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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Superfriends of Dorothy: Hamburger Mary's and Rogue-8

Last night was the last performance of Rogue-8 at Rogue Theater Company. I've had a yen to see this since I first saw it in the Reader theater listings, so we were late-night bound for Andersonville, where Swedes are Swedes, and gay people carry around their pet rats.

Andersonville is about parallel with the Telecommuniculturey Headquarters in terms of E/W coordinates, but it's a little over 150 blocks North. It's a great neighborhood with lots of bookstores (including the awesome Women and Children First), funky consignment shops, toy stores, and a lot of different dining options layered over a healthy base of Swedish cuisine (and I'm not just talking Ann Sather here).

The show starts at 11:00 PM, so I figured I'd take the crazy pony for a walk and then we'd head up around 8:30-ish and test our dining luck. I failed to anticipate that I would need a not inconsiderable amount of assistance putting on my shirt. It's this . . . thing . . . from Anthropologie that has an under tank top of very thin material and no finishing on the neckline or hemline, and that's attached (at the shoulder seams and at the shoulder seams only) to the same thin material that is a normal shirt in back, but the material in front is criss-crossed and twists in a knot at the bustline. There are about 27 different ways to put this shirt on wrong and only one right. Although it is inimical to his nature, M was kind enough to help me figure it out. It only took the two of us working together, with animals coaching from the sidelines, about 5 minutes. So we left a little late. Never trust a pink garment.

We arrived on North Clark shortly after 9:30 and began the hunt for food. We briefly considered Andies, which is a Mediterranean place, but decided to press on a bit further to see if there was something we preferred. And in fact there was. I'd read about Hamburger Mary's in Zagat, which informed me that the purple awning announced its gay-friendliness. I rather think its location that stretch of North Clark announces that, but have fun with your Masonic symbols, Zagat. It also pointed out that the "Little Lambs" menu indicated its kid-friendliness. I pass over the implication that children and gays are mortal enemies and move on to the interior.

Two things I've just learned about Hamburger Mary's: (1) It's a chain and the San Diego location's website has atrocious music and design by someone whose medium is technicolor vomit; (2) the Chicago location has only been open since June of this year. The interior design is very cool, kind of like Marche after it had kicked its coke habit. (Seriously, the design is worth a look; it's an awkward interface, but if you click on the myserious small white squares on the scrapbook page, you can also see the bar and a better shot of our wall, and so on.)

We were sitting along the pink and green North wall pictured in the scrapbook photo I linked to above. The pink, striped section was painted, but the green part is wallpaper (green polka-dots with large zinnias on it) that had been torn artfully along an irregular line. The west wall was painted in large gold and tan diamonds, and the East and South walls are windows with velvet tie-back curtains. The booths and table tops were various shades of purple and the floor was done in large terrazzo squares of rose and grey. The Virgin Mary, the ultimate in camp, features prominently in the decorations, but there are also deco World's Fair posters and so on. The ceiling is pressed tin, as are a series of inlaid panels on the wood bark, and the exposed ductwork is painted in a dull bronze. The lighting is relatively low, most of it being provided with beaded chandelier-ettes over the bar and red-shaded sconces on the wall. Up near the ceiling, there are several flat-screen TVs all showing music videos continuously. There's also a pretty sizeable outdoor seating area along the side street to the south. Other nice touches include the fact that the brightly colored plates are actually ceramic and the glasses are glass (although napkins and silverware are delivered in a red plastic pizza joint cup), so they don't take the diner theme too far with melmac and crap like that. Also, the checks are delivered in a red shoe.

The patrons skew queer, but there were a number of het couples as well. Most of the waitstaff seems to be gay (um . . . I mean I have no idea what anyone's actual orientation was, but there seemed to be a certain mandate to "play gay" akin to Ed Debevic's servers "playing asshole," if you take my meaning). Our waitress was loud and funny, often bursting into snippets of song. She was also a serious fag hag, which got annoying as the night wore on and she walked by our table, while holding something bound for us, to flirt with the two gay guys at the booth behind us. Actually she may have had some attention problems in general, as she ran outside at one point to canoodle a pet rat that a guy was walking (to her credit, she came in and announced "And now I will go wash"). Although she did immediately intercept the woman who came in with her dog in a bag, so I guess she had potential.

For drinks, I had the frozen slushie. It was good (despite giving me numerous cold headaches), although there was some confusion about what flavor this actually was. M had the Zipper Ripper, which was delicious in the very trashy way of drinks containing SoCO. We chose Mary Popper's Tini for our appetizer, and the olives were particularly awesome. Of course, I had a jalapeno popper incident whereby I bit into the rather phallic deep-fried jalapeno and ended up with a white creamy substance all over my chin. Ahem.

For the main meal, we both opted for Buffy (The Hamburger Slayer) (like DUH), although I got a buffalo patty and fries and M went for regular beef and onion rings. Most excellent burgers and both the fries and the rings were cracklicious. M would have liked to try one of the twinkie-based desserts, but we ended up not having time (partly due to our late arrival, but also due in large part to the fact that the waitress was not very interested in our table).

We hoofed our way back South on Clark and made it to the theater a little more than five minutes before curtain. I was immediately struck by the contrast to the production of Assassins by Open Eye Theatre. The lobby of Rogue theater is attractive and comfortable. There's a shelf full of books and a few couches for early arrivals who might want to lounge around a bit, reading and taking advantage of the coffee and miniature candy bars. There was also a postcard rack holding material for Rogue as well as a few other theater companies, and various other pieces of good-looking (though not necessarily terribly expensive) advertising hanging around. The front-of-house were friendly and helpful (despite our late arrival).

As we sat down with our programs and voting device (ooooooh, toys!), I flipped through the program. The cover was a nice faux-comic-book cover design in relatively high-quality color. The inside looked like it had been done on a basic inkjet or consumer laser printer. It was copyedited, attention had been paid to formatting and layout, and it contained ample information on the production, players, theater company, and upcoming shows without being some bloated, disorganized piece of crap. In other words, I walked away from this very small theater company, which has only been in existence for 4 years, with a tangible reminder of their professionalism and a pleasant evening at the theater. They really ought to run a clinic or something.

The theater itself is a very small black box, much wider than it is deep. The back wall was exposed brick, and wings had been constructed with a combination of plywood and curtains. The back of the stage right wing seemed to lead out of the theater and behind the box office. At stage left, the actors frequently made use of an actual exit from the building as well, although there was a wing area upstage of this. The stage has a regrettable support pole downstage left, but otherwise, it's not bad in terms of size or layout.

Rogue-8 is an original work by Dan Telfer (erm, the website is not great to say the least, and information confirming that he is the Rogue-8 playwright and director was difficult to unearth), and it deserved the Reader's coveted "R." This production, which is technically Rogue-8 #1: Rogue-8 versus the Unseen Hand, is structured basically like an episode of the Superfriends or the 1960s TV version of Batman; the premise is that late-night radio announcer is telling the stories of Rogue-8 the only the most loyal of audience members (he drives all others away by telling bizarre, yet boring stories at the outset before launching into the top-secret tales.

The announcer, played expertly by Lloyd Young III, sets each scene (obviating the need for any real sets), stops the action at pivotal moments to augment the cliff-hangery goodness, and also directed the audience when it came time to vote on plot twists. (One of the fun things about seeing the last performance was the fact that they added in a little narration so that we got to how both options played out. It seemed a little hard on the actors, who probably hadn't gotten a ton of rehearsal time at switching gears in this way, but we certainly appreciated it.) Telfer seems to have struck a good balance regarding the use of this device. For example, at the top of the show, the narrator introduces three of the eight characters in short establishing scenes (IN the city at a DRINKING esTABlishment; YET anOTHER drinking esTABlishment; In another type of DRINKING esTABlishment enTIRELY!), which is just enough to let the joke reach maximum funnyness without it getting tedious. Similarly, there are three points at which the audience is allowed to choose the direction of events: Two are funny but silly the third has more real impact, and the narration implies that audience choice during the run will influence how things play out in future installments (Issue #2 opens in October).

Apart from the framing convention, the rest of the play shows an obvious love for comic books and superheroes in general. The deft hand Telfer has in choosing how much narration to employ also serves the script well in terms of injecting genuine fondness into what is ultimately a parody of both the medium and its fandom. The group has been assembled from posters to a comic book message board by "Gamma Raymond," who has identified the 8 as the most likely to have actual superpowers. As the characters arrive at the first meeting, each steps to center stage and announces his/her superidentity and e-mail address.

Gamma Raymond (Chip Aucoin) is a clear Cyclops (Los Hombres de Equis, natch) analog, and a well-done send up he is. He's the leader by virtue of having gathered them all, but his qualifications are immediately in question. His superpower is hyperacute vision, which renders him blind without his billion-dollar goggles. He is well-meaning, prefers a democratic approach, and is ultimately a ween. (In fact, he is the first to be put out of commission when the Unseen Hand charms him out of both wedding ring and goggles.) Aucoin plays him with a nice mix of self-effacing deference and enthusiasm, but I don't think he ever really owned the dialogue (the sense that he was speaking lines was pretty strong). I think he could have used some help in technical acting basics. He spoke very rapidly and didn't always project, making him difficult to understand at times (the theater's acoustics are not great).

Antibiotica and the Eel of the Deep (Elizabeth Hope Kohart and Scott Cupper, respectively) also had science-derived powers (she can affect organic material at the molecular level, he manipulates electricity and is slowly devolving into an electric eel). Although they seem somewhat derived from the Fantastic 4, much of their backstory was only hinted at. From what we learned in Issue #1, they are the only two in the group with any crime-fighting experience, she is definitely the hero, he the sidekick, and someone is extorting mochas from her.

Antibiotica draws some of the clumsier dialogue in the script, and Kohart handled it well overall. Eel, in contrast, has much of the sly comedy that requires great timing, and Cupper is definitely up to the task (because of his devolution, he is constantly battling dry skin with a misting bottle---that was just funny every time). Superficially, Antibiotica is a humorless, bullying character and the Eel is pure comic relief. But kudos are due, again, to Telfer for making them a married duo and allowing them to play a lot of affection with one another that keeps either from being completely cliched. Also, it sounds silly, but the hints about their backstory were genuinely intriguing in good serial style.

Tilt (Amanda Lanier) seemed part Kara Thrace, part Wolverine, part Col. John "Hannibal" Smith. Her power is the ability to nauseate with her hands (a power she controls with massive black goalie gloves, and my . . . er . . . hat is really off to Lanier for the fact that she was able to manage them AND chomp a cigar throughout the performance). Both M and I were pretty sure that we were missing the joke on which this character was based, but Lanier's gravel-voiced, sexy-butch performance was highly enjoyable nonetheless (her wailing about the loss of her Starlight My Little Pony touched me DEEPLY).

The Chernobyl Cherub (Jenifer Henry) seems to be an amalgam of most of the irritating junior leaguers that somehow attach themselves to real superheroes. Her power is seeing light in the darkest of places (which confers amusingly vague ability to locate objects) and, oh yeah, did we mention flight? Henry's performance was a little uneven at the start, but she absolutely shone in a few long, difficult monologues. She can make my mix tape anytime.

The Unnoticeable Girl (Leslie Frame) is the best of Season 1 Willow, even though her look seemed to be tragically based on a blonde Fred "GAG" Burkel. I think everyone can see where the gag would go with a superhero with this name, but as with most things in this, both acting and writing kept things quirky and enjoyable throughout. Unnoticeable Girl is primarily paired with The Legalizer (Hayley L. Rice) in this installment. This is another strategic combination. The Legalizer's real power is concentrated in her briefcase, which is capable of producing the legal documentation appropriate to any occasion (the briefcase is also the Phlebotenum in Jar C as it has been stolen by the Unseen Hand before the show starts). It's a somewhat dubous schtick (and Rice's performance was the most uneven in the cast), but these two as a duo makes the most of it. I'll be interested to see how the Legalizer plays out in the future.

Rounding out the crew is Single Gay Man (Ashland Thomas). He (along with Tilt and Antibiotica) is one of the three characters who gets an establishing monologue at the beginning of the show. Getting a handle on the alter ego is always tricky (Just ask Brendan Routh who failed expensively), and Thomas suffered from some of the same line-reading problems as Aucoin at the very top of the show. Single Gay Man's powers are only in effect when he wears the sunglasses he found, and what those powers are, exactly, is saved up for a reveal relatively late in the show. As he, Tilt, the Legalizer, and Unnoticeable Girl are supposed to be following the others to the site of the mission, he confides that he is not sure that he likes who the glasses make him. Tilt baits him (SHENNANIGANS!) until he agrees to demonstrate his ability to psychologically kill someone.

The glasses are something along the lines of earlyish Elton John, and they turn Single Gay Man into a complete, sniping queen. Yeah, it's completely predictable, and the content of the monologue is pretty much what you might think, but like the other standard-issue elements, it works because the script and the actors make it work.

And, doh! I almost forgot the Supervillain, the Unseen Hand (Nicholas Ward), which I guess is appropriate. (It also might be the teensiest reflection that the plot of the show, which runs just 50 minutes, is not overly plot-ish; but the action is sacrficed to setting up the character stories, so I'm very willing to allow it.) The order of the day for this character was overpowering, slightly oily charm. Ward delivered in spades (I couldn't help thinking that I recognized him from something else, which may just be part of his success). And as with the other characters, the script provided a tantalizing little somethin' somethin' for the future. A face turn is not completely out of the question.

The mission statement for the theater says: "Rogue was formed in the summer of 2002 by a few malcontents cast off by their former theatre company. Several shared values brought them together -- a love of actors telling good stories, an enjoyment of outsider status, and a belief that theater should be accesible to everybody and should be spelled with an ER. The misfits settled on the name Rogue and chose to focus on two things: their plays would be about rebels and outcasts, and they'd make sure they kept a gender baalance -- including as many women onstage and behind the scenes as men . . . Rogue produces plays where the actors and the text are the focus. You probably won't ever see a helicopter or a crashing chandalier on the Rogue stage. What you will see are smart, literate plays about rogues, rebels, misfits, and outcasts performed by actors who like what they do." And despite this lengthy entry, I really couldn't have said it better myself.

Here's to October and Issue #2.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Snakes on a Plane, Motherfucking Reviewed

M has informed me that some folks are SoaP-averse because of its "overexposure." Well, I guess I missed it. I saw the trailer, I think, twice (and, frankly, we see more bad movies than anyone we know), I saw Samuel L. Jackson talk about it on the Daily Show twice (and he was just precious as could be in his enthusiasm). So I remained enthusiastic about the finest film produced in this or any other lifetime.


In all seriousness, this is a tremendous success as a B-movie. The additions that they made to get the R rating (shooting finished in September 2005, then when Samuel L. Jackson and the Intarwebs got a hold of things, New Line shelled out a bunch more money for reshoots for exactly this purpose) are, on the one hand, completely gratuitous and obvious, and on the other hand what prevents this from being a half-assed, toothless SciFi original picture.

For example: B-movies are all about punishment. Characters are punished for sins against societal norms (see the correlation between intact hymen and female survival in in teen horror movies): Snakes on a Plane introduces a trashily attractive couple wanting to join the mile-high club, then kills them off in grotesque, flinch-inducing fashion. (In a bold move for both gender equality and game balance, they pair a horrible bite to the faux nipple with brutal penis loss for the guy who talks to his "big guy" while urinating.) Characters also get punished for being completely self-serving dickheads: See hair-plug man who falls victim to the inexplicable anaconda for sins against disaster camraderie.

Some characters are killed to expose humanity for what it ought to be and what it can be: The older flight attendant who remains too sassy to take early retirement fulfills her "watchful granny" duty by saving a baby. A faceless passenger is not only trampled, but suffers a spike heel to the ear. And still other characters are not so much punished as killed in service to Alanis Morrisette. Here's a bit of advice: If you're not only a newlywed but also have paralyzing fear of flying? Consider the fact that Snakes on a Plan is considerably more ironic than rain on your wedding day. Also, if you sense disaster on the wing, it does not pay to be a doctor, a pilot, or anyone with any kind of useful skills whatesoever.

The extra cash spent on the R rating gives the film room to do these homages in gruesome style. I'd also add that a lot of the R material was concentrated into one section of the movie. That's not a criticism. It hits hard, early, and viciously, and it certainly threw me off-kilter. In a disaster movie, pacing can be a complete nightmare, and the injection of some of the hard-hitting stuff after the set up but before Samuel L. Jackson gets to step in worked to counteract those tendencies.

There were other things that were just goofy enough to be fun: Snake vision? Oh, I was a big fan of snake vision. Going there on each and every bite? Man, they went places I hadn't even thought of on those bites. (And M will deny this, but I'm going to have bruises on my leg from where he was digging his fingers into me against the EWWWW). Last-minute OH NO THEY DIDN'T?!? Totally caught me out. Mushy Hollywood ending? It worked.

As much as they worked the tropes of B-movies well, there were a number of appeals to the lowest common denominator that were less charming: The male flight attendant who everyone assumes is gay; the fat, nasty, make-up slathered woman; and, well, just a handful of other things were predictable and didn't add much of anything. On the flipside of that, I liked what they did with the lecherous co-pilot, which is very tired and very 70s, but they managed to string you along thinking it was nothing but that, then took it somewhere marginally more interesting.

Much as with Slither the movie works in large part because the actors are invested and they play it straight. Furthermore, the characters that you single out for potential hate in the beginning never went that way, because people brought their A game. Nathan Phillips could have easily decided that he wanted to be the next Seann GAG Patrick Williams, but instead he plays the extreme sports dude in earnest. Sunny Mabrey (as the sexy flight attendant with the worst shade of lipstick known to man or beast) likewise plays her "hitting on the cute guy in first class" with enough quirk to it that it's not completely cliched, and she plays her connections with the rest of the crew just as well.

Even though the queenish male flight attendant was a dull choice (with a duller "twist"), Bruce James gave it as much character as he could, and Lin Shaye was great as the older flight attendant. Rachel Blanchard as the rich bitch and Flex Alexander (no, really!) as the germ-phobic, self-centered, womanizing rap star have the most thankless redemption plots to play, but they're moderately fun to watch pre-redemption and they don't make a mess of it afterward (I'd give Blnchard more of the credit here than Alexander). I had no idea that Juliana Margulies was in this and while I worry what that means for her career, she wasn't phoning it in and she did nice work with the Bad Ass Motherfucker himself.

Plotwise? Oh, it's completely ridiculous, but they go with it after a single "Why the fuck would you pick such a COMPLICATED plan?" nod. Samuel L. Jackson really holds it together with his "What Now?" schtick as he moves from disaster to disaster (and the disasters are more polite than the average gang of Buffy villains, waiting their turn to attack Agent Flynn as if he were The Chosen One). And for all his assurances that he doesn't die because he's the motherfucking hero, it was nice that the passengers and crew actually did play vital (if ridiculously, and frequently egregiously wrong) roles in getting as many people as possible through). On the ground, I also salute the decision NOT to have the scientist and the FBI agent completely sniping at and hating one another, but rather having very real communication difficulties, but largely sucking it up.

And if you hate the movie, you've got to, got to, go to fucking love the music video for "Snakes on a Plane (Bring It)" at the end.. I mean the pretty androgynous one? Whose inner 12-year-old doesn't need a folder with him on it? Cobra Starship? That's fucking genius!

Anyway, as you might have guessed, I had a good time. Sue me.

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Stargate Spotting: Snakes on a Plane Edition

We're egregiously behind the sinuous curve and only just tonight got to see Snakes on a Plane, which is surely the film that will define a generation.


I'd like to start with the trailers. The trailers that time forgot. The trailers that say to each and every actor in each and every film: You'll never work in this town again. They were:

  1. Jackass Number 2
  2. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
  3. Let's Go to Prison (aka the world's longest prison rape joke, starring Chi McBride)
  4. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Gunny! Where did we go wrong?
  5. Tenacious D in 'The Pick of Destiny

Yeah, soak in that for a moment.

Next, I need to cover the "There are 100 working actors in Vancouver, BC" beat. My Stargate count was already at 1 before I walked into the theater.

  1. Those of you catching up on Stargate: SG-1 Season 1 episodes know him as High Councilor Tuplo ("Broca Divide" and you can look forward to seeing him again in "Enigma"), the passengers on flight South Pacific Flight 121 might have called him "Hair Plug Man" or "Savior from the Dog," or possibly "Asshole Most Justly Constricted," but his family calls him Gerard Plunkett.
  2. I've got to bow my head in shame here, because I did not identify the Heroic and Most Decidedly Straight Kickboxer as the Monk from Keb in Season 3's "Maternal Instinct" (at least not before I saw his IMDB head shot, at which point I upped the counter). Let's have a big hand and healthy bicep appreciation for Terry Chen. (Although I am shamed by my weak SG-1-spotting fu, this at least puts to rest my suspicions that they descended the character to appear in Season 4's "Absolute Power".)
  3. Next up is Jonas Quinn's girlfriend from Season 7's "Failsafe," she of the dubious lace camisole under a marching band jacket all topped up with a cut identical to Jonas's Hair Don't. We'd feel worse about her untimely death so soon after her wedding if we didn't know that her relationship was already doomed because she married a guy and did not know he was terrified of flying. It's not romantic, people, it's just poor communication. Nonetheless, let's give a big hand to Emily Holmes.
  4. The sacrificial pilot lamb is better known to me as . . . oh, well, I don't know his name, actually, but he's the head of the facility in which the team wakes up in the Season 2 Finale "Into the Fire" and gets to deal with in the Season 3 premiere "Out of Mind." (IMDB helpfully points out that the character's name is Major General Trofsky, but his mama named him Tom Butler [unless he was required by the equivalent of SAG rules to change his name].)
  5. She's only credited as "Driver" (that'd be the blonde chyck who drives "Ground" Agent Harris around and has about 4 lines), but on Stargate SG-1, she's that Thorn in the Side from the Fourth Estate, Tracy Donovan in Season 6's "Prometheus," Season 8's "Covenant," and Season 9's "Ex Deus Machina." She's also probably grateful that the SoaP people were much kinder to her in the way of hair and makeup (seriously, she looks like a stand-in for Ferris Beuller's mom in all her clashing plaid 80s glory on SG-1): Let's all tell Kendall Cross that we never knew she could look so fabulous.
  6. His mad skills as Dr. Warner in the SGC infirmary in Season 1's "The Enemy Within" and "Legacy," Season 2's "Spirits," and Season 3's "Legacy," clearly qualified him to handle things in the control tower and nearly incite a last-minute race riot. He's Kevin McNulty, and he's Canadian.
  7. I'm really proud of spotting Nya from Season 1's stinker "Emancipation," as a ho in search of an autograph. Crystal Lowe, may I suggest a new agent?
  8. The world's least memorable Gate Technician? I remembered him. Even if he was the Gate Technician from the future that never happened. And he's one hell of a fictional dad. Please claim your unruly children, David Neale.

And the SG-1 Bush League, ladies and gentlemen.

  1. Another miss for me, but I'm giving myself a pass on this one: this guy wasn't just in season 9 episodes, he's a fucking prior. It's a scientifically proven fact that no one can pay attention when priors are on the screen. All the same, he's the motherfuckin' redshirt partner who dies so that Samuel L. Jackson may live, he's Mark Houghton.
  2. I regret to inform this actor that I do not know who Vosh was in Season 9's "The Ties that Bind," and I had to cheat to learn that he was Mr. Mullet: Snake Provider to the Ambigiously Asian Mafia in SoaP. Better luck next time, Darren Moore.
  3. Anonymous stuntman in countless episodes of SG-1. Is there any nobler calling than to serve as Siler's Minion? Congratulations on having lines this time, even if you were upside down and unrecognizable, even before your head got bashed in, Scott Nicholson. Do you suppose that your cow-orker Darryl Quon resents your comparative success and will rat you out to Dan Shea for every little thing you do?
  4. She's cheating. She's a real news anchor, and she she's a fake reporter in Season 6's "Smoke and Mirrors" as well as in SoAP. Isn't everyone tired of seeing Mi-Jung Lee?
  5. I'm counting our friendly neighborhood snake expert among the honorary Stargate people, because, let's face it: He looks like the love child of Tom Lenk and David Hewlett. Todd Louiso, you will be assimilated.

Man the economy of the acting community in Vancouver is so stimulated it must be approaching orgasm by now.

This is long enough. I'll do my review in a separate post.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Dread Spiny Nixie: Garth Nix Chats at SFX

So yesterday, I was alert enough to see my good friend S's heads up about the SFX online chat with Garth Nix.

The last time I tried to get in on one of these things was when I learned about one with Terry Pratchett at the last minute, couldn't get into the IRC channel, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Nix chat was basically run as a thread on the SFX Bulletin Boards. It was opened shortly before the chat was scheduled to begin to allow folks to prime the interrogative pump. Garth showed up at 8:00 PM GMT, which happens to be 12:00 PM in LA, which is where he happened to be (and where, some might say, he ought not to have been). All in all, this mode of running a more-or-less-real-time chat worked out quite well, I thought: It allowed him to answer straightforward questions right away, while taking more time with those that required an in-depth answer; it also gave him the freedom to combine related questions into a single answer, and so on. Of course, no one could beat MY experience, because I also had S live.

For those of you who don't yet know and love Garth Nix (< yoda > You. WILL < / yoda>), however, here's the basic rundown. He's an Australian author who writes primarily SciFi/Fantasy, in general leaning more toward fantasy. As is the case with a lot of my favorite authors, though, wedging him into a single genre does him a disservice. The worlds in which he writes are magical, yes, but they're also filled with lovers, friends, and families. The conflicts in them are about politics, morality, class, power, ethnicity, individual identity, coming of age, and so on. Most of his work is overtly pitched toward children (The Keys to the Kingdom series) and young adults (The Abhorsen Trilogy, Shade's Children), but the richness of his style and the sophistication of the issues he deals with give them much broader appeal.

Once I'd gotten myself registerd over at SFX, I popped upstairs to grab the books so I could sort out what question I wanted to ask. I made a ruthless decision not even to consider the Keys to the Kingdom books. I love them, I enjoy them, I'm constantly amazed that they come out of the same brain as do the Abhorsen books, but they're less complex. So I pulled Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen off the shelf. About half an hour later, I realized that I'd been sitting there avidly reading the opening chapters of Sabriel. They're just that good. In fact, when a certain Hoyden About Town recently challenged me to a Book Meme, I chose the trilogy as my desert island book on the grounds that I think I could easily spend a decade exploring the world he creates in Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom.

Unfortunately, that also makes the Abhorsen trilogy a terrible choice when time is running short and one is growing desperate. What in the world did I want to ask? What didn't I want to ask? My rolling, bloodshot, crazed-looking eye then fell on Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories. Perfect. This is a collection of his short works from many different points in his career. The stories are written in many different genres and were intended for a variety of different publication outlets. To each he has provided a short introduction about the circumstances in which the story was written, his influences, experience, and so on. Each of them is really a gem. And as I told S, together with the stories included, it makes for a very cool project and a very brave one. He's really putting himself out there as a writer by including so many different facets of himself, both in terms of time in in his career that the stories were written and the diverse genres he explores.

Once I'd decided on letting this book be my guide, one particular story called "The Hill" leapt to mind. I enjoyed the story, but it was really its introduction that stuck in my mind. The story had been written for a multinational project that involved the simultaneous publication of a collection of short stories with the theme of the new millennium in four different languages. In his words, Nix wanted to write "an overtly Australian story," and so he drew on Australian Aboriginal myth and belief. The Australian publisher felt that this was a highly problematic move for a white Australian. Although he initially bridled at this, some conversations with both the publisher and an Aboriginal writer made him see how it could be read as co-opting yet another aspect of Aboriginal culture. He admits that he remains somewhat ambivalent on the issue of why some mythologies are fair game and others aren't, or if there are ways in which borrowing by an outsider isn't apropriation, and so on, but the experience certainly left him aware that it's not a simple, straightforward matter. And, in this case, he retained the core inspiration, but changed the story substantially.

Naturally, this is exactly the kind of juicy cultural issue that marries my fact to my fiction. And since my inner cultural consumer always likes to have a go whenever possible, I started thinking about other stories in the volume that borrow explicitly from European mythologies (there are a couple of Arthurian stories [his intros reveal an entertaining love-hate relationship with this particular body of lore] and a really great take-off on the Brothers Grimm). From there, my fevered brain leapt to The Proposition. I felt at the time (and still feel) that there's a large chunk of the film that is difficult for me to penetrate, because it's so Australian. So the first thing I wanted to know was whether he felt that his mining of mythology that seems familiar to me (and to anyone of European descent) bore a particularly Australian stamp. This then led me back to a pretty general question about the Abhorsen trilogy and whether it has roots in those familiar sources, despite the fact that it is set in such an original imagined world. Yeah, it sounds all pompous and faux deep to me, too, in retrospect, but I am nothing if not faux and pompous.

The whole thread is an interesting read (well, most of it, some of the whinging and pointless kthxbyeee stuff is less so), but I thought I'd pull out some of the things that struck me the most and got me thinking. Someone asked why he thought his books had such appeal outside if the target demographic. He was kind enough not to attribute this to a refusal to grow up in many of us. Instead, he said he felt like the craving for emphasis on story and relatively straightforward prose was not restricted to a single age group. I nodded vigorously to this. I read a lot of different types of fiction, but I probably skew more toward young adult and kiddie lit because, as I told S, sometimes you are just not in the mood for a 17-page description of a leaf as a dead-end metaphor for female sexuality.

In answering my question, he replied that he does feel that the Australian point of view is not simply interchangeable with white/European (or, presumably, white/Euro-American). He kind of deferred the question to other people who have "written more fluently about the effect of living in a big empty desert country that's far away from many of its cultural influences and so on." On balance, though, he seemed to say that for a fantasy writer, the connection to the body of European literature, particularly English, may be preeminent.

His answer to my question about the mythological inspirations for the Abhorsen Trilogy turned out to be the more surprising and enlightening to me. He cited Greek belief about the underworld (and, duh, the rivers in Death were a connection I should have made) as one. He also referred to "The Christian Baptisim of Bells", which was wholly unfamiliar to me. I feel like such a faux-Catholic! (I mean, I'm not a Catholic at all, so in that sense, I'm mega-faux, but I've been through all the paperwork and such.) I mean, I knew that we used to do the bell thing at the moment of transubstantiation (which, you know, I learned as consubstantiation in one of those rogue urban Catholic parishes) of the bread and wine. And then we didn't ring them. And my limited experience in recent memory suggests that ringing is, once again, all the rage, but this issue of baptizing them is just alien to me (which is inexcusable given that it was an issue that featured prominently in the Reformation).

Finally, I'm just going to quote him here: " As with all ideas, you take things as a starting point and then work to adapt them and make them different, so that while they seem original to readers they also resonate with existing myth, legend etc." Note how casually he says this, as if it were a mere bagatelle. Cheeky, gifted bastard. He might at least have the decency to be UGLY or something. In all seriousness, this just crystalized for me an extremely important aspect of much of the art I'm drawn to (whether it's performance, literature, film, music or whatever): It challenges me and expands my mind and my heart, but it contains something familiar and essential.

Cliche is easy to fall into and even easier to criticize. During the chat, I was somewhat amused by the persistence of one poster who wanted to know why Nix had given the character Mogget the form of a cat. He sidestepped a bit and pointed out that Mogget has numerous forms, one of which is a cat. Without delving to far into spoiler territory, there is an argument to be made that Garth Nix is merely a patsy for the Canine Agenda, and I joked to S that I'd thought about asking OMGWTF WHY YOU BE HATIN' CATS!?! This, of course, led to a discussion that he doesn't hate cats at all, he just GETS cats (Diana Wynne Jones does, as well, of course: WONG!) and so Mogget is not entirely easy to place on the good/evil continuum. It's a character that could easily have lapsed into a cliched "never trust faerie/coyote/Loki," but it never does. It trades on that currency, but Mogget is decidedly an original.

I'm reminded of the intro that my friend A gave to his reading of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake at our mutual friend M's memorial. Initially, there was some hairy eyeballing going on about it being too out there, and maybe the teensiest bit too too, and so on. But A carried the day by pointing out that deranged prose from a patholigically Gaelic mind aside, the passage is about love and passion and food.

It's entirely original and it's anchored like nobody's business. Without those anchors, without that resonance, it's too easy to dismiss the narrative, the character, the piece, the song, whatever, as irrelevant or wrong or befuddling one's dumb cracker mind or whatever. And it's those anchors, however banal or mundane they are, that give the conversation the potential for universality. In other words, This is what we use it for.

Anyway, the whole experience was a terrific one. Funny, thought-provoking, stimulating, and tantalizing. I'm really glad I didn't miss out on it through moofishness or a date as karma's bitch.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Torrentially Hip

Part two of yesterday's adventure was heading back down to the Loop by a Brown Line train to meet up with M and L for the last concert of the summer of the Grant Park Music Festival. For my part, the meet-up was complicated by the fact that downtown Chicago was in the process of being well and truly smote at just the moment when I wanted to leave Water Tower Place. This drove the entire populace from the street into the lobby of the mall where they pressed themselves against the glass doors and lookd as longing as Gil does when he's been left with the dogsitters. They did spare me an incredulous glance or two as I declared my desire to GET OUT.
People of Chicago, I say to you, "Unless this is a nuclear holocaust, get the fuck out of my way."

Fortunately for me, the lads had LITERALLY weathered the storm and snagged some sweet seats in section 205, immediately behind a mysteriously cordoned off area (which was later opened up for late comers who did not seem to be more important than us in any way). I gratefully accepted the blanket containment unit proffered by L for the purposes of wiping the worst of the rain off my seat. An empty gesture, really: It's not like my ass could've gotten any wetter.

Although I had the pleasure of visiting the Harris Theater in May to see Nixon in China (aka, the opera so nice, I blogged it twice), I had not yet been to the Jay Pritzker Pavillion. (No, I don't know why [other than copious amounts of cash] they named it that when it would inevitably be known as "The Gehry Band Shell" either.)

What can one say? I've already talked about losing sleep over Frank Gehry. In general, I think most people probably either like him or hate him. That probably leaves me more or less alone in "Meh" land vis a vis Gehry.

In this case, I admit that my first thought on looking up at what the Millennium Park website describes as "the headdress," I thought it looked like someone had been whittling the Aon Tower. My second, upon taking in the kind of cat's cradle dome made up of steel beams was that it was rather like being wound into a spool of thread. Although I wouldn't say that I was as enamored of the wooden interior of the stage itself as was L, it was more to my lking than the shiny stuff. I am definitely not a big fan of the shifting colors of light shone on to the steel during performances. It's distracting, it highlights the panelled nature of the big steel wood shavings, and under the orange-ish light, it looks disturbingly cellular. L

So visually, I don't think it's ugly enough to be intrusive, nor does its asthetic particularly wow me. But as a performance space, it certainly serves art well. The sightlines, at least from the installed seats, are great. (I'm not so sure about from the lawn, but those people had other, soggier problems last night.) And the sound system is phenomenal. About the only thing I didn't hear all night was the harp during the Prokofiev.

The first piece we heard was Beethoven's Piano Concerto in E-flat, aka the "Emperor" Concerto. Although the pompous pamphlet for the Grant Park Music Festival contains a surprising breadth of information on the various performances (e.g., for any vocalist singing in a foreign language, the text is provided in both the original and English translation), they obviously don't have the space to devote to proper pompous essays. For this piece, there is only a brief summary of Beethoven's 1809 experience of the invasion of Vienna by Napoleon's forces, even briefer information on the dual premieres of the piece (Leipzig: GOOOOD; Vienna: Baaaaad), a short foray into why it's called the "Emperor," and finishes up by making a convincing case for why it could be called the "Control Freak" (In a nutshell, this was the first work that Beethoven didn't play himself, so rather than allowing the soloist to generate his own cadenzas and flourishes on the fly). It is almost entirely devoid of bitchiness and bizarre analogies. I must also note that its levels of pompousness are suspect.

It's hard to go wrong with Beethoven, but as I said to the boyz in the park, I'm general more pro-symphony than I am pro-concerto, no matter what the instrument. (The exception that proves the rule is Grieg's piano concerto, which (a) has balls and (b) is a hell of a lot of fun to play.) Still, it's beautiful and rousing with deliciously dense, arpeggiated spaetzel on top---all those good things one expects from Beethoven. Stephen Hough, the pianist, was both technically good and played with a passion that was exhilarating to watch.

After a 20-minute intermission, the piano was relegated to a place upstage, the harp was dragged out (and promptly outclassed by a badass contrabasoon), and the stage was set for Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Op. 100. I'm not sure that the pompous essayist intended to inject humor into his material on this piece, but describing Russia, 1944, as the happiest time in Prokofiev's life tickled my funnybone. In general this essay was more my style, harshing, as it does, on Prokofiev for being a friendless, workaholic ween with no sense of fun.

The symphony was something of a mixed bag. The first movement was powerful if a bit heavy on the melodrama (Hello? Twentieth Century Russian composer here!). It was most definitely chock full of juicy brass for L's pleasure. None of us was especially enamored of the second or third movements, which were gooey, languid, and shrill by turns. But by the fourth, Serge was in his big plastic ball, winning us back with the brass and the percussion and the I don't know what!

After several well-deserved curtain calls on the part of Carlos Kalmar, who was possibly even more fun to watch and more envigorating than Hough, we entered the human stream out of the park and made our way up Michigan Avenue. Flatwater was our intended destination. (Sorry for the metromix link, but they're website is incredibly flashfucked and useless.) M and I had previously entertained the idea of going there before seeing Edmond, but there were no reservations, so we had no joy on their supposed "hot dog flight." I suggested it to L, he was amenable, and it was close.

I put in a call on the way to gauge the likelihood of getting a table. The hostess informed me that there was nothing available outside (the restaurant is literally at river level, so the outdoor seating is highly sought after, natch) until 10:30, but a table inside was no problem. We arrived to find that the host stand outside the elevator down to the restaurant was abandoned, save for a can of Miller Light and a liter of Diet Mountain Dew. It's exactly the kind of ambiguous omen I hate.

As we entered the dimly lit, techno-thumping interior, it became almost immediately clear that we were not young, hip, well-dressed, hot, or cool enough to be there. This may be why we landed one of about five tall-top tables immediately behind the bar. Also in this spurious-patron-containment unit were: a guy who was either incredibly drunk, incredibly dickish, or (most likely) some combination of the two and his long-suffering date; a couple much older than us (and we were fucking aged, I tell you) who started complaining the minute they walked in and had not yet stopped when we left.

If you can get past the truly asslicious music (THiS sOnG haS A SiX-nOTe prOGResSiON! THiS sOnG haS A SiX-nOTe prOGResSiON!THiS sOnG haS A SiX-nOTe prOGResSiON!THiS sOnG haS A SiX-nOTe prOGResSiON!), the interior is pretty swank. The bar top is marble and the perimeter can comfortably seat about 20 people. Near the host stand is a large, lucious-looking banquet with two tables that could seat about 5 each or a accommodate a large party. Across from it is a "conversation group" with sleek white sofas and a wide, low coffee table. The floor is all rich hard wood and the walls and ceiling are white plaster interspersed with sections of the same dark wood as the floor, allowing for recessed lighting. The coolest touch of all is the fact that each table top has a small bowl with a male beta in it.

The menu is light on true entrees, emphasizing an interesting array of appetizers, unusual salads and sandwiches, plus several well-selected flatbread pizzas. They're also quite proud of their fancy cocktail menu, at least in theory. On the one hand, they're so pro-cocktail that they failed to give us a wine list (and it took our waitress some time to even locate one). On the other hand, M completely stumped the same waitress by asking for a Caipirinha, rather than an "Ipanema Caipirinha." In general, it's possible that physical appearance (with a decided bias toward "exotically cute") was emphasized to the exclusion of actual ability in the wait staff.

We ordered the sausage appetizer and boneless jerk chicken skewers for the table to share (much to our disappointment, there was no hot dog flight, unless that's what the sausage tray was meant to be). M opted for a chicken curry for his meal, and L and I each got flatbreadts ("chorizo" [uh, no, mild italian sausage at best] and seafood for me, pepperoni, mozzarella, and artichoke hearts for him). The sausage was fine, but unremarkable, although it did come with some very good tapenade. The jerk chicken was a fucking religious experience. Seriously. Awesome. My flatbread was fine, although I question the decision to bake mussels, in the half shell, on to the top, under the cheese. Also, see above re: not!chorizo and some possibly missing and definitely not spicy shrimp. I think L made the safer and wiser flatbread choice. I only had a bite of M's curry, which was coconut and therefore not to my taste. I'll allow him to make further comment.

Between the iffy service, a not particularly great wine least and literally between drunk man and complaining people, we decided to skip dessert and instead repair to Casa Tuba for more wine and some ice cream. We did, however, pause to confirm that the bathrooms were DOPE. There were either four or six individual rooms, not gender marked (which, hello and THANK YOU!). They had the standard-issue dark wood and low lighting, but each wall had a floor-to-ceiling section that was constructed out of small, water-smoothed stones (like making a wall out of very small stones). Naturally, there were several chunks ripped out at squatting level. People suck and consistently fail to appreciate THE DOPE. Oh, also, touchless infrared garbage cans. Also dope. No llamas, though.

Back at Casa Tuba, the proprieter plied us with wine and ice cream, then scarred us for life by showing us a bit of Gnarls Barkley. Chewie. On drums. Brain. Exploding.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fat Chyck Manifesto

Not cultural as such, but hopefully it falls under the topic of generally useful.
I suck at symmetry, timeliness, and that sort of thing, but I've been meaning to write this down for a while. Today is as good a day as any.

Over the last 54 weeks, I have lost just a touch under 45 lbs. (I really wanted to hit the 50-lb mark by 52 weeks, but see above re: symmetry and timeliness). I am now at my lowest weight since my first year in college, even lower than when I lost a little over 40 lbs. from 2002-2003 (because dumbass then gained back 25 of those). I've never been in the habit of measuring myself, but I've lost about 2.5 sizes with the poundage. I'll spare you the pictures of how big my fat jeans are on me, I promise.

I don't have a 533kr1t diet or plan. As I told my friend L, I looked into tapeworms, but there's such a stigma attached to being riddled with parasites. What follows are my experiences over the last year, both for myself to look back on and for whomever among you might find some of the strategies useful.

Having the right equipment to make a commitment to losing weight and/or getting healthy has been very important. My list of indispensible tools isn't long and it didn't involve any giant outlay of money, but I would not have persisted without them.

Diet-related tools
First, I came to realize that I really needed something to keep track of calories. That was new to me. I'd never done it before, not even in 2002. For me, the winner was Calorie King, which is software available for both Mac OS and Windows. If you have a windows machine as your primary computer, they also offer a pocket version of it for the PDA that is syncable with your desktop. That feature unfortunately isn't available for Mac OS. It has an extremely large database of foods (both generic things like "raw chicken breast" and branded things like "Wendy's Chicken Tenders), and it's easy to use.

Based on your target calorie intake, it also keeps track of your target carbs, fats, protein, and fiber. It also has a database of calories burned in various types of exercise and you win calories back as you enter your exercise for the day. It has lots of other features like check-in graphs, pie charts and bar charts that show you the various components of your diet over a specified period of time, and so on. The bells and whistles were something of a motivator earlier on, but I don't use them much now. Personally, I have focused on calorie intake without too much conscious emphasis on the relative contributions to the diet. Yes, if I see that my "fat" bar has turned red for 5 days in a row, I'll make an effort to avoid greasy, fatty things for a few days, but I don't stress about it.

The one kludgey thing about the software is dealing with making a dish for dinner. If I'm making something like a chicken breast for me and M with some side dish, it's easy enough to input my individual portion. If, on the other hand, I'm making something like Jambalaya or Chili Tamale Pie, it's not so easy, but I've found a somewhat awkward fix: I go a day in the future and enter each of the components into a single meal; then, I save that meal and when I dole out my portion, I can input it as a percentage of the entire meal. So, say an entire Chili Tamale Pie is about 2000 calories, I cut it into eighths, and I record my dinner as .125 of the saved meal. I can then delete the components from the next day and the meal is still saved. There may be a better way to do this, but I haven't found it.

The calorie software would not have done me much good at all without a kitchen scale. Mine is a salter digital scale that does both grams and ounces (I think it goes up to 10 lbs, which is probably overkill). The scale keeps me honest and accurate in inputting calories. It also provides an intervening step that disrupts the autopilot of going to the fridge to get a snack. If I'm grabbing something of unknown calorie content, I have to weigh it. It's not a guilt thing, it genuinely is just a moment that jars me out of a life-long bad habit.

The final tool that goes with the software and the scale might seem stupid, but it's been important for me. We bought one of those Smart Spin Storage Things that has plastic containers of varying heights that all use the same lids and get stored in a lazy susan thing. It provides a nearly endless supply of containers to pop on to the scale for weighing, it allows me to store things in a less half-assed way that means I'm much more likely to have ingredients I need on hand and not either dried out or semiliquified because I didn't wrap it properly. The small and medium containers are also ideal for packing a single portion of some type of snack (more on that below).

Exercise-related tools
When I lost weight in 2002-2003, we were living in a high-rise that had a gym in the basement of the building. Membership was quite discounted for U of C people, so I joined. And, for the most part, I went. I found the machines that I hated the least (ellipticals and stationary bikes, recumbent for preference, treadmills were ok too when one of the preferred pieces was not available). I think this is a highly individual thing. Many people love those bikes on which pedalling powers the fan. I hate them (in fact, I don't much like upright bikes at all---they burn ma damn ischial tuberosities!). I'm also not a big fan of stairmasters, but I can suffer through them. My main point is that, whatever you buy, it should be something you will actually use, not something that is cheap or magical or whatever. It won't do you any good if you'll never get on the thing.

When we moved into the house, I did buy an elliptical machine after doing some research. An online subscription to Consumer Reports is indispensible for so many things, and this was no exception. I found that most of the machines they recommended were tremendously expensive, but they had a couple best buy options that were in my price range. I wound up with an Eclipse elliptical (that's not my model, but it's similar) that has a number of different types of programs, two of which are based on adjusting to your heart rate.

To go with whatever home equipment you buy, I also found that a heart rate monitor with a watch that stores data was a must-have for me. Yes, the elliptical's computer will show data while you're working out, but having the portability of the chest strap and watch means that I can substitute some walking or whatever I might feel like for an elliptical workout. The monitor keeps me honest in terms of how vigorous that exercise really is. Likewise, being able to look back at the hours you've clocked can be a motivator.

A good pedometer was a brand new introduction to the program this last year. A friend first pimped them to me, and I went to Consumer Reports to check it out. It's a piece of equipment that you have to be careful with, because so many are not at all reliable or they may be reliable only under fussy, unrealistic circumstances (e.g., earlier models had to be suspended from a belt exactly over the midline of the thigh, which is not realistic for wearing it all the time, which you should). CR found this Omron model to be among the best, and it's what I've had throughout. You can pick it up at your local CVS, but it'll run you $40. After losing a couple (and having M wash two), I just ordered several from Amazon at the $18 price.

The American Heart Association recommends that you take 10,000 steps a day to keep healthy. For me, literally taking that many steps each day is not terribly realistic (at my stride length, that's a touch under 4 miles). The AHA website has a tool that will convert other activities (lifting weights, weeding, etc.) into steps (that's FYI, I don't really use it myself). I don't formally convert my elliptical workouts into steps (the pedometer isn't accurate on the elliptical, because of the nature of its motion), so I'm not pushing for 10,000 logged on the pedometer everyday. I use it to push myself to incorporate walking into my day though, and for this recovered Catholic, the guilt works. I park at the lot that's farther from my office and classrooms. I take the stairs and circuitous routes between places. I make multiple trips from the car with groceries, etc. The pedometer helps me to remember that exercise should not be a special occasion. If at all possible, I also recommend a dog. The fact that Gil loses his mind every afternoon if he doesn't get out for a walk means that I'm walking much more as a matter of course.

Progress-marking tools
This is another area, like home equipment, where I think mileage will vary a great deal. Probably a lot of folks will want to mark progress with measurements. For me, not so much. I don't need to put any more thought into my freakish body proportions than necessary. For me, I live and die by the number on the scale. To some extent, anyway.

The first scale I bought was a regular Health-o-Meter dial scale. My lord and master, Consumer Reports, was not a fan of many of the digital scales (especially the ones that supposedly tell you your body fat content and the like). I still have this scale, but after relatively rapid initial loss, I got frustrated with the fact that weight loss is not very visually striking on a dial scale at one-pound increments. (Yes, I'm shallow and easily frustrated, which is an important fact to know when trying to do this.) So I later bought another Health-o-Meter weight-loss tracking scale, which allows me to celebrate over fractions of pounds and so forth, I get little stars as I inch closer to my goal, and so on. Ironically, this is the scale that tracks much more exactly with the scale at my doctor's office, whereas the dial scale weighs about 4-5 lbs heavy.

Clothing is an iffy motivator for me. I don't actually care about clothes all that much and would spend 100% of my time in jammie pants if I could. Given that I cannot, though, clothing-related progress was particularly important early on. I was fat enough when I started this that I was hovering at the end of clothing that one can buy in non-speciality stores, and the selection was pretty heinous. Now that I'm pretty well clear of that, it's theoretically nice that the number on the label is smaller, but I don't live for smaller sizes. That said, I just ordered a few pairs of pants that are the smaller of the two sizes that I'm wearing now, and as I held them up, they looked absurdly small. I thought "These will NEVER fit," but they're actually only a bit snug. Probably most people would wear them, but I have persistent looseness issues.

Having the tools is one thing. Making good use of them is another. Identifying bad habits and subverting them is important. Not punishing or depriving yourself is equally important, as is identifying things that will encourage you to stick to a program.

Diet-related strategies
In 2002, I was not formally low carbing, but I was being carb conscious and making an effort to eat whole grains, have protein accompanying carbs, and so on. That strategy was based on, you guessed, a Consumer Reports article on weight loss programs and their sustainability. Since then, they've done a follow-up study showing that, in the long term, a lot of low carbers have now gained back their weight (in contradiction of the midterm findings that a low-carb diet was likely to result in sustainable weight loss), in part due to the fact that the market is now flooded with low-carb products that up the number of calories one intakes on a low carb diet.

In trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I've kept up with a lot of the habits from the low-carb era, but I have a different perspective on them. The problem with high-carb foods is that they are very calorie dense. A sandwich with two slices of bread means that I've just consumed nearly 15% of my daily calories without having put anything on the sandwich. Ditto a 2-oz. serving of pasta or rice. I eat bread and pasta, don't get me wrong, but I'm aware of the price in calories. And I almost never get enough fiber, despite the fact that I only cook with whole grain stuff. Quinoa pasta is my favorite---lower carb, higher in protein and fiber, and it has none of the bad mouth feel that some whole wheat pastas have (although whole wheat pasta's come a long way). For a while, I was trying to make my own noodles with soy flour and stuff like that. Forget it: It smells like farts, it tastes like farts, I am not eating farts. That's my line in the sand.

Another enemy to eating well is the fact that I spend so much of my days away from home when I'm teaching. That fact leads to vending machines and fast food, which is a friend to no one. My solution to this is identifying portable things that are not calorie dense and that I actually like to eat. The night before I have to teach, I take a gallon ziplock bag and fill it with some combination of the following: A yoplait light yogurt (100 calories. It has actual pieces of fruit in it. Most other light yogurts are terrible and nonlight yogurts are high calorie); a nature valley fruit 'n nut trailmix bar (140 calories. I don't really like granola bars at all, but this one showed up in the vending machines at school and I find it very edible. I buy big boxes as Costco now); light string cheese (Depending on brand, 60-80 calories); a 1 oz serving of pretzel sticks, soy crisps, pita chips, or something else salty and crunchy (for this, those small containers are key, also big bags of acceptable things can be had at Costco); a piece of fruit; a Campbell's Soup at Hand (Depending on type, 70-150 calories. Microwaveable and safe for even Matilda to eat while driving or walking).

For me, knowing that I have a variety of things available to me throughout the day is an important psychological element. I find that I'm less likely to feel hungry, probably because I'm not talking myself into the fact that I'm hungry NOW when I can get something, because who knows when I might next have the opportunity to grab some food? And yeah, this is the only way I've been able to come close to those ridiculous recommendations that one should be eating 17 small meals of 4 calories each throughout the day. These are also foods that I will go for even if I'm at home and have more options, so it's important to identify things that you have some liking for, not just a host of things that you won't DIE from eating.

When eating out, I am constantly aware that, no two ways about it, I'm going to be blowing a lot more of my day's calories at one sitting. That doesn't mean that I don't do it, it's just a frame of mind that keeps me realistic and let's me make better choices. We have a Panera bread about 3 blocks from the house, and both the ZK and I like their "pick 2" options (you get half a sandwich or half a salad with a full serving of one of their soups). It's comparatively healthy, it involves at least a short walk before and after, and Panera is a great company for assiduously providing nutritional information on its website, but it does involve eating a little less than half the day's calories.

Sweet cravings are another problem to which, I'm glad to say, I've found a very good solution for me: Dove miniatures. They sell a box that is all dark chocolate around french vanilla ice cream and a box that is a mixture of dark and milk chocolate around one of a few different types of ice cream. They're 60 calories each and they satisfy my dessert cravings much better than any of the low-carb, low-fat ice creams. There's also an assortment of M&M/Mars ice cream bars that are 90 calories each (pack comes with snickers, three musketeers, milky way, and twix) for the occasional bigger treat. And, yes, I eat other desserts, I just try to be sensible and honest about recording it when I do.

Exercise strategies
The first thing that I want to say about exercise is, I believe, the most important. YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE IT, YOU JUST HAVE TO DO IT. I'm really quite serious when I say that I have been derailed from a program to lose weight and/or get healthy in the past, because of this myth that my body wants to exercise. I am here to tell you that my body wants to sit on the couch and watch television. My body is built for supinity. I don't crave exercise. I don't get a high off exercise. I don't become one with Gaia when I exercise. I hate exercising EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

So my first strategy was simply not to do things that I superduper-extradouble-fudgey hate, no matter how nonsensical or irrational that hatred is. For example: I do not jog. I do not run. I do not move at a pace faster than a brisk walk while outside. A this point, I have been covering between 25 and 30 miles per week on my elliptical machine, religiously, for a year. If I went outside and tried to jog one city block, my lungs would be filling with a deadly mixture of papercuts and lemon juice, my lower back would be breaking down to its compoent atoms, and my knees, hips, and ankles would be kicking the shit out of me from the inside. Some of that doesn't make any sense, but that's the way it is. I don't need to jog. I have made peace with my nonjogger identity. Seriously: Fuck jogging.

The second strategy was not to set myself up for failure by planning unrealistic exercise. I love to swim, it's true, but there's no way I'm going to pack everything involved with swimming and tote it to some place to swim. It just doesn't fit with my personality or life. Similarly, I really want to take up martial arts again. I hope to do so, but it's not realistic that that will be my routine exercise.

Third strategy involves finding an exercise that you will do and motivating yourself to do it. One of the serious hurdles for me to regular exercise time is the fact that it kind of demands unitasking. That bores me very easily and it makes me feel like I'm wasting time. So for me it was necessary to feel fully occupied. It also helped me tremendously to have some kind of "treat" to go with exercising.

Being a graduate student, I don't get to read for pleasure that often, so I would allow myself that (this requires coordination and a good book stand for the machine, but if Matilda can do it, anyone can do it). Truth be told, though, reading alone is not generally enough to keep the hate from flowig through me. Reading + iPod (or MP3 player of your choice [but we all know iPods are teh R3aL H0tn355]) worked for me when I was going to the gym. If exercising at home, the solution is to find a long-running SciFi show starring MacGyver and become obsessed with it. One hundred and fifty episodes, a DVR or DVD player, and Peter DeLuise involvement should do it.

My fourth strategy was to make exercise nonnegotiable at the beginning of the program. This only worked because I was not teaching at the time and because I am a night person. When I started this, I was on the elliptical machine every single night for 45 minutes, no exceptions. Even if I slowed to a crawl at about the 10-minute mark, I forced myself to remain upright and cling to the damned thing. On very rare occasions, I would allow myself to skip one day, but never two. For me, that was absolutely crucial. It's simply too easy for me to say "Oh, I'll do it tomorrow." (When I look back at my Pact [see below] entires, I see that occasionally I made it 25 or 26 days without missing a workout.) By the time I was teaching again, it had become a habit. That's not to say that I don't have to consciously force myself to do it every single day. I do. But it had become part of the routine. I still try very hard to manage six workouts a week (I usually let the night of my Old Town classes be my night off), but I am now at a point where I'm confident that even if I miss two or even three, I'm still in the habit.

In tandem with the nonnegotiability of daily exercise, the pedometer comes into play again. The reason that Old Town days are reasonable for letting the formal exercise session slide is that those are the days when I already have a fair amount of walking built into the day and I try hard to augment that. I often drive up early to avoid traffic and parking trauma, and then I'll sit in the park, sponge off the library's public wifi and eat my bag o' snacks. If I walk down to the Jewel to get a bottle of water (and, oh, if some Johnny Depp cereal leaps into my basket, what's a girl to do?), I've built in about 20 minutes of aerobic walking, there and back. If I have reason to suspect that I'm not going to get to the elliptical workout, I am slave to the pedometer and I try to squeeze in as many steps as possible. Exercise doesn't have to be a special occasion: trite but true.

A substrategy of the BDSM games with my pedometer is that I do not record the pedometer's assessment of calories burned unless I've clocked aerobic walking time. This means that I actually have some additional, unquantified "cheat calories" available to me. It's a weird mental crutch, but there it is. Another upside of this is that the pedometer can help you NOT get derailed when vacations or other things come up (I also try to do at least a brief yoga routine on the road, but that's not always doable), because you can remain accountable for activity.

Accountability strategies
The software is a big part of my accountability, even though it's only to myself. I find that it is not onerous to keep track using it and I am brutally honest. In contrast, I have often wanted to stab my sister for telling me how many "points" an item of food is. That's just my baggage, though. Weight Watchers points may be YOUR tried and true type of accountability. You've just got to have a place in which you are faithful and don't lie about your diet and exercise.

Equally important if not more so for me is accountability to something external, though. Again, I'm not going to weigh in. I'm not hanging the needlepointed Magnet that says PIG or BIGGEST LOSER on my fridge for the week. I am not, in short, a joiner. Back in 2002, my friend J and I developed The Pact, others soon climbed on board, and It Was Good. On days when I really didn't feel like dealing with the weird people at the gym, I'd tell myself that I'd promised I would. Yeah, it's another stupid mental crutch. It's not like anyone was going to yell at me. If anything, they'd help me make excuses, but just knowing THAT got my ass in gear.

Last year, it was another friend who renewed the call for The Pact. I realized that among the other changes I needed to make, I personally needed to be more formal about The Pact. So I created a filter (Pactees) of LJ friends who would not want to rip their eyeballs out if they had to read one more sentence about me obsessing about my weight. (For the record, I think that it's important that The Pact is really about being WELL and having healthy habits, not, strictly speaking, about losing weight.) Every Sunday (with few exceptions, in which case I'd do a double or triple update the next week), I posted a Wellness Update to that filter that examined my week in terms of diet, exercise, and progress. My peeps would then comment with applause when I deserved it (and often when I probably didn't), encouragement, their own progress, and so on. And, of course, it's another form of longer range self-accountabity, too, to complement the day-to-day grind of calorie and exercise recording.

And that's pretty much the it. I'm still losing weight, albeit more slowly now. I have a dream number in mind and it'd be great to reach it eventually, but right now I'm proud and relieved that I have found something that feels sustainable to me.

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South and North

Riding public transit from Beverly to the Old Town School in Lincoln Square is pretty straightforward and in the "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" days of the Ryan Construction, it's not likely to take much longer than driving. It's a straight shot 134 blocks north on Western (and there's a bus that does this), or it's a bus ride 3 miles East, the red line north for 112 blocks, a platform transfer at Fullerton, and then the brown line train covers the last 22 blocks north and jogs back west for about a mile and a half, depositing one at the doorstep of Chubby Wieners. I usually opt for what sounds like the more complicated route, and it's not just for the wieners.

Yesterday, I left the house (which is most definitely not in order) later than I should have. I couldn't find the clothes I wanted, or at least I couldn't fine any of the components of what I wanted to wear at the same time. It looked very much like rain and my shawl is so capacious at this point that even my Mimic (aka the hottest knitting bag known to god or man) cannot close over it. In the irritated rush, it seemed like shoving the whole works into a paper shopping bag was sensible. The chosen Nordstrom bag split promptly and neatly along its seam (only later would I learn that this was an enormous boon, and I'd never seen it coming).

Aggravated, I shoved the entire works into my leather backpack and rushed out the door, only to rush back in when I realized that I'd forgotten my sunglasses. Although it probably only reached about 83F yesterday, it was oppressively humid. That, my bad mood, still-wet hair, and the stress of wondering whether or not I'd actually make it to Old Town in time conspired to make it feel like 105.

Our realtor, who is also a friend, once told us that Beverly is the neighborhood with the second highest median income in Chicago. I don't know if that's true (although she's a trustworthy source on such things), and I wonder how meaningful the statistic is. For example, I I don't think I, personally, have the second highest median income in our household. I'm willing to bet that median or no, Beverly has a fair amount of heterogeneity in income level, being quite racially mixed, having a large proportion of blue collar and city works, and existing as it does only just barely inside the city limits. This last point explains the one before it: Many city workers must live in Chicago, and Beverly escapes being a suburb on the technicality of Western Avenue.

The location and demographics of Beverly make for some interesting main thoroughfares. When I stand at the bus stop, facing northn and waiting for the 95W to, paradoxically, take me east, I'm staring at a cutesy, newish strip mall comprising the required Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, and Panera bread. Ours is also fitted with the EB Games, Chase Bank, and Sylvan Learning Center options. These are all fitting companions for the big Borders just to the East.

At my back, on the south side of the street, is a moribund Radio Shack and a Dollar Store. Moving just a touch west, I think the block of store fronts is entirely abandoned now, but they were the kind of businesses that would have drawn the hairy eyeball from the developers of those developing across the street: A payday loan/currency exchange type place, one of those huge, jumbled beauty supply places, and in large and prominent corner space that wraps around on to Western, I think there used to be an old-fashioned, stand-alone department store of the variety that went out with 8-track tapes.

In practice, the north/south difference isn't a white/black one. Not exactly. Black men and women maneuvered their cars in and out of the cramped parking spaces of the strip mall. A young white woman (probably more than five years my junior) struggled out of the dollar store with a huge, multi-roll pack of paper towels as she tried, unsuccessfully to wrangle her army of tiny clones (four kids, each the very picture of her, all under the age of 7 or 8). Sure, the store specializing in going-to-Church hats is South Side, and the health food store is North Side. But, in general, Beverly defies the Minnesota/North Dakota rule.

The 95W bus is not in Beverly, no matter where it happens to be sitting. Yesterday I boarded at my stop with the usual suspects: A woman about my age, hauled her two children along with her, an older woman whose uniform and grim manner suggested that she was on the way to work, and an older man who politely stepped aside to let me board before him. Being so near Western, the bus was virtually empty when we boarded. I was the only white person on board and would remain so, though the bus filled up to standing-room only capacity as we moved eastward.

I, like most of the riders, exited the bus at the red line. The terminal is a broad, squat structure that spans the width of I-57 and the Ryan as they diverge (or merge, depending on whether you're a Yankee or a Reb, I suppose). The traffic around this southernmost stop on the line is thick and slow moving. The terminal can only be approached on foot or by bus. Anyone attempting to dropp off a rider by car is subject to murder by sizzling laser eyebeams.

After making my way through the turnstyle, I heard the unmistakable sound of the doors rebounding off passengers determined to make the train. The escalator was not working. I don't think the escalator has ever worked, but it's not exactly a case of "Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the Convenience." Whether one wants to descend to the platform or climb up to street level, a broken escalator represents an opportunity to make an end run around bullying "entrance" and "exit" signs. At the red line terminal, everyone swims upstream.

I fought my way down the actual stairs, noting somewhat desperately that the buzz-thwack of people slipping through closing doors was becoming more infrequent. My lurching forward motion came to an abrupt halt as I came up against the woman with the two small kids who'd been on my bus. The girls, probably about 2 and 4, had simultaneously decided that walking is for suckers. With one baby on her hip and the other hanging from her hand, she formed a slow-moving, impassable obstacle. I heaved an irritated sigh and stopped behind her. At the same moment, a young black guy, probably 19 or so hurled himself in her direction from below. Raising one hand, he palmed the back of the younger girl's head as he shoved by, knocking her forehead soundly against the angle of her mother's jaw. I decided that I could probably get the fuck over myself at that point.

Stunned and probably in not inconsiderable pain (it was an impressive bone-on-bone foley), the woman stumbled down the last few steps and stepped to the side. Unsurprisingly, fear and pain had set the younger girl to wailing. Her sister provided back-up vocals. I hovered for a minute, unsure whether I ought to make sure they were ok. In an impressive mom move, the woman planted a kiss on the baby's forehead and yanked on the older girl's arm, "Get your ass on that train!"

I lunged for the train and shoved my arm through an opening just a bit too small for it. The doors clamped down briefly, then grudgingly sprang back. I stepped aside to let the woman and her kids pass. "Thank you," shaking her head in exasperation as she lugged her kids thrugh the door and into a two-seater row. I dropped into a backwards-facing aisle seat in an empty two-seater row a few behind hers and set my wards: Sunglasses on (despite the overcast day and the fact that a long stretch on this "elevated line" is actually on); iPod on; knitting deployed. The way I saw it, it wasn't even 2 PM and I'd already exceeded my "direct contact with people" quota for the day.

At 87th street, a 16-ish black guy slid into the row in front of me. I recognized him immediately as a brother. Not "A Brother," you understand (I mean, he was incontrovertibly "A Brother," but J's hPh is the only white dude I know who can use the phrase and carry it off), but MY brother in eschewing human contact. Although he took the window seat, he monopolized the row as effectively as I had mine by sprawling laterally. It's not a move for amateurs. The challenge is to convey in no uncertain terms that the aisle seat is Not Available without physically encroaching on it. That'll cost you style points. He pulled it off, though, and if the hip hop blaring through his headphones hadn't been in competition with my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend, I probably would have saluted him.

Before we reached the next stop, I realized that at least one other person had boarded the car with my fellow introvert. A black woman moved into the aisle next to us. At first I took her to be upwards of 70 and assumed that she wanted the (technically) unoccupied aisle seat. I briefly scanned the car and noted that there were plenty of completely empty two-seater rows, making this move Not Cool. Nonetheless, it seemed even less cool for the guy to ignore an older person who seemed clearly to want the seat. I bundled my knitting up and slid into the interior seat, shaking my head slightly at my brother for taking the introvert thing too far and indicating that the woman was welcome to my aisle seat.

I even went the extra mile to make eye contact with her. This gave me a closer look at her and made it clear that the guy in front of me might have poor manners, but his train weirdo radar was in perfect working order. The woman's skin had the overbaked, peeling look that usually indicates "homeless." She wore a knit cap that covered all her hair, but the bristling growth on her upper lip was iron grey. As our eyes met, she raised a gnarled stick. It was covered in a chipped lacquer, suggesting that it had once been a proper cane, but the end had no rubber stopper. In fact, the laquer tapered off near the base, and it looked as if the stick might have been deliberately shaved to a sharp point.

As she lifted it, I assumed that she was preparing to take the seat next to me. It was somewhat alarming, therefore, to have it suddenly poking me in the shoulder. Hard. Before I could blurt out something akin to "Dude, WTF?" (but hopefully more generationally appropriate), she leaned down and mumbled something I couldn't hear at first. The volume grew as she repeated it again and again, "Blood of Christ. You are Covered in the blood of Christ." Everyone else in the car carried on as usual, and I wondered for a minute if the woman and the chant were part of some kind of psychotic break. As if to reassure me of my sanity, she jabbed the stick at me again, pulling back just shy of my shoulder and cackling as I flinched. Just when shocked was giving way to pissed, she tapped the point of the stick twice on my aisle seat and moved back up the aisle behind me.

At the next stop, several people got into the car. A older black man in some kind of law enforcment uniform sat down next to me and started thumbing through his Wild West video catalog. Several rows in front of me and across the aisle, a 40-something man and a teenage girl sat down across from and facing the young mother with her two girls. He joked animatedly with the girl next to him, grinning to reveal nothing but gum, top and bottom, all the way back to his premolars. The girl laughed and nodded as he spoke, but kept her eyes front. Later, the man would leave the train long before her, leading me to wonder how they wound up sharing a two-seater aisle when it wasn't necessary in violation of all laws of god and man. Meanwhile, her limited feedback got to him, and he turned to teasing the girls across the aisle.

"Why you cryin', baby girl?"

She looked around the car with an enormous frown on her face, as if she couldn't quite believe that anyone dared address her.

"Bump!" She said angrily.

"Bump? That's your brain," he replied, matching her frown for frown. "You gotta big brain."

She clutched at her head with both hands. I think the news might have alarmed her. "No!"

Her sister had curled far into the window seat and tucked herself under her mother's arm as soon as the conversation began. But now her head peeped out and she giggled, "You gotta biiiiiig brain!" she mimicked.

"No!" The baby drummed on her own head, somewhat undermining her previous attempts to work the bump angle.

I couldn't see their mother's face, but body language plus an abrupt change of subject suggested that a message not to get the girls started again had been sent and received. He kept up a running conversation with both girls over the next few stops, telling jokes and teasing them mildly. Somewhere north of Hyde Park, he hauled himself out of his seat and began that never-graceful jaunt toward the door. Even accounting for the moving train, something about his movement was especially awkward. After he'd passed my row, he backtracked and held out something to the baby girl. Her mother turned sharply toward him, a little bit alarmed, and the girl stared up at him in confusion. He was holding a few crumpled singles.

"For your babies," he said to the woman. She looked uncertain, but by then the older girl's hand had shot out and snatched the money.

Resigned, "Say thank you." she slapped her hand lightly.

The girl grinned, "Thank you."

"Bump," said the baby, turning her back on the man.

He passed a tall, burly woman about my age in the aisle. She was towing a boy of about 7 whose build and face strongly resembled hers. Despite his size, she was having a lot less trouble than the woman with her skinny 4-year-old. She took the seat in front of me and I wondered when my possibly rude but definitely wise fellow introvert left the train. I was too wrapped up with the little girls to notice, I guess. Although the little boy is as dark as can be, he reminds me strongly of my fair-haired, porcelain-skinned nephew S (of "Yeah, I'm a dork, but I'm a funny dork fame). Mostly, his fearlessness reminded me of S, as he sang and wriggled in his seat even after his mother's "Wait 'Til We Get Home" look unspooled into a slap upside the head. I added charisma to fearlessness when she looked surprised to hear herself apologizing.

At one point, he reached both hands over his head, coming in contact with the unzipped flap of my backpack, which was gaping forward against the back of his seat. His hands stilled momentarily and, on a whim, I quickly pulled the zipper toward his fingertips. He jerked around and raised an eyebrow at me (definitely a lady's man in the making [or man's man, whatever]). I raised one back and he grinned and turned back around. I unzipped the bag again with a flourish. He waited a minute or so, then grabbed at the zipper again. I zipped in a flash and he laughed. We got away with two or three more go arounds before we were both treated to his mother's sizzling laser eyebeams. I gave him a last sheepish smile and zipped the bag for good. He might be fearless, but I know too well that moms will fuck your shit up.

The Cermak stop is above Chinatown. Yesterday, it was kind of a no man's land where no one seemed to get on or off. In my earlier red line days, there would have been at least a few knots of Hyde Parkers headed down there for a potsticker fix. It's still summer, I guess.

At Roosevelt road, there's a shift in ridership that gets more dramatic as the train heads north to plunge underground in the Loop. The first white faces, other than mine, appear and soon outnumber the black. Objetively, these are the people like me in more than color: young, middle-class singles and couples heading to a museum, a lecture, a play, or maybe just shopping or the lakefront. Mixed in are a few of what I secretly consider my real peeps, although I'm less and less like them as time goes on: hip UIC students bound for Belmont to restock their goth supplies, maybe a small knot of pimply geeks who'll get off at the same stop but head straight for some of the best comic and used book stores in the city.

Our pasty white ranks will swell until the train reaches Fullerton, where I switch to a brown line train and a slightly different crowd. Here there are more East Asian and Indian people, either DePaul students or run-of-the-mill Lincoln Park denizens. In addition to the racial/ethnic shift, the brown line is, perhaps appropriately, crunchier. Many will get off at Western with me. Some will be heading for Old Town; others might opt for the Grafton or Bad Dog to hear or make music. If I were to stay on the brown line further than I did yesterday, I would end up in a neighborhood very much like the one I grew up in. Tom and Chris, our Sea Shanties teachers live up there and I had an eerie feeling of not-quite-nostalgia Thursday at the barbecue in their back yard.

No matter what line I ride though, if I go north, there's no place like Beverly.

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