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More… “Tent”

Dave Mondy is an award-winning travel writer, as well as the writer/performer of many one-person shows. His production “This Love Train Is Unstoppable and I am the Conductor” won the Best Solo Comedy award at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. His monologues have appeared on Minnesota Public Radio, and he has penned scripts for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. As an actor, Dave shills for corporations like Kemps and Best Buy.
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The ethereal myth of the Old South
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Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.

Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the South. More… “Whistlin’ Dixie”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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Exhibition labels – those little placards on the walls beside the thing part of the art – are no longer optional to conscientious looking. In the imagined past, we might have taken in a landscape and breathed, “Isn’t that lovely? Just look at those brushstrokes!” But the priorities of contemporary art have foreclosed on this option. We might even go so far as to define contemporary art as that species of aesthetic work (as opposed to modern, folk, etc.) for which the label is as important as the specimen. Otherwise we risk missing the conceptual forest for the material trees.

Since the 1990s one of the more dominant strains of new work has been a technologically-oriented conceptualism that — if it doesn’t dispose of humanity altogether: the bodily, the gestural, the domestic – finds its importance only in the way those bodies have extended themselves through technology, a technology well-removed from the state of nature, the nuts-and-bolts of existence, anything a patron could begin to brim sentimental over.

Such art is often interested in incorporating materials not typically found in an art gallery, at least not 25 years ago: open source models, industrial units, server platforms, new plastics. At its best, such work lays bare the hidden cables that stitch our new world together, make us suddenly hyper-conscious of the pattern of which we form a part, an invisible part. Exhibition labels are doubly important in such work: without the ideas behind the work, which almost always require spelling-out, we have nothing.
More… “Immaterial Worlds”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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I recently finished college and a competitive, labor-intensive internship. I’m going to be starting a new job in a couple of weeks, but instead of feeling proud or relieved to have completed my studies, I feel nervous. Why does The End seem so ominous?  
— Patrick E.

   

Well, as the old adage goes, the end is the beginning of something else. It is the beginning of the unknown — that’s why it can be so scary. That’s why it can fill us with unease, but remember that we would get bored if life were predictable. We love the unknown in books, for example. We love movies that shock and awe, stories that end with a twist. We love poems whose endings make us hoot in delight:

“Endings”

Part II

Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)

We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy’s padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing’s minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
“I can’t bear it! I have to see how it comes out!”
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space–
how often I’ve followed yours!–for a resting-place.
And I’ll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death’s, to find the end of the story.

(Mona Van Duyn)

Life is a loop of beginnings and endings, stories copious as crossbars on a roller coaster. Roller coasters scare the living daylights out of me, but sometimes my husband can convince me to ride one with him (not in the least considering the other passengers whose eardrums I might burst with my desperate pleas to STOP THIS RIDE!  STOP!  STOP!  STOP!). I’m glad when it’s over, but I know that in the future my husband will persuade me on another ride. I have no idea how he does it. I am acutely aware that a mishap, no matter how slim the chances, could kill me, though maybe some part of me enjoys being terrified.  Maybe some part of me loves that jolt and thrill, hearing that scream that comes from the depths of my fear. Fear is good, most of the time. Anyway, Patrick, you are at a precious juncture in your life. Good things have passed and good things will come. Just enjoy the ride.

Thank you to the many people who have supported this column in various ways. I’d like to extend a special thanks to my mom and dad, Jeff Seglin, Jason Wilson, Dr. Sunshine, Liz Bury, Allison Brown, and my husband, Gamal. • 28 June 2011

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.
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BUT UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU ATTEMPT TO PET ONE!
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On this day in 2007, Barry Neild wrote about his fear of a real-life Planet of the Apes. Two years later, Andrea Calabretta told the story of how her love for cute primates led to an unfortunate encounter with and subsequent wariness of the furry creatures. It seems as though we have a history of stories about close encounters of the simian kind posted on October 5th — read them both and keep it going.

More… “Primate Instincts”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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In the Soviet Union, the name of the game was denunciation. One person would denounce another. A third person would denounce the second, i.e., the first denouncer. And so it went, the denunciations resulting in the executions of countless citizens, many — perhaps most — of them innocent. Others were sent to Siberia, which was simply a somewhat slower death. The game was an infinite recursion or regress, and if Boris Yeltsin had not mounted a tank to announce the end of the system, at some point there would have been nobody left to guard the crowded prisons. More… “The Soviet Illusion”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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But only one ghost to write the book.
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When It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us was published in 1996, the book was met with the kind of response that a serious nonfiction writer dreams about. The ideas presented in the book became the topic of conversation across the land, politicians and commentators felt obligated to respond to it, it won awards, including a Grammy for its audio book edition, and it became so ubiquitous, both in sales numbers and in impact, that it started to become heavily parodied.

Any writer would be thrilled. Moved, even. And yet this particular writer also has to watch while someone else, taking credit for her work, takes all of the credit.

Hillary Rodham Clinton may have won the title page and the cover image (and the Grammy), but at best she was just one of many voices filtered through the actual writer. It Takes a Village was, of course, ghost written. The of course is the same “of course” attached to any book by a politician, major celebrity, or woman credited with one of those young adult series about pretty, wealthy white girls and their adventures that spits out 15 books a year. But it’s a delayed “of course.” It takes us a moment to look at the book, the author’s name, and come out with “but probably not.” Otherwise it would not have caused a minor controversy when Rodham Clinton admitted she did not do the actual writing per se and Barbara Feinman Todd stepped forward to take some of the credit. More… “To Be a Ghost”

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
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No thanks to him...
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I’ve smoked a lot of weed in my day. Blunts with boys on stoops in bad neighborhoods, metal pipes with middle-aged Buddhists, roaches with an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank at a Dead concert, and gravity bongs made out of POM bottles. I would never classify my avocation as an addiction. But perhaps an appetite? Something old Aristotle might say is “the cause of all actions that appear pleasant”? I’d say so.

One would assume that a philosopher would approve of such appetites. Weed does, after all, inspire thinking, pondering, concluding — all that good stuff. But reading a line from his Rhetoric gave me a twinge of uneasiness, as though an assumed supporter no longer stood by me. He writes, “A ‘criminal act’ … is due to moral badness, for that is the source of all actions inspired by our appetite.” More… “Toked Affection”

Emily Callaghan‘s work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia magazine.
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Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston shows children a Kodak.
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In January, Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11 documents in U.S. bankruptcy court. Its debts exceeded its assets by approximately $1.7 billion. The New York Stock Exchange delisted it. Three weeks later, the company announced that it will stop making digital cameras, camcorders, and digital picture frames some time this year in an effort to cut costs and further reduce its workforce. Apparently Kodak believes there are people somewhere who will still buy whatever it will still be selling at that point, but according to all the experts, the company that created a mass market for personal photography has officially morphed from viable commercial enterprise into picturesque curio, another victim of the Internet’s punishing economies.

   

Like many other media behemoths that fell before it, Kodak had trouble embracing the notion that the products it had sold effortlessly and profitably for so long would become worthless so quickly. So a few horny geeks had started trading 256-color images of old porn mags on CompuServe. So what? So digital cameras were getting cheaper and more powerful. Who cares? Hundreds of millions of people around the world weren’t going to just stop buying film overnight. “You come back in 10 years, there will be a film business here,” a Kodak executive told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2009. Six months later, the company discontinued the last remaining version of its iconic Kodachrome line.

“They were a company stuck in time,” Ryerson University professor Robert Burley explained to Bloomberg News. But if any company should have recognized what 2012 would be like in, say, 1988, Kodak should have. After all, it pretty much invented 2012 in 1888. That was the year that company founder George Eastman introduced the Kodak No. 1, catalyzing a new way of looking at the world, a new mode of existence that would make Kim Kardashian a millionaire and Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire.

As Alexis Madrigal explains at The Atlantic, Kodak referred to this new mode of existence — in which a camera or some other recording device is ever-present; in which making images, consuming images, and other forms of self-documentation and self-curation are major aspects of one’s life — as Kodakery. Unfortunately for Kodak, it wasn’t able to maintain the sort of proprietary hold on this mode of existence that the name suggests. Even in 1888, Kodakery (or as we might more generally call it, snapshot culture) was too big an idea for just one company to control.

The first production camera model, the Daguerrotype, was manufactured in Paris 50 years earlier. It cost 400 francs or approximately $50 at the time —  the equivalent of $1,190 in current U.S. dollars. It and all the accompanying equipment it required weighed 120 pounds. The cameras that followed in its wake were similarly expensive, heavy, and hard to operate. Film didn’t exist yet. Images were made on glass plates inserted in the back of the camera after they’d been dipped in a bath of chemicals in a nearby darkroom. Once a plate was exposed, it had to be developed in a matter of minutes. The chemicals involved were toxic and messy, the process exacting.

All of this meant that photography was limited to a narrow sector of humanity — wealthy and meticulous he-men, essentially, who could afford the necessary equipment and had the strength and patience to make it work. The Kodak No. 1 changed things. At $25, it wasn’t cheap but at least it was cheaper. The camera weighed just under 2 pounds. Most profound, it did away with glass plates and messy chemicals and came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, which the camera’s operator would not have to develop or print himself. The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co., as Eastman Kodak was then known, would take care of all that. “A division of labor is offered, whereby all the work of finishing the pictures is done at the factory, where the camera can be sent to be reloaded,” an 1888 Kodak advertisement exclaimed. “The operator need not learn anything about photography. He can ‘Press the button’ — we do the rest.

In her book Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Nancy West, an English professor at the University of Missouri, explains that the Kodak No. 1’s 100 pre-loaded exposures represented “probably over 10 times as many photographs as the average middle-class American family owned at the time.” Photography may have been an extraordinary technology, but its scope was mainly limited to whatever could be shot in a dedicated photography studio. Its output was limited by the fact that only a relatively small number of practitioners possessed the skill and equipment to produce images. 

But the studio portrait was about to give way to the snapshot. The studio portrait was deliberate, posed, static. The snapshot was casual, spontaneous, improvisational, panoptic. Even in a controlled environment like a studio, taking 100 images in a single session with a camera that used glass plates was a virtually impossible feat. The Kodak made it a routine matter, even in the harshest environments. In 1892, for example, explorer Robert Peary took three Kodak cameras and 23 rolls of film with him on his 1892 expedition to Greenland; he managed to produce more than 2000 photographs of what the New York Sun described as “superior excellence.” In a letter to W.P. Buchanan, the vice-president of the Columbia Photographic Society in Philadelphia, Peary explained that he had never before used a Kodak, “knew nothing of practical photography,” and attributed the success of his picture-making efforts to Kodak rather than his own talent. (If it sounds like he was angling for a spokesperson’s gig, he might have been: Kodak would incorporate his story into future ads.)

Did the Kodak’s capacity to document the world so exhaustively create mankind’s desire to take 2,000 pictures of snow? Or did it merely allow mankind to finally realize a dream that had always existed inside him? Either way, 19th-century consumers loved the Kodak. In the wake of the No. 1, George Eastman marketed a series of follow-up models in rapid succession, and each one was cheaper and easier to use than the one that had preceded it. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie, a camera so simple the company claimed that it could be “operated by any school boy or girl.” It cost $1. Six-exposure film cartridges, which could be loaded into the camera in broad daylight, cost as little as 10 cents.

By 1905, Kodak had sold more than 1.2 million cameras. During this period, Nancy West writes in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the company’s advertising focused on “the sheer pleasure and adventure of taking photographs…capturing subjects in candid moments…recording travel to exotic places.” Many ads focused on outdoor leisure activities: hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring a lake in a canoe. “Take a Kodak with you,” these ads insisted. On a one-off basis, these ads seem pleasant enough, with their pastoral imagery and mild, folksy imperatives. In aggregate, however, they begin to seem comically oppressive in their insistence that the Kodak should play a central role in every American’s life: “Make Kodak your family historian.” “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing.”

In 1888, the Hartford Courant lamented the new ethos Kodak and its customers were pioneering. “The Kodak has added a new terror to the picnic,” it opined.  “The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday-school children. And the young fellow who wishes to spoon with his best girl while sailing down the river must keep himself constantly sheltered by his umbrella.”

To a certain degree, there was pushback against the new breed of camera snoops and their new power to document the world. In 1893, for example, the organizers of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition imposed a $2 fee on amateur photographers who wanted to bring their Kodaks to the Fair. In 1898, two American tourists were arrested for taking photos in Cuba. The first roused the ire of authorities when he took a snapshot of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine, which, earlier that year, had suffered an explosion of famously undetermined cause and sank in a Havana harbor. The second photographed a group of local children outside his hotel. He was jailed, his film confiscated to prevent the publication of images that would illustrate the abject conditions under which the subjects of Spain were living in Cuba.

But if one or two people were jailed, if thousands more were unfairly taxed, well, that still left millions more. Armed with portable and unobtrusive cameras and an infinite supply of film, they weren’t all just going to take charming snapshots of baby elephants and frowning toddlers. A new culture of surveillance began to evolve in America. In 1899, for example, a New Jersey laborer sued a woman who’d hired him to work on her farm but allegedly failed to pay the wage she’d promised. Things were going well for the laborer in court until the defendant produced a photograph of the laborer that had captured the true nature of his work habits: He was husking corn in the middle of a cornfield while sitting in an armchair! In 1900, a Republican politician in Baltimore recruited a team of 12 volunteers armed with Kodaks to discourage illegal voter registration tactics by the Democrats. The same year in Corning, New York, Kodak-wielding prohibitionists began compiling photographic evidence of hotels and saloons that were illegally selling liquor on Sundays.

In courtrooms, on the front pages of newspapers, in family living rooms, the snapshot established itself as the ultimate form of truth-telling. Ostensibly snapshots caught life as it happened. A studio portrait may have produced a startling likeness of its subject, but it was an obvious artificial construct. Individuals wore their best clothes in portraits. Their postures and expressions were deliberately chosen to convey specific qualities and values. Multiple exposures were made to increase the chances of capturing a person in his or her best possible light. Cropping, retouching, and other forms of manipulation might be applied to the final image.

Snapshots, in contrast, were spontaneous and informal, produced with no apparent forethought or calculation. And they  were thought to be natural, true, revelatory even. In his 1991 essay, Kodakers Lying in Wait: Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885-1915, law professor Robert Mensel explains how photography journals advised the era’s aspiring paparazzi that newspapers paid “fully twice as much” for candid snapshots of famous people as they did for studio portraits. “A photograph of a person’s facial expression, taken while that person was unaware and consequently not that self-conscious, was thought to be the surest way to capture the subject’s ‘real’ feelings, character, and personality,” Mensel writes.

As the 20th century progressed, a Kodak was the presumed antidote to a rising tide of Hollywood cowboys and corporate hamburgers, a populist defense against press agents, Madison Avenue, and all the other shills of mass-produced image-crafting. It could penetrate veils of publicity and marketing. It could slip behind the scenes and expose the real story. Because it was so closely aligned with notions of authenticity and truth-telling, the Kodak helped establish gawking as a legitimate activity. An inveterate ogler who might have once been challenged with an aggressive “What are you staring at?” could now confidently answer, “What have you got to hide?”

The Kodak turned millions of people into amateur ethnologists and investigative reporters. In 1902, an American expatriate opining in the pages of the Mexican Herald complained that tourists “armed with Kodaks” were wandering through a local cathedral and taking snapshots of worshipers engaged in prayer. “Oh, isn’t she a sight?” one of them reportedly exclaimed to another upon spying a withered old Indian woman dressed in rags. “You bet she is,” the other replied. “You don’t see things like that in the States. Wait and I will get her.”

The hunt for the authentic turned the world into a giant stage set and its inhabitants into props. Ironically, what began as a participatory, user-driven phenomenon helped pave the way for the passive voyeurism that would characterize 20th-century American culture. Kodak got us used to a life of media abundance, a life of looking. And while amateur “camera fiends” may have pioneered the new ethos of intrusiveness in the late 1880s, professional media practitioners ultimately proved at least as adept at delivering the authenticity the public demanded. Think of Weegee racing around Manhattan in the 1930s to snap photos of murder victims with his Speed Graphic before the police even managed to arrive. Think of the mid-century tabloid Confidential, which published unflattering snapshots of celebrities on its covers and promised “uncensored and off the record” tell-alls about Frank Sinatra’s fling with a call girl or the time that an already-sauced Robert Mitchum stripped naked at a Hollywood dinner party and “sprinkled himself” with a bottle of ketchup.

In the early days of snapshot culture, unwitting models often protested when their images were appropriated by entrepreneurial photographers and enterprising corporations. In one example that Robert Mensel recounts in Kodakers Lying in Wait, a teenage girl named Abigail Roberson “suffered a severe nervous shock” (and then filed a lawsuit) after discovering that the Franklin Mills Company had printed her portrait on 25,000 sacks of flour it was selling in stores, warehouses, and saloons in the area where she lived.

Over time, however, America’s capacity for exhibitionism began to match its capacity for voyeurism. And then to exceed it. There were so many two-timing hermaphrodites and racist nudists eager to expose the intimate details of their lives that not even Oprah, Phil, and Jerry could accommodate them all. In literary memoirs and gonzo porn tapes alike, the unrelenting candor of our overmediated era grew so commonplace that it began to seem simulated even when it wasn’t. To compensate for this glut of self-revelation, extraordinary measures were necessary to deliver moments that delivered the charge of the convincingly authentic. People began to eat hissing cockroaches for cash prizes on network TV. Convenience store assaults caught on surveillance cameras were presented as prime-time entertainment. Private sex tapes featuring famous or at least semi-famous individuals were leaked on the Internet.

How did the company that made it OK for 19th-century peeping-toms to gape at “half nude and innocent bathers” at Coney Island not figure out how to capitalize on all of this? Why, after teaching America that “a holiday without a Kodak is only half a holiday” in 1908, did it leave it to Mark Zuckerberg to teach America that lunch without a status update is only half a lunch? Ultimately, Kodak’s problem wasn’t that it was stuck in the past. Its problem was that it wasn’t paying enough attention to the past. Had history’s greatest peddler of memories and nostalgia utilized more hindsight, it might still have a future to contemplate. • 10 February 2012

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.
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James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman completes his two-volume biography (Frank: The Voice was volume one) of the man widely regarded as the great interpreter of American popular song. While Sinatra has already inspired a library of books, no one else has succeeded as well as Kaplan in teasing out the complicated relationship between the singer’s life and art. Reached by phone in New York, Kaplan was happy to discuss the results of his ten-year effort to document a public life that stretched across more than six decades. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

RA: Reading Sinatra: The Chairman, a quote of Joni Mitchell’s about David Geffen kept springing into my head, which is: “He’d have to spend a lot less time being generous if he spent a little being fair.” Maybe in Sinatra’s case, the word “fair” should be changed to “sensitive to other people,” or “reasonable.” I don’t know what word you want to put there, but could you explain the relationship between his incredibly legendary generosity and the sort of difficulty he could have in treating people around him well? More… “Under Our Skin”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.
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Framing memories with flowers and frills.
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Page one of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain a cardstock minivan pasted onto a gray chalk outline of a Virginia highway. A photo of my face would be slipped into the driver’s window, and my hands would be cut out and pasted to a cardstock wheel at a sturdy 10 and two.

Renting a minivan to get to the Chantilly, Virginia, convention had been an inside joke with myself about going undercover as a scrapbooker for a story on the scrapbooking phenomenon. But the joke turned on me (as inside jokes with yourself usually do) when I ended up finding the van on the way to the convention to be a comfy and spacious drive with enough bass to make it sound like Jay-Z himself was carpooling with me to the convention. By the time I arrived at the center, I realized I didn’t look any more rocking than the average scrapbookers filing into the center, and I hadn’t even had to work at the outfit (a pony tail, a dated cut of jeans, and a tank top I’ve outgrown) to look like someone who spent her money almost exclusively on scrapbooking supplies.

Page two and three of my scrapbooking-weekend scrapbook would contain photos of the inside of the expo center. Most of the women on the floor looked happy to be out of the house for the weekend, walking around the expo in tennis shoes and generous applications of drugstore-pink blush with their elderly moms, their daughters, or their girl friends, and if their T-shirts were to be trusted, they knew exactly what their husbands and other non-scrapbookers thought of their hobby, and they lived to scrap anyway.

So despite my aesthetic aversion to everything scrappy (bubble letters, paper doilies, glitter glue, ferry stamps, posed portraits, close families) a crowd made up of individuals capable of feeling excitement at the discovery of the perfect cropping tool was endearing. I spent the day walking through all the aisles, where I watched vendors demonstrate ways to “jazz-up” prom pages and make military service layouts “pop,” and then I sat down in the cafe (not to be confused with a café) that sold hot dogs and nachos, and there I watched — a little too intently to be polite — a woman devour a can of energy  pudding. She wrote something on a keyboard when she was done, and her middle-aged daughter read the computer screen and laughed. 

If they enjoyed scrapping, I thought, more power to them. For some people it looked like organizing and embellishing photos was a soothing, fun way to organize their familial and personal histories. Some people conduct symphonies, or paint, or dance, or tie fishing flies, or share at AA.  I try not to be the kind of person who begrudges anyone a form or a forum that provides them a sense of release.

The busy aesthetic of scrapping started to make me dizzy, though. When it comes to layouts, I’m comfortable with white space. When it comes to photographs, I think a well-captured frozen moment in time is arresting on its own.  So when I saw one vendor selling a plastic flip-flop kit for sewing together a book of large sized flip-flops to collage photos on to, I walked outside the convention hall for some sunlight.

The sidewalk outside was misplaced and didn’t fully lead to a destination, and some scrapbook convention attendees were driving the couple of hundred feet from their parking spots to the pack of fast food joints closer to the freeway. On page four of my scrapbook I would cut out the skyline dominated by a business park of buildings with tinted windows, a cluster of drive-thrus, and a Hooters.

And on page five I would jazz things up with a dye-cut parking lot filled with paper-piecing license plates to represent the inordinate amount of personalized license plates in the convention center parking lot: 1GODMOM, HOTXBUN, VELMA3, HAPIME, 1ONTHEGO, GS LDR, NOONISH, PAY4WRD. Some plates were held by personalized license plate holders; “Disney,” “This is not a minivan, it’s a shopping cart,” and, alarmingly if it were parked anywhere else except outside a craft booking expo, “Cutting Queen.”

On the concluding pages of my scrapbook, I wouldn’t be at the expo.  The page six-seven spread would contain a matte photo of me sitting on some concrete steps in Alexandria where I would be waiting for a locksmith, after somehow managing to lose the house as well as the minivan keys on a walk.  It might seem off topic to include a large photo of me locked outside of the house in suburban Virginia where I was dog sitting in a scrapbook that was supposed to be about the scrapbooking conference, but here I would be employing a device, scrapping off topic in order to illustrate a theme, and the theme as usual would be memory. 

We — scrapbookers, non-scrapbookers — work obsessively on the narratives of our lives all the time.  We cling to a story about the past and the future, and we embellish and run it compulsively like we’re flipping through the pages of a scrapbook we just can’t get enough of.

I had no interest in considering the past that had led me to the point of being locked out on the steps, and the immediate future seemed a little rough; I didn’t really want to think about finding a tow truck for the minivan, or how I would pay the $240 for an emergency lock smith to unlock the house so the dog, Doogie, and I could have a place to sleep. So I tried to drop my dumb personal story for a while and just look across the street.

But without a story about the past and solid plans for the future, who the hell are you? Letting it all go for a second felt like a release, but it also felt a little like a death, and I know why scrapbookers and the rest of the world have an aversion to it.

Then a mother opened the screen door of the house across the street and started to interrogate her kid, who apparently had said the “F” word in the yard and been told on.  “Who did you hear that from?” she asked. 

“No one,” he said. 

“You don’t hear that from no one,” she said. “Who?”

“No one,” he said, and began to cry as she grabbed him by the crook of his armpit and started to yank him home. 

“Who did you hear that word from?” she kept demanding, and by this time he was crying with shame and holding his free hand over his eyes.

Then right there on the sidewalk he leaned in to hug her thigh.  She kept walking and dragging him anyway.  He wanted to be comforted by her, even though she was the one making him cry.  And she was still mad at him, because I guessed she wanted him to grow up to be a good person, and in her mind a good person was not the kind that said “fuck” and then refused to tell his mom who he heard the word “fuck” from.

I don’t even know how you would capture that in a scrapbook.  Maybe you would embellish the border of the final spread with some journaling carried out with an acid-free pen. I guess though, if you had the mentality of a scrapbooker, someone interested in organizing the past to make it look like fun, and in order to create a cute keepsake, you might have to leave out a lot of the uncertain parts of the past and probably a lot of the little scenes where you cried. • 22 July 2008

When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at emilymaloney@yahoo.com.
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While I was pregnant I hoped for a child who, once born, would leave me alone. Sure, we could stand up on stools and sift flour into a mixing bowl together, or run out into the yard to blow bubbles, and I definitely wanted to spend time with my nose buried in some baby hair, but for long stretches of motherhood I hoped to recline on the couch with a magazine, lulled into quietude by the sounds of my child playing at my feet, moving little plastic sheep in and out of a toy barn.

More… “The “A” Word”

Aileen Jones-Monahan is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. Her mother cut the cord off the television when she was a kid, so she spent a lot of time reading and fashioning “helpful” inventions from junk drawer tidbits. She enjoys these activities to this day. After the birth of her sons, she added napping and eating in bed with the door closed. Her essay “Cigarette Ash in the Frying Pan” was published in the last issue of Hip Mama, and she has work forthcoming in Green Prints and Curve. Keep up with her here.
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Home to treasures, gems...and horrors.
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Like many of the pieces I write for Foodstuffs, this is a combined story of love and revulsion.* But unlike those pieces, this doesn’t reach back into history to pluck out Victorian funeral cookies or pre-microwave bachelor foods. No, this month I’m writing about recipes that are much more recent, but still forgotten — the recipes that fill locally produced cookbooks of the 70s and 80s.

I own a small collection of these cookbooks; I purposefully keep it small, because for every good recipe I find in them, there are usually three more that simply amount to mixing a canned soup with something else from a can and putting cheese on top. You’ve probably seen the cookbooks I’m talking about — you might even own one. Produced as fundraising projects or to celebrate a particular town’s “cuisine,” these typewritten or dot-matrix printed, spiral-bound collections have traditionally served as a great way to discover that your neighbors have terrible taste in food. More… “Cooking Local”

Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, Table Matters, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She’s currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.
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Cock-a-doodle-news!
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The origins of the limerick are vague
But the style came after black plague.
And in today’s modern age
This boyfriend may wage
Spats in rhyme, though his girlfriend may beg.
(Stylisticienne, The Smart Set)

Let’s take a critical eye to the profane and the obscene. (Los Angeles Review of Books, The Smart Set)

What’s the value of paper in the digital world? If you’re biting your nails over the imminent demise of the paper book, relax — technological doomsayers have been around for ages. And before you hit send on that e-résumé, consider putting your skills on paper. (National Endowment for the Humanities, The Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the assistant editor of The Smart Set. She is a journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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Brush off the cedar shavings first.
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I have been known to eat foods that others snub. As a student, I lived off back-of-the-store, reduced-price vegetables and fruits. Day-or-more-old muffins and danish were a treat. My best company dish was a cheap and tasty enchilada casserole that I made with chicken necks and backs. So it was only natural I should one day undertake a real gastronomic adventure. I should try to eat a pet, a nice small one. A guinea pig would do, and the place to accomplish that was Peru where cuy, as guinea pig is known, was said to be a staple of the traditional diet.

Of course, I didn’t travel to Peru just to challenge the frontiers of dining. It had long been my dream to explore the cloud-crested ruins of Machu Picchu and to glide upon Lake Titicaca in a reed boat. I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. I wanted to experience the Andes. I wanted to try a dish so repellant that I could brag about it for the rest of my life. No matter that the furry beasts were the hapless servants of science, or that my sister and I once kept them as pets, or that every single person I spoke to curled his face in revulsion when I announced my intention to dine on a creature normally at home on a bed of cedar shavings. The more folks made retching motions, the more I rubbed my palms together with anticipation over a dish of something I imagined as a kind of mammalian Cornish game hen. I pledged to myself that I would consume cuy and then return home to triumphantly proclaim to my sister that I had eaten Fluffy.

How fondly I remembered my sister Judy’s sweet-tempered little calico guinea pig. Fluffy loved to be held and stroked. We had a tea parties for her. We made her salads with tough outer lettuce leaves. Fluffy nibbled on carrot tops and rabbit pellets. She didn’t exercise much, but neither did anyone in our family. She lounged through a placid life until we felt she needed a mate and introduced Mickey into her cage. A hefty albino, Mickey had beady red eyes, a nasty attitude, and a pair of tusks that drew more than their share of our blood.

The match, I think, was cruel one. I have often regretted it. Therefore it would have been more fitting to imagine myself biting into the hostile Mickey in retribution. But I imagined him as bitter and tough. There would be no pleasure in his degustation, none of the delight of eating Fluffy.

In Peru, I learned that cuy was prepared in a number of ways. You could make it stuffed and roasted, piquant and quartered, or flattened whole and fried. And while my host family in Cusco, the Mariscals, never served it at almuerzo, our main midday meal, cuy is said to be widely consumed in Peru. According to the author of Unmentionable Cuisine, veterinarian and food expert Calvin Schwabe, cuy provides over 50 percent of Peru’s animal protein. Many people raise guinea pigs at home, and others buy them killed and cleaned in the meat section of the market. Ask a Peruvian if he or she eats cuy, and you will hear that person wax sentimental about the way his or her mamá prepared it – just the same way an American will rhapsodize about Mom’s apple pie or fried chicken. Still, as much as the Peruvians boasted of their favorite cuy fricassee or roast cuy, not once did I see an Andean or a Criollo actually eat cuy.

So why should my mind and guts rebel before a carefully prepared dish of pet? Was I just too ethnocentric? Did I think it barbaric or taboo? If I were starving, I would probably see things differently.

 

Cuy is by no means the most stomach-turning thing one can consume. In some parts of the Amazon jungle, people eat monkey, an animal whose genome is too close to human for my taste. Apropos of the human genome, food writer Jen Karetnick, who has done considerable research on Peruvian witchcraft, reveals that in some remote areas of Peru certain cooks may stir stew with a human femur or scrape bits of skull into a marinade of fish. Karetnick explains that this is part of a spell-casting ritual, adding that the use of human remains in cooking is strictly illegal in Peru. Good to hear that since fish with skull is another no-brainer for me. But in the Andes, what did I eat unawares? There’s a mystery.

The issue of cannibalism or quasi-cannibalism aside, food tastes and food taboos are relative. The Chinese eat cat and dog. Moses declared that locusts were kosher. The Japanese challenge death by indulging in the poisonous fugu fish. The Philippinos drink and chew the delicacy of balut, the nearly mature embryo of a chick cooked in its shell. And what about haggis, the stuffed sheep’s stomach so dear to Scottish palates and my own? I did not want to be ethnocentric. I wanted to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, a pet that, unfortunately, also happened to be a rat.

Rodent eating, however, is not unheard of even in America. Squirrel is a classic ingredient in Brunswick stew. In some parts of New Jersey, fire companies and churches hold muskrat dinners. On the Internet, you can find recipes for muskrat, or marsh hare, as it is sometimes known. I also found a recipe for rottweiler with sweet potatoes. But I digress. The Peruvians think it is bizarre and hilarious that Americans keep guinea pigs as pets.

For the first two weeks in Peru I demurred when it came to cuy. I dined on ají gallina, a spicy chicken stew, and lomo saltado, a yummy stir-fried beef dish gilded with french fries. I particularly liked alpaca, a meat which I found a little chewy, but very tasty. Grilled and attractively plated, it looked just like scallops of beef. At most every meal I ate choclo, the bland, starchy, mega-kernelled corn that is a staple of the Peruvian diet. It didn’t taste as good as it looked, but served with a chunk of salty cheese — a bite of choclo, a bite of queso — I learned to like it better. I developed a fondness for mana, a kind of giant marshmallow-sized sweetened popcorn, a popular snack you could buy from street vendors. Peru, of course, is the birthplace of corn and potatoes, and one is served spuds of all types: yellow, white, purple, dried and reconstituted, and then some.

It was not until I was in the town of Aguas Calientes, a maze of repetitive souvenir shops, restaurants, and hostels that served the budget tourists to Machu Picchu that I bellied up to the challenge of eating guinea pig. It was now or never, I thought, for after Machu Picchu I would journey on to Lake Titicaca, and I didn’t know if I would be able to order cuy there.

This was February, the height of the rainy season. In Aguas Calientes, torrents Niagara’d off the awnings of the shops and restaurants. Deluges turned the staircase-like streets into tributaries of the Urubamba, the river that roared and rushed through the town and by the base of Machu Picchu. The town itself is called “Hot Waters” after its thermal springs, which are popular with the younger hikers. While my traveling partners, Michelle and Nancy, dared the spa, I passed, being fastidious, if not about eating strange things, then at least about stewing in a pool of backpacker bacteria. The rain had put a damper on our spirits. We did not look forward to hiking the ruins during a downpour, but magically the skies cleared the morning we were to visit Machu Picchu, and I even saw a flock of green parrots wing by a mountainside.

Never discovered, hence never destroyed by the Spaniards, Machu Picchu stands in silent majesty along the eyebrow of the rainforest. We spent a glorious morning exploring its emerald agricultural terraces and its common, royal, and sacred precincts. It was a sublime and strenuous visit. By the time we returned to Aguas Calientes, we had worked up an appetite. It was time for my next adventure. It was time to try cuy.

Together we searched for a suitable restaurant. We dismissed quite a few: too expensive, too pretentious, not clean, no guinea pig, overly expensive guinea pig. At last we settled on a homey little place called El Candamo, mostly because of its comically mistranslated menu, which was headlined: “Plates to the pleasure give the victim.”

Here, the Roasted Alpaca, or Asado de Alpaca, was known as Roasted He/She Gives German Nickel. Trout Roman-style, or Trucha a la Romana, was Trout to the Roman One. Milanesa de Pollo, or Chicken Milanese-styl,e became Milanesa Gives Chicken. Then there was my favorite: Milanesa a la Napolitana de Res, or Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head. Michelle ordered trout. Nancy asked for spaghetti. Though I regretted having to pass up that Milanese and Neapolitan combo, I went for the Cuy al Horno. Oven-roasted cuy. It cost 32 soles or about $10, and I watched with some trepidation as the cook took the small prepared mammal, lay it on a shallow white tray, and slid it into a wood-burning clay oven. Soon after I finished my Cusqueña beer, the dish was ready. The waitress smiled at me ironically.

Fluffy lay on the plate congealed and scorched, paws up, claws and head on, ringed with papas fritas, a huge log of choclo, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. The garnishes surrounded her the way flowers garlanded the body at a funeral parlor. Fluffy was helpless. Her hind legs were splayed in indignity. Her orifices winked at me. Lest one take her for a pig, her two pairs of chisel-like incisors classed her at once in the order Rodentia. Fluffy had bits of herb over her eyes. Her mouth was frozen into an unmerry rictus, that sarcastic grin born by Death who always has the last laugh. “So, living stiff,” she chortled silently, “eat me. I dare you.”

The body of the cuy was pierced at various points to let the fat run out. With much difficulty I split it open with the dull table knife. Inside there was a dark green stuffing, made mostly of parsley and flavored with various herbs. It was potent and aromatic, but as I dipped in a second time, I came up with a fork of noodle-like stuff; the animal’s intestines were mixed in with the green. So much for the stuffing. I took a deep breath for courage then cut and mostly combed at the meat with my fork. It was a labor- intensive dish. I found I had to separate the thin sheets of meat from the leather and subcutaneous fat. After giving Michelle and Nancy as much as they would accept – about two teaspoons each, I tried the meat. It was pungent, perhaps from the herb stuffing. There was a slipperiness to it. It was stringy and chewy and tasted like pork. And that was enough cuy for me.

Partly out of respect for my companions, partly out of respect for the corpse, I drew some tiny flimsy restaurant napkins over Fluffy’s face and body. Thankfully Nancy was generous in sharing her spaghetti, and Michelle gave me some of her guacamole. The Cusqueña beer helped. All that plus a serious loss of appetite made for an adequate lunch.

My friend, Odi Gonzales, who is not only a noted Peruvian poet but also a genuine ethnic Inca with a passion for cuy, later told me that you are supposed to pick up the cuy whole with your hands and suck the meat off the thin bones. You then draw out and discard any bones that end up in your mouth. Clearly my knifing and forking had not contributed positively to my rodent-eating experience. I thought of the waitress at El Candamo and her sly smile. It must have been routinely funny to see the tourists struggle with the varmint. In her heart I think she knew that I would have been better off with the Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head.

Those of us who are not vegetarians eat dead things. This is the common fact. If you accept that humans are omnivores, which I do, we as a species kill and cook so that we may eat and live. I have never had much patience for sanctimonious vegetarians who tell me that morally I should be able to kill a cow if I want the right to eat steak. Nevertheless, there is something shocking about the frankness of seeing the cooked body entire. Of seeing the thing with its teeth. Many people, said Dr. Schwabe, have a bias against eating an animal served whole. Some will not eat fish with the head on or roast suckling pig. Well, it was that, of course, but it was also that the darn thing was a rat. As far as the gastronomy of disgust goes, I’d give whole roasted guinea pig at least an eight. So when it came time to report to my sister about eating Fluffy, I had to confess that I had eaten her, but not very much.

On the other hand, I obtained a new degree of self-knowledge. I discovered that when it came to eating strange things, I was not as brave as I thought. Some might even call me chicken.

Yet, if you, too, wish to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, you may want to know how to prepare cuy. I came across this recipe for stuffed guinea pig in Peru.

You will need:

one clean guinea pig

onion

ground chili pepper and ground red chili pepper (both very spicy)

cooking oil

parsley

oregano

mint

huaycatay (an herb that tastes and smells like a blend of black mint and marigold)

walnuts

salt

butter.

The recipe, obviously not one for the beginning cook, instructs you to open the guinea pig ventrally, then to salt and drain it. After salting and draining, remove the organs and intestines, but do not wash the cuy anymore. Parboil the innards separately, then pierce them and dress them with onion, chili pepper, and oil. In another container, prepare a finely chopped mixture of the parsley, mint, oregano, huaycatay, walnuts, and salt. Combine the mixture with the cooked organs and intestines and stuff all that back into the body cavity of the guinea pig. Coat the guinea pig with butter and ground red pepper. Place the critter in a roasting pan and cook it in the oven “until it’s done.”

Revised American instructions: First, go to a pet store…. • 17 September 2007

Lynn Levinteaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her published works include four collections of poems, the latest of which is Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013) and a craft of poetry book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013).
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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is Birds and Humans – A Curious History. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselearville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Recently, while packing for a move, I came across a letter that Gore Vidal sent me from his home in Ravello, Italy, in the late 1990s. Vidal, a slight acquaintance, had provided me with a blurb for my book Up From Conservatism and we corresponded a few times and met once. I had forgotten about this letter, and on deciphering the handwritten scrawl on monogrammed blue paper I found Vidal complaining that a critic who had panned one of his books in the New York Times had been hosted the following weekend at their seaside home in Connecticut by Vidal’s arch-rival William F. Buckley, Jr. and Buckley’s wife Pat. Whether this occurred or was Vidalian paranoia, I cannot say, though given the interlocking circles of that world, anything is possible. After all, at one of Bill and Pat Buckley’s parties I met Tom Selleck, whose career break came in 1970 when he played a young stud propositioned by the elderly Mae West in the X-rated movie version of Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. More… “The Empire of Gore Vidal”

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ANATOMY OF WONDER
When I revisited Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, I expected to find formidable scholarship. I didn't expect to find a literary experience.
BY STEPHEN AKEY
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On the first page of Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Northrop Frye irritably dismissed the “conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manqué … sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the ‘impotence’ and ‘dryness’ of the critic, of his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on.” As a critic himself, Frye might have been a bit touchy on the subject, but he had nothing to worry about on that score. It’s a rare novel that has anything like the “creativity” of Anatomy of Criticism. While few people care overmuch about the debates that roiled English departments in the years when Frye reigned at the University of Toronto (1939 to 1991), readers coming to Anatomy of Criticism for the first time might be surprised at what they find: a work of formidable scholarship, yes, but with a huge cast of characters (seemingly every writer who ever lived, from the tribal scribes of Mesopotamia to P. G. Wodehouse) moving in a dense network of interconnectedness in which every end is a new beginning, and genres as various as melodrama, farce, epic, satire, and romance live happily together on the same page. It’s rather like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, but with good prose. More… “Anatomy of Wonder”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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A pro-surfer friend described Sayulita as a kid-friendly artist hamlet where you can surf in warm water year round, gorge on heaping plates of Mexico’s best fish tacos for two bucks, and have your morning latte. I was on the prowl for an unsanitized destination to get my son, Kai, his first passport stamp (which meant no Club Med within spitting distance). Yet I also craved a reasonably safe vacation spot to relax with my four-month-old baby. As it turned out, Sayulita fit the bill.

Though the community originated as a coconut harvesting and fishing village, after the highway from Puerto Vallarta was completed in the 1960s, surfers — hearing rumors about an epic right and left reef break — sojourned to Sayulita for waves without the masses. Today, Sayulita, located on Mexico’s newly rebranded Riveria Nayarit, is one of those beach towns that travelers whisper about for fear it will wander the road of Mexico’s other former fishing “villages” (locals are adamant about their hamlet not becoming another Cabo or Cancun). Yet even as the town swells with enough American travelers that I scratched my head and wondered how so many people know about this intriguing mix of surfers, funky galleries, local families, gourmet eateries, and rich Mexican culture, Sayulita still feels like a secret. More… “Shifting Expectations in Sayulita”

Michele Bigley is a world traveler, travel writer, and public speaker. She writes guidebooks about California and Hawaii and has contributed her travel writing to national and international outlets. She was a featured travel expert for CNN’s On the Go.
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Collaborators in life and love.
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In my first real music history class, I was confronted with a disturbing fact: I couldn’t name a single British composer. In a get-to-know-you exercise our professor asked us about our homes and histories, and then connected them to music. You’re from Louisiana? Tell us about the history of cajun and zydeco! Your family came from France? Name some French composers for us. Circling around the room, my professor stopped at me.

“Where are your ancestors from?”

“As far as I’m aware, my ancestry is almost entirely English.”

“Name a British composer!” More… “Labor of Love”

Mary Sydnor was managing editor of The Smart Set and is now a writer based in Baltimore. She has also written for Table Matters, Philly.com, and the Philadelphia Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @_MarySydnor.
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The Four Justices (2013) by Nelson Shanks
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Nelson Shanks, acclaimed American realist painter of celebrities and officials ranging from Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana to Bill Clinton and the first four female U.S. Supreme Court justices, died late last week. Shanks studied art and architecture throughout the country and world, before eventually founding Studio Incamminati School for Contemporary Realist Art in Philadelphia. Most recently, his controversial claims about his portrait of Bill Clinton and a mysterious shadow resurrected the Lewinsky scandal, to the chagrin of his wife’s presidential campaign.

More… “Nelson Shanks (1937-2015)”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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When I was a teenager I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Instead of taking this beautiful book as a path to something useful, like a career in theoretical physics, I mainly used it as an excuse not to tidy my room. And I don’t mean I sat there screaming “Mum! Not now, I’m reading a book!”: if I understood it correctly, A Brief History of Time said that tidying my room would (in an absurdly, ridiculously tiny way) hasten the end of the universe. Surely, I argued, a tidy room wasn’t worth that…

That the argument was asinine should go without saying, but an argument can be asinine and still technically correct. More… “Don’t Tidy Your Room”

Uri Bram is the best-selling author of Thinking Statistically and writes about very big ideas and very small questions.
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In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

More… “Struggling Through”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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...a lifeline.
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He swiveled around on his bar stool and leaned close to me and put his hands down my shirt. They gave off little sparks. I leaped off my stool like someone escaping flames.

“What the fuck are you doing? I’m married?”

“So what?”

He obviously had no respect for the institution.

More… “The German Guy”

Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) winner of a Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown, (Mammoth Books), a 2009 National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story “Yalla!” set in South Sudan, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She is director of the Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.
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That's what she said.
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I am interested in Anthony Weiner’s wiener and so are you. Here’s why: Anthony Weiner has been behaving in such a way as to undermine the public career that he is, quite obviously, in love with. Weiner is in love with politics, he is in love with power, he is in love with being a public figure, he is in love with the things he can accomplish as a Congressman. He wants to keep his job and he wants his career as a politician to grow. He is also in love with doing naughty things that, by their nature, threaten the other things he loves. We’ve all been poked to a greater or lesser degree by the horns of this dilemma, and so we are interested when we see someone else getting poked, too.

   

But there are always those who say that commentators should keep their interests to the abstract realm of issues, debates, politics, and policy. Both Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker and Glenn Greenwald of Salon have come out in the last few days with columns decrying the lack of substance that surrounds Weinergate. Greenwald claims that Weinergate “sets a new standard: the private sexual activities of public figures — down to the most intimate details — are now inherently newsworthy, without the need for any pretense of other relevance.”

I will leave it to someone else to draw out the complicated connections between Greenwald’s sometimes holier-than-thou political writing style and his inability to understand that the private sexual activities of public figures “down to the intimate details” do not need  “other relevance” to be inherently relevant. The private sex lives of public figures are inherently relevant because it is fascinating to observe human beings acting strangely, or acting as we’ve always suspected that they are acting, or doing things counter to their own interests, or messing up, or ruining themselves. Consult Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky for more.

Perhaps the definitive defense of the relevance of Weiner’s wiener can be found in Ron Rosenbaum’s now-classic article for Harper’s from 1983. Rosenbaum was defending the New York Post in an article he called “Why Alexander Hamilton would have liked Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.” The Post, as we should expect, has been all over the Weiner story, writing classic headlines such as “Weiner is Shrinking” when Weiner’s staff was trying to keep him out of the public eye, and “Weiner hung out to dry – Fellow Dems keeping hands off Anthony’s expanding scandal.”

Rosenbaum is highly approving of such Post headlines and anticipates, in his 1983 essay, the disapproval of the Hertzbergs and Greenwalds of the world. Rosenbaum writes:

[T]he people who unthinkingly make fun of the Post and its concerns are the victims of a serious intellectual misconception, a kind of kneejerk gentility, a schoolmarmish journalism-school mentality that sees the only fit subject of “investigative reporting” to be official misconduct, bureaucratic sins as opposed to those of flesh and blood.

The attitude that Rosenbaum is criticizing here is exactly the one recommended by Glenn Greenwald (who can be, by the way, a very good investigative reporter). But Glenn doesn’t always do so well with flesh and blood. In complaining about the coverage of Weinergate, Greenwald writes, “Can one even imagine how much different — and better — our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter?”

Perhaps. Perhaps our political culture would be better if journalists ignored the wieners. But it wouldn’t be about us, about the human beings that I see before me on the streets, the ones I have been living with and of whom I count myself a member.

Rosenbaum makes one more point in his essay. He reminds us of a question Alexander Hamilton once asked: “Has it not been found that momentary passions … have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?” Yes, that fact has been found. It has been found time and time again. The lesson of it, nevertheless, eludes us almost as rapidly. We know about the passions, we know that we are creatures of the passions, but we pretend that it would be possible to erase those passions and become creatures of pure reason.

We can all understand, I suppose, Glenn Greenwald’s wish that matters of policy, utility, and justice were of preeminent concern. We can understand it, but we know it is not true to the reality of human experience. We’ve learned in the last few days that Anthony Weiner would rush with bated breath from his latest important vote in Congress to get to the locker room nearby where the next important work of the day could begin, that being sexting with his lady friends. That short trip from the halls of Congress to the House Members gym is a journey through the deepest pathways of the human soul. It is a journey from reason to passion, from the realm of policy debates and public interest to the realm of sexual desire and pubic interest. That journey from the House floor to the House gym is a lesson in how we are, if not always how we want to be. The New York Times may be the paper of record for the first part of the journey, but the New York Post is most definitely the paper of record for the second. A true story of human behavior in all its facets requires both. As another New York Post headline about Anthony Weiner put it so eloquently, “The Beat Goes On.” • 15 June 2011

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
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I'm a man whose pants are not on fire
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It’s 1827, and you’re a social Englishman. Among fellow English gentlemen, you sit discussing the disappointment that was Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man. Bored with the subject matter, you excuse yourself for the evening. But as you rise from a fine mahogany chair, a hot sensation erupts in your pants pocket. Your trousers are immediately engulfed in flames, and you have to strip them off in front of a room full of astounded guests. Horrified, you slink away, running near-nude to your home as your wife awaits your return. She inquires, “Where are the matches? I’ve been waiting to light the stove for dinner.” This is your third pair of trousers ruined this month. Your wife is not happy. You could have died, and you’re fresh out of pants. It’s 1827, and friction-lit matches were recently invented, but a vessel for transport that will prevent them from igniting pockets or bags won’t be invented for another year.  More… “Pocket Protector”

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 
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A student reading poetry aloud in 1950s Mexico
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The proxy war in Syria between Russia and Turkey is only the latest of many clashes between these two great powers. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 left its mark in Anglo-American literature and culture, when it inspired the British songwriter Percy French to write “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” a comic ballad about the fatal duel between an Ottoman soldier and a Russian soldier:

The sons of the Prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear,
But the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul Abulbul Amir …

Now the heroes were plenty and well known to fame
In the troops that were led by the Czar,
And the bravest of these was a man by the name
Of Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

More… “The Re-Enchantment of Poetry”

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Cultural critics generally place themselves at a distance from material culture. They may critique the world, but they don’t seem to inhabit it.

But why shouldn’t those of us who parse culture also celebrate it — acknowledge that we make choices all the time about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furniture we put in our homes? Why shouldn’t we, in other words, make recommendations regarding products and services that we think are unique, useful, or otherwise commendable?

“We’re IN society, aren’t we, and that’s our horizon?” as Henry James put it. In a consumer society, we want reliable recommendations regarding products that can improve our lives. At the same time, we tend to be suspect of product endorsements. We are aware that advertisers will use whatever means they can to sell — from testimonials by famous people to ingenious product placements to the incorporation of skepticism itself into their messages (i.e. couturiers who stitch “waist of money” into their garments). But if someone like myself, who has experience deconstructing culture, sets out to explain the value of a product, shouldn’t that carry weight? I realize, of course, that this could be seen as a more sophisticated advertising ploy, but that’s the mise en abyme of salesmanship and a risk you have to take.
More… “This Product Will Change Your Life”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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THE FACE OF THE EARTH
Earthworks, new and ancient, and the art of disappearance
BY STEFANY ANNE GOLBERG
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On the day we went to see the Great Serpent Mound, the rain plunged from the sky. Lightning shot down to the cornfields and made the cornfields roar. Everything was dark. Guides recommend that you come to the Serpent early or late in the day, when shadows alongside it are deep and the winding shape becomes bolder. But on the day we visited, the whole of Ohio was shadow, save the neat green grass of the Serpent’s skin, which was oddly bright.

When the first European settlers came to farm southwestern Ohio, they found earthen lumps scattered all around the land. They did not know what these lumps could be — some farmers went about flattening them, others farmed around them. In the 1840s, a local doctor and a newspaper editor from the town of Chillicothe investigated the mounds. They discovered wooden structures inside, built to house the dead of Native tribes whose names are lost to us now. Jewelry and effigies were placed around the cremated remains to keep the spirits company. Then the Mound Builders covered over the structures with layers of soil and sand. As the generations passed, new dead were buried on top of the old, and more earth was put on top, until the mounds grew higher and higher and the little wooden structure collapsed within.
More… “The Face of the Earth”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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Everyone has a first time. My initiation into the sublime and absurd world of grand opera came not with my attendance at a legendary performance or under the tutelage of an impassioned connoisseur but through a chance encounter with a bizarre musical experiment conceived by Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and craven self-promoter. It happened like this. One day in the mid-‘80’s I was half-listening to an innocuous pop ballad on the radio when there arose from the drum machines and synthesizers a surging female voice unlike any I had ever heard — or at least paid attention to — before. As the aria, which turned out to be “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly, floated over me, my only thought was: How can anything be so beautiful?

I wish I could say that from that moment I became a passionate convert to all things operatic, but in fact I went on listening to rock ‘n’ roll and even now have got around to only a dozen or so works in the operatic repertory. Yet one of those works is Madame Butterfly, and if on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version — identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans — I might never have known grand opera at all. Although I no longer need to listen to opera with the electric guitars, drum tracks, and pop vocal choruses so helpfully provided by McLaren, I occasionally go back to Fans to marvel at its audacious and bizarrely sympathetic settings of some of Puccini’s most sumptuous music. More… “A Fan of Fans

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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Yes, you can eat fruit for every meal.
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During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city.

After I had the pallets out on the dock, I’d root around the crates and baskets and boxes. This is why I didn’t eat breakfast — after all, I had this fruit smorgasbord all to myself. I might cut up a cantaloupe or honeydew or watermelon with my pocketknife, or just grab a handful of cherries or peaches, squirting juice all over my hands, then wiping it off on my t-shirt. I’d spit pits and seeds off the dock, or toss them across the lot trying to hit a truck trailer. My general thoughts were: You can’t eat fruit all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.

At the age of 12, all seemed clear and good in the world, and I assumed fresh produce would be my life’s work. But that was not to be. My father sold out his share of the business to my uncle when I was 16, and my job at the stand no longer existed. Soon enough the stand itself was no longer, as my cousins turned it into a successful, modern brick-and-mortar market.

As I grew older, I began to think of those early summer mornings, sitting alone on the loading dock, gorging myself on fruit, waiting for the work day to begin, as quite possibly the closest moments to pure happiness I have ever experienced. Perhaps that is what I’m trying to recapture during my current late summer fruit binges. Or perhaps that’s just the writer in me trying to justify why I’ve decided to eat fruit for dinner.

In any case, I get ridiculously excited any time a fruit finds its way into a savory dish. I am willing to admit that I have unabashedly embraced all food trends involving savory fruit: grilled watermelon, pineapple in tacos, melon soups, blueberry barbecue sauce, apple slaw, that whole strawberries-in-salads fad.

One thing I’ve always loved about the Italian table is that meals so often begin with melon and prosciutto. But beyond that classic pairing, there is a whole category of savory fruit dishes that surprised me on a recent trip to the Alpine wine region of Alto Adige (or Südtirol, as its German-speaking citizens call it).

There, in the town of Appiano (or Eppan as the German speakers call it), at a restaurant called Pillhof, the waiter informed me that the day’s special was risotto ai mirtilli, or blueberry risotto, a traditional dish of Trento and Alto Adige. I didn’t even look at the rest of the menu. When the dish arrived, the rice had a bright purple hue, and was served with a tiny lamb chop on top and garnished with blueberries. I was in heaven.

When I returned home, I delved deeper into fruit risottos, and saw that this was far from a novelty dish. In my research, I found traditional recipes for strawberry risotto, apple risotto, and pear risotto, among others. I even found a contemporary risotto recipe that called for…melon and prosciutto. To anyone who loves risotto, this is probably not too shocking. Risotto, after all, can famously be made from just about anything — seafood, mushrooms, greens, saffron, truffles, wine, beer, you name it.

So, as summer winds down, I bring you three fruity recipes. As with all risotto and pasta recipes — think of these as a template. With a little experimentation, I can envision fresh honeydews or plums or nectarines in place of the berries and cantaloupe.

I know I intend to experiment a little more. After all, you can’t eat fruit all day, unless you have it for dinner, too. • 2 September 2014

Tips for making risotto

Be patient and zen-like. Risotto can take 20 minutes or more to make, and requires constant attention and stirring. You’ll notice that all of these recipes call for a little wine. The rest of the bottle is for the cook. This will help the time pass.

Make sure you add the stock to the rice little by little, never drowning your rice and never letting the liquid completely dry out.

Make your own stock (vegetable, in the case of these recipes). You will thank yourself for this.

Be sure to use the correct rice, either Carnaroli or Arborio — no Uncle Ben’s here. I highly recommend Carnaroli rice, hailed as the “king” or “caviar” of Italian rices. If you’ve only used Arborio in the past, do yourself a favor and try Carnaroli.

With risotto, the rice should be served al dente, meaning it should be tender, and should be neither too crunchy nor too squishy. Taste the rice as you go along to make sure you don’t undercook or overcook it.

Serve and eat risotto the moment it’s finished. Call people to the table as you’re finishing your final stirrings.

Melon and Prosciutto Risotto

Ingredients

6 cups vegetable stock (below)
4 tablespoons butter
½ medium cantaloupe, peeled, seeded, and coarsely grated
2 shallots, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup mascarpone
2 ounces prosciutto, chopped
Pepper

Instructions

Bring 6 cups vegetable stock to a simmer.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add cantaloupe, shallots, and garlic. Cook, stirring, until liquid is thickened, 8-10 minutes. Add rice and white wine, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take about 20-25 minutes.

Once rice is finished, stir in mascarpone and prosciutto and season with pepper to taste.

Serves 6

Recipe adapted from Cassy Vires, Home Wine Kitchen, St. Louis.

Risotto alle Fragole (Strawberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
7 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
1½ cups dry white wine
8-10 medium strawberries, hulled
1 cup light cream
Salt and pepper

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Melt half the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated in butter. Pour in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed.

About halfway through the cooking time, mash all but two or three of the strawberries with a fork and add the mashed berries to the risotto. Set the remaining strawberries aside and continue stirring in the stock until it has all been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is almost tender, stir in the cream and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with strawberry slices.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Risotto ai Mirtilli (Blueberry Risotto)

Ingredients

About 6 cups vegetable stock (below)
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups Carnaroli rice
¾ cup dry white wine
1¾ cups blueberries
½ cup light cream
Salt and pepper
Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated (optional)

Instructions

Bring the stock to a boil. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large pan, add the onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened.

Add the rice and stir until the grains are coated in butter. Sprinkle in the wine and cook until it has evaporated. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the blueberries and add the remainder to the pan. Add a ladleful of the stock (about half a cup) and cook, stirring continuously, until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, and stirring until each addition has been absorbed. This will take 18-20 minutes.

When the rice is tender, stir in the cream and transfer to a warm serving dish. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the reserved blueberries and, if desired, serve with pecorino.

Serves 4

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Vegetable Stock

Ingredients

4 potatoes, coarsely chopped
4 onions, coarsely chopped
4 leeks, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 carrots, coarsely chopped
4 turnips, coarsely chopped
4 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, coarsely chopped
12 cups water
Pinch of salt

Instructions

Place all vegetables in a large pot. Pour in water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly, then strain into a bowl or container, pressing down well on the cooked vegetables with a spoon. Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to three days or in the freezer.

Recipe adapted from The Silver Spoon (Phaidon Press, 2011).

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).
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A. David Moody recently completed his magisterial three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, and after roughly 2000 pages, it’s perhaps understandable that Stockholm syndrome might be playing a part in his judgements. It’s the most charitable explanation for the sheer persistent drumbeat of exculpatory lies he tells about his subject all throughout the 600 pages of Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972. There is, for example, no entry in the index to this third volume for “treason” — only “alleged treason.” And of Pound’s actions while living in Mussolini’s Italy, Moody grudgingly admits only that they “led inevitably to his being perceived as a traitor and a Fascist, when it truth he was neither.” More… “Still a Monster”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
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MINOR THREAT
Higher education's (post-)punk moment isn't the end.
BY KEVIN EGAN
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Higher education has been making the headlines a lot lately, but not because praise is being heaped upon it for the value it is bringing to the current generation of millennial students. Rather, headlines are loudly proclaiming that higher education is in danger, dying, or already dead. Take, for example, the cover of the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, which reads “Is College Doomed?” and features a wrecking ball smashing the traditional paraphernalia of academia — textbooks, notebooks, pencils, cap and tassel, and, tellingly, a football. This question, “is college dead?” is certainly a hyperbolic one that has become pervasive in the media, but it should not be all that surprising to many academics. Higher education has been in a “crisis moment” for years now, especially in light of the emergence of nontraditional forms of education that challenge some of academia’s foundational assumptions. The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and certain for-profit alternatives like Minerva (the upstart education company at the center of The Atlantic article) have shaken those foundations and, if we are to believe these headlines, will soon send faculty and administrators scurrying away from a crumbling ivory tower. It seems that all one needs to reap the equivalent rewards of a college education are access to technology and an entrepreneurial spirit.
More… “Minor Threat”

Kevin Egan is the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry in the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University.
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And a turbulent one at that.
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As I’d been saying, it’s always something else. Take roofs, for instance. You can go months, even years without thinking much about them. They’re in jokes like, “Just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace,” which considering my recent experience with a broken furnace, would be a low blow.

   

Actually, if there’s snow on the roof, it’s a good thing. That means the insulation is working and heat isn’t escaping. Or it could mean that the snow on the roof will leak, stain, peel paint — or worse.

When that starts, the first hope is that it’s just the flashing. I used to listen to a lot of home-repair programs on the radio — amazing, the trivia I store away in the file cabinet of the mind, stuffing it so that I can’t find the file concerning the whereabouts of my glasses or keys or that elusive receipt for taxes.

I was in possession of a great deal of roof trivia. It went way past metal, tar, tile, slate, asphalt, the advantages and disadvantages of each. You could — and people have — filled books with information about just slate roofs.

And I was going to need everything I knew. 

When my next-door neighbors got a new roof a year or so ago, I could hear my biological house clock starting to tick. Our houses are about the same age. If they needed a roof, I probably did, too. I figured I’d wait a year, and if they were happy with the roof work, I could get a reference.

The best way to replace a roof is to do it before you absolutely have to. But replacing — or even fixing — a roof is one of those home repairs that the homeowner given to habits of procrastination might well put off. I might and I did. For one thing, the roof’s up high and I’m down low, my eyes not much more than five feet off the ground.

From time to time I’d step back from the house in the front yard, where the garden gnome would be if I had a garden gnome and where the neighbors could watch me being a responsible homeowner. I’d stare up at the roof, sometimes squinting into the sun, sometimes with the sun at my back, which made the granules on the roof gleam. On days when the weather was mild, I’d repeat the process from the back yard.

The roof looked pretty good for its age. What exact age? Darned if I knew.

I couldn’t really tell that much from the ground. Even if I had climbed a ladder to look at the roof, I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.

I provided myself with many happy years of procrastination in just that manner. I call them happy, but they weren’t carefree. I wouldn’t have partaken in all those sessions of roof-staring if I’d been confident that the roof was sound, that it would outlast my need of it.

Roofers, used car salesmen, and members of congress have about the same level of trust in the public eye these days. However, I get to vote every couple of years, and I can do research on the car and get it inspected. A lot can go wrong with roofing.

I know enough not to pay any mind to those printed circulars offering me a senior discount on a roof, or inviting me to use my house as a demo model for the neighborhood, with finders’ fees for any referred neighbors. So I’d toss those all away, step back and take another look — wishful, hopeful, and semi-conscious that I was fibbing to myself when I said the roof was fine.

But when the wind blew a couple of shingles down into the yard, my years of procrastination were over. Truth be told, I did allow myself to wonder if those couple of shingles were actually important. I didn’t know how long they’d been there without any problem. Maybe I could ignore them?

It was analogous to finding a bolt on the floor. How did that get there? Where did it come from? Was it going to matter? If not, why had it been wherever it was in the first place? And having no answers, I’d put the bolt in a drawer just in case I needed it. They add up, those loose bolts.

Analogies, however, break down. I wasn’t going to put these shingles in a drawer, or even in the garage. I stepped back in the yard to see where the tiles came from. Did that part of the roof even matter?

On closer inspection of a shingle, I discovered that mine had been a white roof. But it was white no longer: too many granules were gone. As I tested it for strength and flexibility, the shingle snapped in my hands like a sheet of matzo.

I toured the inside of house, looking at the ceiling to hunt for a sign of damage. I don’t usually stare at the ceiling like this. Was that something up there around the vent? Yes? Even if it turned out to be the flashing, I’d still need to call the roofer who had such a good reputation.

One major decision down.

The roofer arrived, ready to climb onto the roof and tell me the news. No sense replacing a whole roof if you don’t have to, he said. When I pointed at the problem area, he said the magic word — “flashing.” He couldn’t have said anything more welcome to me. I felt a wave of good will wash over me. Golly, I was glad this company came highly recommended because this was a darned good sales method.

I hoped what he’d find was going to be better than the state of the economy; if not, I was about to “invest” (i.e., spend) what used to be called a “fair piece of change.”

He returned with his digital camera, the next best thing to being there myself. Just as well that I hadn’t made the trip on my own. He explained to me what I was seeing; it was a little like looking at my dental X-rays.

The upshot was that after staring at a brochure with names of shingle colors as poetic as those of lipsticks, I phoned the roofing company to give them the names of a few colors I liked. The salesman returned with a full complement of shingles, which he held up against the brick, partially in sun, partially in shade.

The process repeated itself: Which is better, this or that? The roofer was remarkably patient and well organized; the number of tiles in the running decreased. But the man had seen my roof — he knew that I knew, and so on.

A neighbor came over from across the street to weigh in on the color selection. After all, the neighbors would be looking at my roof more than I would. This was almost fun.

Besides, I’d learned enough to know that this roofing company wasn’t going to vanish in the middle of the job, that the workmanship of the company was excellent, that they were entirely reliable. I’m sure the ridge vent they use is exactly like the finest ridge vent that I heard about on the radio.

Even so, the best part of getting this roof was that with the lifetime shingle and the extra warrantee, I’ll never have to do this again.

I hope. • 8 February 2011

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.
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Well, not this linked....
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The first time I wrote a collection of stories, the editor changed it to “three novellas” and then a second editor changed it to “a novel.” The next time I wrote a book of stories, the publisher described it as “a novel in stories.” Nobody in New York wanted to publish short stories, although two years later there would be a boom in short stories. They should have seen it coming, but publishers are nearly always short-sighted. Not until I published a book of stories with a university press was the book actually called “stories.”

By whatever name, I love collections of linked stories. I have written a trilogy of linked stories. I call it “A Divine Comedy,” which is what the ex-wife of a main character says when she describes the off-Broadway play she has written about him. “It’s such a divine comedy!” she chirps.
More… “Chain Gang”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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This  Louis Vuitton ad ran in the print Sunday NYT next to its article on RBF.
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Every few months there’s another finger-wagging piece about models in the fashion industry. Generally, the topic is weight: the epidemic of anorexia; the efforts underway to mandate a minimum weight; praise for more robust models (more robust meaning a few pounds above malnourishment).

The other topic that crops up is age. It was recently reported that some runway models are as young as 13. This hardly seems surprising. If you search “Teen Models” online, you’ll find pages of agencies geared to this group.

But what exactly is the problem with very young models? Is the issue one of child labor? Plenty of teenagers work in theater and play sports in front of large audiences. Those activities don’t warrant outrage.
More… “Face Value”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and five bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is Suzanne Davis Gets a Life. Her forthcoming novel is Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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No problem!
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Looking for some outdoor summer fun but hate the crowds of Yellowstone, the remoteness of Dry Tortugas, the heat of Death Valley, and the obviousness of the Grand Canyon? Maybe you’d instead enjoy picnicking in James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park in Georgia. Or swimming at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Kentucky. Or walking your leashed pet through Harry “Babe” Woodyard State Natural Area in Illinois.

   

If so, you should get on that now. This is not a good time for state parks. With economic conditions making employment and education seem like privileges, recreation is hardly thought a right. Which is why the state parks make easy targets for the nation’s 50 governors and 7,382 state legislators looking to cut costs. Which is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in turn, has placed state parks and historic sites on its latest list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

According to the organization, 26 states have seen reductions in state park funding. This means cuts in staffing, maintenance, and access. A New York Times slideshow of the impact includes wistful photos of a donation box in an Arizona park, a Colorado ranger at sunset by a sign that reads “No Services Availalble in this Area Due to Budget Cuts,” a motorcycle club whose members have volunteered to mow the lawns of an Idaho park, and — perhaps most elegiac — a picnic table overtaken by a pale green sea of early summer grasses in New York.

Reductions in access to state parks is unfortunate for many obvious reasons: It lessens opportunities both inexpensive recreation and outdoor experiences; it also marginalizes such experiences by treating them as expendable. But less obvious is how such cuts reinforce the image of the state park as a kind of poor man’s national park. Would Yellowstone ever close? What a dumb question. But New York’s John Boyd Thacher State Park? Well, times are tough…

National Parks get all the glory. Last year, they were the subject of a 12-hour Ken Burns documentary. This year, they started appearing on quarters as part of the U.S. Mint’s new decade-long “America the Beautiful” series (Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Mt. Hood National Forest make up the first batch). Their dramatic landscapes come together to form the country’s natural identity.

The state parks don’t do this kind of cultural work. Their diffuse nature — the fact that they are the products of individual states and not the federal government — prevent them from taking on symbolic meaning beyond their home state’s borders. And yet as a whole, the state parks could be more accurate reflection of our national character and aspirations than their national counterparts.

Parks in the United States actually began with the states — or the lack thereof. While it’s true that Lincoln’s preservation of Yosemite in 1864 marked the first time any federal government granted natural land such protection, California initially oversaw the reserve. Eight years later, the federal government preserved what is today Yellowstone, but since Montana and Wyoming had not yet been made states, responsibility for the park fell to the Department of the Interior. New national parks were created over the next several decades, and in 1916, Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service.

The state park system is arguably more diverse than its national counterpart. This seems counterintuitive, considering the 58 national parks are made up of biological and geological features that range from volcanoes to giant sequoias, glaciers to dry deserts. But the epic-ness of the national parks gives the system a kind of sameness — a collection of Big Wonders.

State parks can at first seem a bit tame in comparison — many consist of forest, hiking trails, maybe a lake with a swimming beach. They’re meant to provide easy access to the natural world (when budget cuts aren’t reducing it, that is). None of us can visit on a whim, say, the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, formed by a collapsed volcano. But in the two free days we have each week, we can fairly easy get to Lums Pond State Park or Cherry Creek State Park or Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

But they are a much more idiosyncratic bunch. Some have surprising histories, such as New Jersey’s Parvin State Park. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the public works program that created more than 800 state parks between 1933 and 1942. During World War II, Parvin served as a summer camp for the children of uprooted Japanese-Americans, then as a POW camp for German soldiers, and later as a temporary home for the Kalmyks of southeast Europe who had avoided Soviet deportation to Central Asia. Today it offers canoeing, swimming, and picnic tables with grills.

Other parks are notable for their non-epic invocation of the epic ideal, such as Nebraska’s Smith Falls, established around the state’s highest waterfall; you may never have considered whether a place as flat-seeming as Nebraska even had a waterfall, but it does, and Nebraska thought enough of the feature to set it aside as something to look at and enjoy. Visit Leonard Harrison State Park and you can see the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. And then there’s Oklahoma’s Little Sahara State Park, whose sandy landscapes inspired allusions to the brutal African desert but whose main warning is, “You must bring your own Dune Buggy to ride dunes.”

The beauty of state parks is that you don’t need a waterfall or Little Sahara to have one. You don’t even need an area all that natural. California’s Eastshore State Park on the San Francisco Bay sits, in part, on former attempts to fill the East Bay. “[T]he shoreline reflects the influences of both natural systems and human intervention,” according to the park’s general plan, “with natural features, such as tidal marshes and sand and gravel beaches, intermingled with man-made elements, such as engineered revetments, construction rubble, and other debris.” Massachusetts’ Pope John Paul II Park Reservation was once a landfill and drive-in theater. 

Every state park falls under the purview of some state agency. In Alabama, for instance, that’s the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Most states have “natural resources” as part of the department name. Others, like Idaho, play up the human-use aspect of the parks with names such as the Department of Parks and Recreation. Connecticut offers Environmental Protection, while Rhode Island practices Environmental Management and Delaware exerts Environmental Control. Louisiana — with its Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism — suggests that state parks aren’t so much about preserving the environment as they are about maintaining a place to have fun. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks oversees that state’s parks; Nebraska is not as magnanimous to its wildlife: its parks are run by the Game and Parks Commission.

State parks are everywhere. According to the National Association of State Park Directors, there are more than 6,000 state park units in the 50 states. The system receives more than 725 million visits a year. And yet you’ll never see the state parks on any kind of national calendar, on the face of any coin. This is unfortunate, as the diversity of the parks and the states’ approaches to nature; the aspiration behind arguing that you may not have the Grand Canyon, but you have a grand canyon; the gumption of saying that when life hands you a landfill and former drive-in theater, make a state park, collectively create an identity as inspiring as the that of the national parks. I mean, if you’re going to have values embedded in nature, those seem like seem like pretty good ones to me. • 15 June 2010

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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If you had any lingering suspicion that Dark Knight III: The Master Race — the second sequel to Frank Miller’s hugely popular and widely influential comic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — was little more than a cynical cash grab on the part of publisher DC Comics, just direct your eyes to the credits on the inside front cover (they’re difficult to miss).

In addition to informing you that the story is by Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello and that Andy Kubert did the penciling, etc., there’s a sizable list of people that provided the art for what are known as “variant covers” — basically alternate exterior art slapped on the same comic that retailers can get only by ordering a ludicrous number of copies. It’s a cheap ploy designed to artificially goose sales by appealing to collectors’ mania and desperation. In this particular instance, I counted about 47 names on the list (more if you include collaborations). Even by industry standards it’s excessive. More… “Miller Lite”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered community engagement lead for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things — mostly comics — for Robot 6 and Comics Journal, among others.
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Baseball has almost always centered on one thing, which sounds reductionist, but isn’t terribly uncommon for a sport. Hockey, for instance, is all about time and space. If you are an offensive player, you wish to create time and space; if you are a defensive player, your goal is to limit both. Baseball has long been about pitching. Even the most successful batsman records an out 70% of the time. Everything is slanted towards the pitcher. Pitching is what wins games in October, and even offensive postseason heroics are often more a matter of timing — the clutch hit, that is — rather than sustained excellence.

Pitching has failed to rule the roost exactly twice: during the steroid era, when hitters began putting up numbers you’d never even say you accrued in a summer of Wiffle ball against your younger sister, and when one of the sport’s prospective pitching legends showed everyone he was that much better at hitting, and thus proceeded to overhaul America’s then-pastime. After which, when it was all over, everyone had come to know the value of pitching even more.
More… “Leaving the Mound”

Colin Fleming‘s fiction has recently appeared in the VQR, Black Clock, Post Road, Boulevard, and The Southwest Review, with more work appearing of late in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, The New Criterion, and Sports Illustrated. He is also a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His third book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, is forthcoming from Dzanc in August 2015, and he is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions, and a memoir, I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write his Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time. Find him on the web at https://www.facebook.com/literaturetolast.
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Even the signs aren't sure.
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Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys. More… “The Last Walk”

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
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Friends with benefits?
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While Abraham Lincoln has stolen the limelight with rumors about his furtive sex life, some historians have proclaimed that America’s first gay president was really his predecessor, the now-obscure James Buchanan. (He was the 15th president, serving from 1857 to 1861). Buchanan is the only bachelor to ever have held America’s top office, and his private life raised many eyebrows while he was alive.

   

From the early 1840s, Buchanan had shared a “passionate friendship” — as well as his lodgings in Washington, D.C. – with a flamboyantly effeminate senator from Alabama, William Rufus King (who, under Franklin Pierce, became America’s only bachelor vice president). The U.S. capital was then little more than a shabby provincial town, and King was cruelly derided by roughneck politicians from the frontier who called him “Miss Nancy,” “Aunt Fancy” and Buchanan’s “wife.” The pair drew mockery and suspicion for their dapper, dandified dress and fastidious habits, a sure sign that they were “Siamese twins” — 19th-century slang for a gay couple. Buchanan was certainly fond of his house-mate: When King had to depart for a spell as envoy to France in 1844, he mourned to a friend that “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen but have not succeeded with any of them.” King died in 1853, and Buchanan lived alone when he became President in 1857.

A little suspiciously, all personal correspondence between the two men was burned by their heirs, so the question of whether they were passionate lovers or simply Victorian chums will never be resolved. This hasn’t stopped historians from weighing in. The only recent biography of Buchanan, by Jean H. Baker, argues that in photographs he displays “eunuchlike, endomorphic features of body and face as well as the low hairline characteristic of low testosterone men” — which leads her to suggest that he had “little interest in sex,” and probably kept his hands off King as well.

Regardless of his carnal potency, Buchanan’s political career was fairly abysmal: He is generally voted by historians as the worst president in American history for mishandling a string of crises and dithering his way towards Civil War. • 9 December 2010

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Baker, Jean H., James Buchanan, (New York, 2004); Klein, Philip S., James Buchanan: A Biography (New York, 1995); Loewen, James, Lies Across America: What our Historical Sites Get Wrong, (New York, 2000).

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
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After watching three seasons of Damages straight through, I have become terrified of the wealthy. What started as a late-night, jet-lagged distraction turned into an obsession, as happens with the whole TV-on-DVD phenomenon. There’s always another episode right there, and you don’t have to really be anywhere for the next 44 minutes, so why not? After 36 episodes in two weeks, the message I took from this show about a ruthless attorney ruthlessly going after ruthless TV actor stand-ins for Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff is that people with money are ruthless, will do anything to protect their wealth, and think nothing of having someone in the middle class knocked off if need be.

   

  • Diana Mosley: Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel by Anne de Courcy. 480 pages. Harper Perennial.
  • A Life of Contrasts by Diana Mitford Mosley. 296 pages. Times Books.

Of course the reason the show works is because we live in the age of Goldman Sachs domination. Glenn Beck’s followers could easily believe his insane conspiracy theory that George Soros secretly rules the world because it sure seems like he can afford to. My own fear of the rich goes back further, back to when I was working in nonprofit fundraising, a job I should never have held. Overhearing a few too many conversations about why the white woman who received a yacht as her 21st birthday present was donating money to fund family planning clinics in low income African-American communities made me fear that even when they’re being charitable, the wealthy are being evil. It’s a bogeyman-like construct I’ve been neglectful about shaking, and Damages has reawakened it in my mind.

The current financial shenanigans almost makes one nostalgic for the aristocracy. They were at least more up front with their disdain for the rabble, and they would never feign contrition in front of a Senate panel. Take Diana Mitford. Her biography, subtitled Mitford Beauty, British Fascist, Hitler’s Angel, shows a woman so bored with her estates, her elite societal contacts, her world travel that she became a fascist and befriended the “poor dear Hitler,” as she referred to him in letters to her sisters. She married Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, in Goebbels’ house, and encouraged the romance between Hitler and her sister Unity.

But even more remarkable than her biography is her 1977 memoir, A Life of Contrasts. While one’s older years are generally a time of wise reflection, Mitford stands her ground. When looking back at her involvement with Mosley’s politics, and her own frequent trips to Nazi Germany, she writes:

Forty-four years have since gone by; we have had our ups and downs and sorrows and joys and never have I regretted the step I took then. If I have a regret, it is that I could not have done more to help [Mosley] and further his aims, for there is no doubt in my mind that the disasters which have befallen our country and our continent need never have been.

If Diana Mitford had anyone killed, she kept quiet on the subject in her memoirs. But having tea with Hitler seems like the equivalent. On the subject of money and power itself, she’s fantastically mum. She addresses her wealth and assets as if they were perfectly normal, as if a post-prison trip to the Mediterranean would be familiar to all. That seems to me a saner sensibility than this ruthless need for more and more acquisition and domination. Her obliviousness — in contrast to greed — would make her a poor subject for the next season of Damages, starting up again in July. Watching the news, however, I doubt the show is hurting for a new villain. • 17 June 2011

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
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Georgia O’Keeffe was notoriously private about her artmaking. “I can never bear to have people around me when I’m working,” she told The New Yorker, “or to let anybody see what I’m doing or say anything about it until it’s finished.” She was never eager to say much about her aesthetic ideas, either.

So the opportunity to consider the form and technique of O’Keeffe’s art — rather than its postcard-perfect content or manufactured meanings — was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. Two back-to-back museum exhibits in Santa Fe, overlapping for one weekend.

Together, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Process” at the New Mexico Museum of Art and “Georgia O’Keeffe: Line, Color, Composition” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gathered more than 90 of her works, ranging from her earliest family portraits to her last, lustrous watercolors.

When she was a young girl, not even a teenager, O’Keeffe declared that she would grow up to be an artist. Today, she has become such a fixture of American popular culture — as self-made woman and New Mexico icon — that it’s easy to forget: first and foremost, Georgia O’Keeffe was an artist.
More… “Line, Color, Composition”

Ann Daly, PhD (AnnDalyWriter.com) is an essayist specializing in women and women’s history. She is the author of six books, including Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America. She is currently working on a book about Georgia O’Keeffe.
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