Thursday, March 30, 2006


I just watched Thaipusam, a fascinating and disturbing documentary by St. Paul filmmaker Nick Clarke. The film is an account of Thaipusam, a Hindu pilgrimage and atonement ceremony in Malaysia that commemorates the conquest of demons by the god Lord Murugan and his lance, Vel. The rite centers on what Wikipedia calls "various acts of devotion, notably carrying various types of kavadi (burdens)." As the film graphically and toe-curlingly shows,
At its simplest this may entail carrying a pot of milk, but mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel [lances skewers is also common. The most spectacular practice is the vel kavadi, essentially a portable altar up to two meters tall, decorated with peacock feathers and attached to the devotee through 108 vels pierced into the skin on the chest and back.
All of this is pretty hard to watch, until you see the pilgrims' eyes, which show not pain or suffering but focus and devotion. And when they finally ascend the 272 steps to the holy cave where they will literally and figuratively shed their "kavadi," the relief is palpable even through the screen. The film concludes with the pilgrims' rather moving song:
On earth, we shall in happiness live;
In Heaven, we shall abide in peace;
Naught shall we lack...
May the good prosper,
The cattle thrive,
The rains descend...
All sorrows submerge;
May the name of God encircle this everlasting earth.
I'm not a believer, much less a Hindu, but the poem evokes that basic human desire for justice and peace that is paradoxically opposite to and identical with the suffering undergone by the pilgrims. If you get a chance to see the film, I recommend it. Just don't try to eat or drink while you do it.

Life in Northern Towns III

Thanks to warmer temperatures and some spring showers, all the snow has finally melted away down here at the edge of the prairie. Watching the daily erosion of the massive snowbank at the edge of my campus parking lot, I got to thinking about how much of my childhood recreation depended on snow. Lots of snow.

While many Midwestern kids go sledding on hills (or, if you're cursed to live in Fargo, on the Dike), the Upper Peninsula is snowy enough that we would sled off buildings. Dad would use the good old International Harvester Scout to plow a giant bank to the eaves of the chicken coop or another outbuilding, we'd climb up to the peak, and then we'd send ourselves flying down across the yard. Repeat until tired, then recuperate by digging a long tunnel and substantial cavern into the same bank. I don't remember ever getting cold.

We Are Family

This morning at breakfast Julia was lamenting her recent lack of quality time with Nonna and Boppa--her maternal grandparents, who have not been able to come visit since my dad had his stroke in January. "Nonna, Nonna, Nonna," she morosely crooned into her Corn Chex. I promised her we'd call Nonna today, and that we'd see Nonna and Boppa at Easter. Her face lit up. "East-oo!" she cried with glee. And then, without taking another breath, she yelled with delight, "Nonna! Boppa! Yayo! Heidi! Geg! Gabey! Ay-dun! Bee-uh! No-No!" (Nonna, Boppa, Lael, Heidi, Greg, Gabe, Adrien, Brea, Noa.) I had to remind her: "And Logan!" "Yogan!" she agreed. My baby just rattled off every last one of her Minnesota relatives. What does YOUR baby do before 8 a.m.?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Michigan Choppers

Don't click here unless you're very sure you have the stomach for an appalling picture. How sure? Denture. If you think you are, then go ahead.


Michael Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, explains how the United States shattered the Iraqi economy, and how the insurgency is thriving in the rubble:
Certainly, an alien army entered Iraq, destroyed that country's sovereignty, and stoked nationalist resentments. But major media outlets in this country have lost track of the fact that what also entered Iraq was an American administration wedded at home and abroad to a fierce, unbending, and alien set of economic ideas. By focusing attention only on the lack of U.S. (and Iraqi) military power brought to bear in the early days after the fall of Baghdad, they ignore some of the deeper reasons why many Iraqis were willing to confront a formidable military machine with only small arms and their own wits. They ignore -- and cause the American public to ignore -- the fact that there was little resistance just after the fall of Baghdad and that it expanded as the economy declined and repression set in. They ignore the eternal verity that the willingness to fight and die is regularly animated by the conviction that otherwise things will only get worse.
Like many materialist analyses (see, Kapital, Das), this one elides some critical but immaterial issues, such as devotion to religious or political causes. But it's a good place to start burrowing out from inside either of the two ossifying presentations of what's going on in Iraq - the major media's or the White House's.

(Crossposted on After School Snack.)


Back at the old job, I got into the habit of hitting CTRL-ALT-DEL to lock my computer when I stepped away. All that supersecret information had to stay supersecret somehow! I've kept doing this at Carleton even though I have my own space and no one else can see my monitor - or would want to look. But I think I might have to break this habit, as Carleton has just implemented a new requirement that passwords be 15 characters long. 15! My god. IT Services helpfully suggeseted that you should make your "password" into an "passphrase" - essentially a sentence - so that you can easily remember and enter it. "It was the best of times, it was a stupid idea" is too long, though.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Discoveries Made Over the Weekend

Number one:
Being generously relieved by one's husband of almost all child-care duties for the weekend isn't nearly as restorative and refreshing as it sounds, if one is, in fact, totally pregnancy-sick the entire weekend long (at 17 weeks, no less! How ridiculous!). BOO HISS! (But thank you Christopher anyway.)

Number two:
It is HILARIOUS to listen, over the baby monitor, to your toddler talk herself to sleep by, apparently, reciting a little list of everyone she knows who poops. (Incidentally, we don't even have that book, Everyone Poops, or whatever it's called, that is designed to teach toddlers about potty training. This came from the recesses of her very own little brain.) You know, "Baby.....poop. Daddy......poop. Boppa [one of her grandpas, with whom she is obsessed].....poop. Bee-ah [her beloved cousin, Brea]......poop." And then, just for the fun of it: "poop, poop, poop, poop." Then nothing. Asleep.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


As part of our ongoing Oscar-nominated movie-watching binge, we just saw Crash. I was paradoxically riveted and underwhelmed. I couldn't stop watching for that same reason that you have to look when you come on a, er, car crash. And I was happy to be disappointed insofar as relatively few horrible things happpened to the more-or-less good people. Heck, if you assume that Ryan Phillippe's well-intentioned white cop is never punished for murdering the black carjacker, then I think all the "good guys" get off.

My discomfort with the movie begins with certain ludicrous (Ludacris?) directorial decisions, such as the snow at Christmastime, the onslaught of clever transitions (as Scene 1 ends, a car passes and turns into a car passing as Scene 2 starts), the over-the-top ending involving a black man redeeming slaves at Christmas, the enraged black man barely avoiding getting shot by the cops in front of Santa Claus, et cetera. Basically, any time Paul Haggis could have avoided a Christmas reference, he should have.

Beyond those matters, though, the movie bothers me by seeming to offer a message, but not actually doing so. I rather like amoral movies (a, not im) lacking denouements, with Lost in Translation being perhaps the best recent example. Setting to one side the (perhaps intentionally) unbelievably myriad coincidences, the sophomorish gist of the movie seems to be that no one can intentionally do either right or wrong - good things and bad things both happen mostly by accident. Fatalism isn't much of a point for any movie, much less the supposedly best one of 2005.

105 Years o' Barberin'

While waiting this afternoon for a trim at my new favorite barbershop on Bridge Square in Northfield this afternoon, I noticed a little display about the shop's history which said the shop has been operating continuously in the same storefront since 1901. From the main barber's chair, you can see, across the square, the building that in 1876 housed the bank which the James Gang attemped to rob.

Life in Cold Cuts

Julia's nascent abecedarianism has reached the letter H, which she calls "ham," after the formula in one of her A-if-for books. This has led, over the last week, to her shouting, "Ham!" when she sees an H in public. She loves the white-H-on-blue-background signs for various hospitals, which are all the more exciting because we're often speeding by in the car. This morning, she almost fell out of her car seat when we pulled up under the giant facade at The Home Depot - "Ham! Hams! Hams!" If only there was a single store that sold both good prosciutto and room-darkening shades...

Friday, March 24, 2006

One Baby, Two Bloggers

There's just too much Julia for one blogger to handle, so Xferen is doubling its roster: Julia's mom Shannon is going to start contributing posts on kids, parenting, the unparalleled excellence of this blog, etc. Aw, who am I kidding? She's prob'ly going to be off on her own blog in ten minutes.

Biathlon at Season's End

As in the hunt for the women's cross-country World Cup title, the men's biathlon World Cup is coming down to the last few races. After a competitive and exciting Olympics, the cup circuit moved to Pokljuka, Slovenia; Kontiolahti, Finland; and now Oslo. With two races at Oslo's famed Holmenkollen complex still to go, the two best biathletes in the world, Norway's Ole Einar Bjorndalen and France's Raphael Poiree, are separated by just a few points .

The first competition after the Games occurred on the up-and-down tracks at Pokljuka, Slovenia, where the winter weather brutalized all the racers. Slovenian biathletes acquitted themselves well on their home snow, though they did not win any podium spots. Shaking off their relative doldrums at the Games, Poiree and Bjorndalen vied for the top spots in all the races. The men's sprint was decided by Ole Einar Bjorndalen's ski speed. Though he shot relatively poorly, he outraced Raphael Poiree to take the gold as Poiree had distanced Swede Carl Johan Bergman for the silver. The women's sprint went in different fashion to Linda Tjorhom (Norway), whose uneven form peaked with clean shooting and fast skiing. She took the win by 3.2 seconds over Sandrine Bailly (France); Olympic sprint champion Florence Baverel-Robert finished a distant third.

A few days later in the men's pursuit, the same three men, starting at the front of the pack, maintained their advantage with good skiing and reliable shooting. After the last session on the range, Poiree, Bjorndalen, and Bergman were all in contention for the win. No man could push hard enough to break up the trio, so they entered the finishing straight almost three abreast. The narrowness of the course prevented Bergman from truly joining the sprint, however, leaving it the two great rivals to lunge for the line. A review of the finish-line photo confirmed Bjorndalen's victory, which drew him to within three points of Poiree in the hunt for the overall title. The women's pursuit also involved most of the principals from the sprint. This time, though, Sandine Bailly finished first, skiing fast enough to overcome some bad shooting in the last session. Germans Kati Wilhelm and Katrin Apel, who also missed at inopportune times, finished second and third. The race extended Wilhelm's lead in the overall title chase, and promoted Bailly to second, just in front of Anna Carin Olofsson of Sweden.

At Pokljuka, the mixed relay - with racers alternating woman-man-woman-man over four loops - was offered as a world championship for only the second time - this time, in a raging blizzard that played havoc on the shooting range. Slovenia was in the top three all the way to the anchor leg, but Russia took advantage of poor shooting by Sandrine Bailly (France) to seize the lead and then surge away on the flawless gunnery and fast skiing of their anchorman, Nikolai Kruglov. Russia thus defended its title in the discipline, having won the inaugural event at Khanty-Mansiisk, Russia, last season. Norway, with Bjorndalen skiing last and shooting well, took second and France, with Poiree skiing better than he was shooting, took third.

Moving north to Kontiolahti, the next set of events saw the rivalry between Bjorndalen and Poiree sharpen to almost unbearable levels. First, though, the Swedes Anna Carin Olofsson and Johan Bergman showed off. After they won the men's and women's sprint events, Olofsson also took the pursuit sequel, her sixth win of the season and confirmation of her standing in the sport's elite. By finishing sixth in the sprint and second in the pursuit, Kati Wilhelm took the titles in those two disciplines, but lost a bit of ground to Olofsson in the chase for the overall competition. In the men's pursuit, Bergman slid out of out of the leading group and permitted Bjorndalen and Poiree to shoot and ski into a tie as they started the last loop. Bjorndalen remorselessly accelerated again and again to shake off the French racer, leaving Poiree with nothing for a final sprint. With the win, Bjorndalen trimmed Poiree's leads in the overall and pursuit rankings.

The next day's men's mass start allowed Poiree to exact some revenge. The race came down to the final shoot, where the Frenchman shot clear but the Norwegian missed two. Ahead of both of them, Pole Tomasz Sikora shot inerrantly and sped away for the win. Taking second to Bjorndalen's third, Poiree maintained 21-point advantages over the Norwegian in the overall title and mass start competitions. In the women's mass start race, Belarusian Olena Zubrilova took a long win over Kati Wilhelm. Displaying incredible consistency, Zubrilova left Kontiolahti with a full complement of medals: a silver in the sprint, a bronze in the pursuit, and the gold in the mass start. Racing well one country too late, Slovenian Tadeja Brankovic took third in the mass start.

With Kati Wilhelm's lead for the overall title so large, the season-ending events at Oslo were much less important than they were for the men. Martina Glagow demonstrated her strength in the discipline and her value to the strong German women's team by shooting clean to narrowly win the women's sprint event. On the other hand, Bjorndalen missed one shot in the men's sprint but still won by an enormous gap of more than 40 seconds. In both races, the winners were accompanied to the podium by some new faces. Michela Ponza (Italy) and Ekaterina Ivanova (Belarus) finished within four seconds of Glagow, while Ilmar Bricis (Latvia - a consistent racer who never quite makes it onto the podium) and newcomer Mattias Nilsson, Jr. (Sweden) finished second and third behind Bjorndalen Separated by only a few points, both Bjorndalen and Poiree had motivation to race well in the sprint. Only the Norwegian delivered, though, and took over the yellow bib of the overall cup leader from Poiree, who was perhaps still suffering from Kontiolahti and failed to earn any points. Finishing fifth, Tomasz Sikora took the sprint title - even though he did not win any sprints all season.

With men and women each racing twice this weekend at Holmenkollen - pursuits on Saturday and mass starts on Sunday - it is likely that we will see some cutthroat racing for the men's overall and discipline titles.

Gettin' Housed

The current issue of the Carleton alumni magazine, The Voice, has a long set of articles about American consumerism, including this piece on the modern home. It's a bit overwrought ("the TV room has become part of the kitchen, and family interaction often is reduced to fighting over the remote" - what?), but the somewhat hidden argument is that American homes have grown ostentatiously and impractically large in step with becoming the most paramount indicator of family success.

I was interested to learn, for instance, that according to Clifford Clark, a historian at Carleton, "bigger houses also have led to smaller yards and skinnier trees... Willows are among the most popular landscaping trees today because they don’t require much room." The chart detailing changes in the size of the home and its amenities between 1950 to the present is especially engrossing. Viz.,
  • Average size of American household in 1940: 3.67 people
  • Average size of American household in 2002: 2.6 people
  • Average new home size in 1950: 983 square feet
  • Average new home size in 2003: 2,330 square feet
The counterpoint to all this appears a few pages later, when Elizabeth Spelman, a visiting professor of philosophy at Carleton, describes Paul Feyerabend's take on abundance:
He worried that material abundance imposed on conceptual abundance—on our ability to see abundance in the greater world. For example, one begins to think that the only way to have a meaningful life is to own a big house (because that represents material wealth). Feyeraband would call that view an impoverished mind-set because it fails to see the abundance of the greater world, in nature and in human imagination.
That seems like real wisdom.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do As I Say...

You don't even really need to read this article in the Times to get a sense of the problems it'll discuss. After all, you can't spell "credibility" with "U S." Just read the mindboggling blurb:
U.S. troops are trying to train Iraqi forces to battle the Sunni-led insurgency without resorting to abductions, torture and murder.

High Drama, Baby

Everything was high drama around here with Julia yesterday. She was beyond crabby; it was as if she was possessed by the spirit of some other baby we haven’t encountered before, a very, very, irrational, grumpy baby whose main form of communication is whining. Or crying. Or whining while crying. Or letting out brief furious, ear-piercing screams just to get your attention, in case you weren’t giving in to her whining and crying fast enough. Yeah, THAT baby. Do you know her? She’s no fun.

So, for example, the Series O’ Meltdowns began upon waking up, when Julia simultaneously did and did not want me in her room, despite having called to me as she always does when she is done sleeping. This made her very annoyed. Mama here, Mama go away, Mama here, Mama go away. You could practically hear the voice inside her head going, “Grrrr! How annoying! Everything Mama does is WRONG!”

Then, there was the issue of the pants. After successfully getting Julia dressed, when I really did not have the energy to give in to whims of fashion (I'm pregnant, people, and TIRED), she threw a fit because she decided she wanted to wear her “wuzzy pats” (fuzzy pants, also known as her dark pink velour pants) instead of the flowered ones she had on. No go, sunshine. Oooh, was she mad. A little later on, she got mad because I got dressed in jeans, but she was denim-free. “Neens! Neens!” she yelled. I know—pick your battles, right? I could have just changed her. But don’t lose the forest for the trees, here. It really wouldn’t have improved her demeanor to put her in either the fuzzy pants or the jeans. EVERYTHING was wrong yesterday. Meltdowns continued all day, over Mama having to put on make-up for work rather than give Julia undivided attention for those five minutes, over not being allowed to draw with pen on her shirt, over suddenly disliking her Sesame Street coloring book because, apparently, there are not enough pictures of The Count in it (all the more confusing because she is actually terrified of The Count).

When Julia first started whining in earnest a month or so ago, it was generally when she wanted something from me (help with something, or for me to read her a book)—usually when I did not respond fast enough because I was busy doing something else. My usual response was, “I don’t like the whining and fussing; you need to ask me nicely and politely.” She learned very quickly to dispense with the whiny voice for a split second, in order to say emphatically, “Peeze!” on command---if only to return to whining the very next second if I still hadn’t quite attended to her request. The one poignant, almost-sweet part of Julia’s behavior yesterday was that, in the middle of a couple of her meltdowns--even though she wasn’t asking for anything but was instead simply falling apart over who knows what—when I said, “Jujee, I really don’t like all this whining and fussing,” she immediately paused in her crying and shouted quickly, “Peeze!” Like she knew she was supposed to say that word, no matter the situation, and she was game to give it her best try, if only for a moment.

Thankfully, today is a much better day. Julia is back to being her normal angelic self. We even got the car today (oh, sweet freedom from the inside of our house!!!!), so we went to Target and after we paid for our stuff, we shared a soft pretzel together at the Target snack bar. When we got home, I was in the kitchen cleaning up a little, and Julia was in the living room by herself. I saw her carry her fairy book over to the coffee table and open it up. Then I heard her say to herself, “Yen….fairy….parkle….yine…wan….nine!!!” Translation: “Ten tiny fairies sparkle and shine—one swims with a swan, and then there are nine!” Then she flipped the page and started in on eight. I could not believe it. I know it’s not reading, it’s memorizing--but Lordy, she’s not even two! Is this the spirit of Self-Entertaining Reader Baby? I’ll take it over Meltdown Baby any day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Baja Don't Think So

It's hard to explain how far this account of a toddlers-and-all trip to Baja varies from from any conceivable experience of my family. Is it Scandinavian reluctance to undertake such a trip? Midwestern antagonism toward the ocean? Idiosyncratic fear of doing crazy stuff, even if it works out? I dunno. I'm envious and terrified of these people. And their kids.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The French Revolution

After it languished for months in my bag, and motivated in part by strife in France over the possibility that the social safety net might be rewoven, tonight I finally finished Jeremy Popkin's excellent Short History of the French Revolution (3rd ed., 2002). A textbook in the truest sense, it's also a quick and pointed primer on the French Revolution as a historical event and as a subject of historical scholarship. If the book has one weakness, it is that there are too few citations to other sources. But this weakness is balanced by good historiographical materials, including fifteen pages considering various streams of interpretation and listing numerous additional "suggested readings."

That scholarly apparatus aside, the book serves to introduce the reader to the main contours of the Revolution from its origins in ancien regime France to Napoleon's Hundred Days in 1815. The classic episodes are all covered: Louis XVI's travails, the urban uprising that toppled the king, the tumultous passage from the "liberal revolution" of the National Assembly to the "radical revolution" and the staggeringly brutal Terror, the reestablishment of order under the Directory and, finally, the usurpation of the Revolution by its most brilliant offspring, Napoleon. The book includes a few primary sources and a smattering of excellent visual materials, and it also delves into many of the socio-cultural matters that have more recently come to dominate the study of the Revolution, such as the place of women and the proletariat in fomenting and furthering the Revolution, the antagonism of conservative rural Catholics to the secularizing revolutionaries, and the urban bourgeoisie's ability to control the Revolution so as to increase their social and economic power or to avoid losing it.

Amidst these events, Popkin capably develops the crucial themes of Revolutionary history, including especially the way conflict and war can further national development, the movement toward a centralized government (with both civil and military obligations), and perhaps most relevantly right now, the assertion of individual rights and liberty against autocracy - whether in the form of Louis XIV at the height of the ancien regime, of Louis XVI as the regime collapsed, of the Commmittee of Public Safety during the Terror, or of the strongman whose military adventures ultimately abase his nation and destroy him.

Monday, March 20, 2006


I know that the "miracle of birth" and all that inspires no end of religious hoo-ha, and maybe someday that'll make sense to me. (Though, in counterpoint: South Dakota.) Right now, I am much more awed by the myriad ways in which Julia's development exhibits so many features of evolutionary processes in action.

Tonight's exhibit was the sudden and (relatively) clear recitation of long chunks of her favorite bedtime book. Admittedly, she engages in a bit of bowdlerization, owing to her 21.5-month old brain. For instance, "Every day, everywhere, babies are crawling forward and backward, on bottoms and knees, upstairs and downstairs, wherever they please" becomes, in her slow and pained retelling, "Evy day evy where baby cawlink forert backert bawtum sneez upshtair downshtair pleez!"

But still. Her brain and her mouth have in combination helped her start to engage in the telling and adaptation of stories, binding us together around this common material. Sure, it's not the Odyssey, but it's close enough for now. I'm amazed and impressed.

World Cup - Season's End

After a grueling series of races across Scandinavia and then individual sprints in Changchun, China, the cross-country World Cup jumped over the Sea of Japan to Sapporo, the biggest city on Japan's northernmost island. Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympic Games, and is preparing to host the 2007 nordic world championships, making the team sprint and pursuit events at Sapporo into "pre-worlds," a chance to try out the courses that will see medal contests next spring.

On the men's side, little was at stake. The sprint, distance, and overall World Cup titles had already been decided, with Bjorn Lind (Sweden) winning the first and Tobias Angerer (Germany) winning the latter two. Angerer's overall title was Germany's third consecutive overall crystal globe. The only competitors within shouting distance of Angerer's point total are Norwegian and Swedish sprinters who are unlikely to turn into reliable distance-race winners, so continued German dominance is likely. Paired with Axel Teichmann, last year's overall title winner, Angerer in fact finished third in Saturday's team sprint event, behind Norway I (Eldar Roenning and Tor Arne Hetland, who finished third in the overall rankings) and, in a photo-finish win, the Italian team of Christian Zorzi and Loris Frasnelli. Peter Larsson of Sweden I had taken a big lead by charging up the back hill, but his legs betrayed him on the descending corner to the last straight, and he fell 40 meters from the line. In the women's team sprint, Evi Sachenbacher Stehle (Germany) injected stunning pace on her last leg, exploding the field and giving Claudia Kuenzel an easy anchor leg for a 14-second win over Finland (Riitta Liisa Lasilla and Pirjo Manninen) and Sweden II (the youngsters Britta Norgren and Anna Karin Stroemstedt, who impressively recovered from a fall on the last leg). With some improvement at the longer distances, both of the Germans are well placed to compete for the overall title next season.

In Sunday's pursuits, the last events of the season, one minor and one major theme played out. The minor theme was the emergence of a possible successor to Tobi Angerer: the 19-year old Norwegian phenomenon Petter Northug, who had won his first World Cup race, another pursuit, at Falun, Sweden, the week before. Usually decided in a last-second sprint to the line by a large number of racers, the men's pursuit evolved rather unusually. The first, classic leg saw a breakaway by Swedes Anders Soedergren and Mathias Fredriksson and Estonian Andrus Veerpalu. Though these flyers are usually chased down, this one lasted all the way through the exchange at 15km, at which point the fourth-placed racer was a massive twenty seconds down on Soedergren. About halfway through the second, skating leg, Petter Northug attacked the chasing group - which only slid further back - and bridged up to the leaders. With a couple kilometers left, he had caught Veerpalu and Soedergren and seemed poised to unleash his devastating kick on Fredriksson, 13 years his senior and not known as a good sprinter. But somehow Fredriksson managed to elude the youngster and capture the win by almost four seconds, taking his first win of the year. He wound up sevent in the overall rankings, just ahead of Soedergren.

The major theme of the pursuits was the determination of the women's World Cup overall title. Marit Bjorgen had taken the sprint crown by winning at Changchun, and Julia Tchepalova had taken the distance crown even earlier by winning the Holmenkollen 30km. But going into the pursuit, only 66 points separated Bjorgen, first in the overall rankings, from Canadian Beckie Scott, in second. Knowing she had to win - and have the Norwegian finish worse than sixth - to take the title, Scott raced with abandon.

In the classic leg, she mounted a breakaway with Bjorgen and Kristin Stoermer Steira (Norway), and the three put almost 30 seconds into the field by the exchange at 7.5km. On her skating skis, Scott accelerated to assure herself of the win, which she took ahead of Steira. Just as Scott hoped, the spurt broke Bjorgen, who dropped off the back and wound up 42 seconds down at the end of the race - but in fourth place, winning just enough points to take the overall title by 16 points over Scott. The Canadian now plans to retire, though hopefully she will stay involved in the sport to help bring the new crop of Canadian racers to maturity for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games at Vancouver. Said Scott: "It was my last World Cup race. It is a good time to retire with a victory. For sure it would be also very nice to retire with winning a World Cup trophy but Marit was better." Gracious in victory, and now probably aiming to take both a third straight overall title and numerous championship medals in the 2006-2007 season, Bjorgen said, "It is an amazing day for me. To win the World Cup trophy after such a season that is a pleasure. The fight with Beckie for the World Cup trophy was very tough but every time fair."

Life in Northern Towns II

Many of my most vivid memories of elementary school concern Mr. Carlson, my fifth-grade teacher. He was given to wandering off-topic into discussions of the difference between "conservation" and "preservation" of natural resources and/or the holy trinity of Upper Peninsula manhood: hunting, fishing, and trapping.

One day, he told us solemnly and unironically that he made a point to always shoot cats he saw in the woods, because cats kill for no reason. I like to think I got started on my cynicism early.


There have been a couple (blessedly) false starts in this direction already (see "Deegas") , but it looks more and more like Julia is on the verge of enertering the terrified twos. Yesterday she accompanied me to the bathroom to supervise my facewashing and contact-cleaning (seeing my face all sudsy is hilarious), but got a little bored and wandered back out into our bedroom. She hadn't even crossed the threshhold before she wheeled around and raced over to me. Clutching my leg, she looked up, eyes wide open, and said, "Daired!" ("Scared!") It was legitimate fear, too. I asked her what she saw, but she just said, "Duddos! Duddos!" ("Cuddles!"), so I told her to hug my leg because my hands were too wet to hug her. While I finished up, she gripped me like she was falling down. Hands dry (it's very important to have dry hands, else she sends you back to the towel and inspects each finger carefully until they are suitably dry), we we went to the door to look out into the bedroom.

She just pointed, still unblinking. I asked, "Honey, did you see some shadows that scared you?" "Uh-huh! Yadows! Daired! Yadows!" I flipped on the overhead lights to chase all the shadows away, and that seemed to make things better, because she switched from Experiencing the Event to Recounting the Event, which she did about five times in two minutes.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

All Done

Some of Julia’s most adorable baby-isms are already starting to fade. It’s so sad! I love it when she says “mo-mo” for rainbow, “dip-dip” for ketchup, and “mee-mu” for penguin. It will be a sad day when she actually says “penguin.” I mean: “mee-mu”? How adorable is that? Who knows what neuron-spark turned “penguin” into “mee-mu” in her little baby brain? I don’t know, but it sure is cute. And “dip-dip”! It mimics both the sound of the word “ketchup” and also refers to the action of dunking your french fry! I am letting out a little sigh of pre-nostalgia just thinking about never hearing “dip-dip” again.

Today, for the first time ever, when she finished eating her snack Julia said, “All done,” clear as a bell, instead of her months-old “All dee!” It sounded so adult, and so strange, coming out of her mouth. We’re so used to “all dee” that we practically use it ourselves. (Can’t you just see it? Christopher and me finishing off a nice dinner together, throwing down our cloth napkins, turning to each other, and saying, “Whew, I’m all dee. Sure was good pasta, though—I ate way too much”?)

And then there’s “ya-ya.” This coinage has been Julia’s word for singing or music of any sort for at least six months. No one else ever knows what it means, but we do. “Mama ya-ya!” she whispers to me, crawling into my lap and wanting me to sing to her. “Ya-ya?” she asks, the second she gets into her carseat, awaiting her favorite Justin Roberts CD on the car stereo. But a few weeks ago, perched in her highchair near the kitchen radio, Julia said urgently, “Moo-git!” and I didn’t know what she meant. “Moo-git, honey? What’s ‘moo-git’?” I asked her. Julia got more and more frustrated as she repeated her new word and I failed to understand her. Finally, with an air of exasperation that seemed to ominously foretell her teenage years, she shouted, “YA-YA!”, and it finally dawned on me. She was, at last, saying “music,” rather than her own nonsense baby word. I was torn between feeling pride over her latest verbal accomplishment and wistfulness at another vestige of babyhood bidding me goodbye.

Thankfully, since that day, Julia has gone back and forth between saying “ya-ya” and “moo-git.” So this mama hasn’t had to go cold turkey with that baby-ism yet.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Toddler Mind, on Rewind

I don’t know if all toddlers go through a phase like this, but one of the most striking things about 21-month-old Julia these days is her pattern of endlessly recounting any kind of experience that was, to her, especially dramatic. But given her age and (relative) limitations of speech, she does this through primarily one-word comments, expecting us to fill in the rest of the story. And know this: we are REQUIRED to fill in the rest of the story. It’s as if she has to process the event over and over before she can mentally put it aside.

For Julia, examples of these kind of events, which she talks about several times a week, include: falling down a few steps while walking downstairs with me after getting dressed up for our housewarming party (in JANUARY, mind you—two months ago); unexpectedly meeting up with Daddy on a stroller walk outside, during which we were watching for birds and sharing a white-cheddar rice cake, which Julia had never tasted before and which made a very big impression; and being awakened from a nap the other day by the frightening sound of our townhouse association’s contracted snowplow truck clearing our driveway, directly underneath her window.

So, for example, if you were a fly on a wall in our house these days, you might overhear the following conversation:

Julia [while descending the stairs holding onto my hand]: Jump-jump!
Me: Oh, honey, you can only jump when you get to the very bottom, so you don’t fall.
J.: [makes fake baby-crying sound]
Me: Yes, honey, you cried when you fell down the stairs.
J.: [excitedly, with wide eyes, patting her torso] Dess!
Me: Yes, you were wearing your pink dress.
J.: Mimi! [our cat, Beanie, who passed her on the stairs as she fell]
Me: Yes, Mimi was there.
J.: Duddo!
Me: Yes, you needed some cuddles to feel better.
J.: Mama!
Me: Mama was there and gave you cuddles.
J.: Daddy!
Me: Daddy was there too.
J.: People!
Me: People were coming over for the party.
J.: Dess!
Me: Yes, you had on your pink dress.
J.: Mimi!
Me: Yes, Mimi was there.
J.: Mama!
Me: Mama gave you cuddles.
etc. etc. etc……

Or, you might hear the following:

Julia: Wice cake! Hout-hide!
Me: Yes, honey, we walked outside, eating a rice cake.
J.: Birdies!
Me: Yes, we were looking for birdies.
J.: Dee!
Me: In the trees.
J.: Daddy!
Me: And then Daddy showed up and surprised us!
J.: West!
Me: And he was wearing a vest!
J.: Geen!
Me: And it was green!
J.: Wice cake!
Me: And we were eating a rice cake!
J.: Daddy!
Me: Daddy was there!
J.: West!
Me: He was wearing a vest!
J.: Birdies!
Me: We saw some birdies!

….etc. etc. etc. I know: fascinating, right? I’m sure to non-parents (and maybe even other parents), this is about as interesting as watching a cable-access station broadcast of the local school board meeting. But I find it amazing and fascinating: first, the memory! Good Lord, I can barely recall what I ate for breakfast today, let alone something that happened over a 30-second span of time in late January. And second, as a psychologist, I can’t help but compare this compulsive re-living of compelling experiences to the process adults who have experienced traumatic events go through as they emotionally move past post-trauma distress and into a state of acceptance of their personal histories. Of course, the rice cake/meeting Daddy incident wasn’t upsetting, only exciting--but the fall down the stairs and the scary snowplow certainly were traumatic in Julia’s baby mind.

In other news, Julia’s latest diversion is her weirdly-adult habit of perusing the stray Pottery Barn catalog by my bed, intently examining the sofas and window treatments, and leafing casually through the March issue of Real Simple magazine, as if looking for a good chicken recipe. What’s up with that?!

World Cup - The Final Phase

A little more than a week after the Olympics ended, the cross country World Cup circuit started its seven-event Phase IV, which included a tough series of five races in a week in Sweden and Norway.

The first race after the Games was the grueling Vasaloppet, a marathon from Salen to Mora, Sweden. Run since 1922 - and commemorating King Gustav Vasa's return to Mora to lead Swedish rebels against Denmark in 1520 - the Vasa calls itself the biggest, oldest, and longest ski race in the world. The main event was a 90km classic style race which enrolls up to 15,000 participants, but for the World Cup, organizers ran a smaller 45km race for the elite women one day early. From the gun, Norway's Marit Bjorgen - who had left Torino early to recover from her dismal performances - and Hilde Pedersen took the lead. When two other racers came up front at about 10km, the Norwegian pair decided to make an intrepid breakaway, opening a few hundred meters' gap in the space of a couple kilometers. The break proved decisive, and after Pedersen began fading at about 30km, Bjorgen accelerated again and captured the win with a mammoth 1:22 advantage over Pedersen in second and another two minutes over the rest of the pack, led by Petra Madjic of Slovenia. The next day, in the main event, few top-ranked male World Cup skiers even competed, and only one - Anders Aukland - really showed up, finishing third. Ahead of him, two Swedish marathon specialists fought for the win, with Daniel Tynell using a frenzied double-pole sprint to beat Jerry Ahrlin to the line.

Two days after the two marathons at Mora, three consecutive days of racing were kicked off with nighttime freestyle sprints in the Swedish town of Borlange. The best racers were gunning for the podium finishes that further their goal of winning one of the six titles still up for grabs - men's and women's overall, distance, and sprint. On the men's side, Swede Thobias Fredriksson took the win over compatriot Peter Larsson and, surprisingly, Canadian Devon Kershaw, who thus took his first-ever podium spot The women's race was won by Arianna Follis (Italy), ahead of Marit Bjorgen - probably suffering the effects of her win in the Vasaloppet - and another Canadian, Sara Renner. By winning the "small final" (aka the consolation round) to finish fifth, Kikkan Randall of the United States posted the best-ever result by an American woman on the World Cup. (Randall had finished ninth at the Olympics.)

Though Beckie Scott, Bjorgen's main competitor for the sprint and overall WC titles, did not garner many points at Borlange, she remained within striking distance and aimed to make up ground in the 2x5km pursuit at Falun, Sweden. Half the distance of a normal pursuit, the race was little more than an extended sprint, which played into Scott's hands perfectly. She finished third in a photo finish behind Evi Sachenbacher Stehle (Germany) and Katerina Neumannova (Czech Republic). Bjorgen finished eighth, losing points to Scott. The men's pursuit, also over half the normal distance, went to the young Norwegian star Petter Northug, who burst out of a sizable pack to win by much less than a second over Germans Tobias Angerer and Axel Teichmann. Controversially not chosen for Norway's Olympic team, the brash Northug thus served notice (in deeds and in post-race words) that he was capable of racing at the very highest levels. Angerer's second place marked a return to something like the devastating form he displayed before Christmas and, more importantly, advanced him toward the goal of winning the overall and distance WC titles.

With heavy legs, many racers competed for the next day, their third straight, in classic-style sprints in Drammen, Norway. Run through the city center and watched by tens of thousands, the Drammen events are usually a Norwegian show. This year, the men came through, putting four Norwegians in the final. Jens Arne Svartedal won ahead of Borre Naess, Eldar Ronning, and Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeset and moved into third in the overall WC rankings. On the women's side, though, Petra Madjic of Slovenia took the win (an effective contrapuntal demonstrating of skiing prowess after her third in the Vasa). Beckie Scott finished in second, ahead of Hilde Pedersen, but Marit Bjorgen finished only ninth and lost more points to Scott.

This set up a dramatic confrontation on the sport's most famous tracks, the famous Holmenkollen trails in Oslo. Run freestyle and in the traditional interval start this year, the 30km women's race promised to shake up the standings, and it delivered. Bjorgen had won this race in 2005, but she blew up immediately this time around and ultimately abandoned the race. Julia Tchepalova, who had skipped the Vasaloppet, used her fresher legs to to take the prestigious win - and earn an audience with Norwegian King Harald V. Katerina Neumannova took second, Evi Sachenbacher Stehle third, and Beckie Scott in fourth. The abandon meant that Scott - one of only two women to finish all of the post-Olympic races - moved to within 50 points of Bjorgen with two individual races to go.

The 50km men's race at the Holmenkollen was also surprising. Pietro Piller Cottrer had the fastest split times through much of the race, but at about 30km he bonked badly, slowing down to almost a walk and finally quitting. Anders Sodergren, a brilliant Swedish racer who had never before won a World Cup event, won by 23 seconds over Olympic 50km champion Giorgio di Centa (Italy) and 43 seconds over unknown Tom Reichelt (Germany). Though he finished only 40th, Tobias Angerer sealed up the overall and distance World Cup titles when none of his main pursuers earned enough points to approach his lead.

Immediately after races, the athletes and their coteries boarded planes for Asia, where the World Cup would end with races in the Changchun, China, and Sapporo, Japan. The sprints in Changchun, a Manchurian town that considers itself the center of Chinese skiing, were staged on an almost flat track in a snow-covered soccer stadium. These unusual conditions brought some new competitors to the fore in the men's race. In the final, Thobias Fredriksson took his second win in three races, but the other two podium spots were determined by a photo finish between Christoph Eigenmann of Switzerland and Andy Newell of the United States. Newell's third was America's first World Cup podium since 1983 - the year he was born! It also culminated an enormous amount of work and points Newell, as well as his sprint teammates like Torin Koos, Chris Cook, and Kikkan Randall. With some turnover in the coaching ranks on the U.S. team, the time is ripe for excellent American results.

The women's sprint at Changchun was first and foremost a showdown between Marit Bjorgen and Beckie Scott. Racing o the two women advanced to the final. Bjorgen broke away in the last straightaway and took the win, but Scott finished second. With the win, Bjorgen captured the sprint title and increased her lead for the overall title to 66 points over Scott with just one individual race - a 2x10km pursuit in Sapporo - remaining. Having suggested that she will retire when the season ends, Scott would love to end the season with a win in the event and an unprecedented overall title. The most straightforwared way for Scott to realize the latter goal is to win the race and have Bjorgen finish worse than seventh. Sunday's pursuit thus looms very large.

My Baby Don't Mess Around

The other night, Julia was helping me clean up one of her Fall-of-Berlin messes in her normal manner: pick something up, walk over the place it goes (toy bin, bookshelf, spot along the wall), and fling it down as forcefully as her little arms can. After one stuffed animal was "neend op" in a particuarly violent manner, I said, "Geez! My baby don't mess around!" That, of course, got me to warble a few lines of "Hey Ya" and then to hum the "hey-ya" part. Julia thought this was hiliarous and surpassingly interesting, but best of all, after hearing my hi-fi rendition, she tried to do it too, peeping out "heeeeeey yaahahahahaha" over and over. Given that her usual "yinging" is a screech and a giggle, this is a dramatic improvement.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

MS iPod Pro 2005 Human Ear Edition

It's refreshing to see Microsoft, a company that could overengineer a pencil, engage in a little humorous self-criticism with a funny video entitled "Microsoft Designs the iPod Package." According to media coverage, the company never intended for the video to be released, but has a healthy attitude about the leak: "While MS did not release the video, it's natural to share funny things with friends. So while we didn't publicly share the video, it was shared with appropriate teams internally. We're happy to see others enjoy the laugh as well."

(Thanks to Matt at Sanctioning Agent for the link.)

No Mo Snow?

You think you've had a lot of snow? You probably haven't, really.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Olympics Recap - Biathlon

The Olympic races at San Sicario, outside Torino, were expected to be dominated by the German men and women, with Ole Einar Bjorndalen (Norway) and Raphael Poiree (France) vying for their shares of the men's medals. Unfortunately for the Norwegian and Frenchman, the Germans were simply too strong from start to finish. The very first races, the individuals, confirmed the German squad's strength. Michael Greis committed only one error to take the men's gold by more than 16 second over Bjorndalen and more than a minute over Norwegian Halvard Hanevold. Greis' victory prematurely ended the possibility that Bjorndalen would sweep the golds as he had at 2002 in Salt Lake City. The women's indivdual was won handily by Svetlana Ishmouratava (Russia), who used good shooting to dispatch her countrywoman Olga Pyvleva and German Martina Glagow. Post-race testing revealed Pyleva to have used an illicit performance enhancing drug. She was thus stripped of her medal and banned from further competition. was awarded the silver, and Russian Albina Akhatova promoted to the bronze.

Luckily, this disqualification was - with the exception of some sordid goings-on at the Austrian team accommodations - the only doping event of the games. The next events, the sprints, saw the triumph an old campaigner and an unheralded Frenchwoman. Germany's Sven Fischer, racing gloveless as always, shot flawlessly and barely outskied Hanevold to take his first individual gold medal. Norwegian Frode Andresen stablized his uneven shooting to take the bronze. Poiree finished 9th, and Bjorndalen an astounding 12th. American Jay Hakkinen, hoping to medal in the sprint, missed all five targets in his first shoot and slid all the way to 80th. In the women's race, Florence Baverel-Robert capitalized on perfect shooting to eke out a two-second win over Sweden's Anna Carin Olofsson, who had been rounding into form as the Games approached. Unknown Ukrainian Lilia Efremova took third, 6.6 seconds back. Notably, the three female medalists all started late, avoiding the snowfall that slowed early starters.

Sprint finish orders always establish the pursuit start orders, with the winner of the sprint starting first and everyone else chasing. Neither Baverel-Robert and Fischer were unable to capitalize on their leads, but German Kati Wilhelm, the season's best female biathlete, stormed up from her 7th-place starting spot to take the women's pursuit, missing only one shot and skiing a minute faster than everyone else. Martina Glagow rose even further, from 17th to 2nd, and Albina Akhatova improved one spot to take the bronze. The men's pursuit was the best biathlon race of the game, if not the best competition of the Games. Halvard Hanevold, the leader for much of the race, destroyed his chance to win by missing three shots in the third shoot. Into the gap skied Vincent Defranse of France and Ole Einar Bjorndalen, using raw ski speed to recover from a bad starting spot (12th) and weak shooting. The two men headed out from the last shoot only 6.5 seconds apart. Bjorndalen caught Defranse quickly and led going into the final kilometer. On the tricky uphill right-hand hairpin to the finishing straight, Defranse stumbled and nearly fell, but then unbelievably recovered to catch and pass Bjorndalen with mere meters to the line.

Days later, the relays confirmed what the previous races had shown: that Norway was not in its best form, that Germany and Russia were immensely strong, and that France was an up-and-comer. Those three nations shared all the medals, with France dramatically taking both bronzes. In the men's relay, the crucial action happened on the second leg. After Jay Hakkinen led the pack into the stadium after the first leg, Germany's Michael Roesch took off like a greyhound, shooting without a miss and converting a 6.3-second deficit to advantages of 24.4 seconds over the inspired (but soon to fade) Italian team and 50.1 seconds over Russia. Uncharacteristically, third-leg skier Sven Fischer shot poorly - even using all his spare rounds and taking a penalty lap - and skied slowly, but still gave a 20-second lead to anchorman Michael Greis, who nailed all his targets and skied quickly for the win. Russia's Pavel Rostovtsev and Nikolay Kruglov shot and skied well, but could not quite make up the difference on their third and fourth legs, finishing twenty seconds down for the silver. In outshooting Raphael Poiree, though, Kruglov consigned the French anchorman to a sprint finish against Sweden's Carl Johan Bergman. The Swede seemed poised to surge past Poiree when, just a few meters before the finishing line, he caught a ski and fell - an unbelievable ending to the race.

In the women's relay, Russia dominated with flawless shooting (its third and fourth racers, Olga Zaitseva and Albina Akhatova, didn't even need to use their spare rounds to shoot clean) and fast skis, taking the gold by 50 seconds over Germany. Behind them, the French overcame a ridiculously bad lead leg to put anchorwoman Sandrine Bailly within a half-minute of Belarussian Olena Zubrilova. Both women shot well, even going clean on the last shoot, but Bailly's great ski speed allowed her to pass Zubrilova early in the final lap and zoom to the bronze.

The final event of the Games, the mass start, fittingly capped the German festival. After the thirty-starter field thinned, it became clear that the women's race would come down to a Swede and two Germans. In the third shoot, Anna Carin Olofsson exploited a missed shot by Kati Wilhelm to take a 24-second lead that she carried into the last session on the range. There, the Swede missed one shot and the German hit them all, narrowing the gap to about 10 seconds. Usually one of the fastest skiers, this time Wilhelm could not catch the inspired Olofsson, who took the win won by almost 20 seconds. Behind them both, the German veteran Uschi Diesel overcame three misses to win the bronze, her first-ever Olympic gold.

The men's mass start was even closer. So comfortable in the mad scramble of the mass-start event, Ole Einar Bjorndalen took control of the race early, skiing 20 seconds clear of his nearest chasers, Michael Greis (Germany) and Tomasz Sikora (Poland). But then the Biathlon King abdicated, missing one shot on the third shoot and two on the fourth and pemitting Greis and Sikora to relegate him to third. Sikora missed a shot on his final shoot, while Greis cleared, setting up a frenzied chase up and down the San Sicario hills. Clearly in command of all of his skills, Greis attacked again and again, and finally shook Sikora as they entered the stadium, taking his third gold of the games. Bjorndalen cut his deficit to the leading pair, but had to settle for third.

Greis's victory and the medals of Wilhelm and Disl brought Germany's total to an astounding eleven: 5 golds, 4 silvers, and 2 bronzes. In their shadow, a good number of nations also took medals, bespeaking the increasing diversity and quality of the biathlon competition. Norway collected six medals, but no golds, while Russia took 2 golds, 1 silver, and 2 bronzes. France took two surprising golds in the sprints and two bronzes in the relays. Poland and Ukraine each took one medal. With this hardware pocketed, the racers headed off to Pokljuka, Slovenia, for the rest of the World Cup - including tight races for most of the discipline and overall titles.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Olympics Recap - XC Skiing

I'd like to say that I've waited so long since my last posts on the World Cup cross-country skiing/biathlon scene because I needed a few hours of skiing on some gorgeous spring snow to get me in the mood to write, but actually it's been a combination of laziness and taking too much time to actually watch the Olympic coverage of the XC and biathlon races. NBC's coverage wasn't half bad, actually.

With the games now well and over, it's clear that they confirmed and furthered the ongoing transformation of the cross-country skiing world. Race start lists are becoming ever more diverse: Chinese racers placed well, positioning themselves for the 2007 world championships in Japan, and an Ethiopian skier became his country's first Winter Games competitor. The podium too is increasingly occupied by athletes from beyond the traditional Nordic powers.

All this is to the good of the sport, but the cross-country races in Pragelato were notable largely for who didn't perform up to snuff. Norway practically bombed out of the Games, capturing no golds and only four lesser medals. One of them, though, was the "the best silver ever" won by Frode Estil in the opening men's race, the 2x15km pursuit. A favorite in the race, Estil started it by falling at the start, breaking a pole and a ski and losing nearly a minute to the leaders, but then he recovered to ski his way back to the lead pack and sprint for home behind only Eugeny Dementiev (RUS).

Little did Norway know that Estil's medal was the country's premature high point of the Games. Behind Estil, Pietro Piller Cottrer took the bronze, kicking off what became a stunning performance by Italy. The first climaxes came in the men's and women's relays, midway through the games. The unheralded Italian women captured third, behind Russia and Germany (and ahead of a collapsing Norwegian team that finished only fifth). The next day, the men's team, on the strength of a phenomenal third leg by Cottrer and a heroic anchor leg by the sprinter Christian Zorzi, won an unexpected gold, demolishing Germany and Sweden (and the Norwegian men, who wound up fifth). The second climax for the Italians came on the last day of the Games in the men's 50km skating marathon. A brutally hilly course failed to thin a giant lead pack until the last kilometer, when the race dissolved into a frantic mass sprint. Italy's Giorgio di Centa won the gold, with Russian Dementiev sneaking in for silver and Austrian Mikhail Botvinov finishing in third; the top 10 finished within six seconds of first.

Italy's two gold and four total medals put ahead of Norway and some other XC powers. German athletes performed less well than their pre-Olympic form seemed to have suggested, taking no golds at all and only four medals in total. The German relay teams each took second, Tobias Angerer took third in the men's 15km classic race, and Claudia Kuenzel took second in the women's individual sprint, a race which saw young Canadian Chandra Crawford win handily after blazing through her heats - certainly the biggest upset of the Games.

Crawford's win was one of two medals collected by the Canadians, who had hoped for even more but had to have been pleased to capitalize in Italy on their pre-Christmas form. Theteam of Sara Renner and Beckie Scott finished second behind Sweden (and ahead of Finland) in their team sprint, an exciting race format staged for the first time at the Olympics. And in taking a total of five medals, Sweden proved it had emerged from its hibernation, thanks to its new Norwegian coaches (Inge Braten and Thomas Alsgaard) and its strength in the sprinting events. Bjorn Lind confirmed his status as the best male sprinter in the world, taking gold in both the individual race and in the men's team sprint event, in which he was paired with Thobias Fredriksson (third in the individual sprint). (Norway's men eked out a silver in the team sprint.) The Swedish women's sprint team of Anna Dahlberg and Lina Andersson also won gold. And surprisingly, the Swedish men won the bronze in the relay, finishing just behind the Germans.

Czechoslovakia, another "minor" nation, fared well, too, with Katerina Neumannova earning a silver in the women's pursuit, Lukas Bauer taking a hard-won silver in the men's 15km classic race, and Neumannova triumphing in what was perhaps the best race of the games, the 30km skate. Neumannova and Julia Tchepalova of Russia, the favorites, methodically used the Pragelato hills to shred a big pack, but then let unknown Justyna Kowalcyzk of Poland mount a surprising and brave breakaway with 2,000 meters to the line. Using her characteristically fast turnover to chase, Neumannova surged around the Pole for her first-ever gold (and a quick hug from her daughter); Tchepalova wound up second and Kowalcyzk third - giving Poland a rare Winter Games medal.

Tchepalova's silver was her only individual medal of the Games, but fittingly capped an excellent, if not dominant, seven-medal performance by Russia. More than anything, Russia showed its great strength in depth and breadth. The women's team won the relay, demonstrating their overall power, and Alena Sidko (individual sprint), Ivan Alypov and Vassili Rotchev (team sprint), and Evgenia Medvedeva (pursuit) all took bronzes. Young Evgeni Dementiev emerged as a rising star with his gold in the men's pursuit and silver in the 50km. With medals across the full range of distances and techniques, Russia demonstrated its readiness to supplant Norway as the best cross-country nation.

If Russia's medal total was the biggest of any country's, Estonia's haul was the best on a per-capita basis. The tiny Baltic nation celebrated its first women's gold ever on the first day of the games, when Kristina Smigun outsprinted Neumannova for first place in the 2x10km pursuit. Russian Evgenia Medvedeva finished well back in third. A few days later, Estonia took both golds in the middle-distance classic races which have historically been all but the property of the Scandinavian powers. First, Smigun won the 10km classic race by more than 20 seconds over Norway's Marit Bjorgen and Hilde Pedersen. Then Andrus Veerpalu defended the 15km title he won at Salt Lake City in 2002 by more 10 seconds over Bauer and Angerer. Unbelievably, that meant that no Scandinavian man won a medal in that event, overturning XC skiing's traditional order.

Unlike the 2002 Games, which were blackened by numerous doping scandals that ultimately stripped several athletes of medals, the Torino Games were almost unmarred. A police raid on the Austrian XC/biathlon team turned up some unseemly material and ruined the men's relay team's chance at racing well, but ultimately did not translate into any positive tests.

On the positive side, the Games capitalized well on the new and spectator-friendly race formats, including mass starts in the pursuits and marathons (the men's 50km was heavily attended by the rabid Italian fans), the individual and team sprints, which take place on a short track that can be readily seen from the stadium, and of course the marquee event, the relays. If the formats have one flaw, it is that the skating technique is privileged over the older and more elegant classical technique. Both the pursuits and the relays are structured so that the classical legs come first, which ultimately turns both races into a contest for skaters. In both events, the FIS would do well to frequently alter the leg order. In the pursuit, for instance, weak skaters (see: many Norwegians) could make up time in the second, classic leg of the pursuit and vie for the win. In a relay with alternating skate-classic-skate-classic legs, a country with strong classical specialists like Estonia could, similarly, be in the running right up to the end, rather than essentially giving up when the skating legs start. Making such a change would maximize the chance that the best skiers, and not just the best skaters, would win the race.

The intensity of the Games left many skiers drained, but when the games ended, all of the overall World Cup titles were still - at least technically - up for grabs, with the women's overall an especially hot race.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Putting the "Brrr" Back in Dumb

Last summer, at the end of August, I plunged myself into Lake Superior for about ten seconds. I thought that was a medium-good display of sisu. It wasn't, compared to the World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland. One key fact: it's outdoors.
It took chainsaws and cranes to cut through and remove the three-foot-thick ice on Finland’s frozen Oulu River in order to create an eight-lane, 82-foot-long swimming pool for Sunday’s World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland. Then race coordinators had to heat up the 32-degree Fahrenheit water just enough before the events so that the river didn’t freeze over during competition.

Personality Eruptions

If this weekend had to be named, it would be the Weekend of Personality. Julia did many funny, strange, and unique Julia Things that literally forced me to stagger from the dinner table because I was just laughing too hard.

One thing which she did continuously was perfect a hilarious sing-song way of pronouncing certain two-word phrases. She doesn't just say "puppy dog," she says something like "poe-PEE-dowwwwwg." I dunno where the quasi-Southern accent comes from, but it has developed since we moved down I-35 from Minneapolis. This afternoon, in asking for Squeaky Ben, an ancient teddy bear that once belonged to her mother and is now Julia's current favorite, she said, "Acky-ack Hen." The best example, which she uses more for comedic effect rather than actual information-conveyance, is "poopy diaper," pronounced as "poo-PEED-eye-puh" in one rush of exhalation and then repeated three-four times in a row, like a crazed chant: "poo-PEED-eye-puhp-EED-eye-puhp-EED-eye-puhp-EED-eye-puh."

Repetition is funny, but at no point has it been funnier than at dinner tonight, when she started suddenly giving each of us a look of fake surprise - mouth slightly open in a pink oval, eyebrows waaaaay too high, eyes wide. She went back and forth between us for five minutes, pausing now and again to eat more apple bread or sweeet potato, then uncorking it on her unsuspecting audience and relishing her ability to get us to laugh so hard and for so long. And just when I thought she was done - after I'd left the table to catch my breath - she zapped me with it again. I swear one eyebrow was even higher for that last time, just as a sign she knew she was being sly.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Conjugal Visits

A moment ago, Saturday Night Live aired a skit about a prison dating service in which one of the jokes pertained to conjugal visits. This sparked my curiosity. The second hit on a Google search turned up "Conjugal Visits: Preserving Family Bonds behind Bars":
Today, conjugal visitation programs, also known as the Extended Family Visit, only survive in six states: California, Connecticut, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Washington.

Typically, the states that offer Extended Family Programs are extremely selective when it comes to choosing who can participate. Not every convict wearing a wedding ring is automatically eligible... For example, inmates must be serving in a medium security prison or less...

On the other side, those wishing to visit the prisoner must also qualify for eligibility. A spouse must (1.) be on the prisoner’s approved visitor list (2.) provide proof of relation (3.) pass a background check (4.) submit to a search and (5.) dress appropriately. In California, the list of banned clothing is extensive but common sense. Transparent clothing, bare midriffs, strapless attire, and anything with obscene or offensive language or drawings won’t make it past security. In Connecticut, the Department of Corrections tells visitors not to wear “revealing, seductive, or offensive clothing or attire that draws undue attention.”
Boy, they don't let convicts have much fun at all, huh?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Life in Northern Towns 1

The more I think about it, and the further away it gets, the stranger I think it was to have grown up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In many (mostly superficial) ways, it was like growing up in what I imagine the 1950s or 1960s might have been like - I've seen virtually none of the touchstone films of my generation, for instance. I think it might be entertaining to develop this point in a series of anecdotes - say, one each week for a while.

Anecdote the First:
My hometownest hometown, Hancock, Michigan, is notable because nobody of any import has ever really come from it, despite its having been a center of American capitalism from about 1880-1920 or currently being a hotbed for hockey. No entrepreneurs, no star players... The best we can do is claim that the photographer Edward Steichen is a native, but only barely: he lived there from age two (when his family moved to the U.S. from Luxembourg) to age ten (when they moved to Milwaukee). Since his photography career really only began after 1893 (thanks to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago), it's hard to argue that Hancock, then a copper-mining boomtown full of Slavs, Finns, and Italians, had much to do with his considerable artistic accomplishments, including his iconic picture of New York's Flatiron Building or his portrait for Life of Greta Garbo. He never took a photo of the Quincy Mine hoist, that's for sure. (Incidentally, a Steichen recently garnered the highest price ever paid at auction for a photograph.)

Poverty of Attention

I wish this quote could be read to me every time I click through more than five websites in five minutes:
What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Herbert Alexander Simon, economist, Nobel laureate (1916-2001)
(Quote in today's A Word A Day message.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Work in the Future

Really, I went to grad school because I'm fascinated by work - as a personal activity, as a social institution, as a moral norm, as a historical phenomenon. (If there's one thing I've learned since finishing my degree, it's that actually working is a pretty good way to learn about work.) As ubiquitous as work is, though, it gets surprisingly attention by anyone who's the least bit intelligent about what the future might look like. That's why I love William Gibson, whose science fiction is rife with people doing semi-plausible things to earn a living, and why this piece in the Fall 2005 Rand Review is so good. It's primarily a summary of a recent book by MIT researcher Thomas Malone, who argues cogently that a new structure of individually performed but collectively structured work may be emerging.
In our increasingly knowledge-based, information- driven economy, the critical factors for business success are often precisely the same as the benefits of decentralized decisionmaking: dedication, creativity, and innovation. A prime example of the change we are seeing in business today is eBay. With faster revenue growth since its founding than any company in history, eBay now has 56 million active buyers and sellers.

What is even more telling is that 430,000 of those sellers make their primary living from selling on eBay. If those 430,000 people were actually eBay employees, said Malone, eBay would be the second largest private employer in the country, after Wal-Mart but ahead of McDonald's.

A world of increasingly independent workers does pose challenges, the most prominent of which is that such workers will have no obvious place to obtain the benefits that they traditionally have obtained from employers. One way to deal with this challenge, according to Malone, is with the rise of a new kind of private organization whose job it will be to fulfill the needs of such workers.

Malone likens these new organizations to guilds and envisions them as providing a stable home for workers who move across jobs, companies, and employers. For perhaps a percentage of a worker's income in good times, these organizations could provide financial security in difficult times, as well as health insurance, job training, and even a place to socialize or to cultivate a sense of identity.

That surprise about eBay aside, the historian in me loves the atavism of the possible reemergence of guilds. Mayhaps they are the economic parallel now, as in the Middle Ages, of political autocracy?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bookishness, Overinterpreted

Saturday, Julia did a new, good, and bittersweet thing. When we returned from the library, I sat and read some of her new books with her, and then went to tend to dinner. For, really, the first time ever, she stayed by herself in the living room to look at the books some more. She laid down on the floor, her face hovering over the open leaves, and carefully flipped through them all: the elephant book, the one about the pigs with manners, the nonsense-rhyme Seuss, back to the elephants, on to the counting mice...

I watched from the kitchen, impressed by her concentration, happy to see her so adorably absorbed in her books, and a little - selfishly - sad to realize that she was developing an inner life right there (paradoxically) before me. Don't get me wrong - she still uses her fearsomely large vocabulary to convey most everything she feels, good or bad. But those ten minutes of silence as she looked through her books were ten minutes of her thinking her own thoughts, of her inhabiting her own head, of having privacy. It's obviously the harbinger of the "No Trespassing" sign on her 16-year-old's bedroom door, but also of her separating her emotions from her expressions and of her separating herself from her parents. Necessary, of course, but sad nonetheless.

Perhaps not coincindentally, the three days since then have been marked by absolutely typical tantrums about, say, going "oop-shtair" when she wants to stay "dwan-shtair," or having to go "in-hide" when she wants to be "hout-hide" with the icy rain and the windchill. Perhaps a slightly taller barrier between emotion and expression won't be the worst thing...

Monday, March 06, 2006

14th-Century Wisdom

My boss uses this line from the Canterbury Tales often, and I like it:
If gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
As a summation of American declension, it's even better than a picture of Britney driving her SUV with her baby on her lap.

Muffling the Lone Start State

Each weekday, an office at Carleton publishes a short bulletin of announcements and classified ads whch also includes a "Useless Fact." Friday's fact goes in the "Yes, Please, and Soon" category:
Every year the United States makes enough plastic flim to shrinkwrap the state of Texas.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Public Bodily Sounds

For my money, the most troubling public bodily sound isn't a belch, fart, or hiccup, it's the growl of an empty stomach. Something about it just suggests a level of possibly-poor personal care that I find distressing.