Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No Me Gusta Queso Falso

Though I don’t eat Mexican food very often, it’s something I’m quite fond of. Or at least I’m fond of the stuff called Mexican food in Utah. I can’t vouch for its authenticity. From what I understand, what I enjoy is probably more properly referred to as Tex-Mex. But regardless of what you call it, ever since I moved to the southeast region of the United States three years ago, I have discovered a fundamental difference between the Mexican-inspired dishes you’ll find in any Utah restaurant and those exact “same” dishes as prepared and served in Atlanta or Tallahassee. The difference? The kind of cheese they use. And that is a very important difference.

Having lived in Salt Lake City for nearly 28 years, I’ve eaten in many Utah Mexican restaurants. And what did I order almost every time I visited one of these establishments? Cheese enchiladas. As a child, I considered these my favorite food of all, ranking them above even that most sacred of child-friendly delicacies, pizza. And never once did I order a cheese enchilada in Utah and receive a tortilla stuffed with white American cheese. No way, Jose! And I would have remembered if I had, because it would not have been a very pleasant experience. But as soon as I moved to Atlanta, that is all I have seen. Granted, I’ve only eaten at maybe five or six Mexican restaurants in Georgia and Florida combined, but in each case, cheddar cheese was nowhere to be found. (Unless you count Moe’s Southwest Grill, which I don’t. And even they put a soupy “queso” sauce on their nachos rather than melted cheddar. But I’m only concerned with full scale restaurants here, so forget them.) The problem with American cheese—and my most recent waiter told me that’s what they use, so I’m not just guessing—is that it’s so fake. Well, it exists, obviously, but it tastes phony. Prepackaged. Blasé. Desagradable.

I assume Atlanta and Tallahassee are far enough apart to ensure that this is not unique to the few Mexican restaurants I have happened to try between the two cities. It must be a regional difference. But what a sad, sad difference it is. It’s one of the most lamentable aspects of my having moved across the country. Qué pena!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don’t let the “Young Adult” label fool you. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games may just be the most genuinely suspenseful book you’ll ever read. The story centers on young Katniss, a 16-year-old girl who is just one of 24 (mostly involuntary) participants in the government sponsored, mandatorily held, and reprehensibly sadistic Hunger Games, an annual televised quasi-sporting event in which each young player—one boy and one girl chosen by lottery from each of Panem’s twelve districts—must either kill or be killed. When Katniss’ younger sister is chosen for the games, Katniss steps forward to take her place, but is her love for her sister—along with Katniss’ impressive hunting skills and an unusual PR campaign thrust upon her by her appointed handlers—enough to ensure Katniss is the lone survivor of the government’s twisted must-see bloodbath?

The strength of The Hunger Games lies squarely in Collins’ unassuming writing style. The author’s prose is so straightforward, down-to-earth, and crisply clear that within a few pages of the book—almost without the reader realizing it—the intricacies of Katniss’ District 12 have been made vivid and a near-tangible world created. With just as few literary brushstrokes, Collins imbues her main character with both substance and authenticity; Katniss, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is strong spirited and intelligent, reflective, resourceful, and pragmatic, yet she is not without compassion or altogether unfettered from youthful naivety. She is memorable, and her voice quickly familiar. This accentuates the subtle realism that permeates the book, that allows the reader to feel as Katniss feels, to fret as Katniss frets, and that which makes the ever-escalating tension oh so palpable (pardon the platitude). It is to Collins’ great credit that the seeming effortlessness with which The Hunger Games unfolds is never to the detriment of the novel. Less confident authors could easily have given themselves over to sensationalism or needlessly poetic imagery, while less skilled authors could easily have come across as both conspicuously and annoyingly terse. Collins, on the other hand, demonstrates the precision of her craft as all good experts do—by making it hard to say what exactly went right, other than everything.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blessed are the Quitters

Yesterday, my sister wrote on her blog about quitting her job and what an incredibly difficult thing it was for her to do. I’m inclined to think we can all understand that feeling, to some degree or another. Sure, there are people who don’t give a rat’s derriere about what their bosses, co-workers, or anyone else think, but I reckon most of us experience some degree of social discomfort whenever we willingly and explicitly extradite ourselves from some activity or practice to which we’ve heretofore been committed. It needn’t be something as grandiose as quitting one’s job. For some of us, even the thought of quitting a book after we’ve read 20 pages or so feels taboo. And you know what? That’s a bunch of bullroar.

About two weeks before my sister quit her job, I was thinking of writing a blog post on this very subject—the stigma attached to quitting. I was inspired by the sudden disappearance of an undergraduate philosophy student who had signed up for the graduate level philosophy course I am taking this summer. The student was taking the class to help her decide if she wanted to pursue philosophy at the graduate level. On the second day of classes, this student told me that she was intimidated by the course. And that was the last I ever saw of her. Now, it may be that this student gave up on the class all too easily. But maybe not. Maybe she quickly realized that her heart was not in it, and she acted appropriately. And if that’s the case, then all I can say is: I envy you, disappearing undergraduate student. Kudos for not wasting your time.

I have no doubt that many people give up on things all too easily. Some people jump in and out of various projects on a whim and are completely unreliable because of it. But how fortunate are those people who actually feel okay about quitting things once they’ve realized they’re not interested in pursuing them and that they needn’t do so? How much less time and energy do these people waste on things than someone like, say, me? How many crappy movies have I watched because I was determined to see each movie through to the end? And how many more great films would I have seen if I had stopped watching a movie that bored me and moved on to something else? That’s a mundane example, but certainly the more significant you make the activity, the more significant the rewards for not wasting your time. And yet “quit” is such a dirty word in our society. “I quit taking (fill-in-the-blank) lessons,” “I quit my (fill-in-the-blank) class,” and of course, “I quit my job.” Notice how naturally we smuggle negativity into these sentences, how naturally we project a sense of failure onto anyone who might utter such a thing. And yet there is no reason to suppose that, every time one of these sentences is uttered in the world, it is a bad thing. On the contrary, the wisest among us is probably more apt to say these things than we are, since we’ve all been brainwashed to believe you should never give up on anything—even if it’s a complete waste of your time!

I’ve considered the idea that perhaps I have this view on quitting because of my family. Maybe my parents somehow instilled this in me. I remember my mother talking about how, when she was young, she forced herself to read a book she hated because she didn’t feel like she could give up on it. I have those very same tendencies, and it looks like my sister does too. But I really don’t think it’s my family in particular—though I’m sure we’ve added our own neuroses to the mix. (You could argue that we’ve concocted quite the cocktail of self-deprecation and self-doubt over the years.) It really does seem like it’s society at large that feels this way about quitting. I think the psychological notion of “loss aversion” speaks to this. The general idea is that people are so averse to wasting any of their resources that, once an endeavor has begun, they will see it through to the end even if the projected costs of pushing forward do not seem to merit the effort. (This phenomenon is discussed in the book Intuitions: Its Powers and Perils by David G. Myers, which I recently reviewed.) Loss aversion is manifest on a grand scale all the time, when government projects are pushed to completion even if initial budgeting forecasts prove vastly naïve and even though the project would never have been approved at the costs it eventually incurs. But, on a more familiar and day-to-day scale, how many of us have pumped a second dollar bill into the vending machine to get a bag of chips unstuck that we didn’t think was worth the first dollar we put in? (I have, within the last couple of weeks in fact.) And so, who cares if “quit” rhymes with another famous four-letter word? Do we really need to treat it like one?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Fool

by Christopher Moore

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

is Christopher Moore’s bawdy retelling of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (with nods to others of the bard’s plays smuggled in along the way). Pocket, Lear’s fool, serves as the cunning protagonist who seeks to mend—or perhaps just restructure— a fractured and fragile kingdom after a wizened but unwise Lear divides his lands between his two eldest and self-serving daughters, Goneril and Regan, while banishing Cordelia, his youngest, whose profession of filial affection does not prove eloquent enough for the king when solicited. Enter dukes, witches, bastards, unbuttoned bodices, and of course, a ghost, and you’re on your way through a classical tale of political espionage, love, hate, remorse, revenge, and a whole lotta lust.

Much of Fool’s merits may be attributed to Shakespeare himself, rather than to Moore. Setting aside the conspiracy theories that question just how original the bard’s writings really were, Shakespeare’s tales are considered classics for a reason—their complexities are built on plotlines that are deceptively simple and instantly appealing, much like the hook to a good pop song. Moore certainly reaps the benefits of this, putting forth a novel that moves swiftly while keeping the reader delightfully intrigued. Where Moore can take credit, however, is for his signature—and arguably juvenile—sense of humor. Fool’s prefatory warning that the book is not for the easily offended should not be taken lightly. (Sex in all its varieties—and fluids—permeates the book.) For those who do not throw down the book in disgust, however, some laugh-out-loud moments are guaranteed. Just don’t tell your mom why you’re giggling.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Staying Put and the Thrills and Chills that Stem Therefrom

For some bizarre reason, our apartment complex only offers 11-month leases for new tenants. Once you’ve lived here for 11 months, you can renew with a normal 12-month lease, but first you must prove that you can go 11 months without blowing the place up. I guess. Maybe it has something to do with living in a college town, where people are apt to move in at the beginning of August but graduate in May and want to move out soon thereafter. I’m not sure. We don’t live in an area of Tallahassee that is heavily populated by students, but who knows. Anyway, because of this strange custom, Melanie and I have just had to sign our renewal papers, a month shy of living in Tally for a year. And so, we’ll be staying in this apartment until at least July 2010. Probably. (I’ll explain my hesitation in just a moment.)

Here’s the awesome news about renewing our contract, aside from the obvious fact that we won’t have to move: first of all, our rent is staying the same. I was shocked when they said the rent would not increase, but it’s true. In fact, they’re offering us a $100 discount on rent for the first month of our new lease term. Is that amazing or what? I just assumed our rent would increase by $50 a month or so, so this is fantastic news. Moreover, when we moved in, they offered us free cable and free washer/dryer rental for our first “year”—which they’ve informed us will continue for our second year here. Wow! No rent increase, and continued free cable and washer/dryer rental! I’m in awe! It almost sounds too good to be true, but I’m not complaining. Despite the pain in the butt that it was to get into this place (see this bitter post from August 2008), Melanie and I have been incredibly happy being here. They’ve treated us well, the maintenance has been phenomenal, and we’re happy with the location. It’s been great, knock on wood.

So why did I express any hesitation in my opening paragraph? Only because the lease renewal process is not over and done yet. Apparently, renewing your lease at this apartment complex is no less complicated than getting a lease in the first place. In my previous experience, renewing a lease was a simple process where you signed a piece of paper that had a couple of new dates on it. Here, they make you fill out and sign almost all of the same forms they had you do when you first moved in. One of those is an employment verification form, which caused havoc the first time around (since I make very little money and live largely on student loans). I’m just worried something similar will occur this time, and I’ll get stuck filling out form after form, requesting faxes from a variety of people, etc., only to find out that half of them were unnecessary. Thankfully, we’re already living here, so there’s no way this can end up being as stressful an ordeal as it was last year when we were basically loading up our moving truck without knowing for certain if we had a home to move to or not. That sucked, and I’m glad that won’t come into play this time around. Then again, I’m sure these guys can make things fairly stressful if they try hard—or rather, if they don’t try very hard, which is something for which many people have quite a talent. We’ll see. Keep your fingers crossed!