Old Bev: Show Me The Baby

The babies are here! Boy (Gwyneth’s Moses), Girl (Brooke’s Grier), Girl (Angelina’s Shiloh), Boy (Gwen’s Kingston).  But where is Suri Cruise?

Katieholmes_2For me the story starts in March 2005.  I was walking up Third Avenue in the early evening and passed by Katie Holmes. She stood in front of Pop Bar and wore a white trench coat and passed a cigarette in and out of her lipsticked mouth and said loudly to her male companion, “I think it’ll be really good for my career.” She then blew a puff of smoke out the side of her lips toward a floodlight and glanced at the passersby, shifting her weight from right stiletto to left.  I didn’t think much of this.  The last news item I could remember about the WB-star was a terrible picture of her feet in a celebrity rag captioned “Katie has hammer toes.”  But by the end of April, Katie was everywhere, lurching along next to Tom Cruise at this premiere and on that talk show, eyes glistening and mouth either grinning or kissing.  She didn’t say much.  In June she was engaged and planning to convert to Scientology, and in October her pregnancy was announced.  Things moved fast.

That speed was the hallmark of the story, even more so than the sheer strangeness of the coupling.  Tom and Katie were in front of the camera so often, vehemently declaring their love so constantly, that in order to maintain the attention the romance had to progress.  Perhaps it was coincidence that the lovers each had a film to promote during their courtship – perhaps they just happened to be in the public eye during those momentous few months.  I’ve wanted to shout some private things to the entire world on several occasions, and perhaps Tom and Katie just had the chance.  But when the two ran out of vague news (love, religion, marriage, baby) to announce, well, the story slowed, and only the hovering cameras remembered the initial pace.  TomKat won’t announce a wedding date, won’t state whether Katie has converted, won’t show their daughter, Suri, to the world, and won’t answer why to any of it.  That story is stalled, pregnant and overdue, stuck in a long engagement, and the new story is no story at all.

UswheressuriKatie’s well documented pregnancy and undocumented parenting are a remarkable counterpoint to Britney Spears’ painfully public mothering.  Where Katie has seen her celebrity swell along with her stomach, Britney’s post-pregnant physique and baby-related gaffes have invited ridicule and scorn.  Katie exists in a fantasy land – marrying Tom Cruise, joining a top-secret religious organization, giving interviews she could never book before, having a mystery baby – and Britney’s just too awfully real with her wastrel husband and improperly installed car seat and surprise second pregnancy.  Neither woman is working (no movies, no albums). The tabloids go back and forth between them, upstairs and downstairs, and leave American women on the ground floor wondering if a baby’s a good thing at all. 

In fact, the celebrity baby sagas seem to me rather like horror stories.  Owing to her utter absence from the photographic record, Suri Cruise is now akin to something like a unicorn, sea monster, or Rosemary’s Baby.  She’s so mysterious that King of Queens star (and Scientologist) Leah Remini made the front page of CNN.com just by declaring that she’d held the little Cruise, and that Suri was a normal size.  Is Suri older than she should be?  Are there two babies?  Does she exist at all? For those of you who haven’t been following the conspiracy theory, some suspicious evidence:

1.    Katie’s belly: Pictures show it seemingly decrease in size a few weeks before Suri’s birth.
2.    Katie’s walk: Video shows a heavily pregnant Katie walking like someone who isn’t heavily pregnant.
3.    Suri’s birth certificate: It was filed late and is signed by a nurse who never saw the baby and an unidentified friend (on behalf of the parents).
4.    Suri’s name: My sister and I find it strange that Suri is composed of letters found in Cruise.

I think the secrecy is probably the result of a health problem, or a Scientology custom, or just a desire to keep a newborn out of the spotlight.  Or maybe Suri’s a little funny looking. Maybe it’s a PR ploy.  Pictures of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt sold to People for a reported $4.1 million and Suri couldn’t command more at birth.  Could be that TomKat is maintaining the attention by lying low, and is waiting to sell later.  In any case, the whole business gives me a creepy feeling in my neck.  I’ve never seen a celebrity trying so hard to be noticed as Katie Holmes was on Third Avenue last March (it sounds fantastic, but the story’s true), and now she can’t get to a Starbucks in Colorado without paparazzi on her tail.  But what really gets me is this focus on a phantom baby in tandem with all the other baby frenzy.  Now ambivalence about celebrity pregnancy has a name, and it’s Suri Cruise.

Teaser Appetizer: The Past and the Future of Happiness

The second line of the declaration of independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is ambiguous for a good reason: ambiguity in politics is as rewarding as precision in science. The authors of these lines were aware that only the pursuit was an “inalienable right” but not happiness itself. But this right may be wrong and the pursuit futile. Here is an example from Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain: (960 C.E): “I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my neither call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.”

Happy20sad20face_1Dearth of happiness seems to be the nature of existence and considerable human activity is geared to enhance it. What haven’t we done to chase this mirage! Our irrational tools are: war to attain peace; marriage-divorce–remarriage; crime and cocaine and of course Viagra for failing happiness. But the most bizarre is for religion to assert that my-god-is-better-than-your-god and if you agree, you will be happy but if you disagree I will kill you – that will make me happy.

Prophets, philosophers, psychologists, economists, biochemists and cynics have attempted to dish out prescriptions for utopia and their emphasis reflects the bias of their system.

The chase for the happiness mantra started many centuries ago. Buddha’s (540BC-480BC) doctrine of “four noble truths” acknowledges there is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire and the control of desire alleviates suffering. Dhammapada, a Buddhist text gave a prescription for happiness (verses 197–208) more than 2000 years ago “Live without hatred, anger and passion; stay healthy; avoid pursuit of worldly pleasure and possessions, stay tranquil in victory and defeat; seek company of noble and trustworthy kinsmen and avoid ignorant people”.

Socrates who lived a few years after Buddha echoed that a virtuous life was the essential prerequisite. The ingredients of the happiness cocktail have not changed: love, trust, kinship, achievement, money, health, self esteem and engaging activity. While Buddha would extol the virtues of suppression of desire, other disciplines would urge us to pursue them passionately.

Economists would like to inspire us to chase wealth. Fortunately for the uninspired, they have found no constant correlation between income and happiness. We know that the hungry poor are miserable and they are less so when they get some money, but happiness does not increase after a certain level of income. Richard Layard, a British economist calculated that fifteen thousand dollars was the threshold and any richer is not happier The Japanese have six times more money compared to 1950 and the Americans are twice as rich compared to 1970 but the populations are not any happier. (Layard, “Happiness: lessons from a New Science”) Wealth increases consumption but not happiness.

Can a Buddhist economic system increase happiness? Can the notion rooted in Buddhism — the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness– be delivered by state intervention? Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan (a Buddhist nation) suggested in 1972 that countries should be more concerned with “Gross National Happiness” than with Gross Domestic Product. His four pillars of GNH are: economic self-reliance, environment preservation, promotion of indigenous culture and good democratic governance. Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Southern California a supporter of this concept says “We have been misguided in dismissing what people say about how happy they are and simply assuming that if they are consuming more apples and buying more cars they are better off.” But history bears the evidence that economists’ failure to distribute happiness equitably is as successful as their distribution of wealth.

So much for the economists; what do the psychologists say? Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, conducted an elegant experiment with people from various cultures. He distributed pagers to a few thousand people and paged them randomly. He asked them to write down what they were doing and how they felt when the pager beeped. The investigation tried to capture the activity at the moment when people said they were happy. The study showed that people were happy when they were immersed in what they were doing and were oblivious even of the passage of time. They were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”.

Psychologists have even tried to quantify happiness. Interviews with more than 1,000 people has yielded the following: Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH). Here, P is personal traits like outlook and adaptability, E is existing health , finances and relationships; H stands for higher attributes like aspirations, expectations, self esteem and humor. Sounds like it is Dhammapda wine in a mathematical decanter.

Other psychologists have shown that happiness is not a formula but an inherited endowment. The level of happiness stays at a predetermined ‘set point’ and alters only temporarily after a life changing event. You would presume that a lottery winner will be eternally happy and a person crippled by an accident sad for ever. Not so. Both return to their original frame of happiness after about a year. Consider this formula: H=S+C+V. Here, H is happiness, S is your set point for happiness, C is the life situation and V is voluntary activity.

A formula can give you understanding of the happiness but cannot enhance it. Enter the biochemists who don’t want to be left behind in the pursuit of joy chemicals. They have matched our glandular secretions to our emotions. Some molecules seem to mirror our emotions:

  • Oxytocin – a hormone that augments uterine contractions during labor- is our bonding agent. The hypothalamus exudes it abundantly during bonding, mating, pregnancy and even a sensual massage.
  • Endorphins are internal opiates that relieve pain and induce a ‘high’ during strenuous jogging and are also released during laughter and orgasm.
  • Dopamine is the achievement and reward hormone; the levels rise not only after an accomplishment and also with the anticipation.
  • A passionate romance stimulates neural growth factor but the high levels recede after about two years. Nothing lasts for ever, especially romance.
  • And then there shines the star of mind modulators: 5-hydroxy tryptamine (5HT) also known as serotonin. When Marcus Aurelius meditated “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself” he may as well have been referring to 5HT.The vagaries of this single molecule suffuse mirth or misery; this alone decides who to bless and who to punish.

The human body has only 5 to10 milligrams of 5HT, ninety percent of which resides in intestines. Only half to one milligram lies ensconced in small packets, in the nerve cells of medulla, pons and midbrain. With an incoming signal the packets burst into the space between nerve cells and attach to receptor proteins. Scientists have characterized fifteen such receptors and each one modulates a different function like sleep, hunger, body temperature, muscle contraction and depression The quantity of 5HT and its attachment to a specific receptor determines individual’s psychological destiny.

Numerous studies in animals and humans have shown that low levels of 5HT are associated with depression, suicide, aggression, self destructive behavior and poor impulse control. Drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft increase the levels of 5HT and can alleviate these symptoms. Recreational drug ‘ecstasy’ surges the serotonin level in the neuronal synapse and inordinate excess results in ‘serotogenic syndrome’ a potentially lethal condition. Futile pursuit of happiness sometimes starts as a pursuit of hedonistic sensory pleasure but often leads to a contrary state – unhappiness.

So here we are: from Buddha to biochemists, happiness can not boast of a glorified past but can it envision a promising future? Ray Kurzweil says, “The essence of being human lies not in our limitations but in our ability to transcend them.” And can we break beyond our natural boundaries? Some experts think the answer lies in biotechnology:

The pursuit of happiness and self-esteem—the satisfaction of one’s personal desires and recognition of one’s personal worth—are much more common human aspirations than the self-conscious quest for perfection. Indeed, the desire for happiness and the love of excellence are, at first glance, independent aspirations. Although happiness is arguably fuller and deeper when rooted in excellent activity, the pursuit of happiness is often undertaken without any regard for excellence or virtue. Many people crave only some extra boost on the path to success; many people seek only to feel better about themselves. Although less radical than the quest for “perfection,” the quests for happiness, success, and self-esteem, especially in our society, may prove to be more powerful motives for an interest in using biotechnical power for purposes that lie “beyond therapy.” Thus, though some visionaries—beginning with Descartes—may dream of using biotechnologies to perfect human nature, and though many of us might welcome biotechnical assistance in improving our native powers of mind and body, many more people will probably turn to it in search of advancement, contentment, and self-satisfaction—for themselves and for their children. [The President’s Council on Bioethics, Washington, D.C., October, 2003]

That was the past and future of happiness but what about the present. Well, cynics are the only people who seem to have got it right. As George Burns quipped “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

Lives of the Cannibals: Crippin

Julia is a bright-eyed girl of 14, with shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair and a winsome smile. One recent July morning, she, along with her 16 year-old sister Jane, drive into downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, in their father’s battered F-150 pick-up truck, on their way to fulfilling a dream. She pulls a damp wad of ten- and twenty-dollar bills from the pocket of her jeans, carefully saved from a weekly allowance and regular babysitting jobs. “I’ve been working for this almost a whole year,” she says excitedly, as Jane rolls her eyes in the driver’s seat. “But I’ve wanted it a lot longer–like, since two years ago, when Jane got hers done.” When they reach the corner of Benmont Avenue and Fifth, they pull into a metered parking space and walk the remaining two blocks to Rickys Tattoos, a grimy storefront parlor on the main drag of this sleepy town. Julia is so thrilled she can barely keep herself to a measured pace, which she must do if she doesn’t want to leave her sister struggling alone on the sidewalk. Jane walks with a pronounced limp. “Come on, Jane,” she cries, bouncing on the pavement, half a block ahead. “We’re almost there.” Jane rolls her eyes again, then turns to me and confides, with charming sympathy she conceals from her younger sister, “I was totally just as excited as she is. It’s, like, a really big day for her.”

Jane and Julia are but two of the many thousands caught up in what is fast becoming a fashion craze among American teen-age girls. It’s called “crippin,” and among the few sociologists and psychologists fully versed in the practice, it is one of the more worrisome new developments in a culture of low self-esteem, best characterized by drug and alcohol abuse and rampant sexual promiscuity. Liz Harmon, a developmental psychologist at the University of Rhode Island, who is among the foremost authorities on crippin, is unsurprised at the speed with which American girls are submitting themselves to the quasi-medical procedure. “It’s really the next logical step, isn’t it?” she says. “With the ubiquity of tattoos, and after piercings have become practically de rigueur, why not crippin too? It was right around the corner, but still nobody saw it coming.” She sighs with a depth of fatigue one might expect from someone who makes her living studying the ways of American teendom. “I think nobody really wanted to see it coming: That’s how disturbing it is.” But opinion is not monolithic on the subject. Jack Stiles, a sociologist at UCLA, says the widespread concern is overblown. “Look, it’s difficult to understand, without a doubt, but is there anything about growing up in America that isn’t? These girls aren’t doing long-term harm to their bodies, at least nothing that isn’t superficial. The fact is, much like tattooing, it’s a reversible procedure. Expensive? Sure. Painful? Absolutely. But it’s a correctable thing, and if it answers a psychological need, then maybe we should be focusing on that. Maybe we shouldn’t be marginalizing these gals for just trying to fit in.”

Ronnie Jendick’s left arm is covered with tattoos: a naked woman, Chinese characters, complex circular designs of what looks like barbed wire. He lifts his shirt and points proudly to his ample belly, to a fierce-looking eagle whose wings span a rippling American flag. “Took two weeks for this one,” he says enthusiastically, “and painful as hell. Belly flesh? That’s tender shit, got to be honest. But it was worth it.” Ronnie is the proprietor of Rickys Tattoos. “I bought it a few years ago. Dirt cheap, too.” When asked about the name on the hand-painted sign out front, he says, “Ricky? Croaked on his bike.” He makes a dispiriting sound through the baffle of his thick lips. “Totaled, man. It was ugly. Semi behind him sort of finished him off for good. But it was quick, though. Definitely not the worst way to go out, you know?” He crosses himself in the Catholic style. Ronnie leads me to a back room, the “fracking room,” as he calls it, behind the main floor of his establishment, where body art is commissioned and performed. “This is it, man. I got the chair from some dentist across the street a couple years ago. He was retiring, wanted five hundred for it, but I talked him down. It was pretty easy to modify. I got the leg irons off this freaky sadist dude I know–traded for some body work.” The chair is of the normal variety–red pleather cushioning, a head rest, a welter of hinged metal limbs coming out from both sides, most of them unused in its new function. What distinguishes this chair from one you might find in any dentist’s office are the leg clamps, two on each side, rust eating away at their metal bindings.

The procedure is a simple one, but that simplicity hasn’t stopped sixteen states from outlawing it. Commonly called “fracking,” which is short for fracturing, Ronnie is willing to describe it only because Vermont’s legislature is famously reluctant to curtail the freedoms of its citizenry. “Those laws are about the anesthetic, not the procedure, ’cause they couldn’t even outlaw the procedure, you know. But I bet they tried.” The anesthetic is local, but nonetheless potentially dangerous, and its administration is usually subject to state licensing. Ronnie himself is not licensed, as is the case with most frackers, and so fracking is often performed at night, after normal business hours, in back rooms similar to the one at Rickys Tattoos. He brandishes a large hammer, larger than one you’re likely to find in the local hardware store, and equipped with a narrow, clawless head. “Ready?” He swings it with startling force. “See, you got to come down real hard to get it done right. That little head? It concentrates the force. You better know what you’re doing though, or there’s some serious damage. Shut your ass down quick if you’re not careful.” He mimes the striking procedure again. “I make a little target with a laundry pen, a little x, right there on the leg. It’s the fibula you want, but it’s easy to miss. You crack the tibia instead, you’re screwed.” At the sound of this reporter’s uneasy laugh, Ronnie asks, “You want to hop in, have a try? Give you a special discount.”

There is a distinct look of anxiety on Julia’s face as Ronnie calls her into the back of the store. Jane, who is examining tattoo samples, encourages her. “Let’s go, Jules. We gotta get back by four, and you’re gonna have to sit around for an hour afterwards. Let’s go.” Julia has consented to the presence of an observer, and we walk back to the fracking room together. Trembling, she gets into the chair, and Ronnie locks the clamps around the ankle and knee of both her legs, even though only the right will be fracked today. “Keeps ’em still,” he says by way of explanation. He pulls out a large hypodermic needle, the sight of which elicits a cry of fear from the 14 year-old girl. “Don’t you worry, little honey,” says Ronnie. “I know just what I’m doing.” After injecting the anesthetic and giving it some time to take effect, Ronnie tests Julia’s responsiveness with a few mild taps of the hammer. “You feeling that?” Julia grins up at him from the chair and says, “I’m ready.” With a single fearsome blow, Ronnie fracks Julia’s right leg. The resultant cracking noise is surprisingly sharp and clean, not at all what one expects from such a violent act. Apparently, Julia hasn’t felt a thing. Ronnie sniffs with satisfaction. “Good frack, I can hear it, and I’ve done enough to know when it’s wrong. There’s sort of this chunky sound when you miss. Kinda hard to describe.”

Ronnie insists that all his clients remain in the chair for an hour, to allow the anesthetic to wear off. “There’s no law or anything, but it seems like a safety thing to me. Plus it gives me a chance to put the brace on, teach ’em how to do it, ’cause you don’t want ’em coming back again, you know, demanding another frack. Big waste of time if the bone goes and heals right.” He wraps the effected portion of Julia’s leg in a small plastic brace designed to prevent its setting properly. “You got to keep this on for two weeks, understand? Go ahead and walk around without it, the normal stuff. The more you move the better. But when you sleep you put the brace on. Same in school and everything, when you’re just sitting around. Not my responsibility if it sets right, got it?”

Back on Benmont Avenue, Julia and Jane move at a halting pace, side by side. It’s almost 3 o’clock, and Jane is annoyed. “We’re gonna be late and Dad’s gonna be pissed,” she says, but Julia is unconcerned. She’s crippin now, and happy. “My boyfriend Nick? He’s totally excited. I’m calling him up right when we get home.” Jane rolls her eyes at me. As I watch the girls make their way back to the pick-up truck, I’m struck by the controlled violence of the procedure, the primitive equipment, and I’m reminded of Liz Harmon’s weary words. “These girls,” she said to me, “they’re damaging themselves for the rest of their lives, and it’s a sad commentary. It shouldn’t even be allowed. You have to ask yourself: What does it mean for us, as a society?” Having witnessed the procedure, having seen the result, I’m not sure I have an answer to her troubling question. And yet I confess I can’t help but appreciate the girls’ simple beauty as they struggle down the street. The gentle scrape of their shoes on the pavement, the slight bobbing of their heads as they limp away–there is an appealing vulnerability there, and I am not unmoved. It’s easy to condemn crippin out of hand, without taking time to understand the process and appreciate its aesthetically pleasing outcome. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper before we judge so harshly. As we part, Julia turns to me and says, “Crippin? It’s not about being rebellious, all pointless and everything, you know? I mean, that’s what everyone says, but it’s totally not like that at all. It’s my choice, and it’s got nothing to do with anyone else, right? Crippin–it’s just a way to express myself. It’s a way for me to be me.”

Dispatches: Crosby Street

Why do I love Crosby Street?  It inspires in me the kind of preference I remember having as a kid for lucky talismans, strange everyday objects I became attached to and took with me: I have a sentimental feeling of loyalty when contemplating it.  Streets go to work with their parallel neighbors and perpendicular interceptors, sharing affinities and sometimes friendships.  Crosby is friends, in my mind, with Howard Street, and Grand.  It’s cordial with the slightly tony Prince, affable with Mott.  With Houston, it forms a strangely superfluous intersection.  To its grander parallel neighbors, Broadway and Lafayette, it functions as the humble employee, the service road, or the mews, maintaining their emporia’s delivery entrances and fire escapes. 

Those fire escapes: Crosby retains, more than any other street besides perhaps Greene, the trademark look of Soho, all cobbles and rickety rusty iron-rung ladders.  Because so much of it is back entrances, there’s very little flash, and the traffic is mostly of the type given to handcarts and freight elevators.  Its sidewalks meld quickly into metal plates and loading docks.  Food is delivered to Dean and Deluca, which leaves its refuse on Crosby so as not to put off the paying customers with the smell – even when Broadway is at its most oppressively populated, on summer Saturdays, Crosby’s quiet.  Crosby’s an honest street like that. 

Yet there is grandeur, too.  At the very top of the street, at Bleeker, lies the Bayard-Conduit building, New York City’s only work by Louis “Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor” Sullivan, complete with gorgeously ornate plaster facade.  Growing up in Buffalo my favorite building was always Sullivan’s red Guaranty, and I always like glancing up Crosby at its fairer sibling.  To be a little mythopoetic about it, it makes my life trajectory seem more continuous.  But that’s not the main reason for my liking Crosby; if anything, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

No, Crosby’s appeal lies in its steadfast resistance to being pedestrianized, mallified, the way every other street in Soho has – except maybe Wooster below Grand, where street art sanctifies wrecked facades.  Crosby is a living, working street.  The Housing Works used bookstore is nice, but next door the Housing Works itself conserves some of New York’s social diversity.  Where once Houston Street was peppered with gas stations, the only one left is at Crosby.  Accordingly, the Lahore Deli across from it is a permanent cabbie break, and one with excellent samosas, chicken patties and tea with cardamom (which I guess some might redundantly call “chai” tea). 

An alley-ish street, Crosby also crosses one of the most beautiful New York alleys north of Canal: Jersey Street, connecting to Mulberry.  Balancing my chicken patty on my teacup lid, I often look through to the back of the Puck Building, with its beautiful pink iron window shutters.  Back when Keith Haring’s Pop Shop felt like an arty outpost in the dystopia below Houston, the alley had more life: people practically squatted there.  Now it’s free of the homeless and the Pop Shop was too lowbrow to survive next to Triple Five Soul’s seventy-dollar hoodies.  But Crosby has not gone that way completely, yet.  Either that or it has, in a more complicated way.

Crosby Street is both what it is and a stage set at once.  It is a working street of deliveries and tea breaks, recalling an earlier downtown, but that very appearance makes it more desirable as real estate for the wealthy.  Because of its untimeliness, it’s a magnet for loft-dwellers, their places’ value concealed by the tasteful disorder of the street itself.  Some of the most expensive and celebrity-filled co-ops in the city are here.  For these residents, Crosby’s anonymity provides both relief from the paparazzi and a satisfying, faux-hemian sense of keeping it real. 

This may be the time to bring up the great postmodern institution at Crosby and Spring: Balthazar.  Opened in 1997, most first-time visitors would be more likely to guess 1897, so successfully has Keith McNally’s ready-aged restaurant settled in.  At first, it seemed ridiculously contrived, a Parisian brasserie-fantastique composed of cracked mirrors and stained teak, the walls painted the perfect shade of nictotine.  The bathroom attendants were a particularly audacious touch.  Yet over time, Balthazar started to seem less inauthentic, especially by comparison to *actual* classic Parisian brasseries, La Coupole and Brasserie Nord, now owned by the conglomerate that runs the sterile European steakhouse chain Chez Gerrard.  The food’s good, if too buttery (the one false note, like they’re trying too hard), the bakery is just excellent, and the restaurant repopularized of the plateau de fruit de mer.  It’s a set, but one so well art-directed that it makes you question whether no art direction is just one more form of art direction.

Given Balthazar’s confused relation to reality, it makes sense, then, that it’s located on Crosby, which returns me to the question: why do I love Crosby Street?        After all, the things I mention–working life, humility, unreconstructed looks–are things that make it out of place in its neighborhood.  Am I nostalgically romanticizing the street?  Making New York’s industrial past the pastoral idyll and its current incarnation the debased present?  What kind of ethnographer’s lens am I looking through, approving the signs of labor and deprecating idle wealth? 

I don’t want to be the Wordsworth of Crosby Street, endlessly bemoaning lost authenticity.  I just know it will be a more boring city if Crosby turns into Mercer.  And, economically, it makes good sense for me to hope places like the Lahore Deli stick around – I can’t afford their replacements.  And what’s important about Crosby Street is that it renders a diversity that in other places is largely hidden.  Fulton Street Fish Market, like La Pigalle and Covent Garden before it, has been outsourced.  Now it’s free to become another museum.  But we’re poorer for it, culturally.  Likewise, Keith McNally, who hastened the demise of the old Meatpacking District with Pastis, once laughably remarked that he wanted it to be the kind of place where meatpackers might pop in for a croque monsieur and a café au lait.  Sure, Keith, sure.  But I understand his impulse. 

The Tragedy of Lebanon

In Counterpunch, Najla Said on the tragedy of Lebanon.

How do I even start this? How do I write about my Beirut? My heartbreak, my home, my safety, my loss. again.

I suppose I just start.

I have experienced true terror a handful of times. The first was in 1983. The first time I evacuated Beirut. We had gone to visit my jiddo Emile, my teta Hilda, as we did every summer. Just after we arrived,the airport was shut down, Israeli soldiers were everywhere, the mountains were filling with smoke. We spent the next week in the staircase of our building as shells fell around us. My brother Wadie was almost hit by shrapnel.

My father, Edward, was in Switzerland. He knew we were in danger. I had no idea he wasn’t with us because he was Palestinian. I didn’t understand. Although I was born in 1974, I never knew about the war until the summer of ’82 — the first summer we didn’t go. The summer we spent in Illinois. I did cartwheels in the living room trying to get Mommy and Daddy’s attention. But all they did was watch the news and eat nuts and look worried. I wish I’d known how my Mommy’s heart was breaking. I know now.

Bill Buford: Cookbooks are for wimps

“The idea of pugnacious literary supremo Bill Buford taking orders from anyone is laughable. So why did he leave ‘The New Yorker’ to become a lowly ‘kitchen slave’ for one of New York’s best restaurants? Danuta Kean asks him what he learnt among the pans.”

From The Independent:

BufordIt all started at a dinner party in Buford’s Manhattan apartment. Among the guests was Mario Batali, TV chef and proprietor of acclaimed New York eatery Babbo. He turned out to be the dinner guest from hell. Within moments of his arrival chez Buford, the writer knew inviting him was a mistake. Batali, one of the new breed of alpha-male cooks whose main rule is excess, took over, treating his host to his first lesson in muscular cookery and other guests to a night of macho drinking.

Buford has alpha-male tendencies of his own (at Granta the testosterone levels of many contributors were as high as his: Redmond O’Hanlon and Raymond Carver were regulars). But he was hooked and accepted the chef’s challenge to work in his kitchen as a slave for whom no task was too debased. In exchange he would learn real cooking.

More here.

“Another Beirut Has Emerged”

After reading Letter from Beirut here at 3QD, a producer from Radio Open Source got in touch with us and wanted to know more about the writer of that letter, Rasha. We put them in touch with Rasha, and she has agreed to write and report from Beirut for them. This is from Radio Open Source:

Rasha’s letter from Beirut on 3 Quarks Daily last week floored us. She’s a Lebanese/Palestinian/Syrian/Turkish/Bosnian writer, now living in a suburb of Beirut. “I’m a product of the Ottoman empire,” she says, “and I say it with pride.” She’s generously agreed to string for us now. Here’s her first installment:

Today was a particularly strange day for me because I was granted an opportunity to leave tomorrow morning. I hold a Canadian passport, I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I left at age two. I have never gone back, for lack of opportunity and occasion, no other reason. …For days I have been battling ambivalence towards this war, estranged from the passions it has roused around me and from engagement in a cause. And yet when the phone call came informing me that I had to be ready at 7:00 am the next morning, I asked for a pause to think. I was torn. The landscape of the human and physical ravages of Israel’s genial strategy at implementing UN Resolution 1559, the depth of destruction, the toll of nearly 250 deaths, more than 800 injured and 400,000 displaced, had bound me to a sense of duty. It was not even patriotism, it was actually the will to defy Israel. They cannot do this and drive me away. They will not drive me away.

The roads to Damascus are not safe. Its many different ways are shelled everyday. Drivers know what “calculated” risks to take, I am assured, but one never knows. Everyday the way out becomes more difficult. I decided to stay, I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave.

–Rasha, in an email to Open Source, July 20, 2006

More here.

Hezbollah

“In 2002, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a two-part article examining the radical Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which he called ‘the most successful terrorist organization in modern history’.”

From The New Yorker:

Shiism arose as a protest movement, whose followers believed that Islam should be ruled by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Ali, and not by the caliphs who seized control after the Prophet’s death. The roots of Shiite anger lie in the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn, who died in battle against the Caliph Yezid in what is today southern Iraq. (I have heard both Shiites from southern Iraq and Iranian Shiites refer to their enemy Saddam Hussein as a modern-day Yezid.) At times, Shiism has been a quietist movement; Shiites built houses of mourn-ing and study, called Husaynias, where they recalled the glory of Husayn’s martyrdom.

In Lebanon in the nineteen-sixties, the Shiites began to be drawn to the outside world. Some joined revolutionary Palestinian movements; others fell into the orbit of a populist cleric, Musa Sadr, who founded a group called the Movement of the Deprived and, later, the Shiite Amal militia. Hezbollah was formed, in 1982, by a group of young, dispossessed Shiites who coalesced around a cleric and poet named Muhammad Hussayn Fadlallah.

Read the rest of part 1 here, and part 2 of the article is here.

50 albums that changed music

Fifty years old this month, the album chart has tracked the history of pop. But only a select few records have actually altered the course of music. To mark the anniversary, Kitty Empire pays tribute to a sublime art form, and our panel of critics argues for 50 albums that caused a revolution. To see the 50, click here.”

From The Observer:

Vsndimg1Alongside film, the pop album was the defining art form of the 20th century, the soundtrack to vast technological and social change. Once, sets of one-sided 78rpm phonograph discs were kept together in big books, like photographs in an album. The term ‘album’ was first used specifically in 1909, when Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was released on four double-sided discs in one package. The first official top 10 round-up of these newfangled musical delivery-modes was issued in Britain on 28 July 1956, making the pop album chart 50 years old this month.

Singles were immediate, ephemeral things. Albums made pondering pop and rock into a valid intellectual pursuit. Friendships were founded, love could blossom, bands could be formed, all from flicking through someone’s album collection. Owning certain albums became like shorthand; a manifesto for everything you stood for, and against: the Smiths’ Meat is Murder , Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

More here.

In the Beginning Was Linux?

Carl Zimmer in The Loom:

Eric Raymond, one of the founders of the official open source movement, puts its origins four decades ago, in the hacker culture of the 1960s. Back then it was expected that each hacker would share his secrets with the rest of the hacker tribe.

I’d suggest that Raymond is not be thinking big enough. The open source movement is a wee bit older. Instead of four decades, try four billion years.

Biologists have long recognized some striking parallels between genes and software. Genes stored information in a language of DNA, with the four nucleotides serving as its alphabet. A genetic code allowed cells to translate the information in genes into the separate language of proteins, which used an alphabet of twenty amino acids. From one generation to the next, mutations introduced slight tweaks to the software. Sex combined different versions of subroutines. If the software performed better–in the sense that an organism had more reproductive success–the changes might become incorporated into the genome across an entire species. This was only a metaphor, but it was a powerful one. One example of its power is the rise of genetic algorithms. Rather than trying to find a perfect solution to a problem–the ideal shape for a plane, for example–genetic algorithms create simulations and tweak them through a process that mimics evolution. The algorithm can seek out good solutions very effectively.

This sort of evolution resembles old-fashioned, closed-source software. All of the innovations happen in-house–that is, within a single species. None of the solutions from one species can be incorporated into the operating system of another. While this process has indeed been an important one in the history of life, a number of scientists have argued for an open-source side to evolution.

More here.

Microsoft developing “iPod Killer”

From the BBC:

_41917606_ipod_ap203jpgMicrosoft has confirmed it is developing a “Zune” portable music player which analysts believe will compete directly with Apple’s iPod.

The software firm said it was working on a number of music and entertainment hardware devices, the first of which could launch later this year.

Rumours of a rival to Apple’s hugely successful music player – dubbed “iPod killer” by some – have long circulated.

But experts said Microsoft would find it hard to compete with Apple.

More here.

Conversation with Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo

Danny Postel in Logos:

Danny Postel: You’ve talked about a “renaissance of liberalism” taking place in Iran. Can you talk about this “renaissance”? Where does liberalism stand in Iranian intellectual and political life today?

Raminjahanbegloo3_1Ramin Jahanbegloo: Sartre starts his essay “The Republic of Silence” in a very provocative manner, saying, “We were never more free than under the German occupation.” By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values. In Iran today, the rise of hedonist and consumerist individualism, spurred by the pace of urbanization and instrumental modernization after the 1979 Revolution, was not accompanied by a wave of liberal measures. In the early days of the Revolution liberals were attacked by Islamic as well as leftist groups as dangerous enemies and betrayers of the Revolution. The American hostage crisis sounded the death knell for the project of liberalism in Iran.

More here.

Nanotech Restored Sight

From MSNBC:

Scientists partially restored the vision in blinded hamsters by plugging gaps in their injured brains with a synthetic substance that allowed brain cells to reconnect with one another, a new study reports.

If it can be applied to humans, the microscopic material could one day help restore sensory and motor function to patients suffering from strokes and injuries of the brain or spinal cord. It could also help mend cuts made in the brain during surgery.

“If we can reconnect parts of the brain that were disconnected by a stroke, then we may be able to restore speech to an individual who is able to understand what is said but has lost the ability to speak,” said study team member Rutledge Ellis-Behnke from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[Hap tip Dan Balis.]

Einstein letters reveal a turmoil beyond science

From The Boston Globe:

Einstein_6 According to excerpts of letters made available to reporters, Einstein discussed his extra-marital affairs openly with his family. “It is true that M. followed me and her chasing after me is getting out of control,” wrote Einstein to his stepdaughter in May 1931 of Michanowski’s infatuation. “I will tell her that she should vanish immediately. . . . Out of all the dames, I am in fact attached only to Mrs L. who is absolutely harmless and decent, and even with this there is no danger to the divine world order.”

“I don’t care what people are saying about me, but for mother and Mrs M. it is better that not every Tom, Dick and Harry gossip about it,” he wrote. “Mrs L.” was Margarete Lenbach, another wealthy woman who used to send a chauffeur-driven car to collect Einstein for their late-night trysts. But Einstein valued Michanowski’s discretion, as he wrote to his second wife Elsa in 1931.

“Mrs. M. definitely acted according to the best Christian-Jewish ethics: 1) one should do what one enjoys and what won’t harm anyone else; and 2) one should refrain from doing things one does not take delight in and which annoy another person. Because of 1) she came with me, and because of 2) she didn’t tell you a word. Isn’t that irreproachable?”

More here.

Subcontinental Drift

From The New York Times:

‘Temptations of the West,’ by Pankaj Mishra. During the Soviet Union’s long, doomed attempt to subdue Afghanistan, Soviet helicopters dropped countless butterfly bombs, brightly colored devices looking much like toys that Afghan children picked up when they fluttered to earth. Then they exploded. That grim image might be a leitmotif for Pankaj Mishra’s fascinating, angry book about the impact of modernity on India, Pakistan, Nepal, AfghanistaMish190n and Tibet. “Temptations of the West” tells of the complex, often violent struggle of ancient societies to define themselves in the face of cultural, political and religious intrusions from outside — the gaudy butterflies that seem so pretty and then blow up.

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, and its subtitle even more so. This is no mere attack on the vacuities of Western pop culture transplanted to the East, nor yet another condemnation of the legacy of colonialism. Instead, Mishra painstakingly picks apart the complex, contradictory relationship between South Asia and the West. He lives in both India and England, so cannot claim to be personally immune to the temptations of Western life. Certainly his book offers none of the prescriptions and bromides of a “how to” manual. Part autobiography, part travelogue, part journalism, it is written not from a political or polemical position but from that of a small-town, upper-caste, lower-middle-class Indian with a taste for Western literature.

More here.