Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Change in blog address

I just wanted to let you all know that I'm re-locating blog address's so I can use wordpress software to snazz up my blog and take advantage of some of their neat features that blogger unfortunately lacks. Check me out and bookmark me at http://elainemeyer.wordpress.com/.

Dan Seals is running in 2008

Good news! Dan Seals, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Rep for the 10th District of Illinois, with whom I volunteered last summer, is challenging incumbent Mark Kirk again in 2008. He already has a primary opponent too: Jay Footlik, an advsier to the 2004 Kerry campaign. I would be wary of anyone who's reaching out to John Kerry for campaign advice, as Footlik has reportedly done.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Terms That Annoy Me

And now for the annoying term of the day:

"power couple"

Usage: describes a successful and often pretty obnoxious husband and wife team
("husband and wife team" is another phrase which I hate)

Power couple examples that prove this to be true: Mary Matalin and James Carville, Lynne and Dick Cheney, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian

The term's high-intensity tenor is what gets me in particular. It's another one of those journalistic cliches that's often used in the context of politics or business to lend a snappy, knowing air to a piece.

Expressions in the power couple family: power lunch, business casual, power nap, heads down, suit up

The line blurs even more

Hillary Clinton's takeoff on the "Sopranos" finale, with special guest Bill and special reference to Chelsea is just about the blurriest that the line has been drawn between celebrity and politics--at least since Ronald Reagan got elected into public office. Just watching it, I felt like the Clintons were a television family that I had grown up with more than public officials. The jab at Bill's eating habits just puts it over the top.

Is it bad that,
(1) This stunt makes me like Hillary a little better?
(2) I've started to enjoy the Journey song after this and the Sopranos finale?

Yes, I think it is.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Boost for journalism school

I'm two years late on unearthing this, but for my purposes, it's okay:

The leaders of five of the nation's most prominent journalism programs are joining in a three-year, $6 million effort to try to elevate the standing of journalism in academia and find ways to prepare journalists better.

The unusual collaboration, which has been developing for three years, involves Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University; Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley; Loren Ghiglione, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California; and Alex S. Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Journalism school may be more useful than in the past, according to Berekley's dean:

While journalists have long debated the value of journalism schools, Mr. Schell, who did not attend journalism school, said he now thought such institutions were more vital than they might have been in the past.

"Things have changed substantially since we came up the journalistic food chain," he said. "As news cycles have gotten faster and more bottom-line driven, there has been less inclination and capacity in media outlets to train, mentor and guide upcoming generations."


I'll keep posting about my own investigation into journalism school. My first j-school visit is planned for the weekend of July 27th to Medill at Northwestern, my alma mater.

Friday, June 15, 2007

For the love of a non-scandal

Why oh why are blogs and news outlets implying that Barack Obama is guilty of something for which there is no evidence? In the next wave of "air of scandal" reporting that enjoyed such a following during the Clinton administration, Obama is being unfairly linked to a guy under federal investigation. Wonkette today links to Wizbang politics, which does this very thing, quoting a New York Times article which itself offers no evidence of wrongdoing on Obama's part but makes something out of Obama's connection with this guy Rezko anyway:

Mr. Obama says he never did any favors for Mr. Rezko, who raised about $150,000 for his campaigns over the years and was once one of the most powerful men in Illinois. There is no sign that Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, did anything improper.


Wizbang argues that "this presents a problem for Obama" because "[a]nything which clouds his pure-as-the-driven-snow image can damage his campaign, since he doesn't have a resume of experience to tout and depends upon that image." They are wrong. Rezko only presents a problem for Obama if blogs like Wizbang decide to talk it up. Obama has been proven guilty of nothing. It seems, as I have said before, that people love to knock down those who they see as perfect, or as Wizbang puts it "fresh face[d]." If Obama were an unabashed wheeler and dealer, I'm sure he wouldn't be getting this treatment. George W. Bush never did.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How do people afford this city?

In my new and unplanned blog series about how damn expensive life is, I explore D.C.'s cost-of-living and how increasingly unaffordable it is to live here on a non-profit or lower level government-worker's salary. I was reminded of this once again as I searched Craigslist for future housing options for the coming year. Considering that the once "cheap" and relatively well-located areas of the city like Columbia Heights are in the process of being uber-gentrified, it appears hope is lost for the automobile-lacking person who wants to live in a D.C. neighborhood that is in walking distance of a grocery store, Metro, and a few other commercial establishments that aren't liquor stores or Western Unions. The low-end of a 3 bedroom in Columbia Heights now appears to be 2800 per month or 933 per person, usually before utilities are added in.

Hypothetical: If I'm making $15 per hour at a non-profit working 8 hour days, five days a week, I make 2400 per month, before taxes, or 31.2 K per year. My D.C. income tax alone would be $400 per year plus an additional 6% of the excess income above 10,000, which in my case would be $139 per month. Federal income tax is 4,220 plus 25% of the amount over 30,650, which amounts to $4357.50 or 363.13 per month. Medicare and Social Security taxes are 199, by my calculations, so after taxes, I make 1837.87 per month. My health care premium might be around 60 per month (more if I have a "pre-existing condition"), so I'm down to 1777.87 per month. Now, subtract my 933 rent and a 50 utility check (add at least 25 more if I have cable), and I am left with 794.87. I have to eat, which we can approximate at around 250 per month and buy work clothes which maybe be around 60 per month. If I'm paying back 250 in student loans per month, I am now down to about 245, some of which I probably want to put into a retirement account (though it won't amount to the 10% of income that is recommended), the rest of which I should put in a cash reserves account. Keep in mind that Hill staffers often make significantly less than this hypothetical non-profit salary.

So the question is, why, in spite of the high cost-of-living and relatively low salary do young, aspiring public servants move to this city after graduation? I guess my reason was that it seemed like the most likely place to get the sort of occupation I've described and to meet other people with the same priorities, but often enough, people like me come to D.C. and get disconcerted that their peers aren't here for these noble reasons but rather to feed their own ambition. Members of this group are willing to stick out their financial necks to live in a city whose lackluster city services, absent mid-range dining and shopping scene, and pretty uniform group of professionals (i.e., lawyers and aspiring lawyers) can make it at times a trying place to live. Note to my peers: as long as we keep forking over our rent money (and I'm guilty like you), D.C. will continue to be increasingly unaffordable to people like us.

This flight from affordability is of course egged on by D.C.'s subscription to the standard mode of urban renewal today: gentrify, gentrify, gentrify. The luxury condos and shopping complex with the likes of a Target that have swept through Columbia Heights within the past year are a clear culprit for the recently increased rents; they're also the culprit for the continued lack of entreprenuerial character that D.C. maintains. Increasingly, D.C. has become a city for the very well-off, the young cash-strapped, and the long-time residents who seem to have fairly little say in any of this planning. Why I continue to live here, I don't know.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Adjustments

One adjustments that I've endured going from collegiate to working stiff is coming to dislike things I used to like. Most notable right now is my palpable aversion to summer. What used to be the season of freedom and idling is now that of sweating and thirsting on the walk to work. When I had jobs and internships in Chicago between the school years, I started to feel a twitch of irritation at humid days, non-stimulating work assignments, long commutes, and early (for a college student) mornings. When this all becomes a consistent fact, it is even worse. Mind you, not morale crushing or dire, just a disappointment when recalling the way summer used to be. Especially here in D.C., where summers means a stultifying combination of work attire and ozone warnings, it becomes difficult to look forward to anything about the season ,save its end. Even in Chicago where it tends to get humid, Lake Michigan's unpredictable wind patterns can bring cool days, the kind that relieve you from the 80 and 90-degree days that are accompanied by glaring, cloudless sun that feels like it is an imperturbable spy following wherever you go. Summer is no longer a relief from school either now that I'm working full-time. It is just another season that blends in with the slow-moving quickness of all of the others in a working person's year. Seasons are no longer about events or milestones but about dressing for the weather.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Postcards from Utopia

I just returned from San Francisco and am still revelling in the beauty of all of its sites. One thing I thought about while there is how San Francisco is one of several municipalities that is sometimes preceded with the jabbing moniker "the Peoples' Republic of..." Other places I've heard this prefix attached to are Alexandria, Virginia, the state of Massachusetts, and Evanston, Illinois. The truth is, all of these "Peoples' Republics "are pretty great places to live. While none of them are similar to the Communist states to which the phrase alludes, the policies that make these places seem more socialist or communist can't be too bad if they are such nice parts of the country to visit and live. Furthermore, a place like San Francisco is really a place of thriving entrepreneurialism, not only because it was one of the headquarters to the dot com explosion but also because it has the fewest amount of chain establishments one will find in just about any American city and a bevvy of competing small businesses in their stead. Without further ado, here are some photos from this aforementioned utopia:




(Photo credit: Steph Pituc)



(Photo credit: Steph)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Travel Lists

After visiting SF, I will provide my current, top five global cities list (among the cities I've been to) along with some other travel lists:
1. Paris
2. San Francisco
3. Chicago
4. Rome
5. London

And the top 5 most scenic cites:
1. Salzburg
2. San Francisco
3. Florence
4. Paris
5. Geneva
Honorable mention: Washington D.C. and San Diego

And the top 5 best airports:
1. Chicago O'hare-United Terminal (reason: the neon lights in the moving walkway tunnel, the bevvy of good vendors, the brightness, the exciting people watching, a lot of vendors after the security checkpoint)
2. Detroit McNamara-Northwest Terminal (reason: state-of-the art monorail that shuttles back and and forth between this huge terminal, tons of vendors, sobering bright white interior, like O'hare there are a lot of vendors after the checkpoint)
3. Amsterdam Schipol (reason: like being on an Austin Power's set, lot of weird cafes)
4. Washington-Reagan National (reason: other than it being cumbersomely renamed after one of my least favorite American presidents, the main terminal is nice, airy, and bright with decent vendors and just about enough of them to pass the time before a flight. getting stuck here might be dull though, as it's not that big)
5. Portland (reason: lots of independent vendors and claims to have competitive prices)
Honorable Mention: Dulles for the terminals, though probably not for the security checkpoints and lines

Top 5 worst airports:
1. Paris Charles DeGaulle (reason: uncontrolled lines, long waits, few vendors, unnerving 60s spaceship interior)
2. Raleigh-Durham (reason: it doesn't help that I got stuck in this dull airport because of a cancelled flight with only a Cinnabon voucher to keep me enthused about the wait)
3. Zurich (reason: dull as all get out, and it doesn't help that I had to sleep on an uncomfortable airport chair there overnight with my grandparents)
4. Rome (not sure if it's Fiumicino or Ciampino) (reason: like being inside an 80s hotel lobby, pink and green with fake tropical feel is never a good interior design motif)
5. Boston Logan (reason: meh)
Honorable mention: Frankfurt (reason: haven't been here in awhile so it may look better now, but last i was there it was a mid-renovation madhouse!)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Do we want another self-anointed CEO president?

The Times has a good article about Mitt Romney's career at Bain, the prestigious investment bank. The article implicitly questions Romney's claims that his business experience makes him a good candidate for president. Romney's business was the business of equity maximization where he exhibited not the skills of a traditional businessman--budgeting and attentive management--but the skills of an investment banker--salesmanship and presentation. Private sector candidates have a tendency to sell themselves as embodying every quality of a sharp businessman, but there are sharp businessmen in different industries, and the skills of a candidate like Romney should not be sold as the skills of a Bill Gates or Andrew Carnegie. Whether Romney's investment bank skillset are the prime qualities we want in a president is a question worth asking, one that should preclude his being labelled a businessman in the traditional sense, especially when his career has made him accustomed to fighting for the corporate good (profits)--

But Mr. Romney’s Bain career — a source of money and contacts that he has used to finance his Massachusetts campaigns and to leap ahead of his presidential rivals in early fund-raising — also exposes him to criticism that he enriched himself excessively, sometimes by cutting jobs to increase profits.

He made his money mainly through leveraged buyouts — essentially, mortgaging companies to take them over in the hope of reselling them at big profits in just a few years. It is a bare-knuckle form of investing that is in the spotlight because of the exploding profits of buyout giants like Bain, Blackstone and the Carlyle Group. In Washington, Congress is considering ending a legal quirk that lets fund managers escape much of the income tax on their earnings.


--and not for the public good.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Silenced Majority

I know I often conjecture about the disparity of concerns between the media and the American people, often without any evidence save the nagging sense that the D.C. media's preoccupation with reporting on the trivialities of political strategy has indirectly contributed to the series of giant pickles we now find ourselves facing as a nation. The Andrea Mitchells and Chris Matthews are the Neros of our time, fiddling as the world--in some cases literally--burns.

There was a great article in a Times blog about the disconnect between the Washington media and the general populace and it manifests itself every time a public figure is badgered to explain himself after criticizing Bush and his administration. As this Times piece points out, the recent upbraidal of Jimmy Carter seemed to be a case of D.C. media imposing cocktail party decorum:
Something seems a little out of whack between the mainstream media and the American people. Take the arguments of the past few days over former President Jimmy Carter's remarks about the Bush administration and the consequences of its particular brand of foreign policy. Carter didn't attack President Bush personally, but said that "as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history," which can't really be too far out of line with what many Americans think.
In coverage typical of much of the media, however, NBC Nightly News asked whether Carter had broken "an unwritten rule when commenting on the current president," and portrayed Carter's words - unfairly it seems- as a personal attack on President Bush. Fox News called it "unprecedented." Yet as an article in this newspaper <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/washington/22carter.html> on Tuesday pointed out, "presidential scholars roll their eyes at the notion that former presidents do not speak ill of current ones."

This guy is absolutely right. I'm no presidential scholar, but I seem to recall reading many times of Teddy Roosevelt's vocieferous criticism of William Howard Taft's leadership. Anyway, getting in a tizzy over whether an ex-president criticizes a sitting president sanctions the office as a regal post where all former officeholders are loyal to the myth of the office, which runs counter to the fundmanetal tenets of this lower-case republican nation.

The recent acceding of the Democrats to the timetable-free Bush war funding bill is a prime example of the party being influenced by the popular though incorrect wisdom that their original war funding bill would be viewed as taking resources away from frontline troops. The writer offers a plausible exegis on the source of the Democrats dissonance and the resulting contrition it provokes on their part to the supremely unpopular Bush administration.

I wonder whether this media distortion also persists because it doesn't meet with enough criticism, and if that's partially because many Americans think that what they see in the major political media reflects what most other Americans really think - when actually it often doesn't.

Psychologists coined the term "pluralistic ignorance" in the 1930s to refer to this type of misperception - more a social than an individual phenomenon - to which even smart people might fall victim.
[...]
In pluralistic ignorance, as described by researchers Hubert O'Gorman and Stephen Garry in a 1976 paper published in Public Opinion Quarterly, "moral principles with relatively little popular support may exert considerable influence because they are mistakenly thought to represent the views of the majority, while normative imperatives actually favored by the majority may carry less weight because they are erroneously attributed to a minority." What is especially disturbing about the process is that it lends itself to control by the noisiest and most visible.
[...]
Think of the proposal to put a timetable on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, supported, the latest poll says, by 60 percent of Americans <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/473/closeness-to-troops-boosts-support-for-war-but-not-by-much> , but dropped Tuesday from the latest war funding bill <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/washington/23cong.html> .

As the title suggests, there is as much a silent majority today as there was back when Nixon first uttered the powerful phrase at the height of the Vietnam War, but this majority is even more silenced by the D.C. media's insistence upon what concerns the "average American." If you've listened to members of the mainstream media over the years, the average American has not been too concerned with the Downing Street Memo, the Abramoff scandal, the Libby conviction, the U.S. Attorneys firings, ad infinitum. Using this logic, some members of the media fail to report on any of these incidents in a meaningful way and instead analyze the culpabilty of the players as a question of how well they spin their innocence. As a result, the media has shirked its duty to bring attention to the plagues to a democratic society--venality and autocracy--by claiming unjustifiably that the American people are too stupid to care.

In San Francisco

I'm at my friend Steph's in San Francisco and have been up for almost 24-hours, though I did take some naps on the plane. My inclination when I visit new places is to make generalizations about the people who live there. When I walk into a coffee shop or store, I categorize everyone as a San Franciscan and view their actions as reflecting upon the vibe of their city. The crazy man who yelled at the clerk at Green Apple Books in Inner Richmond about how he "controls his own money" and "wants to be respected" (yeah, this guy was nuts--he was even carrying a rain stick!) is an emblem of the zany tendencies of some of the San Fran residents. The kind people who smiled at me when I moved my bags out of the way for them on the bus are imbued with a California calm that allows them to be much more considerate and thoughtful than the people out East. Today a car almost hit me making a right turn when I had the right of way, but rather than speeding through the turn or glaring at me, the driver actually waved apologetically. It's nice that people have some remorse for their unintended recklessness. Is this San Franciscan, though? Is speeding like a frazzled, over-caffeinated a-hole Distrcit of Columbian? Why is it so tempting to generalize about a locale, anyway?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Free and Alone

Larissa Macfarquhar's recent profile of Barack Obama for the New Yorker is full of probing wisdom about the American Dream and its implications for Obama as he presents the story of himself and his family. Macfarquhar suggests that Obama tried through his early adult life to tread against his parents' inclinations--which are American inclinations--to wander in search of something better and instead sought to cultivate tradition and a sense of place. Indeed, Obama's first memoir Dreams from My Father has a Roots sensibility to it. Macfarquhar's description is unassumingly poignant. She writes:

[W]hen it came time for Obama to leave home he reversed what his mother and father and grandparents had done: he turned around and moved east. First back to the mainland, spending two years of college in California, then farther, to New York. He ended up in Chicago, back in the Midwest, from which his mother’s parents had fled, embracing everything they had escaped—the constriction of tradition, the weight of history, the provincial smallness of community, settling for your whole life in one place with one group of people. He embraced even the dirt, the violence, and the narrowness that came with that place, because they were part of its memory.


Obama's decision to move to Chicago to become a community organizer itself seems to speak to the sort of longing for entrenchment that Macfarquhar describes. I found this all very interesting because for me, whether it is better to work on setting roots or to try and continually explore is a nagging question. It is easy to imagine exciting places and happenings from afar and to believe that somewhere else is better/more interesting/dazzling/full of smarter people than here, and it is a destructive generalization because it is unconfirmable and usually just leads to despair wherever one is. On the other hand, curiosity is difficult to quell--and for a reason. I admire Obama's thoughtfulness about his parents' lives though, as it reflects a wise maturity on his part:

“What strikes me most when I think about the story of my family,” Obama writes, “is a running strain of innocence, an innocence that seems unimaginable, even by the measures of childhood.” Innocence is not, for him, a good quality, or even a redeeming excuse: it is not the opposite of guilt but the opposite of wisdom. In Obama’s description of his maternal grandfather, for instance, there is love but also contempt. “His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price,” Obama writes. “Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.”


It is a tricky thing, this balancing of freedom and rootedness, though the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. At the same time, the former tends to be the more glamorous route for a 20-something. The latter perhaps carries us further in the long run, but again, such approaches don't seem mutually exclusive to me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Running on Reagan

I haven't been paying too much attention to Presidential Campaign 2008--partially because I think it's far too early for the likes of debates and the already established tiering of the candidates, mostly because I have only so much time--but Frank Rich's recent pieces about Falwell and the Republican debate say a lot about the little that the Republican contenders have to offer. As Rich said, the Republicans seemed to be putting on their best Reagan impersonations the other night. Now that he is dead, Reagan's legacy goes beyond even the gratuitous naming of buildings, streets, and monuments in his honor: it extends to his deification by the right. For them, he is riding horses in the heavens in an open white shirt and frowining down upon Bush's deviation from his formula for Morning in America, which on closer glance does not look that different from what Bush has done this last 8 years.

Indeed, what no fan of Reagan seems ready to acknowledge is that Bush is extreme Reagan, Reagn taken to his logical end. Reagan made government bigger, he built up the defense budget, he cut taxes for the wealthier and ended up passing those on to the less wealthy in the form of Social Security tax hikes, he actively ignored the AIDS epidemic, and on and on. Bush has either done this or would do this if he could (can anyone imagine him acknowledging AIDS if he were president 25 years ago?). His policies have kowtowed even more to the social conservative part of his base than did Reagan's.

Yet, Reagan remains that elusive Republican ideal. As Rich said, the Republican candidates mentioned Reagan's name in the debates 19 times, while they only mentioned Bush's once. "Meanwhile," Rich concludes,


most of the pressing matters the public cares passionately about--Iraq, health care, the environment and energy independence--belong for now to the Democrats [...] You don't see Democrats changing the subject to JFK and FDR.

The cover of a recent news weekly asked who the country's new Truman would be. Maybe we need to stop looking for saviors from the past and start acknowledging that the problems faced because of all of the corruption and waste wrought by this current administration are pretty unique to our time and were wrought by forces that could have been prevented but were not, over and over again. If we had a Truman around, the prominent political commentators would have probably derided him for lacking experience or being too unrefined or too deferent or too overcompensating. When there have been people as good or better than Truman around (Al Gore, for instance), they've been derided. We're far past getting or deserving a Truman at this point, and what we really will need when this administration is done is someone with the energy of an FDR and the vision to realize the last thing we can affored to dwell in right now is nostalgic escapism.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Breaking down what we broadly refer to as feminism

One of the greatest triumphs for a historian is to convincingly argue that a conventionally accepted account of a time period or event is incorrect or at the very least, simplistic. To realize that a common conception of the past is flawed or shallow is jolting and transformational. It revises how we analyze current problems and what we identify as their root causes.

Over the course of the last several years, I came to understand that my view of the 1960s and 1970s was formed by an overbroad paradigm: that during that short period of time, society and culture as a whole progressed. While I think certain events during the time period represented progress--women gaining admittance to college and pre-professional programs at greater rates, the end of state-enforced segregation--I realize that, as in so many eras, these are specific achievements that do not necessarily endorse other accomplishments of the time even if they lie within the same realm of "women's issues," achievements like the so-called sexual revolution. Nonetheless, people often conflate every achievement in the realm of women's issues into one great big movement towards Progress and Enlightenment. Others wholly vilify the entire era as the end of institutions' moral authority. I think that this recent era, like so many others, brought changes that should be examined free of these two opposing dialectics that so often hijack our conversation about them.

Take the women's movement and its legacies today. There is good and bad. The bad, in my opinion, is embodied by the "hook-up culture." I recently got into a pretty intense argument with some co-workers about whether such a culture exists and whether it is problematic. I think there have been some recent developments, the confluence of which make a hook-up culture more practicable than it would have been in the past. Here are a few: (relatively) easy and legal availability of birth control, a view that dating and going steady are the chaste activities of a bygone era, the equating of men's needs and women's needs, the trend of disassociating sex from emotion (and the idea that emotions are burdensome), to name a few. I'm not saying I find all of these developments problematic, but I think they are valid explanations for today's hook-up culture, a term which, when searched in google, yields a plethora of interesting articles and conversation; world like "perils" and "misery" immediately catch one's attention.

Of course, the bad always comes with the good, which means the sexual revolution should not be treated as a bogeyman, but it should not be treated as a natural outgrowth of feminism either. On the contrary, it can be vigorously debated without jeopardizing the achievements of women in other areas.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A good quote

Just have to note this, if for no one else but myself:

A prime test of an historian’s skill is the extent to which he does justice to these complementary forces, repetition and novelty.


From this article, by Roger Kimball.

How do they afford it?

Salon features a worthwhile interview today with One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding author Rebecca Mead on the subject of the modern wedding, now shaped by an entire industry of wedding apparel, wedding planning, wedding gift registry, honeymoons, etc. What I've heard anecdotally about weddings leads me to believe that they are incredibly pricey, time-consuming affairs to plan, and the Salon article confirms this. The average American wedding today costs $27,852. Even factoring in the dollar-value of all of the wedding gifts a couple receives, 28K must make a dent in the bank accounts of most Americans, who on average earn $46,326 a year.

All of this returns me to the question that nags American consumerism as it drives the sputtering engine of the U.S. economy: how do people afford all of this expense, and why do they submit themselves to this costly racket? What is the use in putting so much time, energy, and money into a one-day affair? I imagine some of it is driven by the impulse to keep up with the Joneses and some of it by the desire to have something to do in an age when consumerism is an ersatz hobby. Having weathered the same sort of excess for B nai Mitzvah, I don't look forward to witnessing the spending contest to which peers will submit as they plan the American wedding.

Aside from the nupital narcissim, I never understood how people could work up so much excitement over wedding dresses and floral arrangments. Being subject to protracted discussions about wedding details is painful, particularly for one who is not planning on getting married soon or has never been married, and therefore can find little relevance in conversation about beads, lace, and strapless vs. sleeveless or whether to get a custom made dress or go to Filene's Basement's annual wedding sale, or whatever else engagees find themselves obligated to discuss ad nauseum.

Finally, let's not forget the hefty expenses to which friends and family of brides and bridegrooms are subject, without question, in the form of gifts--for the wedding and the bridal shower-- traveling expenses, bachelor or bachelorette party expenses, and wedding wear. And why must there be an engagement ring and a wedding ring? Especially when engagement rings are a relatively new tradition--one-third of brides did not marry with an engagement ring in 1939--one egged on by jewlers and diamond advertisers.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The D.C. Public Library in all of its glory

In doing a search on the D.C. Public Library's online catalog, I came across location categories including: Assumed lost, Claims lost, Branch closed until mid-February 2003, Gone Astray, Gone Astray between branches, Gone Astray for a Long Time, Lost, Lost and Paid for, Material Long Overdue, Missing titles Discovered in weeding, Undergoing repair, Unknown. As for the item category, my personal favorite category is: Brief titles entered on the fly. All of this makes a lot more sense if you visit the MLK main branch.

Friday, May 11, 2007

An argument between letter writers on Salon has broken out over the question of whether college women who participate in a "Tennis Pros and Hos" party are revelling healthily in their sexuality or demeaning themselves. Many of the letter writers seem tethered to the paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s, namely, new feminism and hostility towards older generations.

One premise of the writers who found no problem with the "Hos" party that troubled me is the idea that women should not be subjected to double standard-fueled scorn for simply acting like men. This then inherently sanctions the behavior of men as the standard. I don't understand why it is such a problem for women not to act like men or not flaunt their sexuality for men (anyone who thinks "Girls Gone Wild" is a feminist exercise is deluded) and instead try and assert a new standard, one that does not conform to the hyper-sexualized media-driven absurdity of our current age.

Furthermore, those writers who place full faith in the judgement of 21-year olds and scorn the opinions of their parents are entirely possessed by the 60s/70s generation gap frame. They are jettisoning practical thinking, which is, why shouldn't a parent worry about their child, especially if she appears to be making poor decisions?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Writing dialogue is hard

I've come to appreciate lately how difficult it is to write good dialogue. Despite how much we talk on a daily basis, somehow capturing the authenticity of conversation on paper is difficult, in part because the act of writing conversation is imbued with a purpose that conversation itself in its routine idleness and aimlessness does not possess.

In Thomas Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, his tome about modern-day debauchery at America's finest universities some of the dialogue borders on the implausible. The book has been criticized for depicting some characters as hopless cardboard figures, particularly the prep school alumni who are members of the most elite fraternities and sororities. This is debatable. What Wolfe most bitterly fails at, in my view, is depicting his more thoughtful characters. The intellectually curious students with whom Charlotte strikes up a rapport broadcast an unrealistic self-awareness to a point that seems utterly contrived. Take this conversation, where Adam Gellin, the student athlete tutor and college journalist who crushes on Charlotte, explains the M.O. of the intellectual members of his generation with dubious grandiloquence:
[...] Students like us used to just go to graduate school and become college teachers. But after that, a new type of intellectual comes on the scene: the bad ass. The bad-ass is sort of a rogue intellectual. A bad-ass doesn't want to do anything so boring and low-paid and like...codified...as teaching [...] You're an intellectual, but you want to operate on a higher level. This is a new millenium, and you want to be a member of the millenial aristocracy, which is a meritocracy, but an aristo-meritocracy.

Tom Wolfe: Are you serious???

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Rosslyn: probably a lost cause

The Washington Post reports today that the Arlington County Board approved construction of two high-rises in the Rosslyn neighborhood that, if built, will be the tallest in the Washington Metro area. According to the Post:
Arlington officials say they hope the project will transform Rosslyn, a commuter-clogged suburb crammed with outdated boxy buildings, into a modern development that would attract more tourism.

I would hardly call Rosslyn "commuter-clogged"--the area never seems that busy too me, but it is definitely an area that is home to few. "Outdated boxy buildings" is about as apt a description as any of the unremarkable cement edifices that make the view across the Potomac from Georgetown such an eyesore.

Still, it will be pretty difficult for two towers to change the character of this character-less part of the D.C.-area. The problem with Rosslyn, as with so many other parts of Northern Virginia, is that it lacks distinctive features and that street life mostly shuts down after 7. The designs of the highrises pictured in the Post article appear to deviate little from the dull steel and glass prototype that characterize today's urban towers. Just as the cement buildings of the 1950s-70s appear outdated now, the glass edifices will evoke anachronism a decade or two down the road.

The testimonial from a Rosslyn resident also seems incredibly misguided:

Roa Lynn of Rosslyn said she recently had lunch outside in Shirlington, "alfresco," she noted, and her neighborhood looked bleak in contrast.


"I was struck by how harsh and unpleasant the Rosslyn streetscape is," Lynn said. "I beg you please to approve this project today. Make my neighborhood as nice as the other neighborhoods in Arlington."

First, erecting highrises are hardly the formula for mitigating the harshness of a streetscape. Second, though Shirlington's small, pedestrian-friendly downtown area--all two blocks of it--is certainly more ideal than Rosslyn's, can't we set our sights a little higher than "other neigborhoods in Arlington?" Especially in regards to the businesses in some of these areas, particularly Ballston and Shirlington, which represent more of the same big box blandness that now infests so much of this nation.

Worst of all, this new highrise campaign will only encourage the use of the wholly unbefitting "Manhattan on the Potomac" slogan by Rosslyn business owners who clearly have never visited Manhattan. Ultimately, I remain pessimstic about a renaissance of Rosslyn, which seems condemened to the fate of providing residence to nine-to-five office workers, chain restaurants, Marriotts, and the closest Metro to Georgetown. Nevertheless, I wish this weird neighborhood to my East luck.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Mental Health in the Virginia Tech Shooting

Much of what's been written about the Virginia Tech shooting has concerned the mental health of the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui and how the university might have done a better job detecting his illness and diffusing the massacre. What's lost when we upbraid the mental health treatment infrastructure is simply how hard it is to determine the inner thoughts of people. Sure, Cho should have received more treatment for his illness, but it would be unfortunate and counter-productive if the Virginia Tech massacre leads to increased suspicion by college campus authorities of anyone with a mental illness. As a recent Slate article put it:
[W]hat's more important is that thousands of students attend college who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses, and almost all of them hurt no one and deserve to stay there. Identifying the Cho-type exceptions before they explode is a matter of good campus police work and counseling, not harsh, interventionist crackdowns.

This is an argument for increased empahsis on gun control efforts, in my view. Controlling the supply of guns is much more straight-forward than trying to predict whether bio-chemical imbalances will lead one to commit violent acts. Even in this day and age, none of us can read another person's mind. It would be a shame if school authorities overreacted--thereby creating an even greater stigma around mental illness--while trying.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Tip your barista?

I guess I can see this guy's point, but is he serious?
Jacob Grier, a barista at Baked and Wired in Washington, DC, and cowriter of the blog Smelling the Coffee, says he tries to tip a dollar per drink. “You tip a bartender if he creates a good rapport, so why not tip a barista for the same?”

Has anyone ever tipped their barista? I can assure you I haven't.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

When ambition is overrated

There's a nice article written by Michael Winerip in the New York Times of a couple days ago about his personal experience as an alumni interviewer for Harvard, whose admissions process he has witnessed over the years as it has become impossibly selective. According to Winerip, "[the] kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras." Who does get into Harvard, one wonders. It certainly seems to help if one has a distinctive biography in an environment when even a title like editor of the school newspaper or valedictorian are run-of-the-mill. Of course, the students who have such unique opportunities available tend to be of well-off families who have a sophisticated understanding of the modern college application process.

It all makes me long for the days where everything after elementary school wasn't just one big effort to get into a selective college, where one didn't have to be so prepared, and where high school summers were a time for lazing and working a lowly job. Winerip says that during his summers, he "dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night." Though it is hardly at the level of researching for a NASA project, as one of his interviewees did, there is some merit to spending those hot summer days doing unglamorous grunt work. It sure makes one value their educational opportunities when one has to file papers all day or dig ditches, knowing that some people spend a lot longer than a summer in such jobs, and it punctures any sense of entitlement--that loathsome syndrome with which some Baby Boomers have imbued their children--that those who are less familiar with "a hard day's work" often feel.

As Winerip says of his own realization that seeing his children attain a Harvard degree (which they didn't) was not the end-all be-all achievement for him as a parent: "I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see." There is life beyond Harvard.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Giving myself and Eavsdrop D.C. shoutout

I just remembered that I had submitted two quotes to the blog Eavesdrop DC, which charitably posts lines that D.C. residents hear in passing that are generally unintentionally funny. Mine were posted a little while ago, but I forgot to check back until now. Well, here they are:

But the grass would be so whiny!

Guy to Woman friend in line at Murky Coffee in Clarendon: The floor here is so chic. They must have been like, how can we make this floor look chic? Let's strip off all of the tile. It's so emo. Hey, you know what I want? Emo grass. That stuff cuts itself.

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posted by EavesdropDC @ 11:51 AM 1 comments

Can’t get enough of your love, metro

Metrorail conductor with sensual Barry White-esque voice pulls his blue line train into Pentagon: "Pentagon."

Metrorail employee standing on platform: "Hey, you're sounding good."

Conductor: "Thanks, man. Keep it light."

--Pentagon Metro station

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posted by EavesdropDC @ 9:57 AM 0 comments

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Giving the North Shore a Bad Name

Blasts from the past are fun, especially when they remind you why you don't really miss the past all that much. I just came across the Facebook groups for my old high school and for the area in which it resided, the North Shore. First, I just have to thank my lucky stars that Facebook was not around in high school. Not only would it have eaten up more of my time, but it would have probably disenchanted me greatly. Case in point: the group dedicated to the North Shore. The description of the group embodies everything that people critcize about the area. It exhibits a vaguely ironic self-awareness--vaguely. The student(s) who wrote the description are clearly aware of the uglier perceptions about the North Shore but only seek to perpetuate them, which is unfortunate, especially as they come off sounding disgustingly entitled.

The first part of the description is fine, if not a little too boastful. Having movies filmed in the area is cool, but it's hard to get that excited about Risky Business being one of the most noted. The only North Shore-located movie I can be proud of among the otherwise forgettable string of John Hughes flicks set there is Robert Redford's Ordinary People. I digress. Most objectionable in the North Shore Facebook group is the way the area's perceived affluence and exclusivity is trumpeted: "As one of the most affluent areas in the nation, we have just about everything you could ever want -- and probably more." Even worse, the location is listed as "(The Good Parts of) Evanston to Lake Forest, IL." Personally, I'd rather be associated with some of the "bad" parts of Evanston than some of the toniest parts of Lake Forest.

(It's also somewhat mendacious for these girls to say that the North Shore is 20 minutes away from Chicago. The southernmost point in Wilmette is 20 minutes from the northernmost point of Chicago if you're driving late at night or early in the morning. Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, and Lake Forest are all at least 45-minutes away).

The ironic thing is that these folks champion their New Trier educations but appear to have absored nothing from them. People who effectively take credit for living in an appealing locale or attending an outstanding school are incredibly dense, unless they built the Greenbay bike trail or teach at New Trier, or maintain the beaches on Lake Michigan, or something. Usually, people who harbor these inflated views of their lot tend to have difficulty transitioning into jobs and sometimes even college, because they are so used to the entitlement of their first 18-years. Too bad this government increasingly rewards unearned wealth.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Review: Death of a President

Never has a movie filled me with such a feeling of dread as Death of a President, the chilling mockumentary that explores the morbid question of what would happen were George W. Bush assassinated. Splicing real footage together to depict the fatal assassination that follows a run-of-the-mill presidential appearance in front of business leaders in Chicago and the incredibly plausible reaction--an almost-immediate round-up of a suspect with a vague Al-Quaeda link who provides an excuse for new President Cheney (shudder) to go after dictatorship du jour Syria, the fortification and permanent passage of the Patriot Act, the idealization by political leaders of a late President Bush--Death of a President imparts the eeriness of living in a creeping surveillance state that is further egged on with each national tragedy.

Death of a President also paints a nuanced picture of the presidential assassin. The group of American presidential assassins and would-be assassins held idiosyncratic motives for their actions, almost invariably apart from the controversies of the day. In Death of a President, the most obvious suspect, the one whose motives so perfectly draw out the political issues of the day is immediately suspected, the unwitting victim of projection, in this case, of American society's need to bring feel-good closure to the war on terror.

The build-up to the assassination, featuring montages of a protest in Chicago's Loop with clips of a Bush speech on North Korea, is the least interesting sequence of this film. However, the denouement following the Bush assassination is gripping. Interviews with a Secret Service agent who bemoans the security hole that allows the assassination and with an overzealous but hesitant federal prosecutor seem realistic. The truth that eventually emerges about the assassination amounts to just the sort of tragedy caused by fighting in a war and untreated mental health conditions to which we are too accustomed. This one is definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Time to get back to gun control

As usual, it takes an act of morbid, deranged violence to get this country talking about its lax gun laws, and even then gun advocates use such an event to illogically bolster their case. (How often does a potential gun violence victim's own possession of a gun actually diffuse an attempted murder, as the NRA suggests it would have at Virginia Tech?). Indeed, the Virginia Tech shootings once again brought home how porous our gun laws are in the United States. That this most fatal weapon is easier to access than other regulated products like prescription medication, which is only potentially harmful to the person who buys the drug, not to an unrelated party, is disgraceful.

A background check into Cho Seung-Hui would have classified him as a "prohibited purchaser" of guns under existing federal law, according to the Brady Campaign. Too bad 40% of gun sales are not subject to background checks, or that, in the case of Cho Seung-Hui's purchase of two guns, one which, "in virtually every other country," is only available to police key information like Cho's mental health history was not available to the gun vendor. Even the background checks are flawed. As a recent New York Times article revealed, only 17 of 50 U.S. states check whether a potential gun purchaser has been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or involuntarily committed to a mental health center. (Though Virginia is one of those 17 states, reports suggest it does not enforce this standard with much bite).

There are those who say, as a representative from the Virginia Gun Owners Coalition does in this article, that a deranged person will somehow be able to scrounge up a gun; however, there is no compelling reason to believe this would have been the case for Cho because he obtained both of his guns through perfectly legal means. Moreover, media reports on his personality reveal an introverted, reserved young man, not necessarily the type of person who would seek an assault weapon through illegal means. Also, even if Cho had attempted to purchased a gun illegally, there is a chance Virginia Tech officials could have intercepted it, especially if he did it via a school Internet connection.

As Salon suggested recently, the Virginia Tech tragedy is an unwelcome clarion call to the Democrats to make their way back to their mid-1990s support of gun control laws. The rationale that Democrats lost key swing states like Arkansas and Tennesee in the 2000 presidential election because Al Gore alienated the pro-gun vote bloc has always struck me as problematic. For one, gun control has generally been supported by Americans, especially those in the country's suburbs and cities, and especially in light of the abnormal amount of gun violence that occurs in this country as compared with almost every other country.

Secondly, one can play the swing voter opportunity cost game with any group of people. For instance, I could prognosticate that George W. Bush would have picked up the key swing state of Pennsylvania in 2004 if he had appealed to pro-choice women who otherwise had Republican sympathies, but Bush would be abandoning what is (unfortunately) a core Republican party principle if he were to try and court this swing group. Basically, groups of swing voters emerge from the woodwork when you look for them. After 2000, many Democrats--several of whom I generally respect, like Jim Webb and Howard Dean--wanted to believe that they had lost pro-gun voters who otherwise supported Democratic party policies. Taken to its logical end, this approach to vote-getting leads to abandonment of core principles and the reign of highly subjective analysis of a party's interest by strategists.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nixon Culture

Several books, a multitude of documentaries, one opera, and one college course later, my interest in late former President Richard Nixon does not wane. Neither, apparently, does the artistic community's. Last year I had the great luck to view a dress rehearsal of the widely-performed opera Nixon in China, which features an interesting, haunting, beautiful score. Nixon still stands out, in my opinion, as a rare tragicomic man in an era where leaders are seldom painted as momentous figures, and such a person is never more intriguingly explored than he is by a good artist (except maybe if explored by a good biographer).

Thus comes another installment in the saga of Nixon as art, the recently-New York debuted Frost/Nixon, depicting the series of interviews conducted by the British personality David Frost from 1977. I'm going to have to make a special trip to New York to see this one, not that it takes much to get me to New York, but the New York Times's review of the show, which is complete with a dramatic stage shot of a blown up, eerie Nixon bust--or what the Times reviewer Ben Brantley calls "some grotesque mythic creature in uncomfortable captivity"--is too tempting. Moreover, Frost/Nixon stars two acting greats, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (aka the guy who always plays Tony Blair), who have both inhabited their share of political figures in performance roles, and it is written by Peter Morgan, screen author of last year's terrific examination of modern celebrity The Queen.

Still, I'm a little worried that Frost/Nixon will capture the Frost interviews with the easy knowingness of hindsight. It is tempting to view the build-up to such an event as if we already knew what was going to happen, and although from what I have read about the actual event, the Frost interviews were regarded as momentous by both sides, Frost did not seem to anticipate that he would have to trick Nixon into not evading answers, and Nixon did not seem to anticipate that Frost would treat the interviews as an opportunity to nail down the ex-president on the what did he know-when did he know chronology of Watergate. Unfortunately, the Times reviewer finds that Frost/Nixon indulges in hindsight bias:

Much of what happens behind the scenes, as Frost’s team prepares to take on the notoriously slippery Nixon, has an improbably na├»ve, college studentish air. (“Hey, guys, let’s put on a show to humiliate Tricky Dick.”)


And what a description of Langella's portrait of Nixon, which sounds like an apt incarantion of Nixon:

Throughout the production Mr. Langella’s Nixon has come across as a man of quick intellect, maudlin sentimentality, vulgar wit and studied social reflexes that have never acquired the semblance of natural grace. You are always aware of someone who struggles to conceal not only a defensive self-consciousness but also a cancerous anger and fear.


On another note, I've noticed in the last few years that there is an aching nostalgia for Nixon. Several scholars and observers of course have chronicled his progression, in the conventional historical view, from conservative lout to the last and most unappreciated New Deal/Great Society champion. Lest we forget, his penchant for invoking executive privilege to a constitutionally-endagering degree, which evokes a certain occupant of the White House whose tenure most of us have come to know and despise. Although Nixon himself may seem a more sympathetic figure than George W. Bush and the impact of Nixon's terms in office may not seem as bad as that of the Bush presidency--and the corruption of the current bunch is indeed unsurpassed--Nixon's lawlesness set the precedent for indiscriminate use of executive power. For that, we are foolish if we succumb to nostalgia--the simple belief that things were easier back then--and end up longing for another crook to replace the current one.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Advice, please

Something I fear most is that my desires are oblivious to that great caveat that "the grass is always greener on the other side." More specifically, I am afraid I will jump into a career about which I know little because those careers about which I know a fair amount seem daunting and uninteresting. This, I guess, is the existential worry that hovers around my interest in attending graduate school in journalism: I understand the career in broad terms but am not familiar with the headache aspects of the field.

A very wise person recently wrote this to me: in life, "we must make important decisions despite the obvious lack of essential data" and that "[p]art of becoming an adult and establishing one's own identity has to do with getting more comfortable making decisions with insufficient data." I have often operated under the idea that few things, if any, can be resolved and few conclusions can be made, and what conclusions people do attempt to make are figments of their belief that answers exist. Recently though, I'm beginning to see how, even if I don't believe I can arrive at certainty on many questions, I must at least try to make decisions "despite the obvious lack of essential data," because the alternative, which is awaiting the right amount of information in order to make a decision, mainly just leads to ruminating and unproductive stasis.

Yet, I still seek data, of a sort. If anyone reading this has anything to say about the merits of a career in journalism, please speak. More broadly, if you can speak on the existential issue of how to figure out what to do for a living and how to avoid idealizing a lesser-known career path simply to escape the perceived monotonies of a greater-known one, please speak too. Or e-mail me.

Oh, and I guess I should say that I am interested in journalism for a few reasons, some of which might not actually make good reasons to go into the field:
(1) I like writing. Does this make me cut out for journalism, though? I don't know. After all, a lot of journalism is about unfurling an event, policy proposal, etc., and not about writing with creative flourish.
(2) I like editing and revising. I'm one of the few people I know who actually enjoys revising papers and articles. I figure this must cut me out for some sort of writing job.
(3) I am interested in a multitude of policy issues and issues in general but do not want to acquire specialized knowledge in one of them at the risk of knowing less about the others. I see journalism as a way to avoid the opportunity cost of specializing, because a journalist is a generalist who can, in theory, give a digestible account of anything.
(4) I often consider why certain issues are covered at the expense of others and what are the relevant facts in a story or the relevant aspects to be covered about a political campaign, and so forth. I figure I would have even more food for thought here if I became a journalist.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Piling on Obama

Though there are those grumblers who claim the media reports on Barack Obama with obsequious adulation, I have always sensed that what little bit of a honeymoon Obama might enjoy would end as soon as the Heglian contrarianism of the talking heads set in. At last, Obama would be subject to the typical Washington D.C. establishment pettiness that plagues so much of political commentary today, where you are damned if you do, damned if you don't. Damned if you're a "Washington insider," damned if you're a "rookie." Damned if you're a consensus-builder, damned if you're a maverick (unless you're John McCain and not actually a maverick).

John Dickerson's analysis in Slate of a recent health care forum that Obama moderated in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, displays all of the typical pettiness of a gotcha journalist and none of the concern for getting to the substance of the forum. At the event, Dickerson says, Obama heard "one depressing story after another from people who had no insurance, bills that had bankrupted them, sudden losses of coverage, or only enough money to pay for the thinnest catastrophic policy." Welcome to our health care system, John Dickerson. It's pretty depressing, and yet such stories are all too common.

Less concerned with the hallowed substance of Obama's response, Dickerson instead goes on to concoct a thesis that if Obama puts on an informative demeanor, he runs the risk of appearing professorial. According to Dickerson, "we're not electing a president to run a seminar." This to me seems about as petty as it gets: Obama is merely listening to people, providing answers to them, and expressing general knowledge about health care issues. Dickerson continues, "That Obama has to hold [forums] to show he's serious only reminds voters that he doesn't have a lot of national political experience." Don't most presidential candidates hold these? I thought townhalls and their ilk were run-of-the-mill events for campaigners and public officals.

The article goes on to make some riveting conclusions, like that Obama's contributors must like him a whole bunch. Slate, here's an idea: take a day or three off from pop political reporting and try to provide your readers with a better picture of our failing health care system and what reforms are currently on the table to address it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Book Review: Three Dollars

I just finished this one today and wrote a review on goodreads that I will include here too.

This is one of the best novels I've read in a long time, possibly one of the best I've read. Australian writer Elliot Pearlman's Eddie Harnovey is a decent man living in increasingly bankrupt times (i.e., now). He and his wife Tanya are young, aspiring professionals who find their truth-seeking inclinations stymied by the corporatist, deregulating world around them. The seismic shift of priorities that Western governments, particularly English-speaking ones, embraced in the 80s in the name of imparting "personal responsibility" exacts the sort of devastating toll on hard-working, well-meaning people that those gung-ho Reaganite/Thatcherites purport is impossible, the toll of defaulted mortage payments, perennial unemployment and untreated medical conditions. The tale of such unmitigated despair is perversely readable, and much of that owes to the acuity and perspicasiouness of Pearlman's writing.

Pearlman gets so much right: office life ("Each day, I would say 'good morning' to the same people I said it to the day before. There were 'in' jokes about the standard of the coffee, the football tipping competition, or somebody's outrageous tie. Lunch was snatched hurriedly from the place next door, a little cafe where the regulars from the department jokes with the proprietor and his staff, small jokes, small business, small change, but these people were immensely important to each other. It might be that none of them were aware of their importance, each to the other, and it took me awhile to realize it myself but with each 'good morning' they were reminding each other, just slightly, who they were and that they were there" page 84), the transition into adulthood ([...] dinner parties had come upon us stealthily, imperceptibly, like winter and old age...[they] take hold of you like a virus and before too long you are a pregnant couple admiring vases and crystal decanters in shop windows and discounting the monetary cost of cnadlesticks because they are so lovely and because no one else will" p. 127), the strain differences in ideology and worldview can exact on friendships (see the arguments between Tanya and the couples' friend, Paul), the moral bankruptcy of modern institutions ("The universities seemed to her at the vanguard of society's unraveling. But I knew better because I was not there. They were not the first to retreat from what they had once stood for, they were not the first to turn their backs on any notion of common good and to prostiute themselves; they were not the first to promote a meaningless langauge designed to preserve their own pseudocultural and economic fiefdoms[...]But if the universities were not the first, neither were they the last" p. 248), the penchant au courant for seeing the world through the lens of silly corporatist platitudes ("The world was in the hands of animated self-parodies delivering Dale Carnegie wisodm to the bewildered mountain of their own banality." p. 293), among other things.

Pearlman masterfully weaves a story of conflict between people and their principles, especially as it comes out when young, educated people become professional and find that their careers drive them to embrace opposing values. We all need to justify ourselves and our priorities; often enough, such self-justification reaches a discomfiting cold-heartedness that frowns upon the behavior of friends in the name of adhering to one's principles.

My biggest criticism: I wondered whether the dialogue ascribed to the narrator as a child was realistic for someone that young.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Friends with Money

Whatever you do, DON'T see this movie.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Ephemerality in Movies and Life

One promise that D.C. residents make to transplants is that the spring and fall are beautiful and for those bursts of pink blossoms and golden leaves it is worth it to weather the stultifyingly humid summer and "cold" winter. Spring here is indeed beautiful but poignantly fleeting. Those famed cherry blossoms are here one minute, gone the next. I waded through the fallen flowers twice this week under the grove of those still attached to their trees and thought a bit about transience (while I wasn't busy ducking out of the way of family photos).

I finally saw Lost in Translation, which tells a story about transience. The relationship between Charlotte (Scarlett Johanssen) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is impossibly pure, the age discrepancy is almost an afterthought, because both characters are themselves fully aware of it, especially Bob. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the overhead shot of Bob lying stick straight on his back in his hotel bed while Charlotte is rolled over on her left shoulder, knees bent towards her stomach, facing in towards Bob. Yet, Charlotte and Bob go no further; their relationship remains innocent, a meeting of two people yearning for something that goes even beyond the other. In a way, Bob is just as much a model to Charlotte as he is a potential mate--especially as it becomes clear that their union is short-lived. He has navigated through the apathy that Charlotte presently faces and has appreciated those moments of meaning, as he reveals when he recounts the day his first child was born the "most terrifying day" of his life.

Lost in Translation to me had the feel of a mature rendition of the themes in The Graduate. Where in the latter, Dustin Hoffman's brilliantly-played Benjamin Braddock single-mindedly set out to win the affection of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) so that it became an end in itself, Bob's sense of the transitory nature of affection hovers around his interactions with Charlotte. This is of course attributable to his age: he has seen his marriage harden from affection to indifference at best, coldness at worst. The iconic scene in The Graduate where Benjamin and Elaine flee her wedding ceremony and collapse on the bus, destination unknown, is the end of spring, the end of cherry blossoms--forgive this sap--but it is the end of romance and the realization of romanticization. To see hopefulness and plaintiveness so effortlessly merge in film is to experience the end of spring.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Beltway Machine

In an article last week on Salon, Glen Greenwald criticizes the media reaction to Barack Obama's partially-formed health care policy. As Greenwald says, the Democratic primaries are a year away, the general election a year and a half. There's no reason a candidate should be expected to have formed a health care policy yet. Worst of all, if a candidate is to aspire to the media's idea of "substance," s/he could easily forget that many people in the country more than anything yearn for a candidate who is not afraid to address our systemic and cultural problems and that it is those problems that have so driven our country down this bumpy treacherous path we find ourselves on today. Even Obama, who is able to take a step back from the conventional candidate playbook to articulate a broader message about the political culture has only scratched the surface of the systemic and cultural "corrosion," as Greenwald calls it. Obama's frequent rhetoric about D.C.'s noxious partisanship touches on a symptom of a culture of crassness, of 24-hour cable, of rapid response opposition research, and, let's face it, of the Republican effort over the last 25 years or so to intensely politicize governance, but it does not get to the heart of the issue.

Greenwald goes on to identify the true culprit behind a political dialogue that has often devolved in pettiness: the Washington or Beltway machine, which in fact some Democrats are as much a part of as some Republicans. At a certain point, job security, comfort, and status quo breed complicity in a broken system, one that holds public relations in higher regard than public service, and this is what I believe we are seeing in many of these Beltway veterans. As Greenwald puts it about Hillary Clinton, who is the most blatant Beltway Democrat running for president:

The people who are attached to the Clinton campaign and who will be swept back into power with her -- the Terry McAuliffes and Mike McCurrys and Howard Wolfsons and Chris Lehanes and James Carvilles -- are pure embodiments of the whole corrupt and principle-less and worthless edifice. They're the people who, both when they were in power and throughout the Bush presidency, sleazily fed at the trough and they believe in nothing. Cheap and deceitful cynicism is the nourishment which sustains them and, most of all, they love the Beltway power system and can't wait to resume their place in it -- fully preserved and unchanged.

Though I think the criticism heaped on Clinton regarding her seeming insincerity has been unfair in that it lends the impression that her rudderless pandering makes her unique, she is still the worst option among the Democrats because she is so heavily relying upon a machine that is no longer equipped--if it ever was--to solving the dire problems our country faces. Yet, this group, consisting of many of the people fluidly move between government and the private sector, taking top lobbying jobs after stints in public service, seek mainly to devise myths about "electability" ultimately exacting of their candidate adherence to the questionable wisdom of not sounding threatening or shrill.

In this vain, the New Yorker recently featured an excellent piece by David Owen about former Democratic party operatives who are working to manage the public image of Wal-Mart. As employees of one of the nation's top public relations firm, Edelman, these veterans of public service and political campaigns are now making it their agenda to promote the virtues of Wal-Mart. It's not surprising that the people profiled in this article, such as Greg St. Claire, a former Republican congressional staffer, and Fred Baldassaro, a former aide for the Democratic National Committee, are ideal employees to a public relations firm, especially on a project that has so many implications for policy making. Their connections and familiarity with the PR apparatus in D.C. are valuable to an ambitious PR operation like that of Wal-Mart.

The nonchalance of this partnership should not obscure its insidiousness, though. The Edelman campaign has no regard for grassroots efforts. Indeed, most despicable about the Walmart campaign is its reliance on "Astoturf" techniques, such as the sham organization, Working Families for Wal-Mart, actually a project of St. Claire's, the former Republican staffer. Rather than trying to actually shape Wal-Mart into the benevolent organization that Edelman claims it to be, they are merely spinning Wal-Mart's virtues as an employer. Take the case of Working Families for Wal-Mart:


Working Families for Wal-Mart, which paid for [St. Claire's] sister, Laura St. Claire, to travel across America in a recreational vehicle and keep a blog about visits with Wal-Mart employees. Everyone she talked to was delighted with Wal-Mart. At about the time that the trip came to an end, Business Week revealed that Wal-Mart had financed the journey.


It is amazing to me--and yet so emblematic of corporate values today--that Wal-Mart would rather shell out for an orchestrated PR campaign than use that money to actually improve the notoriously unpleasant working conditions and to raise the low wages of their employees, but such is the PR culture of today. The Beltway machine about which Greenwald laments--whether Democratic or Republican--is perfectly happy with the spin-to-win tactics of the executives the serve, whether these execs be private CEOS or public officials. If the last eight years has taught us anything, though, it is that accountability must be sought and that Herculean efforts to change the spin cycle rather than address serious problems have been to the detriment of effective government.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Paradigm shift or incremental change?

One argument that has arisen among my co-workers and I lately addresses the issue of human behavior and how to get people to do things that are "good" for them. The resulting discussions have produced some rather daunting conclusions about our society, some which are controversial, others which have been long obvious but somewhat mind-bending when one tries to take a stab at how to change things. Namely, the inefficiency and waste of some modes of living, which is a large part of the problem with how we live today, as I see it, and will be the subject of my rant of the day, where I explore whether we should proceed to address our problems moderately with changes in zoning laws and regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or whether we should just start setting fire to McMansions (kidding, kidding!). What I mean to say is, does America need a cultural shift where our whole paradigm for success is redefined or at the very least moderated so that people don't feel they need to "live large"--which would involve some sort of attempt at trying to influence human behavior, or do we just need to chip away at the problems. Or both? How do "paradigm shifts" happen anyway?

I don't really know, so maybe I'll just rant for now about what went through my mind upon a recent visit through Farifax County. Some people use too many resources. The reason I hated Hollywood's collective global warming lecture at this year's Oscars is because the lifestyle of those privileged people of inconceivable wealth are much more consumptive than the rest of us. This culture is promoted to the rest of us by magazines, tabloids, and music videos that idealize big cars, fancy (though often gaudy) homes, and general profligate living. I don't know how to change that immediately unless some of what people value changes and some of what the media prioritizes changes. Daunting, right?

Furthermore, the ambitions of developers and automakers to ever-expand their business growth has hijacked policy making for many years. The resulting communities are by virtue of their design promoting wasteful habits, like driving to a nearby store that may only be a few blocks away because sidewalks don't exist and there are only arterial (not artillery) roads. Accompanying this sprawl is an aesthetic discordance, between the noise pollution of cars and trucks, the bland, gaudy excess of the homes, and that proliferation of one of the ugliest sights created by humanity--though today one of the most necessary: the parking lot.
A drive through parts of Fairfax County is case in point of the increasing decadence of many well-heeled people who build or buy sprawling mansions in gaudy Italianate, French Maison, or Georgian style. Not too far away at Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, one can marvel at the (relatively) small domicile of one of Virginia's then-wealthiest men. How did we go from that to this:



I don't know, perhaps I'm being too aphoristic didactic and condescending. I guess I just don't feel like I need twin Sub Zs, vacation homes, elaborate sculptures in my front yard, and 30 feet ceilings. (P.S., through "researching" this article, I came across a pretty funny website called LA Curbed, which has a McMansions archive that details the real estate listings in that most ostentatious part of the country).

Writer's Block

To those of you out there constantly hitting your refresh button in anticipation of a new blog entry from me, I'm sorry I've been such a slacker. I've been feeling some writer's block lately, and I'm not even a writer. For some reason, I've not had as much to say about world and national events as I used to, I believe for a few reasons: (1) other people have expressed my thoughts very well (the Frank Riches, Paul Krugmans, and Glen Greenwalds of the world) (2) the opinions seem self-evident (3) I feel I don't have enough knowledge upon which to form a valid opinion. Perhaps I need to focus my energies on more local, conquerable issues, but this impasse does make me re-evaluate my interest in a writing or journalist career. What I like about journalism, though, is that there's little way around starting as a reporter as opposed to a columnist, and I think I need to know things--by virtue of being on a beat, or the like--before I analyze them.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Between W-2s and 1040s

Someone I knew once said, upon closing on a condo, that she could not wrap her mind around having completed such an adult rite, as she still felt she was 17. Myself 18, I nonetheless knew exactly what she was talking about. While closing on anything seemed far off for me, college, the supposed transition between adolescence and adulthood, was right around the corner.

About six years later, I can say that I still have not shook that feeling my co-worker expressed then, that of being a young person pretending to do older people things, like buying furniture, putting money in a retirement account, and filing taxes. Filing taxes in particular gets at the crux of what I fear about adulthood: building an ever-more complex life. After all, this year, I really did not have many tax forms to deal with and much income to report. Woe to the day when I have to itemize deductions and report dependents, when I have to buy a file cabinet for my papers because my simple sectioned folder no longer suffices.

I think these thoughts too about other adult things. Buying a home, for instance, seems to catapult a person into a sea of forms called notes, titles, and deeds and a series of calculations about what to insure and for how much. I feel the more I have to insure, the more I will have sunken into adulthood, which in this modern world, seems to mean owning things and having stakes in things, in some ways, being less mobile. Right now, owning a bed seems a drag on me, what will I do when I own a whole house? How will I be able to pack it all, should I choose to move? Will I be able to get away with not having to consult the terms I have signed onto on a contract, as I have with my filed away lease on my apartment, or will I have to bone up on contract terminology in order to haggle with this or that person about his or that problem? Yeah, I think too far ahead for my own good, though it seems as if some of us are inching that way already, those who are buying condos or getting engaged, for instance.

I'm in no hurry to accumulate stuff, to own, to be settled. I figure that time will come, but still, in this first year out of college, such considerations suddenly don't seem so remote. That doesn't mean they need be impending.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Soporific Sex Magazines

I've been meaning to write about an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine which looks at the appearance of sex magazines at elite universities. I had a hard time believing that the subject was timely--such magazines have been notedby the media many times before. Moreover, the author, Alexandra Jacobs, seems to attribute a false ingenuity to the young sex magazine publishers. On the contrary, the magazines emanating from students at top universities like Harvard ("H-Bomb"), Vassar ("Squirm"), Columbia ("Outlet"), and University of Chicago ("Vita Excolatur") are emblematic of the larger cultural cult around being frank about sex. Straightforwardness about sex can be useful in a high school sex education class but becomes a bore when it masks as a source for entertainment or enlightenment, as it does in these pretentious periodicals.

Such magazines follow a larger trend, and in this sense, the college students putting them out are among the last to have boarded the bandwagon. This is why what they're doing is neither revaltory nor original but rather symptomatic of their inculcation from the entertainment media. My generation matriculated in an age where such inane mantras as "sex sells" became media gospel, begetting an ubiquity of sexual images and articles. Surely then, sex magazines at college are not original, as the coverage given to them would suggest, nor often are they very interesting.

In fact, sex columns and magazines are not necessarily interesting at all. While there are some subjects whose surface blandness belies their depth, sex to me seems the exact opposite: it is a subject that is initially salacious but quickly loses steam, probably because, when you get right down to it, there isn't really that much to write about. Think of all of the giggling high school students who greet sex ed with mocking anticipation at the beginning of the semester, only to yawn through human anatomy quizzes and contraception lectures a few weeks later. Some of the most popular subjects taken up by sex writers--sexual positions, sex toys, and porn--are those most lacking in actual breadth and depth. It's no wonder that so many sex columns devolve into cliches, with the predictably spicy writing styles of their authors overtaking the substance of the column, such as this explication of aphrodisiacs in the Northwestern student-published NU Comment.

Why then is the media breathlessly heralding the arrival of these magazines? According to the Boston Globe piece:


The public fascination with H Bomb clearly stems from the sense that there's not much of a place for sex at Harvard.

According to the NY Times Mag piece:

Considering that a smorgasbord of Internet porn is but a mouse click away for most college students, there’s something valiant, even quaint, about the attempt to organize and consider sex in a printed magazine.

That's a stretch. Such obsequious coverage of these magazines is evidence to me that Ivy Leagues truly do function as brand names. If a shoddy sex magazine has the word "Harvard" or "Columbia" on it, it suddenly becomes an inquisitive forum for reflection, even if its articles on the likes of the value of condom use at best serve the function of a sex education class.

I actually found myself agreeing with the National Review about the worthiness of such student endeavors:

Now, it’s one thing to engage in a bit of naughty publishing (on the university dime, at least) but quite another to do so and pretend that it’s something high-brow. You’ve read Ulysses? Maurice? Tropic of Cancer? Well, clearly now it’s time for something with saucy pictures! Pornographic modeling, once thought to be the exclusive realm of would-be actresses, sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, and other exploitable populations has clearly found a new pasture for flesh, with Ivies offering extracurricular careers (and funding!) to anyone interested in getting a head start in the sexual entertainment industry.