Tuesday, January 17, 2006

carefree toddlers

If you’ve never taken a few minutes to watch toddlers wherever they are—whether it be at a coffee shop, a restaurant or a park—I highly recommend it. It’s really the most fun. Because they just don’t give a damn. And I mean that in the most un-cynical way possible. They don’t give a damn because I don’t think they know what it means—to worry about what other people think or to need a reason for everything they do. Take this little girl Molly, who is presently sipping some hot milk foam from an espresso cup at the table next to me at a neighborhood coffee shop. She is really living life to the fullest. Just stuck her finger into the foam, which her mom topped off with some cinnamon, and sucked it off with a huge slurp and grin. This is following her glee at running down the very short ramp that leads into the coffee shop, up the single step that goes up, and then down the ramp again.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

I love fliers

Well, I don’t normally love fliers. I don’t like the ones passed out on the street for shoe sales, discounted men’s suits or pizza parlors, or the kind that come in my mailbox alerting me to someone who’s been missing for thirty years, whose four-year-old picture has been altered to make him look thirty-four. And I don’t particularly care for the slips of paper I find under my door telling me the building’s shutting off water in my unit during the exact time I usually like to take a shower. But I love seeing fliers for local events and establishments sitting on the counters of local establishments, precisely because I don’t find them in New York. Or at least not in the neighborhood where I grew up.
Like today, I’m paying for greeting cards at the Papyrus in Center City and see a booklet for coupons related to exhibits and events honoring Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. Philadelphia—yes the entire city—is celebrating Ben Franklin’s year of birth for the next several months, and the Papyrus cashier told me the people who dropped off the booklets insisted she join them in a round of song. (The song was “happy birthday”) What is especially amusing about imagining this scene—beyond wondering if the booklet-distributers, regardless of gender, were wearing long balding-haired wigs and spectacles, is that Center City is not a tourist area. It might be a place where tourists visit, but when I first entered the store I overheard a couple asking if Papyrus sold Philadelphia-themed postcards and the woman behind the counter told them to head to South Street. (South Street is far more like the Times Square of Philadelphia than Center City.) I also love that I can find passes for free yoga classes sitting on a sill in my neighborhood coffee shop, and that almost all the coffee shops exhibit postcards, if not the actual paintings, of local artists.
And to give a little shout out to Philadelphia—an article in the January issue of National Geographic named it the America’s Next Great City. Perhaps the best part of the article is that it features Kyle Farley, a history PhD student who takes the author on a tour of Philadelphia. And at the end of the tour, which leaves off in Rittenhouse Square, he talks about Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and how she writes about the “ballet” of the Rittenhouse Square. It’s worth sharing some of the steps of that ballet here:
“First, a few early-bird walkers who live beside the park take brisk strolls. They are shortly joined, and followed, by residents who cross the park on their way to work out of the district. Next come people from outside the district, crossing the park on their way to work within the neighborhood. Soon after these people have left the square the errand-goers start to come through, many of them lingering, and in mid-morning mothers and small children come in, along with an increasing number of shoppers. Before noon the mothers and children leave, but the square’s population continues to grow because of employees on their lunch hour and also because of people coming from elsewhere to lunch at the art club and the other restaurants around . . . (and so on). See page 97 for more.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

On writing, age and memory

I’ve always thought about writing as a way to record rather than forget. That is, until listening to an interview with Roger Angell—currently on the New Yorker website. Angell, who has written for the magazine since 1944 and is the stepson of E.B. White and son of Katherine White (former New Yorker editor) talks about the element of sadness involved in putting your memories on paper. Because as soon as you see them in print, all of a sudden they’re gone. That is, they’re not really in your head anymore.

I suppose this is true, in the sense that the memory becomes something apart from you. But I don’t know that I would agree that it leaves you entirely. Takes new shape, perhaps, but don’t memories change each time you recall them—regardless of whether or not you write them down?

The actual piece in the magazine got me thinking about the constraints and freedom of writing—or rather, on writing certain types of things. Angell is 85, and I wonder how much age gives liberty to deal with certain topics. The article follows his journey through graveyards, copying down epitaphs from the tombs of family members that died in the 17 and 1800s—noting the architecture, nearby suburbs and foliage as he goes. A trip to the cemetery with future plots for him and his wife and graves of closest family members gets him thinking about his mother and how he remembers her. Despite the fact that former New Yorker editor William Maxwell once told Angell that one of the greatest mercies humans are provided with is that a few months after someone close to us has died the vision of him in sickness or great age is replaced with a much younger memory of that same parent or husband or friend at his youthful best Angell remembers his mother in her later years. He pictures her at the dining table and presents us with a flowing list of worries she would have had about people, jobs, events, chores…. He offers us certain details about peoples’ lives that I don’t think I could do at 25. I’m sure this has to do, in part, with the fact that many of the people he mentions are dead, and therefore will never read what he has revealed to the magazine’s audience (while, of course, most of the people I have ever known are still around—knock on wood—and would have every opportunity to raise an eyebrow). But there’s also a way that the writing of young people—and of course not just young people—is stymied by fear of stunting their professional aspirations. There are inevitably millions of amazing ideas for books and article boiling in peoples’ heads that might not find their way to paper until it’s “safe enough.” Clearly I’m writing about this because I have an idea of my own—to write something about being a graduate student at an elite institution—about the experiences of learning, but especially teaching. I would hope to emulate Adam Gopnik—since his book Paris to the Moon is my favorite piece of creative non-fiction. There are observations and moments of self-realization that are hilarious without being self-consciously so. And there are infinite beautiful—but always subtly beautiful—passages about his environment—the city of Paris. And I think there’s a market for the book—from the people who go to college and send their kids to college, wanting to know something about who the people who teach their children really are.

But for the moment I’ll keep my notes about my experiences in my journal. Maybe until I’m 85. Or at least until I have tenure.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

to save or not to save

I wonder how many people save their personal calendars from year to year? Of course that’s assuming someone has a date books with paper as opposed to an Outlook calendar on his computer or a Palm Pilot. I don’t have either of those or really know how to work one, but I assume the information just stays stored for as long as you decide to keep the technology and then disappears unless you transfer onto some means of storage. No, I’m talking about good old fashion date books, like the Week-at-a-Glance my mom has or the filofax that I’ve been keeping with varying levels of regularity since college. With a Week-at-a-Glance it’s an all or nothing deal. You file the small booklet away somewhere or you throw it away. But with a Filofax you’d have to clip together the pages and find some tidy way of placing them in a drawer—maybe create a large manila envelope labeled “Filofax pages” I don’t know. But every year I end up throwing them away—thinking that I don’t need to add the paper clutter that steadily mounts every year. And yet, in some ways looking back through my notes from the last year are more interesting than my journal (which I don’t keep as regularly as I’d like.) There’s what I did with my life as well as what I might have done with my life, of course making me wonder what would have happened if I had chosen door number two. There’s the party I went to and the party I could have gone to. And then there are some ways that my planner looks as much like a year-in-the-life of Philadelphia as it does a year in the life of me—notes about exhibits, concerts, lectures, parades that I may have jotted down as soon as an event calendar came in the mail or after procrastinating for a while on City Search just so I would know what was going on in case I chose to spent an evening or an afternoon that way. And then there are the reminders of contacts lost that you might want to refoster—a phone number or email address jotted next to a name.

As I’ve been writing I’ve been turning the pages: June 2004 to December 2005. Have to take them out to make room for the new. Have to get down all those plans and possibilities for the future. And in the end, I think throwing away all the old ones won’t make me forget the past.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coffee Shop "Character-Watching"

There is no better place than La Colombe for people watching in Philadelphia. La Columbe is a no frills coffee shop right off of Rittenhouse Square. And by no frills, I mean they sell coffee, brewed in Italy, that tastes like espresso. There’s a small display case on the far left side of the coffee bar where you wait for your drink that early in the morning features a handful of pain au chocolate. But otherwise you get your coffee in a Florentine-patterned mug or to-go cup, a real spoon perched on a plate in front of you to stir your milk (which is promptly whisked away as soon as you’re done) and some very thin square paper napkins if you want them.

And by people-watching I do not mean 20-60-something year old women wearing the latest fall rain coat or shade of orange that’s pictured in clips in the style section of the Sunday New York Times. I really mean “character-watching.” In fact I don’t think Philadelphia has the kind of people-watching you get in New York. If there’s a place to sit and watch the rich, famous or glamorous parade by, I have yet to find it. A really c-level documentary on Rittenhouse Square—made last year as a favor to someone who had lived in Rittenhouse most of his life—featured several older men talking about all the pretty ladies who pass through the square. But to be perfectly honest, in the summertime, you’re as likely to see a homeless man sprawled on a bench with his hands down his pants or a teenager with spiked hair playing hacky sack, as you are a “pretty lady.” Of course, this is part of what gives Philadelphia its unique “charm.” And at La Columbe, it’s out it full force. There are the ubiquitous students, with their Macs and books. I’m going to guess law or Wharton for the girl sitting off to my right with the black turtleneck under a v-neck sweater. There’s the young Israeli guy serving coffee. (La Columbe gets a big international crowd. And it’s very much an “international coffee shop”—as in no tacit rule that some people aren’t supposed to talk as others study and people put a bag on a second chair so no one joins them. Instead people yap, often loudly, and the “barrista”—except I don’t think the Israeli would call himself that—seems to know half the people in the room.) Then there’s this rather strange, lanky man who sat down at a table near a door and put his finger in a little hole that looks like it would open the door, except the door doesn’t open. He kept getting up, leaving his coat, stepping outside, and returning to his table. But he was just joined by a woman with a bag from DiBruno’s—the local version of Grace’s that originated as a small Italian business, but recently moved to a much larger, more brightly lit space, added produce, and raised their prices. So anyway, maybe the man isn’t as strange as I thought after all. There’s a guy who’s clearly on his way to yoga—wearing a pack with a blue mat tucked into it—who’s talking to a woman wearing UGG boots. And there’s always your share of people who look like they might not have brushed their hair in a few days.

I should probably get back to reading a book about the American Colonies.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

the worlds of hobbies

Part of the fun of starting up a new hobby is that it exposes you to the details—sometimes bizarre, sometimes exhilarating—of a new little world you might never have noticed before.

Take running. Prior to running the Philly marathon this fall the extent of my involvement in the sport included a 45 minute jog outside or on the treadmill and one 8-miler that some friends and I decided to do on a whim sophomore year in college. (I remember afterwards saying to my roommate: “I feel like an oven—my body can burn anything right now” and proceeded to attend a study break where I consumed a quantity of mozzarella sticks that surely replenished all the calories I had expended.) And I flirted with the idea of training for 26 miles senior year but decided it would be too much of a time commitment.

“Gear” consisted of sneakers, of course, and on cold days—meaning probably nothing below 40 degrees—a pair of sweat pants and either a black or yellow fleece I had bought for a very good price at Old Navy. (I just uncovered a maroon fleece vest I bought the same year, also for a very good price, that I fully intend to reintegrate into my wardrobe.)

But of course, once I started to running, I found myself immersed in a Runner’s World—learning a whole new vocabulary and spending a whole lot of cash. My knee started to bother me, which meant I had worn out the soles of my old sneakers and needed a new pair. Once it got cold I needed both short sleeve tops and long sleeve ones in that whick away material—because of course it wouldn’t due to retain my perspiration if I were running for over an hour. And of course I couldn’t look dowdy, so I needed the hot pink New Balance top with the nifty holes at the end of the sleeves where you can stick your thumbs and not have to wear gloves. And then there was GU. I know you’re asking: What the heck is GU? And there’s a reason you’ve never heard of it. It’s because there’s absolutely no reason to ever come across it, let alone consume it, unless you’re planning on exercising, non stop (except for walk breaks of course) for over two hours. I don’t think that’s what it says on the package, but it sounds good to me. It’s a substance that has the consistency of ointment, is made out of pure sugar and comes in various flavors ranging from Vanilla Bean to Orange Cream. And they all contain caffeine. And the more I run the more I can spot the real “runners” from the sporadic joggers. Like the person who wears the sweatpants and the Old Navy fleece at 40 degrees. Forty degrees is balmy.

The latest world I’ve entered into is the world of blogging. Since I started blogging I’ve been looking at other blogs and only just learned the extent of it. As in, I saw a comment somewhere about how more people read the top blogs than watch the top news programs or read the top newspapers or magazines. I’ve also found, through links on blogs linked to other blogs, some of my own favorite blogs. In particular, I recommend one my a man named Michael Berube. I would type in his name so you could click on it and go straight to his site, but it’s too late for me to figure out how to do that. He’s a professor of literature and cultural studies at Penn State, and writes about everything from academics to sports to family and movies. But I always find the topic is irrelevant if someone is a good writer. And he is just superb. It’s the kind of writing where you smile because you’ve just read a brilliant turn of phrase. I’ve also come across conversations about the potential problems involved in blogging. In my case, I’m a bit concerned that doing this somehow compromises my professionalism. Happy to hear any thoughts on that…

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Last Two Days at AHA

Sigh. Steve Spielberg (who was supposed to get an award) was a no show. Found out early in the afternoon that he couldn’t make it and that he had recorded a DVD instead. While I’m sure he had some very interesting things to say, I didn’t think it was worth sticking around for a simulated performance.

And I’ve only been to one panel so far, on “New Perspectives in Urban and Political History” which was quite good. But I’ve gotten the sense by now that AHA is more a meet market than a place to hear panels. People go to interview and be interviewed for jobs. Some schools rent rooms or suites, others get a cubicle in a ginormous ballroom where they interview between ten and forty candidates for a single position. And because you’re in a cubicle, you can hear what the person being interviewed next to you is saying. One professor I spoke with complained that all the people going for jobs look the same—very “corporate.” Though I’m not sure how else one would look for an interview—unkempt?

Some other things I learned . . . apparently there are certain hotels that have banned the AHA because historians are cheap on the tips. And one year, when the conference was in DC, restaurants had signs in their windows that said: We serve historians. Because again, historians are cheap and when they come in clumps you can spot their attire from a few blocks away.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

History Hollywood

I have officially become a history nerd. How do I know? Because Arnold Hirsch—acclaimed author of urban studies classic Making the Second Ghetto: Race & Housing in Chicago 1940-1960—is to me what Tom Cruise is to Ellen Degeneris. Not that I’d pass up a chance to meet Tom Cruise but I honestly can’t wait to meet the man who was the first to seriously examine a university as a player in urban development. What will he look like? And will he speak as well as he writes?

Hirsch will be moderating a panel at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, which convenes tomorrow in Philadelphia. You might call the meeting the Oscars for history professors. No awards (as far as I know)—except ironically one to Steven Spielberg for his work with the Shoah Foundation—but lots of “speeches” and an opportunity to see the Who’s Who of the profession. There may not be a line of ball gown bedecked women walking along a red carpet, but there will surely be a queue of history professors in tweed blazers and button down shirts of every possible shade waiting on an inevitably dark paisley carpet of the conference center for the opportunity to pick up a name badge and listing of events.

It’s a strange thing when you realize that you and your friends are starting to make their way into different professional niches—to learn special languages outside those universal ones you understood in college. All of a sudden “room draw,” “course shopping,” “eating clubs,” and “thesisizing” are replaced—in my case—by words like “conferences” “journals” and “job talks.” Med school friends and neighbors talk about clinics, rotations and residencies and future JDs about the importance of getting on the Law Review. But the process is also thrilling—envisioning those same friends at the top of their field—and having a sense, through regular conversations, of how they got there.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

More on "Munich"

I wanted to add to my blog on "Munich" from two days ago--mainly to recommend listening to Terry Gross' January 3rd interview with Tony Kushner on NPR's Fresh Air.

On the topic of fact and fiction, Kushner in essence says that it behooves the screenplay writer and director to make clear what falls into the realm of each and that he assumes the audience will research what they're not sure about either before or after watching the film.

Among the other topics Kushner talks about are: criticisms of the film, some of Spielberg's motivations for creating the movie--as memorial to the murdered Olympians, which the Olympic committee has refused to create, as opportunity to highlight Jews in an action film, as attempt to catalyze conversation of the moral complexity involved in assassination, no matter the reasons behind it, and to prompt conversation about the Middle East.
As always Terry Gross asks pointed and poignant yet smoothly and thoughtfully articulated questions.

From PhD to Doctor

It’s inescapable. The question every PhD faces after she tells someone what she does.

“So what do you want to do with that?” Pause. “Teach?” or Pause. “And you’ll be in that program forever won’t you?”

But the other day I had a new question—someone asked me not only what I wanted to do with my degree, but what that degree actually was. It was with a doorwoman in my building. I had decided to chat with her before heading into the elevator. She asked what I was studying, and after I responded asked me to further explain. I said it was an academic degree that took at least five years, would qualify me to teach at a university, and earn me the title of “Doctor.” She then asked if I would be teaching medicine. When I told her I was focusing on history she asked if it was the history of medicine. And when I responded that no, it was the history of American cities in the 20th century, she asked why it was I had decided to study that? I then started on my shpeil about wanting to be a journalist when I was in college but how I felt stymied by the deadlines and never having the time to explore a subject in the depth I wanted (I’ll spare you the full extent of it here.)

The conversation got me thinking about titles, and whether academics shouldn’t have one that’s different from the one assigned those who go through medical school, internships and residencies. Of course, the degrees are different—M.D. vs. PhD. But somehow the salutation ends up being the same. Does it have something to do with the length of time that academic graduate students are in school before they earn their degree? It’s longer than for other degrees such as MBAs or JDs, but still far shorter than the length of time doctors had to spend learning how to diagnose disease. And no matter how much bombastic prose I might drum up to explain what I do (or aspire to do)—“shaping young minds” just doesn’t sound as crucial as “saving lives.”

I’m not trying to downplay the work of the PhD candidate. In fact I think it might be psychologically debilitating for me to do so since I’m spending at least five years of my life on it. But maybe the PhD should confer a title other than “Dr.” There’s Professor—but somehow after getting used to students calling professors doctors, it doesn’t seem like enough!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Munich ("Inspired by Real Events")

I spend a lot of time thinking about how people get their information—what shapes the way they see the world. In fact my answer has much to do with why I decided to pursue a PhD in history. While myriad forces—from family to a flashing message on a bill board might influence thoughts, decisions, ideas . . . my theory is that education and journalism are two of the largest feeders of information about society. We learn a lot about what’s going on in the world around us from what we read in the paper and see on the news, and we hopefully learn to critically analyze that information from the books our teachers assign us to read and the conversations we have in the classroom. Of course, whether or not the journalism is objective and teachers try to expose us to the widest possible variety of views is another topic worthy of discussion—but ideally they both aspire to.

What responsibility, on the other hand, do artists have to tell us when they’re conveying or fabricating “truth” (or at least attempting to do one or the other)? A few days ago one of my parent’s friends started a conversation about “Munich” and the message before the beginning that the film had been “inspired by real events.” Did that announcement mean that some people watching the movie would think that most of the details—down to the emotions felt by former members of the Mossad—represented their real feelings? Would they think that the picture had represented the murder of the Israeli Olympians exactly as it had happened? Would they take the portrayal of the CIA as fact? When I left the movie I told my father that I was sure there had been some articles talking about the kernels of fiction and fact in the film. But I didn’t find many after doing a quick search on Google. It appears Time Magazine wrote a series of articles on the picture (including a cover story) that goes into some detail—but when I went to the magazine’s site I didn’t feel like paying money to access the archives. But the lack of focus on the historical content of the film perhaps speaks to the main message that audiences take away and Spielberg wants to convey—the moral conflict embedded in killing—even if it’s for the love of one’s country.

I know that many have criticized the film for portraying the Palestinians too sympathetically—but I would have to disagree with that assessment. True, we never see a Palestinian or Arab feeling guilty, but I think that implicates them more rather than less. There’s a scene towards the beginning where the Israelis are watching a news report on throngs of Palestinians rejoicing upon the safe return of several of the terrorists. I certainly don’t think that scene, for example, show the Palestinians in a favorable light.

Regardless of how true or not true the movie is to the facts of what happened in 1972—it’s true to the questions still among us over thirty years later. Looking at an image of the World Trade Center towers in the backdrop of the last scene it’s impossible not to wonder whether and how there will ever be peace in the Middle East.

Monday, January 02, 2006

jogging geography

I only notice Manhattan’s topography when I’m running. That is, if I choose the streets as opposed to the path along the East River Drive, which is relatively flat other than stairs that take you up to the boardwalk and dog park around 79th street. But I don’t love that little piece of path in the 60s preceded by the sign that says “path narrows here” that takes you perilously close to the whizzing cars. And for some reason it always makes me a little sad to look down at some garbage floating in the water and think that at one point New Yorkers headed to the eastern shores of the island to take a dip on a hot day.

So instead, today I decided to zig zag through the city toward the Central Park reservoir. And it’s only when I’m running, rather than walking, that I notice the hills. Like the one on Park between 66th and 67th. But what’s wonderful about running on the streets, as opposed to say, along one set jogging path is that you can decide—hmm, I think I’ll take a left at 66th onto that nice and even looking block as opposed to continuing along the avenue.

Running also makes me realize how small the city is. It seems as though I’ve just set out and all of a sudden me in my spandex is winding my through crowds of shoppers outside of Bloomingdales who are clearly not from New York City given that they look they’re out for a stroll on a country road rather than fighting pedestrian traffic. (You don’t just follow the people in front of you. You need to learn how to weave!) Then I’m on Park, passing European cultural institutes and on Fifth looking at industrial-age mansions turned museums. (Oh, and I have to mention that the Met looks beautiful—if you haven’t seen the restorations. The stone looks just as it must have when the institution was first built.)