Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Cliff Dwelling, on Sunday afternoon. We came across this apartment building at 243 Riverside Drive (off 96th Street) this weekend. It's decorated with buffalo-skull and Mayan-head engravings near street level. The architect was Herman Lee Meader and it was completed in 1914. Other sites refer to it as the "Cliff Dwellers' Apartments." Either way, it certainly does evoke a cliff, and must have great views of the Hudson.

"Now batting for the State College Centurions ..."

I really enjoy naming contests, even if I'm not 100% into whatever it is we're being asked to name, so I had to devote a few minutes to brainstorming the other day when I heard that the new State College professional baseball team was looking for a mascot/team name. (The team will be sharing the new stadium, pictured in an artist's rendering above and to be located behind Beaver Stadium, with the Penn State University team when the place is built.)

So thinking along the same lines as the Philadelphia Phillies, my old home-town team, I decided to suggest something that is both a little historical and a little bit of a play on words: the State College Centurions. (You know, sort of like, Centre County?) The local newspapers could even abbreviate the name to the Cents in headlines. It was tempting to try to play off some PSU-related motif, but I thought, Why not try to give the team its own identity separate from the omnipresent nature of Penn State culture in State College? Who knows if that's what they're looking for, after all the local high school team is known as the Little Lions.

Naming contests, in general, often remind me of a passage from one of my favorite stories, "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote, which evokes both the hope and creativity involved in such mail-in competitions as well as the hopelessness of your effort:

... Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It's just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested "A.M."; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan "A.M.! Amen!"). ...
The first round of the State College baseball contest continues through June 10.

Monday, May 30, 2005

On 14th Street, Friday afternoon. It's sad when people lose things like this, which seem to matter so much to them. But (a) will they really pay out a $500 reward if found and/or (b) couldn't they just go to a nice church gift shop and get a new one and remember in their heart that things get lost sometimes but sentiments still last? I don't know -- maybe I'd think otherwise if I knew the real story behind this.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Arbus exhibit closing

You never know how people are going to surf over to your site. For whatever reason, my recent entry about the Diane Arbus photograph depicting "a young waitress at a nudist camp" seems to have reached the first page of results on Google. Well, as far as I can tell, you can't view this work of art online, so if you'd like to see it, hurry over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before the exhibit closes tomorrow (May 30).

However, since I'm on the topic, here's another article -- from the Washington Post -- about the now-grown-up subjects of Arbus' famous works. And here are some homages/parodies of the boy in the park with the twisted face and the grenade in his hand: the original, as a plastic toy, as graffiti, and as a monkey.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The 9 train

Soon to be filed under Things That Aren't There Anymore.

The Spanish-speaking arm of Guerilla Copy Editors

Proud but reasonable bike advocate Daryl writes about his recent adventures with a Bike Month NYC event today. It's run by Transportation Alternatives, which is wrapping up a month of activities. You might've seen the posters on the subway with lots of fun-looking New Yorkers standing in front of their bicycles. The slogan on the English posters was something like, We Bike This City.

However, it seems their Spanish version was not so fine-tuned, as I discovered a poster on the 1 train, which someone had copy edited. Originally it said, "Esta cuidad la paseamos en bicicleta!" But someone crossed out "cuidad" and wrote in "ciudad." From what I can gather -- not being a Spanish speaker -- the first means "you take care of" and the second means "city."

They seem to be a well-meaning group, but next year, perhaps they'll attract more Latinos if they get their slogan translated correctly.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Semi-celeb sighting

I saw WNYC's late morning host Brian Lehrer this evening on an uptown 9 train (one of the last). I eventually sat down in an empty seat next to him. I'd seen him once before at a Symphony Space event, but he was chatting with lots of people then, so I didn't get a chance to say hi and tell him how much I enjoy listening to his show when I can.

I kept debating in my head as each stop passed whether I should say something to him, but he looked like he kind of just wanted to go home and not have to be "Brian Lehrer" anymore. He got on at Chambers Street, near where the radio station offices are located (in the Manhattan municipal building). I was kind of surprised he was leaving the area around 6 p.m., since I've always figured he's in the office at least a few hours ahead of his 10 a.m. to noon show. Who knows: Perhaps he wasn't just leaving the office. He had on a green baseball hat (with no logo) and held his backpack in front of him. He didn't say a word, even when people started complaining that the train wasn't running, so I couldn't hear the distinctive voice.

Work on the Renzo Piano-designed New York Times Tower is finally starting to take shape. It's supposed to be done in two years. It should be a tall, attractive building, rising to a height of 748 feet, but it's located across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Talk about a disappointing location!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

JSF, take 5683 (stands for "love" -- see page 269!)

Not only is Jonathan Safran Foer's second book easily comparable to his first book, but over at Mediabistro points out how it is strikingly similar to (his wife) Nicole Krauss' second novel, The History of Love. When asked whether the couple compared notes at the reading I attended, Krauss carefully explained that since they share a life together, it is only natural that such similarities are prone to appear -- or some judicious answer like that.

Garman, interestingly, thinks Krauss' novel is the better one. (Then why didn't she read a good part at B&N?!?!?)

My love-hate relationship with Jonathan Safran Foer's writing continues ...

It started with his story in the NYT, "The Sixth Borough." Loved it. Cut it out and saved it, even.

Read his first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Enjoyed a fair amount of it, but found it painful to slog through much of it, what with the Ukrainian kid who learned English from a mutant thesaurus, and at the end, felt cheated somehow because "everything" was NOT illuminated, as far as I was concerned.

Then I read this no-holds-barred take-down piece about JSF's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the NY Press, and for a while, I decided I wasn't going to be like everybody else and actually read it. (Granted, the Press is sensationalist and incredibly cruel at times -- just think of the sad incident of the Pope cover story -- but this one still rings somewhat true for me.)

The key excerpt:

Foer is indeed a sampler, throwing in Sebald (the illustrations and Dresden), Borges (the grandparents divide their apartment into something and nothing), Calvino (a tale about the sixth borough that floated off, ripped off wholesale from Cosmicomics), Auster (in the whole city-of-symbols shtick), Night of the Hunter (the grandfather has Yes and No tattooed on his hands) and damn near every other author, technique, reference and symbol he can lay his hands on, as though referencing were the same as meaning.
Still, finally, I relented and got Extremely from the library. I read it and felt like I was having deja vu. For a good deal of the book, it feels like he just went back and rewrote his first novel.

The Holocaust has become 9/11, laced with Dresden and Hiroshima for full comparative effect. But there's still the disjointed, semi-incoherent narrative coupled with a real-time story; the obsession with loss and death; the sex lives of the grandparents; the young narrator who is both innocent and jaded (this time around, a grade-school atheist too afraid to take the subway, who asks to give chaste kisses to "beautiful" ladies, who is aw-shucks adorable one moment and a cloying apple-polisher the next); and silly little expressions ("heavy boots") that are repeated over and over again until they lose whatever novelty they might have had the first or second time we read them.

To his credit, some of these things work better the second time around -- or maybe I was just numb to them by the time I neared the end of his latest. Also, to his credit, he is not a bad writer, and he's quite talented at times. He didn't get this far without some skill and creativity. At times, his writing is a small joy, and perhaps that's why I stuck it out and finished both books, looking for a few good morsels.

The problem is, the author squanders what good faith he garners from his readers by unnecessarily alienating us with photographs and illustrations of things already described clearly enough in the text or typographical peculiarities that, even if they work on some level, still push us away instead of drawing us in.

I hope at the least JSF is somewhere getting a royal kick out of all these tricks-of-print, because they don't make the inherent story better than it is; they detract from it.

(I also felt a little used by how he included a modulated version of the "The Sixth Borough" within the novel's narrative. Authors do publish excerpts and individual stories ahead of full books, but in this case, it felt like shoddy recycling. And there is no reference to the NYT publication in the book's front matter.)

Another thing that made me dread reading certain chapters (so that I could get to the halfway-decent normal parts) was the way he indescribably breaks with conventions of prose. Did he really have to: put lots and lots of spaces after sentences, write entire sections as if they were one endless pages-long sentence with lots of commas, and cram choppy dialogue between characters into one long paragraph instead of breaking it up each time the speaker changes? It would be just as easy to do what everyone else does and attempt to put meaning into the words instead of the fonts and formatting. The first is called composition, the second graphic design.

All of these affectations contribute to the sense that JSF wants us to understand this is an Important Book, when we are really just as likely to come away from it, thinking, "Jonathan Safran Foer is (rather) Pretentious."

So what happens if you strip the book of its quirks and its ostentatious printing marks? JSF still tells a decent story:

A simple story about a boy whose dad dies when he is still young (albiet in the most publicized way of our young century), who clings to things because he misses his father, and goes on a journey around New York and comes to a conclusion that T.S. Eliot put more eloquently and succintly: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." Meanwhile, there is a story about the boy's grandfather: how he left his grandmother (for unexplained reasons), couldn't speak and had to write everything to communicate (for unexplained reasons), and then returns belatedly to meet and befriend his mourning grandson. In the middle, lots of people write letters: some are sent; some are buried.

I did derive some pleasure from reading his tale. So where would JSF be today if he'd written it more like that, instead of all gussied up? I don't know. It's hard to say, since this is his second novel, and somehow people decided to publish his first book, which was even more unreadable at times and had a less coherent structure and conclusion.

But this reminds me of another set of stories:

Once upon a time, there was a boy (me), who like JSF, wrote a letter to a famous author (he chose the now-late Susan Sontag; his 9/11 orphan chooses Stephen Hawking; I chose Joyce Carol Oates). This boy gets a glowing, personalized, but safely vague response back (me, just like JSF -- I assume -- and just like Oskar).

Buoyed by this praise, we head out to conquer the world. Oskar gets over his mourning period, but JSF and I both try our hand at writing fiction.

I read a sappy, heartwarming story with a great twist at the end, which had been forwarded to me via e-mail; it nests in my brain. JSF reads a lot of literature (much of it "experimental") and sees a lot of movies -- I'm assuming here again.

I sit down months later to write my own fiction piece, unknowingly based on that story. It turns out well. I publish it in my family newsletter, and my parents love it. Then I feel really guilty, because they think the idea and the execution are all mine. I mope around and finally admit to them -- my only readers -- that my subconscious basically lifted the premise from that forwarded e-mail, and in a way, I just rewrote it from memory. They say I'm still a good writer, but still I feel guilty. I don't let the story leave the house.

JSF, meanwhile, sits down and writes a full novel using some of his own stuff and some imagined stuff to form a not-all-that-complicated plot, but dresses it up with a lot of other people's hip, cool, out-there writerly techniques and rearranges things for effect. He pads it out with some photos, shrinks or obliterates the text in some places, and then -- wonder of wonders -- gets it published. The buzz machine picks it up and suddenly it becomes the It Fiction about 9/11.

And now he's a millionaire. Doesn't he feel guilty about all this "sampling"?

Perhaps (I show him my LEFT HAND), perhaps (I show him my RIGHT HAND).

Instead I'm left to sit here and suppress my own begrudging envy of him and carry around my own uncompensated guilt for once being so horribly derivative.

That is all, I'm done now. I promise.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Whitehall Terminal, Wednesday afternoon. (When will the nice warm weather return?)

So someone tells you your sign is spelled wrong. It's not "Time Square," they say. So you can either shrug it off and say, well, we meant to do that; we wanted to be different! Or you could try and squeeze in the letter "s" without actually ordering a new awning. Which makes you look both cheap and dumb.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

You read it here first ...

(Well, maybe.) The wine shop inside the basement-level Whole Foods Market in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle was indeed forced to close because of (somewhat arcane) state liquor law violations. The NY Times ran an article about it today. Why it took them two weeks to catch on to a follow-up story staring hundreds of eager gourmet shoppers in the face each day, I don't know. If they'd only read my post from May 10, perhaps they would have filed sooner. Here is an instance where this little outpost of the blogosphere just isn't catching the eye of MSM. Oh, well. There's always the next scoop.

On that note, On The Media -- NPR's weekly must-hear for media junkies -- had a segment about "glocal journalism" last Sunday in which they spoke to a Minnesotan who helped break news that was happening on another continent with the help of the internet and other modern technology.

Review: My Architect: A Son's Journey

The details of Louis Kahn's death open this 2003 documentary, which does an excellent job of mixing the best elements of artistic retrospective and family examination, with a hint of mysterious, mystical quest. The architect who was known for his big ideas and few masterpieces died in the bathroom of Penn Station in New York, alone and unidentified for a few days, because he had crossed out the address on his passport and just returned from a trip to India. His obituary in the NYT famously mentioned only one wife and one daughter as survivors, but Kahn actually had two other women in his life and two other children: another daughter and a son, Nathaniel, whose film and story this is. He was 11 when his famous father died.

The action is set up in a sort of journey: through his father's life, among his works, among his family members and the people who knew and still held strong emotions about him. The director/son is candid at times (he admits he doesn't like the Richards Medical Research Building at U. Penn) and probing (asking his mother -- the third "wife," if you will -- whether she really believes the last thing Kahn told her before he died) and not overly sentimental but still sensitive. Put another way, he manages to balances his own huge personal investment in the man while at the same time being a very able objective guide to the man and the architect.

The film is a great introduction to Kahn's works, which evoke ancient structures with modern materials, and ends with what is perhaps his greatest work: a capital complex for a young, poor, but proudly independent nation (Bangladesh). There are also cameos from some of the greatest architects of our time -- Pei, Stern, Gehry, Johnson (now also gone himself) -- as well as an appearance by Kahn's nemesis in Philadelphia (the home city that barely shows any of his work): the city planner Edmund Bacon, father of Kevin Bacon.

If you enjoyed Capturing the Friedmans, that other 2003 documentary that won such acclaim for probing a conflicted man, there are similar scenes of a family trying to reconcile their feelings in front of the camera. Kahn, of course, was by no means a criminal, and his hidden life was not as horrible, but I was still interested to see how so many of the people who knew him were ready to forgive him in light of what they saw as his genius or vision.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A victory for artists and tourists alike

The proposed ban on photography in the subways has been called off! Woo-hoo! Now we can all snap away with near immunity. (Just don't look suspicious while doing it.)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A round-up of some theater news

  • Shakespeare in the Park -- that free summertime tradition at the Delacorte -- will again be featuring two productions this year: As You Like It and Two Gentlemen of Verona, with the first at the beginning of the summer and the second straddling Labor Day. I'm more of a fan of the first one, but I'm willing to take another swipe at liking Two Gentlemen, which will be a "re-imagining" of the musical version.
  • The guy known for writing the compelling Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife and the dark but gripping Quills (the movie featured Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush) is now doing the book for a musical version of The Little Mermaid. Talk about selling out to Disney!
  • Trump, one of my favorite punching bags, decided it was time to take on Broadway, so he's hiring some guys to give The Apprentice the musical treatment. Guess who'll be helping him? That's right, Mark Burnett. Here's a quote from him about the project: "This is not a spoof or a satire. It is a love story set to The Apprentice as a backdrop." Because everything Burnett does is dead serious and not at all a joke.
  • Are there any new musicals in the works that a) aren't revivals or b) aren't based on some other brand or story already out there in the mass media? Perhaps they should just get honest and go back to producing the "industrial musicals" of yesteryear (aka corporate musicals/industrial shows), but instead of reserving them for employee indoctrination, they could open the shows to the general audience! Think of the possibilities: People could pay $100 a seat to see musicals entirely devoted to singing the praises (literally) of ... Starbucks or Wal-Mart. [Wait ... scratch that latter idea. With all the unions on Broadway, a Wal-Mart musical would never get past Bentonville.]

Saturday, May 21, 2005

"I gave my best billable time to that firm."

I'm heading back to the Philly area tonight to celebrate a friend's graduation from law school. But before I go, here's a restaurant recommendation: Monsoon at Amsterdam and 81st St. Very reasonably priced Vietnamese with a nice decor and good service.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Riding home on the 1 train tonight ...

I noticed that a guy next to me had scrawled a quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt on a piece of paper and taped it to the inside cover of his PDA case. It read:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I came home and looked it up. Apparently, the former first lady said it late in life as a "warning to wives of future presidents." I wondered, Why did this quote have significance to him and why did he decide to keep it so close at hand?

If you've been waiting for some good fiction to come along ...

In the New Yorker, this week's your chance. It's been hit or miss recently with the weekly short story, but Jonathan Franzen's contribution "Two's Company" is funny, nuanced and self-referential; has sly pop culture allusions; features a beginning, middle and end; and you can read it all in one medium-length subway ride.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Arts for transit trash?

So was this coffee drinker (and the person with the plastic bag from the previous photo) just litter bugs or were they actually responsible for wry "interventions" among Tom Otterness' Life Underground collection of sculptures?

On the A-C-E subway platform at 14th St. this evening.

"We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C.B.S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it ..."

Last night we saw a dramatization of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, performed as if it were a radio show, at the Kraine Theater below KGB Bar on East 4th Street. The small theater wasn't a great place to see a show that's predicated on your attentive listening, as the seats were uncomfortable and the floorboards were creaky, made worse by several audience members' insistence on getting up and moving around occasionally as if it wasn't going to bother other people. I got the tickets hoping to have an experience akin to the famous Orson Welles radio adaptation broadcast just before Halloween in 1938, which caused a minor panic when people tuned in midway through and didn't listen long enough to hear that it was a fictional drama.

But this show turned out to be an attempt to go back to the original text and write their own "radio" adaptation, which I felt was not as concise and punchy as the famous Mercury Theater production. H.G.'s book placed the action in turn-of-the-century London, whereas Orson's version focused on the little crossroads of Grover's Mill, N.J., and New York City, and depicted the story as if it were a current event unfolding. Last night's production used a town on Long Island as the site of the aliens' first local landing.

I don't know exactly what it was about this 90-minute show, but perhaps it's just that the story bored me. I'm not the biggest fan of most action adventure movies or stories, and much of the narrative felt like them: cliched in a way, even though I'd imagine it was somewhat groundbreaking and prophetic at the time it was first published. It was an interesting experience to sit there and imagine the scenes of chaos and destruction as they dramatized them, but those are actually the moments where I tune out in a lot of disaster movies. I waited there eventually just wanting to know what it was that ultimately brought the aliens down. (For more on the story and its various iterations, see Wikipedia's web of entries.)

In the end, it's hard to top Welles' achievement for its feeling of realism and its success at condensing the story into an hour-long show. The script and a recording [MP3, starts immediately] are available online. If you have the patience and time, I'd recommend turning down the lights and listening to this version instead.

New York 2015

Flash forward ten years. Look at the West Side skyline of Manhattan.

Perhaps you see a stadium near the middle and the tallest building in the world at one end. Or not. Maybe you see just the relatively new stadium, but nothing quite so soaring at the southern tip. Or maybe there's an inspiring set of mostly unoccupied towers where once the World Trade Center stood, but no stadium where once a mayor and others had dreams of one.

In the meantime, it's anybody's guess, and the rancor that has colored both debates (over ground zero and the Jets/Olympic stadium) has just made it less appealing to hope for any outcome. I'm a big fan of architecture and interesting modern real estate developments, but certain projects seem so mired in egos and politics and ideals and emotions and other intangibles that it's hard to get excited about them.

The latest? Our friend Trump, who can't seem to keep his nose out of anything, latches onto the Most Original Idea of the Decade: Let's rebuild the Twin Towers the way they were, but just add a floor to make it bigger and better!

Please, Mr. Trump, don't bother to give any credit to the people who have been saying that since Sept. 12, 2001. Or admit that a group called Team Twin Towers has been actively pushing for such a plan for months now. Just resort to that sad and tired line: Doing anything less would be letting the terrorists win. (Can anyone seriously use that argument with a straight face any more?)

I don't mean to belittle in any way the memory of the tragedy of 9/11, but I feel like Trump's entry into this debate marks a depressing turning point and has just proved once again that nothing is sacred if you give it enough time. Fight over supposedly hallowed ground long enough in today's climate, and sooner or later, someone like Trump will see an opportunity to wedge his ego into the mess. This isn't to say that many of the other players are totally innocent, but Trump for me just epitomizes the tawdriness factor.

(Hmm. Sounds like a promising reality-show project ... Tawdriness Factor.)

So years from now, maybe these battles will be all but forgotten the same way it takes post-tragedy documentaries to remind many of us of all the details of the original WTC: how it was going to be on the East Side until New Jersey got mad and felt left out; how it took from the '50s to the '70s for the towers to get build; how many people thought they were ugly and too big and horrible for the skyline, until somewhere along the line they became a thing of beauty and worthy of tourist mementos and countless pizzeria paintings.

But in the meantime, there's another project in which I have much more faith. It's well-funded, well-liked and now relatively resistant to the endless squabbles that have stalled the ground-zero and stadium plans. My money (if I had any) would be on the High Line renovation. That, I will hope for.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Consumer tip: Return your pennies to the government

Let me preface this by saying that I'm too often pennywise and pound-foolish, and yes, that means I stoop to pick up pennies off the ground more than most people will.

So what do I do with all those pennies? Sometimes I use them to pay exact change at the store; sometimes I give them to beggars in a handful; sometimes they pile up to such great quantities that I can't bear to have them jingle around in my bag or pocket all day, so I empty the mug brimming with pennies, nickels and dimes (quarters are strictly for the laundry), and walk the comparatively short distance to the neighborhood post office.

The vending machine that spits out stamps at many U.S. post offices is one of the few that will actually accept pennies (which is to be expected from the government that gave you pennies in the first place). So I save myself the rolling of eyes I'm likely to get from real, live cashiers and instead pump my pennies and other small change into the silent and accepting vending machine to buy stamps. I know this isn't going to save me vast quantities of money, but it's satisfying on some level to get rid of the change and come out with thin, little currency of a different kind.

Ex-Gray Lady looking for more green

There had been hints of it from the corporates for weeks now, but it's official: The New York Times is going to start charging you to view very popular sections of its daily paper online in September (i.e., Dowd, Friedman, Krugman, Rich, Brooks, etc. aren't going to be free for the linking anymore). But at least most of the news articles will still be open to all with a browser.

With all the talk of declining newspaper readership, another one of the nation's flagships was bound to run up the banner of (some) premium daily content sooner or later. But it's still a little disappointing. I know, I know, I'm an avid media consumer; I shouldn't have a problem paying for my content, especially when it's stuff as good as the NYT usually churns out. But on the web, this will mean more pointless links for those hoping to discuss what these writers have to say. The same has been happening with the WSJ for a long time now. You may be able to read the Journal in hard copy and want to comment on it, but you don't automatically get online access as a part of the same deal. The only way I've found to link to such stories is to find someone who has full WSJ.com access and who has publicly linked an e-mailed copy of an article. (I'm sort of surprised this even works; perhaps they're looking for a way to foil this access as well.)

But here's something the $50-a-year NYT plan offers that WSJ doesn't: Print subscribers get access to the sampling of premium daily online content for no additional charge, unlike the Journal, which charges extra. So in a way, this TimesSelect product could be seen as a backdoor way to get users of NYT content to just suck it up and buy a physical-doorstep subscription. Hmm. Which includes the likes of me. Well, at least we have a few months to find money in the budget for it. (Budget? What budget!?!)

Oh, for those college days of free newspapers in the dorm each morning.

Monday, May 16, 2005

After All: a found poem

With apologies to Google and "The Next Big Thing."

After all, I had cut corners on my minor psych assignment.
After all, I had already done so many bad things.

After all, I had begged for this, right?
After all, I have more than most people do.

After all, I was trying to get away from electric guitars.
After all, I had no interest in ever appearing on television.

After all, I hadn’t been on a real interview in almost 20 years.
After all, I was very excited about Disney, as so many are.
After all, I don't work at McDonald's, now do I?
After all, I help pay their salaries.

After all, I had read every Hardy Boys book.
After all, I had warned them that I'd be writing about my experiences.
After all, I'd done exactly what all the "how-to" books tell the aspiring writer to do.
After all, I can't just pick up an atlas off my shelf and check to see what Pluto must look like.

After all, I wasn't the one constantly being poked and prodded.
After all, I birthed my own children with no medical intervention.
After all, I don't have any psychiatric disorder severe enough to warrant any medication.
After all, I'm sure some people do forget to breathe momentarily.

After all, I was only 36.
After all, I'm only six.
After all, I wasn't like these moms in the magazines I read.
After all, I am Iranian.

After all, I wanted him to know I was somebody.
After all, I get hate mail that makes all sorts of assumptions about who I am.

After all, I only surround myself with the best and brightest.
After all, I have her genes, don't I?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Review: "Dirty Pretty Things"

This movie, which came out two years ago, is worth seeing for at least two reasons: It proves that Audrey Tautou, of Amelie fame, is deserving of a place among accomplished actors who can succeed in more than one language and more than one type of character. And it's a thriller that doesn't rely on sensory overload and a depiction of a city's underworld that doesn't rub your face in the grit.

Don't get me wrong, it does qualify as a thriller with social commentary thrown in for good measure, but it doesn't feel excessive. If it weren't being marketed as a thriller, you might be inclined to focus more on its dramatic aspects.

It follows the lives of illegal immigrants working in a London hotel: a young Turkish woman (Tautou's character, speaking for the first time on film in English) and a Nigerian with a striking amount of medical knowledge and a mysterious past (played by Chjwetel Ejiofor, who was born in England to Nigerian parents). The title comes from something a character says about the hotel putting a pretty face each morning on dirty things that happen there each night. The plot is reminiscent of Maria Full of Grace in the way it explores how outcasts or asylum seekers are forced to use their bodies (and not just in the age-old ways) to "buy" their freedom or the tools to such an end.

Even if you don't like thrillers, Dirty Pretty Things is an excellent, nuanced film to see.

Class in America: NYT and WSJ attempting to eat each other's newsstand lunch?

For whatever reason, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal [subscription req'd] have launched series on class and social mobility (both upward and downward) in America during the past couple of days -- WSJ on Friday and NYT today. Why did they both decide to write about this now? There's no hard-and-fast news peg, but I guess maybe one started and the other copied, or otherwise they're both pulling from new research that shows the United States isn't as favorable an environment for upward mobility as Canada and countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia are. Both seem bent against coming to any real conclusions, and both seem reluctant to give up the all-empowering myth of the American Dream, perhaps to reflect how strongly Americans themselves seem optimistic about holding to the ideal.

Class exists. Let it be said. It may be hard to define, but it does exist in America. It's just that our mass consumer culture has lulled us into thinking that we can all have the same things as rich people, and therefore we are better off. We can all have the same cell-phone gadget that Paris Hilton has (which was supposedly "hacked"), so therefore we can all be like Paris Hilton. There's a great quote by Andy Warhol, that great prophet and observer of celebrity, consumerism, and (implicitly) class. To paraphrase: The Coke the president drinks is the exact same thing as the Coke the bum on the street drinks. And by extension: You can't get a better can of Coke (short of decorating it with diamond dust), just because you're rich and you know other rich people.

But this "equality" is a mere distraction from the idea that upper-class people have upper-class kids and do their best to ensure that those kids remain upper class, whether they be dumb or smart, lazy or hard-working, and that a working-class parent can raise a working-class kid who is really quite smart, and yet s/he might not get the opportunities to rise into the upper classes by intelligence and a strong work ethic alone. And yet we're taught to believe that this is how it works.

I could go on and on -- B. and I had an extended conversation on the topic this afternoon, which expanded to include globalization, world social systems and governments, basic human motives, etc. -- but as a media watcher, I'm sort of interested to know why we're getting this class discussion now from two such reputable organs. Are academia and governmental reports driving this news or is it just a matter of newspaper competition?

Oh, and if you like playing with statistics, you can go to the NYT's interactive graphic, enter your profession, education, income and wealth levels, and out comes a handy-dandy percentile figure. Class: simplified.

And here's an interesting tidbit from the NYT poll: They asked people how important having faith in God is to them, based on their incomes. 79% of those who make less than $30K said "very important," but that figure drops to 54% for those who make more than $150K.

We couldn't get very close to the site of the big uptown wall collapse, but we could still see the backhoes digging away this afternoon in the hopes of clearing the northbound side of the highway before tomorrow's rush hour. The place was crawling with media, construction workers, firefighters, police, emergency personnel and Red Cross helpers. But an otherwise horrible incident was made somewhat less horrible by the fact that no one was hurt when the debris came tumbling down.

Gordon Sumner from the North of England

Sorry about the blurry picture, but yes, that's Sting in the middle with the blue shirt and bass guitar. He finished up his latest tour with a show last night at Irving Plaza near Union Square. It wasn't widely advertised, but we got free tickets at the last minute. He played some of my favorites: "Message In A Bottle," "Fields of Gold," "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You," and "Spirits In The Material World." He even played a cover of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" as a tribute to his "roots."

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A little girl was having a party (as far as I could tell) this afternoon in the community garden at Avenue B and East Sixth St. in the East Village, and apparently her stuffed animals needed a place to hang out during the festivities. The sign reads "Temporary Housing for Teddy and Goldie." I think that's them in the lower left box.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Recycling and dirt

1. One person's trash is another person's treausre? Put that old maxim to the test tomorrow at the Freecycle NYC Freemeet, 11a-4p, at the Sixth Street Community Center in the East Village. Basic principle: You bring stuff that you want to get rid of, but might be of use to someone else. And then you get to dig through other people's cast offs. No money exchanges hands!

2. How about this uptown dirtslide not far from my neighborhood? I'd kind of like to go and see it, but I don't think I'll have time today. Still, chances are, it'll be there for a while in some form or other.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Flashback to the early '90s!

Twentysomethings alert: Two of the best shows Nickelodeon ever produced are out now on DVD. The first seasons of both "Clarissa Explains It All" and "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" -- required viewing back in the early '90s for nerds, misfits, band kids, newspaper dorks, those who liked narrating their life to an imaginary audience, and generally anybody with a weird sense of humor -- have been released.

Now I'm not a big one for "blog wish lists," but I'll make an exception for these exceptionally fun shows as I brim with nostalgia for last decade! Too bad my birthday and the holidays are so far off ...

Maybe I'll just have to break down one of these paydays and buy them.

Diane Arbus follow-up via the New Yorker

If you haven't read your Talk of the Town yet this week, there's an item about the subjects of Diane Arbus' photographs and how some of them are sopping up the fringe fame from her latest retrospective at the Met. The writer of the piece speaks to the subject of "A Young Waitress at a Nudist Camp, N.J., 1963," and I must correct myself: The girl was not wearing shoes, but only a hairband and apron. Reading the item, I was reminded of how nudist colonies were supposed to be these really family-friendly places, populated by upstanding but open-minded people who just happened to think it was fun to run around without any (or many) clothes on. Still, there's always been something a little strange about it all. (For a real laugh, read the section in David Sedaris' book Naked where he visits such a colony.)

Some of the more notable Arbus shots are available online: the identical twins, the Christmas tree that's too big for the living room, the Brooklyn family, the giant at home with his parents, the boy with the toy grenade. They're scary and haunting without being gruesome or gory.

Google Sightseeing!

I'm in a rush to get to the library today, but before I go, I have to give a shout-out to Google Sightseeing, a really fun site for fans of travel, architecture and geography. The site has found a fun use for Google Maps' new satellite-image feature. Now when people say, "This is so huge, it's probably visible from space," you can check up on their conjectures and maybe even submit an item to the site. One of my favorites is the Unisphere from the World's Fair. Other notables are Flock of Birds and UFO! It all sort of reminds me a bit of SimCity (without Godzilla of course).

The only problem is, I don't know how often these images are updated, so you're working with a fixed point in time (whenever the satellite happened to be shooting that part of the country).

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ethics, people, ethics!

I'm a few days late on this one, but yet another journalist -- at a paper that hasn't been immune to this sort of things (Jack Kelley, etc.) -- has lost his job at a big paper for doing something they warn you against vigorously in J-school. This time, it's Tom Squitieri for lifting unattributed quotes.

A bonus for reading Kit Seelye's NYT article linked above: There's a quotation (properly obtained, I imagine) from ethics guru Gene Foreman of Pennsylvania State University!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Whence the wine of Columbus Circle?

A well-placed source who is no stranger to the perpetually long check-out lines of Whole Foods Market's subterranean Columbus Circle location shares some sad news: The cute little wine shop tucked into the back of the store has been closed. It was such a nice little feature of the supermarket. No word yet on why it's been shuttered, but it might have something to do with the New York State Liquor Authority. Back in August, the Times and Post reported on threats to revoke the store's liquor license, because it didn't have a street-level entrance or sell only booze. Perhaps the wheels of state bureaucracy finally caught up with the place. I'm going to try to follow up on this one, but until I can figure otherwise, I'd say that's the likely cause.

Oh, and for the teetotalers among you, I discovered that the liquor board posts on its website a conveniently updated list of dry and partially dry towns in the state [PDF]. There aren't many of them, and the population of the 11 completely dry towns totaled less than 20,000 people, as of 2000.

The few, the proud, the always sober ... (He types, sipping an Argentinean Malbec from Astor Wines.)

Yes, there are some public restrooms in Manhattan. Just head to the Times Square subway station and you'll find several tiny rooms and an attendant. Please note: Only one person at a time. And if you're going to take longer than five minutes, you've got to speak up and give the attendant a pretty darn good reason.

Madonna in a field, and in a forest: Two fictional apparitions

I'm making my way through Fellini's La Dolce Vita as one might read a few chapters of a book at a time. It's three hours long, and after I got about 45 minutes into the film, I wasn't sure if I'd make it. But I've kept at it, and the film has grown on me with its series of vignettes in the life of Marcello. The film comments on celebrity and sensationalized culture and brought us the terms "paparazzo" and "paparazzi" -- Fellini saw the swarming photographers like so many hungry little birds, according to IMDB.

There is a great scene less than an hour in, where the swarming photogs decamp to a field outside Rome where two small children supposedly had a vision of the Madonna. The faithful and curious have brought their sick and the broadcasters have brought their lights and equipment. An already chaotic scene becomes more so when it starts to rain and the children are finally released from custody. They hurry to the site of the vision, where a skinny tree stands, with photographers swooping in to get close-ups. The crowd roars, and the children kneel as if to pray. Then the young girl points in another direction, saying she sees the Madonna there instead. The crowd roars again and follows her little steps. Then again, Mother Mary has moved, says the little girl. And again. And again. Finally the children are swept away as the rain and chaos intensifies, and the crowd of onlookers swarm all over the skinny little tree that was supposedly where they first saw the Madonna. They tear at it, ripping off branches and leaves, grabbing at what is assumed to be holy matter. The scene ends, and dawn appears to show that at least one of the ailing -- who'd been placed before the supposedly holy site for healing -- has died. One of the photographers crosses himself as a priest performs the funeral, then lifts his camera to snap a parting shot.

It reminded me of a book well worth recommending: Our Lady of The Forest by David Guterson. I enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars (the novel, not the movie) back in the day, but this novel is even better and not as plodding, as it depicts an imagined modern-day vision of Mary in the Pacific Northwest. Guterson's take on the phenomenon is more balanced and less frenzied, but it nonetheless has fascinating things to show us about how we grasp for holiness among us, and all the funny, heartbreaking human things that accompany such scenes.

In honor of the impending Star Wars media blitz ...

Fans of sustainable farming practices and/or parodies of Episode IV might enjoy this video clip from the Organic Trade Association: Grocery Store Wars, starring Cuke Skywalker, Obi Wan Cannoli and Chewbroccoli. Remember: "You must learn the ways of the farm!"

Monday, May 09, 2005

My review? Wait until it hits the B&N "Fiction Under $5" rack

It has become in vogue recently to dis Jonathan Safran Foer; his fellow writer and wife, Nicole Krauss; and their hot and shamelessly extravagant (for their age, at least) brownstone in Park Slope with alternating scorn and jealousy, but I'm going to join the fray tonight, thanks to some added first-hand knowledge.

We saw Krauss read from her new book, The History of Love, tonight at the B&N on 82nd St. She opened her reading by saying that the first reading for her first novel in Berkeley was attended by two people, one of whom she sort of knew. Tonight's event was packed, although not as packed as I've seen the space, which is notable for having two blatant obstructions (read: columns) to block your view of the author.

So readings are part love-fest for already-fans and part promotion for hoped-for soon-to-be fans, right? Well, the passage Nicole read tonight did not make me a fan. It was boring, and focused almost exclusively on an old man's interaction with things -- not people, things. All skill at narrating from an old man's perspective aside, my fiction teacher used to warn me, and I paraphrase: Don't let your characters run into the closet and hide for 30 pages. There is no conflict. Readers will get bored. There is only so much you can describe when the only light is what filters through the slats in the doors.

Most good fiction includes a little conflict. The passage Nicole read didn't really give me anything that she didn't tell us all in her introduction.

So yes, the rest of the book might be better, and yes, her first novel might have been better. But I didn't walk away with a copy of her hardcover this evening, and now I'm seriously reconsidering whether I want to read her first book, Man Walks Into a Room.

And yes, Jonathan was there (along with the rest of the extended Krauss clan, it seemed), lurking in the background, looking much younger and meeker and less famous than he really is, although nonetheless attracting the conversations of many fawning young women, B. tells me.

Coming soon: The 1/2/3 line

It was reported months ago, but the MTA posters make it official: The 9 train is bidding farewell at the end of May. I think this is a positive improvement, as the 9 train's whole "skip-stop" routine seemed more confusing that it was worth. And there isn't supposed to be any reduction in the number of trains overall. This is good news, as I now rely more on the Seventh Avenue line. Now, if only they could clean up the 1 train some more, it would be great! Why can't the 1 be more like its cousins: the clean, sleek and speedy 2/3 Express trains, which are often waiting so patiently in the station each rush hour when the Locals arrive?

Another question: How long will it be before you stop hearing people call it the "1/9" train?

High-tech ATM frauds

A Gothamist post alerted me to yet another danger in the ever-increasing crime field of identity theft: ATM skimmers. These are devices that are mounted on legit ATMs, often a hidden camera or a real-looking card-swipe cover, for thieves to steal your info in broad daylight and transfer money using your account number and PIN. The reputable urban-legend debunking site Snopes.com deems this sneaky tactic TRUE, and offers some visual guides for inspecting an ATM before using it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

New and improved South Ferry

In the sleek new Staten Island Ferry terminal at Whitehall, you come up the escalators, pass through the silent electronic people counters (see them all in a row), and sit in the big empty waiting room with lots of other waiting people. Then the appointed time comes, a ferry arrives, and you head to DOOR 1 or DOOR 2 or DOOR 3, and crush through the big opening as if you were entering the mouth of a whale -- and a free whale at that.

I still haven't figured out why the letters S-T-A-T-E are missing from the front of the building, but it might have something to do with the fact that they haven't yet build the whole marquee yet. The other day, most of the remaining letters were lit up in purple, though. They read: "SLAND FERRY." In the meantime, I wonder how long the scrolling digital signs inside will call it the "New" terminal.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Corporate saunterers

Not long after I complete my north-to-south Manhattan walk, I come across this: The Great Saunter, in which proud New Yorkers or hearty visitors walk the 32-mile perimeter of the island. Tomorrow is the 20th annual event. The beginning and end of what appears to be a 12-hour day is the South Street Seaport, with lunch in Inwood.

Sounds great, except there's a fee. Not an expensive fee, but a fee nonetheless. And there are also corporate sponsors: a certain electric company, a certain cable company and, well, a chain of watering holes.

Why does this event need corporate sponsors? It doesn't really sound like a high-cost endeavor. They're not raising money for any charitable cause as far as I can tell. Plus, if there are corporate sponsors, why does there have to be a registration fee? Can't they have just one without the other?

Nonetheless, good luck to tomorrow's participants. It seems to me they'll need it what with this forecast of wind and rain.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

'Officespeak' -- a performance by the Upright Authors Brigade

So I stopped by a free reading tonight at B&N Astor Place on a whim, having seen it in Time Out next to an enticing "FREE" flag. Never heard of the author, never heard of the book, but the title sounded amusing enough. Officespeak: The Win-Win Guide to Touching Base, Getting the Ball Rolling, and Thinking Inside the Box. The author is either David Martin, or D.W. Martin, depending on whom you ask.

I arrived in the nook that the store sets aside for readings, and was surprised to see it packed with people. Usually they schedule authors who aren't as well known to read at Astor Place. (Those with medium following/buzz go to somewhere like the Lincoln Center location, and David Sedaris and other literary celebs get to have the whole half-floor of the Union Square store for their events.) I looked around the room and realized the author or someone who likes/cares about him really spread the word and even made T-shirts for the occasion. Personalized T-shirts for a book reading! They said "Dave Martin Isn't Funny," which is supposed to be all ironic, but wasn't very amusing to me.

His writing was humorous enough. But this event, I soon learned, was not only about his writing. After a B&N employee dutifully told us to turn off our phones because the reading would start in five minutes, a guy who said he was representing "this evening's sponsor, Allied Office Supply Co." started giving out prizes (like a Rolodex and a 3-hole punch) to those who could come up with the most mundane office task they had to do today, the worst sounding boss' name, etc. Earlier, someone had asked me whether I'd received my complimentary office supply, and I said no, so she gave me a pad of those stick-ems you can use to label faxes instead of using a cover sheet.

After Mr. Office Supply left, out came a guy wearing a sombrero and sunglasses ("for Cinco de Mayo") who said he was Charles Dickens, come back from the dead to praise his friend and fellow writer, D.W. Martin. ("In heaven, there are four books," he said. "One is The Da Vinci Code. The others are Officespeak.")

By this time, it's obvious Martin's gotten his friends to liven up his 15-minutes. Other staged moments included the eventual plastic-knifing of a "bookstore patron" who kept walking up to the shelf next to Martin's podium and dropping books and laughing inappropriately, and the discovery that Martin's "long-lost biological father" was actually in the audience, asking uncomfortably correct questions during the Q&A.

It was mostly funny, but I couldn't help feeling like a dupe for showing up without actually having been invited by whatever underground publicity campaign among publishing-world types there was to drum up support for the guy. (In discussing this with the woman next to me, who knew Martin, we actually realized that she had recently sat next to a family friend of ours who works for Simon & Schuster at a work-related dinner.)

So, the crew in the T-shirts were mostly his friends and former (?) co-workers at Penguin.

I got home and did a search, learning also that at least his wife and perhaps Martin himself are still working for some other publishing company; and ... oh, wait, what does that last blog say? He's a sometime cast member of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre? Now it was all clear to me.

I checked the UCB site. Here he is in the same shot B&N posted. And here is the guy who played his long-lost father, one Anthony Atamanuik. I'm sure I could pick out the other performers if I look hard enough at this roster.

I'm assuming that Martin and crew informed the bookstore of their planned shenanigans, but I was still sort of impressed "Barn and Nobles" (as "Dickens" called it) let it all happen.

Maybe this is the new thing: Come for the reading/signing; stay for the performance art.

Riiiiiight ....

Unauthorized Google innovations (aka 'hacks')

The WSJ reported the other day on Google lovers (and Google haters) who created spin-off sites using the results and/or technology from the world's most popular search engine. Here are two that I love:
  • Google News is a fairly good news aggregator, but a guy in Tokyo has designed a way to visually represent the relative popularity of current news stories in a colorful and fun one-page layout. There are even controls at the bottom that allow you to tweak the categories of news you want to see and whether you'd like to see archived newsmaps.
  • Google Maps may not always be better than Yahoo's version, but at its best, it's a lot more visually pleasing and easier to pan and zoom. Now, a guy in California has connected this new mapping application to the data from another very popular destination, Craigslist's real estate listings. So now, you can use this HousingMaps tool to more easily browse by price and by location. This is something I've been waiting for, since it really helps to see how close an apartment is to public transportation, parks, main streets and other landmarks. Let's hope it's still up the next time I'm in the market. (I think this works for all the North American cities covered by Craigslist.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Riffing on a genre practically designed to be riffed about

Funny thing about today's Broadway spoof shows. The relatively newer one, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical, running now at Dodger Stages, plumbs the old standbys and legends for its material; whereas the one that's been around for two decades -- Forbidden Broadway -- is the one that's updated every so often to parody the latest shows.

But which one is funnier? Which one is better?

Having seen the latter this evening, I can say they both have their merits. But while the first one is a bit too dense with allusions for the average theatergoer, I felt like the second one was often too fluffy, and not on target as much as it could be. Part of this may be a result of its evolving nature. The same way the list in the back of your Playbill morphs each month, so too must a show of this kind keep changing if it wants to stay fresh. So in a way, Forbidden -- with the subtitle "Special Victims Unit" in its current incarnation -- has a harder task. While Musicals can nail the Rodgers & Hammerstein jokes over and over with precision, FB is often dealing with moving targets.

Sometimes this works, such as when it's making fun of British director David Leveaux's current production of Fiddler on the Roof, which was funny at first for having Alfred Molina in the lead role and has become funny for different reasons with its new star Harvey Fierstein.

Sometimes it doesn't, such as when they have a funny Thoroughly Modern Millie number (that pokes fun at Sutton Foster's irrepressible perkiness), but then try to hide the fact that this show closed almost a year ago by tacking on an uninspired spoof on La Cage that feels forced and seems a poor way to end the show.

Overall, though, I admire the cast and creators for trying so hard to remain current. Many of the bits tonight were well-written and put into song many of the oversized petty battles that provide off-stage entertainment and counterpoint to the New York theater world. At its heart, I imagine, this show has been able to riff on the same set of jokes (albiet in different costumes) for the span of its existence. After all, the Disneyfication of Times Square may still be relatively recent in the minds of many, but the big egos and melodramas, the glitz and glamour, the mixed-up priorities and out-of-whack perspectives, and the defining sexual orientation of Broadway have been standards against which to aim your satire for years now.

There is much good to be found in the theater, but even the best productions and our highest admirations for them deserve a little ribbing once in a while.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

"Barely daring to breathe" ... lest it means another Achoo!

If bless-you's are actually little molecules of grace, I must be doing pretty well at the moment, because allergy season has descended with full force and is threatening to have me rub my nose off with all the sneezing. I don't know what the pollen count was yesterday, but if this four-day forecast for NYC is any indication, it was somewhere in the red 9 danger zone. Let's hope today won't be as bad, and my meds decide to kick in before I go through another box of tissues.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Literary map of Manhattan

Here's your chance to be a New York Times contributor. Columnist Randy Cohen put out the call this weekend for readers to suggest items for a literary map of Manhattan -- not of the myriad authors and writers themselves, but of their fictional characters. (With the recent closing of the Plaza hotel for massive renovations, Eloise springs to mind immediately, but they've already got that covered on their sample map.) All you have to do is find a line or excerpt from a work of fictional writing (including poems) that helps you pinpoint a real location on the island. Then send in all the required info to bookmap@nytimes.com. Deadline is May 11. I really want to come up with a submission for the map, since this is such a cool idea, but I thought I'd help spread the word to other literary geographers.

Also, a Nittany Lion alert: The Penn Stater alumni magazine has been requesting quick anecdotes about chance encounters between alums for a feature in an upcoming issue. I'm not sure if there's a deadline or whether it's already passed, but this request was posted on April 22, so there still might be time, as the magazine's staff prepares months in advance.

A stained-glass window by L.C. Tiffany at the Met.