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.