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Peel

December 19, 2014 | by

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From the cover of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The past, as we know, is another country, and from the age of four or so, I wished passionately for dual citizenship. What old-fashioned meant, I couldn’t even have told you. But for most of my early life I worshipped the idea devoutly. To me it meant inheritance, placement, being part of something larger. 

I think I envisioned this vague past as a world where I belonged. Other children were kind and wholesome; clothes were strange and modest; I was not ridiculous. Paradoxically, my communion with the past made me wholly ridiculous. Sporting bloomers to the third grade has rarely been a road to modern popularity. 

As might be clear, my family had no particular veneration for ritual, but I still cleaved to the idea of holidays as a tradition-steeped idyll. I baked and decorated and played carols, and my homemade gifts were very strange. The primary reason for this is that I got all my ideas from a series of vintage books with names like Let’s Make a Gift! and Fun and Thought for Little Folk, and the youngest of them dated to the late 1930s. As a result, my parents were treated to pen wipers and blotters, a pipe cleaner “embroidered” with the word Father (my dad did not smoke a pipe), and, on one particularly lackluster occasion, a “brush for invalids” that involved wrapping a stick in a piece of flannel so the bedridden individual did not need to wash her hair. Read More »

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Toast

December 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Ken Hawkins

I was told not long ago that a certain prominent New York publication has put a moratorium on features about the death of local institutions; otherwise, they’d be running such features constantly. And the sad truth is, there is a sameness to the narrative. Neighborhoods change, rents rise, developers swoop, venerable places close. It’s a story so familiar that it tends, nowadays, to inspire sadness rather than outrage.

These stories also pose certain questions. What makes something "iconic”? Just because a place is old, does that automatically make it an institution? What if standards have slipped, and a restaurant or bar is a pale shadow of its former self? And, of course, the ultimate test: sentiment aside, how often do you actually go there? In the end, the arguments are moot. Good or bad, beloved or forgotten, everything is going. The Metro section reads like an obit page. 

You could spend your life going only to sepia-toned places for purely charitable reasons. What kind of a life this would be, I can’t say—probably a melancholy one, filled with pricks of secret, guilty relief when some of the spots are put out of their misery and the civic-minded patron is let off the hook. Read More »

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Gags and Novelties

December 17, 2014 | by

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Illustration: Max Ronnersjö

“Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury … ” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.

If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself. 

As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved. Read More »

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Half Magic

December 16, 2014 | by

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886.

I like the arbitrary lists the Guardian often includes in its children’s book section: best villains in children’s books, best dogs, best mothers. As with all lists, these are made to be debated, and it’s always fun to see what the compiler chooses. But today’s list made me mad. Simply put, it was incomplete. “Best cauldrons in children’s books” did not include the cauldron from Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

I’m sure the cauldrons from The Worst Witch and Wyrd Sisters are great. I know the cauldrons found in Lloyd Alexander and J. K. Rowling are high quality. And certainly no one’s denying that Macbeth’s cauldron game is strong. (Even if it’s a stretch to call it a children’s book.) One can justify the exclusion of The Black Cauldron from this list, and, even though I’d have included Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family, I understand that this is a matter of opinion. But Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is nothing less than a glaring omission.

If you’re a fan of E. L. Konigsburg, you probably know her first book. It came out the same year—1967—as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s the story of a loner, the titular Elizabeth, who falls under the sway of another girl, Jennifer, who claims to be a witch and takes Elizabeth on as her apprentice. Elizabeth balks at her mentor’s bossiness, but puts up with it: “Before I’d got Jennifer,” she says, “I’d had no one.” Jennifer declares that the pair will make a flying potion as a test for Elizabeth. But the cauldron actually appears earlier in the story, when the kids are asked to bring in kitchen props for a school play.  Read More »

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Fine Dining

December 15, 2014 | by

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Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, Refeição interrompida (Interrupted Meal), 1883.

There’s a human-interest story that’s been making the rounds on the “Weird But True” circuit lately. It concerns a restaurant in Chongqing, China, that gives diners discounts based on their weight. Upon entry, customers step onto a scale. As China Radio International reports, “The policy says, for male diners, the more they weigh, the more discounts they are entitled to. If a male customer weighs more than 140 kilograms, then the meal is free.” That’s 308 pounds. For a woman to eat free, however, she must weigh fewer than seventy-six pounds. In other words, the promotion applies to overweight men and very thin women. It’s what you might call the Anti–Jack Sprat Initiative. The exact thinking behind the marketing scheme is not explained.

My family did not eat out very often. When we did, it was most often at one of two places: Pizza and Brew or the Ground Round. (I always agitated for the sophistication of Red Lobster, but I rarely got my way.) Pizza and Brew’s appeal was obvious enough—pizza, and I guess brew—but we went to the Ground Round for one reason only: Pay What You Weigh Night. Read More »

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Most Wonderful Time

December 12, 2014 | by

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Santas overtake London, 2011. Photo: Garry Knight, via Flickr

Two winters ago, I accidentally found myself in the East Village on the day of SantaCon. For those fortunate enough to have been spared it, this is an annual holiday event in which punters in Santa costumes (mere hats won't cut it) pay an entry fee toward charity and then go on a daylong bar crawl. This happens in cities across the globe. My most vivid memory of that nightmarish evening is a single lewd elf stopping traffic as he squatted in the middle of Second Avenue and slowly, hypnotically, rotated his hips to music only he could hear. 

SantaCon is one of the easiest targets for snark, but it really is pretty awful. The NYC branch says it’s going legit this year—no public nuisances, no blocking traffic, no street urination or gutters running with vomit—and to this end the organizers have hired a prominent lawyer and posted rules of conduct to its site. (Exposing yourself in public is a sex offense, it reminds the Santas.) In further efforts to curb the charitable, drunken Santas’ behavior, various commuter trains, including the Long Island Railroad, have banned pre-gaming. Read More »

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