Monday, July 30, 2012

Lies: Jonah Lehrer

When I first read him I assumed he was in his forties or fifties, mid-career for sure to judge by his wit and assurance. But he was spry, too, tipping science studies on their sides to dig up some fascinating perspectives. His insight and humor captivated me. So much, in fact, that some of his views, for a while at least, put a piece of bedrock under my developing PhD dissertation on mental health and genetics.

I was surprised, then, to find out he was no older than me. I admit to googling him copiously, frequently visiting his blog, even looking up his wedding photographs and wondering if all the attractive wunderkind science writers like him were already claimed. I admired his courtly replies to scientists disagreeing with some of the points he made in his latest book, "Imagine," and, though I haven't yet read "Imagine," I admired his previous books.

Jonah Lehrer. From

Now he's hit the headlines again. This time not writing news, but for "imagining" it. Already accused of recycling his own work without acknowledging it, Lehrer is now being called out for fabricating quotations.
He has apologized in public and has resigned from The New Yorker. That's a good start. But I'm afraid I won't be reading him in his fifties, and won't want to after these shoddy, ignoble mistakes. I'm not going to beat the drum about journalistic integrity -- I think we've witnessed enough journalism scandals recently and are starting to run out of answers about why some top-flight journalists lie. We might even be wondering if all journalists and reporters fabricate.

I'm sure they don't. But I know it happens. I even remember a junior editor at the Iowa State Daily, admittedly a student newspaper, attempt to massage one of the quotes I reported in a story. It wasn't a particularly important quote or a riveting story, but I adamantly refused to let her make the alteration, and I was frightened that if I hadn't been standing in the newsroom, that mis-quotation would have gone to press.

We journalists don't have a lot going for us sometimes: meager salaries, hours of often tedious work, and public suspicion (that seems quite warranted, given these lapses.) I'd argue that many of us write because the world fascinates us though, and the access we get to adventure and information as we write is well worth all the toil and penny-pinching. We have our words and our hard-earned knowledge, and we stand by those things (not having much else to cling to!)

The thing is, Lehrer didn't have to pinch pennies. And even if he did, lack of funds, or thirst for notoriety, or the sheer pressure of beating a ticking assignment clock is no excuse for any kind of fabrication. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen, and crop up fairly often when journalists attempt to synthesize and summarize complex scientific papers (which themselves, sadly, sometimes fabricate findings.)

Lehrer's actions were deliberate lies though, not mere misunderstandings. I'm sure he understands he hurt himself, his readers, his sources, his publishers, and the overall professional of journalism. 
I know it's popular to be cynical, to say well, everyone lies, to say his mistake wasn't the lie but being so sloppy he got caught, or to shrug and say it doesn't really matter.

But it matters to me that I held him up as an example of elegant, powerful reporting, which I won't be doing any longer. It matters that I strive for precision, clarity, and honesty, and I wanted to be like him, and now I don't. It matters that I wanted to be one of his audience members, but that now he's joined the ranks of those like Greg Mortenson, who probably wanted to do good, and ended up fudging badly. I doubt we can currently know how much Lehrer has let slide, but he's no longer my hero.

Now he's just another human like any one of us who slaps a few lies together when it's convenient. Most of us do it.  I would argue that even casual lies can have damaging impacts though. And Lehrer's lies were calculated rather than casual, committed in a professional setting where I know I may be naive to expect accuracy, but where I still want it. He didn't have to do it; he was in fact defying the conduct code of his profession, letting his bread-and-butter land dirt-side-down.

Lehrer had a chance to keep his integrity, keep our ears, and keep his reporting solid. I'm afraid, despite whatever good work he has done, that he's shattered all that. And it hurts.

Monday, July 23, 2012

TASTE IT: Flat Iron Grill

Now, I meant Thursday entries to be more about things I make or grow, as opposed to things I eat out. But I ate things so terrific yesterday, my tastebuds command me to tell you now about the Flat Iron Grill. It's in Issaquah. I know. Issy. But completely worth it.

Cory and I went there meaning to introduce Cory to whiskey, since he's more of a sake and vodka devotee, and it's time he got introduced to one of my favorite kinds of hard liquor. What I thought would be a casual little tasting bloomed into an out-and-out feast, however, starting after I snuck up on Cory, who was already talking to another patron (about thermodynamics, I believe.) The Flat Iron is that kind of place, casually classy, but informal enough to break into your neighbor's conversations. Plus, it has an entire WHISKEY LIBRARY!

We'd made reservations and were going to sit in the large main hall....but the small bar lounge, upholstered in faux cowhide, just looked too cozy. It took us a while to make up our minds, but we did it, ordering the World Flight of whiskeys (representing Scotland with Abelour 16 year, Ireland with Red Breast 12 year, and Japan with, I believe, Hibiki), plus one of our local distillery offerings, Woodinville Headlong.

Cody also hadn't tried carpaccio, so it was time to try that. It came out with a stack of bread, and it wasn't the usual raw, melting flesh of traditional carpaccio. Instead, it has been lightly brined, giving it a tingle on the tongue that paired well with the whiskeys.

Though I drink it myself, I won't venture to comment on the whiskeys in detail, save to notice that Headlong was a young pour, coming on well, but lacking the punch I savor in a good whiskey. Our bar-tender expects they'll be at the top of their game in another 2-4 years, when their whiskeys have had the proper time to age. No foul in our book though--I'll plan a Woodinville distillery tour soon to check out what else they offer.

The other whiskeys were what we wanted: varied, full-bodied, and complex enough to get us through the carpaccio and on to a side dish of cauliflower and white cheddar. This latter dish, it turns out, cannot be more highly recommended. Just the right amount of cheese. Just the right tenderness in the cauliflower. We made a whiskey-pact to order it again.  I didn't think to get my own shot, but this is close.

And then we ordered the 10-oz Flat Iron steak, which came riding on goat cheese polenta, enrobed in a taut, pungent chimichurri sauce. At this point, as we were closing in on the bottoms of our whiskey glasses, the bar-tender treated us to a us to a complimentary pour of Ballantine. 

You'd think we'd be done by now. We weren't. 

We finished by sharing a tumbler of Four Roses (rich, deep), and the olive oil creme brulee. THEN we were done. But you shouldn't be -- you should go there the very next time you want intimate, delicious dining with great service and all the whiskey you could ever want at your fingertips.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WRITING PROMPT: lana del ray

Yes, she herself may claim to be awkward on stage sometimes. And she generates controversy faster  than an LA girl hits a tanning bed. But Lana keeps pointing back to her music, her song-writing, you know, the thing we're supposedly paying attention to her in the first place. 

I may not like everything she's written. But she does write her own songs (as Elizabeth Grant), and that's something. She's frank in her interviews: she didn't pick up a pen yesterday. She's been working for years now. Page by page. Club by club. Reading Whitman and Ginsberg along the way. 

For this prompt, I want to focus on those 'invisible years' before someone hits Hollywood gold. Lana doesn't have to be your hero, but she's got something, and she's done some work for it. Plus, she knows who she was paying attention to, reading over and over while polishing her own efforts. Who are you reading--who drives you on when you're feeling invisible?

 Let's check out some of her lyrics (Listen if you'd like, and pay attention if you do to the intonation and how she works with rhythm): 

"Off to the Races"
My old man is a bad man but
I can't deny the way he holds my hand
And he grabs me, he has me by my heart
He doesn't mind I have a Las Vegas past
He doesn't mind I have an LA crass way about me
He loves me with every beat of his cocaine heart

Swimming pool glimmering darling
White bikini off with my red nail polish
Watch me in the swimming pool bright blue ripples you
Sitting sipping on your black Cristal
Oh yeah

Light of my life, fire of my loins
Be a good baby, do what I want
Light of my life, fire of my loins
Give me them gold coins, gimme them coins

And I'm off to the races, cases of Bacardi chasers
Chasing me all over town
Cause he knows I'm wasted, facing
Time again at Riker's Island and I won't get out
Because I'm crazy, baby I need you to come here and save me
I'm your little scarlet, starlet singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth
Ready for you

My old man is a tough man but
He's got a soul as sweet as blood red jam
And he shows me, he knows me
Every inch of my tar black soul
He doesn't mind I have a flat broke down life
In fact he says he thinks it's why he might like about me
Admires me, the way I roll like a Rolling Stone

Likes to watch me in the glass room bathroom, Chateau Marmont
Slippin' on my red dress, puttin' on my makeup
Glass film, perfume, cognac, lilac
Fumes, says it feels like heaven to him

Light of his life, fire of his loins
Keep me forever, tell me you own me
Light of your life, fire of your loins
Tell me you own me, gimme them coins

And I'm off to the races, cases of Bacardi chasers
Chasing me all over town
Cause he knows I'm wasted, facing
Time again at Riker's Island and I won't get out
Because I'm crazy, baby I need you to come here and save me
I'm your little scarlet, starlet singing in the garden
Kiss me on my open mouth

Now I'm off to the races, laces
Leather on my waist is tight and I am fallin' down
I can see your face is shameless, Cipriani's basement
Love you but I'm going down
God I'm so crazy, baby, I'm sorry that I'm misbehaving
I'm your little harlot, starlet, Queen of Coney Island
Raising hell all over town
Sorry 'bout it

My old man is a thief and I'm gonna stay and pray with him 'til the end
But I trust in the decision of the Lord to watch over us
Take him when he may, if he may
I'm not afraid to say that I'd die without him
Who else is gonna put up with me this way?
I need you, I breathe you, I never leave you
They would rue the day I was alone without you
You're lying with your gold chain on, cigar hanging from your lips
I said "Hon' you never looked so beautiful as you do now, my man."

And we're off to the races, places
Ready, set the gate is down and now we're goin' in
To Las Vegas chaos, Casino Oasis, honey it is time to spin
Boy you're so crazy, baby, I love you forever not maybe
You are my one true love, you are my one true love

You are my one true love

Friday, July 13, 2012

Braincase: Russian dolls

I feel like I live in a society of Russian dolls sometimes. I know we all hide things, but I haven't been thinking about hidden things much lately. I've been busy with creative writing, my dissertation research, and summer things like growing peas, doing yoga on the my sun-warmed deck, and planning my next big hike. 

But, like the morning thunder that punctuated my Seattle morning today, I get jolted sometimes. Today, I was jolted by the number of sex assault stories I randomly, casually stumbled across while going through my morning. So, instead of a regular science-based news story today, I'm going to walk you though my morning: 

I check Facebook after waking up. Lindy West's article on comedian Daniel Tosh's recent joke, to the effect that it would be really funny if a woman who protested one of his rape jokes in a comedy club would get raped right then and there, popped up.

I toast some bread, spread it with goat cheese, and sit down to a dose of the NYTimes. The front-page article? An update on the Sandusky case detailing Paterno's possible involvement in covering up evidence of boys being sexually abused.

Exasperated, I turn to the Seattle Times's entertainment section for a review of the new Ice Age movie (my mom wants to go see it soon.) Directly below that is a review of 'Invisible War,' a documentary about the 20% of women who are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military. 

I want to get back to reading the latest Murakami, 1Q84, for a bit of peace, but then remember I just finished the section where the heroine, Aomame, completes training to kick men in the balls (before she learns to kill them will a tiny ice-pick to the base of the skull), because of how much trauma females in her life have experienced. 

I'm heart-broken. In the course of a normal morning, not looking for them, I've stumbled across huge stories detailing widespread sexual abuse, or at the condoning of it, in U.S. entertainment, in U.S. sports, and in the U.S. military.

Yeah, Houston, problems. Not three separate stories about isolated sex cases though. Three related stories about sexual abuse in our culture. Three incidences of sexual abuse right where we live. 

This hits home, folks. Should we live in a place we've built with our own brains and hands, where it's OK to laugh at rape fears, it's OK to hide the fact boys get raped in the showers, it's OK to forcibly penetrate women who are defending our country? And it's 'normal' to get hit with all this during Friday morning breakfast? 

Is it 'normal' to have three ex-boyfriends who have been molested at some point in their lives? To have experienced molestation myself while on the job? To know at least four friends who have been raped? To have a friend going through a sex change who doesn't know which public bathroom to use, because people might beat her up in either one? To listen to men detail violent fantasies and women talk about childhood abuse every Tuesday night? Because these things are completely true for me.

I do feel we live in Russian dolls sometimes. Inside me, or at least some of my (male AND female) friends, lurk smaller and smaller versions of ourselves, crystallizing harder and scarier fears about what might eventually happen to us. Inside at least some men: smaller and smaller versions crystallizing harder and scarier desires to hurt others. 

That's a lot of scariness and anger to unpack. It reminds me I live in a place where I DO get my keys out to walk home, where a carload of guys drove by three days ago while I was picking a watermelon at a local produce stand, yelling versions of "Nice melons!" and "Allahu akbar!" when I didn't respond to them wanting me to come greet their car in traffic. I didn't think much about it.

But today's breakfast reminds me that someday, someday soon, I want to wake up for breakfast without seeing these kinds of stories--not because these stories are being buried, but because they're not true any longer. I want to stop feeling like I'm in a weird sex-and-power underground war, boys against girls. 

Guys: I know rape is often about power. But us girls want the power to stop planning how to defend ourselves against you. Oh, and we want sex, too. Just not "like that."
Girls: Praise and treasure the honorable men in your lives, because their actions matter. Condemning disrespect matters, too.

It's not enough to get Tosh off the air. It's not enough to punish Sandusky and Paterno, or scold the military or go see Invisible War. It's more than that. It's about unpacking all those Russian dolls inside ourselves and figuring out how to make something better. It's about knowing that, just like training for a marathon or getting to graduation, learning how to live together as men and women who can respect our differences takes tremendous discipline, practice, and effort.

And all that starts with everyday decisions, as prosaic as toast and bananas in the morning, to keep choosing to respect rather than ravage one another.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing Prompt: the historic moment

Not everyone wants to look to history for a writing push. (Speaking of writing pushes, I seriously need one. I'm swearing that I'm going to improve. Though, I'm not going to cut back on the sailing, the kayaking, the fiction-writing, and the other things that distract me from my vows to keep this blog going.) 

I definitely find history fruitful--look hard enough, and you'll glean plenty of images and odd situations to inspire, or at least give you pause. Don't forget, Santayana's reminder:
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
Grabbing a choice moment from the past as a writer though isn't about numbly pacing through what already happened. It's about searching for an interesting framework or lens, something to give you pause and let you have an opening into new territory. 

For example, I just finished a short story about the real-life case of Armin Meiwes, a man looking for someone else to eat. I didn't write about the man Meiwes eventually did kill and consume, however--I found it more intriguing to wonder about a man who supposedly made contact with Meiwes, but was rejected.

Here's a place to think about starting: 

Boston, Located on the south side of the Old North Church stands a small area set aside to commemorate the soldiers lost in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Hundreds of dog tags representing the fallen soldiers from these conflicts hang closely together. When the wind blows one can hear the distinctive metal chimes as they clang together to make their eery music.
Boston, Located on the south side of the Old North Church stands a small area set aside to commemorate the soldiers lost in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Hundreds of dog tags representing the fallen soldiers from these conflicts hang closely together. When the wind blows one can hear the distinctive metal chimes as they clang together to make their eery music. (from

Thursday, July 5, 2012

TASTE IT: lavender vanilla scones

In honor of July 4th, I decided to make something blue(ish.) Lavender season approaches in WA, and I thought vanilla might pair particularly well with lavender's delicate floral taste. A couple clicks later and I found a delightful recipe from four years ago, courtesy of Marye Audet. 

my particular scone batch, freshly frosted
It goes as follows:

Lavender and Vanilla Mini Scones
3 1/2 c flour
2 tbs baking powder
1/2 c unsalted butter
1/2 c sugar
1 1/3 c half and half
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbs food grade lavender buds
Mix the dry ingredients, except lavender, together. you can seal the mixture in a food container and have it on hand for scone mix if you like.
Cut in butter, or grate it into the dry ingredients. Add lavender buds and stir to mix in evenly. Add vanilla and milk and mix until you have a soft dough that holds together.
Roll out gently to about 3/4 inch thickness and cut out with small biscuit cutter. Place on baking sheet and allow to stand for 20 minutes. During this time preheat oven to 400F.
Bake for 12 minutes or until done.
Remove from oven.
While scones are still hot spoon on a glaze made from:
1/2 c melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
enough confectioners sugar to make a thick glaze.
Sprinkle with lavender buds to garnish.
Makes about 24.
These freeze well, and are great for once a month cooking or making ahead. :)

I made a few changes: a tiny bit less sugar, and substituted a cup of 2% milk + a 4oz container of strawberry yogurt for the half-and-half. They scones popped out great, landing in texture somewhere between a cookie and a biscuit. Don't forgo the frosting (though you can use a couple splashes of water instead of ALL the butter.) The lavender buds add a charming touch. 

I took the scones on a morning photo walk through the Arboretum and ate a few while watching dragonflies dive-bomb a duckpond. Later on, a tin of scones accompanied me to a 4th of July BBQ and scored many happy reviews. It's a day later, and both cookie-sheets of scones have completely disappeared. Maybe you should make some more?

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Somber, slightly cynical poems here, but with lashings of beauty and a sting of truth.