Archive for January, 2008

How the wild things sound

January 30, 2008

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Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one of the great works of children’s literature. Playful, inventive and completely inside kids’ heads, it tracks young Max’s journey from getting into trouble for making mischief in his wolf suit through anger and back to the familiar comfort of home.

The story begins with this deceptively simple, delightfully run-on sentence: The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

As Max stews in his room, it transforms into a jungle, and the illustrations grow from small, contained, wide-bordered images to full-bleed spreads spilling off the pages. As his anger subsides and the comforting smell of dinner reaches him, the fabulous Sendak illustrations shrink back down.

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So when I read recently on New York magazine’s website that ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O is writing “pretty much the whole” soundtrack’ to an upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are [with a script by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonzes, no less], I thought it was one of those counterintuitive but brilliant choices.

Having seen the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live a couple of times, I know Karen O is capable of genuine wildness, of careening right up to the edge of out of control and dancing on it. She’s also capable of playing wild thing dress-up and throwing herself into it with abandon. Just as important, though, there are also occasional balancing moments of vulnerability and smallness in her performances. The YouTube video below demonstrates her ability to channel Max’s command to the other wild things, “Let the wild rumpus start.” [You’ll have to take my word on the vulnerable side.]

All of which makes me think she can give this live action film the genuinely wild edge it needs. As much as I love Randy Newman’s music [I really have to talk about him in the Kitchen Boombox sometime], this film is not Toy Story. It has the opportunity to go places much darker, much deeper. I think Ms. O may be just the person to get it there.

Ditching the D word

January 23, 2008

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In December, the Chicago Tribune reported that Kraft Foods Inc. was scrapping the word “diet” from its popular line of diet foods. They’re now called South Beach Living, thank you very much. The South Beach line has been a winner for Kraft, according to the article, growing from 50 products to 70 and being named a “Product Pacesetter” in 2006 by market researchers Information Resources Inc. Still, negative connotations to “diet” have prompted the move.

And now Weight Watchers, a company whose very name is synonymous with dieting, has come out against it. The word, at least. Their new advertising tagline shows exactly where they’ve planted their new flag: Stop dieting. Start living. Their current ad campaign, all over taxi roofs and subways here, takes D word dissing even further, with headlines like DIETS ARE MEAN, GO ON A DIET DIET and PEOPLE DON’T FAIL, DIETS DO.

An article in ADWEEK this month reports that the company has hired prolific video blogger or vlogger Faint Starlite to promote their new attitude. She’s been posting video blog entries about a wide range of topics since 2006, including chronicling her weight loss after joining Weight Watchers.

So why has the D word fallen into such disfavor? Because diets don’t work—at least not by themselves and not in the long run. Consider this. At any given time, roughly a quarter of Americans are on a diet. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 64% of us are overweight or, worse, obese.

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Being overweight is more than just a fashion or appearance issue. The CDC reports that deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity rose by 33 percent over the past decade and may soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death. It doesn’t exactly make living a barrel of fun either. Weight problems can lead to many health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

There are any number of reasons diets don’t work. Psychological, practical, cultural, physical… One of the most insidious is our own bodies trying to save themselves. If you try to lose weight by cutting calories alone, your body will play along for a while. But at some point, all the eons of humans surviving famines kicks in—your body decides you’re starving to death and reduces its caloric needs, causing weight loss to grind to a halt.

So what does work? Living, according to Kraft and Weight Watchers. Specifically, sensible living. You know. Moderation. Balance. Not just cutting calories, but burning them. Anyone who’s honest about weight control will tell you losing weight comes down to burning more calories than you consume. In other words, exercising, not just starving yourself. I once heard someone sniff that Americans are the only people who try to lose weight by eating.

Which brings me back to these two companies ditching the D word. All Kraft has to sell is food. So for them, I think it’s mostly an effort to expand the line’s reach beyond dieting to lifestyle. Kraft’s vice president for strategic marketing initiatives Howard Brandeisky said as much: “We think [the name change] is going to broaden the appeal of the brand and fuel its growth trajectory.”

Weight Watchers has a bigger story to tell. Besides their food line, they’ve got a program, a chance to deliver on the promise of this ad, my favorite in the series. The headline says: DIETS TAKE AWAY THE THINGS WE LOVE, THEN MAKE US HATE OURSELVES FOR LOVING THEM. The copy goes on to read: Weight Watchers teaches you to replace deprivation with moderation, so you can finally learn how to lose weight and keep it off. And then love yourself like crazy for it.

I’ve already seen some bloggers railing against both of these companies for this latest move, saying of course they’re selling diets. And maybe they are. But if they even further the conversation about living and lifestyle decisions instead of always relying on the D word, maybe they’re doing something good after all.

What’s so funny about beef and good health?

January 16, 2008

Red meat takes a lot of heat these days in the health department. And while over-consumption of beef can lead to a host of health problems, the same can be said of just about anything. [At least once a year, there’s a story of someone dying from drinking an extreme amount of water.] Indeed, one Harvard study citing the increased risk of of breast cancer from consuming too much red meat involved women who ate more than 10-1/2 servings of red meat a week over a 12-year period! The unanswered question for me is where did they find these women?!?

The takeaway message from all but the most strident studies is this: “You don’t have to swear off red meat completely—just eat it occasionally and keep portions small.”

feel-good.jpgSo what about the benefits of eating red meat—more specifically lean red meat? Lean cuts of red meat are low in fat, with around half the fat being unsaturated [you know, the good kind]. Lean red meat is a valuable source of many essential nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D and selenium. More important, some of these nutrients are more readily available than when they are derived from plant foods. As an aside, the leanest ground beef—called ground sirloin in the U.S.—is actually lower in fat than ground turkey. So if you’re going for a turkey burger at home, do it for the taste, not the health benefits.

Further, foods rich in protein have a high satiety value—they keep us feeling full longer—and could actually play a role in weight control.

By now, this is all starting to sound a little dry, I imagine. Not unlike that turkey burger [you don’t want to order that medium rare, do you?]. So take a look at this entertaining message from Australian television about the benefits of eating red meat.

You are here. And here. And here.

January 9, 2008

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More than 30 museums and institutions in Chicago have been participating in a Festival of Maps this fall and winter. We’ve only scratched the surface, but have seen some amazing treasures. At the Newberry Library’s Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West exhibit, a map drawn by George Washington during the French and Indian War. William Clark’s map of “part of the continent of North America,” drawn during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. At the Field Museum of Natural History’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit, Charles Lindbergh’s flight map for his historic New York/Paris flight in 1927. Two maps drawn by Leonardo da Vinci and loaned to the Field by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And a tattered roadmap of the U.S. that lovingly traced a family’s impressively extensive road trips in the pre-superhighways 1930s, covering much of the country, from Florida to Washington state and stretching even into Canada.

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Many of the maps on display throughout the city are beautiful works of art in their own right, or significant pieces of history. Just as often, they represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of our planet, and the civilizations and cultures that have inhabited it. A painstaking map of the ocean floor made in the 1950s from sonar readings proved for astonished scientists that the earth’s crust was made up of separate moveable plates. Also at the Field, a map on a video screen depicted the American Civil War in four minutes, with each second representing a week. The map showed the gains and losses of territory, with many areas changing hands more than once as battles raged. All the while, a counter in one corner served as a grim reminder of the human cost, more than 1.3 million soldiers dead at the war’s end.

But it’s not all history. A number of interactive exhibits show how GPS and other technologies are remapping the art and science of mapmaking. And why, even with all this technology, there is still a need for human eyes at ground level.

Some exhibits have already closed, and some will end soon. Others will continue into the spring. For more information, check out the appropriately map-based Festival of Maps website.

Wait. Wine fights lung cancer too?

January 2, 2008

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What can’t this miracle elixir do? We’ve all heard how moderate wine consumption can fight heart disease. And if you’re a regular WTF reader, you know it can actually improve memory. Well, now the November issue of Cancer Epidemiological Markers & Prevention reports that drinking wine can actually reduce the risk of lung cancer among non-smokers. As a recent article on this report at Wine Spectator’s website states, “While smoking has been identified as the greatest risk factor, a significant number of lung-cancer cases are unrelated to tobacco use.” Read the whole article here.

Living in Illinois now reduces lung cancer risk too. As of January 1, virtually all public places in Illinois are smoke-free, including bars and restaurants. Whether you’re a smoker or not, you have to applaud that waitstaff, bartenders and other industry workers will no longer have to accept secondhand smoke as a work-related health hazard. And selfishly, I’m looking forward to hanging out in some of my favorite bars without coming home smelling like I’ve been hanging out in some of my favorite bars.

Photo credit: Sebastiani Vineyards