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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia’


May 8, 2014 | by

Life in the linguistics lab.


Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant. Read More »


See You There: The Paris Review in Philadelphia

October 18, 2013 | by


Philly friends! This Sunday, I, Sadie Stein, and our editor, the estimable (and still not related) Lorin Stein will be in town as part of the 215 Festival. Great things will be taking place all weekend; we will be at the closing event at the Philadelphia Arts Alliance, answering your questions, talking shop, and hosting cocktails! Looking forward to meeting you!

RSVP to the event here.



Girls Together

July 9, 2013 | by


Courtesy of the Haug family.

It’s a gray day in April and after nine hours on a crowded BoltBus I arrive in Philadelphia to see my old friend from college, Nicole, a fellow writer and veritable one-woman repository of Philadelphian history. I’m here to celebrate her birthday, to drink wine, and to comb through the detritus of a difficult past year for both of us. Really, I’m not here for research.

So, of course it makes perfect sense that within five minutes of picking me up she turns her car toward 4100 Pine Street, an address I’ve seen scrawled on the front of numerous letters, in nineteenth-century directories, in the chicken-scratch handwriting of an 1870 Philadelphian census worker, and in journal after journal of Amy Ella Blanchard.

I first encountered Blanchard’s work as a sullen adolescent, forced to go to an island in Maine every other weekend with my father and soon-to-be stepmother. The house where we stayed was built by Blanchard in the early twentieth century and her books lined the shelves, but I was too busy reading classics like Salem’s Lot to be bothered with these dusty old tomes. The fact that she was a relative of my father’s girlfriend made Blanchard’s novels even less attractive to me.

Not many readers these days know who Blanchard was, but just barely a century ago she published at least a book a year, sometimes more, for girls and about girls. During her lifetime she wrote over eighty books, a play in 1896 about the importance of exercise for women, and even a couple of small booklets flouting such morals as “fritterings” and being “pound foolish.” A self-described late bloomer, Blanchard’s writing career started, and sputtered, with a story she published in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper when she was in her teens, but it wasn’t until she was well into her thirties that her novels became an indispensable part of every young girl’s library.

4100 Pine Street is where Amy Ella Blanchard met her writerly fate, personally and professionally. In 1871, when she was fifteen years old, the Waugh family of Philadelphia hired her to be a tutor for their young son, future marine artist and camouflage designer Frederick Judd Waugh. Patriarch Samuel Bell Waugh was a renowned Philadelphian painter of portraits, including at least two of President Lincoln; his wife, Mary, specialized in miniatures; and Frederick’s older half sister, Ida, was hard at work pursuing her own painting career. A family of artists, the Waughs quickly took young Amy under their wing. They kept inspired company in their time and introduced Amy to a creative world that was far removed from her hometown of Baltimore in more ways than one. Read More »


Tender Spirits: A Conversation with Marie-Helene Bertino

January 16, 2013 | by

In October, Marie-Helene Bertino published her debut collection of short stories, Safe as Houses. Her writing often involves fantastical elements—an embodied idea of an ex-boyfriend, an alien who faxes observations about human beings to her home planet, a woman who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner—that advance painful story lines. Her language is spare, direct, and hilarious, which makes the characters’ losses that much more deeply felt. Bertino is now at work on a novel centering on a jazz club in Philadelphia called the Cat’s Pajamas.

We spoke for two hours in a Brooklyn coffee shop, which was flooded with girls on their lunch break from school.

Reading Safe as Houses, I was struck by the number of characters who aren’t really seen by others. By the last few stories, the characters start to become more visible. Does that theme ring true to you?

I would totally agree with that, though I was not conscious of it. I was aware that a lot of characters were on the outskirts of something—of their towns, their groups of friends, their families, their societies. And at the risk of sounding cliché, I think that’s a metaphor for being a writer. I mean literally and figuratively—you have to stand on the outside to watch a group of people and then be able to write about them, but in practice, it’s also a solitary art, as they say. And I think that those characters definitely are a reflection of that kind of observer quality in me.

Read More »


Reading the Viaduct

December 4, 2012 | by

Starting out for the southern end of the Reading Viaduct means walking alongside a live railroad track, vigilant for the sound of a CSX freight train approaching from behind. Your destination is the mouth of an abandoned tunnel, which will pull you into stretches of almost total darkness thirty feet below ground. You aren’t headed for the tunnel because you love tunnels, but to glimpse the diversity of landscapes that makes up Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct before it becomes the city’s answer to New York City’s Highline. You are there for the tunnel as much as for what’s on the other side: the promise of meadowland and prairie hiding in plain sight.

The Reading Viaduct may one day become a linear park transecting downtown Philadelphia. Should that happen, the Viaduct would be like no other park in the world. The three-mile stretch runs thirty feet underground at one end and emerges as an elevated line thirty feet above street level on the other. Since the 1980s, it has been abandoned. Sections of the Viaduct may undergo development as early as next year. Read More »


A Week in Culture: Eric Banks, Writer

August 25, 2010 | by


11:30 A.M. One of my favorite things about going to Philadelphia is that when you’re disgorged from the train you step into 30th Street Station. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment—how many films1 have been made about the City of Brotherly Love that find some way or another to use the old Beaux-Arts structure as a set? I’m not sure what it says about a city that every filmmaker wants to signify Philadelphianess with the very place you’d pass through if you were either coming or going—or for that matter, why so many Philly films choose to stage their most extravagant moments of murder and witnessed mayhem in this relatively quiet corner of the city—but at any rate I get a little thrill2 of walking through the station, so much more humanly scaled (if still monumental in its own way) than Grand Central or Union Station but losing nothing of the rustle of urbanity in the process.

11:50 A.M. It’s a quick hop by cab to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first leg of our seaboard-descending art trip. It’s not so much a staycation—with the price of an Amtrak ticket down and back, plus a night among all the foreign tourists at a Dupont Circle hotel chain, we could as well have flown somewhere. We were lured by the recently restored Gross Clinic, on view for the first time since it’s been spiffied up by its new owners, who rallied to keep the canvas in Thomas Eakins’s hometown when the Walmart heirs were trying to buy it and exile it to an Arkansas museum, and the promise of an Arte Povera installation. The latter turns out to be a bit overblown—really just a couple of ho-hum works thrown in to a room alongside great but familiar pieces by Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. Povera, indeed.

12:30 P.M. The Duchamp gallery is, happily, nearly empty of other visitors. Our companion, a Yale art historian who did his dissertation on Duchamp, seems almost deliriously placid sitting in front of "The Large Glass." You don’t associate that sort of copacetic plenitude with looking at Duchamp, and it’s sort of marvelous to behold. “It never disappoints me,” he says in a church voice. I’ve never had that experience with "The Large Glass," though "Étant donnés," no matter how many times you’ve peeped through the hole in the doorway, never loses its filthy staying power and fresh smell of mystery. What other creaky and canonical artworks of the last one hundred years can you say that about? I still feel like a perv squatting so slightly to look through the peephole at the splayed, spread-eagle figure and the twinkling faux waterfall. It’s almost obligatory afterward to cut back through the Brancusi gallery and have a look at the plain, unmarked door allowing maintenance access to the piece. The sight is a purgative for the eyes.

2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where "The Gross Clinic" is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.

The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, "The Agnew Clinic3." And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils4. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.

When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of "The Gross Clinic’s" restoration relativism. Read More »


  1. I immediately think of Witness, and Trading Places, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. (I can’t recall whether there was a 30th Street Station scene in Philadelphia, but it seems to be on AMC every five minutes, so I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough, but if there wasn’t, there should have been.)
  2. Do Philadelphians have the same feeling, or does it communicate this little charm only for the visitor?
  3. While we’re standing there, a couple of kids in T-shirts and white gloves come out of the woodwork to make a show of dusting the frame.
  4. The pencil-brush contrast is one of the palpable dramas, of drawing pitted against painting, taking place in the canvas; once you know that Eakins’s father was a successful calligrapher and have seen enough Eakins to register how frequently he tried to couple both graphic perspective and painterly chiaroscuro to produce his own brand of realism, the violence of the operating room gets a lot more Oedipal.