Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Naughty Aughts

Here we are once again at the end of a decade, or at least everyone thinks it's the end of another decade. I'm of a mind that when you count out 10 of anything the tenth thing is part of the whole, which means that the decade would be 2001 through 2010, but I lost that battle at the turn of the millennium. So, the end of another decade. Naturally everyone's wondering what to call the decade about to be past. We had the swinging 60s, the go-go 80s, and so on. What were the past 10 years?

Some people are calling them the Aughts, but I find that awkward and not at all catchy. It's also not descriptive, and when naming a decade one wants at least to be descriptive. In that sense, there's really only one word that encapsulates our collective experience, only one word that will do to remind everyone what we have to show for the early years of this century. What we have to show for these years is nothing, and it's therefore only appropriate that this decade be known as the Naughts.

Let's look at our economy. We began the Naughts at the end of the tech bubble, then saw growth, then a small recession, then a huge bubble based on bad paper, then a crash. We end the decade with the stock market right about where it was in 2000, with nothing in terms of wealth accumulation to show for it all. Naught. Real estate values soared, then crashed, leaving property values either maybe where they were in 2003. Naught to show for everything, except perhaps for way too much debt. Unemployment? The job market is worse than it's been all century, so nothing doing there.

We were attacked and launched a war on terror, and for that we have gained absolutely nothing while losing thousands of lives. Billions spent in Iraq, nothing to show for it, treading water in Afghanistan, nothing to show for it. Our status abroad is no better than it was a decade ago, so we also have nothing to show for what has passed for diplomacy until recently. We've got the exact opposite of peace in the Middle East, no resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict that Clinton tried so hard to resolve before leaving office ten years ago.

Every year fewer and fewer things are manufactured in this country, but the glorious information age where everyone works at home creating ideas and even more information has morphed into everyone sitting at home looking for work while they take quizzes on Facebook. Technology has given more of us broadband and large screens on which to watch HDTV, but not much else. The delivery of information has morphed from the page to the screen, but the quality of that information hasn't increased. We've got naught to show for all our technological advances.

All in all, we have one thing and one thing only to show for the past decade of our lives, and that is the fact that we're all 10 years older. Sure, we've got silicon and Botox and collagen in abundance, for those of us with the inclination and financial resources to attempt to erase the recent past, but again that would just be making physical what is intellectually and emotionally true. At the end, we're left with nothing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Telling, and Telling, and Telling

When Augustine of Hippo was beatified he was not yet known as the father of the memoir. His contributions to the modern Church led to his sainthood, while his decision to title his book about his early life Confessions has led to our present-day glut of tell-all non-fiction. Because of St. Augustine, the generic requirements of the memoir are a descent into chaos or dissolution followed by an epiphany that leads to life being turned around and righted. Sometimes the protagonist triumphs over adversity, sometimes over his or her own self-created demons. Either way, the progression is time and again toward a happy ending.

What to do, though, if one is a serial memoirist? How many conversions can one have in one's life, after all? Augusten Burroughs solves this problem by going over the same material over and over again, hacking away at it from slightly different angles. So does Mary Knarr. Elizabeth Wurtzel solves the dilemma by developing various addictions and psychological problems. Another option is to come up with a gimmick and then write about the ways that gimmick changed one's life: have zero environmental impact for a year and write about it, live strictly according to the Bible for a year and write about it, etc.

Once upon a time, a woman droned in a cubicle in lower Manhattan feeling bored and adrift. She like to cook, though, and had heard of this new thing called blogging, so she decided to spend a year cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about it, and about her life. The end result was first a popular blog, then an entertaining book, then a movie starring Merryl Streep, and finally a book contract for more memoirs. Cleaving, Julia Powell's new work, is the result of the new career engendered by the success of her blogging experiment.

It's a book about butchering, both literally and metaphorically. Having completely butchered her marriage by entering into an obsessive affair, Powell decides to hide from the complications of her life, and perhaps work out some aggression, by apprenticing as a butcher in a Catskills meat shop. The book describes her years of butchery with intense honesty, not only about the feel and smell of meat and the techniques involved in preparing it for the grill or oven or pan, but also about her sexual proclivities and indiscretions. Confessions, indeed.

Julie and Julia was an entertaining read because of its breezy insouciance, because of Powell's ability to at once take her task seriously and with a grain (or pinch) of salt. Cleaving, on the other hand, is full of high seriousness. Meat cleaves to bone as we sometimes cleave to one another, and the only solution is to become expert at wielding a cleaver, breaking down carcasses and breaking our own and each others hearts. Relationships, marriages, are hard, no matter how much we love and are committed to each other. This is old news. Infidelity makes things harder, and can be something we learn from that brings us closer or can be something that tears us apart.

Powell is great at describing her obsession with her lover, her need for him, and at the same time her love for her husband. She is great at describing the pain this causes everyone involved. She is great at chroniciling the fevered time of chaos and loss. She's not so great at resolution, perhaps because her career as a serial memoirist requires a sequel, maybe a year spent at a processing plant to help her, you know, process. We end this installment with her still with her husband, but with her still pining for her lover, and with her husband still seeing the woman he began seeing while she was cheating on him. She claims a certain amount of happiness, but maybe it's just resignation.

In other words, Cleaving feels incomplete. It captures the descent, but not the phoenix-like rise from the ashes. It reads like a confession told not because the events led to a new understanding, but simply from a desire to confess. Although the experience of writing the book was undoubtedly cathartic for Powell, there isn't much in it for anyone else. Except, of course, some recipes, and a new understanding of why tenderloin is overpriced.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to Feel Good About Yourself in One Easy Step

There are many reasons to watch TV: to be numbed, to be entertained, to simply avoid boredom. Occasionally, television can even make us feel good about ourselves, particularly reality TV. The main benefit of watching addicts in need of an intervention, or bartender/models in need of a good slap, is to be able to lie on the couch thinking, "At least I'm not that person." For those of you in need of a good dose of superiority, I highly recommend A&E's houses of horrors, Hoarders. It's on Mondays; the second season just began this week.

If you even spend even a minute thinking that you really shouldn't be such a slob, or a moment wondering why you can't bring yourself to get rid of those jeans that don't really fit anymore, this is the show for you. At the end of the hour, you'll first maniacally clean your kitchen and bathroom, and will then lie in bed feeling good about the fact that you live in a house where you can at least find the bed. You will know that, no matter how much of a pig you think you are, you can feel good about the fact that your city codes office isn't about to condemn your property.

Monday night's show centered on Augustine, a 68 year-old living in Gretna, LA. When I think of hoarders I think of people accumulating piles of possessions, or scores of cats or dogs, but Augustine had clearly spent decades accumulating tons of trash. Her house was so full of trash the cleaning crew needed to shovel it out. She had electricity but no heat or hot water; her bathroom looked like it hadn't functioned in at least a decade. Augustine collected not only garbage and sewage but also mold, mildew, and general filth, three or four feet of it in every disgusting room of the house. By the end of the episode, 4,000 pounds had been hauled away.

Augustine had lost her dentures in the filth, so she spent the episode gumming fast food, uncooked hot dogs, and I don't know what else. She clearly suffers from at least depression and probably also some sort of antisocial disorder, and sat in a chair eating while her children and a crew cleaned things out. The upper set of her dentures were found amid the debris. Also found were the carcasses of two cats, which had apparently either been flattened by the garbage or which had expired and then been crushed. Either way, two cats died and decomposed in her "living room" and Augustine didn't notice.

Are you disgusted yet? But wait, there's more. The bathroom was a Haz Mat zone, filled with dried excrement, mold, crud. I could smell it through the TV. Since her toilet didn't work, Augustine had one of those portable toilets for the elderly in her, what, dining room? I guess the notion of "rooms" doesn't really apply, but at any rate there the toilet sat, with what appeared to be bags of feces piled up around it and tied to the arms.

Yes, this woman is clearly in need of physical and psychiatric help and yes, this is an incredibly sad story. Yes, it is perhaps wrong to film this family's plight, to televise it, and then to lie on the couch, rapt, watching it. But in the end, I will never again worry about the fact that I could definitely clean my cat's litter box a little more often. In the end, at least I'm not that person.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Whatever you made for Thanksgiving, you probably spent the rest of the weekend finishing. Even though the last thing anyone wants to think of today is holiday food, the Times published an article last Wednesday that deserves another look. After interviewing the keepers of various recipe sites, the author provided a snapshot of the most searched-for holiday recipes by region, and the results are interesting.

Growing up, our Thanksgiving menu never varied, and because it never varied I assumed that the entire country ate what we ate: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green been casserole, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. My mother always started things off with fruit salad, which I figured was her idiosyncrasy, since she believed fruit salad to be a "fancy" start to a meal. I therefore had no idea that, had I grown up in the Midwest, Thanksgiving would have been incomplete without a cheese ball.

Most of the recipe searches in the article are for items one would expect, although it's interesting to note that most of the searches for green bean casserole came from the West coast, as if San Francisco liberals have never heard of such a thing, and that most of the candied sweet potato searches came from the South, as if sweet potatoes and marshmallows are somehow ingredients foreign to the Southern diet. I had no idea, however, that deviled eggs were part of anyone's holiday menu, but they are in the top 25 most searched-for list, and would appear to be a staple of the mid-Western holiday diet.

What do Tennessee and Idaho have in common? Residents of both states apparently enjoy cheesecake as their holiday dessert. If you live in the South, you are apt to serve macaroni and cheese alongside the sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving day. If you happen to live smack dab in the middle of the country, your turkey was accompanied by corn casserole, based on this data. Those who live in the northern plains and the Northwest appear much more likely to brine their turkeys. In the South, green bean casserole was not searched for, while this was the only region of the country where cooks clamored for recipes for broccoli casserole, whatever that may be.

Looking for stuffed mushrooms on your holiday plate? Get invited to dinner in New England or Alaska. It turns out fruit salad is a Thanksgiving staple, just not on either coast, and that in this one instance my mother was a red-stater. Butternut squash is something I can imagine as a holiday regular, but either only New Englanders needed a recipe for this dish, or it's only served in New England.

I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this data, but I did learn that we are a large and diverse country. I mean, deviled eggs? Cheese balls?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Impersonators

The tickets were free. Why else would I go to see a Bruce Springsteen tribute band? But let's start with the more important question: why does a Springsteen tribute band exist? The man is not only alive, he's still touring. He just played a bunch of shows in Jersey a couple of months ago. If you're a huge fan, wouldn't you just go see the man himself? Or just stay home listening to his records? Why on earth would you pay good money to see an impersonator when the real thing is available to you?

The tickets were free because the show was only half full. As it turns out, the answer to the above questions is that people who are eligible for Medicare are the ones who would pay good money to see a Bruce impersonator. The last time I the youngest person at a concert was when I saw the Rolling Stones when I was 15. I know that I'm getting older, and that this is music that people 15 or 20 years older than me grew up with, but there was something completely disconcerting about sitting in the middle of a sea of baldness, paunch, and bifocals at what was, at heart, a rock concert. Then again, the Stones themselves must be closing in on 70, if they aren't there already.

We only stayed for about half of the show, not because it wasn't a good approximation of Springsteen, complete with a fake Clarence Clemmons and a fake Stevie, because it was a good approximation, but because the whole experience was just too weird. It was like being in an alternate universe where the entire E Street canon existed, but all of the songs were written and performed by a guy named Lloyd Springstein.

I couldn't help, though, feeling somewhat sorry for "Bruce" and the rest of the band. I imagined them all growing up, dreaming of becoming professional musicians, dreaming of rock stardom. They all practiced and practiced, spent years sacrificing, just to spend every night of their lives pretending to be someone else. I don't know if it's a step up or down from being a professional Elvis impersonator, but either way it made me both sad and thankful that the show took place in a theater equipped with a bar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Seeds of Dissention

You might assume that, when it comes to local government, the most burning, most pressing, most divisive issue would be taxation and the municipal budget. You might assume that residents have the strongest feelings about their pocketbooks. You would be wrong. If you want to start a local civil war you only have to say one little word, and that word is "parking."

I have been listening to arguments about parking for five years. Local merchants complain that the meter fees in the central business district are too high. Everyone complains when the meters are enforced and tickets are written. When the meters aren't enforced, everyone complains that compliance is spotty. When tickets are written because people are parking too close to intersections everyone complains, and when enforcement of intersection sightlines are ignored everyone complains about that.

Those who live in higher density residential neighborhoods who don't have off-street parking complain when they can't park directly in front of their own homes. People who have driveways and garages complain when neighbors or visitors park in front of their homes just because they don't like the view of parked cars from their front windows. People who live near schools or local businesses located within residential neighborhoods complain when customers or staff park near their homes. People who live on streets with plenty of parking for all complain if anyone parks on their street, even for a minute.

Propose a new business or redevelopment project in my city and everyone will immediately start complaining about parking. Propose a new parking deck and everyone will complain about the wisdom of parking decks. Propose a parking lot and everyone will complain about impervious surfaces. If you want neighbor to turn against neighbor, friend against friend, simply lean into a group of peaceful-seeming people and whisper, "Parking." Within 30 seconds fisticuffs will commence.

If there's a solution I don't know it. When you live in a place with medium or high density, in old neighborhoods built before every home contained a two-car garage, you're going to have a lot of cars competing for on-street parking. Distraction is probably the best method to combat the divisiveness of the parking issue. Lean into that same group and whisper the second-most controversial topic and parking will become a distant memory. That topic? Street trees.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tax Dollars at Work

I discovered the most magical place several months ago. It's a large building filled with books. Once you find the book you want to read you can borrow it for free, and when you're done you return it so that the next person can read it. You can also borrow DVDs, audio books, music CDs. It's so sustainable it's almost a collective, more socialistic than health care reform. It's the public library.

Back in college and grad school I went to various libraries all the time, but I'd somehow forgotten that they existed. I got into the habit of buying the books I wanted to read and then giving them away, because my house is full of books and I just don't have room to keep too many more of them. For some reason I just assumed that I'd have a long wait for any newly-published book, and that it wasn't worth it. The new penuriousness led me to the library last month, and I have to say that I've been pretty stupid all these years.

My taste in literature is clearly not shared by the other residents of my small city, because I've never yet had to reserve a new book and wait for it. And I'd completely forgotten how libraries subscribe to each and every periodical, and how they provide comfortable chairs for you to slouch into while reading all the magazines and newspapers you can handle in one sitting. There's even pencils and paper lying around in case you want to write something down. There's free WiFi, but there's also every reference book imaginable, so you don't need to rely on the vagaries of Wikipedia for information.

The bast thing about the library, though, is that it's free because my school taxes pay for it. I don't have children and have previously gotten incredibly annoyed each fall when my ridiculously high school tax bill arrived. At least now I can feel as if I'm getting a benefit for all that money. In fact, this is perhaps the only instance where I can hold in my hands a physical manifestation of my tax dollars at work.

Also, don't buy into the myths. If you see someone you know at the library and want to have a short conversation, go for it. I've never once been shushed.