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.