Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

I went to see “The Artist” the other day as part of my efforts (not very strenuous) to see the Oscar contenders and buzzed-about movies. Occasionally I digress for the purpose of guaranteed mindless big-screen entertainment, as when I went to see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (excuse me, is it just me or is Jeremy Renner looking absolutely fabulous?) But I digress…

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the film. I have middle-brow tastes when it comes to movies and I can scarcely be called a film buff. I love to look at color, although I have an appreciation of the beauty and mystery of black and white photography. I also traffic in words and none are spoke in “The Artist,” a love letter to the late twenties and early thirties and the entertainment that preoccupied America.

I loved it; loved the attention to detail; in the curl of a mustache or the arch of an eyebrow. I adored both the overt and sly references to classic movie tropes of the era: the highly choreographed scenes, the grand theatrical acting. Some of the references were out of the time period (defined as 1927-1932): I recognized a bit of Alfred Hitchcock; the lush score brought to mind the work of renowned film composer Bernard Herrmann and the supremely talented Jack Russell terrier put me in mind of Nick and Nora Charles and their beloved dog Asta. Wait: maybe I DO know my film history!

I noticed these oddities but I wasn’t bothered by them: this was a film about a film star and the culture he inhabited during a transitional time in American history. “The Artist” was captivating in every way and the symbolism evinced by the successful actor pushed out of his chosen profession by the advances of technology is certainly a parable for our time.

One thing that struck me was the absolute silence of my fellow viewers. It’s not just that no one spoke; I doubt my smart, sophisticated audience would have put up with that. But we were treated to plenty of cues about how audiences react to silent films via the film itself; we saw them laughing or clapping or gasping or murmuring at various moments during the plot. The silent-movie audience was vocal, not in an effort to impede the flow of the movie but in expression of their appreciation. Watching “The Artist” in a theater that was completely quiet except for the music was odd. No coughing, no crackling of paper; in fact, no laughing out loud, although I caught many smiles. No, we were reverentially still, as attending a concert.

Maybe the difference is in the present-day movie-going experience itself, which doesn’t teach us how to watch a movie without distraction. Maybe it’s the novelty of being several layers removed: a present-day audience watching actors who portray a long-ago audience using the same exaggerated style as the rest of the movie’s characters.

Or maybe, at least in this instance, it was just such a blessed relief to be free of the cacophony that surrounds us every day: to surrender to the music, to watch the action unfold on the screen, to marvel at the comic and dramatic elasticity of the actors and not need to have anything explained, enhanced or interpreted. We sat back and let the rich sounds of (relative) silence guide us.

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Not So Nice

I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our NatureAt 696 pages (before over 100 pages of reference notes), it’s not what you’d call a beach read, even if the weather were warmer. Pinker is a well-known, Harvard-trained psychologist, scientist and linguist who studies and writes about cognition; that is, (to borrow the title of his 2007 book), “the stuff of thought.” An affable, outgoing sort with an accessible writing style and a full head of longish curly hair, Dr. Pinker has his fans. Some of them have been gushing appropriately about Better Angels. In it, Pinker sets out to show that violence is on the decline. He supplements his lecture-like presentation of “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces” with impressive amounts of data with which it is nearly impossible to quibble. The Guardian’s David Runciman viewed it as “an astonishing book” and Nicholas Kristoff devoted an entire column  praising the book’s thesis and calling attention to the “stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.”

Not every critic loved the book. The New Yorker reviewer Elizabeth Colbert faulted Pinker’s methodology: “Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.” Andrew Brown, also writing in The Guardian, snidely referred to the book as “a comfort blanket for the smug” and followed up with this indictment: “The factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker’s thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.”

Let me stop right here and let you know I won’t be reviewing the book. I don’t feel qualified to judge either the research or the central thesis; I’m not sure I can fairly determine whether Pinker’s conclusions are based on solid science or selective speculation. I will admit that I’m attracted to the notion that on the whole, we’re getting nicer; that may factor into why I find myself reading cautiously and yet with a modicum of hope.


Besides, Pinker introduces the book with caveats: many readers will find his conclusions hard to accept; we are overrun with oppressive news; a series of unforeseeable events could change everything. Notwithstanding his warnings, certain readers seem mightily put off by anyone’s imagining that we might be turning into good guys and gals. Harsh comments have been left on blogs, at the end of articles and interviews and elsewhere. I have no idea whether these readers have actually read any of the book; or whether they’re simply reacting to their understanding of what Pinker is proposing. The suggestion that mankind is evolving into a kinder, gentler version of itself apparently drives people nuts.

Kristoff’s Thanksgiving Day piece praised Pinker’s book, going so far as to give thanks for a world that is, on the whole, improving. His column gave quite a few readers indigestion (“this column’s a turkey,” said one). Other commenters accused Kristoff and Pinker of being dangerously naïve. “What universe are you living in?” asked one. “Maudlin and wishful thinking do not a wise man make,” advised another. And another simply wrote: “This is not true.”

We are, in the view of the commenters, craftier, sneakier, less overt or less inclined to whack someone over the head, perhaps but most definitely not nicer. Anyone suggesting otherwise is dangerously deluded.

Angry, aren’t we?

As a skeptic nevertheless trying to tiptoe towards a version of happiness, always mindful of landmines and booby-traps and the possibility of reversal, I’m both bemused and concerned with our negativism. I’m no fan of blind faith, mindless positivism, or false hope. I don’t know for certain that everything works out for the best; I realize we’re far from perfect–far from it. I detest the xenophobic hucksterism that underlies certain politicians’ insistence on American “exceptionalism”; the word was originally meant to describe a fortuitous combination of history and geography, not the sense of entitlement it currently conveys.

It seems, however, that many people, Americans in particular, may have become stuck in a collective mindset that views gratitude as naive and improvement as unlikely, given the nasty, brutish nature of our fellow travelers. That ticks me off. While I’m aware of the capacity of humankind to inflict suffering upon each other, I also rely on a personal perspective that encompasses more than half a century. I’m not thrilled that in my lifetime, children are threatened, the elderly are swindled, and the rest of us live with a virtually unbreachable income disparity. But I’ve seen things change for the better in my lifetime and so have you, even as the hold-outs object loudly to any changes at all.. It’s neither naive nor unsophisticated to look up from our gloom and doom from time to time and recognize forward momentum for what it is: a type of moral and social evolution that requires our encouragement, not our disdain.



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Princeton: The name evokes serious scholarly pursuit. Among its alumni are governors, senators, presidents, Supreme Court justices, admirals, rocket scientists, inventors, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, and a few bona fide Hollywood stars.

It stands to reason that a quintessential university town like Princeton would have an independent bookstore. For 26 years, Micawber Books was that store, until the owner decided to close for personal reasons. . Meanwhile, the township built a new library and just outside the town limits, Barnes and Noble had customized a branch to draw the Princeton clientele by including knowledgeable information specialists, a large supply of arcane books and a roster of top-drawing guest speakers. No one was quite sure whether the town would see another independent bookstore.

Enter Labyrinth Books. After making sure Micawber’s owner was truly out of the bookstore business (“We would never have come to a small town and displaced a quality independent store with deep roots in the community,” says Labyrinth owner Dorothea von Moltke), the new store opened in 2006, backed by a partnership with the University and a strong wholesale business. Add to that an ambitious community outreach, and Labyrinth appears to have hit on a winning formula.

The retail establishment is just what you want in an indie book store. Unusual and unexpected books are more likely to grace the windows than are best sellers, although those are also on hand. Nearly every weekend, the bins are placed outside, where they become part of the busy main street culture that attracts many tourists in addition to students and members of the local community. Labyrinth doesn’t have a coffee shop and products like mugs, bookmarks, and calendars are kept to a minimum, especially since they can be found in the University gift shop next door.

Labyrinth and its helpful website are both organized “so you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for.”  True, but the wide variety of categories makes it likely you’ll find what you were hoping to find. The business of book–buying,  browsing, reading and discussing–is what Labyrinth is all about

Dorothea and her husband met in New York; she was finishing her PhD at Columbia University and he was co-owner of the nearby store, BookForum. In the mid-nineties, the couple founded Great Jones Books, which has become nationally recognized as a wholesaler of quality hurts and remainders.

Labyrinth Books opened a retail store in New Haven, close to Yale University more than a decade ago. The owners established strong ties to the faculty and students. But Yale’s administration chose as its official partner the Barnes and Noble branch just around the corner from Labyrinth. “To say that [Yale] did nothing to support the presence of an independent, scholarly and community bookstore in town is, unfortunately, even a bit of an understatement,” notes von Moltke pointedly. The New Haven store closed in May of 2011.

In Princeton, however, Labyrinth has a true collaboration with the University and remains its official source for all required course books as well as important ancillary materials. The bookstore  is next to the University store; both do a brisk trade, especially on weekends.  A new pilot program launched in September offers students 30% off. Discounts are also available to faculty. The University sponsors events at the store; Princeton professors are often guest speakers.

The store’s relationship with the community is one of mutual devotion. Labyrinth’d mission–“keeping reading alive and…reaching across intellectual as well as social divides”—is especially important to the highly educated, culture-loving residents. Program co-sponsors have included the Princeton Public Library (itself a significant cultural presence in the community), the Princeton Research Forum,  Trenton Crisis Ministries, Sustainable Princeton, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Princeton’s well-regarded McCarter Theater, to name a few. Labyrinth has also established, with carbonfund.org, a unique program designed to offset the carbon foot-print of any book purchased from the store for an additional five cents per book, that sum matched by the organization. Von Moltke believes these partnerships enable Labyrinth to “keep questions of social justice as well as the viability of the arts at the forefront of our concerns.”

Princeton is home to a great many writers, some quite well-known and others less so. The store is generous in giving both established and relatively unknown authors time and attention (author’s note: I gave a reading at the store, which carries my book, in 2010).Whereas Barnes and Noble might sniff at a pitch from an author without a national platform or a slot on the best-seller list; Labyrinth will offer a place in its events calendar for a reading/book signing and free publicity through its mailing lists.

Labyrinth’s bread and butter comes from its business as a highly reputable and nationally recognized scholarly book wholesaler. “To be the booksellers we are,” von Moltke says, “we need also to be book-wholesalers; [we are] constantly looking for the best books at the best prices.” GJB buys titles “by the truckload” at auction, keeps what’s best for the store, catalog, and retail website, and sells the rest to bookstores nationally and internationally. GJB has a warehouse not far from Princeton in Pennington, New Jersey that carries more than 50,000+ titles at discounted prices, “more than the largest of chain stores,” according to von Moltke.  The idea is to source books that the ever-churning marketplace has given up on; giving them a longer life by bringing those books back into circulation and selling them at deep discounts. The process is designed to allow both GJB and its retail store to compete with chains and online retailers

Businesses like Amazon present a challenge, von Moltke admits. “Here you have a bookseller for whom books are effectively lost leaders for selling other products such as cosmetics, electronics, and all the rest,” she explains, adding, “Competing with a ubiquitous bookseller who is not looking to make any money on books will always be tricky.”

The future of print material is another question mark in terms of the viability of the Labyrinth model. The owners are already looking ahead: they are hoping to acquire a print-on-demand machine (called the espresso machine), which would allow them to print any book in the public domain as well per-copy self-published books and perhaps even current titles, once publishers warm to the idea.  Says von Moltke with obvious enthusiasm, “This would mean we would never have to say to a customer that we don’t have a book. Instead, we’d tell them: give me 2 minutes.”

The owners seem to have hit upon a way to survive and thrive: the small store is backed by a successful wholesale book business with a huge list and deep discounts. In the end, it’s all about the culture of reading. Labyrinth is devoted to providing its customers with any book, anytime–the ones they need and the ones they didn’t know they wanted. What more could any of us ask from an independent bookstore?

Labyrinth Books
122 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08540

top image: en.wikipedia.org

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Aren’t we just full of opinions? As a friend of mine wrote in her book: “[While} having  so  many  ways  to  bring  our  opinions  into  public discussion has been, on the whole, a terrific development… not all ideas are equal―equally valid, equally worthy, equally verifiable.” In a related article, she noted:the opportunity to comment doesn’t mean we’re required to put in our two cents, notwithstanding our collective compulsion to do so.” However, she also recognized that the horse is out of the barn (or maybe the train has left the station; you get the drift) when it comes to opinionating—many of us are likely to grab any and every opportunity to opine–the least we can do is make every attempt to make an expressed opinion as informed as possible.

My name is Nikki Stern and I approve this message. Okay, I wrote this message, in my book Because I Say So and in an article called “IMHO I bring this up because I’ve found myself this fall throwing opinions all over the place: on my blog, on Facebook, on the website I publish (Does This Make Sense) and, most recently, in the New York Times.

Opining on the Times website isn’t like opining on AOL. By and large, the commenters are smart, well-read and restrained in their responses (of course the Times screens the comments before publishing them, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the “!%$&@)%(*^*” versions that come into the editors’ inboxes. What this means is that if I have an impulse to comment, I know I’d better make sense. In part, it’s my ego at work: I don’t want appear to be a complete idiot. On the other hand, who’s going to remember commenter #49 on the recent Charles Blow or Frank Bruni op-ed? Exactly: no one. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to sound intelligent—to be intelligent.

Of course I’d like to attract a little attention on behalf of whatever I’m promoting (a book, a blog) before my comment scrolls by and disappears into the ethos. This can be achieved by obtaining “recommendations” which are garnered when the reader hits a little button at the end of the comment and which means said comment may be highlighted on the site. Gad, everything’s a competition these days!

The situation causes me to hesitate before I comment (a good thing), and then, if I decide to post my thoughts, I will write out and carefully proof them before I hit “send” (an even better thing). Sometimes, thanks to the unpredictability of the keyboard and the undeniable fact that my brain works faster than my fingers, I may end up with a typo. But my thoughts are nearly always clear.

I also read other comments on the post where I’ve left my comment but also on other pieces I find provocative (or pieces I don’t understand). If Paul Krugman tells me why the Euro is a terrible idea, I want to read what more knowledgeable people have to say on the subject. Granted, Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and some of the commenters don’t know the difference between a derivative and a derivation but I’m frequently surprised about the level of thought and intelligence that goes into the replies. At the very least, I get more background and more history.

I also read letters to the editor for my favorite magazines. Sometimes I try to read comments and letters in magazines I don’t care for,  like Reason Magazine (I don’t really dislike the magazine, but some of the articles in Reason–which purports to be a libertarian magazine–are pompous in the extreme); or letters in magazines I don’t care about. I love reading the letters section in New York Magazine because they aren’t simply letters but blog postings, tweets, passing comments—all reactions to the often provocative stories within. Like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, the magazine makes a big deal out of noticing and promoting and replying to and arguing with the people who are noticing and replying to and arguing about something they read (which means they’re promoting it, of course).

Everyone has an opinion; no doubt about it. And everyone wants their opinions to count. One way to do that is to use your opinion as a way to start a conversation or encourage a response; to learn something from other opinionators; to practice writing clearly and concisely; to get better at framing an argument; to think, to review your own feelings about a topic, to get in the game. We might not all end up as recommended picks or one step closer to our own op-ed column, but we’ll be smarter commentators. And that means we’ll be smarter citizens.

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October 17, 2011 seemed like a fine day to head downtown and see the memorial I’d avoided up to and just after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was another stunning autumn morning, with another cerulean sky visible through towers, half built with aspirations to touch the clouds that floated by. Hundreds of people going about their business were amplified by thousands more whose presence makes this, if not a world trade center, than the world’s visiting center.

I also planned to stop by another, much smaller site I remembered well: a 3300 square foot slip of green my husband would eat in on pleasant days when he wished to escape the long shadows of the World Trade Center. Then, it was called Liberty Plaza Park; now it is Zuccotti Park, renamed after the chairman of the reality company that provided for its restoration after the September 11th attacks devastated it. For several years, Zuccotti Park hosted the annual 9/11 anniversary commemorations. Currently, it’s hosting Occupy Wall Street.

Symbolism is important in making a statement, whether it involves words, notes, or physical space. So is context. The 16 acres known as ground zero was and is sacred ground to some; to others, a historically significant site. For me, ground zero is about the lives that were lost but also the resilience that was found, however temporarily, to go on, to make something better, to be better. Although I was part of a group that lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the addition of a cultural/educational component at the site–living monuments to a possible future and to the important freedoms the attacks didn’t take away—we lost. It helps to have a Visitors’ Center to supply some context, more of which the museum will also provide. Unfortunately, right now it’s possible to bypass the Center and most people do.

As a family member, I was directed around the absurdly long lines to enter the space, which consists of two massive waterfalls conforming to the footprints of the original towers and ringed with low granite walls bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 people.


Using the guide I’d been handed, I made my way to the far side of the north pool and located my  husband’s name. I touched the engraved stone and whispered “Well, here you are.” And waited. But the rush of emotions I anticipated– grief perhaps; but also reverence, awe, inspiration, a telescoping of past, present and future—never came. It was all very lovely but somehow…static.

As I walked over to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the number of tourists; it seemed as if there were more of them than there were protesters. The park initially gave the appearance of being a mess but it really wasn’t; bedding was neatly stacked, except when someone was still sleeping. An older gent did a pretty good rendition of “God Bless America” on the bagpipes. I made my way tentatively into the trees, where people were talking or texting or reading. I saw several meetings taking place, conducted in relatively quiet tones, since neither megaphones nor sound equipment is allowed.

Zuccotti2I couldn’t hear what was being said; I’ve read elsewhere that a dedicated corps of occupiers is meeting to try and devise a set of demands. Sure there are some goof-offs, but the few protesters I encountered in my all-too-brief sojourn both wanted a change to a skewed system and felt frustrated that they were characterized as slackers or whiners, or insufficiently prepared to take on the entire system by which banks and businesses that don’t create jobs and CEOs who don’t produce dividends are nevertheless rewarded.

On the way home, I thought about how alive that little slip of green had felt and how…not so much dead as not alive the memorial had felt to me. Of course, that’s not the function of memorials; they are erected to remember the past and to honor the dead. The best of them, it must be said, can also deliver the message: never again.

As for the park formerly known as Liberty, it is teeming with good intentions and honest efforts and a target that its location should not obscure: not so much Wall Street as an economic system that accrues wealth for a disproportionate few; yet fights to keep at arms’ length any regulation that accrues to the common good. It’s the job of the protestors in a free democracy to draw attention to the system’s failings; it’s not their job to fix it. If we and our representatives allow the novelty of a group of people camping out overnight to distract from agreeing on and implementing solutions, then we will have robbed OWS of its important symbolic message: no more.

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My grade school tormenter reached me through Facebook. Actually, he located me on Facebook via some site called Classmates. I don’t protect-your-child-from-the-dangers-of-cyber-bullyingremember registering on Classmates but who knows? I might have hit the wrong button at some point. The bottom line is: he found me.

“Hi Nikki,” his e-mail read (he’d also asked to “friend” me). “Remember me? P—? I went to Richards School; I was two years ahead of you.”

I barely remember anyone from grade school; I have enough trouble recalling high school. Still, I thought: What would be the harm in friending him? Yet something made me hesitate. I couldn’t recognize him from his picture, obviously; nor could I place him by name. He still apparently lived in the small suburb where I grew up; he may or may not have gone to college. Nothing else gave me any indication as to how he had once fit into my life.

I e-mailed: “Hey P—another ghost from the past. How are you? What have you been up to?” I was hoping those innocuous couple of sentences would prod him into opening up; most people love to talk about themselves.

Instead, he wrote, “Congratulations on all your successes. It sounds as if you’re doing really well in life.” And then, changing the subject abruptly: “I really had a hard time tracking you down, you know, because you changed your name.” He continued. “When did you do that? I’m just curious. Why did you do that?”

Now I was puzzled. I didn’t change my name when I got married. As much as I loved my husband, the idea of becoming Nikki Potorti somehow didn’t work for me (“It sounds like the name of a small-time mobster,” I remarked to my patient fiance as we were standing in line to get our marriage license in Manhattan. Thankfully, he agreed).

What I had done is adopted the name “Nikki” (albeit with a different spelling)right after eighth grade graduation  because I liked the Haley Mills character in “The Moon-Spinners”  It became my legal name when I turned twenty-one.

No one had ever questioned me about it and honestly, I never thought about it. Who was this person from grade school who was inquiring about my name, or rather, my identity?

Instead of answering him directly, I wrote back, “What year did you graduate?” I needed more information.

“You don’t remember me, do you? Tall, thin, brown eyes?”

I didn’t remember…and then I did: P–was briefly my childhood tormenter.

The year I started fourth grade, P–walked home from school when I did and taunted me. He sang out vaguely scatological rhymes that involved my name and a body part. Sometimes he’d make comments about how I thought I was so smart; then he’d go back to making fun of my name again. This went on nearly every day for several months, and while I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, his words hurt more than any stick or brick ever could.

I was a timid nine; afraid of loud noises, dark shadows and confrontation. Yet I didn’t want to tell my parents or my big brother, even though I knew they’d rush to my defense in ways appropriate to a respected lawyer or a pugilistic teenager. There was nothing in place at my school or in my community to help victims of bullying; no support groups or services to which the picked-on could turn. I could have gone to the principal but that would have involved a call to my parents and some sort of notation in my permanent file and I didn’t want either. I briefly considered recruiting my friend’s brother, our local juvenile delinquent, who would have enjoyed administering a beating, I suspect. But I didn’t want him to get in trouble either.  I suffered in silence.

One day, P—was across the street as I walked home, teasing and taunting as usual. I’d had a bad day at school and suddenly, I’d had it. I stopped right where I was and yelled out, “You know what, P–?  You’re a stupid little ninny! That’s all you are; that’s all you’ll ever be! Leave me alone, you stupid ninny, you stupid little…twit!” I practically spat out that last word.

I’m not sure how I came up with “ninny” and “twit”; maybe I was having a Julie Andrews moment. But the words had their desired effect.

P—stopped walking and stood rooted to his spot, staring at me. I stared back at him for a minute, my heart racing wildly. Then I tossed my head in my best princess imitation and walked home. He never bothered me again.

Fifty years later, here he was, my tormentor; the mean little boy who nearly ruined my autumn that year. Here was my opportunity. I could admit I remembered him and I could make sure he understood how miserable he made my nine-year-old self. I wondered fleetingly if he even remembered; maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.

I realized I didn’t care. My nine-year-old self had taken care of my tormenter long before MySpace and Facebook and texting, true; but also before anti-bullying laws and YouTube messages of support, and awareness groups. I had confronted my bully then and I hadn’t thought about him since. No need for a rematch, a reckoning, or a reconciliation.

“Sorry,” I wrote back. “I don’t remember you.”

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The Tao of Hair

Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy, daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
© 1967 James Rado & Gerome Ragni (lyrics); Galt MacDermot (music)

So many things to worry about in the world and yet I find myself thinking about my hair–and why not? We are our hair. More than eye color or height or weight, hair seems to be how we humans make a statement. Some of this is evolutionary: healthy hair indicates youth and well-being, two desirable traits when it comes to the propagation of the species.  Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, providing both temperature control and, for many animals, camouflage. As most of us (but clearly not all of us) understand, our animal friends don’t really care how they wear their hair as long as it does what their instincts tell them it’s supposed to do: namely, protect and serve.

But we humans are different. We care about our hair (or lack of it)…and we experiment.

While there is ample evidence that men are attentive to styling (the early Greeks, the upper-class Renaissance, the Chinese warriors, fans of Elvis’ pompadour and even—shudder—the mullet), men generally seem to have two styles available to them: long and short. Oh sure, we may go through periods of mutton-chops or fringe bangs (heaven forbid) but at the end of the day, most men stay with short hair, with a few hold-outs opting for shaved heads or the less than inspiring ponytail.

Women, on the other hand, have infinite permutations, notwithstanding they’ve often followed the lead of their leaders—monarchs, movie stars and various trend-setters. In any given decade, you could find a pleasing variety of straight and curly, waist-length and bob, flip and page-boy, worn up, worn down, decorated with beads and feathers or worn unadorned. If you had a little money, you went to a fancy hairdresser and chose a style that suited you; if not, you flipped through pages of hairstyle magazines and selected something and had your mom or your best friend cut it.

So what’s with all the long hair?

I mean long, below the shoulder, tendrils gently brushing one’s breasts or tickling that spot on the back it’s so hard to reach when showering. These days, I feel surrounded by women who look as if they’re auditioning for roles on “Gossip Girls,” women of all ages whose tresses fall far below the shoulder. Some of them sport the super-straight look, apparently ignoring the recent reports about the dangers of formaldehyde in the most popular straightening formulas. More recently, I’ve seen an explosion of the gentle tendrils that make the wearer look like an aspiring fairy princess. A surprising number of women (including a close friend of mine, a financially comfortable woman with great clothes) have long hair that simply sits on the head, as if the wearer had absentmindedly allowed her hair to grow without benefit of cutting or conditioning. It’s not unusual to see three generations of women out on the town with identical hairstyles, tossing back stray strands while they munch on Waldorf salads or scour Target for matching T-shirts.

Popular culture shoulders part of the blame, especially television. These past seasons, we’ve seen a raft of smart, funny, capable women, most between thirty and fifty. Their independent spirit seems to extend to all parts of their lives save their hairstyle choice. Doctors, lawyers, detectives, coroners, therapists, operatives, mothers, U.S. marshals, drug dealers: everyone wears prom-ready do’s, showing up in the operating room, in the courtroom, or at the scene of a crime with locks akimbo. Wouldn’t a flowing mane obstruct a clean shot or a brilliant summation? Isn’t anyone worried about contaminating evidence or interfering with a crime scene?

Maybe it starts with the ads for the latest shampoo, conditioner, coloring or balm, all of which feature attractive young people cavorting under sunny skies swinging great masses of gleaming tresses back and forth without getting whiplash. It’s hair you want to sleep in, dress in, bathe in; who wouldn’t want some of that?

Long hair conveys sensuality and pre or post-menopausal women these days are particularly sensitive about competing for attention in a society that still doesn’t know where to put or how to treat its older women (we can’t all be Betty White).

My own hair has hovered between my chin and my shoulders for years now, occasionally retreating back towards the ear. If the base of the neck is my wire-fenced, heavily-patrolled, “may I see your passport, please” border, then the area to the collarbone is a no-fly zone. Part of the issue relates to sheer volume: as my hair gets longer, it becomes fuller, threatening to engulf my small face in sweeping waves and errant curls. There’s also my ongoing struggle to stay relevant yet also “appropriate.” I mean, as much as I approve of cross-generational pollinating, some fashions, like some behavior, are better worn by the young.

Still, I hear the siren song—or maybe it’s the swan song—of Samson, at least before Delilah got to him. Push the envelope, it sings; go long one time before you’re eligible for Medicaid. Embrace your freedom; who cares if it suits you? This is America. You have the right to look just like everyone else.

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We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

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Although I have friinternet-addictedends in the town where I live, I spend more of my free time online, socializing with people, many of whom I haven’t met in person. This is the new normal, where we can morph into hunky superheroes or meet and “marry” our soul mate and start a Second Life that’s much more interesting than the first one. It’s possible to spend too much time online,but most of us know when to sit back and look up…most of us.

“I need to get out more”

Thanks to social networking, the word “friend” has acquired a new fluidity. What is a friend anyway? Someone whose interests you share? With whom you can swap stories or exchange confidences? Someone who’ll lend you money,  take you to the airport, water your plants or show up at your funeral? At some point, the only people we can count on for those sorts of things are either family or people we pay, and the latter group is often more reliable.

Online friendship is relatively easy: I like you; your sensibility or sensitivity or sense of humor; you seem like “good” people;  we have friends in common—boom! You’re my friend. Many social networking circle-of-people sites don’t even require that you be acquainted with someone you embrace as a comrade. I have “friended” the comedian Lewis Black and the journalist Charles Blow. Of course, that the creepy guy who used to follow me home in high school can ask to “friend” me, but I can always virtually run in the other direction via the “ignore” button.

Just as I get used to this loosey-goosey, all-inclusive buddy system, along comes Google+ to throw all my choices into question.

google-plus-logoGoogle + is a new social networking site who some people think (and others hope) will knock Facebook back on its heels. Thanks to a few tech-forward friends, I’ve been invited to poke around on the site.  There are many cool-looking features I’ve yet to try, but Google’s big selling point is that it solves the “too much information seen by too many people” problem by creating a classification system. This theoretically allows you to organize your networking by organizing your network; sorting out friends from family (some of whom might or might not be considered friends, but never your mother or your crazy brother) and from acquaintances, people you don’t really know except through someone else. Then there are people you’re “following” (a nod to Twitter): people you only wish you had as friends who in truth don’t know you from Adam. You can customize your circles:  you might have a professional circle (very LinkedIn), or a common interests circle ( like a bunch of, say, writers).

Circles are supposed to be good. They represent strength, unity, connection, community; commonality, unbroken and everlasting. Yet the very act of separating everyone out is giving  me agita.


I get that someone might want to share professional or technical  information only with people she thinks might be interested. But as far as privacy is concerned, let’s not fool ourselves: if it’s on the ‘Net, it’s absolutely, irretrievably public. Maybe not instantly but eventually. Forget circles or squares or compartments or e-mails marked “private” or password-protected sites. If there’s anything you don’t want anyone to know—ever—your best course of action is not to type it out—ever.

“Hell really is other people.”

The truth is, I don’t want Google or anyone else to help me sort out my relationships. I feel I’ve earned the right to be vague or uncertain. At the same time, my maturity doesn’t protect me from re-experiencing those painful high school-era feelings about belonging. It’s bad enough to invite someone to “friend” you and get ignored. On Google+, you can add someone to your friends’ circle and learn they’ve tagged you as a mere acquaintance or worse:  they haven’t included you in any of their circles. That’s harsh. And must I be denied the thrill of claiming Lewis Black as one of my peeps?

friends Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture; Google+, please,  help me out.  Why can’t we all be just friends? Even if we’re not in real life.



parenting support circles
Bartolomeo Di Fruosino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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We’re So Vain


Once upon a time, when Carly Simon sang her hit song, “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Song is about You)”, fans tried to guess which of her former lovers she was essentially calling a pompous, self-regarding ass (Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Kris Kristofferson?).

The current crop of performers are singing their own tunes, thank you very much, reminding their audiences just how hot, how sexy, how empowered and yes, how pissed off they are. Now three psychologists who’ve been checking out Billboard’s Top 100 have made a discovery: in 2011, we’re all so vain.

image: baby pictures.org

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The three—Nathan DeWall, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge—conducted a study of song lyrics over the last thirty years and noted an evolution (or devolution) in pop music. Where in the 1980s, most singers sang about love, togetherness and peace, today’s tunes are ego-driven. The doctors cite lyrics from performers like Beyoncé and Fergie of Black-Eyed Peas. They claim the self-absorption manifest by the singers is reflected in the generation of fans (primarily college age). “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” says Dr. DeWall. Adds his colleague, Dr. Twenge, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”

Twenge, who along with Campbell also published a book a few years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic, sees the current crop of young people as far more narcissistic than previous generations. The authors take as evidence the results of an annual survey—The Narcissism Personality Inventory—that’s been administered to college students over the past several decades.

Narcissism has been in the news lately. Last winter’s recommendation from an advisory board to leave out Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the upcoming version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychotherapy’s diagnostic Holy Grail) was met with outrage by many in the psychiatric community. A Boston Globe article at the time noted that “narcissism has been done in by its own success. Because so many narcissists are thriving—at the expense of the rest of us—it’s hard to classify ‘narcissism’ as a disability.”

Small wonder in the age of “Brand Me.”

If certain levels of vanity, selfishness, entitlement and an exaggerated self-regard are becoming more acceptable, the implications for society are profound—and not just because we are confronted with the likes of Donald Trump, the man who would be king of the world. An increase in ego-centric behavior is bound to affect (if it hasn’t already) the way we conduct business, make policy, view social services–or communal activities or charity—and build and sustain relationships.

As a certified amateur/armchair psychologist, I’ve joined many others in writing about (and worrying about) our national predilection for self-absorption. A great many of our fellow citizens young and old seem to have difficulty separating what they need from what they think they ought to have. We talk about what we deserve or we are owed. We demand not just our rights but also attention. We get angry when we’re denied our due. It’s all about us, each and every one of us.

On the other hand…

Maybe we’re not suffering from mass narcissism, or at least not to any degree greater than previous age groups. Each generation has something to say about the one that came before and certainly the one that came after. As a baby boomer, I’m beginning to take umbrage with the spate of articles castigating me and my fellow boomers for our selfishness. Meanwhile, we are not without suggestions for ways to curb our self-regard. In recent weeks, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both proposed that we Americans add back a little hellfire into our religion. We’ve apparently got it too easy with our relaxed acceptance of a benign Supreme Being. Brooks and Douthat suggest we need the threat of eternal damnation. Nothing like cosmic intimidation to keep us humble.

As for college kids, that they’re self-serving and self-regarding and prone to posturing should be no surprise to anyone. Perhaps it’s become more socially acceptable to flaunt your hotness or sexiness or to tell people you don’t like to go f-ck themselves. Maybe it’s more permissible, or even necessary in this hyper-competitive age, to let people know how important you are—even when you’re taking a survey that measures your self-regard.

The students are also angrier and more depressed, according to the results of a survey last January I reviewed at the time. Like the study of song lyrics, the survey is one that takes into consideration only the past twenty-five year period. Since my memory extends back twice that far, I can’t help but suspect that we are in some kind of cycle wherein our nation mood coincides with our recent history.

Moreover, we’ve always been entertained by large personalities, as long as we don’t have to hang out with (or live with) them. Performers may have “come out” in terms of broadcasting their fabulousness but ego has long been a staple of the entertainment industry. The word “diva” has morphed from being a female opera singer of surpassing skill to a female vocalist with a big voice to a woman with an outsized ego—a bitch. Lyrics that express pride in being a bitch (or a bad-ass) among female singers are more common, but again, no surprise. After years of singing about busted promises and broken hearts, the women have been kicking back for at least a decade. Somehow the message seems less about self-centeredness than about empowerment. Who wouldn’t want to take a Louisville slugger to the beloved car of a low-life two timer as Cary Underwood does? These days, though, I prefer Sara Bareilles’ approach. If “King of Everything” were what my daughter listened to, I wouldn’t worry a bit about whether she thought the song was about her.

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