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First Person

It’s My Party

February 27, 2014 | by

How many hotheaded academics does it take to solve a riddle?

Andrew_Stevovich_oil_painting,_Hat_Party,_2012,_7"_x_8"

Andrew Stevovich, Hat Party, 2012, 7" x 8".

I don’t know what the best thing was about Jim Propp’s parties. They were a crystalline picture of the specialized, rarefied company I kept when I lived in Cambridge in the midnineties, parked on Mass. Ave. halfway between Harvard and MIT. Profs, postdocs, and assorted academic keepsakes from the cream of Boston academia all piled into Jim’s Victorian four-square house in Somerville for an evening of … well, we never quite knew what the evening would bring.

Technically, these were “word game” parties. Each was planned around a series of intellectual challenges arranged around the house more or less like evil wizards, ax-wielding dwarves, or more mundane impediments in a typical game of Dungeons & Dragons. You’d team up with a couple friends (or the pretty redhead who was probably dating one of your professors, if you could), and make your way from room to room, solving bits and pieces of puzzles that—if you were lucky—you could string together for the grand solution. The prize was bragging rights until the next party, six months down the line.

In any case, it all began with the invitation. Twice a year, a mysterious envelope would appear. I remember the first one I received: a single sheet with nothing but a swirling Spirograph flower on one side, and the letters RSVP below it. Where, when, and how were left to the recipient, presumably after he or she had coaxed the secret out of the cryptic drawing. Read More »

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Futurama

February 20, 2014 | by

worlds fair

A still from Dave Fleischer’s All’s Fair at the Fair, 1928.

I am writing this from mid-air, having checked in via a code on my phone, and am generally feeling very much like an Art Deco cartoon. The Future is here. It is more like the past and the present than we expected.

There was a day on which two things happened. First, I went to see an exhibition about the 1939 World’s Fair. It featured a life-size replica of Elektro the Smoking Robot, and the famous Futurama Pavilion, and in general the Art Deco marvel that was visionary designer Norman Bel Geddes’s masterpiece was beautifully evoked. (Incidentally, for a thorough account of Geddes’s creative process, check out the terrific Barbara Alexandra Szerlip on his game design and the Chrysler Airflow.)

The exhibit was also attended by a group of young people, maybe undergrads, all of them aggressively and meticulously dressed in vintage finery. There were boys in tweed caps and sport shoes and pressed, high-waisted trousers, and girls with perfect pin curls and matte red lips. The commitment was impressive. Their interest in this particular exhibition seemed natural. I tried to stick close to them, as they added a certain air to the proceedings. But then I heard one boy say, “Wait, who was Herbert Hoover?” Still, they took careful notes on the clothes and the aesthetic, and I was glad they were there.

After the museum I went to get a cup of coffee at a nearby diner. There was a young couple at the next table, this one completely modern in dress. I heard the girl say to the boy, “The thing is, computers are the new slaves. We insult them and yell at them. We treat them like inanimate objects.”

And the boy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s really interesting.” Which, in its way, was true.

I don’t want you to think I didn’t love all these young people, because I did. The name of the exhibition was “I Have Seen the Future,” and that day, it felt apt.

 

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Common Language

February 12, 2014 | by

snooker parlor konstmat flickr

Photo: Konstmat, via Flickr

During my junior year of college, I had the chance to study at a university in London. I flew out of JFK on September 15, 2001, and the flight was so empty I was able to lie down across four seats for the first and last time in my life. In England, many of our fellow students seemed to feel obliged to either ask solicitously about our 9/11 experiences, or express their views on American imperialism. In both capacities, I felt I proved a disappointment.

During that year abroad, my American friend Rachel and I became fascinated with a group of fellow literature students who seemed to us unspeakably wonderful. They never said anything in seminar, they always looked glamorously ridiculous, and, best of all, their company was highly exclusive.

We came up with names for all of them. There was the seeming leader, “Robert Smith,” who had sculptural, Cure-like hair. “Charles and Camilla Macaulay” looked a bit alike—in fact, the whole crew struck us as very Secret History-esque. We called one tall, severe boy “Adam Bede”; one emaciated fellow was “Schiele”; another, I’m sorry to say, was just “the Balding One.”

They moved in a pack, smoked roll-ups in a secretive cluster, exchanged notes and amused eye contact during class, and cohabited, or so we assumed. The clique seemed to us all things not-American. It shamed us to think that they associated us with the Boston girl who was always shouting loud, obvious things about Sylvia Plath or the sleazy Arizona boy who hit on all the prettiest girls. We were desperate to prove our worth to them, but how? The only person outside their circle with whom we’d ever seen them associate was a studious, translucently fair young man named Rupert Davies. Read More »

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Coming of Age

February 7, 2014 | by

640px-PSM_V08_D544_Valenciennes_lace_of_ypres

Valenciennes lace of Ypres, 1875

The summer before I started college, I worked part-time in an antique linens shop in an East Coast vacation town. The owner, Theresa, was a warm, elegant woman who taught me not just how to do bookkeeping and how to tell the difference between point lace and Valenciennes, but a great deal about how to treat other people, too.

The rest of the time, I worked as a waitress at a nearby restaurant. My fellow employees included a shifty-eyed Hare Krishna named Heather, a bartender called Kenny who liked to try to shock me, and a thirtysomething bodyworker, Julia, who had the unfortunate habit of telling people on the slightest pretext that she had attended “a little school in New Haven.”

At the linens shop, I helped iron and fold the stock and assisted customers. Mostly, Theresa and I would talk: about her family leaving Havana after the revolution; about the history of the town; about her dashing husband and how they met when she was a receptionist at a clinic. (He’d had a dislocated shoulder and she let him jump the line.) “Always spend more on flowers than on food,” she once told me. “Good for the soul, better for the waistline.” Read More »

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A Downward Glissando

February 5, 2014 | by

dental x-ray

Photo: Cory Doctorow, via Flickr

Fat little dog trotting contentedly along the sidewalk, right at his master’s side, with a plastic steak in his mouth.

Neil Young sounds like a lonely alley cat, I thought, most poignant when slightly out of tune.

Whenever I got on the subway, I looked around for someone cute to glance at, and if there wasn’t anyone I resigned myself to boredom.

Old queen in the locker room: “When you’re the prettiest one in the steam room, it’s time to go home.”

At forty-three I was no longer in my heyday.

The name of the medication printed in a half circle and the “100 mg” made a smiley face on my new, blue pills.

On the L train, a poem called “Hunger” spoke of walking home “through a forest that covers the world.”

I’d had the same part-time public-relations job since November 1985. It was now February 2001 and counting.

I was drawn to Neil Young not by the specific content of the lyrics (too hetero) but by the overall tone of longing, which I defined as a kind of sadness that had hope.

On the L platform, a diminutive Chinese man playing “Send in the Clowns” on a harmonica, with flowery recorded accompaniment.

I write this in the hope that aphorism-like statements, when added one to another, might accrue to make some larger statement that will placate despair. Read More »

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Self-Help

February 4, 2014 | by

dark street

Photo: Iain Cuthbertson, via Flickr

For several years, I lived in a neighborhood that worried my parents. But I liked my neighbors, I could afford the rent, and, in the grand tradition of fools, I lived a blissfully oblivious existence. I never once felt unsafe.

Well, that’s not strictly true. My boyfriend and I had been living in the apartment for about two years when I acquired a job that necessitated my commuting to an office, and oftentimes returning after dark.

“I don’t like it,” he said grimly of the fifteen-minute walk from the subway. There had been a recent spate of rapes in the area, he pointed out. “Call me when you get on, and I’ll meet you and walk you home.”

Naturally, I did no such thing. Instead, I walked home every day like a normal person and felt completely safe.

Until, one especially late night, I noticed footsteps behind me. I tried to shrug it off and picked up my pace. The person behind me started walking more quickly, too. I crossed the street; the steps followed me. I made a turn; he was right behind me. Now I felt real fear. I walked as quickly as I could without breaking into a panicked run, and fished my keys out of my pocket, holding the sharp point between my fingers for use as a weapon, as we had been taught in freshman orientation. The steps behind me never faltered. My heart was hammering by the time I made it into our building and threw the deadbolt. Read More »

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