Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to be alone in a crowd

One of the things I like about New York is that, for the most part, one can do things on one's own without feeling like a pariah. Along the same lines, it's socially acceptable to be neither outgoing nor hostile, merely low-key and self contained. But even in New York, I have gone into a bar at the end of a not-so-great day, ordered a whiskey and settled in to sit and stew only to have some patronizing old man be all, "What's the matter, honey? It can't be all bad!" No, it can't, but being condescended to makes it that much worse.

Today after work I spent way too much time getting to Brooklyn's central public library, where Jonathan Franzen and another New York author were giving a free reading and talk. I had no idea what the setup would be and whether I needed to get there super early to get in at all, and I arrived a good 50 minutes before the start time. Also scoping the scene were dudes with uncool backpacks and unkempt hair, making no effort to look detached. Ah, nerds. Hello fellow travelers. I got my ticket, ordered a quick dinner at the cafe in the library and sat down to eat alone, over a book -- amongst several other people who were doing the same thing. Bliss. When I went back downstairs many of the seats still available were between people who had also come alone, many of whom were either reading or writing as they waited for the program to begin. I sat between two of them. We did not talk.

The reading itself was also calming and wonderful. Franzen got a reputation for being an asshole a few years ago when he was the only author to turn down a chance to be part of Oprah's book club. When I raved about The Corrections, people (okay, an ex boyfriend and his bestie, but other people too) said 'but he's such a dick, blah blah' but I wasn't saying anything about whether he was or not. I had never met him. I had no opinion on his personality. I just liked the book. And I liked How To Be Alone, an essay collection that followed it and is more personal. On stage, Franzen was ... actually quite engaging, funny, charming even. He laughed at his own jokes a couple of times, like Ira Glass used to in the early years of This American Life. During the Q&A, either he or the other author made a point about how seriousness is often confused with snobbery. Myself and my unfashionable fellow travelers, we didn't cheer our agreement, just pondered and nodded, and smiled ever so slightly.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguis

I've been a vegetarian for almost 13 years, but I ate part of a chicken dumpling the other day.

It wasn't on purpose. All the others were vegetable, so I had no reason not to dunk the last one in ginger sauce and take a bite. The taste, texture and overall sensation appalled me so that I think I will stay a vegetarian for another 13 years, possibly for as long as I live. And for that reason, I will never be a serious restaurant critic.

Reading Ruth Reichl's account of her years as the New York Times restaurant critic didn't make me want to eat meat, but it made me wish that I wanted to. I want to introduce friends to the wonders of organ meat, savor well-prepared fois gras, take the 7 out to Flushing for the perfect red-cooked pork belly and crispy chicken, be all-knowing about the cemitas and pernil of Bushwick and the bracciole of Caroll Gardens.

Sometimes Reichl writes about food as an end in itself, but more often it's an allusion to a memory or experience. And ultimately, the book is really about the experience of being a woman -- lots of women. Reichl learns early on that the Times critic is recognized in all of New York's fine-dining restaurants and so, with the help of an old friend of her mother's, she creates several elaborate disguises, each with a whole persona and even a back story to go with them. Chloe, with her champaigne-colored bob, red nails and little black dresses, speaks in a breathy voice and admires the wine knowledge of the men who vie for her attention. No cab ever passes her by. Brenda's bright, crumpled clothing, long messy red curls and warm disposition draw strangers to her, even in New York. Betty, with her grey hair, stoop and sensible handbag, is all but invisible everywhere she goes. Reichl never talks about feminism, never makes a point about how society has no use for unattractive women. As with all of the best show-me-don't-tell me writing, she doesn't have to.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

I had been coveting this book for at least a few months, but it was only when I rediscovered the joy of a library card that I got hold of it. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich, a woman I very much admire, takes on so many things I absolutely cannot stand: prosperity gospel, pink-ribbon breast cancer culture, The Secret, even Oprah herself here and there. The central thesis of this book, so far as I can summarize it, is that the positive thinking craze that is the common thread through these hated trends represents yet another way our society is moving away from reasoned empiricism to a more malleable way to look at "reality." And that that trend is not good for us long term, because it encourages us to downplay serious problems when we should be marshaling resources to fight them head on.

As one might imagine, this is a helpful lens through which to view the recent real estate downturn and financial crisis. Being a former real estate attorney (and current devoted Planet Money listener), I'm pretty familiar with the basics of how all that went down. But I was especially impressed by the way Ehrenreich drew a line from the evolution of CEOs from ruthless but efficient technocrats to visionary shamans who glorify gut instinct over ledgers and tough decisions, to the growing economic disparity between average workers and top earners, to the growth of motivational speeches and personal coaching, to the idea that we shouldn't be resentful of those earning 300x what we do because, hey, we could be that rich one day.

I also love her biting humor, particularly when she's describing her own breast cancer diagnosis. Her complaints about grown women being given teddy bears and boxes of crayons are funny to be sure, but she also shows how stressing the need to think positively in order to beat cancer can become a form of victim-blaming, not to mention demonstrating pre-Feminine Mystique ideas about how illness should be handled.

I could go on and on. I won't. This book is wonderful, and so needed.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

things I must do

My library books are due on Wednesday.

Before I return them, I want to write a post about Kingdom Coming, by Michelle Goldberg, and Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich. The theme will be: if you're going to say something, just come out and say it, and use facts to back up what you're saying. If you're going to equivocate and make every paragraph about "while I'm not saying it's like this ..." and then say it's like that, and then take it back again -- just don't bother. Make a claim you can stand by.''

It will also be about how my dream in life is to be more like Barbara Ehrenreich.