of cheese. If researchers move the cheese, the mouse will learn the new path to it – in other words, form new habits. (It may also ask its mouse buddies, “Who moved my cheese?”.) But if the cheese is later returned to its original location, the mouse will quickly resume its old route through the maze, without having to “relearn” it. The habits associated with the original route were only displaced – not replaced — by later ones.

So if we can’t erase bad habits – if they are always lurking somewhere deep in our brains – what’s a body to do?

Duhigg defines habits as being composed of four elements that are closely interwoven:

  • Cues
  • Routine behavior
  • Rewards
  • Cravings

Cues are signs we may not even be aware of that provoke specific, habitual behavior. An example from the book: Duhigg developed a habit of stopping by his workplace cafeteria for a cookie break each day at about 3 p.m. Time of day was the cue.

The habit loop, from The Power of HabitHere’s where it gets tricky: The routine wasn’t just eating and the reward wasn’t simply the cookie. WHEN and WHERE did he eat it, and what else was he doing while he ate it? If he always had his snack while chatting with his friends, maybe the reward was camaraderie and not the cookie itself?

All Duhigg knew was, whenever he tried to skip his cafeteria run he suffered cravings, ostensibly for a sweet treat, that hindered his ability to kick the cookie habit.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Duhigg contends that the key to changing a negative behavior is recognizing what triggers it and the need it is really meeting, and finding a more constructive routine that will meet that need and extinguish the craving.

Naturally, I wasn’t able to finish the book before I began analyzing my own habits, and I had a few epiphanies. For example, throughout my adult life I’ve always been very motivated and disciplined about exercise. I had an ingrained morning workout habit, the cornerstone of which was running. Then, two years ago, I injured my knee. X-rays showed I had worn out the cartilage, and unless I wanted to hasten a knee replacement I needed to find a new form of exercise.

I loved running for several reasons. For starters, I could do it anywhere – outdoors, or on a treadmill. I would just slip on my headphones, and get lost in the rhythm of my feet and the music. By the time I’d finished, I had sustained a heart rate of 160 beats per minute for some time, and the endorphins had kicked in.

Since my diagnosis, I have struggled mightily to maintain a gym regimen. My workout mojo has made a run for it, so to speak. I wondered how a 30-year exercise habit could desert me, just like that?

Feet running on a treadmillNow I get it; working out wasn’t my habit. RUNNING was my habit, and the zoning out and endorphins were my rewards. Unfortunately, there’s not a spin class in existence that can deliver anything similar – especially a good zone out, what with the teacher barking out instructions to pedal faster, visualize a big hill up ahead and so on. So my mission is to get on track with a new low impact, high-intensity workout regimen, that also helps clear my head.

Another important ingredient to adjusting old habits, and building new ones, is simple on its surface: support from others. Whether you are in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, access to cheerleaders who reinforce the belief that “you can do it” can determine success or failure. This brought about another light bulb moment for me. While some of my friends freely share their personal goals such as weight loss, even going so far as to discuss their starting weight and pounds to lose with others, I’ve always kept the details of my resolutions private. Perhaps I’d be more successful with the really sticky ones – the ones that stump me year after year – if I enlisted support from my friends or other connections. No man (or woman) is an island, am I right?

The Power of Habit goes beyond personal tendencies, to address workplace habits that collectively make up corporate cultures – for better or worse. Every firm has them. For example, I once worked on a team where “busy” was the default answer to the question, “How are you?” Why couldn’t anyone ever respond with, “I’m great, how are you?” It drove me nuts! The cue was the question, obviously, but what was the reward? Sympathy? Perceived credibility and value? A lighter workload in the future? Stay tuned, I’m still working through that one.

Duhigg can at times extend the definition of habit so far, he loses me. I am still skeptical about his theories on the role habit can play in civil unrest and political movements. Still, there’s enough food for thought in The Power of Habit to keep me in a state of self-analysis for weeks or months to come.

Could greater awareness of my habits, become a habit in itself?

Draft Day: Who Let the Dawgs Out?

"Draft Day" movie poster, featuring Kevin CostnerLast night a friend — also of Buckeye origin — and I went to an early showing of Draft Day, a completely fictionalized account of the National Football League’s player draft process for the woeful Cleveland Browns. Fair warning, read further and I will spoil this movie for you.

Or will I? It’s not that great, so there’s not much to spoil.

Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ GM. His late father was the coach at one time, until Sonny fired him. (Hiss!)

Sonny’s goals on draft day are to salvage football in Cleveland, and resurrect his professional reputation. He would prefer to choose tackle Vontae Mack based on family values — Mack needs a big contract to support his two orphaned nephews! — and gut-feel, but the team’s owner pushes Sonny toward a draft-pick trade that will “make a splash”.

Here’s why I can’t possibly spoil Draft Day for you with this blog post: It’s clear from the moment Sonny accepts a really terrible deal, giving up three consecutive first-round picks to Seattle for a quarterback he has apparently never even done due diligence on, and isn’t sure the team needs, that:

  • The deal will go south, quickly
  • The head coach, played by Denis Leary, won’t like it
  • The QB Sonny is expected to draft will be an arrogant jerk, possibly with something unsavory in his past to disqualify him
  • Sonny will throw a Hail Mary of sorts, once the Browns are on the draft clock, that will incense the team’s owner — but ultimately leave the team better off than if the bonehead trade had never happened

Jennifer Garner, who I normally appreciate in just about any role, plays Ali, the team’s number cruncher as well as Sonny’s secret girlfriend. When she breaks the news on draft day that he’s going to be a father, she is shocked — SHOCKED — and hurt that he is a little preoccupied.

Ali is supposedly a lawyer, salary-cap-analyst extraordinaire and self-taught football wonk — all while teetering on four-inch heels — but she’s not smart enough to wait for a more opportune moment to share this joyous news? Like the day AFTER draft day?

Jennifer Garner and Kevin Costner, in a promotional still from Draft Day.I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an on-screen couple with less chemistry than Costner and Garner. For starters, I don’t think he touches her — not even a peck on the cheek — until the final scene. Ali exists just so that Sonny can pull her into the supply closet several times a day to talk about either his draft troubles, or his ambivalence about fatherhood. She reacts with an empathetic (or is it patronizing?) look and pursed lips, but no meaningful dialogue.

Also, any time she’s asked if a proposed draft choice will put the team over the salary cap, Ali does some mental math (out loud), and concludes, “we’ll look at it, but I think it could work”. So then, why do teams always make this salary cap stuff seem so difficult? It is obviously simple and straightforward. What a bunch of drama queens…

I cannot explain Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s mom, who arrives straight from the reading of her husband’s will — just one hour prior to the draft — to scatter his ashes on the Browns’ practice field. Even Ali has better timing!

It is also not clear why she brings along a pouting Rosanna Arquette, Sonny’s ex-wife. Huh? How many ex-wives are invited to the reading of a former in-law’s will, especially when there are no children involved, as well as to the scattering of the ashes? Arquette’s is not even a speaking part, just a scowling part. (Somebody needs a new agent.)

I’ve never been to a team’s green room on draft day, but I have a hunch Sonny’s last-minute heroics are the least realistic thing in this film. It’s behavior that makes those of us in the corporate environment roll our eyes. He’s got a team load of hard-working scouts, number crunchers, coaches and trainers to collaborate with — but he decides to shoot from the hip, and fly completely solo. They’ve presumably spent months and months developing reports on the players, but Sonny goes with his gut — and since it’s Hollywood, not Cleveland, everyone lives happily ever after.

OK, I realize I have essentially thrown rotten tomatoes at Draft Day, but there’s a caveat. The movie was completely worth $11, because I grew up outside Cleveland. After attending church on Sundays, my family hurried home to worship the Cleveland Browns. My friend Jennifer and I laughed loudly at the local bar scenes, showing screaming fans wearing their jerseys and Dawg Pound face paint. Heck, I’d have paid even more to see that in 3-D.

I know it’s just a movie, but I feel excited about the Browns’ prospects this season. Watching Draft Day, I was reminded of my annual visits home. No matter where I go on weekends, I encounter long-suffering fans wearing brown and orange — regardless of the team’s abysmal record. The city is not nicknamed “Believeland” for nothing.

I hope to hang on to this warm, optimistic, nostalgic feeling — at least until the first snap of 2014.

Cleveland Browns fans in the end zone, also known as the Dawg Pound.


Under the Skin: Miss Scarlett’s Newest Is Like a Game of Clue

Movie poster for 2014 film "Under the Skin"This morning, I decided to have a chore-free Saturday. Well not exactly chore free, but I mostly spent a meandering day north of San Francisco in beautiful, sunny Marin County, checking off non-urgent items lingering on my to-do list. Charcoal filters for my compost bucket? Check. A new one-quart saucepan to replace the old one with the broken lid? Check, again.

I also visited multiple stores in search of, of all things, a new comb. Last weekend I somehow mislaid my cosmetic case, requiring a mopey trip to Sephora to replace the contents – so frustrating, and mighty pricey. Plus, who knew a good comb, like a good man, would be so hard to find?

ElvisThe comb needs to be small enough to fit into my new, small cosmetics bag, with teeth that are smooth and thick enough to glide through my hair and across my scalp, without the sensation of being inspected for lice. I’m making do with a scratchy black Ace number that cost about $2, and I feel like I’m channeling Elvis whenever I use it.

Too bad I didn’t lose a hairbrush. If I had, I would have had dozens to choose from at any store. Apparently, Americans no longer comb. They brush.

Smack in the middle of my duties, I decided to catch a movie: Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. I’m not normally a Sci-Fi fan, but I gave it a shot because it is set in Scotland, and I’ve been feeling homesick for Britain of late.

I have never been so close to walking out of a film, yet afterwards felt so glad I stuck it out. (Alas, stunning shots of Scotland weren’t as plentiful as I’d hoped. And the Glaswegian accents were so thick, I could have used subtitles. If you’ve seen the movie, what the HELL was the bus driver saying?!?!)

I will not give away the plot here, because the pleasure of Under the Skin is piecing together scattered hints. It’s a bit like the neo-noir thriller Memento (2000), but more subtle. The story is extremely visual; there is so little dialogue, I suspect Scarlett learned all her lines in one afternoon.

The first 30 minutes or so really does plod along, as Johansson’s character cruises the streets of Glasgow looking for solo men to take home. While her agenda is murky, clearly it’s not sex she’s after. A pattern repeats itself with each guy, but every pick up provides a sliver of new visual information that will (for the most part) make sense later. There is no on-screen sex or violence, but from the get-go it’s pretty obvious that the men come to a terrible end.

About mid-way through the film, Scarlett’s character inexplicably changes her behavior – I wish I understood why, probably my biggest beef with Under the Skin – and that’s when the plot finally gets some traction. Honestly, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what went down in the film, until I left the theatre and slipped behind the wheel of my car. I experienced mini revelations in every aisle of Whole Foods, and on the drive back to the city.

Scarlett Johansson gets her kit off at several points in the film, which by itself may be worth the price of admission for most male moviegoers. For my part, I must admit I was pleased to see a trim, healthy looking woman on screen for a change, instead of an undernourished marathoner. Scarlett Johansson has some meat on her bones, and she looks fantastic.. even if her character is incredibly spooky.

Have you seen Under the Skin? Or read the book? If so, let’s hear your review! If you catch the film after reading this, and find yourself frustrated by the pace and ambiguities… just remember the title.

Ahem, it’s a hint.


Promotional still from the 2014 film "Under the Skin" starring Scarlett Johansson