Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Reasons Why Memorial Day Is the Best Holiday

We all have our preferred holidays, of course, but some are under-appreciated when compared against the traditional favorites like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. A case in point is Memorial Day which, when looked at objectively, not only compares to any of the five star holidays, but is actually superior to them all.

I'm aware that Memorial Day is a U.S. holiday and might not translate for everyone, but I tried to pick qualities that aren't really specific to America.

Below are ten reasons why Memorial Day is the best holiday of them all.
  1. Memorial Day always falls on a Monday. This guarantees a long weekend. Plus, Monday holidays are easier to plan around and less disruptive than a mid-week holiday where you get a day off and then have to drag yourself back to work for a day or two before the weekend.
  2. Memorial Day traditionally kicks off summer movie season and the release of highly-anticipated movies. Some of the notable and top grossing Memorial Day weekend movies releases include Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007), The Hangover Part II (2011), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Sex and the City 2 (2010), and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). 
  3. Good weather. Falling as it does near the end of May, the weather on Memorial Day
    is usually sunny and pleasant without being oppressively hot, like on the Fourth of July.
  4. Memorial Day is a "marker" or gateway holiday, signifying the arrival of summer. There are other such holidays, including Labor Day, which portends the winding down of summer and imminent arrival of fall, but Memorial Day remains the best, because of what you have to look forward to: three or four months of sunshine, short-sleeves, and flip flops.
  5. Extended family get-togethers are optional on Memorial Day! Family parties can be great but they're often required on other holidays. Not so on Memorial Day weekend! When you head out, you go because you want to and enjoy food and family.
  6. You can eat what you want. Good food can make a holiday all the more memorable, but it can also restrict if you're bound by custom or family tradition to serve the same fare year after year. Fortunately, Memorial Day is wide open. Grill, bake, or go out. It's your day to eat the way you want, and you can go ahead and do something totally different next year.
  7. Manageable expectations. People have modest or even low expectations for Memorial Day. Unlike Christmas, New Year's Day, or even the Fourth of July, when the pressure is higher and you need to buy gifts, entertain, or watch fireworks, Memorial Day doesn't demand as much and in fact can be an entire day of pure relaxation.
  8. Few Distractions. While there might be an NBA playoff or a baseball game on during Memorial Day, generally the holiday has few distractions and even sports fans can disengage for awhile and enjoy the weekend.
  9. Commercial-free! You don't have to buy gifts on Memorial Day and there are no Memorial Day cards to send! It's the ultimate non-commercial holiday. Even people who work in advertising take the day off.
  10. Because some gave all. I've had some fun with this, but let's not forget that the reason we have a day off the last Monday of every May. Memorial Day commemorates U.S. men and women who died while in military service. For this reason above all the others, I elevate Memorial Day as the holiday I appreciate most. Many men and women died to build this country which allow me to write posts like this, and I respect and do not take lightly their sacrifice.
Enjoy Memorial Day, everyone.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Sound of Social Media Silence

In the hours leading up to the "Lost" series finale that aired last Sunday, many people updated their blogs, Facebook statuses, and Twitter pages with a statement indicating that they'd be staying off the Internet and powering off mobile devices until after they watched the finale, so as to avoid surprises and spoilers.

Of course, you don't have to be a fan of "Lost" to relate to the impulse to disengage from online distractions, but the willingness of so many people to do so to watch a television show made me wonder what else qualifies as a reason to steer clear of the Internet and social media.

Do people just pull away for media that's prone to spoliers and leaks, like anticipated television shows and movies? What about pro sporting events, particularly when someone attempts the often tried but difficult to accomplish feat of recording the game, avoiding the score, and then watching it later without knowing the outcome. And what about people who disengage for personal reasons, like during holidays or on weekends?

No doubt, people have widely varying thresholds and preferences here. For my part, I tend to disengage on weekends, to spend time with my family and also to recharge and enjoy other hobbies and interests. That said, there are degrees of disengagement, from mostly tuning out but keeping the cell phone on and getting online for a few minutes here and there to full-on bunker mode, with Internet and mobile devices powered off. And the growing convergence of our communication devices with leading social media vehicles, like Facebook and Twitter, is definitely blurring the boundary. If I regularly connect with my real-world contacts through social media sites, how disruptive is it to disconnect?

I suspect it will become harder to disengage from social media as these vehicles become even more a part of our lives, like when they are accessible easily through our televisions and cars. But I bet people will find a way to unplug when they really want to, like when the series finale of their favorite show airs.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Book Review)

I rarely say this about any book, and think I've only done it once before, for Night by Elie Wiesel, but Half the Sky is one of those books that everyone should read.

It's both an unflinching and brave piece of journalism that reveals the widespread plight of women in the developing world (even in this day and age), and a clear call for change through awareness and action.

The authors present their case by focusing on some of the major problems facing millions of women worldwide, including sex trafficking, sexual violence and rape, and maternal mortality. Then, they look at the solutions that are having the greatest positive impact, especially girls education, access to healthcare, and microfinance.

There's a lot to take away from Half the Sky, but perhaps the most memorable point is how uplifting and educating women in countries where they have been traditionally held down can begin to transform the country's entire society -- economically, socially, and even politically. The best proofs of this come from East Asia, which has prospered in recent decades by educating females and incorporating them in the workforce in ways that haven't been present in other parts of the developing world.

The book concludes by providing additional information for learning more and helping.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Larry's Kidney by Daniel Asa Rose (Book Review)

With Larry's Kidney, author Daniel Asa Rose hits the ball hard and deep, but ultimately foul.

The premise of a man and his cousin traveling to China to try and obtain a kidney for a transplant the uncle desperately needs is great and the setup draws you in at the start. But the story didn't maintain momentum or keep my interest, in large part because, though the book is a true story, it felt like neither memoir nor fiction. I'm not sure why. The events seemed plausible but the characters spoke and acted at really odd angles. They didn't come across as real to me, and certainly didn't capture my sympathy. However, they didn't read like fictional characters either. Perhaps the problem is with me and that I've read too many memoirs that are so fabricated and scripted that my sense of a real person in a memoir is blurred and really off.

In any case, the book never come together for me.

Monday, May 17, 2010

TiMER (Movie Review)

TiMER is a fresh and fun Indie film where the technology exists (TiMERs) to show people the numbers of days, hours, minutes and seconds until they will meet their soul mate. The film is ostensibly a romantic comedy but it resists easy categorization and at times feels as much like a drama or a science fiction film as it does a romantic comedy.

We learn about TiMERs through two sisters -- Oona (Emma Caulfield) and Steph (Michelle Borth) -- who approach dating and relationships in large part based on the readouts of their TiMERs. For example, Steph knows that she won't meet her soul mate for many years, so she is casual in her encounters and resists intimacy. Oona's TiMER is blank, which indicates that her soul mate hasn't installed a TiMER yet, and the impasse leaves her frustrated and impatient for her one to emerge.

In this state, Oona departs from her calibrated routine and begins a relationship with a younger man. The change and excitement wake Oona up, and she finds herself enjoying her life and not fixated on her TiMER and romantic destiny. This continues until Oona's TiMER comes on and when she learns that her soul mate is not the young man she's been seeing.

The climactic tension is appropriate to the plot and conceit of the film, but the movie doesn't establish a path for defying the TiMER. In the world of the film, TiMERs are always right and what's interesting and compelling are the complications and relationships that emerge because of the devices, and not the prospect that the technology might be faulty. In this sense, knowing the exact moment when your soul mate will arrive in your life is not unlike knowing the day when you'll die. Such fore-knowledge would change so much about how we behave.

Overall, TiMER is a good, enjoyable film with solid performances from Emma Caulfield and Michelle Borth. I hope to see more of them in future films.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Politics of Social Media

When you're connected to someone on a social media site like Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn, and the person uses the service regularly, it doesn't take long to learn some new things about the person that you might not have known, including likes, interests, and affiliations.

This can create some interesting dynamics and bedfellows, especially when you're interacting online with people you haven't connected with in a long time (like high school or college friends) or have only met professionally. To me, this is most acute when I begin to parse that someone I'm connected to is my complete opposite, politically.

This got me wondering -- what do people think and do when they notice their connections have different politics? Do people disconnect from people if someone's at the other end of the spectrum? Do they keep the connection but ignore the person? Conversely, are social media sites rare vehicles where we actually talk to and listen to each other? It's interesting and complex, and you wonder at the implications as we use these services more and more.

For my part, I like being connected to people with a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. I enjoy good-spirited oppositional debate, and I think a healthy back and forth bolsters us all and prevents ossification. I would never personally disconnect from someone because of the person's politics unless the person advocated violence or engaged in some form of hate-mongering.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld (Book Review)

Peeps is a fresh and original take on the vampire story where vampirism is actually a disease caused by parasites and vampires are parasite positives, or "peeps," who carry the illness.

Full disclosure: I'm one of those people who think there are way too many vampire books and movies, and that the whole vampire sub-genre has become pretty stale and tired. I know, millions of people love Twilight and its sequels, so I concede it's a me thing.

That all said, despite my jaded preconceptions about vampire novels, I thoroughly enjoyed Peeps. I thought the book's conceit was original and intriguing, and the rest of the story held-together pretty well. Peeps is targeted at young adults but will be enjoyed by adult readers as well. I know, as I'm one of those adult readers who liked it!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Food Rules by Michael Pollan (Book Review)

I'm a big Michael Pollan fan and thought In Defense of Food was one of the most important books to come along in years. Food Rules recasts much of the important information from In Defense of Food into 64 rules for selecting real food, eating in moderation, and getting off the Western diet.

While I thought In Defense of Food was already pretty accessible and easy to get into, Food Rules pares down the material even further, by relating eating to our daily lives and using simple, everyday language. Most of the rules are just one page in length and, in some cases, the rules are just a single sentence, as with #20, "It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car." It's likely that the streamlined book format and simple rules will allow Pollan to reach many new readers.

I don't know about the utility of Food Rules for those who've already read In Defense of Food. The book felt like a refresher to me and I will probably look to loan it to people who would not otherwise read the longer and (by comparison) denser In Defense of Food.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Samurai Poet by Travis Belrose (Book Review)

The Samurai Poet blends fiction with history in a richly conceived novel about Ishikawa Jozan, a man who turns away from the samurai to a contemplative life of poetry and calligraphy. Narrated by Jozan, the world of medieval Japan comes alive as Jozan initially learns and embraces the way of the samurai, only to repudiate the warrior path for a pursuit of artistic and spritual purity.

As a reader who opened the novel knowing very little about medieval Japan, I learned quite a bit from the book, and came away with a sense of some of the famous historical figures of the period (like Tokugawa Ieyasu, a prominent Shogun) and historical sites that still stand to this day, including Shisendo Temple in Kyoto.

At its best, the book drew me in and let me see historical Japan through Jozan's eyes. This is nowhere more evident than in an early scene when a young Jozan watches as his father duels an arrogant schoolteacher. The detail is picture-perfect and finely rendered.

The novel felt episodic, and while I'm told that's not uncommon in Japanese fiction, for me the story felt unbalanced at times, with a faster-paced, more action-oriented beginning giving way to a slower, contemplative middle and end. There's no doubt Jozan was a yin-yang figure, and I understand that the book is structured to mirror the warrior-artist split, but I don't know if the final pairing worked all the way.

I also would have liked to see more female characters. There were some, including the narrator's mother, but I felt the book was missing that one strong female figure to fill out Jozan's life and the novel.

Overall, the book was interesting and rewarding, especially for a reader like me, who rarely reads historical fiction.

Full Disclosure: I am a friend of the author, and I've been privileged to read the book through several stages and drafts. I regret that Travis has not had any luck to date finding a publisher, but I want to implore him publicly to keep writing. You have, talent, Travis. Keep writing, and -- excelsior.

Links to Additional Information: You can learn more about Travis Belrose and The Samurai Poet by visiting the author's website and blog.

Less by Marc Lesser (Book Review)

Less is a modest book that offers insight and practical suggestions for doing less and sometimes stopping altogether in order to accomplish more and live a richer, calmer, and more satisfying life.

Author Marc Lesser is a business leader and Zen teacher and has managed to bring both of his worlds together in this helpful, valuable work.

Some of the advice is general and to be applied according to individual preference, such as blocking out some time each day to meditate or take a walk. In other sections of the book, the author includes specific instructions for doing less, such as a suggestion to reduce distraction from emails and phone calls by checkcing emails and phone messages only two or three times a day, during prescribed times.

Less is also distinguished by what it is lacking. That is, there are no five or seven steps to success. There's no program or membership to purchase to get the full payoff to the author's message. And there's no cult of personality overshadowing the book's message. I appreciated the authenticity of this little book and recommend it.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Millionaire Next Door (Book Review)

Before authors like Suze Orman and David Bach cornered the market on personal finance, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko released a book in 1996 that brought together their findings from interviewing millionaires.

The conclusions are simple and straightforward but go against some of our preconceptions that millionaires spend money lavishly. They are, simply, that millionaires, on average, spend less money than they earn, they live below their means, they save, and they are likely to spend more on their childrens' education than their non-millionaire counterparts.

Though almost fifteen years old now, I still recommend The Millionaire Next Door for anyone in interested in learning the simple, but plain and boring, tactics used by many people to amass fortunes over time.