Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One day...

When Kyle Burkhalter gets up in the morning, he goes into the kitchen and fixes himself a nice cup of ice.

The 24-year-old director of research for a Web site chews the ice in the car on his way to work in Atlanta. He downs two or three more cups before lunch. He orders ice from drive-thru windows and dips into the office ice machine. Sometimes, his tongue gets so numb he can barely talk to clients.

Still, he munches on. "It's something that you want to do and you think about doing on a constant basis," he says.

(WSJ, 1/30/08)

I have a new-found obsession with the beautiful, quirky, intelligent writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rupert, when the hell will you make it accessible to everybody?

**Bonus: . It's called "The Triumph of Bullshit." Definitely one of the greatest creations the internets have wrought. (Via Gawker)**

Friday, January 25, 2008

Judith Warner, I love you

Kel loves orange soda, you love coffee, and I love how you write about loving coffee (and many other things too, for the record).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Evidence that I may still be under ten (years old, that is)

- This byline made me giggle. Also, there's an editor at the Hartford Courant named Jim Doody. They're vying in my head for best scatological name ever. The first guy is his own sentence.

- There's a plastic monkey figurine living in my purse. It's there because I passed some vending globes on the street on Amsterdam Ave., one was full of tiny monkeys, and I thought, "How could I NOT spend a quarter on a monkey?!" (Can anyone argue with that logic?) Its name is Curious George, because my favorite three year old decided so.

- I've spent tangible blocks of time resenting the fact that cookies are a sometimes food.

- A friend and I made sometimes-food sugar cookies the other night, using our nimble fingers and some chocolate chips and red hots to replace a lack of cookie cutters. She made reasonable-enough facsimiles of Low Library and peace signs. I made a snow man whose red hot scarf looked like a series of bloody torso wounds. And a "chocolate chip cookie."

- I still get excited about the prospect of spending long afternoons playing with kids -- though mostly ones who tend toward mischievous.

- I <3 lolcats that say this:

The Web site's caption says the second photo is originally from The Economist. Life is good.

A low-key debut

Some upstart spent her whole day reporting! For the first time in forever!

Tangible results here and here.

Also, all my journalist friends are linking to this WP op-ed, on the decline of news (as opposed to news-papers). When I finally buckled down and read it, I realized that it's a beautiful piece of writing, and it certainly resonates with me, too.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Who is that witty new blogger over at the Daily Transom?

Whoever it is certainly has a penchant for one-liners. (NYO)

Plus, a sweet, thoughtful essay on the important things in life and how to claim such decisions as one's own. ("The Bus to Houston," NYT Mag 1/20/08)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Book Review: Water for Elephants

(disclaimer: Didn't take notes or mark pages. Just read it.)

Remember that final exam in college when your mind blanked and you scribbled away with blind panic? Jacob Jankowski flees Cornell in Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and joins the circus instead.

(In all fairness to a sweetly flawed, sincere character, he'd just found out both parents were killed in a car crash.)

Jacob jumps aboard a moving train and ends up among the lowly grunt workers of the corrupt Benzini Brothers traveling circus. One unfinished exam from a veterinary degree, he finagles a job as staff vet.

The story is told by elder Jacob who, in present-day chapters, waits in a nursing home for his family to take him to a circus performance. Old Jacob lives mostly in his memories to escape the gelatinous grub and senile compatriots that comprise his actual day-to-day. The character is consistent across decades -- both are prone to grumpy self-indignance. This honest self-awareness kept me on board with him for what otherwise could have been unconvincing heroicism.

Because truth is, the story itself is fraught with cliches -- the characters that should be bad are, the working men are gruff but kindly, Jacob and the leggy performer, Marlena, fall in love at first sight. The circus freaks have their own moral system distinct from Jacob's Ivy League past but, in the carnivalesque tradition, a reader that withholds judgment is rewarded by coming to the usual broader understanding of goodness.

While cliche, the story is well-told. At one point Jacob, murder on the brain, creeps from car to car with Robin Hood cunning atop a racing train with a dagger between his teeth. That the dagger actually tears this hero's lips makes him more of one.

My biggest complaint is that the circus becomes a flat backdrop for the machinations of Jacob, Marlena and her husband, the cruel but charming August. That Gruen can evoke the gritty chaos of circus life when she wishes makes me wish she did so more often. It's compelling. This makes sense when, in an ending author's note, she says the novel was inspired by an archive of circus photos (some featured between chapters) that fired a scholarly fascination with the lifestyle.

Despite shortcomings, Gruen's poised prose and narrative construction -- the prologue foretells the end, but the final twist is a surprise even though you've read it all before -- make Water for Elephants a worthy read.

Oh. My. God.

You may remember reading about Nixzmary Brown in the past couple years, the seven-year-old who was starved and beaten to death at age seven, allegedly by her mother and stepfather in Bed-Stuy. Coverage of the horrifying case continues today. The reporter doesn't even bother pretending to be objective.

The lawyer for the stepfather is trying to cast the girl, who only weighed 36 pounds, as a little monster who needed all the harsh discipline possible. The fatal beating came after Nixzmary was caught with a "forbidden" carton of yogurt.

Mr. Schwartz [the lawyer] said, “It’s easy to say, ‘Aw, he killed the kid and beat her because of yogurt.’ Many of us don’t have yogurt problems” — here he gestured to his own well-fed midsection — “but when you’re poor and you can’t afford unlimited amounts of food and you have six children, you have to make sure that everyone gets what they’re entitled to get, so that you can ensure that everyone stays healthy.”
Is that not the sickest spin in history?

She was seven, and she was starving -- half the size a kid her age should have been. She had younger siblings that were not mistreated, or at least not to a prosecuting degree. Her brief life of physical and psychic pain must have been a horror-show beyond most people's realm of imagination.

Nixzmary's school reported suspected (visible burn marks and bruises...) abuse to the Administration for Child Services -- twice -- but they dropped the ball. It's tough to make any bureaucracy run smoothly, but when ACS messes up, children die. All the cases they get right don't make the news, but they should have little room to err. It would make sense to pour resources into child welfare agencies, because taking good care of underprivileged children would help minimize the number of undereducated, impoverished adults, and maybe even create a contingent of people in a perfect position to give back to their city. (I need to learn more about this stuff so I can argue with more solid evidential backup.)

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Cesar Rodriguez was beating up this little 36-pound, 7-year-old girl,’ ” Mr. Schwartz said. “But think about it — all the other kids were younger and smaller.”

How many behavioral options does a severely malnourished child bound to a chair have?

Read up on the case history here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I love old photos with builders balancing precariously atop unfinished buildings.

(Grudging credit to the Blue and White Blog for pointing out the photo archive)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Oprah has wayyyyyy too much power

Building my case that Oprah seeks to take over the hearts and minds of ALL people, everywhere, not just middle-aged women with time to kill weekday afternoons. Who buy her magazines. And her book club selections. And let Dr. Phil become a television presence. And lend credence to her presidential endorsement. I'll give the woman this much credit: she's damn savvy.

Some argue that Oprah espouses tenets and objects of sturdy moral fiber, etc etc, and that her influence is a guiding light in the detritus that is modern pop culture. I can concede that to a limited extent, but I mostly think giving any one person that much influence is a dangerous idea.

Also, I heard she wears wigs. What's up with that?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Sex and the Teenage Girl"

What do we think of this? (my reflex is to disagree, but I'm not sure I do.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What happened to feminism?

Barnard does not accurately reflect the world beyond its gates. (And I'm not talking about the disproportionate population of the Long Island JAP Leggings-and-Uggs set.) The college seeks to cultivate an atmosphere that empowers women in ways that can seem heavy-handed. There are all manner of events, lectures, courses, and performances that feature feminist themes and brilliant female artists and intellectuals.

I attended events I found meaningful -- readings by beloved professors, panels where Mary Cheney sat alongside Kathleen Turner. I saw Sandra Day O'Connor speak at Barnard before she retired. Anna Quindlen, who writes on feminism well and often, is chair of the board of trustees and, it seems, makes a point of being a visible campus presence. There is a big student-run event each spring called Sexhibition -- not the day to bring kids to play in the grass, unless they want to try the dildo ring toss -- and health services offers weekly GYN appointments.

The best example of Barnard crazy was Doris, a sweet older woman who worked in the College Activities Office. Her voicemail messages, sent campus-wide through the phone system (I can only guess her greetings continued after my freshman year; I stopped using landlines), were legendary. "Hello my strong, beautiful Barnard women," she'd intone, at least weekly, no sarcasm included. The rest of the message regarded discount theater tickets.

All this seemed like overkill at the time. I wondered why it was necessary to fling constant examples of the world at us. Of course women can be artists, writers, and scientists. We're smart and motivated. Who would stop us?

Somewhere there, I imbibed Barnard's baseline assumption that women not only can reclaim success, sexuality, and femininity and redefine them on their terms but also that they must, and do. One day, perhaps, stay-at-home-dads will not seem anomalous outside Park Slope and female bodies won't be objectified in pop culture. Until then, we fight. I realized soon after graduation that, though this all seemed dully obvious to me, it's not the prevailing M.O. out in the real world. I felt like the wind was socked out of me (a bad simile for bad novels, but true).

I interned at a science magazine in the fall. It's a good publication staffed by smart, passionate journalists. Its features kept me -- not a science aficionado -- engrossed. But the magazine's definition of "science" is a narrowly traditional one; it's science as a superstar-driven process whose results teach us more about how nature is.

I took a course at Barnard called Anthropology of Science where the professor argued convincingly that a traditional view of science discounts the ways knowledge-making is a result of the interplay between "nature" and "culture" -- that it may even be impossible to disentangle the two. Take stem cell research: rules prohibit conducting most inquiry with equipment that was bought with federal funding. These money rules hamper the ways scientists can design and conduct experiments, which then affect their results. What we know about stem cells could look very different in a different socio-political atmosphere. Writing about science as though it is its lab results, then, obscures a large part of the picture. Science also looks different when people other than the traditional white male lab director wield the microscope, because different backgrounds make different seeing.

I asked a female editor why the magazine did not address issues of race, gender, and politics in science more often. She said they cover the findings of labs, and most labs are run by white men. I hope women make it to the top soon, she said, so we can cover them too. Exit oxygen.

The other science magazine epiphany concerned the "magazine" half. I can best liken its female editorial director to Meryl Streep's character in The Devil Wears Prada. (I liked the movie but haven't read the book. I have a rule against reading books with illustrated shoes and martini glasses on their covers. And pink. No pink.) She has a long magazine career behind her, is always impeccably put together in subtly expensive clothes, has razor intelligence and correctly assumes she knows more about the business than anyone else in the room.

One might bet (and I've heard tell) that this woman clawed her way to the top of the magazine world in an era when sexism was more overt and snagging a dream career came at a cost. Now she can't see her influence as a leverage point to help young women keep steady in her toeholds. Her attitude is more "I fought to get here and you should, too." I watched her use small, human errors as fodder for permanent falls from favor. The staff is terrified of her judgment. It made me sad to see so much insight that was not being transmitted. Even Miranda Priestly was allowed to recognize the efficacy of choices she didn't make, and she's fictional.

Some successful women, a professor told me as we navigated one of Columbia's labyrinthine brick walkways last spring, in another life, want to help the women that follow them through the pipeline. Others enjoyed their status as the only gal in the room and don't want their primacy threatened by new arrivals. As a newly minted college grad, I truly believed that most women with influence sought to incinerate the glass ceiling. My naivete was showing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Slow news day?

Manhattan-based media outlets are eating up the story of the new public toilet just installed in Madison Square Park. For 25 cents, you get up to 15 minutes in a self-cleaning box. Will actual public toilets become the new Starbucks?


Thursday, January 10, 2008

WWR prime link placement for a friend edition

* Profile of Kate Webb in NYT Mag's annual "The Lives They Lived" issue (12/30/07)

* "A Chilling Photograph's Hidden History" by Joshua Prager (WSJ, 12/2/06)

The Talk

G clamored onto my lap, her legs disappearing beneath her gray Catholic school jumper with its heinous red-checked pinafore. Her pale blue eyes looked into mine, deliberate pools of innocence.

“Can you just tell me how babies are made?” she asked.

G was nearly ten then but small for her age and still a tad baby-cheeked. I met her before she turned six. She’s the little sister I never had. One brisk day when I complained about the cold as we walked through Central Park, she smirked. “Well, stop being so vain and put on a jacket!” Such empathy. But I digress.

I refused to disclose the birds and bees. I had no idea what she heard at recess (or “roof,” they call it, since that’s where their playground is. Weird, no?) or what her parents wanted her to know. G said she was afraid her mom would be angry if she asked. I doubted it, so I let the mom know via phone while G stood nearby biting her lower lip.

We had a puberty conversation instead.

(“Breasts are SO GROSS!”
“They’re not gross – they’re natural. They feed babies.”
“I don’t want them.”
“You have two options: You can grow them at some point, or else you can be dead.”
“…Good point.”)

That was severe, but I’m terrified by the idea that this perceptive, sensitive little sweetheart may experience some of the embattled hatred I’ve felt for my body. I want both of us to believe that bodies and minds are a team, and that sexuality is healthy, natural, and a legitimate part of the warp and woof of identity. There’s no shame in desiring – ice cream or another – and a mind is only at its best when one honors the whole. Anyone who’s ever felt their life stressors less severe after a work-out should know that.

G fell asleep shortly before her mom returned home.

“No one’s ever asked me that before,” I told her of her daughter’s query.

“No one’s ever asked me that before,” she said.

A few weeks later, G again curled herself into my lap to flip through a book on Botero. She skimmed past many cartoonishly voluptuous female forms as I did internal Art Hum-style critiques on them. She stopped on one where a couple in the background was going at it. She scrutinized the image without puzzlement. Guess they had that discussion.

“Isn’t this kind of gross?” she implored. “Aren’t you grossed out that you’ll have to do it once you get married?”

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Talk About Esoteric

From this month's Dorothy Parker Society newsletter:

The president of France is dating the country's biggest Dorothy Parker fan. Carla Bruni, an Italian-French supermodel-musician, has recorded two Parker pieces on her latest album. From press reports, she is dating President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Yes, the DPS. The group's seasonal walking tours remain on my to-do list.

(Real thoughts and writing TK?)

Friday, January 04, 2008

WWR 1-4-08

* Still making up for 'lost' time! "Nazis Say the Darnedest Things" (New Yorker, "Shouts and Murmurs," 5/22/06)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

I think too much

I learned loads in college -- how to think critically, write well, walk far, and read for nuance. I learned how to be a journalist and a feminist. I ate when hungry and screamed when livid. I learned that it's possible to do anything one-handed as long as the other hand is clutching a coffee cup.

But there are different kinds of learning. I'm not a big believer in non-fiction for revelation -- fiction does it better -- but the book Gaining, by Aimee Liu, opened my eyes. (It was one of the books I ploughed through while procrastinating writing my senior thesis.) Here, she discusses a study that pinpointed factor increasing the likelihood of someone being at risk for an eating disorder:

The healthy group consisted of students and staff recruited from two London universities, and they scored about the same as the eating disordered patients on academic performance. Yet not one of the healthy subjects remembered agonizing over grades as a child, convincing herself she wasn't good enough, or filling with rage if her friends decided to change the rules of a game. Such reactions had been so typical of me as a child that I'd assumed they were true of anyone who did well in school -- or, later, of anyone who succeeded professionally.

...throughout my life... I had assumed that anyone who "achieved" did so with the help of an internal tyrant who established rigid standards, rules, routines, timetables, codes, and expectations... It never occurred to me that among other high achievers, compulsive perfectionists were the exception rather than the rule.
This is all a long-winded buildup to admitting that I spent my years in college working very hard, yes, and getting my shit together, but that all allowed me to avoid asking broader life questions. There is no time to consider what (and who) you want -- no time to desire -- as long as there is always more homework to do.

There's no homework anymore so, though my brain battles itself, I'm finally taking tentative steps toward learning what I want in life, love and (yes, I admit) sex. Because of the subjects' newness, I'm feeling simultaneously older and younger.

I planned to be more specific, but I've lost my resolve. More later?

Writing Worth Reading

Take One at a new Drank Coffee feature! Introducing "Writing Worth Reading" (WWR, not to be confused with its cousin abbreviation, DDR)

I'll try to share pieces from across the internets that I think are worth your time. I already subject my friends via e-mail anyway.

* 3 Girls for the Price of One (if You Could Get a Ticket) (NYT, 12/31/07)
Kelefa Sanneh is giving A. O. Scott some serious competition as my Favorite Reviewer Ever. (See the piece that cemented Sr. Scott's pedestal here. Background context: Dan Brown is the devil.) Sanneh's Miley Cyrus concert review is a great piece of writing, down to the final line. Especially the final line.

* "I now had a secret friend nestled by my leg, giving me strength and encouragement."
Emily Yoffe, Slate's Human Guinea Pig, tries life as a drag king. ("Man Made," 12/19/07)

* "The Walker and the Walk" by Nicole Krauss (NYT, 8/19/07) says what I feel better than I ever have. The city nestles its terrain into my network of associations so that a walk is more mental than physical activity.

* Major throwback, but one of my favorites: In 2006, the Hartford Courant's Elizabeth Hamilton wrote about being raped as a child. ("The Mourning After," 3/19/06)

Blogging, Take Two

I haven't touched this thing in forever, but I have a little bit of time that I'm determined to use for writing. Maybe if I can make informal blogging a daily(ish) habit then all other writing will follow.

But like my fledgling bikram practice, this will still be something I try to do well but without self-judgment. I love what bikram does for my body and mind but, if it becomes something I must do and excel at, my practice will lose much of what I appreciate about it.

I make no promises (and at this point I'd only be promising myself anyway; nobody knows this blog exists), but let's see what happens...

Today's grandfatherly advice: Only buy when you don't need

I showed off my spankin' new jeans, which I found for $30 on sale. Got them yesterday and am wearing them today. Perhaps I needed a new pair?

"But, Poppy, I don't have money to buy things I don't need."

"But if you see something you like, squeeze and buy it, because you might need it six months down the road. Take it from an auctioneer."

In his younger days, my roommate-grandfather was a fruit buyer, back when the pier 25 area was full of fruit wholesalers each morning.

I decided not to point out that, as usual, his logic doesn't quite add up. I can't see sequestering nectarines away for an upcoming season.