Saturday, November 20, 2010

What's the biggest story out of the Rally? Maybe that your mom attended, too

I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. I was not pleased with the media coverage of the event (that I saw/read). It didn’t capture the spirit at all, what it really felt like to be there. The rally was a genial affair, generally fun, full of good spirit and intent. What surprised me the most, though, was the age factor. And I was not the only one. I didn’t expect to see kids, because, well, I didn’t expect to see parents. Or at least lots of them.

But then again, I fell under the trap of thinking that the rally was pretty much for us twenty- and thirtysomethings. As a professor of mine put it, “It’s being billed as the rally for your generation,” which seemed excessive to me, but ok. And so I was puzzled that none of the guests really fit into our demographic. Singers from the ‘70s? Tony Bennett? (Hell, one of my friends made a joke about him appearing, to prove he’d be too old for the crowd, and then he did.) Acts I’ve never heard? When the hippest performers are Kid Rock and John Legend, you know you need to readjust your perceptions.

So was that the big story of the rally? Did the media miss it? I didn’t think the rally would influence the election (c’mon, no one who attended was going to vote for the tea partiers anyway, and they won), and the rally was held in Washington, DC, too far away for Prop 19. And Stewart’s big speech was about the media anyway.

As Kelli Marshall of the University of Toledo asserts, it’s time for everyone to wakeup and realize that these shows, for all their leftist leanings, actually have fan bases that aren’t young:

But as the world now knows, Millennials are clearly not the only demographic that watches, embraces, and relishes in the smart satire of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Of course, those of us who’ve researched the two programs have been aware of this for years. For instance, we knew that in 2006, the average age of viewers was 35, their average income was $67,000, and they were 78% more likely than the average adult to have four or more years of college education. What’s more, we now know that the shows’ viewing age is steadily rising, for according to Nielsen ratings and a Forbes report, the median age of Stewart’s viewers is currently 41.4, and Colbert’s has risen from 33 to 38. I can only imagine that as the hosts and their audiences age, the figures will continue to increase. But so what? If the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is any indication of what that future will look like, why that’s not bad at all.
Something I have to tell the diehard eightysomething grandma I know.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chelsea Clinton's Getting Married. Let's Talk About It.

I don't read Rebecca Traister enough. I don't blog enough, either. But right now, I am rectifying this, by doing one of my favorite things: killing two birds with one stone.

As most of the world knows, Chelsea Clinton is getting married. Like many others, I am intrigued by Ms. Clinton--part of that is her reticence, part of it her background (hedge fund manager to MA candidate in public health!), and part of it her unique place in the world--but I really don't care about her wedding. Or really anyone's, for that matter.

What has always bothered me about weddings, about being paired off, is that it implies that you are desirable, a desirable person, in all senses of the word, and that, on the flip side, that if you are not paired off you aren't desirable. And being married is a validation of who you are:
That Chelsea has grown up gorgeous seems to have relieved a lot of people (though it's difficult not to wonder: What if she hadn't?). That she evidently has grown up stable has satisfied others. And I'm willing to believe that those who are now getting all het up about her wedding want the best for her. What bothers me is the barely veiled attitude that it is the fact of her upcoming wedding -- and that alone -- that somehow demonstrates to them that Chelsea is pretty and that everything has turned out all right for her.

There are a lot of people who don't get married. There are a lot of people who can't get married. If Chelsea Clinton, by chance or design, had fallen into one of these two categories, would it mean that her parents had not done what they were supposed to do, that they would feel less pride in her, that her life would lack its most important moment? I wonder if those focusing so hard on her wedding would think it meant she was any less well-adjusted, or any less beautiful.

The fevered fetishization of the marital day is not just irritating, it's destructive. It reproduces attitudes about personal -- and especially female -- achievement that are far past their sell date: that marrying is the goal toward which all of us strive, that our weddings are somehow the most exalted expressions of our accomplishments and of ourselves. That they are proof, validation, some sure sign that we turned out OK.

Chelsea Clinton, at 30, also falls into that "acceptable range" for a first-time marriage, the one thing that Traister does not mention. She's at that threshold where her crazy twenties are over, she has the starting jobs and degrees behind her, that she knows what she wants, but she hasn't fallen into too-old or biological clock times, so no one can cluck their tongue and say disparaging, questioning remarks--why she's waiting too long, that she's too picky, etc. etc. For an elite East Coaster, like someone with her background, she is getting married at the perfect time, the sweet spot of her life. How this number has come to represent so much is beyond me; maybe it is all the hysteria about reproduction, or our current climate that makes the twenties such a time of arrested development.

I'm sure Chelsea will have a beautiful wedding, despite the media crunch. I hope for her sake that she doesn't start popping babies soon, because then we'd have to go through the whole thing again. I'd probably write about it, though.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Maureen Dowd Gets It Right

For once.

Taken from today's column on Elena Kagan:
When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?

Single carries a connotation of eligibility and possibility, while unmarried has that dreaded over-the-hill, out-of-luck, you-are-finished, no-chance implication. An aroma of mothballs and perpetual aunt.

White House officials were so eager to squash any speculation that Elena Kagan was gay that they have ended up in a pre-feminist fugue, going with sad unmarried rather than fun single, spinning that she’s a spinster.

You’d think that they could come up with a more inspiring narrative than old maid for a woman who may become the youngest Supreme Court justice on the bench.

Kagan has told a friend in the West Wing that she is not gay, just lonely. Even so, that doesn’t mean her sherpas in the White House, in their frantic drive to dismiss the gay rumors, should be spinning a narrative around that most hoary of stereotypes: a smart, ambitious woman who threw herself into her work, couldn’t find a guy, threw up her hands, and threw herself further into her work — and in the process went from single to unmarried.
I've heard this many times before. If you're single for too long, that's a problem. It must mean you are a lesbian. Of course!

Any way this narrative is spun, it is depressing and insulting. We haven't heard Kagan speak, but it's embarrassing that she'd have to address the rumors, because nothing will be acceptable; she'll be pitied, cast as pathetic in one way or another.

How do you address the questions? Is the truth (whatever that is) even good enough? Why is the dominant answer the same old stereotype—did nothing else make sense? Why did the Obama Administration feel they needed to weigh in on this topic, instead of just staying tight-lipped?

Dowd asks the same questions, offering her own spin:
Why is there this underlying assumption that Kagan has missed the boat? Why couldn’t she be eager to come to Washington to check out the Obama-era geek-chic bachelors, maybe get set up on a date by Michelle Obama, maybe host some single ladies fiestas with Sonia Sotomayor, maybe even sign up for JDate with a new and improved job status?
The sad thing is that Kagan practically has to answer these questions, to defend her choices in her private life, whatever they may be. They will come up at some point. But that seems to be true no matter how old you are—if you’re single, especially after a certain age, you have to explain it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Abortion and Universal Healthcare

On why Britain's abortion rate is much lower than the US's:
[O]ne important explanation was Britain's universal health-care system. "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed," Hume explained, "she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

A young woman I knew in Britain added another explanation. "If you're [sexually] active," she said, "the way to avoid abortion is to avoid pregnancy. Most of us do that with an IUD or a diaphragm. It means going to the doctor. But that's easy here, because anybody can go to the doctor free."

For various reasons, then, expanding health-care coverage reduces the rate of abortion. All the other industrialized democracies figured that out years ago. The failure to recognize this plain statistical truth may explain why American churches have played such a small role in our national debate on health care. Searching for ways to limit abortions, our faith leaders have managed to overlook a proven approach that's on offer now: expanding health-care coverage.

When I studied health-care systems overseas in research for a book, I asked health ministers, doctors, economists and others in all the rich countries why their nations decided to provide health care for everybody. The answers were medical (universal care saves lives), economic (universal care is cheaper), political (the voters like it), religious (it's what Christ commanded) and moral (it's the right thing to do). And in every country, people told me that universal health-care coverage is desirable because it reduces the rate of abortion.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mark Zuckerburg Likes Settlers of Catan...And Other Ridiculous Things from the World of Facebook

The New York Times posted Facebook's answers regarding a set of questions users submitted last week. And surprise! The answers provided are a TOTAL cop-out.

To wit:
It used to be that I could limit what strangers saw about me to almost nothing. I could not show my profile picture, not allow them to “poke” or message me, certainly not allow them to view my profile page. Now, even my interests have to be public information. Why can’t I control my own information anymore? sxchen, New York

Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share. We study user activity. We’ve found that a few fields of information need to be shared to facilitate the kind of experience people come to Facebook to have. That’s why we require the following fields to be public: name, profile photo (if people choose to have one), gender, connections (again, if people choose to make them), and user ID number. Facebook provides a less satisfying experience for people who choose not to post a photo or make connections with friends or interests. But, other than name and gender, nothing requires them to complete these fields or share information they do not want to share. If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.


Why not simply set everything up for opt-in rather than opt-out? Facebook seems to assume that users generally want all the details of their private lives made public. abycats, New York

Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information — uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page — are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable. That said, we certainly will continue to work to improve the ease and access of controls to make more people more comfortable. Your assumption about our assumption is simply incorrect. We don’t believe that. We’re happy to make the record on that clear.

On the latest fiasco:

Why must I link to a page for my school, job, or interests and make them public, or delete the information entirely?Absolutely Not, Chicago

It turns out that less than 20 percent of users had filled out the text fields of this information. By contrast, more than 70 percent of users have ‘liked’ Pages to be connected to these kinds of ideas, experiences and organizations. That is the primary reason we offered the transition — because it reflects the way people are using our service already. While we see tremendous benefit to connecting to interests, we recognize that certain people may still want to share information about themselves through static text. That’s why we continue to provide a number of places for doing this, including the Bio section of the profile. In these places, just as when you share a piece of content like a photo or status update, we give you complete control over the privacy of the information and exactly who can see it. However, we know we could have done a better job explaining all of this and you can expect to see new materials on the site soon. I’m sorry we didn’t do a better job.

Stop being conciliatory and DO A BETTER JOB. No excuses. Be realistic.

But the best part was discovering that Mark Zuckerburg has a very open profile. VERY open. As does his girlfriend. Ridiculous!

Update: Facebook has called an agency-wide meeting tomorrow to discuss their terrible image. Hopefully some major changes will be made.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In Defense of Privacy Or, Why My Sex Life Is None of Your Business

Oddly, over the past couple of years, I have become a person that will answer pretty much anything. I’m not sure how this happened—maybe it’s just being asked interesting, provocative questions, questions I never thought about. Maybe it was the environment I was in. Maybe it’s just my personality. But everyone has their limits. And I’ve learned that many people don’t respect these limits, especially if they deal with sex.

Thanks to the exploits of tons of reality TV stars, it has now become commonplace to know the details of someone’s sexual and romantic history. There are shows devoted to sex rehab! And so, there are some males who feel the need to question me about this aspect of my life. These questions are confrontational and accusatory, as if I’m hiding my adventures from them, even though they are asking for details—inappropriate, lurid, puerile details—that don’t concern them in the least. And when I balk, because I have a right to my privacy, I am met with a torrent of insults.

Listening to these men, it is my duty to go whore myself out, and then report back. I fit the “profile”, based on what I presume to be youth and attractiveness. These men assume that I am hit on constantly and that I am just flat out rejecting all these advances, for reasons that mystify them. And I am mystified that they hold this belief so firmly, when it is so very, very wrong.

Apparently I am not the only one who has wondered where this attitude among men has come from. Does it stem from rejection?

Leah, who has also noticed these assumptions, thinks so. The men are angry and upset because they can’t get laid, and so blame the girls instead. Emily and Petpluto have also written about a version of this (termed The Nice Guy Syndrome, where men feel they own women’s sexuality). I’ve gotten these questions out of sheer curiosity, sure, but also as a way of trying to illuminate The Female Experience for these male friends of mine, even if my experience doesn’t jibe with their experience regarding girls, or what they think is the definitive version of being Young and Female in America Today.

Jezebel also addressed the ostensibly male assumption that women can get laid whenever they want, noting that men view anything less as being overly picky. Prompted by a book review in The Smart Set, Jezebel points out that there are a good many women who are deemed by the culture at large as “unfuckable”. They can fit into a number of categories: old, poor, have weight, genetic, or disability issues, or maybe are just not pretty or conform to a certain beauty standard. Many women fall into this group at a certain point in their life. But they are largely forgotten, ridiculed, always, in popular culture and in real life. For what worth is a women if she is not desirable?

One of the most interesting comments posted to the piece said that men are jealous of women’s sexual power; they are the ones constantly putting themselves on the line:

"a woman can get laid whenever she wants" is an expression of male frustration at female sexual power.

This is not to say that female sexual power is uniformly distributed. Not to say that the world doesn't suck if you've been dealt a poor hand (genetic, medical, social).

Please think for a moment about the male side of this equation. If you're a guy, you don't get hit on. Such an occurance is a memorable life event, not a daily happening. If you're "wing man" to an attractive/sociable/sexually successful guy, then you never EVER get hit on. And you're trying to attract/hit on/get rejected by gals your buddy isn't even looking at. And you adopt this socially demeaning and rejection-filled roll because it marginally increases your odds of some level of sexual success over "going solo".

And in that context, it sucks to be a guy. If the supposedly 'unfuckable' 'hags' in the audience demeaned, debased, and put themselves at the same degree of emotional risk as every guy at the bar, lowered their standards, donned their beer goggles, and shelled out for a few drinks and meals, I'd be willing to bet their "hit rate" would be dramatically higher than for any guy. any. guy.

So yeah, men are envious of womens' sexual power. and being guys, they sum it up (insensitively and coarsely) as, "a woman can get laid whenever she wants".

He’s right that if the game was reversed, the women would do pretty well, but that’s the just the nature of the sexes. But the image that women hold all the power is grossly ill-informed, and by placing the blame onto women, the men just make it worse for themselves.

The statement that all women can get laid easily is also a complete, unjust lie. Undesirable women do feel shame and embarrassment, and no such counseling like “reshape your attitude!” is really going to help; it’s just going to make things worse. Life isn’t a fairytale where a makeover changes everything.

As Leah noted, it’s impossible to live up to whatever the standard is. And being forced to conform to whatever is deemed acceptable is damaging and hurtful. One’s sexual life is only one aspect of a person, and it is mutable.

But the other issue I have with these questions is the appalling assumption that I’m expected to answer such personal and intimate questions, especially in some cases with people I barely know. Why is this acceptable? I consider myself a somewhat private person, in that I believe in privacy and I believe that not everything in my life is up for public consumption, and that attitude, increasingly, some find offensive. There are some things that are none of your business, and no matter how nosy you are, you have to accept that. It’s not impolite or out of hand to say “no.”

So what gives?

It goes back to our increasing TMI culture, and the murky notions of privacy that are constantly being redefined. Facebook has become the very public face of this privacy problem, especially as it has been playing out on the web:

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?

--Jeff Jarvis

Where does it? Technologies increasingly are able to monitor every little thing we do. From security cameras in Times Square to GPS locators on our phones to cookies on web pages, there are very little areas or transactions today that are not monitored somewhere, by somebody. We’re so used to this that we accept that mundane calls to customer service lines are recorded, or, if we turn our settings a certain way, we can be tracked by virtually anyone who wants to find us. We do a lot of this out of convenience and novelty; that’s why we save passwords on our computer, that’s why we enable our tweets to be geographically placed.

We like keeping track of our things digitally. That’s why online banking is a hit, and why we like to see the status of a package on Amazon or FedEx. And as long as only we have access to this information, we’re fine. But this information is protected, by passwords and codes and encryption. The debate has turned to less tangible items—memories and statements, ideas and personalities. It’s this violation of truly personal things that has caused this newest uproar.

A theory floating around is as society has become more permissible, old notions of impropriety will disappear, and future generations will have no need for privacy. This is hogwash. I disagree with Penelope Trunk (and others) who say privacy is basically a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding. Really? So everyone—my mother, my colleagues, my boss, my neighbor, the stranger I spoke to last night at a party—is entitled to know everything about me? And I’m supposed to be fine with knowing everything about everyone I know? Sure, maybe that movie you watched last night isn’t super-secret news, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to know about it, just like everyone doesn’t need to know every detail of what you did over the weekend. The notion that privacy just equals secrecy is damaging and erroneous. I am all for transparency, especially in companies, but confusing transparency with a lack of privacy, especially for individuals, is dangerous. Everyone should be able to control what information they tell to specific people; there’s a reason we have “work selves” and “friend selves”, why there are some things you shouldn’t say to your mother but will say to your best friend. Penelope Trunk basically acts like things in our private lives won’t get us into trouble in the workforce, but that’s completely untrue. Sure, standards have relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that showcasing your exploits and your baser aspects of yourself won’t cause some problems. Think of it this way: Would you really want to hear about some borderline criminal activity a coworker or neighbor was doing? Would you want to be responsible for knowing every dirty little secret of everyone you know?

Surprises can be good things. It’s an icky feeling to know things about people before you meet them, because you Googled them. Now you’re an expert on their life. But by having everything up already to be viewed by a public, whether Facebook posts or Flickr albums, the element of surprise, of learning about someone through natural, organic discourse is lost. What’s left to tell? What’s left to discover? If everything about you is already up on the web—reduced to mere anecdote, a selection of tidbits that are “you”, no matter how misleading, embarrassing, or untrue—then why should I bother to try to get to know you anyway, when I already know everything there is to know?

People are not just the sum of their experiences, nor are they defined by particular things. Sure, when we describe ourselves, we do so in this language, often because it is the easiest. But people change, interests and experiences and opinions change. People don’t want to be known by something in their past, especially if they’ve moved past it, or if it’s not accurate. Privacy is important because it gives a sense of control, a sense that you are defining who you are and what’s important to you. Others should not be defining who you are or what you can say; you make that determination.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

"What Might We Be Accomplishing If We Weren't Tethered to the Net?"

Writing a book, maybe? Watching television? Cleaning? Exercising? Not being a total loser?

Everyone loves the Internet, but I'm convinced some people love it more than others (I firmly belong in the latter category). And there are many of us in said category that wonder what we would do with all that extra time if we didn't spend it conversing with others, looking up random shit, or watching YouTube videos. The Internet is one of the greatest timesucks ever invented, and all those other things fall into it: chat services, Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS feeds....

To quote technologist Nicholas Carr:
[T]he Web is also an enormous global timesink, sucking up massive amounts of time that might have gone into more productive, thoughtful, and fulfilling activities. It's difficult to measure the cost of this wasted time, because it's impossible to know what people might have done if they weren't surfing and tweeting and youtubing and huluing and foursquaring and emailing and IMing and googling and etc. The Web often gives us the illusion of having an incredibly diverse set of pursuits when it's really narrowing the scope of our thoughts and activities. There is still a whole lot more that people can do offline than online - something that's easy to forget as we peer into our screens all day. (my emphasis)
That's seen in the discussion of the polarization of our country and our media, how everyone is worried that we siphon ourselves off into our own bubbles. StumbleUpon can tell us our interests, further refined on sites like Amazon and Pandora, all with the universal "like" button. The Internet is, like so many things, a blessing and a curse, a way to connect and a way to disconnect. It's up to the user to define the experience.

Facebook, Stop Sucking Ass

As pretty much anyone who uses Facebook semi-regularly knows, the site keeps changing its privacy rules. Not only is this confusing and downright maddening, but it's pissing off a helluva lot of people. I track Facebook's moves somewhat closely, and I've been fed up with them for a while. And I'm a very heavy user. I know the ins and outs better than most, and I've been having trouble wading through this recent mess.

I want better ways to complain, I want to be able to have choices, to control what I want, and I want some of the old features back (I won't list them all). Mark Zuckerburg went from being this wunderkind to this reviled, amoral overlord. Facebook is too wound up in my daily existence, my way of life, for me to just zap it out completely--like destroying the Internet!--but Zuckerburg's vision of the future is not compatible with how users want it to be, and he no longer cares about the vast network he's built. He's transforming the Internet with his conceptions of privacy and openness, not understanding that everyone needs and has the right to privacy. Hell, even when Gawker exposed him, he quickly took control and put his stuff behind privacy walls!

So I am very glad that, among many other website, the Times is on this and has compiled a list of questions they will present to Zuckerburg and Facebook to answer. A response should be up in a few days; I eagerly await it. In the meantime, check out this timeline of privacy changes to the site, and please, check and update your privacy controls! Too many people stay ignorant and they ruin it for the rest of us.

Update: Here's an interactive pie chart, using the same data as the EFF.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Tracking Yourself

Of course I have to mention the Times Magazine's cover story on self-trackers. I am very much into the idea of tracking everything, as I love the idea of quantifiable data and how I can use it to improve my life. The biggest downside is the vast amount of time it takes to do this, and it quickly becomes, like anything else, another chore. And there are so many already!

I was surprised they didn't mention Feltron, a guy who's tracked his music, the restaurants he visits, the cities he flies to, and a number of other things over the past several years. I blogged about this before, and I am again in awe of this idea. Self-absorbed? Maybe. I've taken a different approach to self-absorption and narcissism in this age--it's about how you relate to people. If all you talk about is yourself, then yes, you are self-absorbed and boring. But this idea, of tracking yourself in order to change your life, to conduct experiments? Awesome.

But Jonah Lehrer (who looks like an older Michael Cera here) takes issue with this:
One of the main problems facing self-experimenters is the powerful role of expectations in shaping performance. If we think something is going to work, then it probably will work, at least for a little while.

Studies like this demonstrate the necessity of blind controls. The brain is a gullible machine, which is why the very act of believing that tryptophan might work makes it much more likely to have an effect, at least at first. ... That's why I'm a teeny bit suspicious of clear-cut results that come from tested hypotheses, especially when the results contradict the scientific literature. The very act of speculating about a causal relationship - say, for instance, the link between a pill and the ability to concentrate - warps the data, biasing our mind in a million little ways.

His discussion on wine and beer is quite interesting--and I do buy the idea that mood and other factors do shape our opinions and reactions. A bad day may make us eat more or work harder--or just be lazier, if we stopped giving a shit.

I love the tools, the apps, that make it easier to track things. I think it could help me with productivity and other time/organization issues. I somehow imagined the afterlife as being a repository of facts; you could look up anything related to you and your life, and it would be there. How much time, over the course of your life, you spent in the bathroom. Or on the internet. Or talking with a specific person. Or anything. How scary and awesome that would be.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On Laura Bush

I am a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld. I have read all her books, and I think she does an excellent job of describing women as they are, what they go through, often in ways that aren't usually expressed. I think of her second novel, The Man of My Dreams, occasionally, because it's a book that doesn't do any sort of typical romance or romantic trajectory, and is completely heartbreaking is so many ways that feel so true to life. I agree with Katie's review in that I immediately liked it just because the protagonist wasn't experienced, and not in the totally fake way that Charlotte Simmons is. But her standout is most definitely American Wife, her novelization of Laura Bush. When I reviewed it in 2008, I said it didn't compare to her previous works, but I don't agree with that assertion any more; I think it is quite distinct on its own.

I bring this up because Laura Bush has released her own memoir, and I agree with Jessica Grose in that reading American Wife completely changed how I viewed Mrs. Bush. She still seems so reserved and matronly, but with American Wife in my head, even a year and a half later, I am intrigued by Mrs. Bush's story. It just proves how damn good Curtis Sittenfeld is.

This Should Be My Bible

Katie from Boston at Struggling Single Twentysomething linked to me. Yay! And she led me to an excellent site: Smart, Pretty and Awkward.

Change is one day at a time, right?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Really? Glamour?

Glamour was recently named magazine of the year.

I'm not quite sure why.

I've subscribed to Glamour for the last year. I only did so because of their 75th anniversary promotion, where I could get a year's worth for 75 cents. Yep, 12 issues for less than a dollar. What the hell? As far as women's magazines go, I actually like Glamour, detesting their nearest rival, Cosmopolitan. Glamour was more real, and I liked that they incorporated recipes and real advice, at least in the back. They had the obligatory "serious story", addiction or do-gooders, now with Katie Couric interviewing some notable female. All well and good.

But after a few months, it was wearying. The topics were the same, of course: men, relationships, food, eating, exercise, fashion, beauty. I wondered how those working at the magazine didn't get bored of the repetition. The advice was usually sound, but repetitive, and occasionally contradictory. I waded through the "girl with the belly bulge" and the Crystal Renn spreads; meh. Crystal Renn is beautiful and not plus sized in the least, as I've noted before. I no longer felt that the magazine was the exception to others in its category; maybe I just got used to it, maybe the novelty wore off. But I also wasn't looking at other young-women magazines, either, so it became just another Glamour. I knew I wasn't going to renew my subscription when I subscribed, but now I didn't care.

But besides the sameness, I was saddened to see that women's magazines "cleaned up" certain celebrities:

Lady Gaga and Rihanna are known for dressing explicitly, in wild getups, but they are stripped of their individuality; whitewashed, you could say. There's no crazy makeup, no funky fashion choices, nothing that should be exposed covered up and nothing covered up that should be exposed. They're not even in fun colors: Lady Gaga is uncharacteristically in all white, or off-white, as if to appear pure, but she looks out of place and strangely bland, since she blends in with the background. It's the text that speaks, not her. Rihanna at least looks happy, if girlish, a woman full of spunk and personality. This might be to offset the serious interview inside, promoting her album Rated R, both which explore her dark and volatile year. But her hair is gelled back; we are not to notice her funky, unconventional style choices, just like we aren't meant to view Lady Gaga as she wants to be seen. Maybe that explains her detached look.

I see this as suppressing both women's natural personalities and style to favor a more acceptable form of female expression, both in beauty and personality. I can understand why a cover picture of Lady Gaga wouldn't have her face covered, but I don't see why she has to appear in such an awful getup, one she would never wear anywhere else. I don't see how prettifying Rihanna makes her ordeal any better, except take away her right to express herself as she chooses.

So Glamour, magazine of the year? You might talk the talk of inclusion of expression, proudly showing off your Crystal Renn glamour shots, but until you really show how real women are, capturing their life as they live it (not as you wish them to see it), you don't deserve this title.

Cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.

RIP: The AIM Away Message

A blogger I follow, Katie from Boston, recently wrote an ode to AIM away messages. Both of us spent overlapping years at college, in that space where social media was growing, but hadn’t hit the wider world yet. Status messages were only in the province of AIM, and the unique college environment meant that everyone was on all the time, through one medium. We all had angsty things to say, and we did so by the most elegant and articulate way we could—song lyrics:

One thing that’s been lost in the translation from away messages to Facebook statuses and Twitter, though, is the art of the song lyric message. Most song lyrics are too long to sum up our deepest feelings in 140 characters, but that wasn’t a problem with the AIM away message! No, we didn’t have to come right out and say what we were feeling because an artist we liked had done it for us, leaving us with cryptic lyrics to provide our friends, hoping that they’d decipher our mood. And there were truly lyrics for every emotion.

I too have lamented this loss. Song lyrics just don’t work on Facebook, just another post on a feed. With AIM, we got the added bonus of fonts and colors, all designs to prove how precious or earnest we were through what we listened to.

Katie nails down many of the categories the songs fell in, although her personal references do not mesh with mine (or my friends), since that is based partly upon taste. But no one who went to college in 2004 will forget the ubiquity of Garden State (I’m pretty sure everyone on my buddy list used “There’s beauty in the breakdown” from “Let Go”). She misses the overused “We’re so in love” lyrics from “Such Great Heights”—to this day I groan when seeing “I am thinking it's a sign that the freckles/In our eyes are mirror images and when/We kiss they're perfectly aligned”. It’s not original or cute anymore, it’s hackneyed and trite.

Away messages were a code. Not always, and obviously, sometimes they were perfectly explicit, even when in song lyrics. I knew what certain lyrics “meant”: trouble, or heartbreak, even if I didn’t know specifics or if the specifics didn’t line up exactly with the song. I just knew it was bad news.

Of course, away messages were also misinterpreted, sometimes causing lots of offense and drama. That was all part of college, as was the timing of certain remarks (whether intentional or not), or the inability to update the away messages either out of sheer laziness or because people were plumb not there to do so.

I suspect AIM is not held in the same regard now among this demographic, not with Twitter and Facebook and cell phones and text messaging all overtaking the importance of the away message. Plus everything can be integrated, so there really is no excuse for not updating. But I do miss crafting my away messages, thinking of the audience to read them. Now, out of college, most of my buddies have gravitated away, and like most social services, the fun is in who you know and how many people in your network are in, so the reason for going on has diminished, and with that the motivation to put up an away message. Now, the same people are on, usually at the same time—the evening.

Instant Messages have gravitated toward the workplace, as a way of connecting to far-flung colleagues, or to those in a big organization where picking up the phone is pure avoidance or laziness. Katie does nail some of the problems inherent with talking via this means: the inability to detect tone (sarcasm often falls flat), causing confusion; and how to squeeze in this activity while doing other things (also a mainstay in college). It always seemed dishonest to ghost in order to talk to only one or two people, or to put up an away message in order to avoid those you don’t want to talk to while engaging others. AIM also foreshadowed the “digital autism” of today, the inability to have a conversation or pay attention to those you’re physically with, preferring to spend energy through technological means.

I still go on AIM, but it’s a different experience; it’s to talk to specific people. I rarely have away messages up now—what’s the point? Who’s going to see? And with all the new features, it’s no longer the service of yore, but an entirely new beast, one that’s trying to still be as old-school but playing catch-up with the new kids on the block. AIM’s heyday was rooted very much in its time, a benefit of a confluence of factors that was victim to technology and time: growing up.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List

The blogosphere has been playing another one of those memes that hit every so often, and this time it’s My Most Influential books. These things are hard to quantify, of course, and I may very well change my thinking in the future. Like Ezra, I feel that many of the things I’ve read that’s influenced me the most have been non-books, especially in the past several years. My friends and their writing has influenced me greatly; I see vocabulary words and think of them, because those are words they use; I hear arguments, I think of them; I have adopted their thinking patterns because of them. But publications I have read for years, continuously, have also shaped my worldview: RollingStone (though I’ve gotten away from their political coverage the last several years), The New York Times (I think of high school and cringe), the blogosphere, the many, many, many magazine articles I’ve read.

And yet, if I’m going with my gut, I’m not sure if I can reach ten books.

  • The first is obviously The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. I read it at the end of high school, and its contrarian outlook (especially on violence) and complete focus on media effects steered me into what I wanted to study. It blew my mind.

  • The Corrections: I want to write like this, a story so stuffed full of everything, with so much to say! These are the kinds of stories I deeply admire, the “social novels” that make me love Jonathan Franzen, for they take the personal and the political, and reflect how a person really is affected by every little thing.

  • The works of E.L. Konigsburg. Also a writer I very much want(ed?) to emulate. Her books were nothing like the rest of novels I consumed as a kid. There were no romantic hijinks, and the characters were not interested nor happened to fall in love and get significant others. Boys and girls were actually friends! The characters all had interesting lives, all had passions and hobbies they wanted to explore, and had problems that were neither commonplace nor depressing. Konigsburg got her ideas from newspaper features, and created stories from that jumping off point. I thought it was ingenious. She’s so good she’s won the Newbery medal twice, for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday.

  • Bobos in Paradise. I remember seeing the book in the featured section in my library back in 2000, and was very intrigued. I probably took it out a few times, but I didn’t get around to reading it until four years later. My god! So dense yet so wonderful, every chapter just needed to be absorbed.

  • The works of Malcolm Gladwell (minus Outliers, as I haven’t read it yet): The kind of pop-social commentary I love, one that draws from multiple disciplines. Academically, I am very much an interdisciplinary thinker, and I love how he poses interesting questions and the ways he goes about to find the answers. His technique has been widely copied.

I think back on my childhood and adolescence, where I went through periods of reading authors—Ann Rinaldi, Katharine Patterson, Judy Blume. I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid, a genre I sadly barely touch now. But I know that I like my setting and place to be very specific in my stories, and most of the fiction I’ve attempted to write has always had this quality. I also am a stickler for this, and I find that many people don’t bother to research the “recent past” as much as they should, as in a movie. In watching Julie & Julia, for example, I wanted to see if the computer Julie uses in 2002 was actually available at the time, and disliked how cavalier they were regarding Julia’s timeline.

I had another epiphany fall of my senior year. I was making paper dolls as a project on "As You Like It" for my Shakespeare class, and wandered downstairs to look at my bookshelf, mainly filled with my childhood favorites, for inspiration. The vast majority were about young, smart women who wanted to become writers. Of course! How had I missed this? No wonder I became who I am!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on Blogging, Technology and Gender, and What We Choose to Reveal About Ourselves

I had a very bloggy week, between watching Julie & Julia and Monday’s episode of House, which both revolved around women whose blogs got the better of them.

Julie & Julia received a lot of press for its portrayal of supportive husbands, on both women’s side. The Times gleefully wrote of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of middle-aged passion, but Julie’s husband was a “saint”, so much so that he objected to the label. Much is made of the Childs’ marriage, how passionate they were, but I found Paul Child to be supportive, but distant; in fact, both husbands in the movie were quite bland. Maybe that’s the point—they both were supportive characters, meant to prop up the leads, so they usually are less developed than the protagonists.

But other than that observation, it was Julie’s bloggy passion that stood out, in comparison to this week’s House episode, concentrated on a blogger who goes a little too personal with her diagnosis. Both women get caught up in blogging about their lives, neglecting their significant others, who come to resent their girlfriend’s hobby. (Tip: Get a boyfriend who blogs, or who at least likes the medium as much as you do.) This is reminiscent of Emily Gould’s fantastic bloggy piece in the New York Times nearly two years ago, where she recounts how blogging about her personal life wrecked her relationship and her life. All three women had successful blogs, the real-life ones turning into successful writers. All three were transformed by their hobby, sharing their love with others and eventually having their own audience. Both Julie and Laura Prepon’s Frankie worry too much about their audience; Julie, about actually having one, and Frankie, about what they think. She uses her blog as a crowdsource of opinion, on both the large and small decisions of her life, including the many major medical ones she faces in the episode. Their blogs become their lives, their reason for getting up in the morning. Julie’s Julia Child obsession is fueled by her blogging, and without it the structure of her project would fall apart, as she is documenting her progress. Frankie, too, is obsessed with documenting her life, and despite protestations from her boyfriend, feels she would be lying if she did not faithfully record or retell everything. Julie does not feel this way, though she does consent to not publicizing a fight she has with her husband (though by it being in the movie we presume that it is retold in her book).

The issue here, of course, becomes privacy. Sure, on the surface, Julie Powell’s project sounds fun, if daunting, and not particularly invasive; she is in charge of how much she chooses to reveal, and on the surface a cooking blog would not be one to draw readers.

But of course, that’s too simplistic. One of the women mentioned in the film who actually makes an appearance is Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer who made a name for herself (at least to this writer) by writing a column in the Times Magazine in the early part of the ‘00s, “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, about her meals and dates with a certain Mr. Latte, later revealed to be the New Yorker writer Tad Friend. “Cooking for Mr. Latte”, a kind of Sex and the City meets food, certainly had enough dish and romantic intrigue to make it more than just another food column, and, though it was on paper, had a bloggy feel to it, as it chronicled their burgeoning relationship. (The column also became a book.)

So why are all these bloggers women? Why is it that women feel the need to emotionally reveal themselves online, to chronicle their lives? Men seem to go about it in a much more analytical, data-driven fashion; Nicholas Felton has designed a number of what he calls “Personal Annual Reports”, yearly compilations of the minutia that makes up his life, and it’s fascinating: all the restaurants he ate at, the countries he visited, his most played songs on iTunes. Every year, the charts and graphs, not to mention what he actually records, get increasingly complex. (The MIT Media Lab has done similar projects, recording and analyzing personal, daily data of students.) Sure, I already know all the comments, the criticism: even a friend of mine, when I showed him Feltron, responded, “I know the irony of what I'm about to say as a man that Tweets but that's kind of self absorbed.”

Sure, it’s self-absorbed. But it’s a whole other form of diary, a multimedia one, life writ large. The data aspects makes it so much cooler, because it’s objective, and it’s a form that you can’t argue with; maybe that’s why men like it. There are so many ways to tell a story, and neither is completely right, for each time it’s told, it’s done a little differently, and they all give different sides to the same one.

The Internet, in all its lovely possibilities, has also given us a way to be anonymous and solicit anonymous opinions. That comes across in blogging—again with the choosing to reveal what we want. But there’s also the new ChatRoulette and, services that flip anonymity on its head.

ChatRoulette, memorably introduced to many (including me) via this New York article, is a basic service that automatically turns on a user’s webcam and randomly beams you into someone else’s browser, and they you. The only options are to engage, move on, or turn off. Most outlets have connected it back to the days of the “wild, wild Internet”, before it became safe for minors, where everything and everyone was searchable. Here, it doesn’t matter if your name or your face or your home really belongs to you, as you are only known by your face, and there is no tag—there’s not even a record of who you’ve been connected with. There’s no way to track, no searching, no user names, no login information, no password. Glorious freedom. And yet it’s scary and incredibly intimidating, a party game to play.
is a site, a meme if you like, that lets people ask questions of a particular user. The person can use his or her real name, or a version of it, if the person desires, and those asking the questions can also identify themselves, though they usually stay anonymous. People asking the questions are strangers and friends; maybe you’ll get something good. It’s a version of a Facebook application known as the honesty box, which always got someone in trouble; that’s what honesty tends to do. And yet it’s addicting, in a way, to say too much; God knows in this era of TMI that it’s hard to put a lid on. Lying is contagious too, but it’s confusing as hell; being openly honest, too openly honest, can be about connecting or prolonging the awkward, having something to say, maybe just making a funny.

So we have two sides of a coin here: a site where we are expected to divulge secrets to those asking, and another an interface where we are personally faced with random strangers, no accountability. The first is implicitly about accountability, though we aren’t supposed to be pegged; the second, an escape route if we wish it to be.

But of course, we often occupy on the assumption that more information is better, and that notion led to ChatRoulette map, where users’ IP addresses are tracked to see who is using the service at any time. You do not need to be engaged on ChatRoulette to use ChatRoulette map, as I discovered this afternoon. There’s an option to turn this off, for it ruins the fun for some people. Exposing IP addresses always has a whiff of creepiness, as it feels like Big Brother is coming down to watch.

There are plenty of people who say that both will be a fad, but in Internet world, there are few things that have escaped this designation, one being Facebook. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, causing us both to escape and feel trapped by our past, and we eagerly take up the call whenever we need to do so.

P.S. I have a account. Ask questions, readers!

Also cross-posted on Notes on Popular Culture.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Getting My Geek On

LOVE this:

JESS3 / The State of The Internet from JESS3 on Vimeo.

And what's crazy is that more information than you think is outdated here. Favorite statistic: Facebook needs more than 30,000 servers to run, and they're still growing. Holy shit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reviewing Ruth Reichl's Trio of Food Memoirs

…We all become actors, to some extent, when we go out to eat. Every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful. When restaurants hold up their end of the bargain, they give us the illusion of being surrounded by servants intent on ensuring our happiness and offering extraordinary food.

But even modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality; that is part of their charm. When you walk through the door, you are entering neutral territory where you are free to be whoever you choose for the duration of the meal.
--Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise

Ruth Reichl has made a name for herself reviewing restaurants, most notably as the New York Times’ chief restaurant critic in the ‘90s. While there, she made reviewing a literary art form, weaving stories into her reviews, adding quotes from patrons and staff, incorporating history and sensory fun. Looking back, her reviews do not seem controversial, but she was up against a lot of history, even enduring a smear campaign from her bitter predecessor, Bryan Miller, which ended up on Page Six.

In an job interview with the paper, she condemns their food coverage, telling top editors that their reviews are “useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the ones who wish they could.” The Times, for many years, focused only those fancy French restaurants that defined class and culinary sophistication in this country, but these were the types of restaurants, like Lutece, that were patronized by the rich and powerful; most people would rarely, if ever, get the chance to try it. As eating out became more like going to the movies instead of the opera, restaurant criticism should reflect that trend, Reichl notes, and become just as much a democratizing force.

Already well-known in the food world in the early ‘90s, Reichl was warned on a flight to New York City that “Every restaurant in town has your picture pinned to the bulletin board, next to the specials of the day.” Panicked, Reichl realized that there was only one way to do her job: go in disguise. So she became Molly, a retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan. The New York Times’ restaurant critic was the most powerful position in restaurant criticism, and her word could make or break an establishment. Critics were expected to dine out no less than three times, often more, with companions, sampling a range of food at different times, testing for consistency and quality. Being discovered was ruinous, because it often lead to extraordinary service, comped dishes, freebies, and extras, like plumper strawberries.

Reichl’s infamous Le Cirque experience is recounted in the third volume of her memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires. As Molly, she and her middle-aged companion endured rude service, waiting at the bar, watching the waiters hope that they would leave, before being seated in a tight corner in the back of the restaurant, near an alcove where the menus were kept. As herself, she was treated to this gem: “The King of Spain is waiting at the bar, but your table is ready.”

Garlic and Sapphires traces her years at the New York Times, where she subjects herself to a number of wigs and odd outfits, transforming herself into all sorts of women, all with backstories and unique personalities. Unlike her two previous memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, this one is focused exclusively on restaurants and her career. Columns from her tenure are reprinted here—most are just labeled “Restaurants”, a little too simple; not all have titles. She inherited a star system that is no longer in place, and readers relive many of the meals behind the review.

Reading through the books, you really get a sense of how much the world has changed in the last fifty years. In Tender at the Bone, all the included recipes seem very unhealthy. There’s lots of eggs and butter and cream, and the recipes, many complicated, use lots of hard-to-find ingredients. They also scream French and fatty; lots of meat and dessert. The recipes in Garlic and Sapphires are familiar, easy, and as such, much likelier to be made (I tried the first one, New York Style Cheesecake, as a birthday gift).

What Americans actually ate has also changed considerably. Reichl was lucky to grow up in New York City, with Jewish roots, and so was exposed to a lot of food that didn’t become mainstream until decades later. Outside of such cities, Americans ate a lot of steak, a lot of bland, nutritionally-deficient food. The horrors of midcentury Midwestern cooking—chicken, steak, Rice-a-Roni—are reinforced when she meets her future husband’s parents for the first time. They cook her a “fancy” meal: cottage cheese-filled canned peaches on iceberg lettuce, and “chow mein”: canned beans sprouts, canned mushrooms, bouillon cubes, and molasses. Ugh.

But her life, too, encapsulates this change: brought up in Greenwich Village in the ‘50s, she was surrounded by butchers, bakeries, and other “specialty” shops; many of those have disappeared by the time she returns thirty years later. Her mother, educated in Europe, ships her off to a Montreal boarding school to learn French when she is a preteen, and she spends her high school years in Connecticut, skipping class, drinking and cooking while her parents stay in New York. Rebelling, she goes to school in Michigan, where she becomes a hippie, majoring in sociology and attending sit-ins and teach-ins, learning about Moroccan and Guyanese cooking. Upon graduating, with nothing else to do, she gets a master’s degree in art history at the same university. Who does that now without a lot of foresight and planning?

But these are only some of the ways in which we see how far the world has changed. Nowadays food is its own genre, and there are millions of foodies, professional and amateur, who follow the field. With movies like Food, Inc, what we eat has become politicized. “Food porn” is its own subgenre, and pictures both disgusting and beautiful can be found anywhere on the web. Chefs are superstars, and professional eating is a job, one that can lead to fame. The Food Network and the Travel Channel bring cuisines, styles, and food as entertainment to the masses. Midwestern suburbia has access to heretofore ethnic and specialty ingredients. No longer is eating out a province of the rich. Even the act of reviewing restaurants, thanks to the Internet, has changed, since it’s virtually impossible to stay incognito, as Columbia Journalism Review’s recent history on food writing recounts.

Ruth Reichl is incredibly blessed. Her story reads like nothing more than that she happened to be the recipient of a lot of luck—she was always at the right place at the right time. As one friend puts it, she was born to be a restaurant critic, and that is certainly evident in her background. She was cooking at an early age, more as self-preservation than anything else. Her mother, Miriam, quite a character, is “taste-blind and unafraid of rot” and Ruth grew up warning all guests—and there were a lot—which food was unsafe to eat. Her mother, in a story memorable recounted in Tender at the Bone and in the recent published Not Becoming My Mother, poisoned twenty-six people at an engagement party she threw for her son (which she also turned into a benefit for Unicef.) She would buy anything exotic, throw random stuff together, and call it a meal. It didn’t matter if the sour cream was green.

Reichl spent a summer as a camp counselor in a small island off the coast of France. Unlike American health camps, which are highly structured and are strongly linked to losing weight, French camps had few rules, among them that campers would shower once a week and that everyone had to eat everything on the plate. Campers were expected to gain weight. Reichl was free to explore the island.

She meets her first husband living in Ann Arbor when he comes looking for her friend, the previous occupant. They move in the next day, marry young, and after a short stint in New York City, they move to Berkeley, where they are part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement. There they live in a commune with ten other people for ten years, their bedroom smaller than most dorm rooms. They stick out because they are married, but they live the life of a poor hippie. They have no credit cards, very little to their name, and they disdain bourgeois trappings like dishwashers (energy inefficient) and meat (too high on the food chain and “an egregious example of the vertical integration of agribusiness”). They dumpster dive and recycle fanatically, living on grain, millet and bland vegan products. She moves up the ranks, working in a number of restaurants, notably The Swallow, before becoming a food critic for New West (later renamed California) magazine, then moving to the Los Angeles Times. In Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, she meets and becomes friends with some big names: Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck.

Her second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, describes her “tumultuous years” in California, the dissolution of her first marriage, and her subsequent affairs and battle with infertility. Here is where most of her traveling is done: whenever her life is a mess, she takes a trip, and so readers are exposed to a storybook affair in Paris, feastiaries in Thailand, and an international mystery in China. In Tender, it’s a whirlwind honeymoon in Europe, with an extended lag in Crete; a Tunisian tour with local men before jet-setting to Algiers; and of course, Paris. Obviously, the books are filled with long ago beautiful meals, lovely wine, and interesting concoctions.

One criticism of the books, especially in the first two, is that Reichl is not very specific with time. I consistently overestimate her age, partly because milestones in her life happen earlier than expected (she is finished with her undergrad degree by the time she is twenty, for example). It is hard, at times, to figure out if it’s the late ‘60s or early ‘70s in her book, how long she has been in a particular setting or situation. This matters less in Garlic and Sapphires, mostly because her life is settled then, and the entirety of that book revolves around one job and setting. Many readers might not care about the specificity of dates; indeed, Reichl comes from a long line of embellishers, and her books, being memoirs, are not factual recitations of events.

At times Reichl can be amazingly open—as when she reveals that she took a pay cut to work at the New York Times, starting out at $82,000, in Garlic and Sapphires, or when describing her sex life in Comfort Me With Apples. Her parents figure prominently in the first two, but her son, Nick, now twenty-one, appears often in the last. He is sweet, and adores his mom. It is her family that prompts her decision to leave the New York Times for Gourmet magazine, which she helmed until the magazine’s departure a few months ago.

What’s also fun, besides the meals and her amazing experiences, is seeing how the Times ran, especially in the ‘90s, where it was considered a snake pit, a completely different and unfriendly beast to the Los Angeles Times, where Reichl worked for nine years in the eighties. I was delighted to discover that Reichl dislikes Tavern on the Green (which recently closed) as much as I do, even though we ate there a good thirteen years apart.

Reichl has her own website, Twitter feed, and currently works on Gourmet’s television show. Her books are fun and tasty, and the recipes certainly are mouth-watering. I still have no idea what foie gras is, though.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New York Times to Charge for Web Access

This was bound to happen--it was only a matter of time. Details on the exact plan are scarce, but expect a lot of changes in the coming year, with lots of chatter from media outlets.

It's gonna be hard to go from free to a pay wall, but it might be a good deal to pay a flat yearly fee for access if it's necessary. I know a lot of people will try to bypass the site--hey, it's aggregated everywhere! Who needs it, when you've got Google--but the Times will make sure that they aren't hijacked by other outlets.

They'll make some money, as agencies and organizations will pay for access, and some people might splurge for a print subscription, which guarantees a free web site.

There are only a few newspaper websites that charge for access, a few of them local dailies. The Wall Street Journal has a pay wall, also bypassed with a print subscription, but that works because that paper primarily serves a business audience, and readers tend to have access through their jobs. The New York Times is the most visited newspaper site in the country, with over 17 million viewers a month, according to Nielsen online. This approach, compared to sites like the Journal, is meant to keep much of their audience and ad revenue. The fear is that those who receive links to the site will now stop, or spend less time on the site, because of the pay wall. Although the newspaper has said they do not want to lose the prestige that goes along with such high numbers, it was a move they had to take.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In "No Kidding" News

From the Los Angeles Times:
As the number of sources for news proliferates on digital platforms, most original reporting still comes from newspapers, television and radio.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that surveyed news gathering in Baltimore as an example of nationwide trends found that 95% of stories with fresh information came from "old media," and the vast majority of that from newspapers.

"The expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites -- at least in Baltimore -- played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places," the study's authors write.
As much as the Internet and social media have been revolutionary, it's been catastrophic for the news model. We've got to find a way so that real reporting--and journalism as a whole--is rewarded and funded, a workable business. It's only going to get worse, and anyone who ever reads or watches the news on a fairly regular basis--no matter the outlet--quickly realizes that the sources, the original reporting, comes from a handful of big guns. Even the local news is usually done by the big paper in town, the one with the resources. Because money and manpower means that the story has a chance of being told.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Women's Bodies

Last night, after reading Emily’s post, I looked through the February issue of Glamour, which had arrived the day before. For the first time, I actually thought the models looked familiar, and no wonder: one of them was the infamous Crystal Renn, now the #1 “plus sized” model in the business.

Plus size my ass. Of course, in the modeling world, plus size is a size 6—whatever the hell that means, since that’s actually smaller than average and sizes are not standard in the US. Take a look at these photos from Glamour:

To me, she looks just like any other beautiful woman in a magazine spread. Katy Perry is on the cover, and both share similar body shapes. But looking through the pages, no matter whether it is the ads or the features, I don’t notice anything that’s radically different. There’s one “regular”, skinny model, Nina Van Bree, who’s done other work for Glamour, but I also see Sarah Jessica Parker, Kate Moss (not looking super-skinny, but she’s wearing a thick pencil skirt), Faith Hill, the women from Big Love, four Olympic athletes, and a number of other unknown women, some of whom are only shot from the chest, shoulder, or neck up. All of them are slender. All of them fit within the standard slim aesthetic of a woman. None of them have any proportions out of the ordinary—nothing too small, too big, too muscular, too short, too long, too wide, too narrow, too bloated, or too bony.

Now, I was never one to bitch loudly about magazine models, because I rarely paid attention and I just don’t care. But what does bother me is the attitude they promote, and while many people have lauded the supposed shift from “skinny is wonderful” to “celebrate your curves”, I’ve always bristled at the curves part, because they’re often intended to be opposites. You can’t be both thin and curvy, and curvy was used to represent every shape and size under the sun. I disliked it when men used, I disliked it when women used it. And this excerpt from Victoria at Feminazery is why:
First off, this new culture of curves is NOT about celebrating fuller figures, it is about denigrating slender women. How many more screaming "So Skinny She Looks Like She'll Break!!!" headlines on the frontpage of Heat Magazine, how many more paparazzi shots of "Worryingly thin Lindsay" in the Dail Fail, how many more scare-mongering ITV documentaries on the "dangers of size zero" before people realise that there is no new culture? The culture is exactly the same, it's just that the target has changed. We've swopped fat-bashing for skinny-bashing and exchanging one prejudice for another isn't an advancement in women's rights, it's a step sideways.

Secondly, to the "more attainable, more womanly" part. Who is to say what is "womanly"? Women come in all different shapes and sizes and only a fool would try to attribute a higher level of feminity to one over the other. Really this argument belongs to the first point I made - it's not about celebrating so-called "womanly" figures, it's about taking a dig at slimmer women, saying they're "manly", less "real". Who cares which women we're picking on, as long as we can still pick on women, hey?

As for "more attainable", let's investigate this, shall we? In the last week two websites; MSN Lifestyle and the Daily Fail have run articles on the "most desirable" body shapes, with an emphasis on "curvy" woman such as Kate Winslet, Halle Berry and eponymous Kelly Brook. The Fail, in particular claims this as a great victory for women, because such figures are supposedly more realistic a goal for the average woman. Really? Neither Winslet, Berry nor Brook can be more than a size 10 at most, and with the average dress size in the UK now up to a 16, that's quite a gap. More pertinently though, "curves" of the type that these women have are not something you can ever achieve. They have big breasts, and wide-set hips, set off by tiny waists. No matter how much you diet you can't change the width of your pelvis, you can't grow your breasts without implants - you're either born an hourglass shape or you're not. Don't get me wrong, I think Winslet, Brook et al have fantastic figures (as do Kate Moss, Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham) but promoting them as "better" role models than your average supermodel because their figures are "more attainable" is ludicrious because a girl with a straight-up-and-down body type has as much chance as naturally growing a second head as she has of ever looking like Kelly Brook.
I went to high school with a girl who was tall and flat as a board all over. There were rumblings about her being anorexic, partly because of her shape but also partly because she always talked of losing weight, trying to be thinner. She couldn’t get much thinner without becoming seriously ill, but one day I heard her moan about what was really bothering her: her hips. She thought they were too wide, and she wanted to narrow them down. That’s ridiculous, I remember telling someone. Unless she wanted saw off inches on both sides of her body, what she wanted was impossible. Yet somehow she equated narrower hips with being thinner, and hence, more attractive.

It’s so ridiculous, reading these women’s magazines, how often copy is focused on “love your body”, and all the related affirmations. You’d think we’d have gotten the message by now. But there’s always someone out there with a nicer shape, and we can’t help but wonder…even if there’s no way that body is ever attainable.


From Elizabeth Nolan Brown:

But every time I read these sorts of things—this, or Tsing Loh’s last Atlantic article, about her affair and divorce; Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine article about working on her marriage, and all the bloggy disccusions around it; books like Against Love and A Vindication of Love, both railing against modern “companionate” marriages in their own way; all these late-boomer and Gen X women at once enchanted and neurotic and furious with our current exemplars of marriage or motherhood or monogamy—I am left wondering (and depressed) about what fights we Gen Y (and beyond) women will face in this realm. So much of the current angst seems to be a reaction to the 1970s woman’s reaction to the 1950s woman’s lifestyle/dilemna/ideal … it frustrates me. I’m tired of those battles; they seem silly and cliched and obvious.

But our battles are going to have to be a reaction to these. Or a backlash. And what will that look like? All I know, when I read these things, is that I don’t want to be any of the women in these essays. I don’t want their problems, don’t want their lives. I wonder how they possibly got there, and then can see myself getting there. I think the avoidance of all that will all be so simple, but then they, as women in the 70s and 80s, probably thought the same thing about that 1950s woman.

I’ve tried to avoid Tsing Loh’s articles just because they are so damn depressing. Weil’s piece was fascinating in that trainwreck way, when people air their dirty laundry, and there’s nothing dirtier than sex and love. (Everything else flows from there.) But Tsing Loh’s piece that’s the subject of Brown’s post suffers from the fact that it’s ALL ABOUT HER—a problem with lots of opinion “journalism” today, falling into bloggy traps. She has some good criticism, some interesting larger points (sussed out by Brown), but most of it is long and way too self-involved for a feature in the Atlantic. And it’s supposed to be a review! Please.

But Brown’s got the real point, something that I think of whenever I read an article of that type: I sure as hell don’t want to be any of those women…but I could so very easily fall into that trap, as could many of my friends. Ugh.

But quote of the day goes to Tsing Loh for this:
To be a mother—even simply to be a woman—in today’s world is to be made exhausted and resentful by a role or set of roles that we don’t recall deliberately choosing.
Somehow we always end up falling into something. Sometimes our situations demand that we fulfill some role or archetype that we don’t want. We don’t rebel enough.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Articles that deserve further commentary from me, but due to my lack of focus will just be getting the props.

As a follow-up to my teacher post a few weeks ago, this top-emailed article on teaching as a second career for those in midlife (something I might do myself in thirty years) brings me back to wondering how plentiful these teaching jobs are. In theory, programs like this are great. But is there competition between new young teachers and new older teachers? Do the programs stack up? With so many different routes to becoming a teacher, what's the best way? Can these things even be quantified? Malcolm Gladwell argued for a whole new way to evaluate teachers in a well-known piece in the New Yorker, a contradictory argument that seems very difficult to put into practice. I'm still just as lost about teacher trouble as I ever was, but teaching seems a great second or third career, and I am all for good programs that can provide this service.

CareerCast listed its top jobs for 2010, ranking them on salary, stress, work environment, and job outlook. Media jobs uniformly did poorly, though there were a lot of questionable top choices: historian? philosopher? Anthropology did well, though I have a sneaking suspicion that those who hold that degree don’t feel so secure. A lot of jobs seemed to be low-level, ones that may not require a college diploma, like cosmetologist, waiter, and typist. (Who the hell is a typist now? It’s administrative assistant, though that category is filled by “receptionist.”) There wasn’t a lot of amorphous jobs, those tricky titles or stuff like “venture capitalist” or “hedge fund manager”, where you really wonder what the person does, or jobs where you wonder what a MS in environmental engineering will do. I was very amused by PR executives having the seventh most stressful job out of the ones listed (#193 out of 200).

Must-read on how writers are losing their monetary value. Very sad and scary, like a lot of other stories about the profession:
What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession -- or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards but with something resembling a living wage.


The crumbling pay scales have not only hollowed out household budgets but accompanied a pervasive shift in journalism toward shorter stories, frothier subjects and an increasing emphasis on fast, rather than thorough.

The rank of stories unwritten -- like most errors of omission -- is hard to conceive. Even those inside journalism can only guess at what stories they might have paid for, if they had more money.

Media analyst and former newspaper editor Alan Mutter worried last month about the ongoing "journicide" -- the loss of much of a generation of professional journalists who turn to other professions.

Writers say they see stories getting shorter and the reporting that goes into some of them getting thinner.

A former staff writer for a national magazine told me that she has been disturbed not only by low fees (one site offered her $100 for an 800-word essay) but by the way some website editors accept "reporting" that really amounts to reworking previously published material. That's known in the trade as a "clip job" and on the Web as a "write around."

"The definition of reportage has become really loose," said the writer, also a book author, who didn't want to be named for fear of alienating employers. "In this economy, everyone is afraid to turn down any work and it has created this march to the bottom."
I try not to patronize websites that are purveyors of what I call the "rewrite." There's a difference between commentary (Gawker) and straight-up rehash of news, and I want the real stuff. But I wonder about all the many young people who can't get into journalism now, as they are picked up by related professions, the social media world, or the great swath of unemployment. You can't have more and more PR professionals and fewer and fewer journalists; who will report the news?

On media predictions in 2010: Besides that Apple Tablet that’s taking up far too much speculation, there’s the sense that a lot of news outlets will start charging. As a Times print subscriber, I might be safe for that dear site, but this will mean big changes to anyone who consumes news on a regular basis, and don’t think you can circumvent it with Google News. It might even mean the end of such necessities as Hulu, too.

How the other half lives
: I would only ever watch these programs out of sheer curiosity. Excellent moneymaker, just not my cup o' tea.

Peggy Noonan’s excellent column from December, on the cultural split she terms “The Adam Lambert Problem”:
America is good at making practical compromises, and one of the compromises we've made in the area of arts and entertainment is captured in the words "We don't care what you do in New York." That was said to me years ago by a social conservative who was explaining that he and his friends don't wish to impose their cultural sensibilities on a city that is uninterested in them, and that the city, in turn, shouldn't impose its cultural sensibilities on them. He was speaking metaphorically; "New York" meant "wherever the cultural left happily lives."

For years now, without anyone declaring it or even noticing it, we've had a compromise on television. Do you want, or will you allow into your home, dramas and comedies that, however good or bad, are graphically violent, highly sexualized, or reflective of cultural messages that you believe may be destructive? Fine, get cable. Pay for it. Buy your premium package, it's your money, spend it as you like.

But increasingly people feel at the mercy of the Adam Lamberts, who of course view themselves, when criticized, as victims of prudery and closed-mindedness. America is not prudish or closed-minded, it is exhausted. It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it.

It's things like this, every bit as much as taxes and spending, that leave people feeling jarred and dismayed, and worried about the future of their country.

All these things—plus Wall Street and Washington and the general sense that most of our great institutions have forgotten their essential mission—add up and produce a fear that the biggest deterioration in America isn't economic but something else, something more characterological.
And finally, the XX Factor’s take on this New York Observer article on American women dating Canadian and European guys:
But contrary to the "Own me! Own me!" view of commitment, all of the New York women I know lingering in lasting long-term but nonconjugal unions are doing so because they're not ready to get married, not because they're anxiously biding time until their boyfriends decide to pop the question.

It'd be nice to see an article that depicts women as the well-rounded, rational beings that they are. You know, people who have multidimensional thoughts about marriage and don't morph into rom-com cliches the minute the word is dangled before their faces. I'm not the only one who finds the prospect of marrying someone you've known for three months, let alone someone you met at a bus depot, totally terrifying. So why am I always reading about it like it's some sort of female fantasy come true? Besides, most of the ladies interviewed for this article are only 25, 26, 27 years old. How much terrible dating could they have endured?
The key difference seems to be rooted in economics:
When we talk about dating or the possibility of having family, with a man or on our own or with—gasp!—a coven of like-minded women (why not?), the conversation is framed entirely by the fact that we can count on our native countries to look after us should we—for whatever reason—not be able to make ends meet stateside. Now, we should be able to secure decent futures for ourselves, with or without male partners…


The calculus of long-term committment [sic] is just different when your country guarantees the basic necessities of an advanced civilization. When your government provides you, as they do in Canada and in Europe, with health care that is unlinked to a job or "productivity," subsidized prescription drugs, child care, free education through graduate school, and, finally, old-age pensions with visiting nurses if you need them to retain your health and a modicum of dignity. Marriage, ultimately, is about family, however you shape it. I sometimes don't blame men here for being lame or commitment-phobic. They're probably terrified of failing as providers or co-providers.
My biggest peeve with the first criticism is that the New York Observer piece is ostensibly about New York men. Like Sex and the City, they are dealing with a very specific demographic, one that might get overblown. New York men are known to be a different breed than men from the rest of the country, and they get married later than their peers from outside the area, just like the women. Sure, plenty of women complain about commitment-phobic men, but you can make the same case that there are plenty of women who feel the same. After all, I’ve known a few couples where it was the men who wanted to settle down first, but it was the women who felt that marrying young would hold them back. Now that we have longer lives and a life that is fundamentally, on all levels, less secure, why should we make major decisions that can lock us in for what seems like eternity?