books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: Current Events


Here in Boston, we are in a Snowy Vortex–think 2014’s Polar Vortex–only less convenient. In the last two weeks, we’ve had so much snow here that I’ve lost track of the totals. Suffice it to say, it is A LOT. Service from the MBTA (our local public transit system) has been spotty or completely shut down, businesses have been closed, roads have been clogged with traffic and basically everyone you talk to has had enough.

Unless you happen to talk to a school-age child, that is! They love the snow.
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I think my dog does too.

After reading this Cognoscenti piece by Barbara Howard last Friday, I regained my own composure and perspective. It offered a good reminder that while for some, extreme weather is a matter of inconvenience, for others it can mean the difference between making it to work in order to make ends meet or not. So now, I am all about finding my zen–even in the midst of this snowy disruption.

Taking a walk helps–the fresh air and exercise truly does help to stave off cabin fever! And even this reader needs to get her nose out from behind her books.

While I was out for a walk this afternoon with my pup, I thought of this 1921 poem from Wallace Stevens.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens, 1921.

Maybe thinking of the harsh weather as a catalyst to artistic expression is a good mindset to adopt.

And the snow does look pretty in the moonlight.


When the honor of our heroes is called into question.

Back in September, on a whim, I decided to watch a couple of episodes of The Cosby Show on Amazon with my son. We laughed and laughed, and I remembered why the show was so great. It was a nostalgic time machine. A straightforward family comedy with a positive and upbeat tone. The next week, I bought the first four seasons on DVD and for much of this fall, we have been watching the show together as a family one night a week.

In the 80s, Cliff Huxtable was America’s Dad–funny, yet sensitive. A reasonable disciplinarian and a role model. In short, all of the qualities to which one might aspire. Bill Cosby, himself (forgive the pun), was too.

Fresh off my renewed engagement with Cosby’s 80s persona, last month, I bought Mark Whitaker’s biography Cosby. Unlike many biographies, this one (authorized by the subject) is a very readable book that fully holds the reader’s interest.

But soon after I finished reading, there was this. And this. And now this.

And I am a bit at a loss. On NPR’s Weekend Edition, Cosby refused to comment on the allegations when asked by Scott Simon. And I wonder–is a refusal to comment on accusations a refusal to dignify the kids of claims that are often hurled at a person of influence. Or, is it a guilty silence? I don’t know. Innocent until proven guilty, right? But a sad thought to consider this at all. It is a hard lesson to realize that our childhood heroes may not be infallible. 😦
What are your thoughts on this?


Current Events: Hanna Rosin on sexting in The Atlantic.

This week, a number of gender-related issues grabbed my attention. In this week’s Atlantic Hanna Rosin writes about the teen-sexting phenomenon. This topic is one that merits consideration for many reasons—not the least of which being because I have children and think a lot about how to raise a son that is respectful of women in a culture that often objectifies them and how to raise a daughter that is confident and self-aware, despite messages that offer another script.

Don’t even get me started on the perils of this (even for consenting adults: e.g. see Anthony Weiner) and the reality of the digital trail we leave behind, but Rosin’s piece seeks to explain why teens are sexting in the first place. Many of the observations Rosin offers make sense: particularly her point that for teens, sexting is not a gateway sexual activity—rather, it is the activity. But the reasons behind it aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect. “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told [Rosin], referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

That is the thing that troubles me the most, I think—the desensitization to the images themselves and the dehumanizing of the female subjects. Rosin’s interviews reveal the repeated badgering girls endure via text by male classmates who are seeking to add images to their collection. Once upon a time the currency of hypermale culture were the proverbial notches in one’s belt and/or on one’s bedpost were: now texted images serve the same purpose. Obviously, I don’t advocate for either; however, I wonder if the latter is even more dangerous—as there can be innumerable witnesses, since the internet knows no bounds.

Scary stuff. For a fictional account of how sexting can wreak havoc on the lives of teens and their families, read Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life (2012). It is a thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing look at technology and its ability to change one’s present—and future—in an instant.

Newsflash: Kids Will Eat What You Put in Front of Them and Are Not Programmed to Eat Junk.

But if they are offered a bunch of junk, then that is what they will eat. I will never forget when my son was in second grade and one of his classmates said that the food I had made for dinner was “so disgusting.” It wasn’t—just a simple meal of homemade chicken tenders, a green salad, and a fruit plate—but it wasn’t from a box or a bag, or something that was cooked in the microwave. The same child also told me that I had “the worst snacks ever” at my house, so there’s that too. But as my son soon came to realize, he was eating differently than many of his peers. While others brought snack bags with Doritos, juice boxes, and cookies, his bag contained water, some fruit, yogurt, and maybe some Goldfish if he was lucky. I am not an extremist by any means—we enjoy treats here and there, but by and large, that happens outside of our home. Here at home, there is plenty of real food, but little (if any) junk food.

I suppose I have my pediatrician to thank for the early advice when it came to feeding my children. Milk and water only, she advised. Introduce vegetables before fruits. Whole grains bread over white. In short, feed them real food.

Back in July, I saw the film, Fed Up, which offers a critical look at the food industry in America—by zeroing in on the additive that is most harmful to our health: sugar. It was eye opening to say the least—particularly when you consider that more than 80% of food items in the United States have added sugar. By 2050, one out of every three Americans will have diabetes.

The biggest offender in sugar delivery may with drinks—I routinely see young kids guzzling down sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, etc.) like they are going out of style—this, despite the fact that the World Health Organization’s maximum recommended refined sugar intake for children is no more than 3 teaspoons (approximately 12 grams) and most 20-oz sports drinks contain a whopping 9 teaspoons (more than 40 grams) of sugar.

This article from Sunday’s NYT from food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman on how to influence your kids’ eating habits—and ultimately, preserve their health—is a must read. It all comes back to the basics: offer real food and cook when you can. Meals need not be elaborate affairs either: in my house sometimes eggs, yogurt, and fruit are as creative as I can get after a long day. Bittman writes, “Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk, and they should set and enforce rules on what their children are allowed to eat. I can be even more specific: Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can. Worry less about labels like “G.M.O.” and “organic” and “local” and more about whether the food you’re giving your children is real.”

After all, kids will eat what you put in front of them—and they don’t need Happy Meals to be happy. 🙂

Fed Up is now available for purchase and online streaming. I highly recommend it! Watch the trailer here:

Current Events: On Being Mortal and Living (or Dying) With Dignity.

Back in June, I wrote about going to see surgeon and writer Dr. Atul Gawande speak about the state of healthcare in the United States, as well as discuss his forthcoming book, which offers a look at the choices clinicians and families make when it comes to end-of-life care. The book Being Mortal: On Medicine and What Matters in the End was released this week and carefully considers whether the medical interventions that modern medicine can provide are always in the best interest of the patient when it comes to later in life. We mistakenly treat elders as children, Dr. Gawande says, when we deny them the right to make choices, even bad choices. And sometimes patients need to be able to control not how they die, but rather, how they choose to live out the rest of their days. Read this excerpt from last Sunday’s New York Times where Gawande offers such an example.

This week, Brittany Maynard was also in the news for her very public (and personal) advocacy for the Death With Dignity movement. Maynard, who is 29, was diagnosed in April with glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal form of brain cancer. Since her diagnosis, she has moved to Oregon, where the Death With Dignity Act would allow her to take her own life with prescribed medication. Maynard has written about her decision for CNN and has made an online video that has been viewed over 7 million times. Watching Maynard speak about her desire to control the way she passes—so that she doesn’t have to suffer and so she can be surrounded by friends and family—is moving and devastating. Obviously it is not a decision one makes lightly, but it can be difficult one for outsiders to accept.

Many states have legislation pending on this very issue, but for many, it is a tough topic to consider—especially when they have loved ones involved. Most people would agree that needless suffering is unwarranted, but others say that it is better to hold on for hope or a miracle cure. I am not sure there is an easy answer or a “right” choice for anyone—but reading these alternate perspectives, from a medical expert and from a patient confronted with these choices—is thought provoking to say the least.

The Creative Class and Where They Live.

Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, gave name to a discrete group of individuals, “Creative Class” (which he defined as “a class of workers whose job is to create meaningful new forms”), and argued that this group would be the leading force of growth in the economy—particularly in post industrial US cities. Florida posited that the economy would grow by over 10 million jobs in the next decade, which in 2012, would equal almost 40% of the population.

Then the Great Recession happened. And despite the wholehearted embrace of Florida’s ideology (i.e. if a city has access to the three “Ts” it can be successful: talent, tolerance, and technology) by many metropolises suffering from urban blight, by some measures, the impact was not quite as rapid and dramatic as Florida suggested. And in fact, some argued that his message introduced a whole host of other potential problems, such as gentrification and affordable housing concerns. Some, who believed in Florida’s message, found themselves disappointed with the actual outcome.

Writer Frank Bures was one of the people who relay such a story. He writes that for a “variety of not-very-well-thought-out reasons,” he and his wife moved to Madison, Wisconsin, including the fact that the city had ”been deemed a ‘Cre­ative Class’ strong­hold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool.” Bures argues that much of what Florida suggested in his book was already part of a commonly-accepted economic viewpoint, the Human Capital Theory, which says that it is the amount of college educated people in an area that drives economic growth—not artists, innovators, and gay people—many of whom hold college degrees.”

Florida responded to Bures’s piece by noting that the Human Capital Theory does not provide as comprehensive a picture of the Creative Class as does his alternate approach. He writes, “The two measures have meaningful, important and very useful differences. Human capital theory uses educational attainment (typically the percentage of adults with a college degree), a very broad measure that excludes such successful entrepreneurs as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn’t graduate from college. My creative class measure is based on the work people actually do, as measured by detailed Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This allows researchers and economic developers to zero in on the actual occupational categories – science and engineering, arts and culture, business and management, meds and eds – that make up the creative class and other occupational classes.”

I have been thinking a lot about this issue–of The Creative Class, where they live, how they live, and how they support themselves while creating their art. Particularly in the case of writers–when they are not under contract for a new work. This was particularly on my mind this last week after reading Emily Gould’s piece “How Much My Novel Cost Me” and this article  from NextCity which included the map below. The map shows New York City and how different parts of the city (and different buroughs) are divided up by types of jobs–with large concentrations of creatives in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where, obviously housing costs are astronomically high. But then again, opportunity is obviously significantly greater–or is it? Thoughts on this?

“The Divided City” map organizes NYC into the creative class, the working class and the service class. (Source: The Martin Prosperity Institute)

“The Divided City” map organizes NYC into the creative class, the working class and the service class. (Source: The Martin Prosperity Institute)

Miss, Mrs., Ms.. and The Politics of Naming.

Yesterday, I wrote a piece on the politics of naming–use of the title “Mrs.” for adult women, or the default use of a husband’s surname–for WBUR’s Cognoscenti that touched a nerve–at least for a few commenters. Some suggested that I was being overly sensitive, while others echoed my discomfort–but the real reason I wrote the piece, which was to consider the question of why this can be a fraught experience for many women, seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

I wear a lot of hats. I am a wife and I am a mother. And I would say that for me, those are the two most important hats I wear. But I am also a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a really bad piano player…you get the idea. So in some contexts I do feel a twinge when referred to as “Mrs.”–and it is hard to explain why. Is it because it presumes (or privileges) one identity when ignoring the others? I don’t know. Would I feel better being addressed as Ms.? Maybe. Or by my given name? Probably.

There is no easy answer.

For some women, this is a non issue–not something they ever consider. And that is fine too. But to dismiss the fact that this *is* a gendered conundrum would be akin to wearing blinders. The truth is, men are always Mister–married or not. But it is only women that have to address the question of prefix titles once they are of marriageable age.

A male friend made this point: “A discussion on gender roles in our society is certainly something that matters, given that women still earn less than men and are still having to assert and prove themselves more rigorously than their male counterparts. And what may be just a silly name to one can mean a lot more to another…like the whole ‘marry’ vs. ‘civil union’ thing.”

And so. Where do we go from here? Address that how we are addressed is a topic worthy of debate. Allow other women to grapple with the matter–publicly, privately–however they see fit. And finally, appreciate the fact that our varied points of view  benefit us all–particularly when we take the time to truly listen.

Women wearing many hats. ;)

Women wearing many hats. 😉

Out on a school night: Four Stories at Cambridge’s Middlesex Lounge.

Let me set the scene for you: last night I threw together a dinner for my kids and when I spotted my husband pull up to the house from work, I skipped out to jump in my car. On the way, after I tripped over a scooter and two bikes, I was stopped by S., my daughter’s classmate and our neighbor.

“Are you going out, Mrs. M?” he asked, wide-eyed.

I explained that I was going to hear four authors (Robin Black, Julia Fierro, Jennifer Haigh, and Joanna Rakoff) read from their work. “But it’s a school night!” he exclaimed. He thought about it for a moment. “Do they write books? Because my grandfather met a writer from The Boston Globe who writes about the Pats,” he said. When I confirmed that yes, these four authors that I was going to hear did write books, he seemed unimpressed. “Well, maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get an autograph,” he said, as he scooted away.

I arrived at the Middlesex Lounge shortly before the scheduled start time of Four Stories, which is a regular series (founded by writer Tracy Slater) that features notable authors reading together under a common theme. Last night’s theme was “Girls Night Out” and it was a lot of fun to listen to the authors read from their latest work–Black read from her novel Life Drawing, Fierro read from her novel Cutting Teeth (recently recognized by The New Yorker), Haigh read from a novel in-progress, and Rakoff read from her acclaimed memoir, My Salinger Year. I was already familiar with the work of three of the presenters (Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is terrific, Haigh’s Baker Towers is a favorite, and Rakoff’s memoir and her novel A Fortunate Age are not to be missed) but I haven’t yet read Fierro’s book–a work about four Brooklyn couples that rent a beach house together. After hearing her read a hilarious chapter from the perspective of character “Tiffany,” however, I can’t wait to start!

Four Stories is described as “like a 19th-century salon, only 150 years later–same socializing, same witty banter, corsets optional.”  So much fun! I can’t wait to go to another. I met some other writers, an opera singer, and even had the chance to chat with the delightful and charming Julia Fierro and Joanna Rakoff–the latter being gracious enough to sign my book and kindly listen to me gush about her work. 🙂

All in all, it was the perfect way to spend a Monday evening. Even if it was a school night. (And I am a bit tired this morning.)

I have no idea why I am in a weird rabbit pose here--maybe I am just full of glee?

Thank you to my friend R. for capturing this interchange. I have no idea why I am in a weird rabbit pose here–maybe I am just full of glee to be chatting to Joanna Rakoff?


Current Events: Big History, Big Money, and Big Questions.

This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured an interesting article by Andrew Ross Sorkin about Bill Gates’ Big History initiative. Apparently, a few years back, the newly retired Gates was doing his daily treadmill workout while watching one of the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series and he happened upon a course that mesmerized him. “Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity” developed by David Christian of Australia’s Macquarie University is a course that covers a lot of ground (as evidenced by its title) but rather than considering historical moments and epochs as discrete units, it instead aims to make connections for students to show that these are conversations and developments that occur over time. In courses I regularly teach, like World Literature, for example–this is an important message for students. Just as literature does not exist in a vacuum (it is always responding to what came before or anticipating what might come next), neither does history.

Christian designed and taught the course in 1989 for the first time to a group of 300 students. Word spread and quickly the course became overenrolled. Within a few years, the news Christian’s brainchild had traveled externally and he began to receive requests from other colleges and universities on how they could develop their own models of his course. In 2005, he was spotted by a Teaching Company scout at a conference and was asked to tape the class for the “Great Courses” series. The 48-lecture program was released in 2008, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After meeting with Christian, Gates made him an offer: they could partner to offer “Big History” to high school students across America and he would personally fund the project, so convinced he was of its promise. As of this fall, the course (The Big History Project) will be offered to more than 15K students in more than 1200 schools.

But the project is not without its critics.

Some suggest that teaching history in this way eliminates important elements of historical discourse (methodology, for one) and doesn’t allow for students to make the connections and draw conclusions independently, organically.

And as Sorkin‘s piece points out, some critics are skeptical because of the involvement of Gates himself. The former Microsoft chair has become a bit of a lightening rod within the education community–no doubt due to his foundation’s $200 million support of the Common Core initiative and involvement in other high profile education policy projects. Some suggest that Gates is simply throwing money at a cause, while lacking the discipline-specific expertise that is needed to spearhead such a plan. Scott L. Thomas, dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University puts it this way: “[Gates is] enabling the pursuit of this project. And frankly, in the eyes of the critics, he’s really not an expert. He just happens to be a guy that watched a DVD and thought it was a good idea and had a bunch of money to fund it.”

I am a bit conflicted on the project myself–on the one hand, it runs the risk of being a “fast-food” version of thousands of years of information. But on the other hand, it could be a way to introduce the big ideas and larger connections that might spark students’ interest to investigate various topics in greater depth. And I am also not sure how I feel about private funding in public education as a practice anyway.

What do you think about the Big History Project? Is this part of what the public education system in the U.S. is lacking? Or do we run the risk of diluting content and critical thinking by making easy connections?

Watch David Christian’s TED Talk: “A History of the World in 18 Minutes” and see what you think.


On the catwalk.

Every time I hear that phrase, I hear this Right Said Fred song in my head. Anyone else?

Well, NY Fashion Week is upon us! Dare I say, if it were not the first week of classes, I would be barreling down to NYC to visit my friend J. so we could try to score tickets to some events where I could maybe catch a glimpse of my two style idols: Jenna Lyons and Giovanna Battaglia.

Photo via Harper's Bazaar.

My style idols! In another life, I would have both of their closets! (Photo via Harper’s Bazaar.)

But alas, students and syllabi await. I do have a style-related book to recommend, however–Amanda BrooksI ♥ Your Style. How to Define and Refine Your Personal Style. Though released in 2009, this book is anything but old news.

Brooks (former Creative Director of Tuleh and a longtime fashion insider) gives thoughtful and useful suggestions for how to mix things up, while still staying in one’s comfort zone. And her advice is not too basic–she talks about proportions and fabrics with the authority of someone who knows her subject. It is smart writing about fashion.

The worlds of fashion and the bookminded need not be divided–for further discussion on this topic, see my piece from today’s Cognoscenti on the other Elements of Style.