Saturday, April 30, 2005

Arbus -- at the Met and in Brooklyn

Diane Arbus' photographs -- on display at the Met until the end of May -- are eerie pieces of work. Many artists attempt to find poetry in the banality of everyday life. Working in black and white, Arbus instead finds enigma, sadness, mild horror and tinges of the grotesque. In old women, she locates the faces of men, and in her "female impersonators," she finds what we usually call feminine. She catches "normal" people on the street, looking their most abnormal. Or tries to get intimate with people, sitting on their beds, only to reveal expressions more likely seen on the street. She was drawn to the strange or the "different": sideshow performers (including "the man who eats razor blades" cradling a newborn baby); nudists (including a "waitress" wearing only shoes and a white lacy apron); and the mentally retarded.

This last untitled series of pictures is especially haunting, as many of the shots seem to have been taken around Halloween or after a costume ball for the residents. She lays bare a kind of cruelty inherent in the twisted, gruesome masks worn as costumes; some of the people are wearing them, some aren't; perhaps we are meant to see the similarities.

After seeing this exhibit, I'm definitely interested in the new Arbus biopic, Fur, which Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. are starring in. Shooting is supposed to begin next month in the Brooklyn Navy Yard's new Steiner Studios. The director is Steven Shainberg, who also brought us that weird but wonderful movie Secretary, starring L.E.S. native Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Speaking of the Lower East Side, this evening's plans include a visit to The Delancey.

A mystery I haven't been able to figure out: Why are the letters S-T-A-T-E missing from the big entranceway sign to the new Staten Island Ferry terminal at Whitehall? Did they just run out of letters? Is it a protest against the state? Any ideas?

Oppression of women in Kyrgyzstan

An image from our mythology (?) of "caveman times" -- you know, the big brute hits the lady in a leopard-skin dress over the head with his club and drags her back to his cave -- apparently lives on, according to this NYT article, which is almost too cruel to believe. According to Kyrgyz tradition, simple arranged marriages would be just too time-consuming. Instead, some men -- and their supportive families -- literally kidnap the women they want to marry, and keep them hidden inside in their house until sunrise, at which point their dignity and honor are supposedly forever in question, and thus, they are obliged to marry their abductors.

This is illegal, but not very enforced, the article says, and many women and men, both young and old, go along with this brutal, fearful, discriminatory and oppressive tradition. Some heart-rending quotes from the story: "Every good marriage begins in tears" is a saying there, and from the mouth of a guy who helped his brother abduct a bride: "Men steal women to show that they are men." A documentary on the topic was also done last year.

Friday, April 29, 2005

A "junior astronaut" all grown up

Reading this story about the last Titan rocket to blast off from Cape Canaveral made me a little wistful this evening, as I remembered a one-in-a-lifetime chance I got one summer back in college to visit the cape. While the Space Shuttle usually gets most of the attention, these powerful unmanned workhorses of the space industry delivered payload after payload into orbit during their five decades in service.

I'll probably always remember that hot day at the Air Force station when I got to drive out to the launch pad where one of these "vehicles" was standing in place like a quiet sentry, braced against the tower, ready to go when its final countdown was up. I rode the elevator to the upper stages and came within inches of a Titan that eventually went farther above the earth than I probably ever will.

Like many little boys and girls, I had a phase (albiet brief) when I wanted to be an astronaut. And that one blindingly bright Floridian day, I had a serendipitous chance of seeing the place where so much of it happened. The future of the American space program seems at times to be in jeopardy, blown by the winds of geopolitical interests and domestic budgeting, but there's something about it that has always felt to me as though it were all above politics, above partisanship. I know it's not, but some things I like to be willfully ignorant of, for sanity's sake.

So goodbye, Titan, and thanks to all who worked on her. Your efforts crafted for me a great childhood memory.

Blair in 'BP'

Making many of the top media-interested blogs this morning is a sighting of ... no, not that presumed-extinct bird ... but Jayson Blair. Turns out someone let him near a word processor again: a niche quarterly about people living with bipolar disorder and those who support and treat them. Now, let's be clear here: Mr. Blair might have this disorder. He might not. Problem is, he has another problem: unwillingness to really admit when he's wrong. The book that he slapped together to try to capitalize on his demise at the NYT was another example of him trying to find anything and anyone to blame for what he did -- repeatedly, and not just at the paper formerly known as the Gray Lady, either -- as many post mortem accounts have shown. (An appropriately irreverent executive summary of Blair's book is still posted on Slate's "Juicy Bits.")

So yes, this guy probably needs a job. But didn't we all learn our lesson? Let the guy write fiction for all I care, but why don't we NOT let him write any more "non-fiction" pieces?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The new Enron documentary

Enron, by now, has become a buzzword for the failures of corporate America. But do we really know what happened? In gory detail? Arranged so nicely for us in dramatic fashion?

That's where this new documentary, subtitled The Smartest Guys in the Room, comes in. In the same vein as that other real-life corporate-horror movie, The Corporation, it takes its cue from one of the recent handful of new books to be published about the rise and fall of the energy trading company. (Conspiracy of Fools by the NYT's Kurt Eichenwald is another one.)

As one of the co-writers of the book (both Fortune reporters) says, it's a classic story of hubris a la the Greeks translated through latter-day capitalism: a bunch of guys (Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling in particular) thinking they could navigate the business world better than anyone else knew how, exploiting shady but technically legal accounting methods and externalizing fluctuations in the energy grid as much as possible along the way, to make gobs of money and give the appearance that a lot more money was left to be made.

This is a great movie to see, because it brings home the idea that business is really about people -- their hopes and dreams, their faults and foibles. Sure, numbers come into it, but you don't have to be a math whiz to see how those running the company basically schemed the press, the government, and most of all perhaps, the company's employees and shareholders.

One of the most amazing things I learned was this idea of banking expected future profits in the current reporting period. This concept that once you have the
Next Brilliant Idea to make money (and often externalize costs) you can subjectively say how much it's going to be worth someday without knowing for sure or -- I assume -- going back to correct your inaccurate estimations. That brand of accounting is in part how the stock rose so quickly only to plummet within weeks, once the bottom fell out.

Also gripping are the audio tapes of Enron energy traders, talking and cursing like they're the kings of commerce, as they -- among other things -- manipulate the California energy "crisis." (There's a bit of a black humor in hearing Phantom Planet's "California" play as the narration recounts the fallout from that period.)

This is a great documentary to see now, because it might whet your appetite for the trials of Lay and Skilling, which the film said are coming in January '06.

Currently playing in two N.Y. theaters and one in Houston, Enron opens (slightly) wider tomorrow, reaching the D.C. metro area, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Denver and other major cities.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"After all, tomorrow is another day."

If you're at all a fan of Gone with the Wind or enjoy the kind of behind-the-scenes stage farce epitomized by Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, you might enjoy the Manhattan Theatre Club's Moonlight and Magnolias, running through May 8 at City Center. Set entirely in the office of David O. Selznick, it depicts the last-minute rewriting of the script for what some call the most popular movie of all time.

A lot of laughs are drawn from Selznick (the producer) and the director ("Victor Fleming") acting out sequences from the book/script, so that the rewrite guy ("Ben Hecht") knows how the story goes, since he claims to have never actually read Margaret Mitchell's book, which was a bestseller of unheard-of proportions at the time. Some of the jokes wear a bit thin, and the more serious debates over race, ethnicity and ethics in moviemaking (all with the drums of another world war in the background) don't always fit so well amid the antics. But overall, if you can stomach the overdone melodrama of GWTW, you won't mind this take on its genesis.

To hear an audio clip of the last line of the movie -- which is the target of much derision by the rewrite guy in the play -- click here (.WAV starts immediately).

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Bangladesh: Beyond the Headlines"

If you have a fast internet connection and 15 minutes to spare, head over and download my friend Jes' documentary on her college trip to Bangladesh (in QuickTime .MOV format). She and a class of SHC students from Penn State studied and prepared for a year before going on this trip, but her short video was her own making (with some help from film whiz David and others). The feature is amazingly professional and the interviews are very insightful. It's definitely worth watching.

For some general facts about the country, click here. It's the largest nation on the top 10 list of countries with highest overall population density!

Monday, April 25, 2005

The former Mayflower Hotel, just above Columbus Circle on Central Park West, is being demolished with considerable speed. Word in the press is the site will soon feature (surprise, surprise!) a new luxury condo tower with stores around its base. Occupancy target: late 2007.

City dilemmas: make-up on the subway and dryers at the Laundromat

Tonight, two questions of ethics and etiquette:

1. You're a woman in a rush. Time is running short, and you haven't done your make-up yet. Do you spend a few extra minutes in the privacy of your own home or do you take your kit onto the subway and use a compact to apply your foundation, eyeliner and lip gloss in front of everyone? (I'm not talking about just touching up your lipstick here; I mean the works.)

2. You pull your clothes from the public washers in your apartment building's basement laundry room, and look for a dryer. There's one about to finish its cycle. It clicks to zero, and you wait for its owner to arrive. Minutes tick by. Two, three, five, 10 minutes ... No owner is in sight, and there's a seemingly clean folding table available on which you can lay out the absent person's dry clothes. Do you carefully switch out the finished load to start drying your wet laundry or wait patiently for the owner arrive and claim their clothes first?

Comments and responses are welcomed.

The mystery of the food pyramids: vs.

Up there on the list of lame government creations: the latest iterations of the Food Pyramid, brought to you by the U.S. Dept. of Agribusiness, I mean, Agriculture. Forgive me for the mistake. This new pyramid doesn't really tell you much except that you should eat different colored foods and run (don't walk) up stairs. For more info, you must turn to the internet (too bad if you -- like many Americans -- don't own a computer or have a connection).

So I absent-mindedly type in, and start reading. Hmm, here's a choice tidbit:

"It's not what happens to the food before it gets to your table, but simply that you eat substantial servings of all foods ... "
Can this really by the USDA's revised nutritional guidelines, the reason they stripped the icon of all pertinent info? Nope. It turns out this is a carefully crafted parody site designed to look very much like the official site, where you can type in your age, gender and activity level to find out how many servings of everything you're supposed to be eating. A part of me thinks most people are never going to do this, so the whole revised campaign will be lost on them, and the meat, dairy and junk-food industries will be safe from such visual icons as the old pyramid, which encouraged eating less of what they have to sell.

According to my basic research, the satire site was registered April 19, the day the revised pyramids were unveiled, to Stephen Eisenmenger of Minneapolis, who appears to be a web designer and bicycling advocate who's also involved in the Green Party. Now I could be mixing up people, but it doesn't sound beyond belief that such a guy would make such a site. Sort of reminds me of the whole (the real one) vs. (temporarily redirected to a George Soros site) mix-up after one of last year's election debates.

Anyway, back to nutrition. Three good pieces of advice that are buried under the overly complex (and arguably more conflicted) new health promotion campaign: Eat smaller portions. Try to eat a variety of things every day. And don't forget to exercise.

A new Italian restaurant in Inwood

In New York (or any big city), where there are so many restaurants to choose from, you have to have some basic criteria for narrowing your options. Chiefly, for the budget minded, there's price. Then there's what sort of cuisine you're in the mood for. Then there's the question of popularity. If a place is empty, you have to wonder: Why aren't more people here? Is the food bad? The service horrible? Did "evidence of rats and/or mice" turn up on the latest Dept. of Health report?

So we went off in search of one new Inwood eatery Saturday night, and -- finding it empty except for the staff and their friends -- we headed elsewhere and happened upon a newly opened Italian restaurant and bar at 233 Dyckman, just above Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters. It's called Il Sole, and it was hopping with people, despite only being open a week so far.

The entree options are your basic Italian fare -- pastas, meat entrees, seafood and veal -- but they were tasty and nicely prepared. Plus, the house wines are only $4-$5 a glass, cheap in a town where they'll charge you $8 without batting an eyelash. We ate at the bar to avoid having to wait. (They claimed it was going to be 45 minutes until a table for two opened up, but I think the hostesses are still getting used to estimating wait times.) The owner was behind the bar, beaming at her early success, although one of the waitresses said it had been practically empty on the weeknights. But that might change soon after the word gets out. The owner said it took 10 months to get from signing to grand opening, and on our way home, I thought about all the details you must have to arrange in that time to get a new business going.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Philadelphia: Close, but no Dali

We visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday in the hopes of slipping into the Dali exhibit. They have timed tickets and it was all sold out by the time we got there, so no luck. But instead, we sampled other great works throughout the museum, including the one pictured here, a 1914 piece by Henri Matisse called Mademoiselle Yvonne Landsberg.

The artist did the work under the condition that the subject and her family would not have to buy the final product if they didn't like it. Well, they didn't. But someone else snapped it up later, and it's now in the PMA collection for us to enjoy.

(Image linked from the museum site.)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Walking the length of Manhattan

So yesterday I walked from the northernmost tip of Manhattan to the southernmost tip, which took me a good part of the day: just under 6 and a half hours to cover probably somewhere between 15 and 16 miles. Why'd I do it? Partly because it was an small accomplishment I could achieve on a day off, partly because I wanted to get back in the exercise routine, and partly because it was just such a nice day and I wanted to enjoy it outside. Now, walking is technically a free activity, but of course, I had to stay hydrated along the way. I drank nearly a gallon of liquids, which I mostly bought at delis and drug stores, or had with my lunch. Yet, as you might imagine on such a hot day, I barely had to stop for restroom breaks, having sweated most of it off. So if you add my lunch plus all my drinks, it was probably a $20 outing.

What did I notice? The city has an amazing way of hiding its vast number of residents. I probably actually saw no more than a few thousand people throughout the day, and yet this island alone is home to more than a million. At any given time of the day, we're all stowed away in some little corner of some building, big or small. Much of Inwood and Washington Heights felt rather empty. Harlem showed a few more people and so did Central Park. Then from the East 80s on down, there was a steady stream of people around me. But still, imagine what it would be like if everyone left their buildings, their offices and their apartments, etc., and stood on the street. Perhaps those of you who were here on 9/11 or during the most recent blackout got a glimpse of what that would be like. During times like those, it was probably hard to conceive visually how so many people live their lives in such a relatively small space.

I noticed how the city and its people have attempted in so many places to preserve green and create spaces to breathe amid all the concrete. There are corners of the island which the city has designated parks, which are so tiny they'd be laughable anywhere else, and yet we are grateful for even their 0.05 acres of greenery.

What else did I notice? Flowers everywhere: cherry blossoms, magnolias, daffodils, tulips, black-eyed susans, and the like, all smelling lovely and mixing with the other street smells. Children in lines: running around the perimeter of blacktop schoolyards, lining up at the end of an activity to be herded off elsewhere, crossing a street in Central Park and proudly raising their palms ("Stop! Stop! Stop!") to the bikers and cars in the distance. Children in their strollers: pushed by their mothers or grandmothers, or -- seemingly more often in New York's nicer neighborhoods -- by their nannies. Old people in their wheelchairs: being pushed outside the hospital complexes for a breath of fresh air. People plugged into iPods and occasionally other kinds of MP3 players or portable CD players. (I had my music on from Inwood through to the beginning of Harlem, at which point I took off the headphones.)

I'm sore from all the exertion, but I have to say I have a better sense of the way many of Manhattan's neighborhoods are connected, of what they share and what separates them.

For a slideshow of photos from my day (roughly arranged in north to south order), click here.

Robin Williams filming a scene for the movie "The Night Listener" on Wednesday afternoon at the Manhattan Municipal Building, 1 Centre Street.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mobile posts from the streets of New York

Look for a recap tomorrow including pictures.

I made it! Reached the Battery. Final step count? An appropriate palindrome of 32,323.Total time with breaks: under 6.5 hours.

Just passed Robin Williams who appears to be filming something at the Manhattan borough building.

Taking a break on a bench between 13 and 14. The end is nearly in sight.

28th St. and my feet are starting to hurt.

Only the lone UN flag is flying in front of the HQ. All the national flags are gone.

Hospital after hospital building on York Avenue. Step total: 20607.

Passing by Gracie Mansion and turning down the promenade along the East River. Lots of sunbathers.

Stopping for a turkey sandwich at Peter's across from Mount Sinai on 98th.

In the woodlands of Central Park, which are lush with greenery. But I'm getting hungry. Where to eat?

Lots of new apartment construction in Harlem. 12330 steps as I reach West 116th St.

A pair of live chickens spotted in an alley way near St. Nicholas and 130.

Stopping in an air-conditioned Duane Reade at 145 for a drink.

Taking a small snack break at McKenna Square on West 165th St. Boy am I out of shape!

Just finished climbing Fort George Hill. Steps since start: 3867.

Stepping off now from the top of Manhattan

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"The Light" revisited

The Light in the Piazza, which I wrote about last month, officially opened last night, and NYT's Brantley had a lot of good things to say about the American mother in the musical, whom I also thought was the highlight of the show, and a real reason to see it:

It's when Ms. Clark sings of the cracks and compromises in life that you experience the privilege of stepping inside someone else's mind. A hitherto inconspicuous Broadway performer, Ms. Clark emerges as a star not through show-stopping flash but with the quiet confidence of an actress who knows every bumpy inch of her conflicted character.

It helps, of course, that Mr. Guettel has such a commanding musical grasp of this character as well. A song in the first act, "Dividing Day," in which Mrs. Johnson reflects on the emptiness of her marriage, is a nigh-perfect fusion of a character, an actress and a song. Such moments are rare enough these days to make Mr. Guettel's Florence worth a side trip for hopeful theatergoers still looking for love in a Broadway musical.

To-do: Laundry? Nah. Walk Manhattan? Yup.

Tomorrow -- instead of doing laundry all morning, which is what I probably should be doing on my first day off -- I'm going to take a subway ride to the top of the island (near 220th St. and the Columbia U. athletic facility) and walk all the way down to the Battery: 13+ miles. And, of course, I'll be documenting it in word and image for posting in this space.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Rushdie on writing

Speaking tonight at Town Hall -- the fourth of nine writers responding to the question, "Does Writing Change Anything?" -- Salman Rushdie used words of war and destruction to speak of something we usually conceive of as generative, not degenerative.

Our reactions to books often come in the form of love or of hate, he said. Books we hate are tossed aside; they do not change us, or change our views. But books we love, he said, are like "radioactive fallout in an arable field." After we have read them, and fallen in love with them, things that once grew in that field might no longer appear, whereas stranger and more unusual fruit is likely to become part of the crop.

Rushdie also spoke of how authors cannot fully know what varied effects their writing will have, that part of the creation process continues each time a new reader picks up the work and lets him/herself be affected or not be affected by it. "Literature is a loose cannon," he said. "And that is a very good thing."

Philip Seymour Hoffman spotted in the back row of a PEN event at Town Hall.

CNN is showing a live shot of the Vatican's smokestack, ready to reveal the first wisps of smoke. Old news alert meets new!

Saturday, April 16, 2005

There's even a decorative waterfall in the middle of the main walkway.

The former HQ of Nabisco, Chelsea Market features lots of exposed brick and industrial-art-type fixtures.

The "Survivor"-esque back entranceway to Chelsea Market, a block-long collection of gourmet food places.

Inside Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue, Saturday afternoon.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Bob Saget in "Privilege": Once again the kids steal the show

On "Full House," Bob Saget played the dad with the supercilious grin and a pocketful of easy-fix sitcom-family solutions. That is, when he wasn't playing the dad-like host of "America's Funniest Home Videos," delivering all the cheesy, cliche intro lines to grainy clips of animals performing human-like acts and babies doing grown-up sort of things and adults acting like animals who should know better. As a result, there seem to be two kinds of people in the world (a nod to Daryl) -- those who think Bog Saget is God's gift to his television-watching people and those who think he's kinda evil. Just look at the main results of this Google search.

All of which is a slightly unnecessary intro to a quick review of the off-Broadway play Saget's starring in this month at Second Stage Theater, Privilege, written by one of the screenwriters who did About a Boy (Paul Weitz). In that movie, Hugh Grant's character grew to become a halfway-decent surrogate dad over the course of the story. In this play, about a father who's arrested for insider trading, Saget struggles to portray a rich dad more at home in the boardroom than in the opulent playroom he's funded for his sons. Saget -- in glasses, looking more like Jeff Goldblum than his former TV self -- didn't seem to handle very well the progression from pep-talk cool to end-of-his-rope frustration in the performance we saw the other night. The script calls on him to act out this line of emotion at least twice and both times I was laughing one minute and feeling uncomfortable for the guy the next as if he were not quite ready for this level of drama.

But if you get a chance, this show -- set amid the greed of '80s -- is worth seeing anyway -- for the great performances by two young actors who play the high-school and middle-school age sons. The younger boy, who's supposed to be about 12 or 13, is played with all the mannerisms and complaints ("I'm so bored!") and aspirations of his upper-class parents, while the junior-in-HS boy is the real teenager, espousing communist ideals ("well, socialist, really") even if he can't explicate them, using Reagan's face as a dartboard, jamming out to that Tiffany song, "I Think We're Alone Now." In one great scene, the older boy, Porter, comes home in the early a.m. after a night of drinking to find his brother, Charlie, waiting up for him. Charlie is shocked ("Are you drunk?" "What time is it?"), playing the long-suffering, responsible wife/mother lines as Porter waves him off. For some reason, the young actor playing Charlie reminded me of a pint-sized Nathan Lane. It is his journey from belief in his father's innocence to disillusionment and back to a wiser sort of childhood fantasy that becomes the backbone of the play.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A must-see: The Corporation

If you haven't seen the documentary The Corporation (or read Joel Bakan's book by the same name), I strongly recommend it as a fellow citizen of the world. Please prepare yourself for what can be an unsettling experience. Not because it has any heavy doses of sex, violence or gore, but because the ideas put forward here are prone to make you squirm in your seat -- even if you're well versed in the arguments of anti-globalization advocates and those who fight corporate power.

The influence of the products, and more importantly, the by-products, of (usually large publicly traded, multinational) corporations is so pervasive that it often becomes invisible. This film does its best to pull you back from that, and make you realize what sort of system we're living in. It postulates that corporations are the dominant force in human civilization on earth right now, as powerful if not more so than the church or monarchical and feudal states were in the past. And the problem with the corporation is it doesn't have a soul or morals or a body, and thus it is prone to psychotic, amoral behavior, even as it is granted the rights of a human, flesh-and-blood person. Even when it is peopled by moral or ethical people, its underlying purpose -- to bring in more money for shareholders -- becomes so encompassing that the people involved in the enterpise can cause a lot of harm to stakeholders who don't have much of a say. And, amazingly, by that definition, attempts at corporate social responsibility can actually be seen to undermine the growth of shareholder value, if these do-gooder activities take money away and don't replace them with a higher public image and the assumed accompanying sales.

Thus, the film reminds us that post-Industrial-Revolution corporations as we know them were created by law and can be affected by law (even dismantled if need be). They are human creations, and they rely on law-creating governments for their charters and existence, but it's easy to forget that when they seem to do so well acting on their own. They become especially powerful when governments that are supposed to be regulating them become so chummy and devoted to meeting their every need and condoning their need to externalize costs.

Without rushing to the other end of the spectrum -- communism and the state running all things -- the film's many voices argue for using the tools of democratic government for reshaping corporations at their core or otherwise reining them in; for making them more sustainable entities that aren't continually "plundering" the earth's resources and never giving back; and also for living outside the corporate realm. This last proposition is especially hard, since we rely on so many corporations indirectly for the things of our daily life.

But at its heart, the film appeals to our human intellect and creativity to come up with a better vision, one that is not based only on greed and the profit motive, one that can find a balance that improves the greater good for the earth community without diminishing the freedom and goals of the individual. We should hold to the idea that there can exist a public interest -- that not all things need to be bought, sold and owned. It's a tall order, but one worth keeping in mind.

You can hear me now (without a headset)!

So I finally got a new mobile phone today after weeks of waiting (and relying on a handset with a damaged microphone), and I could barely get out of the Verizon store without them trying to sell me every little tangible and intangible bell and whistle imaginable. I was able to fend off their upselling and come away (in theory) having only paid tax on the new phone (about $5) -- that is, once I get my $50 rebate back.

See, if you hold out for 22 months on one phone, Verizon gives you a $100 credit toward a new one (as long as you commit to another two years with the can-you-hear-me-now people). But along the way they want to make it hard for you to leave without giving them more money.

Consider my options: I could have gotten a plan with more minutes (no need, since I never use more than my allotted 400 -- now 450 -- peak). I could have gotten a snazzier phone (this one seems snazzy enough). I could have had the accessories pack for another $50 (what do I need a car charger for?). I could have taken the monthly insurance (yeah, this is a gamble, but if this one goes kaput, I can just buy the cheapest model, and if it's fine through its lifetime, then I'll have saved a lot of money).

Of course, I'm still paying them $55 and change each month, after all the fees and taxes are added in, when I'd much rather be paying something closer to the original advertised rate of $39.99, but hey, this is the price of living with one phone in the modern world.

Sports meet art on Union Square

My interest was piqued the other day by Daryl's entry on the new program running the big digital-clock face on Union Square South. It does indeed seem to have become a more simple countdown to the day (July 5 our time/July 6 Singapore time) when the IOC will open its meeting to decide whether or not to grant New York the Olympics in 2012.

Monday, April 11, 2005

In other Jonathan Safran Foer news ...

Yes, the movie rights to his first book have been snapped up (and those of the second as well). Liev Schreiber of all people is directing "Everything is Illuminated" (in what I think will be his directorial debut), and Elijah Wood ("Frodo") will be playing Jonathan, the "hero" of an altogether different kind of quest. It's due out August 12. Filming locations? So far only Prague is listed on IMDB. Where's the film and television office of Ukraine on this?

Also, in a somewhat Christo-esque aspiration, JSF's latest boilerplate bio mentions a public art project he's supposedly working to realize: "The Whispering Parabolas" -- "in which two massive parabolas will be built on opposite sides of the Central Park Reservoir to facilitate intimate conversations in the middle of Manhattan."

Is this a joke? Who knows? But the idea is not unheard-of. In fact, both London's St. Paul's Cathedral and Washington's Capitol feature similar such indoor whispering galleries.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Jonathan Safran Foer: When not quite everything is "Illuminated"

I got to the end of Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, €œEverything is Illuminated, feeling cheated in a way. Perhaps it was the title and my taking it at its most literal meaning. The idea that I'd get to the end and everything would be, well, illuminated. The way I felt getting to the end of The God of Small Things,€ and having that stroke of epiphany, wanting immediately to reread the book in 15 minutes and build on that visceral tingling. Yes, with JSF's ending, there was some symmetry. The last line circles back to one of the first. But I felt that along the way I'€™d missed too much, that other readers might have gotten it, whereas I didn't. Where was the final twist? The final connection between the story that takes place in the present and the one that spans the lifetime of a shtetl. The link that makes luminescent the grandparents and the grandchildren depicted in the novel.

So I ended an otherwise captivating read of two minds: loving many of its parts, but feeling less than thrilled with the whole. Whereas Francine Prose in her NYT review loved and continually laughed out loud at the Alex character in the book -- the Ukrainian tour-guide and translator who writes a slightly goofy, stilted English as if the thesaurus is his prime source --€“ I, on the other hand, appreciated his pidgin voice for a while and then grew weary of it, almost dreading each subsequent chapter narrated by this character. Instead, it was the mythological imaginings of the American narrator, the fictional alter ego of JSF himself, which mesmerized me. I felt like it was this line that was the story's true strength. But, of course, you cannot separate the two and like one and ignore the other and expect to come away with coherence. So maybe I did myself a disservice by not paying as close attention to the present-day tale of the college student returning to Ukraine to discover his past, as told through his eager translator.

Or perhaps, now that I've read reviews and other commentary on the book, that feeling of symmetry without final transcendence was what JSF might have been going for. His alter ego spends a matter of days with the shoestring-operation, heritage-search tour operator (basically the Ukrainian boy, his grandfather and a dog in a beat-up car) and ends up discovering fewer actual facts about his own distant family than the locals do about their own immediate one. It's a story about looking for things clumsily, learning to appreciate what you end up discovering instead, and imagining the rest.

The novel also succeeds in tackling the Holocaust as a fictional narrative without making it feel like it's really a "€œHolocaust book" at heart. When the Nazis arrive, they do spell the end of the village of JSF's ancestors, but their coldly cruel acts do not seem to have the power to overshadow the preceding daily lives of the shtetl, which are peculiar and picaresque but deeply touching and very human. Perhaps it's easier for me to say this having never been so directly affected by the Holocaust, but I think one of the author's points --€“ as the story moves back and forth through time in a postmodern way -- is that the tales of each life are ultimately more remarkable than the means of the villagers' death. And this, despite that many of the characters are continually grappling with mortality (especially deaths that seem unreasonable or coincidental or just downright strange).

Even though the experience was not what I had expected, I look forward to reading JSF's new novel, €œExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close,€ which employs at least two similar motifs: the personal experience of a notorious massacre (9/11) and the juxtaposition of two competing, but related, narrators. I'm also slightly disappointed that I missed the author'™s several appearances in New York in recent days. According to his website, he will, however, be showing up in D.C. tomorrow (Monday, April 11) at Politics and Prose; in the Chapel Hill/Durham area on Wednesday; and in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Still, he's a Park Slope guy, so he's bound to be back in NYC soon.

"Moon" cakes

Chinatown is filled with delicious options for cheap or reasonably priced meals, but one of our favorites is Moon House Restaurant at 67 Bayard (conveniently located next to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory). Last night, we got two of our favorite dishes: shrimp rice cakes and vegetable dumplings. They're satisfying and served quickly. The cooks toil invisibly downstairs, and the servers pull your food from a dumbwaiter near the front of the extremely narrow shop (which I can't imagine seats more than 30 people). With free tea and including tip, our total came to less than $12. For dessert, I got some green-tea ice cream next door and B. got a red-bean-paste pastry at Fay Da Bakery on Mott St.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Ukie food at an old stand-by

Strolling around with empty stomachs Friday night, B. and I ended up on Second Avenue and I suggested: Why not go for some Ukrainian? So we stopped in at one of the best 24-hour comfort food places around, which just happens to serve Ukie food: Veselka. (It means "rainbow" and also happens to be a very popular name for Ukrainian traditional-dance ensembles.) I've eaten brunch there in the past, but never actually tried the pierogies (with sour cream and fried onions) and borscht. I can now say that both of these dishes are passable alternatives to the kind you would get at your local Baba's house or church basement.

My memories of the food at the next-door Ukrainian National Home (from a class trip years ago) are not as favorable. Who knows? Maybe I just had a bad batch back then.

Also on my heritage to-do list: Visit the newly opened and expanded Ukrainian Museum on 6th St.

Friday, April 08, 2005

"On Golden Pond" opening night

James Earl Jones is a great actor and a commanding live-stage presence. This must be said as he seems most recently to be known only as a good pitchman for the phone company and of course as the owner of a legendary voice. He still uses that voice to great effect in On Golden Pond -- which opened last night at the Cort -- most memorably as he's parroting his 13-year-old soon-to-be grandson in the play: "Are you bulllll-****ing me?" Unfortunately, because of where we were sitting (in the balcony) or because he was slightly mumbling, some of Jones' biggest laugh lines were lost on us (but not on most of the audience), because we couldn't quite hear what he was saying.

But this was a small matter, and the overall play -- about habits that die hard, seasonal habits worth keeping and the general sadness (and joy) of getting older -- keeps things light throughout, even with death knocking about backstage. Morbid (but not meanly morbid) humor is Jones' character Norman's favorite kind, but even as he jokingly warns of his always impending departure, he starts to give in to the humor in all the things that are the opposite of death. There is drama sprinkled amid the laughs, but it doesn't weigh down the action very much, and the play putters along at a good clip. Having never seen previous versions of the play (or the 1981 movie with Hepburn and Fonda), I'm not sure how much needed to be updated for both the times or the race (this production includes a nearly all black cast), but as Brantley points out, the end result feels very fresh.

I'm pretty sure this is Oksana Baiul. (It's been 11 years since her famous Olympics, if you can believe it.)

Colin and Alma Powell arriving on the (very short) red carpet. Their daughter, Linda Powell, played James Earl Jones' daughter in the play.

Dionne Warwick and an autograph seeker outside the Cort

Thursday, April 07, 2005

"Uncle Richard, me and James Earl Jones ..."

As a follow-up to last night's debate, here is a post mortem from one of the panelists, Jonathan Tasini, who fought on The Nation side of things, and whose day job is president of the Economic Future Group.

Tonight, just got back from opening night of On Golden Pond on Broadway starring the venerable James Earl Jones: a recap and paparazzi shots (if any of them come out) will follow tomorrow, when I'm not so sleepy.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"What's Good for Wal-Mart is Good for America?"

I indulged academic and journalistic memories of college tonight by sitting in on a free debate co-sponsored by The Economist and The Nation in NYSEC's auditorium. The topic (a very timely one): Is Wal-Mart all that's right with American capitalism or all that's wrong with it? WNYC's Brian Lehrer was there to keep things civil -- which they were.

The debate here happened to fall at a time when Wal-Mart was courting the media with a special two-day event to get its side of the story out there amid all the ongoing "bad press." Following a recent failed attempt to open a new superstore in Rego Park, Queens, their PR office also got a research firm to study how much "opposition" there really is to such a store, and put out a release claiming that 62% of NYers favor letting the world's largest retailer into one of the world's biggest cities.

Wal-Mart has already dominated rural, suburban and "exurban" America. Now, in order to continue to grow and collect earnings for its shareholders, it's expanding or attempting to expand into urban areas, where the company's encountering a lot of opposition, especially when unionized grocery workers have a say, according to The Economist's Ben Edwards, one of tonight's panelists. Speaking on the pro side of the evening's proposition, he pointed out what he called the authenticity of Wal-Mart's advertising campaign, which focuses on what he called "Harriet Housewife" -- a middle-aged lower-to-middle-income woman without a lot of time or money who loves going to Wal-Mart because of its convenience and low prices.

Liza Featherstone and Jon Tasini, speaking for The Nation, countered that those low prices are predicated on boatloads of merchandise from China, where atrocious labor practices keep things cheap all around. They also blamed Wal-Mart for continually flouting labor rules in the U.S., and only getting slaps on the wrist when caught. To stem these problems, they called for more stringent and diligent enforcement of existing laws by government, while also favoring mandated living wages on a local basis.

Edwards and Malanga countered that Wal-Mart wouldn't be such a strong company if the workers didn't like working there, adding that the company has taken successful efforts to drive down turnover, which is already below most retail-industry standards.

Meanwhile, The Nation pair criticized Wal-Mart for having so many of its workers rely on government-funded health care, instead of covering it themselves. Liza pointed out an irony that Wal-Mart seems to be such a Republican darling, yet the company could end up saving even more money on health-care costs by supporting the liberal idea of a single-payer system.

I could go on, but you get the idea: Intelligent points on both sides. Check your C-SPAN listings for an upcoming broadcast of the event.

At the event, I also ran into an acquaintance from college, who happened to sit down in the empty seat next to me. Turns out that after Penn State, she got her master's at Columbia and is now producing business news for NY1.

Reps from the erudite weeklies duke it out over the Beauty/Beast of Bentonville, while always-level-headed Lehrer looks on -- tonight at the Society for Ethical Culture.

Guantanamo, meet Leonardo

Curbed reported yesterday on the winning proposal (codename "Leonardo") to renovate Pier 57 near W. 15th Street: If all goes as the development team plans, it will mix elements of a museum, marina, tall-ship gallery, restaurant collection, Italian-boutique bouquet, off-site meeting site, and general hip Continental-esque (but only-in-America) hangout. Nonetheless, it's hard for me to call this place "Little Italy on the Hudson" as it bears scant physical resemblance to the real thing (in Chinatown). What to call it instead? We'll have to wait and see once (and if) it all comes together.

You may recall the place had an altogether different nickname as recently as last summer, when activists were calling it Gitmo on the Hudson, the place the cops tossed a lot of the protesters they arrested during the RNC. Wired New York has a slightly more neutral page on the history of the floating pier (90% of its weight is sustained through buoyancy!), which is near Chelsea Piers. The owners of that upscale rec complex also had been eyeing 57 for their uses, but they lost out in the latest Hudson River Park Trust deliberations.

Stranded and alone in the Bronx

Have you heard about the Chinese deliveryman who ended up stuck in an express elevator for three days?!? The latest NYT story gets more of the answers, following a brief translated press gaggle at the hospital where he was treated for dehydration. But it doesn't answer all the questions: Why was no one able to find this guy after all the extensive searching -- or conversely, why was this guy unable to get help for so long?

Two small ironies: His last delivery before the ordeal was to an off-duty cop AND yes, he made the delivery before getting stuck. Another crazy detail: How did this guy get $60,000 to pay off the people who supposedly smuggled him into the U.S.? And of course that sad image of a guy who knew so little English stuck in the core of a tall building where he'd spent so much time while crews of police were searching everywhere else outside except the most obvious place.

His parting remark (spoken like a truly jaded New Yorker): "The tips in that building are all bad."

As a side note: Care to see a rough picture of what these Tracey Towers look like from space? Check out Google Maps' new satellite view function. Zoom in on the two towers in the center. Or see them here, in a more ground-level view, looming behind Bronx Science.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Light rail: Coming to a Times Square near you?

Transit geeks, take note: Imagine a street-level light-rail system stretching from river to river on 42nd St. No more slow-boat-to-China crosstown, but a sleek, smooth, pedestrian-friendly system with stops at each avenue.

Yes, it's a bit of pipe dream, but there's an advocacy group pushing for just such a line: vision42. Here's a PDF map of what it could look like. As of now, transit riders headed west of 8th Ave. or east of Lexington are basically stuck with the M42, which ranked as the 8th slowest bus route according to the Straphangers' 2004 survey. One of the light-rail group's founders claims the estimated river-to-river travel time would be a speedy 20 minutes.

But while it's fun to dream -- and bring to mind similar such downtown above-ground lines in Manchester, England, and Strasbourg, France -- this system is not really on MTA's radar. They're pushing more for an extension of the 7 subway line, in accord with the mayor's visions for the West Side.

New Jersey, of course, has not one or two but three light-rail lines, or two-and-a-half if you consider that the Newark subway is partly underground.

He will be missed.

Friday, April 01, 2005

No foolin' zone

It's April Fool's and I got nuthin'. But Daryl certainly does (in an especially snarky tone too)! And Google, too! They're apparently upping the ante in the e-mail storage race (against Yahoo and Hotmail) by giving you INFINITY+1 gigs of space to store all your precious spam. (E-mail me if you want an account. While invites last.) Can you say spam-alot?