Thursday, December 30, 2004


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Eric looks at a seal. Posted by Hello

"Really, really well-written"

For a change, OxBlog links to a diary blog, giving the reason, "it's just really, really well-written." The diary blog, "May Day Cafe," only has four posts so far, and one of them, "Arm-Muscle Man," recounts the young woman's brief romantic encounter with a young man who is not only an Ivy Leaguer, a Rhodes Scholar, and Jewish, but also has "quite nice" arm muscles. The only drawback was that this young man " had managed to acquire a severe case of arrogant arsehole syndrome" but was nevertheless "charming."

The quality of this diary blog's writing might, just might, have had less to do with why it got a link from OxBlog than did its content...

In praise of cellphone use in public places

Cellphone use may be permitted on airplanes. And this is supposed to be a bad thing?

Those who complain about cellphone use in public places
seem to imagine that, were it not for the phones, buses, cafes, and the like would be filled with people quietly reading the Classics or scribbling to-do lists. They ignore that loud, obnoxious conversations existed before cellphones, and that they are louder if not more obnoxious when multiple people are actually present. Headphones turned up to full volume, hot dogs with sauerkraut, snapped chewing gum--these all existed before the cellphone, and I'd take overhearing even the dullest cellphone conversation over having to sit near someone consuming a pungent snack any day.

Plane riders should embrace their inner novelists, or at the very least their inner gossips.* Aside from the admittedly annoying rings (which could, as the NYT suggests, be eliminated if phones had to be on vibrate), other people's cellphone conversations can be a welcome change of pace on transportation. They're like two-person ones, except they intriguingly require the eavesdropper to imagine what the person on the other end might be saying. It's incredible the sorts of things people reveal on their phones in public, as though they were talking from the privacy of their own houses. Adult cellphone users, who grew up without any concept of the public, mobile phone call, often do not know to adjust topics to surroundings, which means that a ride on a city bus might reveal that the woman in the seat in front of you is getting a divorce, that the man sitting behind you is a lawyer defending a murderer, and that the young man standing near you just got some. All potentially more interesting than whatever's in your New Yorker.

* Prof. Thomas Pavel convincingly draws a connection between the need for gossip and the desire to read novels. So this is my (perhaps less convincing) attempt to show that this same deeply human need can be met through the supposedly unpleasant act of having to hear the perfect stranger seated next to you yapping away.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Seeing more

The system UChicago students use to check grades and other information is called CMore. The site is frequently down, and has been known to cause a bit of distress among the impatient...Anyway, here are some alternate websites the school could create:

1) CLess: Only your high grades are revealed when you log on.

2) CPlus: You can see your grades as well as everyone else's.

3) Cthingwithanger: A support group for those unhappy with their grades.

4) C'nyouherebefore: The UChicago-only dating site, matches people based on sexual preference as well as GPA.

5) CUaround: This page permits you to politely decline offers obtained on C'nyouherebefore.

Pamper away

Seems social justice could be achieved, poverty could be conquered, if New Yorkers only stopped pampering their dogs. Or so suggests Francis X. Clines in his Times op-ed.

While behind every luxury is money that might have been given to charity, this money is also leaving the wealthy and going to the presumably less well-off employees of dog-grooming salons and the like. But more importantly, to take a relatively minor, if silly, splurge and identify it as the first thing that has to go in the name of helping the needy is, well, silly. The typical person spending a ton on a dog is spending a ton more on cars and houses, investments, and private school tuition, not to mention his own grooming and dining. To say that dogs are being spoiled while humans suffer, though technically true, does not mean that the former is contributing to the latter.

And, when the paper includes articles accompanied by photos like the one below (the article is about a man being pursued by the BBC for not owning a television), how could anybody not put dog-pampering on his list of most worth-it luxuries?


Worth it, by definition

Following soon after Vogue's enthusiastic endorsement of the $800 haircut, there is Frank Bruni's four-star review of Japanese restaurant Masa in the NYT dining section. Bruni begins his review by describing how his friend has some kind of an orgasm while eating a maki roll. He, too, found "bliss" at the restaurant, and deems the experience worth the considerable pricetag:

Masa, which reopens Jan. 11 after a holiday break, is arguably the most expensive restaurant in New York. Lunch or dinner for two can easily exceed $1,000. Justifiable? I leave that question to accountants and ethicists. Worth it? The answer depends on your budget and priorities. But in my experience, the silky, melting quality of Masa's toro and uni and sea bream, coupled with the serenity of its ambience, does not exist in New York at a lower price.

There's something wrong when editorial content in respected publications (and I'm warily placing Vogue into that category) serves only to reinforce the idea that something out of most people's reach must, by definition, be something most should desire. I have no problem with advertising, and don't mind that the Times online urges you to see "Kinsey" (which you should do anyway) or that Vogue is largely made up of clothing ads. But when writers, not advertisers, endorse the most high-end of high-end items, it often seems as if they've bought into the idea that price really does indicate quality. True, there's no point in the Times having a dining section or Vogue being a fashion magazine if they do not serve as paens to the finest dining and fashion, respectively. Yet if they reveal that the finest food is actually a doughnut or the finest fashion a pair of $40 lime-green snow boots, these publications will disappoint their readers, who want to see the inaccessible, and who want to be assured that the inaccessible really is that much better than the accessible. I have never eaten at Masa, so I cannot say if Bruni is right that the meal is worth what it costs. But what Bruni must assess, in reviewing this restaurant, isn't whether the sushi is good, but whether it's $1000 good. And unless the sushi turns out to be mediocre or worse, anyone consuming it, reviewers included, might fall victim to suggestibility and decide that, what the hell, it was probably worth it, because isn't it more fun that way?

I should also admit that I'm not a fan of the super-expensive restaurant. In my experience, the anticipation, and the overanalysis of what everyone at the table is ordering, along with the expectation that one must declare that every bite of every dish is exquisite, all combine to cancel out the actual joy of eating the meal, which frequently ends up tasting no better than a meal at a moderately-priced establishment. To put it bluntly, I do not believe that a perfect food experience can be ensured by paying a certain amount of money. Many factors affect your enjoyment of a meal--Are you in the mood for the cuisine in question? Are you, well, hungry? Are you so hungry that any food would taste delicious? Did you eat somewhere nauseating the previous night? Are you really, really craving the food you're about to eat, so much so that anything other than eating that food, right at that very moment, would be an utter disappointment? Did something especially pleasant or unpleasant happen earlier in the day? And so on. Assuming you're an omnivore, there is absolutely no way to know whether, at 7:30 tomorrow night, you'll consider the perfect dinner to be a slice of pizza or fois gras risotto. (Now, I don't see any point in saying something like, "The only real pleasure of eating is being surrounded by loved ones," since anyone who's ever eaten a steak after really craving one knows that that's not the case. But, while ecstatic food experiences are out there, even the NYT can't tell you exactly where you'll find them.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Sacred and secular, on and around Houston St.


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At the movies

Saw Hitchcock's "Rope" on TV last night. It's based on the story of Leopold and Loeb, the precocious UChicago undergrads who decided to commit the "perfect murder" but who ended up getting caught, and whose story lives on as much because of their well-to-do backgrounds as because of the homoerotic nature of their relationship. In "Rope," one of the two men, right after murdering his victim, claims that it was "justifiable homicide" because the deceased was "a Harvard undergraduate." The U of C is never mentioned in "Rope," and the setting is NYC and not Chicago, but the motive sounded about right for two psychotic Chicago students convinced that they were too good for the U of C...

And I just got back from seeing "In the Realms of the Unreal" at the Film Forum. First off, the seat I had intended to sit in when arriving at the theater had a roll of toilet paper on it. But why? Various explanations are possible, but none led me to think just picking up the roll, putting it on the floor, and sitting in that seat would be a good idea... The movie itself--which I watched from a seat far from the aformentioned roll--tells the story of Henry Darger, a janitor during the day and an outsider artist in his spare time. Darger barely spoke to anyone and, when he could help it, would never stray from a small radius within the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. The movie includes various tourist videos promoting Chicago from different parts of the 20th century. Darger painted cherubic little girls with penises. Many, many pages of cherubic little girls with penises. Once the initial shock of this, and of how much work this man produces without anyone knowing about it, is over, the movie becomes incredibly dull and repetetive. Who cares that no one knew how to pronounce his name? Why is the question of whether he was eccentric or insane considered so interesting, when it sounds from the movie like he was a bit of both?

Susan Sontag, 71

Susan Sontag has died. Among her talents, if the Times obit is to be believed, was the ability to have a bit of fun at the place where fun comes to die:

At Chicago, she wandered into a class taught by the sociologist Philip Rieff, a 28-year-old instructor who would write the celebrated study "Freud: The Mind of the Moralist" (Viking, 1959). He was, she would say, the first person with whom she could really talk; they were married 10 days later. Ms. Sontag was 17 and looked even younger, clad habitually in blue jeans, her black hair spilling down her back. Word swept around campus that Dr. Rieff had married a 14-year-old American Indian.

How can a pub need interns?

This may be a sign that the internship craze has gone too far. How exactly can a pub need interns? I've also heard of people being interns in clothing stores, not in fashion design but in, well, selling clothing. While some if not most internships out there offer valuable experience, and not all are the result of formal internship programs, it seems that, once businesses realize that college students nationwide believe the secret to success lies in accepting unpaid positions so long as these positions are called "internships," businesses that would previously hire entry-level workers straight out of high school can now tap into the new free-labor source. But the real concern is, now that even pubs have internships, are internships required of those who wish to find paid, full-time employment of any kind? Have we gotten to the point as a society where no job whatsoever can be attained without prior internship experience? Once the Reg starts requiring past shelving internship experience for the position of Stacks Assistant, then we'll know for sure that some reforms are in order.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Unknowingly hip is the hippest kind of hip

Gawker has a post on the Christmas Night bar crawl its writer(s) took through the Lower East Side. And I was, like, so there, checking out those very same bars on December 25th. Doing something done by Gawker, before knowing Gawker was doing it...that may have been the official peak of my hipsterness. Plans today include a stop at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side, so my hipster quotient is already far from its once-trememdous heights. Expect my H.Q. to dip still further in a few weeks, when I'm back at the Reg, studying, and unironically consuming a Twix and a diet Coke.

Campaign for an anti-finishing-school

A friend from high school sent me this Stuyvesant fundraising video and dared me to count how many times the word "special" is used. Click on the link to see footage from Stuy from what was, I believe, my junior year, so 1999-2000. Watching this, I am suddenly reminded of why the place, though wonderful in many ways, was so weird. The video begins with several kids who've just taken the entrance exam being asked what they want to be when they grow up and what they like to study. "I like math" and "I want to be a doctor" are the appropriate answers. And yes, they will be graded accordingly.*

The video is part of the Campaign for Stuyvesant, which is needed, it appears, because the school gets less in the way of public funding per student than does any other high school in the city. I agree with the general point the video is making, which is that Stuy kids are, well, special, and that as a place that is both serving a unique and valuable purpose and underfunded, it is a worthy cause. But, while it's understandable that Stuy kids are seen basically as potential successful adults, it's a shame that so many of my friends look back on the four years as a miserable time, one that may have led to them pursue greater things (i.e. to get into a good college) but one that was quite dreadful at the time.

The problem with having a school which is filled with socially inept nerds, and which has its students compete for college admissions with kids coming from private schools whose students may be smart but are not necessarily all that nerdy, is that something about kids from Stuy ends up seeming not-fully-formed. Stuy is almost like an anti-finishing-school, leaving graduating students with fewer social graces than they had when they entered. It's a place where it's socially acceptable to begin every conversation with a classmate with, "What'd you get [on the test]?" A place where it's perfectly normal for a large segment of the student body to storm out of the school and run straight home the second the final bell rings without so much as nodding goodbye to any classmates, not to mention a place where "free period" means, "Yay, I can sit by myself and play games on my calculator."

It would be a shame if Stuy decided to put the same emphasis on well-roundedness and social skills as do certain private schools. But maybe a little emphasis wouldn't hurt. Because now, people make friends at Stuy despite the school, with all socializing treated like something that will indirectly count against you on your transcript. If Stuyvesant needs money, it might want to consider seeing how it could make students' memories of the place itself, and not just where the place led them, a bit more positive.


*Not really. Then again, anything's possible.

Irving Howe, puritan?

Interesting piece by Morris Dickstein in Bookforum, linked to from Arts and Letters Daily, about Dissent magazine founder, coiner of the phrase, "New York Intellectual," and all-around cool person, Irving Howe:

Howe saw himself as a perpetual dissenter, but there were always others ready to follow where he led. His socialism seemed an anomaly in the '50s, as American power grew and intellectuals became more complacent and self-satisfied. Yet he also felt shunted aside by the young leftists of the '60s, and responded with a steady barrage of criticism so intemperate it might have permanently alienated him from those who shared his deepest aims... Yet, three decades later, there is no writer more revered by intellectuals who combine the hope for greater economic equality with a stubborn faith in democracy, who criticize their country for falling short of its ideals but refuse to see it as the root of all evil in the world.

This much I more or less already knew: Howe was and is something of a hero to those on the anti-anti-American left, and reading Dissent even today, one comes across articles (by Michael Walzer and others) which explain how a person can find terrorism unacceptable without finding the Bush administration acceptable. Howe's legend certainly lives on at Dissent. When I was an intern there last summer, one of my tasks was assembling (and, in the process, reading) a scrapbook of articles about Howe and his unique brand of democratic socialism, one whose ideals seem to have outlived the popularity of the term "socialism" among contemporary American intellectuals.

But something I hadn't known until reading Dickstein's article was that Howe the literary critic had a "puritanical streak:"

"It was the outraged moralist in him that led him... to revile Roth in Portnoy's Complaint for putting his talent 'to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity.'"

Given my blog's current subhead, I feel I must comment: Portnoy's Complaint may well be Roth's best use of his talent. Alex Portnoy may be vulgar, and his (fictional) existence may be enough to make Jewish women of the world think less of Roth personally, but the book itself isn't expecially "marred by vulgarity". Portnoy essentially misperceives the world around him, overestimating the degree to which his mother ruined his life, turning the "Jew vs. Gentile" division into the sole one of any relevance and assuming that all others are as preoccupied with it as he is, considering his own sexual urges to be further out of the norm than they possibly could be and telling of them in explicit (and frequently vulgar) detail in order to convey just how sick a puppy he really is. But what's brilliant about Portnoy is how much Alex's misperceptions tell about the times--while it would be absurd to say that American Jews at the time all identified with Alex, his "complaint" at the very least rang true. Unlike real-life Irving Howe, who challenged the views of those around him, the fictional Portnoy, despite his politically liberal inclinations, fully accepts that things are the way they are--no, it's more than that he fully accepts the status quo, he's altogether in love with determinism, with the idea that his being Jewish and his having a domineering mother have made him the man he is, and that his fate is inescapable. Portnoy doesn't challenge stereotypes, he swallows them whole, then spews them back out in such an absurd way as to make it clear that Roth, though he may have some Portnoy in him, couldn't possibly believe that Portnoy is telling it like it is. Roth creates a Portnoy whose real problem isn't that he's Jewish in a predominantly Christian country, or that his mother was overly concerned with his digestive processes as a child, but that he is incapable of seeing himself as anything other than the result of unfairness, whether on the part of his own family or on the part of those who would judge him on account of his background. That Portnoy is pathetic, often hilariously so, shows that Roth is as critical of the world around him as was Howe.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Tragic, all the more so if it was preventable

When terrorists strike, immediately everyone thinks, what could prevent this in the future? People wonder, "Why do they hate us?" or "How can we get back at them?" While earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be prevented, and while the "enemy" is nature and thus cannot be taken to the UN and given a good talking to, or even be invaded by US armed forces, the tragedy in the countries on the Indian Ocean seems more upsetting than it would otherwise (if such a thing is possible) when you consider that, according to scientists, the devastating effects of the tsunami were preventable:

"...Dr. [Tad] Murty said that India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries in the region had 'never shown the initiative to do anything.'" He added, "'There's no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami...The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts covering all of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That's enough time for a warning.'"

According to the NYT, had the Indian Ocean been as well-monitored as the Pacific, most people in the affected countries could have been saved. When natural disasters happen, people (myself included) have a tendency to throw up their arms and say, "This is awful, but inevitable." But it appears that, with current technology being what it is, deaths from terrorist attacks and natural disasters alike are results, in one way or another, of governmental ineptitude, not of mysterious forces beyond the control of mankind.

A Festivus Miracle


Vodka martini on the rocks, 11st St Bar. I know very little about mixed drinks, but this one was delicious.


Seen on the street in the East Village. Seems some point is being made, not sure what, though.


Katherine and Monica do a little dance to warm up.


Katherine called me "her soldier" and then, later in the evening, a "street child." Apparently this had something to do with the hat.


Monica and Katherine, in an East Village bar.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The "Hunt" for a toffee nut latte

The Times real estate section, which last profiled some unemployed UChicago grads looking to move to NYC, now has a "Hunt" piece on an 18-year-old girl, Melanie Fontana, whose apartment hunt is complicated by the following factors: a) She doesn't exactly have a job, b) Her mom won't let her take the subway, and c) She needs to live down the street from a Starbucks.

Clearly this girl's mother isn't doing her any favors. "'She may or may not go to college, so we see this as an investment in her future,' said her mother, Janis Fontana. 'Instead of paying tuition, we are paying rent.'" In a world in which even the Olsen twins attend college, it's unclear exactly how Melanie Fontana, degreeless, is going to make it if her parents ever decide to cut her off. Then, there's the reason she needed to move to NYC from Connecticut in the first place: commuting costs were making her family broke. "Because her mother didn't want her on the subway, she took cabs everywhere." No one in NYC takes cabs everywhere. A quick visit underground will reveal that everyone, except perhaps Nan Kempner, takes the train. Unless her mother relents and lets the girl on the subway, the Fontana family's financial situation is unlikely to improve. And finally, there's her mother's strange loyalty to the Starbucks chain, a loyalty which made apartments in the East 80s and 90s--which by most standards is an enviable location--out of the question: "[Melanie Fontana] also felt the location was too far north. 'My mother wanted me in a nice, safe neighborhood where there's a Starbucks on every corner,' she said." Funny, though, because a quick look on the Starbucks store locator reveals that the East 80s and 90s are teeming with Starbucks. In the interactive feature on Melanie Fontana's apartment hunt, Ms. Fontana explains that she simply cannot function without her toffee nut lattes. So her mother probably thinks she's just looking out for her daughter's interests.

Fair enough, the girl sounds idiotic, the situation sounds incredibly idiotic, and the girl's mother seems to be giving her daughter advice that will make it just about impossible for her to function on her own in the city. So why does the Times think to cover this story?

My guess is the appeal has something to do with the popularity of shows like "The Simple Life," and just generally with the novelty, in these times, of a young woman whose main interest seems to be a specialty coffee drink, with no college behind her, just picking up and moving to East 60th Street. The paper can expect letters to pour in about how silly Ms. Fontana is, her parents paying for her to sit around the Upper East Side and sip lattes, when so many adults, with college and graduate school behind them, are struggling to find anything within the five boroughs. But Melanie Fontana is no Paris Hilton, looks-wise, fame-wise, or money-wise, and her whole "I don't take the subway, I need my toffee nut lattes," routine is likely to end in disaster.

Why I cannot get myself to watch an entire episode of "Newlyweds," and other profound thoughts

From what I understand, the premise of "Newlyweds" is that Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson are a married couple whose life as newlyweds is the subject of a reality TV show. So what does it mean that, during one episode, we see Jessica shopping at some boutique, being hounded by paparazzi, and whining about it--how can she complain about being photographed while being, well, photographed? It's not as if the paparazzi are trying to take pictures of anything inappropriate, since the folks shooting "Newlyweds" are there as well. Someone whose career involves having her entire life filmed, who complains about people taking her picture, cannot possibly be taken seriously. While I realize that Jessica Simpson is not supposed to be taken seriously, this is just too much...

So, switched to Paula Zahn on CNN. Reagan's adopted son tells of how his dad offered his kids $500 each if they reached 21 and had never smoked or drunk. He failed, but tried the same method (adjusted for inflation) on his own kids, and says he paid his daughter $5,000 when she turned 21. One question (aside from the obvious, which is how on earth would parents know if their kids are telling the truth about this): Why not include "snort" on the list? Or "shoot up"? Loopholes, loopholes...

Hot & Crusty, the bakery chain, was open on Christmas Eve! I love New York. Hot & Crusty had a sign up with a lengthy list of instructions for the person working at the register. Apparently a bagel is taxable only if has been sliced in half, if it has something spread on it, or if it is eaten inside the establishment; an untouched bagel, purchased "to go," cannot be taxed. Why?

...Christmas plans involve seeing old friends from high school and, with them, further taking advantage of all NYC has to offer on Christmas day. Chinese food and movies may be involved, but ideally we will not resort to this.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Fluffier than moon boots, cooler than Uggs


Amanda Fortini of Slate asked, "Is there such a thing as a fashionable, functional winter boot? " I was skeptical, but thanks to the above shoes.com purchase, I may have to say, "Yes."

"You're wrong! I mean, just chill."

Anyone noticed how this whole "save Christmas" battle is being fought? Basically, conservatives are accusing liberals of--gasp--making a fuss. Why can't liberals leave well enough alone? Christmas is a good thing, harmless at worst, the very epitome of family values at best. But, being the obsessively PC, humorless, whiny people that they are, liberals are spoiling the fun for everyone, just for the sake of being inoffensive. The nerve of those people!

Making a fuss is, as conservatives surely realize, the only way to get people to see your point. Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard found Natalie Portman too racy for her own good. His, well, fuss, got his gripes listened to--not universally agreed with, but listened to all the same. But what, exactly, was all the fuss about? Isn't Portman's acting career more of a good thing than a bad one for society?

I'd like to see a moratorium on accusations that the other side ought to be ignored because it's humorless and making a fuss. Anyone (other than a Daily Show or Onion writer) trying to make a point about an issue he cares about is bound to come across as whiny to his political opponents.

Sticker shock

Yes, it's expensive to live in NYC. Yes, this is the land of the $800 haircut and, now, the $44 million apartment. But why does one of today's NYT editorials have to begin, "For anyone looking for an easy way to measure the distance between the big city and the American heartland, there is the new highest-end price for a New York apartment: $44 million." How is this an issue of "big city" versus "heartland"? It's not as if most people living in big cities have any more access to these extremes than do those in the rest of the country. Living in the city is a struggle for most who choose to do so--that $44 million exceeds the city budget of Muncie, Indiana, is hardly relevant.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Two possible cable upgrades

1) A button to eliminate unwanted actors or talking heads from the screen: Let's say you really can't stand Whoopi Goldberg, but you want to watch "Moonlight and Valentino." You could just press a button on your remote control that would eliminate the most grating presence on your screen.

2) "Friends With Benefits": For a nominal fee, you could upgrade your "Friends" reruns and turn them into more graphic versions of the same scenarios, with the same cast and setting. All implied encounters would actually be shown.

Progressiveness is like so last season

I've already explained where I stand on the whole "defend Christmas from the "Holidays" movement--I don't wish to "de-Christianize" it in the least, and in the name of keeping it a Christian holiday think it ought not to remain a federal one. So I don't fully understand the offense conservatives take at "Happy Holidays," when the very fact that Christmas is a federal holiday means that with each passing year Christmas moves closer to embracing all Americans--in doing so, it will inevitably become less "Christian," since not all Americans are Christian.

But what seems most ridiculous in the Weekly Standard's defiant, pro-"Merry Christmas" editorial isn't their silly take on the issue at hand, but is rather their insistence on the datedness of their adversaries' opinion, as if what really matters is not that their opponents are, in their view, wrong, but that they are unfashionable:

Such "attempts to de-Christianize Christmas are as absurd as they are relentless," Weekly Standard contributing editor Charles Krauthammer wrote last week in the Washington Post. And does no one notice how antiquated these attempts seem? How 1970s it all feels: disco shirts, and platform shoes, and the flurry of Christmas lawsuits from the ACLU? When the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the decision felt not merely outrageous, but also curiously old-fashioned--dated and quaint, somehow, as though the superannuated judges couldn't see just how far a changed world had left them behind.

Yeah, who are these people, still wearing disco shirts and platform shoes? Don't they know that these days, antlers are where it's at?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Menashi on Judt: Right conclusion, wrong argument

Guest-blogging at andrewsullivan.com, Steven Menashi refutes Tony Judt's claim that Israel is to blame for widespread anti-Semitism, noting that the Israeli government is doing nothing out of the ordinary by speaking for the Jewish people worldwide, since the French government speaks for the French people (not just the French nation), the Chinese government for the Chinese people, and so on. While I agree with Menashi's conclusion, which is that disagreement with Israel's policies is no excuse for committing anti-Semitic acts wherever you happen to live--the first part of his reasoning, that the Israeli government is simply following a norm if it speaks for Jews worldwide, is incorrect. For the Israeli government to follow the norm Menashi cites, it would speak for Israelis worldwide, for those of somewhat recent Israeli heritage, both in Israel and abroad. Presumably the French government doesn't claim to speak for anyone with a French-sounding last name or with an interest in his French heritage. Nor ought the Israeli government speak for those whose families were last in the land of Israel in prehistoric times and who have no particular interest in "returning." Israel is a Jewish state, and ought to remain as such, but it is also the Israeli nation, and those American Jews who do not live in Israel, who have no direct ties to the country, are no more "Israeli-American" than are Americans whose families came over on the Mayflower "English-American." The difference, of course, is that non-Israeli Jews who are active in religious and possibly also pro-Israel organizations have more of an active tie to Israel than do most non-English people of English ancestry to the modern UK. However, this tie comes from an affinity and a political belief, not from any sense that they, too, are Israelis.

La deception Proustienne: the $800 haircut isn't all that

There's an article in the latest Vogue on the man behind the $800 haircut. The final sentence of the article? "Start saving." According to Vogue, the haircut is "worth it."

I was enjoying living vicariously through the recipients of the $800 haircut until I saw the photos of Orlando Pita's work--he's terrible! The images are of him tending to a very long, frizzy, blond mess atop a model's head, and it appears he's creating, not fixing, the situation. Then, there's a picture of Kirsten Dunst with an unflatteringly layered short 'do, for which Mr. Pita is apparently responsible. And then there are the pics of his work for the runway, which appears to be his only strength. But runway hairstyles are to civilian ones what pastries made for pastry-baking competitions are to the things people actually want to eat--they're intricate but have no practical application. It seems there's a limit to how high-end a conventional haircut can be before it's an overdone disaster.

Really, I have nothing against these sorts of excesses if the result is something for which we can all pine. But now I'm left wondering--at what price do haircuts stop being uneven but not yet reach the Pita level of absurdity? With shoes, once you get past about $300 (already well past what I've ever spent, but I'm from NYC, I know what's out there), they stop looking any nicer--go to Barneys to see for yourself if you're curious. Perhaps that figure is also the magic haircut price.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Personal and healthy

I'll admit it, I'm morbidly fascinated by Jane Brody's NYT "Personal Health" column. This comes as no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

A brief explanation: Jane Brody's column is a health column, but it is also personal. Very personal. If it didn't happen to her, to her friend, to her friend's neighbor, or to one of her friend's neighbor's many cats, it's not a health problem worth writing about. The best health advice is common sense, preferably in the form of a quote from someone with an M.D. And many health problems and social ills are the result of too much television and too few whole grains. Finally, the further you stray from Brody's own lifestyle, the more likely you are to be in a real mess.

Let me say once and for all that I have nothing against Brody herself, nor do I believe that her health advice is unsound. I simply do not understand what use the Times has for a columnist whose way of drawing in the reader is to talk about herself and her family for the first few paragraphs, her friends and acquaintences for the next few, only to get to the "health" part of her column near the end of it, at which point she administers reasonable advice in a smug tone.

This week, Brody jumps on the baby-horror-story bandwagon, telling us about her newborn grandson, who's healthy, but it was a close call.

She begins: "Thanksgiving Day was fraught with fear and anxiety for my family and me."

As this is Brody, the obvious follow-up sentence would be, "The turkey wasn't lean enough, and the pumpkin pie crust wasn't whole wheat, and there was a football game on in the background." But the follow-up ends up being that her grandson was briefly ill but is now fine.

The lesson learned? "My experience with this otherwise perfect birth and baby reaffirmed my belief that all babies should be born in well-equipped hospitals, with neonatologists at the ready and a neonatal intensive care unit down the hall." I'd have thought she'd be in favor of babies being born at rock concerts in makeshift huts made out of empty kegs, in a second-hand-smoke-filled atmosphere, but I stand corrected.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Cheese is great

I'm going to have to weigh in on this one: Heidi Bond and Will Baude are both correct* that "there is no such thing as too much cheese." The cheese-on-pasta scenario, in which cheese is being added, added, added, and yet there's still not enough, is one with which I am familiar, and when I cook pasta, I make sure to have about a 1:1 ratio of pasta to cheese. The worst, though, is when you're at a restaurant, and the waiter griding cheese on your pasta wants to know "when"--for me, there is no "when," but I feel obliged to halt the griding process before a) the waiter's arm falls off, b) the restaurant runs out of cheese, or c) there's grated cheese covering the entire table.

*One caveat: There's no such thing as too much cheese, but there is such a thing as too many types of cheese in one dish. A low point of my time at Chicago so far was cutting open a Bartlett Dining Commons calzone only to discover that, along with the usual mozzarella and tomato sauce, there was grated orange cheese, either cheddar or American, didn't taste it so I can't say which. This year, the pizza also sometimes has that same mozzarella-orange cheese blend, which is, in a very minor way, tragic.

A retroactive response to Krauthammer [UPDATED]

Via Arts and Letters Daily:

In the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer urges Jews and other religious (or "anti-religious") minorites to "Just Leave Christmas Alone." He doesn't like the touchiness of "the usual platoon of annoying pettifoggers rising annually to strip Christmas of any Christian content." Krauthammer writes:

The attempts to de-Christianize Christmas are as absurd as they are relentless. The United States today is the most tolerant and diverse society in history. It celebrates all faiths with an open heart and open-mindedness that, compared to even the most advanced countries in Europe, are unique. Yet more than 80 percent of Americans are Christian, and probably 95 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. Christmas Day is an official federal holiday, the only day of the entire year when, for example, the Smithsonian museums are closed. Are we to pretend that Christmas is nothing but an orgy of commerce in celebration of . . . what? The winter solstice?

Krauthammer is missing the point: First of all, his article's nauseating suggestion that minorities be grateful to the majority for being so darn tolerant of our strange ways for all these years. But where Krauthammer is most off is in how he fails to realize that no one in his right mind wants to "de-Christianize Christmas," which would be to force Christians celebrating the holiday to think of it as nothing more than the winter solstice. What the touchy folks Krauthammer is irked by are themselves bothered by is perhaps that Christmas, a religious holiday, is a federal holiday in the first place. So, since the Chicago Criterion has yet to put the last few years' worth of issues online (but apparently intends to do so soon), here's my take on the matter, from the journal's December 2002 issue.

[UPDATE: The scanned pages are not showing up correctly here--I'll update again if Criterion puts that issue online.]

Fed up with being treated like a sheep?

Along with the hipster tourist guide, there's the highbrow, us vs. them guide to a city, one which pits you, the individual, against the hordes of tourists who are clearly less sophisticated than you are and whom you thus want to avoid. The NYT Travel section suggests going to Venice in the rainy off-season, not because it's much cheaper, not because rain can be pleasant, but because, notes Mary Billard in her article, "Breathing More Easily Without the Throngs,"

For anyone who has been to Venice in summer - when it becomes an Italian theme park, with thousands of tourists jostling for space on the Piazza San Marco, trying to snap a souvenir photo of the Campanile and then lining up for a coffee at Caffè Florian, which opened in 1720 and has presumably been overcharging ever since - winter can be a revelation. Gone are the cruise ships, the group tours, the throngs of camera-toting daytrippers flooding out of the Santa Lucia train station each morning, guidebook in one hand, stopwatch in the other. In winter, there is nary a Biennale or film festival luring the crowds, and Venice no longer resembles its Las Vegas imitator...

Billard seems to be channelling Eric Idle's would-be tourist character in the Monty Python "Travel Agent" sketch, one of my all-time favorites, who tells Mr. Bounder, his travel agent,

I mean I'm fed up going abroad and being treated like sheep, what's the point of being carted round in buses surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Boverntry in their cloth caps and their cardigans and their transistor radios and the 'Sunday Mirrors', complaining about the tea, 'Oh they don't make it properly here do they not like at home' stopping at Majorican bodegas, selling fish and chips and Watney's Red Barrel and calamares and two veg and sitting in cotton sun frocks squirting Timothy White's suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh cos they 'overdid it on the first day'!...And being herded into endless Hotel Miramars and Bellevueses and Bontinentals with their international luxury modern roomettes and their Watney's Red Barrel and their swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending to be acrobats and forming pyramids and firghtening the children and barging into the queues and if you're not at your table spot on seven you miss your bowl of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, the first item on the menu of International Cuisine....

(From Monty Python's Flying Circus: Just the Words, Chapman et al., Methuen.)

Hi, new readers!

It seems the reason many people are visiting this today blog is that it's two degrees of separation from andrewsullivan.com, now that the American Scenesters are guestblogging there and have linked to posts on their own blog which link to this one. So if you're coming here indirectly from Sullivan, welcome.

"Sotheby's, they make good cake"--Kramer, on "Seinfeld"

I had the best cake ever today at the Neue Gallerie on 86th and 5th, where I also saw the Comic Grotesque exhibit. The exhibit was interesting, but I'm better at describing cake than art, so here goes. It was dark chocolate and hazelnut, with alternating thin layers of a chocolate icing that was more of a soft, shiny dark chocolate than an icing, and hazelnut cake, with a tiny piece of decorative gold leaf pressed onto the outer layer of chocolate. Now, I don't even usually like cake, but this went beyond cake and into, well, art.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Scare tactics

These sensationalist Dec. 19 headlines won't create any new natalists.

From the Washington Post (via Oxblog): "Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths."

From the front page of the New York Times: "After Baby's Grim Diagnosis, Parents Try Drastic Treatment." (With accompanying photo of infant who, as a side effect of said "drastic treatment," has extremely thick eyebrows and a hairy face.)

From CNN: "Churchgoers mourn pregnant woman: Communities struggle with shocking death, theft of baby."

So basically, if you decide to become pregnant, you risk: a) violent death at the hand of the baby's father, b) giving birth to a child who seems normal at first but soon develops a rare but deadly metabolic disorder, and c) being killed by a woman who wishes to steal your fetus. All creepy enough to make a person think twice about having even one child.

Like a virgin

Over at the National Review, Myrna Blyth compares Bernard Kerik to Paris Hilton. Given their, err, activity levels, it's entirely possible the two have met.

"Americans don't quite understand, but for us, it's a completely secularized thing."--Marina Unrod on her tree

Neither a Christmas tree nor a Chanukah bush, the elka may at first sight look like a bit of both.

The "New Years trees" in the houses of American Jews who've immigrated from the former Soviet Union may seem just like Christmas trees, but have nothing to do with Christianity, writes Boris Fishman in the City section. These relics of a secular holiday aren't the same as the Christmas trees oh-so-hypocritically placed by native-born American Jews in their living rooms. No, Russian Jews are simply being Russian and Jewish, and their trees are not an attempt to recreate a WASP lifestyle.

"There's nothing religious in our Christmas trees today because there was nothing religious in our elkas," said Vladimir Kartsev, a literary agent who emigrated from Moscow in 1989. "It isn't a betrayal of Jewish values at all, because it isn't an adoption of a new faith."

When I first heard high school friends mention that they were Jewish but had trees, I assumed that the whole "New Years tree" line was no different from the all-American "Chanukah bush" one. It took me a while to understand that the tradition came out of an areligious movement, that this was a Soviet thing, not a Christian one.

In his piece on the elka, Fishman neglects to mention one reason the trees are problematic: though not symbolic of Christianity, they are symbolic of Soviet communism. Soviet-born American Jews might have hostile feelings towards communism but neutral ones towards American Christianity. The elka may not be a sign of adoption of a new faith, but it is a celebration of an ideology that has historically not been kind to Judaism or religion in general.

That said, I find the elka easier to take than the American Jew's Christmas tree--the former is by now a tradition in Russian Jewish families, while the latter is a conscious effort to hide one's own traditions, since, in America, it's something of a tradition for Jews not to have trees. And it's not a big deal, not having a tree, if you never had one--Chanukah means a chance to play with matches (supervised, of course), so I never felt I was missing out.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Misled by a headline

"Exchanging Cigarettes For Bagels" reads the headline for Gina Kolata's latest Times health article. When I saw this, I assumed there was some new version of those programs where people trade in their guns for cash, in which people trying to quit smoking could bring in their cigarettes and get bagels in exchange. A neat-sounding if doomed program, I thought.

But turns out that's not it at all: The article merely points out that Americans have, as a nation, replaced smoking with overeating, and the bagels in question are among the foods overeaten these days. Kolata argues that we're better off obese and unhealthy than as still-more-unhealthy smokers. This may technically be true, although maybe not from a couturier's standpoint.

"People higher than the people here"

From a Style section piece on the effect on shop employees of "the same few dozen Christmas songs played in a loop, day and night," during the holiday season:

As if that were not enough, there is another eerie, Orwellian distraction: where is the music coming from? "I have no idea," Diana Nazario, 20, a cashier at a Duane Reade in SoHo, said, looking at the ceiling. "I think it's a system installed, and they control it. We can't control it."

Who are they?

"I have no idea," she said. "I'm guessing people higher than the people here."

How creepy--who are the higher powers pumping music into Duane Reade? Somehow I'm imagining that, after the (non-24-hour) branches close for the day, after the employees are well on their way home, a sinister band of men in business suits enters each store and, using special remote controls, programs the next day's music.

We've (not) come a long way, baby

David Adesnik asks what inquiring minds apparently want to know: "Why don't hot chicks blog?"

[W]omen have a general tendency to be less assertive than men when it comes to demanding attention and rewards for their achievement...First and foremost, my sense is that women shy away from the kind of forceful and often scathing debate that takes place in the blogosphere. Even though women have few reservations about saying scurrilous things about one another (or about men), they seem to have a certain aversion to saying such things in public. You might say women simply accept as given the existence of a double standard that labels aggressive men "ambitious" and aggressive women "bitchy"...Even on a one-to-one level, I have found many more women who shy away from political debate. In almost every organization I have been part of, men have been more assertive about taking a leadership role.I'm not saying that women lack the capacity to speak out and lead or that it's their fault if they don't get ahead because there are no formal barriers standing in their way. I do think that culture matters. And perhaps it matters when it comes to blogging, too.

I've considered this before. Basically, I agree with Adesnik, but have a few things to add. First, many "hot" women (or women considered relatively attractive within a heterosexual American framework, blah blah) find that, in their interactions with men, they are expected to act as though all encounters are potentially romantic, and for a woman who's not physically revolting (or obviously attached and/or lesbian) it can be difficult to engage in political debate without seeming flirtatious. Thus an easy way to avoid arousing jealousy in one's significant other, or just leading on those whom one does not wish to be involved with romantically, is to refrain from debate, since debate could always be perceived of as flirtation. Whereas for men, sexuality never really has to come up, and political issues can take centerstage without any sense of a flirtatious undercurrent.

Also, blogging has a reputation among some people I know of being a half-step up from activities like Dungeons and Dragons. I have a hard time explaining to some of my friends that, no, I've never been a role-player, I'm not into computer games, I don't understand what Magic cards are, but, yes, I have a blog. To some, political blogging is yet another dorky activity, with no obvious connection to "official" political journalism. While few scoff at Maureen Dowd for being a woman and having a NYT opinion column, many assume a female political blogger is a full-fledged member of geek subculture. I happen not to really get much of geek subculture. Not that there's anything wrong that ("that" being geek subculture) but it's just not my thing.

One final reason "hot" women may be underrepresented in the blogosphere is that there's a certain stereotype of a "girl blog", which suggests moping about boys, pining for boys, overanalysis of friendships, and otherwise painful-to-read soul-spilling. When a woman starts a blog in which it is clear that she is a) female and b) not Susan Sontag or Hannah Arendt, people assume they'll be reading about blind dates, children, jeans suddenly being too small, or ex-best-friends' insults. So, a woman starting a political blog has to make a special effort not to go down that road, while men can freely mention their wives (or boyfriends) and still expect to be taken seriously as political bloggers, not just online-diary-keepers.

Of course, the very-hot women of the world are too busy being Uma Thurman or Gwyneth Paltrow or, sure, Natalie Portman, to be wondering why Blogger's been so slow lately. But the same could be said for the world's very-hot men: Is there an http://petersarsgaard.blogspot.com? I think not.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Friday night blogging

I'm cool like that.

Just got back from the Dissent holiday party. Good fun, no antlers, of course, but I can live with that.

I still feel too young to be attending office parties, but I nevertheless managed to avoid the cliched pitfalls. As far as I can remember, I didn't do the Elaine kicking-dance from Seinfeld, nor did I show up sporting an outfit that would put Christina Aguilera to shame. And I made it home alright, despite impractical (but cheap!) new boots from Aldo.

I also feel too young to attend anything where jeans are not the assumed uniform. A friend and I decided, a couple of years ago, that we've reached the point where we'd be best, aesthetically and maybe even professionally, to stop with the jeans, but I've stayed the course, and continue to sport denim. I'm trying to faze out jeans and wear my black pants more frequently, but it's a bit like giving up diet Coke--I almost get there, then realize, what harm is there in not getting there?--so the denim remains, much but not all of the time.

Talk vs. action

Amanda Butler of Crescat has quit the Peace Corps and is leaving Kazakhstan. One reason she gives for her decision is that she "misses the rampant debate of a university campus or a city like DC."

For the young American wishing to make a difference in the world, there are two options: be an intellectual and discuss, write, argue, and blog towards progress, always carefully considering both sides of an issue; or decide that something particular must be done, and go do it. Is one better than the other? According to Reihan Salam, talk can be just as good as action:

A number of anti-war commentators have blasted “chicken hawks,” i.e., writers and intellectuals who advocate a hawkish military posture, and preventive wars that incur casualties, without having ever served in the military, or, by extension, without actively encouraging their own loved ones to volunteer. I disagree. In a democratic society, we’re all entitled to engage in the conversation. Some of these writers and intellectuals were not suited to military life for whatever reason. It’s foolish to assume that the contributions they’ve made are any less valuable.

I see his point--some are better suited to thinking than to doing, thinking is a type of doing, and doing is no good if there's no thought behind what's being done. (And of course, some idealist goals are better thought about than acted on.) But still, many people could potentially serve society well both by thinking and by doing, I'm certain that many, like Butler, feel torn between arguing issues in cosmopolitan or at least safe environments and going out into the unknown or unpleasant and acting on their convictions.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Was Booth a spurned lover?

Seems President Lincoln might have been gay. Scholars "cite his troubled marriage to Mary Todd and his youthful friendship with Joshua Speed, who shared his bed for four years. " So now anyone with a troubled marriage who moves in with a friend is gay? So now sexual orientation is something that can be ascribed over a hundred years after the fact, based on sketchy knowledge? Argh. I mean, who knows what turned him on? Determining exactly what Lincoln's friendships with men meant in the context of platonic male-male friendships of that era seems like a waste of time--a future scholar analyzing the dialogue of two young women in 2004 who call each other "girlfriend" might find himself going down the wrong path.

It's good, though, that the Times piece mentions this: "The question of Lincoln's sexuality is complicated by the fact that the word homosexual did not find its way into print in English until 1892 and that 'gayness' is very much a modern concept. " Now, while "gayness" is new, male-male attraction is not, and Lincoln might have been attracted to men, or might have just been living at a time when boundaries of personal space among same-sex friends were less rigid. Who can say? And, more importantly, how can it possibly matter for contemporary gay rights if Lincoln had such predilictions? He was not an "out" individual, he did not lead any sort of fight for gay marriage or civil unions. At most, he was into guys.

And yet, "Larry Kramer, the author and AIDS activist, said that Mr. Tripp's book [a new book on Lincoln's sexuality] 'will change history.'"

"'It's a revolutionary book because the most important president in the history of the United States was gay,' he said. 'Now maybe they'll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded.'"

In his dreams, I'm afraid. More likely, contemporary Republican opponents of gay marriage and gay rights would, if they agreed that Lincoln was attracted to men, call this attraction a flaw, a weakness possessed by an otherwise remarkably strong man. I can't imagine an effect of, "If Lincoln was gay, then gays are great," resulting from the revelation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The U.S. is Chicagoan megachurches, Iowan tractor-drivers, and creationist-but-hip pilots

What to blog about... Since Amber Taylor got 20 comments on her post about the first time she met Will Baude, I suppose I could try to remember when I first met the man, but having only met and never met him (we were classmates, he seemed like a good guy--racy info., I realize), I'd imagine such a post would attract less controversy. So instead, I'll tell a little about my evening with some of the greatest minds of our generation, whom I heard speak this evening at the Goethe Institute in NYC.

Brief notes:

William Kristol is a smart man. I've heard him speak before, and there were moments throughout the evening in which he was pressed on various points conservatives seemed doomed to lose on, and yet he would stand his ground and really have me convinced, temporarily, that any position other than his was idiotic. I repeat, temporarily. More on this later...

Bernard Henri-Levy was certainly of interest to me as someone interested in France, Jews, and neoconservatism (he's supposedly a French Jewish left-wing neocon philosopher. Whatever that means). But he was introduced by moderator Roger Cohen as a stunningly attractive man (I don't remember the exact words used, but along those lines) which forced me to try to crane my head to get a better look at him. I mean, from what I could tell, he didn't look bad, but it seemed an odd way to introduce a speaker on a panel about anti-Americanism and related subjects. My take on male beauty may not be the same as Mr. Cohen's, and I didn't appreciate being told where to stand on Mr. Levy, nor did I think that Mr. Kristol and Mr. Schneider were so grotesque as to merit being passed over, appearance-wise, during the introductions. They all seemed well within normal limits, from what I could see, and most of what I could see was the head of whomever happened to be sitting in front of me. Which brings us to...

Peter Schneider, a German author who was the sole panelist I'd never heard of, sent a positive message, that the U.S. and Europe have more ties than divisions, and that, while he disapproved of the Iraq war, he agrees that it's always a good thing when a dictator is removed, and that an all-powerful U.S. is better than, say, an all-powerful communist China. But he made a snide remark about a "tractor"-riding Bush-voter from "Iowa" that seemed utterly gratuitious, and that introduced a sad theme of the evening, which was the supposed idiocy of Middle-Americans.

A major problem I have with, well, stuff, is that there's no simple way for a person to love what NYC and similar places have to offer culturally, and in terms of tolerance of eccentricity, and yet, at the same time, realize that NYers are no smarter or kinder as individuals than are people in other parts of the country. I've tried before to explain where I stand on this--basically I adore the city, I happen to like living here, and I would personally feel out of place living in a small town where everyone else was a very particular sect of fundamentalist Christianity. However, I don't think a kid who happens to grow up in Manhattan is any smarter than one born in Kansas, nor do I think that the "party line" of the New York liberal is much more intelligent than that of the Middle-American conservative. I also believe strongly that it is no better to be knee-jerk liberal than knee-jerk fundamentalist Christian, in that both ideologies lead to some very dippy, sometimes even dangerous, conclusions. (My beliefs may well come from the fact that I go to school with people from the places Schneider and Levy scoff at, and many of my classmates could easily have held their own with the panelists.)

But now, let me explain this scoffing: Levy mentioned a straw man (born of a "real" anecdote) who's a young pilot in the Heartland, who, though a fan of hip music (Levy snapped his fingers a bit to demonstrate the beat), is nevertheless a creationist. Levy also mentioned that he knew about America and that he'd visited the "mega-churches in Chicago"--as if Chicago is really out there, and not just a more spread-out and dingier version of NYC. Nevertheless, this creationist pilot was discussed througout the evening, and I began to really feel sorry for the guy. Kristol defended the pilot, noting that more harm had been done during the 20th century in the name of Darwin than by Darwin's detractors. Kristol then went on a riff about how this young man was probably a kind soul, nice to his neighbors, tolerant of diversity, etc. I mean, who knows? A creationist pilot could be a real creep, or he could be nice but misguided--why ascribe any extra traits, when clearly it's just a free-for-all? Basically, Kristol's defence of the religiousity of contemporary American conservatism went something like this: Sure, it messes with the church-and-state divide, but so what, it beats fascism. Meanwhile, the "European left" couldn't quite get enough of the cretinous American creationists who apparently defy all that is "enlightened." I am as bothered by politicians' invocations of God as are European intellectuals, but I'd have to say that the pilot-of-straw is at least not sporting a keffyiah like his young native-French counterpart...

In any case, the most frappant (to be "European") moment of the evening was when an older man referred to the entire audience as well as the panelists, during his question to the panelists, as being the "elite." But elite, how? Because we were in NYC? Because we'd chosen to spend $10 on this (wine included, though) rather than on some lame Hollywood movie? I had no idea, but I ended up feeling more resigned than influential at the end of the evening. It seems that men like Kristol support some aspects of the Bush plan and thus use their wits to defend the more objectionable bits, whereas men like Levy and Schneider simply cannot get over the fact that they are cool Europeans whose continent may have wreaked all sorts of havok over the past thousand years but which at least realizes now that the Earth is round.

Other problems included Levy's response to a woman who asked why, given that Israel the nation is a result of Europe's hostility towards its Jews, is Europe so critical of Israel's right to defend itself. A fair question, and, if simple, no more simplified than the rest of the issues discussed throughout the evening. Levy responded that the problem isn't that Europe is critical of Israel, but that it places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of world, as though solving it would solve everything. But it seems to me that, if Europe places this conflict at the center while siding almost exclusively with the Palestinians, then this woman's question ought to have been properly answered. Levy also reiterated that, in places like Pakistan, no one cares about Israel--then why was Daniel Pearl forced to repeat, during his killing in Pakistan, that he and his parents were Jews? Guess I'll have to read Levy's book to find out where he stands on this. Additionally, Levy suggested that the current alliance between the anti-Semitic French Islamists and the traditional, native-French anti-Semites might be a temporary one, and thus not worth worrying about. It seems even without the paranoia of Uncle Leo a person might be less optimistic than Levy on this front.

Then, there was Kristol's defense of America's blurring of the boundary of church and state: why must those why support the war on terror feel obliged to defend Bush (and other US politicians, left and right) in his ridiculous quest to suggest that God is helping us to fight religious fundamentalism (an absurd suggestion as could be). I want to agree with Kristol, that the creationist pilot is a good guy. And he may well be a good guy, but not necessarily a harmless one. A nice guy could conceivably possess a silly idea.

(Where are the anti-terror but still church-and-state-separation-respecting people hanging out these days, if not among the "elite"?)

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

AP Mayhem

The NY Sun reports that a "change added 10% to all AP grades going back to when [NYC] seniors first entered high school. The grade recorded for a student who earned 85% in AP American History last year has now been changed to 93.5%. A student who earned 92% is boosted into the grading stratosphere, with 101.2%. Students who took AP classes now have a distinct advantage, in terms of grade point average, over those who did not."

Not surprisingly, much flipping-out is occurring guess where:

Stuyvesant's principal, Stanley Teitel, didn't return a phone call or email requesting comment, but students and parents from the school said the new policy has created college-application mayhem.

The school sent out three GPAs for each student in the early admissions round: an old-fashioned unweighted GPA, a GPA with the new 10% AP bonus, and yet another that actually penalizes students who took AP classes but did poorly. The third method multiplies each AP grade by 110% but adds 10% to the number of courses taken...

The head of Stuyvesant's parent association, Linda Lam, said "parents went crazy" when they heard transcripts had been retroactively altered.

Ah yes, a brilliant idea on the part of the Stuyvesant administration. When I was a senior, there were two college counselors trying to send out transcripts on behalf of over 700 seniors, to about seven colleges per student. The amount of paperwork (and, with it, potential mess) has just tripled. Not to mention that any policy which makes it unclear precisely where each student stands, to the hundredths' place, is bound to cause, as the Sun understatedly puts it, "mayhem." Many Stuy kids defined themselves on the basis of knowing they were 0.04 above Classmate A but 1.07 below Classmate B. Now no such rigid hierarchy can exist--it's like if a normal high school all of a sudden decided to have three separate football teams and cheerleading squads, thus tripling the number of "cool" kids and forcing students to scramble for new status signifiers.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Me, elsewhere

My article for the University of Chicago Magazine on campaign night with UChicago Obama supporters is now online. In case I have readers who just can't get enough of my writing (anything's possible) my previous articles for the magazine are here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Campus debauchery more red-state than blue-state

The Economist attempts to segue from a indictment of the debauchery at elite colleges to one of their liberal bias:

Tom Wolfe's new novel about a young student, I am Charlotte Simmons, is a depressing read for any parent. Four years at an Ivy League university costs as much as a house in parts of the heartland—about $120,000 for tuition alone. But what do you get for your money?
A ticket to Animal House. In Mr Wolfe's fictional university the pleasures of the body take absolute precedence over the life of the mind. Students 'hook up' (ie, sleep around) with indiscriminate zeal...Students hear only one side of the story on everything from abortion (good) to the rise of the West (bad).

This conservative criticism of life at contemporary universities confuses me: how does "hook-up culture" go against the "life of the mind"? Going back several decades, when hooking up was less out in the open and perhaps less pervasive, women would frequently leave college early (the MRS degree) and thus, in the name of securing a monogamous relationship, would leave the academic enviromnent without even getting a diploma. Hooking up may be mindless, but some great minds (Albert Einstein, Allan Bloom, etc.) have found time to both, in modern parlance, get some, and use their brains. I'm not saying conservatives should find hooking up moral, but they should acknowledge that, if anything, it is the result of contemporary students coming to college in order to be employable after (or, at times, in order to learn during), rather than with the specific goal of finding a spouse while on campus.

Furthermore, I just don't see the connection between the fact that today's elite universities are dominated by liberals with the idea that they are places at which "[b]rainless jocks rule the roost, while impoverished nerds are reduced to ghost-writing their essays for them." These are two entirely separate problems. Is the idea that college today is just plain worse, so debauchery and left politics can be lumped together by the conservative who's generally displeased with the state of things? The sort of debauchery arguably most prevalent, or at least most visible, at many elite colleges--aggressive, athletic boys and their well-kept-up female companions engaging in drunken, heterosexual experimentation--has more of a red-state than blue-state sound to it; if the faculties had their way, college students would squander their four years by challenging traditional gender roles, joining poetry circles and protest movements instead of sports teams, and drinking from wine glasses, not kegs.

Via Arts and Letters Daily.

"It's only wafer thin"

I'm not endorsing the UES diet or anything, but nevertheless, eating a brownie following latkes, even if it wasn't that many latkes, and even if the brownie didn't immediately follow the latkes, is not a good idea. Tasty, yes, but perhaps I was overdoing it...

(With the link, scroll down for "Mr. Creosote.")

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Saturday Night Liveblogging

Back in NYC.

This is freaky. I think I'm off soup.

Via Matt Yglesias: Seems it's dorky to blog on a Saturday night. While this may be true, it is far dorkier to pay attention to precisely when the bloggers you read are posting.

Matt has also posted a response to my story of being "Number 18" in a Stuyvesant physics class--apparently at Dalton, students not only had names but were referred to by their physics teacher as "smart kids." I'm almost certain Stuyvesant teachers were instructed to convince their students that we were going nowhere fast, in order to let us be pleasantly shocked, our senior years, when we received college admissions letters.

Charles Kuffner has also responded to my post on being nothin' but a number, noting that, while at Stuy, he was always called by his name. [I should add that I, too, was usually called by my name by high school teachers, though one called me "Phobe" (pronounced "faube") and another called me "Wendy Liu."] Kuffner also mentions that he now knows of four bloggers (himself included) who are Stuy grads. I can think of a couple more. Given that there are so many of us, that we're so famously dorky, and that some of us find we have a lot of time on our hands now that we no longer have to commute to zero period gym, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Stuyvesant is the high school best-represented in the blogosphere.

Spam spam spam, wonderful spam

What should I make of spam that beckons me with the question, "wanna look young like Oprah?" Does Oprah even look young? I had no idea. Maybe one day there will be two spam filters: one that eliminates all unsolicited email (buy software, buy a rolex, etc.) and another that catches the emails that could not possibly apply to the recipient (look young by resembling a much older celebrity of dubious youthfulness, enlarge an organ you yourself do not possess in the first place, and so on).

A sad story

In the Style section, of all places, Jean Braithwaite tells the sad story of how her husband lost his desire to have sex with her once she became overweight. But that, really, is the least of it. Early on in her article, Braithwaite reveals that she goes both ways, and that, while still married, she was openly corresponding with a woman she'd met through a lesbian personals ad. So of course, reading this, I immediately assume, aha, that solves the problem! She will no doubt find acceptance as a lesbian, and thrive in a community where men aren't determining beauty standards, and where being overweight isn't as much of a stigma as it is among straight women. I've heard of straight women who wish they could be attracted to other women simply to avoid having to primp, diet, and such in order to appeal to men. But no such luck for Braithwaite: she ends up falling for a woman who likes her women thin, and has no more luck as an overweight lesbian than as an overweight hetero. What gives?

There are a few confusing aspects to Braithwaite's story. First off, it's unclear to the reader who's never seen her whether she's actually overweight or if it's all in her head; she reveals only that she's at her "pre-anorexic maximum," which suggests that what she considers huge may well be anything but. Then there's the chance, which she never considers, that her husband's lack of interest had something to do with her own active interest in other women; while straight men may be expected to act thrilled at the possibility of their wives or girlfriends bringing other women into the picture, having a spouse who's actually gay or questioning has to be tough on the straight spouse, who is more likely to see his wife leave him for a woman than to have "Girls Gone Wild"-type scenes play out in his bedroom. So it takes two leaps of faith--she must truly be overweight; and that, not her sexual interest in women, must be what led her husband to lose interest--for the reader to buy Braithwaite's pathetic tale. Let's just say it's a good thing the Times online is free.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Molly, you'll have to come back and visit after you graduate...


Belmont, the St. Marks Place of Chicago. Posted by Hello


Jenn and Kate, happy to ride the el. Posted by Hello


The subtle sign that one has arrived in Boystown Posted by Hello


Molly (with the tan coat) is a grown-up! Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Pearls, poodles, and hipsters

There's a nice article in Slate condemning the Time Out guidebooks for their ongoing war against all that is cliched or touristy. Sometimes, writes Elisabeth Eaves, you visit a place looking not for the undiscovered, but for the things you yourself haven't seen. Not the new, but the new-to-you:

[I]t seems that the landscape is strewn with cliché bombs. In the book's food section, I'm warned to leave my preconceptions about Andalusian food behind. (Who has preconceptions about Andalusian food?) In the literary section, the great poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) gets a rap on the knuckles because he "did much to perpetuate the romantic clichés about Andalucía." If the Time Out writers ever stooped to buy a souvenir, their tone suggests, it would be with layers of irony I couldn't begin to understand.

Eaves is right that clichephobia is irritating in a guidebook. Sometimes the undiscovered is undiscovered for a reason. And sometimes (and this is definitely true in New York) the non-touristy places are filled with locals who are unfriendly even to other locals who do not fit in with their sub-sub-culture's manners and aesthetic. While it is useful from a sociological standpoint for the visitor to see such places, visiting a place for the first time, especially with strict time constraints, seeing the sites can be more fun than getting glared at because no one in City X is wearing low-rise jeans anymore, what were you thinking?

My own experience with the Time Out guide to Paris was that I had to assume all had been written from the perspective of someone looking for the local hipster scene and trying to avoid not only the touristy areas but also the less cutting-edge residential ones. In dense cities like Paris and NYC, a "residential" area will still have cafes, shops, and people-watching, and visiting such areas provides a sense of what a place is "really like" that doesn't involve seeking out needle-in-haystack underground bars where fanny-packs are only worn ironically. The Time Out guide to Paris dismissingly referred to the 16th Arrondissment as pearls and poodle country, but I decided I wanted to see how the pearls and poodles lived. And they live it up, with streets lined with used designer clothing stores, beautiful residential buildings, awe-inspiring patisseries, and (as in all of Paris) plenty of fabulous shoe stores, not to mention one incredibly good and not incredibly expensive conveyor belt sushi place, which, I guessed, is where the locals go when slumming. There I saw a boy of about 15 who was better-dressed than anyone I have ever seen in this country. (And I mean that with no anti-American sentiment, and with no impure thoughts about the underage).