Monday, March 27, 2006

more later

Excerpts from the most compelling collection of essays I’ve come across as of yet, How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen.

From First City:
Two things that happened this year got me wondering why American cities in general and New York City in particular still bother to exist….

And, fond that I am of Central Park and the subways, I have no overpowering love for the Apple as a whole. The city has little of the soul-stirring desolation of Philadelphia, say, and none of the deep familiarity of Chicago, where I was born. What draws me back, again and again, is safety. Nowhere else am I safe from the question: Why here?

Manhattan, in particular, offers the reassurance of high rents, which means that this is a city that people want to live in, not escape from…

There’s no better way of rejecting where you came from, no plainer declaration of an intention to reinvent yourself, than moving to New York; I speak from personal experience…

So cities will continue to see, at a minimum, heavy nighttime and weekend use—unless, of course, Internet-brokered marriages become common; and the only thing more dismal to imagine than virtual courtship is daily life in the marriage of two people who would court that way.
In Why Bother, my favorite essay from the collection, he writes of readers and writers and the intrinsic bond that exists between them. Reading the essay made me realize that my thinking for much of my adolescence that I was destined to be a writer was not completely absurd, since according to what he writes, I fall into the “social-isolate” category of readers, who “are much more likely to become writers” than other readers (but on realizing that while I have the insight of a writer (or like to think so), I lack both the articulation and imagination to suceed as a writer, I became an engineer instead):
For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she [Shirley Brice Heath] told me, two things have to be in place. First, the habit of reading works of substance must have been “heavily modeled” when he or she was very young. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same….

Simply having a parent that reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader. According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest…

As Heath unpacked her findings to me, I was remembering the joy with which I’d discovered two friends in junior high with whom I could talk about J.R.R. Tolkien. I was also considering that for me, today, there is nothing sexier than a reader. But then it occurred to me that I didn’t even meet Heath’s first precondition. I told her I didn’t remember either of my parents reading a book when I was a child, except aloud to me.

Without missing a beat Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him…”

Pride compels me, here, to draw a distinction between young fiction readers and young nerds. The classic nerd, who finds a home in facts or technology or numbers, is marked not by a displaced sociability but by an antisociability. Reading does resemble more nerdy pursuits in that it’s a habit that both feeds on a sense of isolation and aggravates it. Simply being a “social isolate” as a child does not, however, doom you to bad breath and poor party skills as an adult. In fact, it can make you hypersocial. It’s just that at some point you’ll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading—to reconnect to that community.

According to Heath, readers of the social-isolate variety (she also calls them “resistant readers”) are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety. If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness…
From Lost in the Mail:
A freestanding Philatelic Center sells hummingbirds and self-adhesive squirrels and, in every shape and color, love, LOVE, Love—the cheery abstraction that American postage commemorates like royalty.
From Books in Bed:
This is the conundrum of the individual confronting masses about which he can’t help knowing more than he’d like to know: I want to be alone, but not too alone. I want to be the same but different.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

beards are in?

So this article claims. Well, sort of...
No survey ever conducted about women's attitudes toward beards, even those not underwritten by the Gillette Company, has indicated that more than 2 or 3 percent of women would describe a full beard as sexy...

That a full beard can suddenly look right — or, more accurately, not so awful — illustrates how quickly ideals of masculinity can change.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

get your free Starbucks coffee tomorrow

Read details here:
Starbucks says it will give away free cups of coffee on Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. at 7,500 of its stores nationwide.

Pi Day and Purim Collide

A quiz for you.

Monday, March 13, 2006

although he loses points for the unoriginal title*

Best argument in support of atheism I've come across as of yet: Defenders of the Faith. Perhaps because Zizek makes no attempt to disprove the existence of G-d. That being said, it's still a largely flawed argument, but I won't ruin the fun by pointing out the weak spots.

The opening paragraph:
FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?
*"Defender of the Faith," short story by Phillip Roth (p. 1960)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

you have to be one to know one

Yesterday, I went to hear Jorge Cham’s talk, “The Power of Procrastination.” I discovered Cham's PhD comics shortly after beginning grad school and was sold on his remarkable ability to relate precisely what the average grad student endures through comics. His talk was entertaining enough, but I think his comics are far better. Although I was grateful to learn a few new things, like Newton’s Three Laws of Graduation:
First Law: “A grad student in procrastination tends to stay in procrastination unless an external force is applied to it.”
Also, his mention of a recent survey of graduate student conducted by U.C. Berkeley which found that:
  • 95% of all graduate students feel overwhelmed
  • 67% reported feeling hopeless at times
  • about 10% had seriously considered suicide
  • 1 in 200 had actually attempted suicide in the last year
made me reconsider a question that I’m sure I’ve thought about before: Is graduate school itself the cause of such angst? Or are the sorts of people who go to graduate school predisposed to falling prey to such feelings?

Link to one of my all time favorite PhD comics.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

and what are you looking at?

Interesting sighting of the day:

Petite mailwoman opens the front door of mailbox, remove the mailbox contents, turns around and sits in the mailbox! As I was passing, I couldn’t help glancing at her relaxing in the mailbox like it were a park bench, while she gave me a look of, “You mean you’ve never seen anyone taking a break in a mailbox before?”

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Matisyahu in Rolling Stone

Matisyahu: Hasidic Hot Stepper
Walking home recently from morning prayers, Matisyahu -- the Hasidic reggae MC -- got a call from his manager: Madonna wanted to invite him over for Passover Seder.

He revels in the energy of performing and was disappointed when rabbis said he couldn't stage-dive anymore, lest he end up diving into a woman.

The neighborhood [Crown Heights] has the nation's highest percentage of Hasidic Jews; nearly every window has a sign that reads MESSIAH IS COMING!