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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

Overheard in New York

August 8, 2014 | by

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Georgios Jakobides, The First Steps, 1889

Now that it is going to be sold, my grandparents’ house, and the summers we spent there, seem cloaked in romance. I remember the trips to the thrift store, the games in the phalanx of sheds, the maple bars from Red’s Donuts, nature walks with my uncle, reading Green Mansions in the woods. It is easy to gloss over the rest.

It was a place of strong smells. Mint in the yard. Eucalyptus trees on the drive. Talcum powder and Lysol and always a potato rotting somewhere in the kitchen. It would have been a good place to be blind. Or, it would have if every inch hadn’t been covered with constantly shifting stuff.

I can’t seem to stop thinking and writing about my grandparents, lately. Well, they’ve been on everyone’s minds as they clear the property and sort through the family politics. I suppose I’ve been fumbling for some sort of eulogy. I’ve started to write about singing gay nineties songs around the piano, about family holidays and the day we all dressed in costumes for a group portrait. But I don’t think any of that really tells the story. If I were to try to say goodbye with one story, I think it would need to be a conversation I overheard one day. My grandfather called every evening; I walked into the kitchen to find my mother on the phone. 

“Has Mom agreed to this?” A beat. Then, exasperated, “Then that’s not a suicide pact, Dad; it’s a murder-suicide.”

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Stories We Tell

August 5, 2014 | by

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It’s a strange coincidence that I should think to look up Ruth Sawyer today. Last night, I mentioned her book Roller Skates to a friend—I thought her nine-year-old daughter might enjoy it—but I had no idea that August 5 was her birthday.

Sawyer died in 1970, at the age of ninety. As a young woman, she traveled to Cuba, where she worked in kindergartens established for orphans of the Spanish American War, training their teachers in how to tell stories. Upon returning to New York, Sawyer obtained a scholarship to study storytelling and folklore. She went to work telling stories in the city’s school system, working primarily with immigrant children, and later founded the NYPL’s first storytelling program. Throughout her career, she would travel around the world collecting folktales, and for many years she volunteered as a storyteller at a women’s prison. Her Way of the Storyteller, from 1942, is still regarded as a landmark text—one full of charm and interest for the layman, too.

The stories she learned and the people she met inspired several of her many children’s books. But the most famous, Roller Skates, which won the Newbery in 1937, was, frankly, autobiographical: The story of one year in the life of a well-to-do New York ten-year-old. Like her heroine, Lucinda Wyman, Ruth Sawyer also spent 1890 away from her parents, who were traveling. Far from resenting their absence, she found the time living in a boarding house to be one of adventure and discovery. Read More »

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Even the Losers

July 25, 2014 | by

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A drone—yes, really—photographed the action at our game against New York. Photo: Alon Sicherman, Center for the Study of the Drone

Even the losers
Keep a little bit of pride
—Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

About a month ago, when I last wrote about The Paris Review’s softball team, I called us “damn fine.” “The Parisians are on something of a hot streak,” I had the gall to say, noting that we’d “met with defeat only once, at the hands of The Nation.”

Then July happened.

Reader, you gaze upon the words of a broken man. (Specifically a broken right fielder.) Today, that “damn fine” is inflected with callow hubris; that “hot streak” runs lukewarm. After three more games—against Vanity Fair, New York, and n+1—our season is over, and our win-loss record is a measly 4-4.

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When we were good: the scorecard of this season’s first game, against DC Comics.

The close of yesterday’s game found us supine on the Astroturf, wondering: What happened back there? That’s for history to decide, or the trolls in the comments section. Whatever the case, our early, easy victories against the likes of The New Yorker and Harper’s now seem like distant memories.

The trouble started with our game against Vanity Fair, whose chic black-on-black uniforms belied their brutish athleticism. (And their trash talking: “Don’t just tweet about it,” shouted their third-base coach, “be about it.”) They eked out a 5-4 victory; I ate some of their pizza in recompense. Our spirits were still high enough, at that point, for a group photo: Read More »

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Sword-and-Sandal Epics Be Damned, and Other News

July 25, 2014 | by

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Poster for Atlas Against the Cyclops, 1961.

  • Movies set in Ancient Rome always do well at the box office. Why not Ancient Greece? “What is Hollywood to do with a world of 1,000 competing city-states, where homoeroticism was institutionalized and philosophers were more interested in the rationale for Platonic love than for war? … Greek tales would be better treated as supernatural thrillers. Imagine the real, lived historical experience for the ancient Greeks: the day-to-day jeopardy of knowing there was a fickle spirit in every breath of wind and ear of grain; that malicious deities might be lurking around the corner, shape-shifting to have their way with you.”
  • David Lynch, whose suspiciously mercantile interests I’ve complained about before, is now designing women’s luxury activewear. “The special collection features ‘limited edition David Lynch Floral’ print leggings, sports bras, shorts, and one very plain T-shirt, none of which are priced below $100.”
  • Why are so many cities building “innovation districts”? “Dozens of cities across the United States, Europe, South America, and East Asia are cultivating local utopias of entrepreneurship … These districts represent a mash-up of research institutions, corporations, start-ups, and business incubators, intermixed with ‘innovative housing,’ neighborhood amenities, and cultural sites in a clean energy, Wi-Fi-enabled environment … But is crowding a bunch of people into a few city blocks really the way to make creative sparks fly?”
  • Joan “Tiger” Morse “was a mod fashion designer in the mid 1960s … As the proprietress of the Teeny Weeny, her pop boutique located on Madison Avenue at 73rd Street, Morse sold mini dresses and other fashion oddities that used primarily man-made fabrications. With her frequent collaborator Diana Dew, Morse turned out illuminated mini dresses that would glow in myriad colors, all powered by a small battery pack worn at the waist.”
  • The secret beating heart of the dream office is the stationery cupboard, the ideal kind, the one that opens to enough depth to allow you to walk in and close the door behind you. No one does close the door—it would be weird—but the perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful.”

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Kickoff

June 12, 2014 | by

The World Cup begins now. Jonathan Wilson and Rowan Ricardo Phillips will write dispatches for The Daily; here, they introduce themselves and the games.

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Jonathan Wilson, from London:

“All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.” That’s Robert Hass, in the opening of his great poem “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The lines resonate: earlier this week, before departing for the World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is German, asserted, “We cannot win the World Cup,” and it didn’t go down well. At least one pundit suggested that he should “get out of America.”

In soccer-saturated London, where I arrived last week, Klinsmann’s remarks might have elicited a more sympathetic response. England hasn’t won the World Cup since 1966, and this year’s team is generally considered transitional, unformed, untested. However, with the kind of twisted logic that applies to soccer supporters worldwide, the dominant “not a hope” take on England’s chances has subtly transformed in recent days to a “well, there are no expectations, so the pressure’s off, so in fact that could translate into improved performance, so hmm, well maybe, just maybe…”

England’s manager, Roy Hodgson—who’s a bit grumpy, has interesting hair, is undoubtedly the most literary figure England has ever employed (The Guardian reported that he read Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH on the flight to Rio), and likes to rib the press about their obsessions with certain players and the hysterical pressure they exert on him to play them—recently succumbed to the dangerous new optimism. He announced that England was indeed capable of winning. Even so, (almost) all the new thinking is still about loss, and in this it resembles the thinking of populations in participating countries worldwide, unless you happen to be from Brazil or Argentina, or maybe Germany— although not so much now that their star midfielder, Marco Reus, has torn his ankle ligaments and is out for the duration.

This isn’t to say that Brazil or Argentina must triumph, although no team from outside South America has ever won the World Cup when it has been played there, but simply that when it comes to international soccer, American over-optimism is rarely in evidence except for, as you might expect, in the minds and hearts of Americans. Nobody, of course, who knows anything at all about soccer, thinks that the U.S. can win the World Cup, and to compound matters the team is in a group of death with Ghana, Portugal, and Germany. In the furor over Klinsmann’s remarks and his subsequent refusal to back down, I was reminded of the time that Ronald Reagan came on TV after he’d traded arms for hostages and announced that even though it looked like he’d done exactly that, in his heart he knew that he hadn’t. American hearts can be frequently, powerfully, and touchingly resistant to reality. Read More »

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The Making of an American

May 14, 2014 | by

Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

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Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More »

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