dimanche 26 septembre 2010

Talk Talk

In Seattle, we had a fantastic last summer day yesterday. It was the perfect date for my friend Susi's annual Oktoberfest party, which features great German beer and food (pretzels and sausages and potato salad and german chocolate cookies and other light fare) and Susi in a dirndl looking pretty durn cute.

Today, fall is here. Just in time for the rain and gray skies, my friend Dahli sent me a link to TED (click on title), which bills itself as bringing riveting ideas by remarkable people to the world. Behind the cool website, where you can find talks by topic or by date or by most emailed and most blogged, is a "small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading." TED, which has been around since 1984, started out as two conferences a year devoted to Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED still does the two conferences -- one in Long Beach and one in Palm Springs each spring -- but has added a third in venerable Oxford UK each summer. The great thing is that the website brings these talks in podcast format to the world. I just watched Annie Lennox give a talk about AIDS. And, though I hate to admit it, I watched a few minutes of Elizabeth Gilbert on writing and genius. I actually find her oddly engaging; I just wish I could say that I loved her planetary mega-best selling tsunami of a book better. I guess someone had to write THAT BOOK and she is a better writer than most who would have been tempted to do so.

Anyway, enjoy TED. And if you are a Seattleite, think about supporting Town Hall this fall and winter. Turn off the damn television and get out. Go downtown and pay as little as 5 bucks to hear some pretty good talkers who come to town to talk. They are generally hawking a book they have just published, but many are really interesting people and good speakers. You can also go to Benaroya for the SAL (Seattle Arts and Lectures) series, which brought Jonathan Franzen to Seattle and is bringing TR Reid on October 5 to talk about health care. In 2011 -- this is exciting! -- the writer Richard Ford is coming. And so is Joyce Carol Oates.

Coming up at Town Hall this week: Deborah Fallows, about learning Chinese; Nancy Pearl, in a talk about travel books called Book Lust To Go; and most exciting, Mary Catherine Bateson, the cultural anthropologist, giving a talk called Aging With Purpose.

I am ready to accept that summer is over and that I live in Seattle, where the rainy season can be pretty depressing and very long if you just stay at home and watch television. I bought myself a pair of incredible rain boots in Paris last summer. They weighed a ton and I was afraid I would be unable to get them in my suitcase. But they made it back to Seattle with me, leaving me with no good reason not to go outside when it's raining. Remember Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin? It was said of Christopher Robin that he didn't much care what the weather did, as long as he was out in it. My boots are like his wellies, and I thought of him as I walked through mud puddles in Lincoln Park this morning. Is there anything more fun than walking through mud puddles with wellies on?

In fact, Milne wrote a poem called Happiness, which simply goes like this:


John had
Great Big
Boots on;
John had a
Great Big
John had a
Great Big
Mackintosh –
And that
(Said John)

lundi 20 septembre 2010

Overheard at the Social Security Office

A very fat old man wearing a proud to be a veteran t-shirt.

At the Burien Social Security Office.

This morning.

The situation: Fat old man comes in to see someone about a letter but does not have his social security card with him. He complains, quite loudly in an otherwise silent room, about benefits having been cut off without warning. He explains in a loud voice that the last time this happened it fucked up everything, especially his mortgage and utility payments. Says his wife works full-time running a shop and can NEVER come to the Social Security office to deal with this issue herself, after being told that the recipient of the letter needed to come in person. In reply to an inaudible question from the increasingly exasperated teller, the man booms out:

"Cleopatra is my wife!"

vendredi 17 septembre 2010

Who invented proud parent of college student decals for cars and why?

So in my yoga class this morning, we were asked to come up with a resolve. This is a sentence that expresses an intention or a wish. For some reason, that line from the zen hot dog stand joke popped into my head, so my resolve was "Make me one with everything". I'm not sure I want to be one with everything, though, or even what it means. The punchline of the second zen hot dog stand joke is "Change comes from within". I'll let you ponder that one.

In the meantime, and although I am supposed to be feeling one with everything, I have been thinking about one of my new pet peeves ever since I saw a big ole SUV with a decal in the back window that read "Parent of a Dartmouth Student". I had never noticed this cultural phenomenon before, and since I saw the Dartmouth sticker it seems I can't escape these proud parents. My other car is a Mercedes.

Why do I find this phenomenon so irritating? After all, what's wrong with parental pride in offspring? Nothing, except that it is so overdone here in America that you just want to scream sometimes! You would think that all we produce here are Einsteins, Picassos, Curies and Galileos. It costs a lot of money to send kids to colleges these days; in some ways, the display of these decals is a way of telling the world you can afford the 60,000 dollars a year it takes to attend Harvard or Yale, and that your kid (probably after graduating from 23,000 dollar a year Lakeside) got in! Woo hoo! Whatever, right?

I would like to know when these stickers started popping up, so if anyone can enlighten me on that I would appreciate it. They sure didn't exist when I was going to college -- or maybe my parents just weren't into that. I suppose they could have had regular decals, and theirs would have been pretty impressive: Harvard, Occidental, Mount Holyoke, University of Washington, WSU. Except for the last one, cough cough. But I don't recall such decals on my parents' cars; and I certainly would have found it an irritating expression of superiority with no legitimate basis.

This leads me to a related pet peeve, known as résumé embellishment or lying about your education and/or career. The funniest recent example I saw is a local Seattle journalist who tried to shave twenty years off her life by indicating she had gotten her journalism degree in the 90's instead of the 70's. She tried to pass it off as a typo, but no one was fooled. A typo involves one letter or number, not multiple ones.

But consider the true story of Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who:

...became well known for urging stressed-out students competing for elite colleges to calm down and stop trying to be perfect. Yesterday she admitted that she had fabricated her own educational credentials, and resigned after nearly three decades at M.I.T. Officials of the institute said she did not have even an undergraduate degree.

“I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to M.I.T. 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since,” Ms. Jones said in a statement posted on the institute’s Web site. “I am deeply sorry for this and for disappointing so many in the M.I.T. community and beyond who supported me, believed in me, and who have given me extraordinary opportunities.”

Ms. Jones said that she would not make any other public comment “at this personally difficult time” and that she hoped her privacy would be respected.

Ms. Jones, 55, originally from Albany, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places, or anywhere else, M.I.T. officials said.

A spokesman for Rensselaer said Ms. Jones had not graduated there, though she did attend as a part-time nonmatriculated student during the 1974-75 school year. The other colleges said they had no record of her.

Source: NY Times, April 27, 2007

It took a lot of guts for Ms. Jones to come clean, I think. Especially in a culture where some folks judge others on the basis of the decal in the window of their SUV. Man, that's just so messed up.

mercredi 15 septembre 2010

Franzen Live

Jonathan Franzen was in Seattle last night to kick off the SAL author series and promote his latest novel, Freedom. Seattle has the reputation of being a book-loving city, and Franzen was recently touted on the cover of Time Magazine as perhaps America's only living great novelist or some such hyperbole, so it wasn't surprising to see a nearly full house.

I always like to people spy at events like this - I try and come up with words that capture the crowd as a whole. This one was pretty gray, pretty dowdy on the whole, with an inordinate number of large groups of elderly women. I think it was a book club outing for many. I heard a woman behind me refuse a single one of six empty seats to someone (festival type seating, except for the big benefactors) and then realized she was saving it for her five book club mates. As an aside, I don't think that's right when it's festival seating and the crowd is near capacity. Unfortunately, at least one of the people in the book club was either hard of hearing or hard of listening. Repeatedly, she loudly asked the person sitting next to her what Jonathan Franzen had just said. In the row directly in front of me, a woman (who was with a man) worked on a quilt during the entire presentation. I don't know why, but this seems unacceptable in a way that discreetly knitting would not be. I wonder how she managed to get the quilt past security. She dropped her scissors a couple of times, as well as her thread. I don't think she was listening to the presentation at all.

The crowd started showing its love the second Franzen walked on stage. They laughed when he stopped to remove his coat. I'm not sure why that was funny, but apparently it was. They wanted to show how appreciative they were that he - a man who had made the cover of Time - had decided to grace little old Seattle with a visit.

He read his remarks, which didn't bother me in the least, though Walt was a bit disappointed. I thought he gave serious consideration to the 4 questions he had decided to answer, including the question of influence and of the autobiographical factor. I wasn't surprised to learn that he admires Kafka and I wasn't surprised to hear that he doesn't admire Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. I thought it was kind of brave of him to say this aloud, especially about Virginia Woolf. She is revered by feminists, after all. But her novels are nearly unreadable, I'm sorry to report. Her essays and journals are much more interesting to read.

I came across Franzen several years ago, when I was living in Paris and had a subscription to the New Yorker, a Christmas present from my mother. My mother would always give me checks that cost more to cash than they were worth, until I finally begged her to stop. So she got me a subscription. I read a Franzen short story (or was it an article) about his mother's illness and his father's dementia. It was intensely moving and grimly comic. I was hooked. I bought The Corrections, his massive novel about family life in the 90's, and devoured it. Then I forgot about him, until Time put him on the cover with that hyperbolic headline.

He has written a new novel, Freedom, and it is getting heavy promotion for a serious work of fiction. I think I'll check it out. Click on the title above for a link to the NY Times review of Freedom.

Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal

jeudi 9 septembre 2010

Back to the Island

The weather was better on Whidbey Island last weekend than it was in Seattle, apparently. We enjoyed the cool nights and mostly sunny days, and didn't feel too bummed out on Monday, when left the Island in the pouring rain.

I am really tempted to post photos of identifiable individuals gesture dancing to Leon Russell singing Back to the Island, an annual Labor Day Weekend ritual. But I know better: