Monday, December 22, 2008

Hard Times, a Helping Hand

by Ted Gup, Canton Ohio

"Down through the decades, the identity of the benefactor remained a mystery. Three prosperous generations later, the whole affair was consigned to a footnote in Canton’s history. But to me, the story had always served as an example of how selfless Americans reach out to one another in hard times. I can’t even remember the first time I heard about Mr. B. Virdot, but I knew the tale well.

Then, this past summer, my mother handed me a battered old black suitcase that had been gathering dust in her attic. I flipped open the twin latches and found a mass of letters, all dated December 1933. There were also 150 canceled checks signed by “B. Virdot,” and a tiny black bank book with $760 in deposits."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Big Correction

Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, said last week, "we’re literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally.”

It's as if I have been asking myself how I would hold up if something like this were to happen, and now I might actually find out. I feel untested. Unproven. Really scared.

I have no idea what's ahead. So far, I feel no one does. When I hear people discuss the brink, it seems like they, too, have nothing to go on except for their suspicions, their faith, and their hope.

There is much guilt being expressed in the recounting: We have been living too lushly for too long. We have been greedy. We take too much for granted.

The troubled economy as the manifestation of our financial and moral frivolity.

Embedded in the penance is also a hearkening back to a vaguely earlier time or a vision of one in the not too distant future. The time before this modern one, when things and people were good. Or maybe a later time.

In Esquire this month, there are several articles about the 21st Century. Some are grim; some are unrecognizable, as you might imagine the future to be; some are level-headed and optimistic. But one article, by a chef named David Chang, was the perfect illustration of this concept for me:

"You've seen the articles, right there on the front page next to equally uplifting stories about oil, the economy, and the war: The cost of food--of producing and procuring it--is soaring. In the restaurant world, it's all anyone can talk about. And the thing is, this is no temporary spike; it's actually a massive correction."

And that word that has been overused so much lately is so powerful: correction.

Maybe it's nostalgia, for a time and place that has yet to be created. Like they are saying, "I don't know what's ahead. Maybe the end. But I suspect it will be a lot like everything we always wanted."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chuck Klosterman: Why We Still Watch Baseball

In the September 2008 issue of Esquire:

"Baseball is a turgid game that no longer reflects society. It fails to attract the best U.S. athletes and doesn't translate to television. It should be a dead sport. But it's not. Baseball still feels interesting, and it still captures the casual fan's attention every autumn. So what is the secret to its undying success? What is its quiet advantage? Some would argue it's tradition. I would argue it's the scoring system.

Forced to watch soccer all summer, I figured out why baseball games still feel compelling, even when nothing seems to be happening. Baseball has--by far--the best scoring system in all of sport. It makes uninteresting contests exciting, because it a)doesn't have a concept of time and b)distributes runs in unorthodox increments.

Here is what happens in (seemingly) every soccer game on the planet: Two teams are battling at 0-0. It's compelling. But then the slightly stronger team scores one goal and the lesser squad immediately starts pressing; they replace a defender with an attacker, and the superior team scores again. Now it's 2-0 and the game is over. The lead seems insurmountable. Football has a similar problem--because it requires a change of possession after every offensive touchdown, a team trailing late in the game is forced to take unusual risks to make up the deficit(even if that deficit is tiny). Football teams have to radically change their style of play when the game matters most. Basketball has so much scoring, and in such small increments, that hoops can feel meaningless. Intentional fouls become the lone option for desperate underdogs. But baseball has it right. Imagine a 3-0 game in the bottom of the ninth inning. The leading team is clearly in control. But if the leadoff hitter gets a bloop single, the pressure immediately reverts to the pitcher--now, if the next guy gets on base, the game has the potential to be reinvented with one swing. The fact that you can instantly score a variable number of runs (in a game in which scoring is rare) keeps baseball fascinating. That's why we care about the drama even when it isn't there."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Itch: The Science Behind Itching

"One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lists: Esquire's "75 Skills"

Esquire magazine published a list of 75 things a man should know how to do. Given number 64 (shown below), these might be things that a man should just know. But all the same, I review the list regularly. It was so good, I decided to subscribe to the magazine:

1. Give advice that matters in one sentence.
I got run out of a job I liked once, and while it was happening, a guy stopped me in the hall. Smart guy, but prone to saying too much. I braced myself. I didn't want to hear it. I needed a white knight, and I knew it wasn't him. He just sighed and said: When nobody has your back, you gotta move your back. Then he walked away. Best advice I ever got. One sentence.

23. Be loyal.
You will fail at it. You have already. A man who does not know loyalty, from both ends, does not know men. Loyalty is not a matter of give-and-take: He did me a favor, therefore I owe him one. No. No. No. It is the recognition of a bond, the honoring of a shared history, the reemergence of the vows we make in the tight times. It doesn't mean complete agreement or invisible blood ties. It is a currency of selflessness, given without expectation and capable of the most stellar return.

64. Know that Christopher Columbus was a son of a bitch.
When I was a kid, because I'm Italian and because the Irish guys in my neighborhood were relentless with the beatings on St. Patrick's Day, I loved the very idea of Christopher Columbus. I loved the fact that Irish kids worshipped some gnome who drove all the rats out of Ireland or whatever, whereas my hero was an explorer. Man, I drank the Kool-Aid on that guy. Of course, I later learned that he was a hand-chopping, land-stealing egotist who sold out an entire hemisphere to European avarice. So I left Columbus behind. Your understanding of your heroes must evolve. See Roger Clemens. See Bill Belichick.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Trapped in an Elevator for 41 Hours

"At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay? He decided that there was no way he was going to work the following week.

And then he gave up. The time passed in a kind of degraded fever dream. On the videotape, he lies motionless for hours at a time, face down on the floor.

A voice woke him up: “Is there someone in there?”


“What are you doing in there?”

White tried to explain; the voice in the intercom seemed to assume that he was an intruder."

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Fruit Detective

"In the truck, we talked of fruit constantly. Karp is especially passionate about stone fruit--apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, and cherries--and, because it was cherry and apricot season, we spent a lot of time on those fruits. We discussed the genealogy of different varieties, and the way the great varieties were described in the works of fruit literature that Karp most admires--chiefly, Robert Hogg's "The Fruit Manual: A Guide to the Fruits and Fruit Trees of Great Britain" (fifth edition, 1884) and Edward A. Bunyard's "The Anatomy of Dessert" (1929). Karp quoted, from memory, passages about the "melting" quality Bunyard prized; after a while, it was hard to tell when he was quoting and when he wasn't. "At its ripest, it is drunk rather than eaten," he'd say, referring to Coe's Golden Drop plum. Discussing the transparent gage, he pronounced, "A slight flush of red and then one looks into the depths of transparent amber as one looks into an opal, uncertain how far the eye can penetrate." If I got something wrong or forgot a point about fruit made in an earlier conversation, Karp was quick to correct me. By the end of five days of fruit talk in the fruitmobile, I was counting the minutes to the time I could say goodbye and not have to talk about fruit anymore.

I also watched Karp eat a lot of fruit. I saw him grazing in a cherry orchard with the farmer, who, after sampling cherries for half an hour, had to run for the bathroom. Craig Ledbetter, an apricot breeder with the Department of Agriculture, whom we met near Fresno, said, "David eats fruit that I wouldn't touch, and I eat a lot of fruit. Soft, half-rotten stuff on the ground--he has no problem putting that into his mouth."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Wired Magazine - Jon Stewart

Wired: Let me ask you about the Crossfire thing - not about your critique of that show, but about the reaction to it.

Ben was there, by the way. I remember looking out into the audience and seeing his face and realizing, "I guess this isn't going well."

Well, we had hand signals, and before the show I made the mistake of saying that this [drawing his finger across his throat] meant "Keep on going, great, do the exact same thing." So I was frantically doing this [draws finger across throat fast].

Wired: What was the symbol for stop supposed to be?

[Gives thumbs-up.]

It was a stupid way to do it.

Wired: But the show was a total sensation: Something like 3 million people saw that - but mostly online. Less than a quarter of them saw it on CNN proper. It was huge, phenomenal viral video.

It was definitely viral. I felt nauseous afterward.
Continue Reading...

Also, from Jon Stewart's C-Span appearance in 2004:

Ken Auletta of The New Yorker Magazine: People say Bush is the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with. You don’t feel that way?

Stewart: You know, I don’t like to drink with people who are... alcoholics. I always find that to be tacky.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bicycle by Paul Fattaruso

A year ago, I rode my bicycle wherever I went: to and from work, trips to the store, weekend rides up into the mountains. If I went to the bar, I would ride swiftly there and wobbly back. While riding, I would constantly chant something I saw once in the window of a nearby bicycle shop: "When I see an adult riding a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race." This wasn't something political or about any Repeating this to myself was enough to propel me up mountainous roads and through snowstorms.

In the past year, however, I moved to an apartment that is farther away and uphill from where I work, so my daily rides turned quickly to weekly rides. Then I bought a scooter. And my rides, weekly or brief, are no more.

A few weeks ago, Joli and I rode to the store on our bikes, and we bought a new pasta pot and rode home again. It was sunny and glorious. I missed it.

Today, I went to the bookstore, and I found a small book entitled "Bicycle," written by Paul Fattaruso. It's beautiful and strange, and it has enough power to propel people up mountains:

"If the bicycle squeaks, that means something is trying to kill it, however patiently."

"With a little doctoring, a bicycle can indeed be made to gallop."

"We traveled like this for two quiet weeks: only the sound of wind purring in the spokes of our wheels."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Choosing Your Words Carefully

About a month ago, one of the producers at This American Life sent out prompts for story ideas, such as "Mistakes Were Made," "See Things My Way," and "Do Over." One of the explanations for the topics said the following: "Basically, we have this theory about what's happening in New Orleans now and we'd like to know if it holds water."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

David Brooks: A Defining Moment

"Clinton rode the passion of the crowd and delivered an energetic battle cry. And in many elections that sort of speech, delivered around the country, would clinch the nomination.

But this is a country in the midst of a crisis of authority, a country that has become disillusioned not only with one president, but with a whole system of politics. It’s a country that has lost faith not only with one institution, but with the entire set of leadership institutions. The cultural context, in other words, allowed for a much broader critique, a much more audacious vocabulary.

And Barack Obama leapt right in."

Continue Reading...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Face Blindness: Prosopagnosia

"TOM UGLOW, A GRAPHIC DESIGNER in London, didn't have a problem perceiving that it was a girl watching him across the bar. Her blond hair had a nice sheen. She seemed pretty. Uglow ordered another beer, downed it, and walked her way. He was about to introduce himself when she cut him off.

"Hi, Tom," she said, no longer smiling. "Why were you making eyes at me?"

"Damn," he thought. "This isn't going as planned."

Her voice sounded familiar. He searched her face but couldn't place her. This happened more than he liked to admit.

"How've you been?" he asked, casually trying to fish for a clue as to who she was.

"Better now that we're broken up."

Ah! It was his ex-girlfriend. Once he'd had a moment to process her voice, he was able to place her. They had dated for a year. Definitely not a good person to be hitting on. It was a problem: Every time he saw a face, it felt like it was for the first time.

Uglow tried to work around it. Everyone looked equally unfamiliar, but rather than treat unfamiliar faces as strangers, he acted like everyone was his best pal. "Generally, I'll be very smiley, friendly, and nice, even though I have no idea who I'm talking to," he says. "But at least that person would come away liking me." He'd rather live in a world populated with friends than with strangers.

It never occurred to Uglow that his inability to see the world as others did would stand in the way of becoming an artist. Ever since he was a kid, he had loved drawing and made endless sketches of friends and family in his journals. They almost never had faces. For Tom, that wasn't a big deal. He felt he could convey personality with his brushstrokes or a particularly adept representation of someone's posture.

Every year, he made a pilgrimage to London's National Portrait Gallery. The museum hosts an annual contest to select the best emerging portrait artists, and Uglow likes to keep up with the latest techniques. This year, the winning portrait was a photorealistic depiction of an elderly woman, her face wrinkled and blotchy. Uglow loved it, though not because of the three-quarters-crazy look in the woman's eyes or her haunted expression. He loved it because the technique was so precise, so exact. To him, it spoke of the struggle against chaos, decay, and death. It was an attempt to impose order on what couldn't be controlled. In his own way, he had grasped the essence of the painting.

By day, Uglow makes a living designing logos, but someday he'd like to see his portraits hang in the gallery. The fact that they don't have faces doesn't seem to be an impediment. "Faces aren't that important in the contemporary art world," he observes. And yet, despite the missing faces – or maybe because of them – his paintings and sketches are evocative. In one sketch, a young girl holds an umbrella in a field. The umbrella has a densely patterned green and purple canopy, and individual blades of grass are visible. The girl's scarf is sharply defined, but she has no face. In another drawing, newlyweds stand beside a wedding cake; the bride has no head, but the fringe of her dress is elaborately delineated. It's a view into another reality."

Continue Reading...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Fresh Air Fiend: The View from Fifty

"I separated from my wife in London and quickly realized that I could not live in the city anymore. That very day I flew to the United States; I needed the comfort of my childhood home. I needed reassurance, the stimuli of those landscapes and sounds - the weather, the temperature, the odors. It was winter: frost, rattling branches, wood planks shrieking in the house, night skies, dead leaves.

I also needed the artifacts in that house, objects such as pictures and knickknacks. My chair. My desk. My books. With these, I felt, I could begin again. Once, about six years before, our London house was burglarized. People have various responses to news of a robbery. You feel violated, they say. The thieves must be desperate, they say. Criminals come from awful homes; they're on drugs; they need your stuff; you're lucky you weren't home; you might have been killed.

Mine was none of these. I felt, They stole my memories - they removed a portion of my mind! The insurance people asked how much my things were worth. I told them truthfully: they were priceless. I would never look upon those objects again and remember. For this reason, for a period of time I ranted like a fanatic. I am not talking about a video recorder or a radio. I am speaking of a small silver box that had the camphor-wood odor of Singapore, of the pen with the worn-down nib with which I wrote seven or eight books, of the amber necklace I bought with my last twenty dollars in Turkey. All of it gone, flogged to a fence somewhere in London. Sentimental value, people said. Yes, but to me there is no other value. If all we were talking about was money, then these things could have been replaced and I would have had no problem. What was removed from me by these thieves were the stimuli for some of my dearest memories."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Party Line

Telephone party line services

By Susan Orlean.

The New Yorker, Dec 16, 2002

If you're one of those people who have three phone lines at home, plus a pager, plus a CDMA trimode cell phone with a Web browser and SMS, and you still want to upgrade your telecommunication system, you should meet Pat and Jim Bannick. Better yet, you should give them a call. Chances are they won't be on the phone.

"We're not really phone people," Pat said when I called her the other day at her home, in Dimondale, Michigan. "By the way, I couldn't believe Jim answered when you called. He never answers the phone. Once, I bought him one of those nice phones that you can walk around with--"

"A cell phone?"

"Yes, I think that's it. The kind so you don't need a long cord on it?"

"Oh, you mean a cordless phone?"

"That's right. The kind without a cord. Anyway, a while ago I got Jim one of those, but he wouldn't even look at it, so I ended up returning it."

The Bannicks are among the last people in the state of Michigan, and possibly in the entire known universe, who still have their telephone service on a party line. A party line is not a current telecommunications option. SBC Ameritech, the Bannicks' phone company, has only a handful of them left, all of them in Michigan. (The Nevada division took its last party line out of service in 2001; the Southwestern Bell division shut down its last one in 1996; and Pacific Bell took all but one of its party lines out of service in 1997.)

Party lines are not to be confused with chat lines, party planners, or escort services: they are a prehistoric phone technology of copper-loop circuits that can be shared by as many as twenty telephones in separate locations, predating by several decades such advancements as three-way conferencing and the quack-ringing Mallard Duck Phone. On a typical party line, all the phones in all the houses sharing the line have the same phone number, and all the phones in all the houses ring whenever a call comes in for any one of them. Each household would be assigned a distinctive ring, so you could tell if the bell was tolling for you or for another one of the houses on your line. "Ours was a three-ringer," Pat said. "Or was it first a two-ringer? No, I think it was a three-ringer, and then we were a two-ringer."

"What year did you get your phone?"

"It was 1955," Pat said. "It was the year that we built the house."

"1955? That was the year Mary L. Kayes, of Dutchess County, New York, was convicted of refusing to yield her party line to someone wanting to report a fire."

"My goodness."

"What was it like sharing a phone?"

"Well, honestly, it was awful. We'd never get to use the phone, because someone was always on it. Plus, the phone rang and rang and rang all the time, since you had ten families sharing it. We did get into counting the rings, though. You'd hear the phone and you'd stop and wait and count to see if it was for you. That was kind of fun."

"Did you know that in 1950 three-quarters of all the phone service in the United States was by party line?"

"No," Pat said.

"Pat, can you hold on a minute? I've got a call on my other line."

"I suppose so."

"O.K., I'm back. Sorry. So you were saying it was hard to share the phone."

"Well, it was a pain. When we were on a ten-party line, you could hardly get a word in. And whenever we would pick up the phone to use it there would already be someone on it. We would pick up the receiver and hear voices--"

"I'm sorry, I have another call again. Can you hold for one second?"

"I guess so."

"O.K., I'm back. So you were saying you'd pick up the phone and listen sometimes."

"Sure," Pat said. "I wouldn't listen a long time, just for a minute or so. But the same thing would happen to us. We'd be on a call and suddenly someone would pick it up and hang up a bunch of times, so there would be click-click-clicking the whole time you were on the phone. This one lady would listen for a long time before she'd hang up."

"Did people observe any kind of etiquette about party lines? Did they observe the Emily Post suggestion that if you share a party line and you have an emergency, you should pick up the phone and first say 'Emergency' in a loud voice and then say 'Our barn is on fire'?"

"No, nothing special like that," Pat said.

"Did you know who any of the other people on your line were?"

"We called once and tried to find out who they were, but the phone company wouldn't tell us. We could tell that a lot of the families we shared the line with had teen-agers. We were getting pretty disgusted, because they would never get off the phone. Sometimes we'd have to make an important call and they'd be on for ages, and finally we'd pick up the phone and say, 'Can you please just get off for five minutes and let us make the call, and then you can have the phone back?' And usually they'd say no. This one lady in particular, she would say, 'Well, I can't get off. I'm in the middle of a long-distance call.' "

"You said that the number of people on the line went from ten to four or five?"

"In the sixties or seventies, we were down to sharing with just four other families. Then it was just two, and then finally just one. Now we have a party line, but we're on it all by ourselves. Every once in a while, the phone company--it used to be Michigan Bell, but now it's Ameritech, I think--the phone company calls us and says, 'Well, guess what, we can give you a nice new line of your own,' but we tell them we don't want it! This is fine for us. And it's cheap. We pay fifteen dollars a month and that's it. We can't have an answering machine or anything on it, for some reason, but that doesn't really matter. The only problem we have isn't with the party line; it's with our phone. We have a rotary phone and I don't know what to do when you get these recordings saying, 'Push this number, push that button.' We don't have any buttons. When I really need to use a Touch-Tone, I go to my mother's. She's ninety years old, but she has a Touch-Tone."

"How many phones do you have?"

"Are you kidding? Just one."

This was when Jim got on.

"I don't really know why we got a phone to begin with," he said. "I think Pat wanted one. I didn't grow up with a telephone. The first time I ever used one was after I graduated from high school. I'm seventy-three, and I grew up without electricity or running water or even a refrigerator, and certainly without a phone."

"Do you use the phone now?"

"I have a need occasionally."

"And what kind of equipment do you have now?"

"We used to have a black one, I believe, and now we have an ivory one."

Jim then recounted the incident of the telephone without a cord with some discomfort. "I think Pat tried one of those touch phones or wireless phones," he said. "I don't know where she secured it, but I think she took it back."

Pat is more open-minded. "I was with my sister a while ago, and while we drove around she used her cell phone in the car, and it was great," she said, after Jim had turned the equipment back over to her. "The trouble is, if I had a cell phone, I'd probably call people."

"Do you wish you'd kept the phone without the cord?"

"Yes, definitely. See, I thought it would be nice to have when Jim's out in the garage working, and it's time for dinner, and I have to scream and yell like a banshee to let him know that dinner's ready. I thought if he had the phone I could just call him."

"So are you still screaming and yelling?"

"No, we've got something better now," Pat said. "We just installed a really nice dinner bell."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Secret of Excess

“We’re going to kill him,” Batali said to me with maniacal glee as he prepared a meal for Wylie Dufresne, the former chef of 71 Clinton, who had ordered a seven-course tasting menu, to which Batali then added a lethal-seeming number of impossible-to-resist extra courses. The starters (variations, again, in the key of pig) included a plate of lonza (the cured backstrap from one of Batali’s cream-apple-and-walnut-fattened pigs); a plate of coppa (made from the same creamy pig’s shoulder); a fried pig foot; a porcini mushroom, stuffed with garlic and thyme, and roasted with a piece of Batali’s own pancetta (cured pig belly) wrapped around its stem; plus (“just for the hell of it”) tagliatelle topped with guanciale (cured pig jowls), parsnips, and black truffle. A publisher who was fed by Batali while talking to him about booking a party came away vowing to eat only soft fruit and water until he’d recovered: “This guy knows no middle ground. It’s just excess on a level I’ve never known before—it’s food and drink, food and drink, food and drink, until you start to feel as though you’re on drugs.” This spring, Mario was trying out a new motto, borrowed from the writer Shirley O. Corriher: “Wretched excess is just barely enough.”

Sunday, January 13, 2008


""These tax reductions will bring real and immediate benefits to middle-income Americans," Bush said in Chicago. "Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money." The first of these claims, as the Financial Times editorialized the day after the speech, is "obviously bogus." The second is true, but only in the sense that it is also true that if Bill Gates happened to drop by a homeless shelter where a couple of nuns were serving soup to sixty down-and-outers dressed in rags, the average person in the room would have a net worth of a billion dollars. Average, yes; typical, no. A typical taxpayer—one right smack in the middle of the income range—will get a couple of hundred dollars. And a worker in the bottom twenty per cent will get next to nothing—at most, a dime or a quarter a week."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Trenchcoat Robbers

I heard on NPR that a new FBI agent has been assigned to the fascinating case of DB Cooper, a man who in 1971 parachuted out of a plane with $200,000 dollars and was never seen again. The case has gone unsolved all this time, and the younger FBI agent has unveiled a new website to enlist people to help solve the mystery. Others have called and written in begging him not to solve it.

It reminded me of a story I read in the New Yorker a few years ago, which didn't end on such an intriguing note:

"Of the seven thousand one hundred and twenty-seven bank robberies in the United States in 2000, the average take was just twelve hundred dollars, and most of the thieves were eventually captured. Bank robberies tend to be committed by inexperienced and desperate people, but Bowman and Kirkpatrick always worked with remarkable preparation and restraint, and they never bragged about their successes. They operated for fifteen years, one year less than Jesse James and his gang, and they robbed an average of two banks annually-always in a different city or town across the Midwest and Northwest. "They're a throwback to the old days," one veteran F.B.I.agent told me." I hope we don't see anyone like them again." Bowman and Kirkpatrick were finally captured, but only after a number of small, uncharacteristic missteps, which resulted, in large part, from a middleaged desire to lead more ordinary lives."