Monthly Archives: August 2012

How Chris Christie Is Like NPR

Perhaps you’ve heard WNYC’s most recent promotional ad, which is very clever.

In Stanley Tucci’s come-hither voice, it coos as follows:  “There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”

Stanley Tucci

How do we (who actually don’t ever turn off WNYC) feel after hearing this ad?  We feel that rush of being responsible, grown-up, sober, and forthright.  We feel like mensches…..even though WNYC has no idea who we are and even though this call to honor involves nothing more than being the one to parrot NPR programming to our friends at the water cooler.

The point is, every one of us feels better when we feel we’re doing the right thing – standing for principle, being responsible, holding the door, putting the toilet seat down.  Call it the “Mensch Rush.”

So, to our Governor, Chris Christie, at the Republican National Convention last night.  We Republicans, he says, are more interested in being respected than loved, even if that means having to tell the hard truths.  We believe in upright values, he says, like education, family, the care of the elderly, the power of our principles, and the strength of our convictions.

Let’s skip over for now whether the Republican Party is a party of principle, beyond at least the principle of protecting their prodigious bank accounts.  The point is this:  Just like us NPR listeners, the people listening to Christie’s speech got a Mensch Rush, too.  They felt equally good about being honest, caring, steadfast, and fearless, as Christie told them they were.

Here’s my point:  Our guts tell us what is right and what is wrong.  It’s no different for Republicans than it is for NPR listeners.  So why are we so horribly divided as to what is right and what is wrong in making public policy?  That’s what I’ll be writing about this weekend.

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Diogenes Goes To Martha’s Vineyard

Bottom line?  I want out.  Of New Jersey, that is.

Can you blame me?

I mean, can you really blame me?

It doesn’t take decades of bad jokes by late-night comics, Snooki, airheaded Franklin Lakes “real housewives,” or the opening sequence of The Sopranos to understand how oppressive New Jersey can be.  The murk of New Jersey hangs on our State like a fog, and that fog sure as hell doesn’t come in on little cat feet.

Sure, many people can’t wait to leave the places they were born.  Everyone claims their traffic is the worst, their government is the most corrupt, their misery is unparalleled.  Maybe I’m wrong to think that there’s something unique about New Jersey’s inescapable crowding, its reflexive mindless anonymous nastiness, the chasm between its poor and the lucky bastards who create little fake English villages where they pretend the poor don’t exist.

And anyway, it’s tedious to complain about where you live.  So.  Back to the bottom line.  I want out.

Incidentally:  I’ve wanted out for a very long time.  I tried to get out by landing a job after law school with some big firm in the Great Elsewhere.  But, it was 1982, and those jobs were hard to land.  So, I wound up working back in my home town.

(My first office was actually right under the green mansard roof).

I stayed in that firm for fifteen years, then got recruited away to an in-house corporate job where I stayed another ten years.  Twenty-five years living somewhere I didn’t want to live.  Then, seven years ago, when my nest emptied and I was planning my getaway, I married Barbara, whose work and family require her to stay in the area.  Are you there, Jersey?  It’s me again. Mudgeon.

Still, dreaming is free; and so Barbara and I have been freely dreaming about where we might live next.  Our goal is a neighborly place where people are warm-hearted, socially conscious, and intellectually curious.  (Maybe this explains why my destination, just before we married, was Portland, Oregon).  Oddly, one of the places still on our list is New York City, where it seems that the impossible crowding generally forces people to behave well toward one another.

Like Mr. and Mrs. Goldilocks, we’ve “auditioned” all sorts of destinations:  The Berkshires (too snooty); the North Shore (too remote); New England (wicked cold); even the more rural parts of Jersey.  Some of our romantic notions – for example, that country dwellers are kindly simple folk – have turned out to be more romance than reality.  Yet, we’ve been excited to discover that life seems truly gentler in some other parts of the country.

And so, we recently made like Diogenes and took our lanterns to Martha’s Vineyard.

Martha’s Vineyard, even at its most crowded in mid-August, is the anti-Jersey.  No graffiti.  No piles of litter thrown onto the street.  No road rage – heck, cars routinely stop to allow drivers to turn in front of them, and everyone religiously stops for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Every chance meeting begins with a smile and a kind word.

So if everyone on Martha’s Vineyard is swooning from a healthy dose of Soma, what about cultural pursuits?  Well, at least in summer, there must be twenty concerts, plays, lectures, and movie screenings every day.  We saw a taping of the NPR show The Moth Radio Hour.  We scowled righteously through a documentary about the persecution of Ai Weiwei.  And, we met or at least learned about dozens of island residents who are artists, writers, and crafters.  (We were also there for the 40th anniversary of the filming of “Jaws,” and learned that our landlady was featured in one of the beach scenes, and the manager of our favorite restaurant was famous as the kid who was eaten by a shark while floating on his inflatable raft).

People, however, are damnably human.  (See my post about Hitchens’ criticism of religion).  From behind Victorian filigreed porch balusters, we all need to parse out the saints and the sinners, the big and the small, and especially to make certain that we’re on the right side.  This, it turns out, is no less true in genteel Martha’s Vineyard.

On the day we left, our landlords came to take back their rental home, and not incidentally to size us up.  They commented that we had put out a lot of garbage, which meant to them that we’d probably saved money by cooking at home.  They asked about our “thrifty” method of renting a car only on the weekdays, when renting is a tenth the cost of the weekends.  They made a fuss about the fact that although they owned this home in an obscenely wealthy part of the island, they themselves were not rich.  The theme, I guess, was that it is good to be rich (and to spend money), but unseemly to admit to being rich.

(No lie, this was one of the houses in our neighborhood, owned by our landord’s cousins.  Their private beach is the one with the little floating dock; our private beach was the one just to the left of it.  The tenants in that house, who paid $100,000 for the summer, were so incensed that anyone would swim up to their dock that they posted big “Private” and “No Trespassing” signs….on the little dock!)

Fine.  They have their way of parsing.  Tourists on the island, amusingly, parse themselves by pretending to be natives: dressing like Vineyard farmers and wearing Black Dog Cafe t-shirts marked with dates from the 1990’s.  I mean, it’s not as if even a person stranded on a desert island doesn’t strain to convince himself that his island is sandier than his neighbor’s island.  It’s just that, well, Martha’s Vineyard, we’d hoped that you were different.

 

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Calvin Trillin, Alice, Barbara, and Me: A Love Song

It’s quite a stretch for me to compare myself with Calvin Trillin, the prolifically urbane and quick-witted humorist, memoirist, and “deadline poet.”  He melted the barriers between reportage and first-person narrative nonfiction; most of my writing is either legal advice to insurance companies or press releases touting folk concerts.  He charms readers by sharing his everyman viewpoint on food, culture, and travel; my food experiences are limited by whatever diet I’m on, and I attend cultural events only after the buzz has died off and the tickets have gone on discount.

Nevertheless, the Deadline Poet and I have a few things in common.  We are city kids, raised by second-generation working-class Jewish parents.  We can come across as detached and enigmatic.  And, both of our lives were changed forever when we found the loves of our lives.

Calvin Trillin found his Alice at a party in 1963.  Fortunately, although he was instantly smitten, his tongue untied; and,.  as Alice later told him, he “was never funnier” than he was that night.  “Do you mean I peaked in December of 1963?,” he’d ask.  “I’m afraid so,” she’d reply.   They were married for 35 years, until she succumbed to complications from lung cancer in 2001.

Calvin Trillin’s slim 78-page memoir of his giddily happy marriage,  “About Alice,” is packed with humor, heartbreak, and a husband’s unashamed adoration of his wife.  As I am not Calvin Trillin, I’ll do my best with this blog.

Barbara is exactly what I had always pined for:  That is, she is not me.

I have a few feeble excuses for being me:  I am male.  I grew up with virtually no parenting.  By skipping school grades, I wound up two, then three, and then an untenable four years younger than my classmates, which meant that I missed most of the rites of the teenage years.  I married my first wife when I was barely 20 and came out of that marriage some fifteen years later with barely a clue as to how to be a self-reliant man.  Worse: because I had never been able to rely on anyone but myself to learn how to behave in the world, I was a tinhorn autodidact.  Rather than ask questions or pay quiet attention, I blundered through the challenges of independence and single parenthood with the stupid belief that I could figure things out by using my own intuition and doing what felt best.

Barbara is the antidote to that bumbling autodidact, me.

Though it may seem superficial, I think a husband and wife need to be a bit impressed by one another.  Calvin admired Alice for her lifetime of accomplishments, as a college professor, learning consultant to public television, and film producer.

Barbara’s accomplishments have always wowed me and created endless conversation between us.  Her career started when she boldly left college midstream and moved to New York, where she discovered graphic design by managing to get into a course tought by Milton Glaser.  After getting her degree in graphic design, she wrangled a job designing book jackets at the publisher Alfred A. Knopf.  There (at adjoining desks with her college buddy Chip Kidd), she threw out all the old rules and turned book-jacket design into an edgy art form.  A mantel full of awards, recognitions, and teaching opportunities followed.  Barbara went on to become the art director for Martha Stewart Living magazine before returning to Knopf.  A year ago, seeing the chance for one more creative chapter in her life, she put her fears (mostly)aside and became a graduate student to learn a new trade, interactive design.

I do not have a glimmer as to how Barbara can instantly summon up beauty, whether in a book jacket, a CD package, a garden, or the tie that will not clash horribly with my suit.  But I am so mystified and delighted by that rare talent that I am weak in the knees.

Calvin Trillin described Alice as  “the voice of reason, the sensible person who kept everything on an even keel despite the antics of her marginally goofy husband.”  Although I am not marginally goofy, Barbara’s even keel has straightened me up as well.

I come from a family that has little truck with one another, in which birthdays are often ignored, negligent telephone droughts can go on for months, and the prevailing attitude of one relative to another is mostly indifference.  I always yearned for a close-knit family that cared deeply for one another.  (I even long overstayed a romance with one woman almost entirely because she came from that sort of family).  Barbara, on the other hand, is a fierce family lioness (the photo above is cropped from a group photo in which she is surrounded by family members…note the serene and protective smile).  She is deeply loyal and loving with friends, family, and other people’s children.  Within weeks of our meeting, I began to call her orbit a “love sauna.”  I suppose she knew even earlier that I had come to her from love Siberia.  Having been rightened by her even keel, I have been able to bring a bit of that nurturing and gentle energy into my own relations.

Although I am tediously calm and almost never raise my voice, my trial-lawyer attitude toward the world can be shamefully combative.  I once publicly hounded a mail-order company that refused to acknowledge that it had overcharged me $10 to the point that it went out of business.  The wife of a proprietor with whom I had a business dispute once wrote to me to say that her husband was not well, and I would be to blame if he died as a result of our heated correspondence.  I can lose my patience with small-time offenses like texting while driving, throwing cigarette butts on the street, and misusing apostrophes.

Barbara, however, is a placid sea of kindness and accommodation.  Although sometimes this turning of the other cheek gets her nothing more than two wounded cheeks, more often she disarms the conflict and rebuilds connections.  In a single recent phone call, she kindly responded to someone who had severely disappointed her,  and then used the opportunity to send a plum bit of business to someone who had once tried to destroy her career.

Not that she has ice water in her veins.  Alice Trillin objected to being portrayed by Calvin as (in her words) a “dietitian in sensible shoes,” and in fact Calvin admitted that this “sit-com” description did not do justice to her sense of childlike wonder: “The only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, ‘Wowsers!’.”  Barbara also is filled with secret mischief and a shameless weakness for guilty pleasures.  Her work takes her into contact with celebrities from Barbara Walters to Stephen Sondheim to David Byrne; when George Plimpton or Laurie Anderson come up on conversation, she’ll always have an anecdote about her visit to Plimpton’s penthouse apartment or sharing a piece of birthday cake with Laurie in her Canal Street flat.  But, she does not boast, and she is never jaded by that life.  And, when a friend like David Rakoff dies, she weeps.  Like all of us, Barbara is on a perpetual diet; but it is never so strict that it can’t include liberal amounts of cheating, especially when there is ice cream in the freezer.

I am rarely invited to the sort of cocktail party at which Calvin met Alice.  So, Barbara and I met the new-fangled way, on the Internet (though, we later decided to lie and say we met “in France,” which as the Coneheads knew is usually sufficient to prevent any other inquiries.  This ruse failed when we embellished the story with an improbable filigree about how we came to speak after I tripped over her foot).  I had been single for fifteen years, having made the rookie mistake of dating inappropriate women for years at a time when weeks would have sufficed, in part because romance was just not important enough to motivate me to do it right.  Barbara was separated after a long marriage and was devoted to raising her children, then 15 and 10.  Like Calvin’s, my tongue untied during our nonstop email correspondence, in which we flirted and teased about everything from her favorite author Richard Ford (me: “If you read Richard Ford, does that mean I have to read Cosmo?”) to the pet names we would give each other (I insisted that she take the name Exie, from her screen name Ex Libris but based on a masked pro wrestler acquaintance who called himself Mister X).  Finally, when it was time to meet, Barbara made me promise that, even if we were completely repulsed by one another, we would continue to email.

Like everything, Barbara approached courtship with her whole heart, a fretful wariness, and finally the courage to put that wariness aside.  I’m sure she did not sleep for the entire time.  Yet, six months after the day we met, I surprised her with a proposal on a cliff overlooking the Hudson (how could she not have guessed, when the location was “Romantic Poet’s Look Park?), and she surprised me by accepting.  My trump card then was this bit of sonnet-like doggerel, read aloud to her (note that by then, her nickname was Minni, short for the Dutch endearment minniken):

 Soneta Amorosa (An Improper Proposal)

Men often think to do it on one knee—

Alas, at my age, I might not get up – or

Reveal their true intentions startlingly,

Risking massive coronaries long pre-nup. 

You and I, though, fell in love through prose.

My lord! How modern! Pixels ne’er were sweeter!

Ergo, this yearning sonnet I’ve composed –

My iambs reach for you in pentameter. 

Yes, I know it’s been scanty months since we

Met blushingly at Egan’s, white with foam.

Impatient though this prayer seems to be,

No less am I, Dear Friend, for our new home. 

Note: If you’d also have our lives entwine,

Inspect now the first letters of each line.

So much for deadline poetry.

After Alice passed away, Calvin received a letter from a young woman who confided that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and wondered, “Will he love me as much as Calvin loved Alice?”  Contrary to all reason, and surely because of some one-time loophole in the laws of karma, this is the kind of question that never has to be asked in my marriage.

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Of Hitchens and Revelations

It was no surprise that reactions to Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great” (subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”) were loud and partisan. The celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrung his hands at this attack on religion, arguing that, “Without the Bible, how would we even know what good and evil are?” The Christian evangelist group Stand To Reason called Hitchens  “an arrogant, hateful man who isn’t ashamed to demean those, who by his own view, are not as advanced or gifted as he is.”  Atheists crowed, lauding the book as their anti-Bible.  When Hitchens developed terminal cancer,  Hitchens’  long-running polemics about religion (including his book-length debunking of Mother Teresa, which of course he titled “Missionary Position”) led to tedious questions and debates about whether Hitchens’ cancer might lead to a death-bed conversion or even, shamelessly, was a punishment from God.

It’s been five years since “God Is Not Great” was published. Hitchens has died without sacrament, and it’s past time for yet another review of the book. But, for what it’s worth, I thought ”God Is Not Great” was a hoot. I laughed. I cried. I crawled on my belly like a reptile.

Aw, c’mon.  Surely, Hitchens was having gleeful, cheeky fun when he wrote the book. Although the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of religion are often dead serious, Hitch could not have believed he was making a serious argument.  Instead, he was having a lark with a mischievous and masterful recitation of all of the frauds, conceits, and hypocrisies that have undermined organized religion, weaving them together so tightly that he more or less gave the appearance that they are the sum total of religion.

Hitchens took insupportably absolute arguments – central among them that all religion must be a fraud because it has been so horribly corrupted by humans – and supported them with a dizzying inventory of horror stories, from the oppression of women in the Muslim world to Joseph Smith’s huckster “discovery” of the golden plates (thanks, Angel Moroni!) to the Spanish Inquisition. He took a contrarian’s delight in trotting out the history of how religion has become a surrogate for tribalism, violence, intolerance, and greed. One would think the subtitle of his book should have been “How Everything (that is, humans) Poisons Religion” rather than “How Religion Poisons Everything.”  The supposed topic of the book: Whether God (if there is one) is Great, is never addressed (other than perhaps by proxy, through the various tin-horn prophets and messiahs who claim to be divine).

Yet, How Humans Poison Religion is itself an intriguing topic. And, that is what I had in mind as I read Elaine Pagels’ book, “The Book of Revelation: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.”

“Revelation” is a history of the Book of Revelation:  Its origins, its meaning, and how it became part of the canonical Bible.  And, it is quite the story.

It should be no surprise that the story is entirely earthbound, rather than in any way divine.  About a century after Jesus, a fellow named John (no, not the apostle John), wrote Revelation on the island of Patmos off the coast of what is now Turkey.  Like self-decreed prophets before and after him, he declared that the writings had been revealed to him in a dazzling display of celestial hoo-hah.  And what a reveal!  Seven-headed leopard-like sea creatures!  Christ on a horse!  Lakes of fire!  Exploding mountains!  The fall of Babylon and the extermination of 2/3 of mankind!  And, of course, that odd Beast with the “number of a person,” 666.

The very human (and fascinating) side of the origin story is that Revelation is actually a thinly-veiled political allegory…sort of an “Animal Farm” for the toga set.  Babylon, it turns out, is Rome, and the sea creature’s seven heads are Rome’s seven past emperors.  “666” translates, in Jewish numerology, to Nero.  The great mountain exploding refers to the eruption of Vesuvius, which was still fresh in people’s minds, having occurred in 79 A.D.

So, what was this prehistoric “Animal Farm” meant to convey?  Says Pagels, John of Patmos was motivated by yet another tedious tribal conflict.  John, what you might call a Jew for Jesus, was warning the Gentiles what would befall them if they horned in on what was then (at least, in Asia Minor) a Jewish sect of followers of Christ.  Paul was at the time converting Gentiles to the fold, and they were allowed to join up without having to eat kosher or be circumsized.

At the same time, scores of other desert prophets were creating their own visions of an apocalyptic future…no doubt, to toot their own Shofars for the glory of their own tribes.  Heck, it’d been only a few hundred years since King Josiah bowdlerized the Jewish oral traditions, rewriting them so as to prove that his Kingdom of Judah were the chosen people whereas the Kingdom of Israel were rank sinners.  (We now call his creation The Old Testament).

So, how did John of Patmos’ outlandish and improbable book of prophecy become part of the Bible?  No surprise here.  Like Constantine, who adopted Christianity because he thought its god would be the most help to him in warring with other Roman factions; and like John of Patmos, who came up with the Book of Revelation as a diatribe against Gentiles following Jesus, the backer of the Book of Revelation saw a way to use the book for his own political ends.

Bishop (now Saint) Athanasius was a fourth-century bully whose self-righteous crusade was to define the Catholic church narrowly, and to save it from any writing that he considered heresy.  He wheedled.  He threatened.  He coerced.  And, after a time, he realized that old Patmos’ scary book could be repurposed.  The Book of Revelation, Athanasius insisted, was the story of what would happen to anyone who adopted the writings that Athanasius wanted excluded from the canon.

Hitchens would say that this all-too-human misuse of religion proves that religion is nothing but hokum, false promises, and oppression.  To dismiss religion for that reason is tempting, just as it is easy to dismiss religion because so much of it is so obviously created by self-interested hucksters, or to dismiss people because of their human foibles.  In fact, religion may deserve to be dismissed; but, to do so for Hitchens’ reasons is too facile, too easy.  For now, rock me, Anathasius.

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Frank Bruni: Not Every Critic Can Be A Columnist

Did you ever watch the guys play basketball on the public outdoor courts in the West Village?  These guys are regulars, and usually, they have the right to the court because they’ve been winning games all day.  They’re incredibly good, but they’ll never play in the NBA.

There’s no word (except perhaps for the now-suddenly-tarnished “exceptionalism”) for the indescribable magic that separates the incredibly good from the great.  And yet, it’s that magic that sends one basketball player to the pros and another to the asphalt courts (or, one pianist to Carnegie Hall and another to leading boozy Barry Manilow singalongs at the Duplex).  Yet, somehow, we all know the difference.

The New York Times has consistently found or groomed remarkable opinion columnists.  These writers have an imposing combination of skills:  They have the nose for an interesting angle, a gargantuan inventory of facts and anecdotes seemingly at their fingertips (I mean, how do they manage to remember that quote from Henry Kissinger that fits so completely into a story about Chick Fil-A?), a polemecist’s instinct for debate, and to varying degrees a dry sense of humor to leaven the commentary.  Oh, and of course they can write.

Frank Rich was a master commentator (still is, at New York Magazine) who started out as a theater critic and was moved by the Times to the editorial page.  Not being above the show-biz tradition of “if they liked it once, they’ll love it twice,” the Times brought Frank Bruni over from restaurant reviewing (he’d also been their Rome bureau chief).  Perhaps they were seduced by his very funny and insightful memoir, “Born Round.”  (In fact, in his email to the staff announcing the move, Bill Keller explained that Bruni was moving to the Sunday Week In Review because the publication of his book would burn him as a “spy in the land of food”).

That was in May 2009.  Frank started as a columnist a year ago, in June 2011.  As former Mayor Ed Koch would say, how’s he doin’?

Like those schoolyard basketball players, not bad, but not great.

Frank Bruni is a fine writer with a breezy style and a distinct point of view, but he isn’t a polemicist.  Rather than building an argument from a wealth of data, his columns are more like news stories:  New York City has added more parks in the past 15 years; a lesbian is running for Congress in Wisconsin; this year’s presidential election will be all about mega-fundraising.  The columns don’t weave together an argument from an array of interesting and illuminating facts….mostly, they rely on well-trod information from the day’s headlines.  And, most important, they don’t come to strong conclusions, let alone the sort that might spark Monday-morning water-cooler conversation.

The best examples would be the columns that tackle the largest issues – the big, Shakespearean themes that underlie the headlines – and particularly those that do so through the lens of his own distinct view as a gay man.  Here are a couple.

In one column, he took on right-wing politicians’ hypocrisy on the issue of homosexuality.  Not an easy topic on which to plow new ground.  Unfortunately, he framed the issue by devoting the first half of the column to Bristol Palin’s opposition to same-sex marriage (Bristol Palin?  In 2012?), admitting she’s an “easy target,” and analogizing criticizing her to shooting a moose from a helicopter…but going on to explain that she “perfectly distills the double standards and audacity of so many of our country’s self-appointed moralists and supposed traditionalists: hypocrites whose own histories, along with any sense of shame, tumble out the window as soon as there’s a microphone to be seized or check to be cashed.”  Okay!  Now we’re talking.  Name some names, Frank!  Unfortunately, the rest of the column is limited to observing that (a) Rush Limbaugh hired Elton John to perform at his wedding; and (b) Mitt Romney is ”holding back” on this issue because Republican donors don’t want the party to be tied to narrow-minded theocracy.

In another column, he took on what promised to be a fascinating topic:  Hungary’s retrograde tilt toward oppressing Jews and gays.  His support for this thesis, though, consisted of an interview with a Hungarian woman and a “going nowhere” bill that would have classified homosexuality as a “perversion,” but which was not supported by most Hungarian citizens.  Not bad for a population that Frank describes at the onset as “10 million people with a tropism toward beer and a talent for brooding.”

Most recently, Frank is taking up the jokey style of his colleagues like Gail Collins.  In this week’s column, he approaches the (unfortunately, one-dimensional) fact that some pollsters are surveying possible 2016 presidential votes.  He weaves in comical metaphors (“Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee so close they might as well be tucked into the same sweater vest”) and outlandish projections of the 2020 race (Sarah Palin combines her candidacy announcement with the “debut of her Wasilla lounge act, ‘Rock & Rogue, and the rollout of a signature eyewear collection at LensCrafters nationwide”).  But, there’s no “there” there.  What does it mean that pollsters are surveying 2016 votes?  What should we take away from that?  (And, what is this fascination with the Palins?)

Here’s my take-away.  The long tail of Internet creativity means that more people than ever – bloggers, hyperlocal journalists, YouTube video commentators – are honing their edge of commentary.  One of them will have that undefinable magic.  That one should be writing for the Times.

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Google, Why Have You Abandoned Me?

I do not “app.”  I do not play Words with Birds.  My phone is not smart.  I am out of place among the hundreds of fellow commuters who use expensive electronic devices to play Solitaire.  The only tablet I use is my daily dosage of baby aspirin.  As for pads, I leave that to your imagination.

(Really, these things are so small they should be called tablet-ettes).

My only electronic devices are a work-issued Blackberry phone and a Windows computer.  And, that is the reason that Google thinks I don’t exist.

Over the years, I’ve relied…maybe that’s too weak a word…my life has depended on two Google products.  First, Google Desktop, which magically keeps a searchable record of every Web page I visit, every document I create, and every email I send or receive.  This is a Godsend for those of us who are memory-challenged.

And, second, iGoogle, a vaguely smutty-sounding Google home page that gathers together all of my RSS feeds and bookmarks.

(Clearly, this is not MY iGoogle page.  After at least ten lessons, I still can’t follow the game of cricket).

Google, however, has decided that Google Desktop and iGoogle are no longer needed in this age of apps.  Google Desktop has been phased out, and iGoogle will be gone next year. Can dinosaurs cry?

So, before they are lost forever, here are the blogs, feeds, and bookmarks that are on my iGoogle page, and why I love ‘em.

ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY:  I love walking tours.  These blogs are like taking a walking tour with a friend who can take you to the coolest places and explain just why they’re so cool.

Nathan Kensinger Photography:  This brilliant madman sneaks into the decaying hidden corners of New York City, brings back photos, and uncovers the history of the location and how it came to fall on hard times.

Forgotten New York: For thirteen years, Kevin Walsh has explored the forgotten alleys, cemeteries, neighborhoods, and odd historical vestiges of New York.

Scouting New York: Nick Carr works as a movie location scout, and for that reason has his head up when most folks keep theirs down.  He creates elaborate, lovingly-researched articles…for example, where all of the exterior shots in “Annie Hall” of “Taxi Driver” were taken and what is at that location now, or the magical mystery of First Avenue and First Street (and what that ship captain’s house is doing up on roof of a building there).

THE TRAVEL BLOGS:

The Everywhereist:  When Geraldine was laid off from her desk job, she decided to begin tagging along on her husband’s constant business travel….and to turn her experiences into a gut-bustingly funny, charming, and life-affirming blog.  She is my blogging hero.

Candice Does The World:  What is a single, fun-loving gal to do when she loses her day job?  Make a deal with the under-35 party-travel company Contiki, go where the fun is, and blog about it!

THE FRIENDS:

Roger Ebert’s Journal: I call Roger Ebert a friend, because he interacts with all of the readers who post comments on his thoughtful and sometimes controversial blog.  Until I read his memoir, I had no idea that the more laid-back half of Siskel & Ebert had led such a rich life of intellect, travel, and deep friendships with directors and actors.  Now, of course, he does not speak or eat, and much of his passion, curiosity, and wit goes into his blog.

Doing Lines:  The exploits of the print designer turned interaction designer Barbara de Wilde, who I call a friend because if I don’t she’ll bop me in the head while we are sleeping.

AND MORE:

The Underground New York Public Library:   Ever taken a bus or train and tried to sneak a peek at what book another rider is reading?  This blog takes surreptitious photos of New York subway riders reading books, figures out what the book is, and then gives links to libraries and book sellers who offer that book.

Theater Extras:  Or, as we like to call it, butts-in-the-seats-dot-com.  Theater producers have extra seats.  You have a butt.  For $99, join this service that offers free seats to theater and music events that are looking to fill the house.

Abbey Road Cam: Pure mindless fun.  Watch in real time as tourists cross the zebra-stripe crossing outside Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles album cover was shot.

Even more fun than the Pier 39 Sea Lion Cam.

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My Very Own Jew! (continued)

So, if I were to have a heart to heart with my very own Jew, Yisroel, it would go something like this.

Yisroel, my Reb Yid, I am a secular American Jew.  That is, I have a warm kinship for other Jews, but I do not practice the faith, and the religion itself remains a mystery to me.  Although I was a Bar Mitzvah, when I was called back to temple a year later, I told the rabbi that I had become a Buddhist.  I did not marry into the faith.  I eat cheeseburgers.

It seems I’m not alone.  According to the National Jewish Population Study (for which the last data are from 2000-2001), ten years ago Jews represented less than two percent of the American population.  Of those, more than half married outside the faith.  And, of those, only 20 to 30 percent raised their children as Jewish.

This is puzzling.  The Jews that I know all feel a strong connection to Judaism, at least as an ethnic group.  Jews are a vibrant and successful part of our country’s culture and economy.  (Outdoors life and sports, not so much).  So, why do we treat the religion so indifferently?

Here’s what I think.

There is not a lot of what the Internet marketers would call “stickiness” to the Jewish religion. Among other reasons (and putting aside monotheistic ethics and the community of Jews), the core of the religion seems to be obedience and tribalism, neither of which is attractive to many modern Jews.

As for obedience, a “righteous Jew” is one who obeys the mitzvot (commandments), of which there are 613 (though most of them do not apply to modern American Jews).  Unlike the commandments of most other religions, the reasons for these mitzvot do not seem immediately logical or emotionally powerful:  From the most well-known (the kosher laws, which despite later rationalizations, did not derive from ancient health codes) to the most obscure (mitzvah #491, you must break the neck of a calf by the river if there is an unsolved murder), many of the commandments seem arbitrary and illogical.  Even more confounding, the mitzvot have been analyzed to death for two millenia by yeshiva bochers and rabbis, who have created a massive oral tradition of even more prolix and granular sub-rules (one example being, you can create an “eruv” area that is exempt from certain commandments by running a wire from trees and telephone poles).

Thus, the day-to-day practice of Judaism is one of obeying a host of laws, which often are divorced from any obvious logic or emotional power.  My guess is that this religion of obedience does not sit well with modern Jews, who come from a culture of independence and skepticism.

As for tribalism, let’s face it:  Our religion is a tribal religion that was born from tribal conflicts.  Philistines, Babylonians, Romans, Egyptians – we fought ‘em all. King Josiah assembled the Torah in about 600 B.C.E. as a political screed, which presented the history of the Jews as the history of the Kingdom of Judah (and its historic king, David) rather than the Kingdom of Israel.

Whether because of this tribal heritage or because Jews have often been under attack for the two millenia since, Judaism is now an us-vs-them religion.  Orthodox Jews are exceedingly insular…don’t try to buy a Hamentaschen in a Crown Heights bakery if you’re not wearing payes.  Jewish philanthropists focus their largesse on helping the Jews.  Jewish mothers pray for their kinder to marry other Jews.  My guess here is that this “is it good for the Jews?” tribalism also is not particularly appealing to modern, assimilation-minded, liberal-thinking American Jews.

Obviously a secular Jew is still a Jew.  For example, Albert Einstein was not an observant Jew, but he referred to his “Jewish soul” and believed in a non-personal God-force present throughout nature.  As to the more orthodox part of Judaism, he made clear that he had “no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.”  If Judaism is to survive, maybe it needs to survive more as a set of values, an instinctive feeling of Jewish soul (nefesh), and a supportive community, and less as a set of commandments and an insular tribe.

So, Yisroel, I won’t be putting on the tefillin.  But, you’ve made me think. For that, I thank you.

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