Sunday, August 31, 2008

Riding the airwaves for chordoma

When I was 20, I was studying at Syracuse and thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Josh Sommer is around 20, and he's curing cancer at the Chordoma Foundation.

Who feels like a slacker? Oh, that's right. Me.

I know I don't explicitly bring up work here often, but I feel compelled to share an interview I did a couple weeks ago for our Social Citizens blog. (Check it out -- some neat discussions going on there.)

Josh was my subject. He's the college-student founder and executive director of the Chordoma Foundation, which works to accelerate research to find a cure to this rare cancer. Now, any person who takes on this role while still in school is already worthy of high praise. But Josh also HAS chordoma, making his mission and work that much more urgent and poignant.

No wonder I was in a tizzy of emotions when I sat down to interview him. On the most superficial level, I was worrying about our recorder working, my rusty interview style, and all the post-production ahead of me. And on my deepest human-to-human level, I was overwhelmed by his courage, compassion, and incredible drive to help others first, and himself second.

Anyway, I don't want you to keep reading my rambling prose. I want you to listen to Josh telling his own story in our interview podcast. It's on the longer side -- about 25 minutes -- but worth every minute, I promise.

Perhaps you'll even be inspired in some way to help Josh accomplish his mission. If so, then sharing this podcast was the least I could do for someone I developed tremendous respect and admiration for in the first hour of knowing him.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Funny Baby Pictures: A series is born

I love bebes. I love holding them, playing with them, snuggling them, feeding them, and handing them back to their parents. But I especially love pictures of bebes. And the more potential these pictures have for embarrassing the child upon adulthood, the better.

Thus begins a semi-regular segment on Italian Mother Syndrome called "Funny Baby Pictures." Here I will take the pictures that women and coworkers pass around with reckless abandon on my personal email chains, and post them for the world to see.

I have no greater editorial goal with this segment than to bring a smile to your face. Because in a world rife with conflict, sorrow, and hard labor, nothing is as hilarious as a baby in a silly hat.

My first picture is just that. My mother described it this way:

"The kid looks like, “What the he** am I doing up here. I don’t even want to touch this thing!"

Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A brief meditation on the shore

Coastline. Coast. Beach. Shore. Ah yes, there it is -- the magic word that means more than sand and water. It means a summer tradition, a seaside lifestyle, a ritual act. And it's the one place on earth that reveals I really am part-mermaid (not just playing one in parades).

The comfort of shore trips is that they never change at their core, they just unfold. And every year, something a little bit different happens to remind you how thankful you are for the eternity of the sea.

Like when you are one of the last people on the beach, sitting with your best friend, and the sky and water actually turns the color of all the cheesy beach prints I like to mock at the lighthouse-festooned rental homes.

Or when you get the chance to stay in an original seaside manor, with over 100 years of sea, salt, sun, and breezes seeped into its walls, and with good friends tucked away in its gables:



That's when I feel Poseidon breathing, and I'm content to let everything else slip away, if only until the next sunny day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Obama mania hits my inbox (part 2)

With the first day of the convention down, my inbox continues to bulge with Obama-related emails -- but still not as much as in the first 24-48 hours of my signing up. In today's post, I grade the rest of these emails, and see if the Obama camp has sealed me as a constituent by its communication strategy alone.

4. "The Next Vice President" from Barack Obama. This email follow-up to the text message announcement didn't quite pack the same excitement as the text did. (Nor was the text itself particularly enthralling -- the newness of the vehicle and lure of immediacy/intimacy were the real draws.) Though clear and to the point, this note lacked enthusiasm. I didn't feel inspired to get behind the ticket after reading it. (Perhaps they should have taken a cue from my friend Jordana, whose friend texted her a much more exciting message when the news broke -- simply "BIDEN!") Worse, I didn't gain any insight into WHY Biden was chosen, or how he would help. I give this effort a C, for its lack of energy and threadbare content.

5. "First Edition Obama-Biden Car Magnet" from Obama for America. Um, you think after the lukewarm reception of the announcement email I'm suddenly going to go gaga over a car magnet? The only cool thing here is the fact it's not a bumper sticker. I don't even HAVE a car. The son bears the sins of the father in this case by soliciting donations in the thin guise of merchandising though it hasn't sealed my support. C as well.

6. "Hello" from Joe Biden. People, what have you done with the enthusiasm in this campaign? Do you only trot it out at rallies now? An equally blah email from Joe Biden himself does little to illuminate his position. The only thing to save this from another "C" is the video Joe presents. While he dutifully toes the party line, he at least gives some hint as to what he brings to the table. Plus it's a friendly introduction. B-.

On average, Obama scored a B in my book from a communications standpoint. Here's the breakdown:

Pros: good response time, clean design, clear text, easy and multiple calls to action, corresponding ease on the website, consistent grassroots messaging and inclusive language.

Cons: lack of immediate access to deeper information (which seems to assume everybody on this list is already a diehard), few if any specifics about policy or decisions (he risks eroding trust), and by extension, an over-reliance on his well-crafted brand.

Note to the Obama group -- you can't just fan flames, you occasionally have to feed them, too. You have all the outlets and processes, all the right copywriters and designers, and all the right social media people in place to blanket the country with this message and continue inspiring your legions.

Now put the oomph of your leader behind it. Deepen the message, while widening your outreach. This is the juncture for A+ level work and information. Otherwise, you miss a critical opportunity to convert discerning undecideds. And it's going to take more than a car magnet.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Obama mania hits my inbox (part 1)

For the last 9 months, I have watched the election year cycle heat up with great but detached interest. I evaluated all candidates, supported a few, and generally wait to see how it would all shake out. Now, with three months left to go, I was lured into the folds of one with little more than ... a text message.

Yes, the girl who hates texting officially threw her support -- and her contact information -- behind the Obama campaign in support of its mobile strategy. The "first to know" VP announcement struck me as a savvy, smart, and modern way to reward Obama constituents with the coveted information. And though the media scooped the story, the sincere intent behind the idea was enough to win my textual heart.

I should have know, however, what was to come.

How easy it was to type in my digits. How simple to hand over my email address. No sooner did I hit submit than the campaign outreach gears closed in around me. The first warning was this rather demanding landing page. (Read: We want your email AND your money!)

Then, within minutes, my Hotmail account registered several Obama emails. And more kept coming. Soon, I decided it was time to grade these missives, and see where they stack up in the communication effectiveness spectrum. Here goes:

1. "Welcome" from Obama for America. This receives a solid A for its clear calls to action and comprehensive list of all resources Obama. For folks like me, who had steered clear of deep campaign involvement until this point, it could have been the equivalent of cramming for a physics final exam after not attending class all year. Instead, it was clear, readable, digestible, and immediately actionable. A good start to the flood.

2. "Keeping track" from David Plouffe, BarackObama.com. I give this a B for its fast response to McCain's housing gaffe, with points deducted for continuing negative campaigning. The whole debacle exposes the unspoken flaw in Obama's campaign: It's not possible for any political mission to do a complete 180 and "change" everything about the way it runs, communicates, and cuts deals. Our government is not built to be so ultra flexible, especially in the hands of someone who isn't even president. While Obama has changed some things, he's still rolling with some of our less laudable chestnuts ... such as getting personal during campaign season.

3. "A new attack from Swift Boaters" from the Obama Action Wire. This one piqued my interest with its purpose statement: "The Obama Action Wire is a grassroots rapid response group for supporters to fight smears, spread the truth, push back on misleading media, and take positive action." They certainly responded quickly, and with a respectable degree of localization (the email specifically discussed ads airing in VA). I give it an A- for its stirring language, clear call to action, and on-point messaging -- "This is exactly the kind of politics Barack is running to change."

Note: In my view, I am not contradicting myself by praising him for the messaging after calling him out in point #2. Writing messages and following them are, sadly enough, often two different pursuits. #3 and #2 illustrate that communication divide.

Let's leave off there for the evening. There are four three more emails that need grades in my inbox, but they'll have to wait for part two of this mini-political series. Until then ...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

17 unsung benefits of male roommates

* Qualification: when those roommates are mature, kind, handy, and wage-earning young men, and you are the only young woman in the house.

1. When your window sticks shut because of the humidity, you can call on some muscle to bust it open.

2. They eat everything, and will reciprocate meal sharing.

3. They come with toolboxes.

4. Moving heavy furniture is a point of pride.

5. Their leaving the toilet seat up teaches you wisdom, in that leaving the toilet seat is not the end of the world in the grand scheme of life; and patience, in that you will have to put it down for the rest of time.

6. They play games only of the board variety, not the emotional or mental kind.

7. They're always up for a good time.

8. Drama is at a minimum because you're the only one PMSing every month. Oh, and they're not girls.

9. They bring a new perspective to movies, television shows, and magazine articles. (You'd be astonished -- and reassured -- to find out who they consider pretty.)

10. You get to learn about men without the messiness of a romantic relationship. (Drawback: You have to learn about men without the benefits of a romantic relationship.)

11. They keep good beer stocked in the fridge.

12. Your post-feminist sensibilities allow you to feel protected by the presence of two men, without sacrificing your self-sufficiency, independence, or personal worth.

13. They never say no to ice cream.

14. Sure, they like to watch people beating other people up and stuff exploding, yet you don't have to twist their arms to watch So You Think You Can Dance.

15. They're happy to drive, and just as happy to loan the car.

16. They tell you when you look good on a going-out night -- without any prompting.

17. And the best part: You never need to worry about being lonely, because the boys will always be there for you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How to write a cover letter in 8 steps

Cover letters -- the bane of every job hunter's existence, except those who are blessed with the ability to instantly distill their lives into four brief paragraphs that communicate their entire essence.

That is to say ... none of us. Or precious few of us, at least. But that won't stop us from writing damn good letters anyway that put us in the running for our most Coveted Jobs.

The trick, I've found, is to reframe the task. Don't think of it as a chore -- consider cover letters freedom in templated form, the sonnets of the working world. Your goal: to get people who don't know you to understand you and your potential. So the more you let that personality shine through, the more likely you are to make an impression on your readers. And besides, it's much more fun to write!

I was imparting this counsel to BFF Emily today when it struck me that writing an outline guide might be more useful that straight-up editing her cover letter. Here was the result:

1. Salutation: Write to a person. Try to find a specific contact if possible. It's just warmer and more natural. If you can't find it, “to whom it may concern” won’t kill you -- but making the effort says a lot about your thoroughness and commitment.

2. Paragraph 1: Open with a bang. Why start wimpy or stiff? Say hello -- literally. Introduce yourself, reference the position, and state any networking connections or how you found out about the job opening. Bonus points if you can work in a (sincere) mission plug.

3. Paragraph 2: Call out your current gig. What’s the main challenge or tenet of your present job? How did you overcome/address it (with skills that your Coveted Job calls for)? Cite one or two examples of your work in action. Anything you did that's new, innovative, and/or self-directed gets bonus points.

4. Paragraph 3: Tackle your other most relevant work experience. This is up to you since you know what the posting says and what your work experience is. This is NOT the place to repeat your resume or list every job all the way back to mowing lawns in the neighborhood. Again, what about the particular job or role you want to highlight prepared you for something the Coveted Job is asking you to do?

5. Paragraph 3: Write, rinse, repeat -- IF NECESSARY. I recommend NOT to unless you have something amazing to work in. Better to craft two strong grafs that paint a memorable picture of you than squeeze out three wimpy ones that make the letter run too long and you entirely forgettable.

6. Paragraph 3/4: Show your humanity. This is also known as the feel good graf. Here’s where you explain how the sum of your experiences has uniquely qualified you for this position. It's not so much about basketweaving or that summer by the lake -- it's how you have amassed the skills Coveted Job so desperately needs, and why you enjoy possessing those skills. And do it in your voice. Show them how you look at the world. Do/say what's authentic to you and reflects what you think of your place on this Earth.

7. Closing paragraph: Say buh-bye and call me. The last graf = wrap up and contact. Let them know how to reach you, thank them for their time, and get the hell out of Dodge.

8. Reread. Edit. Tighten. Repeat as necessary. Your mission is to be clear. Be concise. Be direct. Be colorful. Be honest. Be YOU. Keep the grafs short and to the point. Only tell them the info that sets you apart from all other candidates and leaves them wanting even more.

Just one tiny coda before you go: the case for why you should bother listening to me. I got my current job from sending in my cover letter -- cold -- to an online job posting on Idealist.org. (This, after years of being told online job postings amount to nothing.) The recruiter liked what she saw enough to conduct a phone interview, promote me to her client, and bring me to DC. I ended up being the answer to their 8-month search for a managing editor.

I think it was my "show your humanity" graf that did it:
In a nutshell, my professional career is built on four pillars: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, calendars, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and my Myers-Brigg ‘teacher-idealist’ typology. Now I can bring my editing ‘eagle eye,’ organizational skills, leadership, and passion to the Case Foundation, and help further your commitment to finding sustainable solutions for complex social problems.

So how will your success story read?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Word on the street: Plastic or plastic?

The scene: My email inbox. What follows is an exchange between several of my relatives regarding the environmental impact of plastic bags. All original formatting is retained. Names are removed to protect the innocent.

Original email from Uncle #1: a powerpoint detailing the horror that plastic bags wreck on the planet.

Aunt #1: AN EMAIL WORTHY OF SENDING. THANK YOU. I'VE BOUGHT MY SHOPPING BAGS. HAVE YOU????? AND ARE WE ALL RECYCLING??? IT DOESN'T TAKE MUCH EFFORT. LET US ALL DO OUR PART. I DON'T KNOW ABOUT THE REST OF YOU BUT IT BREAKS MY HEART TO SEE THE ANIMALS SUFFER AND OUR BEAUTIFUL PLANET DESTROYED. THANKS AGAIN [UNCLE #1]. LOVE, [AUNT #1]

Cousin #1: I am right there with you. I actually got tired of all the bags I had to recycle and purchased my own bags several months ago. They hold more than the plastic bags and I even get 3 cents per bag off my grocery bill every time I use them. Now that isn't to bad. Something for everyone to consider.

Cousin #2: Good morning, everyone. So glad to see that [Uncle #1] sent such an important e-mail to all of the family. As many of you know, I am a bit of a recycling fiend. However, as [Cousin #1] stated using your own cloth bags will get you a small but (in the scope of things) significant discount. Reusing plastic bags is also another way of getting the most out of the bags you have. Produce bags can be rinsed and reused when you return to the market for your next round of lettuce, apples, etc. The grocery store will NOT throw you out for bringing your own bags and I just store them in the cloth bags in my car - so they do not cause "clutter" in my house.

I know some you the non-believers in the group are saying well what about trash bags, produce bags, etc. There are many brands of bags made from recycled plastic and there are even "bio-degradable" trash/storage bags. These items can be found in most Target's or at your local co-op or health food store. If you are an Internet shopper, the possibilities are endless.

Thanks for taking an interest and I hope this inspires us to influence our friends, families and children to make a positive impact.

Uncle #2: I am proud to tell you all that [Aunt #2] has been cloth bagging for a couple of years and saves the few plastic bags that the store forces her to take for recycling. When you consider all the layers of wrap we just take for granted and then the store puts each item in a bag and then puts all the little bags into big bags. I am not a tree hugger but that nonsense makes me want to spit. It may not be a big thing but it is a lot of little things done by us all is what makes the difference.

Cousin #3: Dear Family, (especially [Uncle #2]),
I am proud to tell you all that when I go to the grocery store, I ask to have every item I purchase individually bagged in plastic bags so I wind up with tons of plastic bags when I get home which I recycle by picking up my dogs poop with them. When you consider all the layers of wrap we just take for granted and then the store puts each item in a bag and then puts all the little bags into big bags, I am not a tree hugger but that nonsense makes me want to thank goodness I get a lot of bags for poop! It may not be a big thing but it is a lot of little poops around my yard, that equal one big poop, that makes the difference.
love [Cousin #3]

Uncle #2: Dear [expletive meaning poop] bagger,

[Aunt #2] says to pick up the poop in newspapers and then send it to the landfill. That will help the paper break down and fertilize the dirt.

Another thing. Why not feed your dog the plastic bags, then when he [expletive meaning poops] it will come out wrapped in plastic and save everybody a lot of work.

Ed. note: Classy, everyone. Very classy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The ultimate mix tape, NPR-style

I miss my car.

After 6 months of a low-car diet, hundreds saved on gas, extra exercise through walking, and Metro reading time, I am finally mourning the loss of Enid, my faithful 1990 Ford Taurus, my first car, the little old lady who saw me through college and my first real commute.

Every grieving period has its trigger. Mine was finding that NPR Music is running a series on "songs to drive by." Segments include Night Driving, Jazz for a Summer Rental Car, Songs for Getting Lost (and Found), and the current listen, Crushingly Sad Songs.

Ok, so maybe tuning into that last one was masochistic. It is an O. Henry twist, after all: move to DC, no longer need car, donate car to favorite independent radio station ever (XPN in Philly! Woot!), then no longer have car radio to listen to while driving.

And it was sooo one of my favorite activities too. I don't rent a Zipcar often enough to have learned DC radio stations yet, I don't own an iPod, and besides, there's no XPN anyway. This is tantamount to tragedy on balmy summer nights when all I want to do is get in and get lost somewhere, windows down, music flowing, thoughts unfurling along the highway.

Melodic lemon juice. That's what this is. Seeping into the paper cut left by my beloved vehicle. Thanks a LOT, NPR, for bringing back beautiful memories and digging new wounds. Nice way to treat somebody who's listened faithfully for years, had defended your hipness to my peers, and even wants to work for you someday.

What makes it worse is that you picked really good songs. Couldn't you at least have picked terrible, boring, repetitive music that would make me embrace my SmarTrip card and send Enid to the recesses of my mind?

Oh, I'll keep listening. I'll keep dreaming. But I won't forgive you for at LEAST a week, NPR. And you'll just have to live with what you've done.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Prayer #34: In One Ear ... And Stay There

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” -- Robert McCloskey

Prayer #34: In One Ear ... And Stay There

In one ear and out the other --
Why can't words just stay there?
How am I supposed to learn
If they all turn into air?

I hear the phrases and the voice,
But don't absorb intent.
No wonder, then, confusion reigns
When my ears are fickle vents.

The trick, I've heard, is not to hear,
And listen hard instead.
A simple concept, to be sure --
Yet harder done that said.

So dear Lord, I turn to you
To close my mouth, not mind --
Perhaps I'll even heed You more
And then respond in kind.

Until then, may the whistling wind
Between my ears die down.
Silence amplifies the truth --
I want to hear the sound.


Amen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The purple mushroom theory

"I think we need a meeting to talk about purple mushrooms on the new website. They're not on the approved plan, but nobody signed off that they shouldn't be, so we need to discuss this ... Just being careful." -- He who shall remain anonymous

Today I discovered purple mushrooms. They grow in deep, dark places, such as the recesses of a manager's mind. They manifest as the unexpected twists, surprise additions, convoluted conversations, and memory lapses that occur in any project lifespan. You don't see them coming until you step in them ... and then the poison spreads.

Today's purple mushroom was the request to not only list the direction/item we were taking, but also all the directions/items we were not taking. This was to avoid any confusion about the direction we had all agreed on several months ago, and to avoid all confusion for the rest of time.

Oh. Of course. That makes perfect sense.

::gags on mushroom::

So, how can I get around this mushroom patch without harming myself or others? Here are some options:

1. Give the people what they want. Spend the time and energy to brainstorm every possible thing we might want to do on our website until the organization dissolves. This means that time and energy will NOT be spent on the main focus of my job. Interesting tradeoff. Will it fly?

2. Push back. Hard. My protestations were not well-received in the shadow of the purple mushroom. The purple mushroom planter made his request very clear. That said, spending 30 min. revisiting the request in a cooler moment might save several hours of unnecessary effort. And really, let's be serious -- I wasn't hired to be a mushroom farmer. I was hired to do my job.

3. Ignore and proceed. This strategy has worked in other arenas of my work life before, and it might work here. Surely the mushroom can't survive if we don't give it water. So let's go ahead as planned, and see if anyone notices.

Hmm. I have a sneaking suspicion I'll do a combination of 1 and 2 (though 3 sounds the most fun). I also have been in the workforce long enough to know this isn't the last purple mushroom I'll encounter. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

In the meantime, watch where you're stepping.

Monday, August 11, 2008

All scream for Lemon Yogurt Ice Cream!

Despite my repeated petitions, the USDA has yet to make ice cream (or scream for short) a major food group. No matter. That doesn't stop me from enjoying it in every conceivable form, whether as gelato at Boccato, or custard at Dairy Godmother, or good ol' Breyers mint chocolate chip (though its containers are shrinking in size and expanding in price ... but that's a beef for another time).

Now, "every conceivable form" includes homemade scream, thanks to Ice Cream: The Perfect Weekend Treat, a nifty little ice cream cookbook from Jacob, who obviously noted my obsession. Here's the helpful bit: The recipes can be made in a traditional ice cream maker (which I don't own) or a food processor-slash-freezer (which I DO own).

So, I tried my very first ice cream recipe a couple weeks ago when entertaining. I based my selection on a few simple premises.

1) I needed something light and refreshing for a post-BBQ meal.
2) Boiling milk scares me, so no go on that culinary requirement yet.
3) If something went horribly wrong, it wouldn't be a total waste of high-end ingredients.

Thus I settled on ...

Lemon Yogurt Ice Cream

Ingredients

2-3 lemons (I like it really lemony, so I squeezed the bejesus out of three)
scant 2.5-cup carton strained plain yogurt (I had no idea what scant meant, and didn't have an adequate strainer, so I just dumped in the full unstrained 2.5-cup carton. Nobody was the wiser.)
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup superfine sugar (Jacob later informed me that you can put regular sugar in the blender or food processor to make it extra fine. So don't spend extra money.)
finely pared lemon rind to decorate (I don't do flourishes, and this was going over a lovely berry fruit salad anyway, but feel free to go hogwild)

Squeeze the juice from the lemons, about six tablespoons total. My handy dandy roomies have introduced me to this awesome gadget, which is infinitely easier and more effective than the old one my mom has. (Sorry Mom.)

Put the juice in a bowl, and add the yogurt, cream, and sugar. Mix well together. I used a beater to excellent effect.

Now to quote the cookbook: "If using an ice-cream machine, churn the mixture in the machine following the manufacturer's instructions." The alternate: Put it in a freezerproof container, sit it uncovered in the freezer, and wait 1-2 hours (or until it sets around the edges).

When that miraculous event occurs, stir the mixture with a fork or beat it in a food processor. I chose the latter, which led to a lot of dirty appliances and what felt like an unnecessary number of bowl transfers. Next time I might just try a mixer again, or do the whole process from the start in the food processor.

Once beaten, return to the freezer for an addition 2-3 hours, or until firm or "required." I kept mine uncovered since the book didn't specify, but I don't think it will make a difference. In the long term, definitely store it with a lid. Duh.

Now the best part -- serving and consumption! Put on the "finely pared lemon rind" if you want to be sophisticated-slash-snooty, though no amount of rind will save a yucky ice cream. I served mine straight over a fresh fruit salad of blueberries, strawberries, and mango. And next time, I might add some mint, just to see what happens.

Also, the recipe says it serves 4 to 6 people, but they must mean really gluttonous people, because I served six people about two servings apiece and still had it left over for two more weeks. So plan accordingly. (Makes a great smoothie base, by the way.)

Another lesson learned is to let the ice cream defrost a bit beforehand. I tried serving it straight from the freezer and ended up with lemon yogurt ice shavings for the first few servings. After 15 minutes in the balmy summer air, however, it got a nice custardy consistency. Those of you who want real ice cream will need to use a churner -- I think custard is the best you'll get via freezer.

All my guests gave rave reviews. And I didn't even have to boil milk! Overall, a success. Let me know how it works for you, and if you have any handy tips for the next making.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Love in the time of bookreading

Sorry for the radio silence -- visitors to the hostel once known as my house have been occupying my creative energies. Here's to a prolific week ahead!

The best birthday presents are those that last beyond the special day itself. No wonder, then, that books rank so highly on my "please, if you're going to spend money on me, spend it on this" list.

Case in point: Love in the Time of Cholera, my gift from Jess for the big Two-Five. It came with praise and a caveat ("I hated the book until this point, and then I loved it!"), as well as the weight of reputation. Better yet, it had good timing -- I received it right before a trip to the beach, so I was able to devour it in record time.

Devour seems strong, but is wholly accurate. LTOC was sensuous and sensual, putting me in a time and place I was never aware of. It introduced me to a dynamic protagonist in Fermina Daza, and a curious creepy/romantic dichotomy in Florentino Diza. But what kept my brain churning long after the last page were lingering quesitons and internal debates over the nature of love, and just what makes a relationship viable, even legit.

As I see it, this book could have had three alternate titles ...

1. Love in the Time of Social Media

The foundation for Fermina and Florentino's is wobbly, comprised of stolen glances, fevered fantasies, and manufactured importance, and fueled by passionate letters. Ah, the letters. Overwrought for Florentino, dispassionate for Fermina, they shoot back and forth between the young lovers with all the requisite symbols -- hair locks, camellias -- that replace actual conversation and relationship-building.

I couldn't help but note the parallel to today's hyper-digital communications, where worlds are lost and rebuilt on the strength of a text message. Taking others on and off pedestals is easier than ever, when you rely on profile pics and text speak to craft a person's identity for them. As in Fermina and Florentino's case, the lack of substance often comes to bear when reality strikes: when Fermina saw Florentino in the market, he came offline so to speak, and she realized the love they had constructed was built on sand.

Even Florentino's response has modern overtones. He takes the 19th century route equivalent to Facebook-stalking, conveniently showing up at events where Fermina will be and following the gossip surrounding her marriage. As Garcia Marquez frames it, this behavior (not to mention his not-so-little black book of amorous encounters) is an extension of his great capacity to love. The man can't help himself.

Here's where I disagree. In my mind, real love would mean Florentino allowing Fermina to live her life free of him. It would mean Florentino loving himself by finding the strength to go on and express his inner poetry in deeper and more productive ways. And it would mean Florentino getting to know Fermina, warts and all. But instead, he holds tight to the fantasy from his teenage years, unwilling to let go of his pedestal-ed ideal.

2. Love in the Time before Feminism

That said, Florentino isn't completely misguided in his adoration. Fermina is a strong character, a woman who takes her survival into her own hands and comes to grip with the real world and the reality of her position within it. Her name, meaning constant, is accurate in capturing her enduring determination and dignity. This gal's got class to spare, and a spitfire streak for extra pizzazz. I rooted for her every step of the way.

That is, until she found herself without Juvenal. Instead of relishing her freedom, Fermina was overwhelmed, and rekindled a relationship with Florentino to help banish loneliness. Here, my loyalties to her split.

On one hand, my post-feminist sensibilities wanted to her to strike one last defiant stance, and say YES to herself and NO to another man. The depiction of her marriage to Juvenal was nuanced and mature; there had been love, personal growth, and knowledge of life's daily battles and beauties. Once he was gone, however, I longed for her to discover who she could be on her own, and realize the full intelligence and character she showed as a young girl.

On the other hand, my human heart empathized with her Catch-22. Being widowed in her old age, in a time when age and gender were immediate disqualifiers to remaining happiness, meant the difference between a comfortable end to her years, and an uphill struggle against societal norms. Add to that her loneliness (determined women need love too!), and I can understand why she might have craved companionship, comfort, and adoration.

I even appreciate that once she got to know Florentino, she kindled a much more realistic and grounded affection for him based on his kind acts and attention. Ultimately though, Fermina disappointed me. If anyone had a chance to be appreciated as the complex, imperfect, indomitable woman she really was, Fermina Daza did. But she instead fell back on a man who had nursed an ghost of her true self for 60 years, without fully grasping the real depth and breadth of her character.

Which brings me to my third title --

3. Love in a Helluva Lot of Time

How realistic/attractive/possible/plausible is it for someone to pine after an ideal? We all do it. We build up others as we want them to be, not as they are, and then we're shocked and appalled when they don't live up to those expectations. While Florentino seemed delighted with Fermina, I still have to wonder if his actions stemmed from --

a) true love?
b) loneliness from a lack of connection?
c) or a sense of entitlement because dammit! he'd put in more than his fair share of time?

Same for Fermina. Was her change of heart due to --

a) have the luxury of time, space, and maturity to look past his oddness and see his poet's heart?
b) a selfish desire for the adoring attention?
c) or ... appreciation?

Maybe all of the above, which is entirely possible when one couple is given so much time to attempt time together. Ironic, isn't it -- a love Florentino (whose name means blooming) considered formed in a couple impetuous youthful years took a lifetime to reach Fermina's heart.

And it's only at the point in time, when all defenses and screens and games are stripped away, that they can find common ground, literally and figuratively: by being there for one another on the deck of a ship, holding hands in their old age.

That's why, for all its frustrating points and maddeningly overwrought behavior, LTOC was as true a depiction of the fine mess we call love as I've recently read. We chase ecstasy. We manufacture perfection. We build castles in the air. We screw up our communication. We sacrifice at the wrong times. We fear getting in too deep, or hurl ourselves in headfirst.

By the same token, we see the good in others. We want to be near them and with them. We sacrifice at the right time. We work toward a mutual future. We offer the best version of ourselves. We are patient. We are accepting. And we're willing to give it two, three, even 622 chances.

With that in mind, I applaud Garcia Marquez for capturing the best (love) and worst (cholera) in his original title -- and in doing so, the best and worst of human nature when it comes to the oldest form of interconnection. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Definitions of happiness on a Wednesday

Let's channel Charlie Brown and look at today through the lens of "happiness is."

Happiness is ...

... your roommate treating you to dinner.
... eating a hot tamale for the first time.
... finding your way onto 395 even though the ramp was closed.
... seeing your brother before he sees you at the train station.
... indulging in creative reality television.
... being at the job long enough for a six-month review -- and hearing that yes, you're doing all right, and yes, they think they'll keep you ... all while drinking a free cappuccino.
... getting an email song from a best friend.
... learning to say dol sot bi bim bap at the Korean restaurant.
... discussing Love in the Time of Cholera with a like-minded reader.
... folding laundry during commercials.
... not cleaning my bedroom, and not caring.
... staying up past my bedtime like it's vacation instead of a work night.
... starting the day grumpy, and ending reassured.
... witnessing a life vocation unfolding.

All of which means that happiness is an extraordinary, ordinary Wednesday.