Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Time to update your links, folks

Seek me no longer here, friends: I have moved to a new place of mayhem and mischief at, where I've been quite busily blogging about my post-grad misadventures in Europe. Join me there!

And let the curtain fall on this most trusty and reliable home on Blogspot.

Saturday, February 28, 2009


I forgot how terrifically funny life is and people are.

It took a conversation with my sister about her job at the YMCA to remind me. About the ponderous woman who trained her substantial son to like the color yellow and think that everything yellow was his.

"And then I looked across at the pool deck," she said, "and there was the kid's brother, dressed from head to toe in blue. I wanted to smack her. I was like, 'okay, kids, let's put our heads underwater and count to two thousand.'"

And the time when she had the jelly-bean-sized tots jump into her arms one at a time, shouting the name of their favorite movie as they jumped.

"Finding Nemo!"

Catch! Paddle paddle paddle.


Catch! Paddle paddle paddle.

"Edward Scissorhands!"

"Wha...?" Plop.

That's my favorite story.

Funny favors the prepared. I better get my funny on.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76 in Massachusetts, his home state (and mine).

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the Times called Updike "kaleidoscopically gifted" and I suppose that's as near justice as the English language can give to one of its masters.

Updike's best-known novel Rabbit, Run changed my life when I first read it at 16. It wasn't the plot, a sordid, wistful, tragic, existential journey, that captivated me. It wasn't the hero, Rabbit Angstrom, a tragicomic child-man coming of age in his 30s. It was the sumptuous prose, with little phrase-gems embedded in every page, which I heavily underlined in blue pen and continued to flip back to, reverently, even after I had finished the book.

When I come across a paragraph like the following, I consider a book has paid for itself:

Growing sleepy, Rabbit stops before midnight at a roadside cafe for coffee. Somehow, though he can't put his finger on the difference, he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men sitting in zippered jackets in booths three to a girl, the girls with orange hair hanging like wiggly seaweed or loosely bound with gold barrettes like pirate treasure. At the counter middleaged couples in overcoats bunch their faces forward into the straws of gray icecream sodas. In the hush his entrance creates, the excessive courtesy the weary woman behind the counter shows him amplifies his strangeness. He orders coffee quietly and studies the rim of the cup to steady the sliding in his stomach. He had thought, he had read, that from shore to shore all America was the same. He wonders, Is it just these people I'm outside or is it all America?-Rabbit Run, John Updike, 1960.

Updike turned prose into a tactile experience, uncomfortably and exquisitely so. On re-reading, the words haven't lost any of the wonder they held for me when I was a teenager. I picked up another of his novels, Couples,
a few years later, and although it was a bit too--have I already said "sordid?"--sordid for me to see through to the finish, the images and descriptions were similarly wondrous.

Not to belabor a simple offering of praise, Updike made a profound impression on me. My imagination owes him a debt of gratitude.

The missing manuscripts

My life is what it is, and what it is mainly is free of great tragedy, for which I am most grateful. But there have been a distinct few life-defining calamities that have marked me. One of the chief of these is what I choose to call the Missing Manuscripts Crisis, which now is much bemoaned by me, and 70 years hence, will be much bemoaned by the educated world.

All joking aside, I once had a blog on an obscure but nice-looking server called Modblog. I started the blog in 2004, at the bright-eyed age of 16. There were a bunch of friends with whom I was lucky enough to blog (nota bene: in the homeschool world, we sometimes import our social circles from the internet.) Those blogs were more than daily logbooks or forums for venting teenage angst, though they did see plenty of both. We commented on our goings-about, our readings, and our deepest thoughts (and I dare say there were some geniuses in the group, though I was not among them).

We shared anger at commonly perceived injustices. We gave each other nicknames (or, at least the leader of the group, Julia, nicknames us all and we loved it). And at those frequent and inevitable times when angst became despair, we encouraged each other.

And here's the travesty: the blog server went offline without warning one fateful day in (I think) 2007. And never went back up again. The heaven-blessed returned at first 21 of my saved postings (from THREE years! of posting every day!), then blocked the link on my return. Now only 11 pages survive, and I'm sure the damage is just as catastrophic for the other bloggers.

Now again, I emphasize that what I wrote on that blog wasn't often intellectually scintillating, but it was a fairly accurate chronicle of my life and the endless time I had for reading good books.

I grabbed a few screenshots: all that remain of what was once my most prized "possession." Weep with me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Another use for the marvelous iPod

On my jog up to Carnegie Hall this morning (FAILed mission to get tickets; box office opens at 11) I discovered what an excellent handbag my iPod makes. Into its rubbery silicon case behind the iPod I slid a debit card, driver's license, two student id's, Metrocard, $40, and a housekey. The only necessity that wouldn't fit was my cell phone. Hurrah for efficiency, I say. Boo to Carnegie Hall.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I've Been Won (And Influenced)

When my mother casually mentioned that she'd been reading Dale Carnegie's famous self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and recommended it, I scoffed. The book's title alone seems indicative of the sort of manipulative interpersonal techniques that I particularly detest. I'd rather be hated for my sincerity than loved for flattery and artificiality.

But when I was browsing the 48-cent shelf at The Strand a few weeks later, I saw a paperback copy of the book and impulsively bought it. I think there's a New York City statute requiring the purchase of 48-cent books of mild interest, at any rate. I began to read it, and to my delight found it was a pleasingly informal book of instruction written in 1933, not a textified version of a popular '90s business self-help course as I suspected.

Carnegie's daughter, Dorothy Carnegie, endeavored to revise the little book in 1988 with more modern historical references while leaving most of Carnegie's language and idiom intact, and thus I was further amused to find results of bygone research ("a recent survey found that the reason most wives run away is that they feel unappreciated") and antique vernacular ("bear oil!") nestled beside passing references to World War II.

The contents of the book break down lists of ways to "win people over to your way of thinking" and "fundamental techniques to handling people" into chapters featuring conversational anecdotes of people, both historical figures and the author's personal acquaintainces. (The categories sometimes overlap). But nowhere does Carnegie advocate flattery, manipulation, or deceit.

One of his chapters encourages readers to sincerely love people. Another demonstrates how it is impossible to "win" an argument--in order to maintain goodwill, you must always humble yourself and admit your own errors. These tricks aren't simple band-aid fixes for the socially inept. Nor are they so very original-most run parallel to biblical Beatitudes or Proverbs.

Since I was so impressed by the book, I decided to practice as many of the pointers as I could remember, particularly the most challenging ones. Like allowing myself to "lose" in an interpersonal conflict.

And I didn't have long to wait until I could test the Carnegie principles. Tension with someone close to me escalated into a multi-episodic battle. I have to admit, my first few efforts at forbearance, humility, and "seeing the other person's point of view" failed miserably, but finally, at a meeting that could easily have become a showdown, I humbled myself more than I thought I could in admitting a multitude of faults, used some phrases from the book with complete sincerity ("I would feel exactly the same if I were you"), and was amazed to see the atmosphere transform and the tension dissolve. We're now closer than we've ever been, and I find I don't care at all that, of the two of us, I conceded more.

I'm a Carnegie convert, and I just may become "that guy" who gives copies of a favorite book suggestively to friends ("this one
really helped me to control my anger--YOU should read it"). Well, I hope it doesn't come to that, but consider this a hearty recommendation.

I always imagined I was simply bad with people, that God created a level playing field of gift and talent and I clearly had overcompensated somewhere else. But now I have hope that I, too, could learn to be a successful social creature. And that fills me with an optimism you wouldn't expect.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Real Women are Becoming Obsolete

Today at a newspaper staff meeting, I casually mentioned how impressed I'd been with a New York Magazine article about the negative effect of pornography on the natural appetites of men for actual women. Two male editors who had read it echoed my enthusiasm, and in half a second, we were shouting with excitement about the story and the way it had moved us.

The body of the story, written by Naomi Wolf (you can read it here, but be forewarned: the content is mature and somewhat graphic by necessity) presents an argument I've heard before: the unrealistic and undemanding images in pornography (ever more ubiquitous since the beginning of the Internet Age) distort perceptions of reality and healthy sexuality. Men who view porn find it more difficult to be "turned on" by real women, with imperfections and needs of their own. It alienates and debases young men and women whose preconceptions and expectations are formed by constant exposure to sexual images from childhood on.

For me, the most poignant part of the article was a personal story Ms. Wolf related about a friend who had become an Orthodox Jew:

When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”

When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.

She must feel, I thought, so hot.

I'm not going to belabor what Ms. Wolf said so well with a lot of extra commentary, but how mistaken are we today to think abandoning sexual reticence and morality will stimulate and liberate us! We have become neutered and unsatisfied instead. In a culture stifled by comfortable falsehoods, how refreshing to get a brisk shot of truth.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

This week: things I love in books, movies, and theater

BBC's Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My desire to put this tear-jerker by Thomas Hardy onscreen properly made me consider pursuing film at one point in my life. I've often asked myself who I'd cast as Tess: Keira Knightley? Perhaps Scarlett Johansson a la Girl With a Pearl Earring?

Neither could match Gemma Arterton's sweet innocence as Tess Durbeyfield, a virtuous and hardworking young girl whose happiness is continually thwarted by cruelty and circumstance. Hans Matheson is almost too charming as the artfully seductive villain Alec Stokes-D'Urberville, and even though Eddie Redmayne is a bit less serious and substantial than I imagined Hardy's conflicted romantic hero Angel Clare to be, he manages to be captivating in the role nonetheless.

I've only seen the first of two episodes airing on Masterpiece Theater (you can stream them for a limited time here, and you should), but based on what I've seen, I'll die satisfied. The production captures the scenes and language of the book nearly verbatim. I feel like I'm re-reading the story in Surround Sound, rather than watching a movie.

Forewarned is forearmed: Hardy's story will leave you with a pervasive sense of sadness that isn't easily shaken off. The power in the story is that justice isn't done, and the failed heroes of the story realize their weakness and hypocrisy too late. Stock up on Kleenex, and keep some in your pocket for later.

View recorded theater productions for free at the New York Library for the Performing Arts

If your favorite show is no longer playing on Broadway, or you missed your chance to see a classic, all is not lost: NYPL's Theater on Film and Tape collection at the Library for the Performing Arts keeps a wealth of televised performances that are available for by-appointment viewing once the show has ended its run. Visit the Library Web site for more information, or call the TOFT Archive at (212)870-1642 to schedule an appointment.

A few caveats: your viewing must tied to a specific research project, and you need to sign a form certifying that you'll only see a given production once. I viewed the delightful French Revolution musical The Scarlet Pimpernel yesterday for pleasure, and also for a book/theater comparison I plan to write. What an incredible resource!

Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi at Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble

Truly, this has been a week of dreams for me. A lovely new TV production of one favorite book, and a chance to meet the author of another. I fell in love with Iranian author Azar Nafisi's gentle writing style and conviction in her "memoir in books," Reading Lolita in Tehran this summer, and Wednesday heard her speak at a book signing for a new, more personal memoir, Things I've Been Silent About.

In the book, Ms. Nafisi recounts how she and her father used stories to temper the hardships of family life and the realities of the times. In her talk, she said, "through safeguarding memories, we safeguard life itself...(memory is) conclusive evidence that we have lived." How, she asked, should we confront "that absolute of all silences, which is death?" Stories, she said, continue the unfinished conversation.

Ms. Nafisi quoted Primo Levi's powerful words, "I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind." Well-timed thoughts for me. Though I can't really afford it, I bought Things I've Been Silent About so I could get Ms. Nafisi's autograph on the inside. Now, if only B&N would host Fyodor Dostoevsky, I'd be truly happy!

For more exceptional author events at Barnes & Noble in the city, shuffle through here. This month alone, two more locations will host book readings by former president Jimmy Carter (We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work) and economic activist Lisa Sharon Harper (Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican...or Democrat). Look me up and we can go together.