Fixing Up A Foreclosure
When You Unlock the Front Door of a Foreclosure
Published on January 31, 2012 by guest author: Adam Rust

When you unlock the front door of a foreclosure, you never know what you are going to see.

I know that my hyperactive son wants to run in headfirst, but I hold him back because sometimes things are not right. The door turns out to be ajar – never a good sign – and so it turns out that knowing the key code does not matter.

This home is nice. Nice because there is no smell. Nice because nothing is broken. Nice because I think I would live here myself. This home has been empty for at least four months. No one has broken into it.

I know what is not nice. Not nice is when people take a sledgehammer to a wall. Not nice is when carpets are riddled with awful stains. Not nice isn’t just an old appliance. Not nice is when the dishwasher is missing and so are the toilets. Last month, I went to a not nice house where homeless people had been living. The floor was covered with needles, human excrement, and diapers. The graffiti on the kitchen cabinets offered a warning: “Don’t cook here, fool.”


On the Virtues of Reading for Pleasure
Published on January 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Salon, Laura Miller argues that stories don't need morals or messages to be worth reading, and that the whole "reading is good for you" philosophy taps into this weird Puritanical strain in mainstream American culture.

My sense is that this is probably true, although I would argue that books can be fun and meaningful, and that it's perfectly fine to read for pleasure rather than personal growth.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from Miller's piece:

"What is the purpose of reading stories, especially made-up stories? That’s the question lurking behind a recent posting to the New York Times’ education blog, SchoolBook. Ann Stone and Jeff Nichols, the parents of twins, wrote about taking their kids’ third-grade English Language Arts test with some friends as a party game on New Year’s Eve. The group read an inane little story about tiger cubs learning to tear bark off logs, but, to their surprise, couldn’t agree on a single answer to the multiple choice question that followed: 'What is this story mostly about?'

Tests like this, the couple asserts, do students 'a double disservice: first, by inflicting on them such mediocre literature, and second, by training them to read not for pleasure but to discover a predetermined answer to a (let’s not mince words) stupid question.' The problem, they feel, stems from the standardized testing regime, which forces the learning experience into a too-rigid structure. Even a 'banal' story like this tiger-cub number admits 'multiple interpretations,' and the prod to 'reduce the work to a single idea' does a disservice to both reader and text.

I’m sure Stone and Nichols are right that the current, reductive obsession with standardized testing has made this propensity worse, but discomfort with fiction — with all its slippery, non-utilitarian qualities — goes back to the beginning of American culture. As the historian Gillian Avery observed in her 'Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621-1922,' 17th-century Puritans had big doubts about any kind of non-scriptural storytelling, for adults as well as for children. They were as determined to teach their kids to read as any modern helicopter parent, if for other reasons: For Puritans, reading the Bible was essential to getting into heaven, rather than into Harvard (though to hear some people talk today, you wouldn’t think there was much of a difference)."

Click here to read the whole thing.


Weather, As Weird As Usual
Published on January 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, my colleague Margaret Hartley writes about this weird winter we're having.

Here's an excerpt:

"Since it’s winter, everyone is complaining about the weather.

Last year, the problem was too much snow. 'When will it stop?' neighbors, friends, relatives squawked. 'I’m tired of shoveling!'

This year, the complaints are more muted, as if whining too loudly will bring on a certain blizzard. 'Where is winter — not that I’m complaining.' That’s usually followed by: 'This is just weird,' and a whisper of 'I wish I could go skiing.'

We finally got a little snow, and my neighbor called me up to say that if I wasn’t too picky, the trails in his woods were good enough for some cross-country skiing. But I had to go away for the weekend and by the time I got back it was warm and rainy. Well, not that warm. Just warm enough to turn the snow-covered driveway and paths into a skating rink.

Which reminds me that I haven’t been skating yet. Or skiing. Although I have hiked a couple of times up an icy mountain."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Filling the Jails
Published on January 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece about our insanely high incarceration rate appears to be the must-read of the week.

The Lady
Published on January 30, 2012 by guest author: Tony Are

There's a grave marker at the Putney Vale cemetery on the western side of the city of London (also the final resting place of the filmmaker David Lean and the art critic/spy Anthony Blunt). It says simply, “The Lady - Alexandra Elene Maclean Lucas (Sandy Denny)." Her date of birth is listed as January 6, 1947. She would have been 65 years old this month. She was 31 when she died in 1978.

"Sandy always transports me to a unique musical place, and defines a certain time in music history to my ears,” said Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth in an appreciation in the UK Guardian in 2010. “Her music and voice have been elevated to the top-most reverential rungs of all I hold dear in my musical life.” Robert Plant (who chose her as the only woman ever to perform on a Led Zeppelin album) said she was his "favorite singer out of all the British girls that ever were." The somewhat more articulate Richard Thompson (who had been a bandmate in Fairport Convention) described her this way: "Sandy had a way of really living a song. And I think she was able to do it because she had a very acute imagination. You could almost describe Sandy as someone who didn't have any skin. She was so hypersensitive to every little thing in the world, it was as if she lived more vividly than the rest of us. And I think that ability to get right inside a song, inside the persona of a song, was really quite extraordinary."

My own introduction was hearing the first Fairport Convention album released in the U.S., Fairport Convention, (which was actually the re-titled  What We Did On Our Holidays). The opening song, “Fotheringay," named for the castle where Mary Queen of Scots met her demise, sent a signal to an antenna that I didn't even know I had. The atmosphere of tragic claustrophobia, combined with a kind of singing I had never heard before - well, to be more exact, singing that was actually very similar to things I had heard before, but with a quality that made it into something else entirely. I spent hours puzzling over what that “something else” was, the kind of obsession that comes naturally to high-school-age music fanatics.

Forty-three years later (give or take), I'm still thinking about it.


Lessons in Parenting
The Pets
Published on January 30, 2012 by guest author: J LeBlanc

The day we brought our newborn son home from the hospital, we were curious to see what the reaction of our two cats would be. We proudly set down the infant carrier in the center of the living room and watched them, happy to be a complete household again. One circled the carrier confusedly, sniffing it a little, then coming up to rub against our legs. The other eyed it suspiciously from afar. It was a pretty uneventful beginning.

We didn’t expect that the transition would be excessively traumatic for them. A couple of years earlier, we had taken in a stray kitten, something our two older cats did not appreciate at all. She was feisty and full of energy and delighted in attacking them the minute they got up to go anywhere. We had assumed that our older cats would put a stop to this eventually by putting the little one in her place, but it just never happened. Though they often fight and wrestle each other (they are brothers) and did play with her a little at first, they ended up huddling miserably together in one corner while the kitten waited impatiently for them to get up - which they began to studiously avoid doing - so she could tackle them. I had never seen them happier than when we found a new home for the kitten - suddenly even the cranky old codger brother was the most affectionate of lap cats.


Jean Rollin, on DVD
Published on January 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

I've only seen one Jean Rollin film, 1975's "Lips of Blood." But it made a huge impression, and I'm excited to hear that Kino International is releasing five Rollin films on DVD this week. 

"Lips of Blood," a dreamlike and haunting erotic vampire story, is among the five. The other titles are "The Nude Vampire," "The Shiver of the Vampires," "The Iron Rose" and Fascination." (Notice a theme? Rollin specialized in horror, and vampires in particular.)

Anyway, the Rolllin DVD set has generated some interesting commentary. Here are some links:

Dave Kehr in the New York Times

Sean Axmaker at Parallax View

Budd Wilkins at Slant Magazine

Carolina Chocolate Drops in Concert
Published on January 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the Carolina Chocolate Drops concert at The Egg.

Click here to read it.

Also, Rule of Thumb contributor Eric J. Perkins named the Carolina Chocolate Drops album "Genuine Negro Jig" one of his top CD purchases of 2011.

The Muppets Attack Fox News
Published on January 30, 2012 by Sara Foss

Mommy Making It Work
Coping With A Tornado As A Family
Published on January 29, 2012 by guest author: Cindy F. Crawford

An F4 tornado ripped through my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27 last year, killing more than 40 people and leaving a mile-wide path of destruction through the middle of town.

Within three days, we packed up the kids and drove one hour south from our home in Birmingham to see the damage up close and help clean up the sanctuary of my childhood church that sat right in the tornado’s path.

It wasn’t pretty. (To read more about my experience with the historic tornado, click here.) Taking my then four-year-old William into that war zone was not a good idea. The devastation surrounding my church looked like post-Hurricane Katrina, with spray-painted Xs marking which homes had been inspected and whether bodies were found there. My two-year-old called them “boo boos.” William soaked it in and might never let the memory go.

We went to help in recovery efforts three weekends in a row after the tornado struck and each time William stood in the middle of it. By summertime, he was jumping every time a neighbor ran a leaf blower, thinking it was the tornado siren going off. He doesn’t sleep well on nights when it simply rains and can be found crying at the top of the stairs just about every time it thunders and lightnings (which happens a lot in the Deep South).


Complaining About My Favorite Things
Published on January 29, 2012 by Sara Foss

In my weekly column at the DG, I ponder why we complain so much about the things that we love.

Here's an excerpt: 

"Every year I look forward to the Oscar nominations, and this year was no exception.

By 8:45 a.m., I had reviewed the list of nominees and made a list of films to see before the ceremony. And by 10 a.m., I was complaining — moaning and groaning about the number of films on my list (too many, in my opinion), as well as the overall quality of the nominees. There are usually one or two fi lms I don’t want to see but end up watching anyway because they’re up for awards in major categories. This year there are at least five fi lms that fit this description, which really annoys me.

I emailed my friend Hanna, who is also an Oscar junkie, and grumbled about how much I don’t want to see 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' or 'The Iron Lady.' In response, she sent me an email lamenting the fact that she now has to watch 'The Help' and 'My Week With Marilyn.'

We continued on in this vein for a bit, ripping the list of nominees to shreds and whining about snubs — the movies, films and actors we believed were unjustly overlooked. At some point it occurred to me that, considering how much Hanna and I both profess to love the Oscars, we were sure doing a lot of complaining. In fact, one could have been forgiven for thinking that we hated the Oscars with a passion, and would like nothing better than to see the Academy Awards disappear forever from the nation’s collective consciousness."

Click here to read the whole thing.

In Honor of Newt Gingrich and the Moon
Published on January 29, 2012 by Sara Foss

In honor of Newt Gingrich and his goofy moon colony obsession, I am posting one of the most hilarious pieces of writing ever: "Space Exploration is a Bunch of Baloney and the Moon is Boring." 


After "The Wire"
Published on January 29, 2012 by Sara Foss

I've been slowly working my way through the television series "The Wire," and although I'm not quite finished with it (I'm about halfway through the final season), I think it's safe to say that it's one of the greatest TV series ever.

News involving "The Wire's" cast and crew always interests me, and last week I was excited to read a Washington Post story about Sonja Sohn, the actress who played Det. Shakima "Kima" Greggs. According to the article, Sohn has remained a presence in Baltimore, where the show was set, and has a charity, called ReWired For Life, that works with troubled youth from the city.

The story is pretty interesting, especially if you're a fan of "The Wire." Click here to read it.

Rolling Stone recently ran an interesting article about Felicia Pearson, who played Snoop on "The Wire," but it doesn't appear to be online. But it's definitely worth seeking out.

Top Reads of the Week
Published on January 27, 2012 by Sara Foss

Work: Tatiana Zarnowski on her favorite workplace diversion, and R.B. Austen on piecing together work

Parenting: J LeBlanc on maintaining friendships after childbirth

Sports: Sara Foss on secret weapons

Music: Eric J. Perkins on his favorite albums of 2011

Wisdom: Barry Wenig on what's really important in life

Journalism: Sara Foss on newspaper hospice

Weather: Sara Foss on exercising in the cold



Secret Weapons
Published on January 26, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the whole concept of the "secret weapon" in sports.

I don't believe in secret weapons, but my dad does.

My theory is that if players are good, they play, and if they're bad, they sit. In other words, there just aren't a lot of secretly good players whose coaches are waiting to spring them upon opposing teams in crucial moments. But maybe I'm wrong. To decide for yourself, click here

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