Kats (wildrider) wrote,

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I Walk the Line

Day one, week two. Three pounds! Today I had a small can of V8, a MetRx bar, a cucumber sandwich on oat-wheat bread (homemade), a few crisps, a few almonds, some cherries, then a nice dinner of baked fish (with curry & other Indian spices), fresh basil pasta with a light butter-garlic sauce, and peas. Probably a little heavy on the calories at dinner due to the butter, but still not too bad.

The weekend was extremely unproductive, although we did some stuff, so it wasn't like I sat around doing nothing at all. We went out and did some shopping (mostly for necessary stuff - mostly) - went to the Farmer's Market downtown and got some fresh produce and a few other things, then hit Tuesday Morning; I made chicken pot pie for Saturday dinner, then Sunday did laundry and made kebobs. No further housecleaning was accomplished, so the cat fur tumbleweeds are doing their own thing in the corners. The living room (and the cats) is settling in with the new recliner. It's much larger than the old one was, but it's apparently not at all nice for scratching... which is good. It's certainly comfy for SITTING. First step in the big remaking of the house taken. Considering the strange noises coming from the pipes last night, that put-offable full copper repipe should probably start edging up on the list...

Today not bad. Got in a little workout - couldn't get myself out of bed early, but made the effort to stop after work. Go, me.

Did not write a hundred words, though. Had one review to finish and did that, though. Working on breaking the original manuscript into actual chapters. Haven't gotten the next rejection slip yet.

Saturday's Doctor Who: Squee!!! Oh, and, squee.

Guest Columnist
The First Domed City

Published: June 16, 2007


Every week, more than 2,000 people move to the Valley of Sun, to a metro area nearly as big in size as the state of New Jersey. They come from Pittsburgh, from Buffalo, from Cleveland, from Fargo — from yesterday to tomorrow.

A city equal to Rochester plants itself here every two years. And what they find is a compelling urban experiment: nearly four million people trying to live in the Sonoran Desert, and live with what they had at home — golf courses, lakes, perennial green. But they also learn that summer is winter, in the sense that Phoenicians stay indoors this time of year, hunkered inside a climate-controlled world, and plan their extended midday excursions like an astronaut going for a space walk. In the stillness of late-afternoon, you wonder: where is everybody?

Phoenix, even more than the other desert metropolis of Las Vegas, is the new American city. People come here because nobody has a past, and because houses are still cheap and because when the snow reached the roofline they finally said: That’s it! I’ve had it.

But what if this place — so new the Bubble Wrap is barely off the red-tiled roofs of neighborhoods named for whatever they displaced — became uninhabitable? What if the climate models that predict the American West heating up faster than any other part of the country proved all too accurate?

If you live here, you know what it means when the sun becomes an enemy. On Thursday, it was 110 degrees. Yesterday, same thing. Too hot to leave a dog or a child in a car without risking their lives. Your skin stings. You feel your brain swelling while waiting for the air-conditioning when you get in the oven of a parked car.

About 800 people will be hospitalized, on average, for heat-related maladies in the coming months, and some will die, mostly the very young and the very old.

As heat waves go, this week’s mercury-topper is nothing special. It’s been 121 degrees — the all-time high. But if you look at the trends and the long-term predictions by the United Nations climate panel, you wonder how our signature New City will adapt. The average temperature of Phoenix has risen five degrees since the 1960s, according to the National Weather Service. Five of the warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000.

A few years ago, The Arizona Republic predicted that average temperatures in Phoenix might rise by 15 to 20 degrees over a generation, due to something called the urban heat island effect. The more parking lots and Dilbert-filled buildings are slapped over the desert floor, the more heat stays trapped in the valley. On top of that is climate change.

“All of the models say in the next 50 years this place is really going to heat up,” said Robert Balling, a climatologist at Arizona State University.

Outside the city, the forests of Arizona are dying, stressed by drought and rising temperatures. A fire that burned an area the size of metro Phoenix five years ago is seen as a terrifying precursor. What scientists have found is that there’s a threshold at which the forest ecosystem collapses. They’ve looked at droughts going back to the time of the Hohokam, who built canals here, and cannot find anything like the present crash.

Is there a similar point at which the city becomes imperiled? The skeptics say: No, we can engineer our way around it. Look at the ballpark where the Diamondbacks play baseball: It has a retractable roof, which is closed while the stadium is cooled by industrial-strength air-conditioning and then opened in the evening.

Or behold the great veins of the Central Arizona Project, bringing water from the Colorado River to fountains in Scottsdale. The fast-evaporating water courses through the city as it bakes, making it livable.

To their credit, residents are using less water, deploying the sun to power air-conditioning, putting in desert landscaping — cacti and stones, not bluegrass and ponds. I do not doubt that innovation will continue to make it easier to defy the heat. But it’s one thing to bring runoff from the Rocky Mountains to the desert floor. It’s another to bring alpine air to streets and parks and backyards, unless you put a dome over the whole city.

Wallace Stegner always said it was his hope that the West could build cities to match the setting. He never predicted that the setting would be the problem.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

Op-Ed Columnist
America Comes Up Short

Published: June 15, 2007


Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.

No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.

To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”

This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.

For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.

So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.

And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.

One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”

“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.

Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.

Except for One Guy, the Cast Is Kind of Wooden

Published: September 29, 2006

You couldn’t ask for a sweeter straight man than Jay Johnson, the one and only star of the new Broadway show “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” By straight man I mean not a heterosexual, although Mr. Johnson happens to be married, but the long-suffering, punch-line-less half of a comedy act, the guy who sets up the gags and smiles affably as his partner knocks ’em out of the park.
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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The ventriloquist Jay Johnson, with Nethernore, the singing vulture.
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Strictly speaking Mr. Johnson is the sole star of this genial if flimsy 90-minute entertainment. His name is the only one on the marquee, and presumably he doesn’t have to share a dressing room with any of his nonhuman, and sometimes a little inhuman, co-stars. But he cedes the spotlight for long stretches to this menagerie of ornery comic characters, all of whom are animated by his vigorously expressive right hand, and all of whom share the same set of vocal cords.

Which happen to be located in Mr. Johnson’s throat. You see, the apple-cheeked Mr. Johnson is actually the most exotic if least cranky creature onstage, even though his fellow performers include a vulture who sings “My Way,” a foul-mouthed wooden tyke, a talking tennis ball and a monkey purveying some of the corniest shtick this side of a Friar’s roast.

He’s a real live ventriloquist, folks. Remember them?

Possibly not, if you’re under the age of 40. Or maybe 50. This species of entertainer has mostly vanished from the show business landscape, where the wondrous capabilities of plain-old human beings are increasingly being enhanced, if not replaced, by the prodigious gadgetry of the digital age. The halcyon days of the voice-throwers were long past even by the late 1970’s, when Mr. Johnson gained minor fame as a star of the television comedy “Soap.”

But Mr. Johnson, still boyish at 57, has managed to forge a career of about four decades plying this dying showbiz trade. His aim in this production, which was seen Off Broadway two seasons back, is to reacquaint contemporary audiences with the delights of the craft, and to ennoble it a little by giving us a friendly tour of its long and interestingly disreputable history. There’s life in the old act yet, Mr. Johnson wants you to know, even if it’s been on life support for almost half a century.

When he is trading repartee with one of those chatty supporting characters, that contention is hard to argue with, even if much of the give and take is of the pleasantly harmless, joke-based kind light-years away from today’s more loosely structured and aggressive forms of stand-up comedy. Pulling from a basket the vulture named Nethernore, Mr. Johnson tells him, “Don’t be shocked by the crowd.” Comes the rejoinder: “I’m shocked you could draw a crowd.” Ba-dum-bum. A bit later Mr. Johnson asks his feather-bedecked arm, “What do you call a group of vultures?” “A law firm,” quoth Nethernore.

That vulture has terrific timing, as do the tennis ball, the snake, the chimp and the two wooden fellows — the sweet-spirited Squeaky and the bilious Bob (also a star of “Soap”) — that Mr. Johnson brings to flavorful and various comic life with his antic arm and magic voice box.

But it’s that little bit of magic that makes the difference. The crack timing is really nobody’s but Mr. Johnson’s, and yet, when it’s time for a comic payoff, his lips remain set in a placid if slightly rigid half-smile, and your eyes are trained on the yapping bird or the monkey or the beady-eyed wooden kid.

The nifty trick of talking without appearing to is what raises Mr. Johnson’s act above the level of mere puppetry to something stranger and marginally more fascinating. (Before I get hate mail from the felt-covered, highly opinionated cast of “Avenue Q,” I should add that I have nothing but respect for plain old puppetry. Really. Some of my best friends are socks.)

When he’s not catering to the temperamental egos of his laugh-hogging co-stars, Mr. Johnson takes the solo spotlight in the roles of friendly professor of ventriloquist history and stand-up memoirist. He has a naturally perky demeanor that lends his stream of anecdote a sunny sparkle, but his recollections of his early years are short on dramatic incident, and despite the unusual nature of his calling, this tale of a starry-eyed kid making it in showbiz feels oddly generic.

Ventriloquism’s vaunted creepiness is all but banished from the stage in “The Two and Only!,” as Mr. Johnson cheerfully debunks or dismisses the whispers of mystery and hints of psychological disorder that once clung to it. In movies like “Dead of Night” and “Magic” it was entertainingly depicted as a sinister predilection possibly signifying serious mental illness. But it’s hard to imagine anyone more sane or sensible than Mr. Johnson.

Skimming happily along the surface of his life, he never stops to ponder the possibility that the anger famously said to fuel comedy has a place in his psyche, or that an attraction to ventriloquism might indicate an interestingly complicated personality, a need to displace uncomfortable impulses. “The Two and Only!” would be a richer show if Mr. Johnson did admit some doubts or anxieties, or for that matter explore the tribulations of living a life on the far fringes of show business.

But Mr. Johnson is definitely not the type for broody introspection. The only squirm-inducing moment in the show is a tenderly sentimental one, when Mr. Johnson is forced to break it to his beloved Squeaky that, well, he’s just too sweet for television, and the producers of “Soap” are determined to go in another direction.

As Mr. Johnson re-enacts this tortured encounter, you may uneasily wonder whether this painful heart-to-heart between man and puppet, obviously not part of a public performance, is in fact a re-creation of an actual scene from Mr. Johnson’s life. And come to slightly disturbing conclusions. But you may also find yourself feeling for the poor wooden fellow, with his Hollywood career cut so brutally short. And longing to chuck him under his cute little chin, rumple his hair and tell him: “Cheer up, Squeaky. That’s showbiz.” Now who’s the kook?


The Two and Only!

Written and performed by Jay Johnson; conceived by Mr. Johnson, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel; directed by Ms. Cross and Mr. Kreppel; sets by Beowulf Boritt; lighting by Clifton Taylor; sound by David Gotwald; original music by Michael Andreas; production managers, Robert G. Mahon III and Jeff Wild; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp; associate producer, Jamie deRoy. Presented by Roger Alan Gindi, Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, Dan Whitten, Herbert Goldsmith Productions, Ken Grossman, Bob and Rhonda Silver, Michael A. Jenkins/Dallas Summer Musicals Inc. and Wetrock Entertainment. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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