Stephanie Schwartz | Media & Information Gatherer & Producer | Journalist, Critic, Blogger & All-Around Media Maven
I Like to Know.
I work in communications because I like to know.

I am an information seeker. I work in communications because that is who I am — I really, truly, want to know, and I find media fascinating, how and why and what stories we tell. Human nature doesn’t change, but the details do.

I like specifics, and the central question of my life is how.

Published Writing

I have been fortunate for my writing to be published in several places.

Most recently, I expanded my skillset working for an online publication that covered national politics, concentrating on researched stories that showed how politics mixed with society, identity, technology, and media.

For a year and a half, I was a pretty rare find — a full-time paid print journalist. My time at Pascack Valley Community Life, the largest weekly by page volume owned by North Jersey Media Group, was great experience and a lot of fun. I got to cover a variety of stories and really got to know a community. I could barely name a town in the Pascack Valley, despite living within twenty minutes of the area for fourteen years, when I started. Interesting people following their passions and doing good work can be found anywhere, and they can sometimes be found in your local paper.

Before that, I worked at The County Seat, named for its home base, Hackensack, Bergen County’s capitol.

Note: Unfortunately, many of the links to these stories are quickly becoming dead, as North Jersey Media apparently stops hosting stories once they reach past a certain timeframe. I realize that the photocopies are less easy to read than a webpage. I can send PDFs or Word documents of articles if requested.

The National Memo

Pascack Valley Community Life

  • Zelcowa


    Zelcowa is a non-profit that helps students further their education in Ghana and the United States. It was founded by a Westwood, NJ resident named Barbara Tobiassen. My interview with her lasted over three hours until we were kicked out, both of us with tears in our eyes. She is a remarkable woman. When she entered the Peace Corps in the early 2000s, she was sent to Ghana to teach math — which eventually led her to help revitalize the educational prospects of the children she met there. She now splits her time between the U.S. and Ghana, helping needy schoolchildren complete their education. This story was my only double truck and one of the longest I ever wrote.

  • Halloween Snowstorm

    Halloween Snowstorm

    Community Life’s version of breaking news. Before Hurricane Sandy, this was the most recent bad storm. For large events like this, we combine all our reporting into one story; my contributions are here and here.

  • DePiero’s Mall Development

    DePiero’s Mall Development

    DePiero’s is a local farm that has been shrinking over the past couple of decades as the owners have had to find ways to make a living. The land now houses a beloved country farm store, but the owners have recently sold land that will will likely turn into North Jersey’s first Wegman’s, a high-end supermarket and specialty store that is unrivaled, along with likely more shops. This article is at the beginning of the process, which is ongoing.

  • Redeveloping Downtown

    Redeveloping Downtown

    Development issues were a major topic in both towns that I covered, as Montvale and Woodcliff Lake used to be country-like and now have little undeveloped land. This story is another one in an ongoing series of redeveloping Broadway, the main thoroughfare in Woodcliff Lake. I’ve always bristled at the planner’s mention of Asheville, N.C., a city I’ve been to that Woodcliff Lake is nothing like and will never be, but I agree that the town should start to think in that direction.

  • Broadway Corridor

    Broadway Corridor

    When I left Community Life, I was sad to leave one story unfinished — although it is likely to stay unfinished for a very long time. Broadway is the main thoroughfare in the small town of Woodcliff Lake, and its decrepitude mars an otherwise very upscale area. Local politicians have been wanting to develop it for a while, but the area is problematic as it borders private land and has considerable environmental restrictions, including a state waterway protection. Woodcliff Lake had begun to take tentative steps toward developing the land, but any plans were very controversial and meetings were very fractured. This particular story made the cover and was quite memorable because of the raucous meeting it describes.

  • Governor’s Landing Doesn’t Surprise Police

    Governor’s Landing Doesn’t Surprise Police

    This is an example of an angle I took on a story that had already broke. This was breaking news — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a state helicopter to watch his son play a baseball game against St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, a town I covered. By the time I heard about the story, it was too late, and especially for a weekly, there was no point in covering a story that had already broke everywhere else.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Q and As

    Woodcliff Lake Election Q and As

    For election season, I got to sit down with each candidate and grill them on their plans for fixing up the town they lived in. There was so much that could not be published, unfortunately, since due to space we only published two questions (or as you’ll see from the clip, two groups of related questions) with each candidate’s response. Locally, basically everyone is really passionate, and I find incumbents run again not because they love the power but because they want to see projects they started completed.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Candidates Capsules

    Woodcliff Lake Election Candidates Capsules

    For all elections during my time at Community Life, we published biographical capsules of the candidates.

  • Woodcliff Lake Election Debate

    Woodcliff Lake Election Debate

    This was one of my favorite stories during my time at Community Life. The 2011 election was unexpectedly exciting — hectic, certainly — but I was able to do a little political analysis and commentary with this piece, since Woodcliff Lake actually hosted a debate between candidates. One of the perks of attending every meeting was that I could call it when I saw it — and I did.

  • Lauren Barbelet

    Lauren Barbelet

    I LOVE THIS WOMAN. Lauren Barbelet’s enthusiasm and energy is so inspiring, and that’s why she’s such a natural — and so beloved — as both a principal, and now, a superintendent.

  • Bruce Meisel

    Bruce Meisel

    Bruce Meisel is a high-powered businessman in the Pascack Valley, the CEO and President of Pascack Community Bank. He essentially revitalized Westwood, the town that headquarters the bank. I always thought it was interesting he majored in creative writing in college — proof that yes, sometimes liberal arts degrees lead to big bucks.

  • Josh Thomsen

    Josh Thomsen

    I got to learn a little about the high-end restaurant business from Josh Thomsen.

  • Jodie Levinson

    Jodie Levinson

    As arts and entertainment section lead, I interviewed a lot of local artists, musicians and actors, and anyone who landed a spot on television. Jodie Levinson is a New York City-based musician who released her debut album in December 2010. I joked at the time it was my shot at writing a Rolling Stone-like profile. Well, it’s hard to get to that level of detail when you only have an hour with the person, but Jodie was sweet, generous and lovely to talk to. And of course, she’s a fantastic singer.

  • Kathleen Gerard

    Kathleen Gerard

    I interviewed a number of people who had published books, but Kathleen Gerard was the only one who made me cry.

  • Rich and Mari Small

    Rich and Mari Small

    This couple, who ran a prostate cancer support group, were among many of the wonderful people I met during my time at Community Life. One of the things I love about journalism is that it gives me the opportunities to see things and meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have. This is the only Q&A with two people I did, and I loved that they mentioned technology and the library, where we met for the interview.

The County Seat

  • Teaneck Budget Cuts

    Teaneck Budget Cuts

    Like many schools around the country, Teaneck was having major budget issues. One of the decisions the board made was to cut the popular film program — filling the school cafeteria with angry students, teachers, parents and alums. This meeting lasted past midnight and was rough to witness.

  • Maywood Kindergarten Goes Half Day

    Maywood Kindergarten Goes Half Day

    Similarly, Maywood — a much smaller town than Teaneck — was forced to turn their kindergarten program into a half-day one, which seemed completely at-odds with society today. I am always shocked to read that full-time kindergarten is not mandated in most states and many districts do not offer it. I was lucky to attend full-time public kindergarten and cannot fathom that things have not changed in the over twenty years since then.

Academic Work

Academically, I am interested in a lot of the same things I write about recreationally. Media effects, especially in regard to television and the Internet. Identity and behavior. How and why things and people change. Technology and social and cultural effects. Fan culture and entertainment messaging. I relate all of this to communication practices, and how this helps or hinders. I am very interested in prosocial movements on both a macro and micro level as well.

I attended undergrad at Ramapo College of New Jersey, on the border of New York and New Jersey. After much soul-searching that now seems ridiculous in retrospect, I double majored in American Studies and Communication Arts, with a concentration in Media Studies. A lot of people thought this was a strange combination, but I wrote a lot about technology and communication in my American Studies classes and incorporated history and cultural studies in my communications work. They complimented each other well.

Years later, I decided to go to Elon University, in north-central North Carolina, to learn many media skills that I hadn’t picked up in the previous years. Funny enough, by this time my undergrad had revamped its communications program to include a version of what my master’s degree is in — Interactive Media — and it’s likely I would have majored in that had I been ten years younger.


  • The Internet as a Motivational Tool

    The Internet as a Motivational Tool

    This is a literature review on how people use the Internet as a motivational tool. I am increasingly interested in positive technologies and prosocial movements, and this paper is a continuation of my study of identity and behavior in various Internet spaces and communities.

  • Vice Persona

    Vice Persona

    Who do you think is the optimal viewer of Well, I got to create my dream guy — or at least a guy who’s a regular reader of Vice. So yes, I know a couple of males who read the site (they did introduce me to it), and along with some research about the company, created Ryan.

  • Entertainment Education

    Entertainment Education

    One of the running themes in my recent work is the study of how people (and on a greater scale, society) make major changes in their lives. I married this idea with my love of media effects, especially with television, and came across entertainment education, the movement that weaves social messages into fictional television series. I focused my research on the developing world, and used the Kenyan series The Team as a case study. The research paper is available here, but we had to present an interactive component as part of the project, and I did a webpage, hosted on Tumblr, to encapsulate my main findings.

  • Comparing Patch and North Jersey

    Comparing Patch and North Jersey

    I was lucky enough to not have to worry about while I worked at Community Life, as the hyperlocal website did not cover the towns I covered. However, Patch was always in the background, even though their coverage was spotty and mediocre at best., the website that housed my weekly and the many other papers owned by our publisher, was a constant source of frustration for us employees, as we were on it daily yet found it difficult to use. I decided to do a comparison of these two sites for my Interactive Strategies class, finally giving me the opportunity to voice my opinions with research behind them.

  • The Reminder — Mobile Application Design

    The Reminder — Mobile Application Design

    Inspired by one of my college roommates, who always announced when it was time to take her birth control pill (7:30 pm, to be exact), I designed a mobile application that would help women remember when they needed to take their pills, as well as any symptoms, side effects and other relevant information regarding their periods. This is the interactive portion of the project, done in Flash, which showcases the design and functionality of the application. 


  • The Reminder — Mobile Application Design, Wireframe

    The Reminder — Mobile Application Design, Wireframe

    This shows the vertical wireframe design and explains the parameters and functionality of the application.


    The flagship of the iMedia program is its Winter Term Fly-In, where students travel in small groups to a different country, usually in Latin America, and produce an interactive project for a non-profit or other do-good organization. I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen to go to Cuba, where I visited Organo`ponico Vivero Alamar, an organic farm outside of Havana. I enjoy food (I have finally admitted I am a foodie) and food, cooking and healthy eating are a hobby of mine, so it was a good fit. At the farm, I interviewed employees, the owners and locals, and was in charge of organizing the content and producing the written portions of the website, which is linked above.

  • Cuba article in The Pendulum

    Cuba article in The Pendulum

    I wrote an article for the school newspaper on Vivero Alamar, the farm I visited in Cuba.

  • Cuba Photography

    Cuba Photography

    Published photography in the cover story of Elon Magazine, spring 2013. My pictures are featured on the cover, and pages 22-27, which includes a brief excerpt of my experience there.

  • Picking Apples Flash Game

    Picking Apples Flash Game

    I was really proud of this project — a simple game in Flash — because I designed the graphics in Photoshop and was able to actually make this thing work! Done for my Producing Interactive Media class at Elon, otherwise known as the Flash class.

  • Self-Tracking: A Brief Exploration

    I knew I wanted to do a project on Quantified Self, the movement that uses monitoring technology to make behavioral changes. My professor suggested a Sunday Morning-style video feature, and I loved the idea because I had never done a a project like this before. Although I attended the local Quantified Self  meeting, that never made the cut — but it did lead me to John Martin, one of the subjects of the video, who has documented every day of his life since 2004 on his LiveJournal. In addition to John, the piece introduces two women who also use tracking to make positive changes in their lives.

  • Interactive Media: The Game

    Interactive Media: The Game

    It was Interactive Media: The Game that won me a spot to ConvergeSE, a “creative technology” conference filled with designers, developers and other funky tech people. Later, after much thought, I answered that this project was what I was most proud of in graduate school — because everything about this project I did myself, and I was the only solo contestant to participate, let alone win.

    I wish I could actually build this, and what I mean by that is not just technically, but actually get a game like this off the ground. This is a marketing tool used to promote Elon University’s MA in interactive media. It’s a simulation game, where players would have to get through a particular segment of time in school, gaining competency points that would somewhat resemble real skills learned in the program while balancing other demands of school and life.

    I presented this vision to a panel of iMedia professors.

  • Clearing House

    Clearing House

    I, along with several other students, redesigned the website for a real business, Clearing House  in Charlotte, North Carolina. I reformatted the content, did the javascript for the items page, and did the map feature for the visit page, as well as work on other features.

  • iWrite


    Yes, this is me — or was me, in the spring of 2013, when I was selected among all students attending Elon University to represent the college’s new writing program. This was a huge poster hanging in the library. The link takes you to my page on Elon’s website, with links to some of my writing — most of which isn’t reproduced here.

  • Isabella Canon Center

    Isabella Canon Center

    Redesigned the homepage for the international center at Elon. This design is housed on the imedia.365 homepage, which features student work from our class. I was part of the imedia365 development team and helped coordinate and organize content.


  • Sex and the City: An Unfulfilled Fantasy

    Sex and the City: An Unfulfilled Fantasy

    My infamous Sex and the City paper. Done for my Television Audience & Analysis class, I used semiotics to dissect the two-part finale, “An American Girl in Paris.” Presented at that year’s Media Collisions exhibit, a showcase of communications students’ work, the paper made waves at the time because I boldly stated my thesis in the first sentence, and I frankly didn’t care about most of the criticism directed toward the show — that it was narcissistic, materialistic and unrealistic. All of those things are true, but they don’t matter to the fans of the show; it’s the emotion, the heart of the television series, that made the show connect so well with audiences. 

  • Evangelicals and the Rise of George W. Bush

    Evangelicals and the Rise of George W. Bush

    For my American Studies thesis, I chose to do an exploration of George Bush’s rise to the presidency. I am a very interdisciplinary thinker, and one of the things I love about the field is that you can explore many different fields through American concepts. In my American Studies classes, I tried to touch on a number of topics — literature, history, technology, class — and had yet to do a project around something involving politics. So for my thesis, I decided to meld politics with religion, another subject I hadn’t studied, and figure out why George W. Bush got elected. Bush was president throughout my high school and college years, and most people I knew did not care for him or his politics. Much of his background was completely foreign to us, adding to our mystification as to why he was elected. The red state-blue state culture war was also big at the time, and I always like to study contemporary culture.

  • Identity and Behavior in Social Media Spaces

    Identity and Behavior in Social Media Spaces

    In 2007, when this paper was written, academic literature on social media was scarce. I remember looking up “social media” on Wikipedia at the beginning of the semester and there was a short paragraph. Every few weeks I’d check again, and it grew longer and longer. This project capped off my communications major, and similarly to my American Idol paper, I undertook a survey of students on their practices involving the two biggest communications platforms at the time, Facebook (before the chat feature was instituted), and American Online Instant Messenger (AIM). This paper continues my exploration on identity and communications practices over the Internet, a topic I have continued to write on.



  • American Idol: Audience Reaction and Behaviors

    American Idol: Audience Reaction and Behaviors

    Although I rarely watched American Idol, I was persuaded to write a paper on the topic. My professor offered me the opportunity to expand either this paper or my Sex and the City one to present at the Eastern Communication Association, and I chose this one because I felt there was more to say. I traced why exactly the show was so explosively popular, as at the time it was the number one show on television and had been for quite some time, and connected it to fan engagement, surveying roughly 50 American Idol fans on their voting behaviors and their involvement with the program.




Personal Writing

I enjoy writing on many topics, often focusing on societal effects of technology and media criticism, although I dabble in feminism, food, education, entertainment and national news. The blog posts below are a sample of some of my work.

My 2019

I was inspired to write this after a former colleague wrote up a version of her own in her newsletter. It became a great exercise for me, in that it improved my mood and made me realize that — outside of the big things — I saw and did a lot this year. My life underwent a lot of big changes in the last twelve months, and some things that were major parts of my life earlier in the year I had completely forgotten about. I tend to associate memories with places, so that’s part of it — living in a different environment, around different people and with a different schedule — had a subtle change in my memories.

Just one picture of many I took this year. Taken in a small shop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

2019 was a hell of a year.

I started it in a fancy, a ridiculously fancy loft in Brooklyn, a friend of a friend’s place. I spent most of the evening talking to a woman I’d never see again. I felt out of place among the hipster intellectuals, and we were late enough that we missed all the good food and I was no longer hungry. The morning ended with being yelled at by a friend over a confusing situation. But while that preoccupied my New Year’s, I also moved that January and discovered shishito peppers in a swanky bar that wasn’t open for dinner amidst the government shutdown.

February brought some truly terrible weeks – February is the worst month, and I realized then that it had been a shitty month for me for the last several years. One bright spot was hosting my brother and his girlfriend for dinner (steak salad). One particular Monday saw me getting locked in my bedroom with only my phone to save me – missing a doctor’s appointment – and then getting pulled over in Alexandria. That would not be the last time I was pulled over this year, nor the last ticket I’d receive.  

I saw Pete Davidson and John Mulaney in Washington Township High School in South Jersey – a move inspired by a recent SNL episode. I finally have been to all Washingtons in New Jersey!

I saw Chinatown and Home Alone for the first time. I watched all of The Big Bang Theory, Russian Doll, most of Pen15, completed Young Sheldon, and tried to watch the last season of You’re the Worst without having a subscription to FXX. I cried when I realized all the shows I watched with my father were ending this year – and saw the Downton Abbey movie in theaters as part homage to him.

I bought bras and shoes and hats and sunglasses and jeans, a portable laptop stand and a keyboard. I spent a lot of time in Goodwills, buying a DVD player, an Under Armour pullover, a pull-up bar (finally!) and an unopened yoga set from the ‘90s, complete with VHS tape. I spent hundreds of dollars on EZPass and gas so I could be free.

I bought a big desk calendar I never used, CBS All-Access for a month (to watch The Big Bang Theory, obviously), and more Sirius satellite radio. I enthused over Howard Stern and Dave Ramsey, continuing my 2018 obsession, listened to all of Jordan Harbinger’s Feedback Fridays and discovered I liked what I called ethereal teen girls singing about unrequited love, thanks to my Google Home’s random suggestions after I asked it to play “Panic Room” in January.

I made matzo ball soup and granola, lots of granola. I made a vegan version of shrimp and grits. I tried almond milk horchata, oat milk, a poke bowl, Nashville hot chicken, Nando’s Peri-Peri chicken, Qia gluten-free oatmeal, throat coat tea, Mauritanian tea and Kung Fu Tea, toasted corn that I bought for $5 at Big Lots, a bacon flight, beignets, and lots of beers. I had Rocket Fuel and The Stretch.

I ate wild cranberries and wild plums, and was smart enough not to eat wild berries on the Virginia/West Virginia border, a decision that was validated when a friend of mine responded to an Instagram story I made showcasing said berries.

I realized that I feel the need to post on Instagram when I’m hiking alone. (I mostly hike alone.)

I finally did all the trails at Flat Rock Brook in one sitting, and discovered the waterfall in Kingsland Park in Nutley. I finally got drinks at Brix City Brewing.

I went to Cape Cod and Provincetown, Fire Island and Ship Island. I got a bunch of stamps in my National Parks Passport book, which I should have bought years ago. I bought a touristy t-shirt, an unusual move.

I took lots of pictures. I saw sunsets and sunrises, some in Massachusetts, some in Washington, D.C. from the Watergate rooftop.

Two different companies paid for me to travel overnight to interview with them, one by plane. I visited five new states, the Big Easy and Music City for the first time. I visited caves, gardens, libraries, national parks, county parks, and state parks. I hiked for many hours in Rock Creek Park. I spent a lot of time on 495 (and, well, lots of other interstates). Although I did not complete either the Montgomery County library system nor the DC library system, I did visit all the water parks in the NOVA parks system.

I took swimming lessons, smiling so much that someone came up to me one day in the pool to tell me how happy I looked. I bought goggles and a swimming cap.

I made a new friend and reconnected with old ones. I visited North Carolina for the first time in six years and wished I stayed longer. I had an amazing summer, far better than I ever could have predicted or expected.

I lost a job and gained a new one. I moved twice. I slept on an air mattress for six months, some of that time on the floor. I cleaned blinds, jump-started my car with a portable kit, scooped cat litter for the first time, and helped my friend organize her classroom. I tried to repair a sink faucet and in the process discovered my roommate had OCD. I also took out so many books about money from the library I freaked her out (one of many things).

I live-tweeted a journalism conference and became friendly with a girl from Texas who now lives in Indianapolis and wants to do a panel on dating as a journalist. I crashed a conference (with permission) for media literacy educators, and snuck into the old apartment building where a friend of mine lived a decade ago.

I did (indoor) rooftop yoga overlooking Arlington, saw an unfunny political Second City show, a free musical performance at the Millennial Stages at the Kennedy Center, and scored an NBA ticket. I sat at a piano Elvis played, and toured a studio he recorded in. I did a disappointing flight simulator at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a city where I had fancy drinks at a fancy cocktail bar where the menus were in books and spent a lot of money. I had several friends pay for my share of rides, food, and drinks, and I thanked them. I vowed to be generous.

I spent two days each at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the Newseum, and went twice to Great Falls Park to hike. I had been hoping there was a bridge I could take to Maryland, but alas, there was not.

I also went to the National Building Museum and a couple of art galleries, one of them to watch an actress pretend to be Ivanka Trump vacuuming sand.

I tried laughing yoga and hot yoga. Hot yoga was great until I nearly passed out one evening half a dozen sessions in. EMTs were called. EMTs were called six months later when I threw up in Grand Central Station. This time I spent a night in the hospital.

I met Ramit Sethi again, but this time I got him to sign his new book – which I hadn’t planned on buying. His visit coincided with the series finale of The Big Bang Theory. It was a tough decision.

I surreptitiously took a few wobbly photos of Roger Stone at the Peking Gourmet Inn, where we were both dining. This was shortly before he was indicted.

I obtained a Library of Congress library card. I made a modified version of Rosa Parks’ pancakes soon after, from a postcard I picked up during my visit. I also visited Eastern Market and Dumbarton Oaks and several exhibits related to women’s suffrage, notably at the National Archives and the National American History museum. I slipped into the Holocaust museum and stayed there for hours.

My car got broken into. I kayaked the Potomac twice. I saw Jenny Lewis and Aimee Mann and Kacey Musgraves (two weeks before she won Album of the Year at the Grammys) and Hootie and the Blowfish. Three of those performances were free. One of those performances I got scammed by Amazon. Ask me and I’ll tell you, because I never did post them on Instagram.

I started reporting a story that I never completed. I loved it though. I got my face professionally done twice and attended a makeup class, where I learned the importance of brushes. I cut my own hair for the first time, too.

I got an intimate pat down more than once on the same trip, thanks to my Zoe Deschanel dress and its buttons. I stayed in a swanky hotel for four hours in Chicago, due to a series of multiple flight delays and cancellations. My luggage had already been whisked away to my connecting flight, so I received a water bottle of toiletries.

I spent months doing stretches and physical therapy for my upper body, rubbing my arms against a wall and watching myself use colored rubber bands in the mirror. I experienced cupping, a robot massaging the muscles in my arm, and wore tape on my right forearm for weeks.

I took my mom and my brother to an escape room. We lost. But I want to take them again so we get good enough to win.

I bought my first monthly bus pass. They’re pretty.

I broke my REI water bottle – a gift from my brother – by overfilling it and then freezing it. I knew better, but I was stubborn. My Fitbit also broke twice and I got two replacements, one for the actual tracker and one for the band. And when that band broke again, I got a new one for Christmas – and a new REI water bottle, just what I asked for. This time both of them were in color.

I got drunk with my mom’s coworkers and realized one of them gave me a tour a year and a half earlier when I won a pass to the health club she managed. At that same happy hour, I met another coworker of my mom’s – a man who I spoke to on the phone for over an hour in January providing blogging consulting – who was dating a future former coworker of mine – and months later, at a work outing of my own, they invited me to a game night at their apartment.

I got drunk at least two other times this year, one of which caused me to delay moving out of my apartment.

I realized what profession I would go in if I left media. But I also knew that I chose media and it’s my destiny.

I visited my high school English teacher at her new home, seeing her for the first time in 15+ years. I made friends with a notable journalist, one who was highly connected – and had conversations with other ones, learning about contracts and the deals that underpin the work. I thanked two former bosses of mine, and learned more details about the worst boss I ever had.

I got so angry I shook, cried so hard I couldn’t breathe, got so numb I nearly passed out. I was sad, lonely, despondent and frustrated, confused and appalled. I wished ill on certain people, said snide but funny remarks about those who deserved it to those who wanted to hear it (and those who grew tired of it), and wished I was a better person. I subtweeted an account or two, raged at my roommate (though not enough in person), and lamented how the relationships I wanted were out of reach.

I thought a lot about what a comfortable home would look like to me, what it means to feel safe and content and loved and happy.

I thought a lot about how to get along with people who were so fundamentally different than me, contorted myself trying to think like they did and act accordingly and still fail. I felt mature at times, immature at others. I felt myself grow, fought against – and gave in – to some desires. I was grateful for the support system I had when my world imploded – as it seems to do every year and a half.

I thought a lot about Sirius satellite radio and if it was worth it. I vascillated a lot. I thought about what it takes to be a good manager, and listened to a lot of Ask the Manager. I read a lot of advice columns, only a few of which were really good. I thought a lot about The Big Bang Theory and Pen15 and the feelings those shows evoked in me. I thought a lot about the type of people I gravitate toward, and how I know what I want, but that I have to be patient, that maybe the way in is to believe in a future but accept that the details will only be known later.

I spent too many hours wandering around stores on Saturday and Sunday evenings, looking for a place to go that wasn’t my apartment. I went to Home Depot at least three times looking for and returning parts for the faucet I tried to fix. I had hours to fill and knew I didn’t want to be home. I also spent too many hours looking for a mattress that I never bought. I again wrestled with the fact that I’m bad at making large purchases that will affect my life for years (mattresses, phones, laptops, furniture…) and tried not to let this failing overtake me. I realized that I need to leave the house earlier in the day, and that I need to fill up my life so that I don’t sink into my thoughts.

Those are the bad days.

The days where I spend too much time in my head and I know it.

But as I wrote this – as I compiled this, and this is far from a comprehensive list of my 2019 – there was only one conclusion I could come to.

It was a good year.

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How Old Age Affects All of Us

Grandma and Grandpa

My grandparents in their younger years, with me and my brother in their arms.

MY grandparents are 91 and 87. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s. She is, essentially, a baby. I use this term a lot when referring to her or other synonyms – small child, infant. This doesn’t feel right; it feels unkind, but I don’t know how else to describe her. She is, in the best sense of the word, a very well-behaved child. She smiles and laughs all the time. She never complains, never raises her voice, never whines. But she rarely speaks, and you can’t have a conversation with her because she can’t follow a conversation.

My grandfather, on the other hand, is allegedly of sound mind – but the stress of his life and the decline of aging are getting to him. Once a jovial man, he now snaps at everyone over the smallest thing. If you use a napkin to wipe your nose instead of a tissue, expect a reprimand. Move something two inches, dare to have heavy feet, boil water a second too long, and you will hear it. There is nothing that doesn’t bother him, and most of his personality now is unpleasant (to put it kindly), snappish and surly and impossible and cranky temperamental at worst.

My grandparents live in the same house they have lived in for the last forty years. In many ways, they are lucky. They have enough money, thanks to two full pensions from the New York City school system back when the system was flush, and have several of their children and grandchildren living nearby. My aunt, a nurse, spends a considerable amount of time caring for them and their needs. Both my grandparents can walk, although not for more than a few minutes at a time and at considerably slow speeds. They have both declined rather rapidly the past few years, quicker than I realized.

The problem of my grandparents and their future has been a perennial issue. My grandfather refuses to go into a home, and with my grandma by his side, they have arguably been able to prolong each of their lives. But my grandmother can’t take care of herself (can a two year old watch the stove, bathe or dress herself?) and my grandfather is physically constrained. A slight man, he has trouble bending down and lifting even a simple saucepan. Always a good cook, he basically relies on prepared foods now along with donations from his children and a microwave.

I have watched all of this and listened to the problem that has no solution. I disagree with my grandparents’ choices, whether they were made consciously or not, recent or in the past. My grandparents have an extremely limited life; they leave their house for church, doctor’s appointments and an occasional grocery run, along with some trips to the senior center. But they don’t do anything.

My parents chastise me that I am looking at their situation from a young person’s point of view. But I know that I don’t want that life when I am old.

On the other side of my family, I have a relative, who after her husband died two years ago, moved into an assisted living facility. She has what I call a dorm room, a little room with an attached bathroom and a small kitchenette. She can walk down the hall to the cafeteria, meeting rooms and lounge rooms and mingle with other residents, and there are group trips. I always joke that by the time our generation hits this stage the amenities will have to be upgraded – the food is Middle American, there are no game systems, no computers. Millennials are going to want sushi and vegetarian items, World of Warcraft and charging stations. But every time I see her, she greets me warmly and introduces me to all her new friends. She constantly talks about how happy she is, completely genuine. Yes, she is forgetful and repeats herself. She gets agitated and confused at times, too. But she never yells at me, and her health and quality of life has improved since the stresses of her late husband and the giant house she lived in are no longer in her life.

I have, over the past year, compared these two situations and railed against my grandparents’ decisions. This is probably unfair. My grandparents have always been a unit, so much that I cannot imagine one living very long without the other. (Indeed, when thinking of them passing, it was always together, at once.) Had my great-aunt not lost her husband she would likely be in a similar situation. Yet my great-aunt’s quality of life, at least on the surface, just seems so much better.

I feel a lot of guilt about my grandparents. I avoid seeing them, sometimes even avoid talking to my grandfather, because all he does is complain and rail against every evil in society. He watches too much TV, and takes everything – from Dr. Oz to the local news – too seriously. Despite being an adult, I feel I have no memories at all of my grandmother. I do not know what she is like. I remember several years ago talking to my grandmother on the phone, trying to suss out some of her interests. My questions were banal and like a too-inquisitive, too-boring date. What movies do you like? TV shows? What are your favorite foods? But while my grandmother was more talkative three years ago, she still could not answer these questions because she could not answer anything in specifics. I could not get a grasp on her at all. Who was she? What did she believe? What did she struggle for in life? What made her laugh? Cry? What did she like to do?

It is this that makes me sad, that any memories of her as she was, when I was a child, have essentially evaporated. My parents never had a video camera, so there are no home movies. In 2000, I asked my grandmother many questions about her life and I took (very poor) notes, only realizing later I should not only have been more diligent but recorded the conversation, though how I would have at the time would not have been apparent to me.

Even when I look at old pictures of my grandparents, or hear the stories my mother tells, I am in disbelief. It doesn’t match up with who my grandparents are now, and I cannot imagine them younger. My grandmother worked in a women’s jail, teaching juvenile delinquents how to sew. I cannot fathom my petite grandmother doing this for the life of me, though undoubtedly with the same good humor and smile she has retained throughout her life. I want to hear about their lives, who they were as teenagers, as twentysomethings, as people who had their own friends and funny stories and wishes and dreams. Occasionally I get a glimpse of something – my grandfather walking into a metal shop and asking, and then receiving, a job, one at which he stayed seven years before asking for a raise. I remember in 2000 asking my grandmother an absurd amount of questions regarding makeup. She merely said all the girls mainly wore a dab of lipstick.

At one point, my mother floated the suggestion of me caring for my grandparents one or two days a week, even though at the time I didn’t live particularly close to them. It is not something I want to do, for multiple reasons, and I have been outspoken about my repudiation of traditional caregiving duties for my parents. This comes across, to my mother at least, as selfish and ungrateful. But I find it profoundly selfish that I would be expected to essentially uproot my life and take on the burden of caring for elder relatives.

Burden. That is a word that is hard to escape in any discussion of caring for the elderly. Ezekiel Emanuel, a leading bioethicist, oncologist and academic, announced in The Atlantic that he wants to die at 75 precisely so he wouldn’t be a burden – meaning after that age, he want no medical tests, procedures or care that would only prolong his life. He would only accept palliative care. For him, it’s supremely about quality of life.

Truthfully, he persuades me. A week before I read his reasoning, Brittany Maynard ended her life. The disease she had, the rare glioblastoma, is truly awful, and would rob Maynard of her body and mind in nearly every awful way you can imagine. If you want to wish harm on someone, wish them a disease like this, wish them watching someone they live reduced to a jerky skin bag of bones, drooling and unable to talk or be cognizant about their needs. And as I read about Maynard’s decision and the steps she took to bravely end her life and reduce her family and friends’ suffering – well, in a word, respect.

When I was younger, I would often think about how long I would live, imagining a big number. It’s possible I could live into my 90s or later. But I also don’t want to be encumbered by disease and disability, and the idea that I would have to care for my parents in this age is unpalatable as well.

My hope is that with my parents seeing the struggles of their older relatives, they will make different choices and preparations. Both my brother and I have been adamant that we will not be their nurses or their housekeepers.

Cruel? Maybe. But neither of us are those types of people. Hospitals and seriously ill people freak me out, and I do not do well with people who cannot communicate. It is not a trait I like about myself, but it is my personality. I get frustrated too easily and can be unkind. Again, not traits I am proud of, and absolutely not good traits to possess when around sick and frail old adults.

I don’t believe in retirement and think Social Security should be raised – other opinions that my parents chide me for as being the opinions of the young. But I also see a system, as expressed in “The New Science of Old Age” and many, many other articles, as unsustainable. My grandparents retired thirty years ago. They spent the early ‘90s traveling around, and I guess visiting and helping out their children and young grandchildren. But why couldn’t they have volunteered their time and efforts or worked at less stressful and time-consuming jobs? I equal retirement to death, essentially, and I envision myself in my (very) late years as taking classes, volunteering, writing a weekly column, teaching a class or mentoring students. Still being me, but not working a stressful full-time job, assuming I can do this both physically and financially.

I actually think a lot about aging, as I see lines on my forehead and disappointment that my life isn’t what I want it to be nor where I want to be. And yet I cannot accomplish what I want or turn into who I want to be if I am forced to care for elderly family members.

Tiffany Stanley wrote a very moving piece for National Journal exploring the complex web of Alzheimer’s care, and how for a period of time in her late 20s and early 30s she was the guardian of her aunt, who had an advanced early-onset version of the disease. Her father, in ill health himself, spent seven years caring for his sister with limited resources, and undoubtedly the stress of the situation contributed to his decline and his death a year before hers.

Although Stanley mentions obliquely how the years of dealing with her aunt’s Alzheimer’s affected her work – she often commuted from her home in Washington, D.C. to her family in South Carolina, and spent significant stretches of time there – I wondered not only how she was able to pull this off, but the compromises she struck and toll it took on both her career and her life. Was she ever fired? Reprimanded? Afraid that she would be? She thinks about giving up her career to tend to her aunt, thinking she could do it for a year, maybe two. Yet how could she earn an income, prepare for her own future? Although in the end Stanley didn’t have to give up her career, I found the prospect of her even considering the decision unpalatable and unfair. I, like I’m sure many other women, don’t want to give up my life to selflessly care for others. Even though both she and her family were blessed in a fashion – many, many other caregivers wouldn’t have had the ability to move about so freely, as Stanley had.


My mother lives too far away from her parents to be a real help, and even when she offered to spend a few days with them this past summer, my grandfather’s irascibility essentially drove her away within a few hours. This is profoundly sad, and I know it weighed heavily on my mother. A colleague of mine was left to care for his parents five hours away – his father’s Alzheimer’s had turned a gentle man violent, attacking his disabled wife. Within a few weeks, my colleague was putting their house up for sale, going through decades of things and separating his parents – for their individual conditions meant they couldn’t live in the same place. He expects his father to die very quickly. Who wants to see someone they love turn into a completely different person, one who doesn’t quite realize what is happening? It’s like they’ve been possessed by a devil, or just a gene flipping a switch from good to bad.

Ann Patchett experienced this with her own family, though less of a personality difference than a starkly physical one. After years of living on the East Coast, she moved back to her family in Nashville, at first because she was interested in exploring a relationship with the man who was to become her husband and because the book project she was working on fell apart, though she stays to care for her aging and beloved grandmother. In an interview to NPR publicizing the book where an essay on this period of her life is included, she says, “And the trick of it is to love them for who they are that day, to never look at that person and think, ‘I remember when you were my grandmother and you used to knit me sweaters and make me dumplings and wash my hair. I remember when you did all of these things and I’m mad that you can’t do all of these things for me anymore.’”

Of course, she adds, she is able to say this because she is decades away from the experience. Yet in “Love Sustained,” the essay about her experience caring for her grandmother, she makes the same point. Her wisdom, of loving the person in front of her, the person as that person is at that moment, right now, to me is the secret to acceptance. It may be why caregivers that are strangers to the patient are able to do these jobs, because they do not have memories of who the person used to be ingrained in their minds.

Patchett also asks herself the same questions Stanley did: “If only I knew when she would die, I could pace myself. My grandmother was ninety-two. Could I do this every day for another five months? Absolutely. Another five years? I wasn’t entirely sure.”

If both Patchett and Stanley knew when their respective family members were going to die, they would have made different choices.

And that’s the argument that Emanuel makes in “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” And it’s also, in a roundabout way, what Atul Gawande – a doctor himself – learns in Being Mortal, his exploration of how our medical system is failing the very old and ill by focusing only on medical interventions, not quality of life. And it comes down to difficult discussions and decisions regarding, in the end, what matters to the patient. Even with diminished capabilities, what can they live with? What will make life worth living?


I read Being Mortal several months after first working on this essay, and in some ways my thinking has changed. Originally, I was extremely pro on my great aunt’s “choice” to move into a type of assisted living, because she seemed much happier than my grandparents stuck in their home of forty years.

I still don’t want my grandparents’ lives.

In the five months since I originally wrote this piece, my grandparents have grown frailer. They wouldn’t pass many of the eight Independent Activities of Daily Living that health care professionals use to determine if a person can live safely on their own: being able to shop, travel, manage medications, finances and housekeeping, preparing food, doing laundry and making phone calls. My grandmother alone wouldn’t be able to pass the eight Activities of Daily Living, since she cannot dress, bathe or groom without assistance. (Her grasp on the other fundamentals – including getting up out of a chair or bed and walk – remains iffy.)

My grandfather barely makes his own meals; my aunt comes over regularly, preparing simple sandwiches and bland dinners. The food looks unappetizing; this isn’t a knock against my aunt, who has made many wonderful dishes over the years, but more on my grandparents. My grandfather’s obstinacy has made this his reality. There is a line about how old age isn’t for sissies, and that is abundantly clear when confronted with the realities of decline.

In Being Mortal, Gawande makes the paradoxical case that terminally ill people live longer when they aren’t looking to proactively prolong their lives. It’s about knowing what the patient can and can’t handle and what’s important to them, so that their quality of life remains as high as it can be, even in the face of debilitating disease.

My grandparents are healthy, as the doctor says, but I think their quality of life is poor. Does my grandfather feel that way? I don’t know. My father has always said that one of the reasons that my grandparents have lived so long and done so well – no major health crises – is because they have stayed in their own home. Not only was everything familiar, but they were able to keep the same routines: waking up at 4:30 a.m. for my grandfather, setting out breakfast, going to the senior center. Although they still have some degree of autonomy, it is rapidly declining. My grandfather barely drives, and is very dependent on his children to do everything from his laundry to cut his hair. The fact that most of their children – and their caregiver daughter – live close by enables this arrangement to continue. They are lucky. But what about others not in their situation?

My great-aunt wasn’t able to stay in her home because her husband died and her health was declining. Although her stay-at-home daughter lived nearby, she was not a caregiver and had two school-age children to care for. The decision for my aunt to move into an assisted living arrangement was less one of her choosing and more one forced upon by circumstance.

Watching my family confront these challenges has given me an idea of what I don’t want: a loss of autonomy, which, in the end, is what most people don’t want either. It occurred to me while reading Being Mortal that my great-aunt is doing so well precisely because she has some level of autonomy. She has her own room, which might be the key. I don’t know the level of independence she has – she no longer has a car – and I hope she is able to have some degree of choice in how she lives her days. But that may be one reason why she has been able to smile, unlike my grandparents, even though both affirm how grateful they are for their lives.

I suspect that even in 60 or 70 years, I will be just as opinionated and independent as I am now, if not more so. If I’m in some dreaded nursing home, I’ll be that patient who rebels by stealing and stowing food, trying desperately to make my own decisions despite being forced into what I’ll probably consider a prison.

As I read Being Mortal – and reflected upon my own experience being seriously physically impaired – I was able to determine what is important to me, even if I was faced with disability or illness. Like others, having my mental capabilities be strong was immensely important (and something that I didn’t have to worry about when I was sick). Would I be able to read? If not be able to read, to hear? Could I write, or at least dictate my thoughts to people? Being able to communicate and still be intellectually stimulated would be of utmost importance. Could I still have relationships with others? Connect with people, both new and old, near and far? I want to be able to enjoy tasty meals of variety and spice, ones that I would have some degree of choice in. Physically, of course, I would want to be able to go outside. The specifics of this would have to be worked out depending on my limitations – of course I would want to be able to run, but I know I could live without it if I had to. Above all, would I be able to spend my time how I chose to do so, spending it with the people I want to, eating what I enjoyed, working and studying my pet subjects, and contributing in some fashion?

Although I am hopefully decades away from dealing with these questions, either for me or my parents, thinking about these issues has given me a tiny bit more clarity into who I am and what I want out of life. I still want to contribute, still want to be necessary. I don’t want to waste my energies on things I deem unimportant, and even when I am old, I want to be able to make new friends, new connections, and retain a grasp on the outside world. I want to live in a place with community and freedom, even if it’s a bit like The Truman Show. That’s what’s important to me and for many others. I hope that as aging continues to become a global issue, newer and different solutions – if you can call it that — arise. Because for many old and sick people, the current system makes it hard for them to live – and die – the way they want to.

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The Rolling Stone shitshow has betrayed everybody

Sabrina Rubin Erdely went looking for a story. Often, stories come to journalists – they’re working on something else and they get a tip, or they start exploring something of interest, or a one aspect of a story takes greater prominence. But in this case, Erdely knew exactly what she wanted to write about – a sexual assault on college campus. She wanted an exposé.

I say this not to malign her intention – wanting to write about a legitimate topic in order to inform readers and effect change is a standard practice in journalism and a worthy one. But in light of all that’s happened with her Nov. 19 Rolling Stone story, I wondered if this framing didn’t subconsciously affect her reporting.

After all, the woman whose story is at the center of Erdely’s exposé said in an interview with the Washington Post, “If she had not come to me, I probably would not have gone public about my rape.”

That rape, which Erdely describes in horrific detail, happened two years ago to a girl named Jackie weeks into her freshman year at the University of Virginia, a school chosen because of its genteel southern nature and hard-charging culture. Aside from the rape itself, the most shocking aspect was the callous comments of Jackie’s so-called friends, who dismissed her ordeal and warned her not to say anything lest she become a pariah at school.

Rolling Stone put its faith in Erdely, who made a pact with Jackie that she wouldn’t name her accusers or try to contact them. She was in a tough position – and as a journalist, sided a little too much with those in the advocate community, where she deferred to Jackie’s wishes.

Despite Jackie surrounded by supporters, she seemed unprepared for the fallout. There were times where I wondered why she didn’t have someone by her side while talking to Erdely – some would say this person should be a lawyer – a person who could look at the situation objectively and calm Jackie down.

It’s not surprising that some details of the event are confusing or have turned out to be false – the name of the fraternity, the number of men involved. This was a clearly traumatic crime that happened two years ago. Some details are going to get lost, confused. As to who to blame? Well, like the story itself, there’s no easy answer.

Jackie is very, very clearly affected and it’s not uncommon for those with post-traumatic stress to experience memory loss, blocks, or otherwise extreme reactions. In a Washington Post story on Nov. 28, Erdely reported that Jackie was “very happy” with the article, that she was an “enthusiastic source” and “dying to share her story.” However, as it was revealed that there were discrepancies and lingering questions, and those quoted in the original Rolling Stone piece said that was not the case, Jackie backed away, telling a different Washington Post reporter that she had not asked for the attention, and indeed, had wanted to back out of the story:

Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.

Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely agreed to.

Erdely was in a tough position, no doubt. She found her golden ticket – what a story – but without Jackie, the entire thing evaporates. What Erdely should have done (note: there has been no reporting, to my knowledge, whether this happened or not), is relay Jackie’s misgivings to her editor(s), where a discussion on how to proceed would occur. As Libby Nelson at Vox noted, however, journalists are often in a bind, and when it comes to dealing with sensitive, personal information, doubly so:

If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away.

And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.

Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana correctly said that the blame should fall on the magazine’s shoulders. Despite what many outside journalism believe, a story isn’t the work of the writers’ themselves, and long, investigative magazine pieces are shaped by their editors. (This is why I’m a fan of acknowledging editors [and designers and other people who worked on a big story] in credits or bylines. Some outlets, like Vox and The New York Times Magazine, do this on a regular basis.) It’s clear from the discrepancies, the nature of the story, and Erdely’s, Jackie’s and Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods’ comments that a piece like this should have had input from editors, at least from an earlier point than what is known to the public. Dana made a series of tweets on Dec. 5 about the magazine’s judgment call, and how they were wrong to not verify Jackie’s account – or question Erdely).

Nelson and Megan McArdle at Bloomberg are correct in that despite Jackie’s youth, Erdely should have made it clear to her what going public on a national scale would entail, and that if she couldn’t handle it, then she couldn’t do it. And by extension, Erdely’s editors would have to make the difficult and heartbreaking choice to not run the story, or at least run a different version of the story, if Jackie wasn’t ready for the full journalistic accounting. It’s not about believing her – it’s clear to me that Erdely and everyone at Rolling Stone, and indeed many at UVA and those who read the story – believe her. It’s about protecting her and her allies and the community of sexual assault victims and their advocates, of making sure that the media isn’t betraying one person for the sake of a good story.

It is hard for anyone who is telling the truth to be faced with accusations they are lying, especially if it’s about a sensitive, personal and traumatic event. No one wants to believe their memories are faulty, that their feelings weren’t real. Erdely, Rolling Stone, the University of Virginia and Jackie herself have all been caught in this maelstrom, with pretty much everyone feeling betrayed.

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Why I Don’t Go On Facebook On My Birthday

Today is my birthday.

Several years ago, I instituted what has now become a tradition: I don’t go on Facebook on my birthday.

I want to savor the birthday wishes. Even if it’s pretty basic, a plain “Happy birthday!” is still an acknowledgement of good wishes. I’ve had moments where I dip out of Facebook, not wanting to be assaulted by friends and friends of friends and their wonderful lives, to be reminded of everything I was not and hadn’t accomplished.

Not going on Facebook on my birthday allowed me to not think about Facebook, but to enjoy myself and whatever I was doing that day. I wouldn’t have to see how many people actually said something, and the conspicuous absences. I wanted to leave the surprises and the disappointments until another day.

It’s my way of living in the moment, of savoring the things I love most in the world, of holding tight of that feeling of being special, even if for a fleeting moment.

I’m genuinely happy when I see the list of birthday salutations, the mass of people from different social groups and points in my life who take the time out to type a little message. It does make me feel loved, and I usually want to see these people, to gather them in a big hug and catch up enthusiastically. That’s the best part of having your birthday be digitized socially, not being greeted by the sound of your refrigerator or your alarm clock or personalized email newsletters.

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Have you ever thought about what a tragedy on the scale of 9/11 would look like in today’s communications world?

I hadn’t, until I read this piece in Quartz:

How we experienced the events as they took place would look different through the prism of social sharing, and so too would the displays of collective mourning. Victims’ profile pages would be transformed into robust online memorials. Their Instagram photos and final tweets would be used in news stories and obituaries. Hashtags like #StayStrongNYC and #WTCNeverForget would trend across platforms. We would start GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for victims’ families. We would all be inclined to provide a running commentary for all of our friends and co-workers and former classmates and ex-boyfriends to “like.”

I can picture this so well, it’s like it already happened.

It’s not distasteful, exactly. It’s the world we live in, and social media has given us many good things. But this added filter makes it automatically seem trendy, an event to be co-opted by brands and opportunists and #fails.

If there was a word beyond overwhelming, I would use it, because that’s all I can imagine – television wouldn’t be enough, but the ceaseless flow of 9/11-related information would cause everyone to drop of exhaustion, of tragedy fatigue.

The author is right that digital displays of shock, grief and support would supplant for some the physical displays of their emotions. Just imagine the solidarity in Facebook profile pictures, the online campaigns, the Twitter arguments over “appropriate” grieving messages.

But perhaps more deadening is the way this would truly embody the mantra of “Never Forget.” We wouldn’t be able to. Tweets are embeddable; even the Library of Congress records them. Vines loop in perpetuity. We could easily click on the year and month in our Facebook timeline and then the rush of remembrance comes in. Our voicemail messages and texts are saved in the cloud anyway, so even if we got a new phone, we’d still be able to access these digital remains somehow, if we really had to.

In 2001, this was no so easily done; yes, there was television and lots of it, and there will continue to be television, even more of it now that it can be streamed, but we wouldn’t be confronted with the replay of horror over and over and over again, not every time we opened up a browser or tapped on a screen. MSNBC replays footage every year on the anniversary, a decision I and many others strongly disagree with. I understand Dan Abrams’ rationale that by reairing it it forces us to confront the day with an honestly that takes it away from being considered “history,” and for those too young to understand or live through the day, it can certainly be riveting in a way that it won’t be for those of us who experienced it live. But it’s also, in today’s parlance, a massive trigger warning, not just to those who experienced losses firsthand but for anyone who finds gruesome death and destruction a reminder of other painful moments, whether or not they stem from 9/11 directly. Can you imagine seeing images of falling bodies, of bloody bodies, of empty, bombed-out clothing stores, of charred IDs and keys and mangled cell phones, of angry, anguished faces running for lives recirculated constantly, no matter where you went?

I recently visited the 9/11 Museum. I braced myself; I knew what I was getting into. The architects designed the museum with the understanding that they didn’t want it to become one massive trigger. That’s why there aren’t loops of video of people falling from buildings or anguished cries. Yes, disturbing material can desensitize people, but for far more it could induce violent or painful reactions. For me, the most emotionally fraught moments were listening to records of family and friends talk about the dead victims; hearing their voices break, imaging the lives these people lead, was more real than any Portrait of Grief I read. Similarly, the most touching moments were seeing artifacts preserved as they were – a hotel key, Windows on the World receipt from dinner the night before, a row of bicycles covered in ash, still chained to the rack as they had been all those years before.

I visited Lower Manhattan – or some semblance of the area that had been hit – a few weeks after the attacks. I took a couple of pictures of signs for the missing, of wreathes and candles and photocopy after photocopy of smiling people, all caps of anguish. I don’t know where these pictures are now – I never got them developed, and I don’t even know if camera was digital then (probably not) – other than reprinted in a mass of other black and white photos in my school newspaper. I cried the entire time we walked the streets, silent tears streaming down my face. I felt embarrassed because I was crying in public but it was impossible not to cry. How do you confront such mass scale pain?

I have a half-hour record of news from that day. I had set a timer a few days before to record a show once a day at 3:30. I know immediately what tape the footage is on, but I’ve never watched it and I’ve never taped over it. It seemed sacrosanct to do either, a violation of principle to willfully forget or relive. In some ways, we do this in our lives – because we have to. But that tape remains for me posterity.

I do not think we should be subjected to repeated viewings, even if once a year, of a day many will call the worst of their lives, and one that ushered in many other people’s worst days. Grief might have to be faced head-on, but it should be done at the discretion of the individual. Planning to see “Flight 93” or hitting play on one of the many 9/11 related documentaries is one thing, just as attending a memorial service or a museum is a way to show respect. But being forced to relive the acute pain and terror of the moment? That does no one any good.

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And the Winner Is…

The National Magazine Awards are tonight, and two of my favorite publications, The Atlantic and New York, are up for the top prize – Magazine of the Year – along with Esquire, Fast Company, and Bon Appétit.

I do not read those three often enough to wager much of an opinion, other than that both Fast Company and Bon Appétit have beautiful, clear designs that fit their respective topics and aesthetics and interesting stories. They are good magazines and ones I would recommend. Esquire is Esquire, but I get it confused with GQ too often for it to really stand out.

Now, because the top category isn’t just for the printed magazine itself, but for the whole brand, encompassing the website, digital initiatives, events and other extensions in addition to the actual content, this makes it a much bigger entity.

Fast Company has many different offshoots and a very recognizable style. They cover their territory well, even if some of their (web) stories don’t have much meat to them. Bon Appétit, too, is growing, and covers food beautifully, even though their brand isn’t as far-reaching as the others on this list.

The Atlantic’s rise over the past several years has been documented before, and their web presence – of their reporters, their stories – is very strong. Many of their writers are becoming names in their own right, and their opinions are commented upon and picked up in other media. They have a list of events, many of which feature their own reporters. How The Wire – The Atlantic’s revamped summation web-style news site – fits into this is unclear, partly because it both looks and feels so different from its parent site.

I have subscribed to very few magazines in my life, and The Atlantic has been one of them. However, I find the magazine itself – just the monthly glossy – to be, well, staid. I’m most excited when I see one of my web favorites in there. I read the cover stories when they interest me, but they tend to be overly long. The design of the magazine hasn’t changed, or hasn’t changed much; again, it’s staid. Increasingly, I feel there’s a schism between the printed magazine, and The Atlantic website. The website has a similar look to the magazine, but the writing is far livelier, and they’ve begun to dress up their cover stories online.

The audience between The Atlantic the website and The Atlantic the print magazine is obviously different – online, definitely going for a strong Millennial reader base, whereas the magazine is definitely older. I totally understand this thinking; after all, the website built off the magazine, and it’s likely that Millennial readers are less likely to subscribe to the print publication whereas older readers (boomers here) probably aren’t checking the web incessantly.

New York’s experience, by contrast, is very consistent no matter what platform. Although New York has many online offshoots – Vulture, Daily Intelligencer, The Cut, Grub Street – they all feel part of the New York brand. Their layouts are the same. The typefaces are the same. With the exception of The Cut, which has a black banner, all the properties have a white background with accents, and all of them look like they belong to New York.

New York is an interesting hybrid of a magazine in that while it’s generally about the city, it’s more than a regional publication. It does dip into state politics, but more often than not it deals with national issues – whether cultural or political. In fact, one of the reasons I have always loved New York is because its mix of high and low is done so well – quality is always top-notch. I can’t even remember an article or piece that made me roll my eyes or get bored or complain about poor execution. What New York does is hard, and they make it look easy. They have silly pieces (like ones about the weather or a tweet), but they don’t come off as silly as they would on other sites. Maybe it’s New York’s cache, maybe it’s just they’re good at what they’re doing.

I’m always amazed, in particular, Vulture’s speed and breadth and depth of a subject. They are incredibly fast, even for a website, in covering live events like award shows. I’m in awe at the quality they produce at the speed they do it in. And they’ve taken covering television to new levels. As someone who’s been reading Vulture regularly for years, I can clearly see the editorial decision-making that went into these choices, and the creativity of the staff in coming up with additional articles to extend the life of one (micro) topic. Take recaps: Every week, staffers write a recap, or more like a critical analysis, of an episode of a show like Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But then there are about four or five additional articles connected to that one – usually an interview with an actor featured prominently in that episode, some sort of funny tie-in or type of fan art, a “recap of the recaps,” which highlights other critics’ viewpoints, a historical backgrounder, ratings piece, or commentary on fan response, storyline, or speculation related to plots and themes. This should be TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly’s domain, but it’s not.  They’re not even part of the conversation, the conversation Vulture’s defined.

Now, New York has won a ton of awards, and rightly so. If any of the finalists wins, I’ll be happy – unlike in 2010, when I last wrote about the National Magazine Awards – because I think they’re all good properties, in one form or another. Either way, what I’d really love to do is be able to spend a day immersed in all the magazines, soaking up their deliciousness.

UPDATE: Fast Company won.

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The Problem With The Newsroom

…Isn’t so much that Aaron Sorkin is telling journalists how to cover the news.


It’s that his characters are sanctimonious, pompous blowhards, often incapable of being professional, or at least acting like adults.

Instead of letting the actual news of the day and the struggles in covering that lead the plots for The Newsroom, the show becomes about the push-pull of romantic “confusion,” spiteful actions and immaturity.

Sorkin’s choice to have the show take place in the recent past is actually a smart decision when taken from the perspective that it frees the staff up from making fake news. Most people here (and The Wire did so) would make the comparison to The West Wing, which like many shows, has to exist in the fictional real world, blending parts to make it work. Of course, any work of fiction has to do that to a degree. It’s fun to actually watch the parts of The Newsroom where you know what’s coming next – Osama bin Laden’s death, Occupy Wall Street, the events of the 2012 Presidential Election. Reliving these items, seeing what it would take to cover them, maybe learning more about the actual story can be both entertaining and educational, something, if done well, could be used in a classroom setting.

But “done well,” of course, is what it all hinges on. The Newsroom’s weakness by far is the characters’ interpersonal relationships. Unlike previous Sorkin shows, a believable and compelling romance is not part of The Newsroom, and the attempts to make at least one stick aren’t working. It brought down the whole show, enough that it was ruining the reason to watch in the first place. I hope Sorkin realizes this when he talks about redoing the series from the beginning, and works to correct his mistakes. His first step: make the characters grow up.

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iPads Are Mostly (Expensive) Toys

Alexis Madrigal has some theories as to why iPad sales have slowed – which seemed to have shocked analysts, as nearly all of them bet too high on first quarter sales figures.

Yet as Rebecca Rosen points out, the iPad and tablets like them haven’t become must-haves for most, but merely a shiny, expensive gadget suited for a particular group of people.

Madrigal’s conclusions – that many people don’t see a reason to own one – fits it with my own experience of using an iPad.

I borrowed an iPad for a couple of weeks in October 2012. It was my first time really using an iPad, other than a couple of minutes at the Apple Store. I mainly used it to browse – I watched a couple of YouTube videos on it, short clips, looked up some things. It was an accessory to my life. I distinctly remember checking email and logging into anything being a big hassle, which caused me to only use it for extreme recreational reasons, not to write anything. I’ve seen many people use iPads with a rubber keyboard to take notes, in a business setting, and while I can see that working in a pinch, without a physical keyboard typing was a nuisance. The iPad’s lack of a USB port also struck me as not being very user-friendly, in that if I ever wanted to transfer information between computers the documents already would have to be stored in a cloud. For many users this wouldn’t be an issue, but not having the port made the device even more of a high-end toy than something with real value to me.

Having an iPad could not and would not replace having a computer. It just doesn’t have the power and the capabilities that other devices have. All my schoolwork – and anything requiring the use of a username and password, or multiple saved documents – I did on an actual, powerful computer, with a full keyboard and hard drive and software. An iPad would be no match for any sort of productive work, especially without a keyboard or a mouse. Swiping gets tedious, and there’s just simply too much to do that requires finely tuned movements. I prefer big screens, and staring at one even 9 and a half inches wouldn’t cut it for active, engaged work, whether that was working on graphics, a spreadsheet or writing a memo.

And taking photos with an iPad looks ridiculous, but I won’t get into that.

One of the reasons I shied away from making iPad apps in graduate school was because of the inherent limitations. An app designed for a particular platform is a quick way to discriminate against a potential audience, and with the iPad, this duplicates on itself. iPad magazines were the rage a few years ago, but I always thought they had an absurdly small audience. If those magazines aren’t even translated to owners of other tablet brands, the makers are effectively elevating one company’s products over another, not the technology itself. It’s like saying a particular detergent is only useful in Maytag machines but not Whirlpool.

Many iPad apps are indeed beautiful, and no disrespect intended to those building them. But if those apps can’t be viewed on another platform, be it a desktop, laptop, or mobile, then what good are they? Tablets are great as carryon accessories, especially if you don’t want to watch movies or play games on your phone. But for most people, they’re an extra couple hundred of dollars that duplicate an already existing purchase, just with a different size screen.

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A Message Board Devotee No Longer

I used to be an avid message board user.I was never a prolific poster, though – I preferred to lurk, as was the parlance, reading others’ posts and occasionally chiming in. The problem with television shows, though, was that if you didn’t post quick enough, a lot of what you’d say was repetitive. Also, writing posts was very time-consuming, at least to me – everything had to be structured, checked over, formatted.I also found that I had a limit, in terms of how many pages I was willing to read. Being active in a forum is very time-consuming. Checking every topic of interest, reading up on the threads of note – hours, hours, hours. And so, I moved away. I am prompted to write about this now after reading Virginia Heffernan’s ode to message boards in her online column for She write about the fertility boards she visited in 2004, and how they’ve declined over the past half-decade as social networking grew more popular – places where you connected with friends, people with real names, rather than just avatars and handles. The trajectory of the boards and their users mirrors my own behavior – something I’ve noticed with many other internet behavior shifts.My family first signed up for the internet in 2000, and I spent the first few months wading through the a/s/l of AOL chat forums, a creepy place that always left me sick to my stomach. I bookmarked everything. Eventually I waded into the forums, where I got through Sept. 11 (I was worried about one of the regulars), before Time Warner closed them up and moved to a version of their current commenting section. Everyone flew to the boards, but I didn’t stay long.

It was on the sites that I first heard of Mighty Big TV, which shortly after I joined it in October 2001 became Television Without Pity, a name it still retains after it was bought by Bravo Networks in 2007. There, I found a like-minded and passionate community around television. It was a big site, but it wasn’t overwhelming, and I spent many a day in school thinking about what I would post online about various episodes, and about the people behind the posts.

I spent so much time on the site, however, that I eventually began to police myself. I refused to post for an entire summer. In hindsight, that was the beginning of the end. I entered college, and I found that no longer was my loneliness placated by visiting the site. Watching television and spending hours analyzing it was no longer as fun when there were interesting people around to spend time with instead.

With television, like many other topics, time changes things. Once a show begins to show age, fans fly the coop. It becomes unbearable to spend a significant amount of time on a show if it’s no longer enjoyable, when most of the posts are merely complaints or nostalgia. While some shows have overlapping fans, eventually a show ends and fans move on, and the community disperses. What’s also significant in this world is the rise in other technologies. DVR and Netflix, to me, have killed many of these communities. Television, for most of its history, relied on the time factor – a new episode weekly, for a period of months, with fallow periods in between. But with a DVR, if you watch a show a few days later, or months later, the discussion isn’t the same. People who watch shows online, or watch a few episodes in a row – all common behaviors – also changes the nature of anticipation and speculation. Netflix enables viewers to watch whole series in a manner of weeks, so the long discussions on character behavior, motivations, and plot outlines disappear.

Topics devoted to media speculation, finding actors in small spots in movies and other shows, and well as press coverage also have changed in the last decade, now that gossip sites and most mainstream media also devote a large section of coverage to entertainment. Although IMDB has been around for a while, it’s fairly easy to find out that a favorite character actor guested in a blockbuster several years ago. It’s a different world.

I’ve waded occasionally into Television Without Pity, but the old communities are gone. Screen names I knew a decade ago no longer exist. People have moved on. There are new shows, most of which I don’t watch. I’ve found that I prefer to spend my time differently. Do I miss it? I do. I miss that side of myself – the television-loving, analyzing-everything, upfront-reading self. I assume at some point, parts of it will resurface. I have that capacity within myself.

Like Heffernan, I am part of the problem. I haven’t posted in ages, and the few times I have in the past four or five years have been one-offs. No one remembers my handle, except one friend – she was the first person I ever met who had ever heard of the site. And even now, I’m not sure if she goes on.

Like many things of early internet, I don’t think forums will ever go away. They have a purpose, but it a short-lived one. As people move throughout their lives, interests and priorities change, and that includes habits.

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Live Like We’re Goners? I Don’t Think So

Rachel Maddow has it right.

I’ve always hated the idea, personified in Kris Allen’s “Live Like We’re Dying” and Jordan Sparks’ “Tattoo”, that we must always live like every day is our last. These sentiments, these platitudes, are meant to goad us into action, to live bravely, to do risky things like go for that opportunity, to proclaim our love, those moments that we’re scared of that form the climax of the plot in any cheesy, predictable story.

We should absolutely not live every moment as if we’re dying. First, we simply can’t. There are moments in life where we have to do boring things—run errands, go to the bathroom, do homework, clean. These are not earth-shattering moments, and while they might lead us to pursue our dream, they are the necessary drudgework that is part of life. We can’t pretend these moments don’t exist, or consistently infuse them with meaning. We feel sick, we want to sleep in, we spend too much time online or on video games. Not every moment is meant for meaning; it is everything added together that becomes something more. Two, if we tried to live every moment as if it was life or death, we’d be in a constant state of anxiety and heightened emotions, and a person can’t live like that. Necessary things, like sleep and food, would get pushed out, because we don’t have time for petty things if we are dying!In that mindset, everything is short term; there are no considerations for consequences. Yeah, that opportunity might be amazing, but is it worth it after tomorrow? After next year? Is it harmful? Proclaiming your love is always viewed as this thing that, while scary, will always work out…but what if it doesn’t? What if everything goes to pot, and you were better off not doing it? But it doesn’t matter, because you have to live every second like it’s your last one!

There’s an episode of House where Wilson, after telling a patient that he only a few months to live, realizes that his disease is in remission and he will be fine. The patient is angry and wants to sue Wilson—the expectation that he was dying made his life fun for the short-term, and he was showered with parties and accolades. Now he has nothing to live for. He had lived for the present, and now that it was extended, there was nothing left. If we lived every day like we were dying, we would also feel this way. We told all our loved ones how we felt (nauseatingly), we took our risks, we said FU when it didn’t work out…and eventually we’ll be left with a shell of who we are, since we didn’t listen to anyone and didn’t prepare for the consequences.

So for the love of God, don’t tell me to live my life to the fullest, how I need to constantly run on all cylinders, to make sure that every moment counts. Because not every moment does, and not every moment can.

I’m too busy just trying to get by.


The Man vs The Music

Every review of Battle Studies has mentioned the dichotomy between John Mayer’s music and his personality. His music—ballads of soft wonder—seems to clash with his kooky, frenetic, self-gratifying , outspoken, cocky persona. His tales of chasing tail, accompanied by his arrogant, rambling observations on all manner of life have led him to be labeled a douchebag—indeed, this adjective is routinely so affixed to his name that it’s hard to fathom anything else he should be called. He’s even said that he wants to repurpose the word, to own it, if it’s going to describe him.

Battle Studies is his most engaging album since his 2001 debut, Room for Squares. His personality might have taken over his music the last few years, just as his ever-changing looks have come to define his erratic mindset, but the reason why he remains so popular is intact. Battle Studies offers the same wistfulness, the same longing and defiance that marked his earlier albums, but this time both his personality and art reflect each other.It’s not totally fair that Mayer is best known for breaking Jennifer Aniston’s heart, something that he acknowledges in recent interviews in RollingStone and Playboy. Both publications, in fact, boast incredibly candid and eye-opening features on the man, a guy who is not lacking in public forums to express himself. Mayer is one of Twitter’s most popular users, with over three million followers; many of his tweets have reached a wider audience thanks to being endlessly repeated for their audacity. Mayer certainly has odd things to say, but he often comments on women and relationships (and not in the Oprah vein), topics that most appreciate. He has a Tumblra blog, where he recently dismantled a TMZ “expose”, plus he’s endeared himself by guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and Chappelle’s Show, in addition to just popping up for some fun.

In fact, the more I read his thoughts and hear his opinions, the more I can’t help but love him. Seriously. Rereading both the Playboy and RollingStone pieces, every few sentences I paused to ask: How do you not love John Mayer?

It didn’t matter if he was talking about how fucking Jessica Simpson was a drug, then backtracking to apologize to Aniston’s hypothetical responses, or riffing on sex and masturbation and girls and his ideal relationship, and how he’ll fuck it up. Seriously, how do you not love him?

I realize for many this is a stupid question. But he is cocky, he is funny, he is self aware, he is just all sorts of fun, and that is very attractive. I liked most of Mayer’s music before, even appreciated it (his willingness to write “love songs for no one” in particular), but found some of his biggest hits really lame, songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” that even he is uncomfortable with representing him.

But as his public persona has gotten bigger, it seems to many that his music just doesn’t fit. He’s taken to pronouncements of random topics, and his mind runs a mile a minute, yet his music is slow, adult contemporary at its best. But Battle Studies very much aligns with where he is in his life, his philosophy toward women, relationships, and life. “I have this bond with infinite possibility,” he says in Playboy, “I want to be with myself, still, and lie in bed only with the infinite unknown. That’s 32, man.”

There is a definite tone in Battle Studies that embodies this, even in the world-weary first single, “Who Says”, similar to “Waiting on the World to Change,” the first single off his last album, Continuum. Overall, Battle Studies is about a guy who is contemplating his life—in many of the songs, from “Who Says” to “Perfectly Lonely”, he is comfortable being alone, yet roaming the streets, taking in everything (like the video for the former.)

Mayer is also very much fighting between impulses. That’s another thing that’s consistent between his persona and his music, or at least between the album as a whole and his recent interviews. In between the sadness and contemplation, there’s acceptance, even defiance (“Edge of Desire”, “Who Says”). The closer, “Friends, Lovers or Nothing” is one of those songs that just speaks the truth: “Friends, lovers or nothing / There can only be one / Friends, lovers or nothing / There’ll never be an in-between, so give it up / Friends, lovers or nothing / We can only ever be one / Anything other than yes is no / Anything other than stay is go / Anything less than “I love you” is lying.”

Battle Studies is a lovelorn, breakup album (hence the title), with the first three songs making up a sort of arc, relationships as tug of war. You would be forgiven if thinking the female singer on “Half of My Heart” was merely a background player, as Taylor Swift is wasted on this “duet”. But the problem with records like Battle Studies is the famous significant other that underlies the music, the failed relationship(s) that form the backbone of the album. Ooh, so is he talking about Jennifer Aniston here? But thinking about the real people behind the songs is kind of icky. It’s creepy; the general public only has rumors to go on, and usually the little information known is spurious and not very helpful, and can ruin the enjoyment of the art. Sure, sometimes it can enhance the story, if it’s about gleeful revenge, but other times it’s just a block, too factual for the real messages of the story to shine through.

If you’re trying to decipher insights into Mayer’s personal life, Battle Studies will only get you partway. In the interviews, he’s incredibly candid about relationships. On first read, it’s amazing to hear him speak so much about Jennifer Aniston (and Jessica Simpson, and Jennifer Love Hewitt…) Yet this makes him endearing, extremely likable, even if your mouth is agape, and while surprising, his candor doesn’t come off as exploitative, another skill Mayer has. There are some who say he is ruining his career, but he has addressed some of his more controversial statements and his shame in going overboard, so much so he’s heading into Kanye West territory. He’s so self-aware that it doubles and triples back on him, and with all the different outlets he has (not all controlled by him), it can seem at times that he’s overexposing himself. But that is part and parcel of his personality, his life, and the way he chooses to live.

Mayer strongly supports the notion that he and Jennifer Aniston broke up because of generational differences, that they are in different points in their life. John Mayer is very much a now guy—one who tweets, blogs, is fully immersive in his life and incorporates his fans thusly. Aniston, according to him, doesn’t have the same regard for these services as he does, nor shares the same philosophy, and that drove them apart. But he is quick to assert how much he cares for her, how much he does not want to offend her.

Playboy says Mayer “is beloved (though not universally) as one of the few uncensored stars, speaking with wit and impetuousness”, and his out-and-out genuineness certainly adds to that. Despite his reservations, his backtracking, his incessant commentary on everything, his need to spout off nonsensical and ridiculous and sometimes shocking things, his wit, charm, and goofball sense of himself shine through. He is a fundamentally good guy, not one of those guys who appears to be good on the surface and then is a douchebag, although admittedly this is all a matter of perception and I find his mischievousness fun, not jerky. Sure, he takes pains to distinguish this in interviews, but it’s apparent in his music, too. Mayer has nothing to apologize for (well, except to maybe the women he’s dated for spilling their intimate relations to the press), and Battle Studies is his proof that he and his music are one and the same.


Reviewing Ruth Reichl’s Trio of Food Memoirs

…We all become actors, to some extent, when we go out to eat. Every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful. When restaurants hold up their end of the bargain, they give us the illusion of being surrounded by servants intent on ensuring our happiness and offering extraordinary food.

But even modest restaurants offer the opportunity to become someone else, at least for a little while. Restaurants free us from mundane reality; that is part of their charm. When you walk through the door, you are entering neutral territory where you are free to be whoever you choose for the duration of the meal.

–Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise 

Ruth Reichl has made a name for herself reviewing restaurants, most notably as the New York Times’ chief restaurant critic in the ‘90s. While there, she made reviewing a literary art form, weaving stories into her reviews, adding quotes from patrons and staff, incorporating history and sensory fun. Looking back, her reviews do not seem controversial, but she was up against a lot of history, even enduring a smear campaign from her bitter predecessor, Bryan Miller, which ended up on Page Six.

In an job interview with the paper, she condemns their food coverage, telling top editors that their reviews are “useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the ones who wish they could.” The Times, for many years, focused only those fancy French restaurants that defined class and culinary sophistication in this country, but these were the types of restaurants, like Lutece, that were patronized by the rich and powerful; most people would rarely, if ever, get the chance to try it. As eating out became more like going to the movies instead of the opera, restaurant criticism should reflect that trend, Reichl notes, and become just as much a democratizing force.

Already well-known in the food world in the early ‘90s, Reichl was warned on a flight to New York City that “Every restaurant in town has your picture pinned to the bulletin board, next to the specials of the day.” Panicked, Reichl realized that there was only one way to do her job: go in disguise. So she became Molly, a retired high school teacher from Birmingham, Michigan. The New York Times’ restaurant critic was the most powerful position in restaurant criticism, and her word could make or break an establishment. Critics were expected to dine out no less than three times, often more, with companions, sampling a range of food at different times, testing for consistency and quality. Being discovered was ruinous, because it often lead to extraordinary service, comped dishes, freebies, and extras, like plumper strawberries.

Reichl’s infamous Le Cirque experience is recounted in the third volume of her memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires. As Molly, she and her middle-aged companion endured rude service, waiting at the bar, watching the waiters hope that they would leave, before being seated in a tight corner in the back of the restaurant, near an alcove where the menus were kept. As herself, she was treated to this gem: “The King of Spain is waiting at the bar, but your table is ready.”

Garlic and Sapphires traces her years at the New York Times, where she subjects herself to a number of wigs and odd outfits, transforming herself into all sorts of women, all with backstories and unique personalities. Unlike her two previous memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, this one is focused exclusively on restaurants and her career. Columns from her tenure are reprinted here—most are just labeled “Restaurants”, a little too simple; not all have titles. She inherited a star system that is no longer in place, and readers relive many of the meals behind the review.

Reading through the books, you really get a sense of how much the world has changed in the last fifty years. In Tender at the Bone, all the included recipes seem very unhealthy. There’s lots of eggs and butter and cream, and the recipes, many complicated, use lots of hard-to-find ingredients. They also scream French and fatty; lots of meat and dessert. The recipes in Garlic and Sapphires are familiar, easy, and as such, much likelier to be made (I tried the first one, New York Style Cheesecake, as a birthday gift).

What Americans actually ate has also changed considerably. Reichl was lucky to grow up in New York City, with Jewish roots, and so was exposed to a lot of food that didn’t become mainstream until decades later. Outside of such cities, Americans ate a lot of steak, a lot of bland, nutritionally-deficient food. The horrors of midcentury Midwestern cooking — chicken, steak, Rice-a-Roni — are reinforced when she meets her future husband’s parents for the first time. They cook her a “fancy” meal: cottage cheese-filled canned peaches on iceberg lettuce, and “chow mein”: canned beans sprouts, canned mushrooms, bouillon cubes, and molasses. Ugh.

But her life, too, encapsulates this change: brought up in Greenwich Village in the ‘50s, she was surrounded by butchers, bakeries, and other “specialty” shops; many of those have disappeared by the time she returns thirty years later. Her mother, educated in Europe, ships her off to a Montreal boarding school to learn French when she is a preteen, and she spends her high school years in Connecticut, skipping class, drinking and cooking while her parents stay in New York. Rebelling, she goes to school in Michigan, where she becomes a hippie, majoring in sociology and attending sit-ins and teach-ins, learning about Moroccan and Guyanese cooking. Upon graduating, with nothing else to do, she gets a master’s degree in art history at the same university. Who does that now without a lot of foresight and planning?

But these are only some of the ways in which we see how far the world has changed. Nowadays food is its own genre, and there are millions of foodies, professional and amateur, who follow the field. With movies like Food, Inc, what we eat has become politicized. “Food porn” is its own subgenre, and pictures both disgusting and beautiful can be found anywhere on the web. Chefs are superstars, and professional eating is a job, one that can lead to fame. The Food Network and the Travel Channel bring cuisines, styles, and food as entertainment to the masses. Midwestern suburbia has access to heretofore ethnic and specialty ingredients. No longer is eating out a province of the rich. Even the act of reviewing restaurants, thanks to the Internet, has changed, since it’s virtually impossible to stay incognito, as Columbia Journalism Review’s recent history on food writing recounts.

Ruth Reichl is incredibly blessed. Her story reads like nothing more than that she happened to be the recipient of a lot of luck—she was always at the right place at the right time. As one friend puts it, she was born to be a restaurant critic, and that is certainly evident in her background. She was cooking at an early age, more as self-preservation than anything else. Her mother, Miriam, quite a character, is “taste-blind and unafraid of rot” and Ruth grew up warning all guests—and there were a lot—which food was unsafe to eat. Her mother, in a story memorable recounted in Tender at the Bone and in the recent published Not Becoming My Mother, poisoned twenty-six people at an engagement party she threw for her son (which she also turned into a benefit for Unicef.) She would buy anything exotic, throw random stuff together, and call it a meal. It didn’t matter if the sour cream was green.

Reichl spent a summer as a camp counselor in a small island off the coast of France. Unlike American health camps, which are highly structured and are strongly linked to losing weight, French camps had few rules, among them that campers would shower once a week and that everyone had to eat everything on the plate. Campers were expected to gain weight. Reichl was free to explore the island.

She meets her first husband living in Ann Arbor when he comes looking for her friend, the previous occupant. They move in the next day, marry young, and after a short stint in New York City, they move to Berkeley, where they are part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement. There they live in a commune with ten other people for ten years, their bedroom smaller than most dorm rooms. They stick out because they are married, but they live the life of a poor hippie. They have no credit cards, very little to their name, and they disdain bourgeois trappings like dishwashers (energy inefficient) and meat (too high on the food chain and “an egregious example of the vertical integration of agribusiness”). They dumpster dive and recycle fanatically, living on grain, millet and bland vegan products. She moves up the ranks, working in a number of restaurants, notably The Swallow, before becoming a food critic for New West (later renamed California) magazine, then moving to the Los Angeles Times. In Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, she meets and becomes friends with some big names: Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck.

Her second memoir, Comfort Me with Apples, describes her “tumultuous years” in California, the dissolution of her first marriage, and her subsequent affairs and battle with infertility. Here is where most of her traveling is done: whenever her life is a mess, she takes a trip, and so readers are exposed to a storybook affair in Paris, feastiaries in Thailand, and an international mystery in China. In Tender, it’s a whirlwind honeymoon in Europe, with an extended lag in Crete; a Tunisian tour with local men before jet-setting to Algiers; and of course, Paris. Obviously, the books are filled with long ago beautiful meals, lovely wine, and interesting concoctions.

One criticism of the books, especially in the first two, is that Reichl is not very specific with time. I consistently overestimate her age, partly because milestones in her life happen earlier than expected (she is finished with her undergrad degree by the time she is twenty, for example). It is hard, at times, to figure out if it’s the late ‘60s or early ‘70s in her book, how long she has been in a particular setting or situation. This matters less in Garlic and Sapphires, mostly because her life is settled then, and the entirety of that book revolves around one job and setting. Many readers might not care about the specificity of dates; indeed, Reichl comes from a long line of embellishers, and her books, being memoirs, are not factual recitations of events.

At times Reichl can be amazingly open—as when she reveals that she took a pay cut to work at the New York Times, starting out at $82,000, in Garlic and Sapphires, or when describing her sex life inComfort Me With Apples. Her parents figure prominently in the first two, but her son, Nick, now twenty-one, appears often in the last. He is sweet, and adores his mom. It is her family that prompts her decision to leave the New York Times for Gourmet magazine, which she helmed until the magazine’s departure a few months ago.

What’s also fun, besides the meals and her amazing experiences, is seeing how the Times ran, especially in the ‘90s, where it was considered a snake pit, a completely different and unfriendly beast to the Los Angeles Times, where Reichl worked for nine years in the eighties. I was delighted to discover that Reichl dislikes Tavern on the Green (which recently closed) as much as I do, even though we ate there a good thirteen years apart.

Reichl has her own websiteTwitter feed, and currently works on Gourmet’s television show. Her books are fun and tasty, and the recipes certainly are mouth-watering. I still have no idea what foie gras is, though.

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WaPo Fail

There was a little incident in Washington recently. An impromptu snowball fight caused a police officer to take out his gun. This turned into a big deal. It became an even bigger deal when the story was inaccurately covered by the Washington Post; their account was contradicted by other outlets and notably a YouTube video of the event.

The whole story is a fascinating example of the power of social networks, ingenuity, and journalism.

The Washington Post did write the “real” story a few days later, but by then they had been widely criticized for their erroneous coverage and for not having the balls to fess up for their wrongdoing, correcting their record properly. Their piece is pretty good, but it got lost in the shuffle between other snowstorm-related stories (especially in the print edition) and the cacophony of criticism, most notably from their main competitor, the Washington City Paper:

Yet the reason why the Post screwed this up is that they all have linkophobia. If you link to an outlet—such as, God forbid, the Washington City Paper — you’ve lost. You got scooped and all your colleagues are going to look down on you. Linking is a huge sign of weakness—you just can’t do it. Far better to, like, call a top police official, buy his version of events, and just place it in a post, regardless of the contradicting evidence that’s already posted elsewhere.

Take a close look at that 10:20 update on the maybe-gun-pulling cop: “The plainclothes D.C. police detective may have unholstered his pistol during the confrontation with participants in the huge snowball fight, based on video and photos posted on the Internet.”

Bold and italics are mine. They’re mine because this is the most cowardly, selfish, arrogant news conduct out there today. What the fuck is “video and photos posted on the Internet”? How does that help readers? It’s as if I can go to, and there, on the first screen, will be the video and photos of the snowball fight and the maybe-gun-wielding cop. “Posted on the Internet” would be acceptable if this were 1997.

The reporters used this hazy phrasing because they were too chicken-shit to do something that we all have learned to do over the past, say, decade or more. And that’s to link to competitors and acknowledge their contributions to stories.

The tone is harsh, but it’s a blog, much like Gawker serves to rip apart the New York Times. The truth is, Erik Wemple is right. How can you ignore the rest of the world? I assumed that it was common practice now to link to other outlets and acknowledge the competition when necessary in covering stories. The idea, as the Times has written, is that you want to be as accurate as possible, and if that means getting scooped, then so be it. You want to have all the facts, and the reporting should be stronger and as fleshed out as possible. By not acknowledging other outlets, you make yourself look stupid at best, lose credibility at worst, as seen here.


Sex & Masturbation, Paul Feig Edition

Attention, geeks of the world! Worried about how you can’t get girls, how you’re so hopelessly embarrassing when it comes to the opposite sex? Well, Paul Feig is here to tell you that he’s been there, and he had it worse: he had to deal with women in the eighties.

Paul Feig’s memoir Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, chronicles his adolescent years chasing girls. The book starts off with him waving his geek credentials, earnestly saying that despite it all, he’s always wanted to fall in love, and he knew the exact moment he desperately wanted true romance:

There’s just always been something about trying to find those perfect moments in life, the ones where you feel loved and needed and fulfilled, that has driven me to do so many embarrassing things over the years. They didn’t seem embarrassing at the time but, once looked back upon, they cause me to cringe in the same way I cringe when I think about the time I wore a powder blue disco jumpsuit to high school with the mistaken impression that it would actually make me look cool.

The image of the powder blue disco jumpsuit will be familiar to anyone who is a fan of “Freaks and Geeks”, the cult show that Feig created in 1999. Viewers will discover that storylines from the show received their genesis from Feig’s real life; both mix sweet, funny embarrassing humor and pop culture references of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first and funniest section is all about young Paul’s foray into masturbation, which had its start when he shimmied on ropes in gym class in second grade. Feig, who grew up a Christian Scientist, heard on a radio show when he was 12 that each masturbation session equaled a day off his life. This caused him great inner turmoil, where he went into a crazy tailspin trying not to do the act, which led him to talk to God as a way to negotiate his life. The discovery of girly mags further complicated his relationship with both sex and God.

His actual interactions with girls is amusing, as we go through various dates with various types, crushing expectations met with embarrassing behavior, interspersed with popular songs. This is a book that most definitely has a soundtrack, complete with make out scenes and dance montages. Throughout this we glimpse Feig’s “geekery”, his earnest love of theater, television, roller skating and Star Wars, seeds of what his career would become.

Feig doesn’t have great luck with girls, but he doesn’t have horrible luck, either. He discovers what he likes and what he doesn’t (really, really, really aggressive girls), suffers through drama and humiliations, and finds out that he is incapable of breaking up with girls. There are dry spells, but they are whipped through the chronology of his life, barely noted between film school and Los Angeles.

Superstud, while told chronologically, uses several different narrative devices as a way to inject humor and to switch up the story. A good section of the book is his journal entries from the ’80s copied verbatim with commentary and explanations, with footnotes added. The actual “chapter” where he loses his virginity is set up as a series of steps—dialogue, introductions, everything, and it works, as it both speeds up the story and serves as a sort of inevitable finale.

As much as Feig, who has directed episodes of “The Office” and “Arrested Development”, is invested in the idea that he is a bona-fide geek, he comes across more as a normal boy than any standard-issue super-awkward geeky geek. Although he points out at times that he gets overly enthusiastic about his many passions, his confusion and experiences don’t pit him as a weird, geeky kid. His passions, in fact, apart from his exploits with girls, rarely get much play here, unless they are needed for background. We know he’s a kid who loves Hollywood and comedy, but that only comes up when it is necessary for story, which only showcase that he is merely a normal, regular Midwestern kid. He is merely on the edge of geekdom.

He is aptly embarrassed by many of his actions, but he is self-deprecating most of the time, so much so that at times you just want to tell him it isn’t necessary and it’s drawing away from the story. He’s an affable guy, but he does try too hard at times, a theme that is noted in the book.

Much is made of the expectations that weigh heavily on him—from society, from Playboy, from his religious background, and how they do a great disservice. Playboy’s pictures are too artistic to be of any real help when an actual situation calls for it, and his conversations with God highlight how confused and frustrated he really is.

Feig does offer a prescriptive lesson at the end of the book, one that’s all too fitting: Just make sure you have sex with someone you love, and who loves you back. That message might be boring, but he doesn’t mind; in fact, it’s a point that is prevalent in many of his pal Judd Apatow’s works.

Readers might be tempted to pick up this book if they wanted a book version of a Judd Apatow comedy. His memoir loosely fits into the genre of “music & girls”, and as such, is an enjoyable and lighthearted romp through the adolescent boy’s mind.

Nobody Wants to Be First Lady

The life of a first lady is sad, claustrophobic. She is held in check by her husband’s policies, his politics, the stultifying bureaucracy that surrounds them. She can’t hold a real job; she’s too famous for that, but she’s famous not because she’s done something but because she’s attached to the guy who did. American Wife hits shelves with a lot of hype, and one irresistible hook: It’s the fictionalized story of Laura Bush.

American Wife follows Alice Lindgren, a typical middle-class only child in a small town in Wisconsin, who eventually becomes Alice Blackwell, married to Charlie Blackwell, the 43rd President of the United States. It’s unmistakable that Alice and Charlie Blackwell are the alter egos of Laura and George Bush: they are the same age (although their individual birthdays are different), their courtship patterns follow the same course, she is a children’s librarian, he’s a rich playboy bopping around when they meet at a BBQ…I found the parallels between the characters and their real-life counterparts fun. If you know current events, the last chapter alone is very illuminating. But it’s also exciting to realize you spot Karl Rove’s alter ego before he’s Karl Rove, chuckle that Charlie ran as a “tolerant traditionalist” in 2000, that that election hinged on Florida.

Author Curtis Sittenfeld has said that she always thought that Laura Bush’s story would make a great novel; Laura herself has pointed out that it was inevitable her and George would get together, because she jokes, they were the last single people in their extended social circle, both in their early 30s when they got together.

The roots of this novel are seen in Sittenfeld’s 2004 article for Salon, in which she elucidates her admiration for Laura, ” She’s smart and curious about the world. She’s sincere and down-to-earth and compassionate. She’s both confident and modest, she knows who she is, and she doesn’t try to prove anything. I suspect the reason so many people I know believe her to be fake is that she doesn’t aggressively demonstrate her authenticity.”

The first 150 pages or so of the novel are the best, moving briskly and captivatingly. Like her counterpart, Alice is in a car accident in the summer of 1963, killing the boy that would most likely be her boyfriend at the end of the party they were both driving to. Although this catalyst looms large in the rest of the novel, it is the driving force of the story, pushing Alice into a depth of grief that changes her life.

It is Alice’s life pre-Charlie that is the most interesting. Her family, especially her grandmother, form her world, a very old-fashioned kind of 50s life, where the girls aren’t mean and the boys cute, with parents refusing to let their daughters listen to Elvis and hang-outs at the local greasy spoon. Alice is fundamentally nice – this is her defining characteristic-but she is not dull in her early life. Her grandmother’s feisty outlook and unconventional life choices also formulate many of her opinions, those that will later contrast with her husband’s.

Alice and Charlie’s lightening-fast courtship is fun, and very, very steamy, but the story loses urgency once she marries him. She quits her job as an elementary school librarian when she marries in 1977, and her life quickly becomes enveloped by the privilege of his family. Here, she becomes less relatable, less interesting; her life is about Charlie now, and her life is made up of housekeeping and garden clubs and her husband and his family.  A large part of the middle focuses on their marital problems, after Charlie turns 40. Always a drinker, he isn’t the type to get loud and nasty, but he’s a grown man who-even when he met Alice-didn’t hold down a real job, and he’s floundering.

It’s ironic that a story that is so much about a couple actually deflates when it comes to discussing said couple. The best parts of the novel focuses solely on Alice, when she’s trying to figure herself out, not when she has to twist her life to fit his. That’s one reason why Sittenfeld skips over many of the bullet points of their life, including Charlie’s rise to governor and president, but focuses so much on the pivotal point in their marriage.

The last section of the novel focuses on a time in the middle of Charlie’s second term, seventeen months before the end: June 2007. Charlie’s approval ratings are in the tank, but his wife is beloved. The country is in a war against a Middle Eastern country that supposedly harbors terrorists, but there was no direct link between that country and the massive attacks that hit the country on September 11, 2001. There is a male version of Cindy Sheehan waiting outside the White House to speak to President Blackwell about his rationale for the war, and he is getting pressure about one of his Supreme Court nominees based on her stance on abortion.

Alice, who has publicly acknowledged in a television interview that she does support upholding Roe v. Wade, is at odds with many of her husband’s political stances, and wonders if she is responsible for many of his actions, because she has a type of power that no advisor can match. Her culpability frames the other half of the story, her adult life – she can hardly believe that her goofball husband has become the president, and now has to grapple with a very public life.

American Wife isn’t boring or predictable. I had read many of the reviews, yet somehow I managed to forget a lot of the plot points, and was genuinely surprised reading the novel. Sittenfeld enlivens a story that might seem inevitable on the page, since we know from page one the outcome and the journey. Essentially, she had an outline to work with, and all she had to do was fill in the gaps. The fact that so much is already public might deter readers, but instead the novel fills in the spaces in the resume, enriching your understanding of the First Couple.

American Wife is very steamy. It’s as if Sittenfeld held off from the sex in her first book,Prep, gradually tried it out in The Man of My Dreams, and let loose here. The sex scenes alone have gotten a lot of press – with selected juicy bits excerpted in Radar (major spoilers alert) – but it shouldn’t scare readers away who are icked out by the idea of “Bush sex”. If anything, the sex scenes jolt the novel out of passivity, enabling the real plot to get going.

Some reviews have criticized Charlie for being too one-dimensional – I found, at first, hard to believe that he would say some of the triple-syllable words coming out of his mouth – but he’s exactly who is, exactly as he said he is. The book illuminates the recent history of this country, offering an explanation as to how he became the president, how the US has ended up in its current state, while giving a good story. The fact that it’s mostly true is a large portion of the fun, but the book isn’t political and it’s not necessary to know the details of the Bush administration to enjoy; that only enhances the story.

Unlike Sittenfeld’s two previous books, American Wife does not uncomfortably magnify those insecure feelings we’d rather keep hidden. That is both a credit and a demerit to the book – it’s far easier to read, less fraught with personal revelation, but perhaps not as memorable as her earlier works. American Wife will garner more readers than her earlier material, in part because of the subject matter, but Alice isn’t as relatable as her other characters. She is not a person who, by temperament, generation, or geography, shares her opinions. She is viewed as far more liberal than her husband, but I suspect Sittenfeld did this because it enhances the novel, and because Sittenfeld herself is an avowed liberal. There are scant clues to Laura’s real opinions, and Sittenfeld has plausible explanations for both Alice’s reticence and Charlie’s ambitions.

I found the fictional stories behind George and Laura Bush led me to understand them better, to understand (even if misguided) the administration, how the country has ended up in its current mess thanks the past eight years. This is the reason to read the book.

Sittenfeld clearly has a thing for first ladies-she wrote a piece on her newfound admiration for Michelle Obama in a recent issue of Time, where she also discusses Laura:

But if Laura inspires my sympathy, I don’t exactly relate to her, or I relate to only certain elements of her story-her love of reading, her past as a Democrat-that stand out all the more because the rest of her life seems so foreign. She is of an older generation and has made choices, like quitting her job after getting married but before having children, that are the choices of another time. Michelle Obama, by contrast…[is] actually recognizable as a very particular type. I suspect this person will be familiar to anyone who has, in the past 25 years, been a young, college-educated woman in her first real job: you’re, say, 22 and somewhat clueless, and you go to work in an office where there’s a woman eight or 10 or 12 years older than you who’s not only visibly good at her job but also confident and friendly and well-dressed and busy with a life that features a cute husband and a nice house and maybe even a couple of kids. And you think maybe, if everything goes right, your own life could turn out like hers.

I think the era of First Ladies in the traditional mode is dying out with Laura Bush; Cindy McCain would be the last. They are the rich ladies who lunch, whose lives revolve around philanthropic works. I envision future first ladies to be women like Hillary, Michelle and even Sarah Palin-those who work to balance motherhood and their careers, ambitious and put together and smart. But I also think that the men running for president are going to have wives like that, because that the kind of person they’d be attracted to. American Wife tells the story of a conventional woman with an unconventional life, the type of life that will no longer exist in that capacity.

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Embarrassing Obama?

Why is Barack Obama constantly being embarrassed by his wife?

Maria Menounos (who is moving up in the world, doing segments for Today and the Nightly News) recently did a fourpart segment featuring the entire Obama family on Access Hollywood, and Barack rarely spoke, letting his daughter Malia and wife Michelle spill all his dirty secrets, like how he doesn’t like most sweets (except pie).

Most of this stuff is benign, but it was delivered with a hint of hostility, a tone I’ve detected in Michelle’s previous comments about her husband’s personal habits. Her daughter has picked up on this, too.

I don’t understand this impulse at all. I don’t find it endearing or cute. I know people razz on their friends and family members all the time, but usually there’s an undercurrent of affection in the teasing. But with Michelle Obama, I just don’t see it, even though I’m sure she means well. It’s supposed to open up the candidate, showing us who he really is, foibles and all. That’s why candidates and their families do silly puff interviews like the Access Hollywood one in the first place, although Barack has been regretting it of late. I usually don’t mind personal habits—to a degree. Nothing embarrassing, nothing I’m cringing at. It also has to be delivered in a way that makes all parties ok with it, and my problem seems to be that because Barack himself doesn’t seem to be ok with this teasing, I’m not either. He doesn’t look mildly embarrassed, a little sheepish, just coldly nodding his head, letting the facts stand there. It’s also what Michelle Obama says that irks me. Her comment that he is “snore-y and stink-ey” struck me as low, even if she’s talking about him first thing in the morning. There’s a difference in saying that a spouse is clumsy or forgetful at times; attacking him for personal hygiene habits is too TMI for my taste.

I understand that Michelle Obama is just trying to flesh out her husband and not deify him, to offset this kind of cult rock star figure image that has glommed on to him. As she stated in the Glamour article, as an explanation to her earlier comments:

I think [most] people saw the humor of that. People understood that this is how we all live in our marriages. And Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we’re ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife’s role should be in this process, and it’s been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different—I think most real marriages are.

But in the Access Hollywood interviews, his family spends a good portion of time ragging on him; he barely gets a word in. He only eats mint gum. He doesn’t like sweets. He hates to shop. He wears old clothes. Wowee. He might be a little staid, but so are a lot of guys, so are a lot of political guys. Maybe it’s their way of just saying that he fits right in, despite all the ugly rumors proving he’s too much of an outsider. But it doesn’t come off that way; from Michelle it sounds like a litany of complaints. I’m not interested.

I’m not saying first ladies or potential first ladies and campaign spouses have to hold their tongues. Especially nowadays with their own high-powered careers, there is no need for them to be completely demurring and just fawn and smile sweetly when discussing their husbands, but there’s something to be said for discretion. Cindy McCain has acknowledged that her husband was away for her three miscarriages and her addiction to painkillers—something that would kill many other marriages. Like the Obamas, they decided to spend a good portion of their time living in separate places, each working where their career took them and the women largely raising the children. But while Cindy McCain has mentioned these hard times in both her marriage and in her life, she has not denigrated her husband.

Now, because I’m not voting for either Michelle Obama or Cindy McCain, this shouldn’t matter. It should have no bearing on my feelings for either candidate.

But stuff like this seeps through. Cindy McCain says she always knew that John would put the country ahead of her—so should that make us feel confident that he would make a good president because he cares about the country’s needs more than his wife’s? Should I wonder why Obama married a woman who would insult him in public? Is this a good thing, because he knows criticism and can handle it, shrugging it off like he does now? Or is this harmful, because he is immune to criticism? How does this affect—or not—his running of the country?

Recently, Slate’s XX blog has been discussing Ellen Tien’s apparently scathing account of her husband, how she thinks about divorce every day. I didn’t even read the article (written by the woman who does the Sunday Style’s Pulse), but I was appalled. What is the point of trashing your spouse (or significant other), who you are still currently with, in a public forum (print, online, video)? The only logical conclusion would be that you want out, and you want to hurt that person very, very badly.

Which is exactly what Christie Brinkley did in her exceedingly humiliating spectacle of a divorce. She exposed Peter Cook to humiliate him (and her), to get what she wanted, children and propriety be dammed. Exposing such nasty truths only serves as revenge. Michelle Obama, who has said that she won’t let Obama run again if he loses, and Cindy McCain, who is known to dislike the whole running for president thing, aren’t as brokenhearted and humiliated as Christie Brinkley is (we hope), but I don’t think they are saying these things purely out of spite. They are just telling the truth. But the truth doesn’t have to sound like they hate their husbands.

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Women’s Websites: Finally Getting Some Attention

David Carr, another favorite Times writer of mine, discusses the larger implications of the Sex and the City aftermath, comparing it to the Superbowl. The article is really about women’s web communities, which are really basking in the attention the movie is making. I’ve written about this topic once before, critiquing Shine, and many of the sites he mentions have gotten full-course treatment from the newspaper and the same section he writes for (Monday’s Media Business).

Basically, women make up a large portion of viewers online. Shocking, I know. In the last several months there’s been several new “community” sites to cater to different groups of women, among them (for older women) and Journal Women (businesswomen). I’m partial to Slate’s XX blog and Jezebel, both of which I link to. I was never one for iVillage or Glam, and while I like the idea of Blogher, I don’t find it relevant to my life–and I also do not fit the criteria for their site, as I find it difficult to post at least once a week (though I’m going to be working on that this summer). Granted, the problem with many of these sites–or at least, sections of them–is that they can get very girly, focusing on shoes and fashion and whatnot. While that’s all well and good occasionally and for some girls a necessity, I prefer some social commentary or news with my girly side, hence my love of Jezebel, XX blog and yes, Sex and the City.

For many years I read avidly the postings on Television Without Pity, and a demographic analysis showed that a large majority of the site’s viewers were women. I was actually pretty shocked by the high number (Stilwell places this figure between 70-90%; see bottom of page 60). Granted, things have changed in the five years since this was published, and while I could tell that many posters were women, I didn’t think the number was anywhere close to being that high; after all, since when was television a predominately female hobby? If anything, it was the men who would sit all day and watch hour after hour of crap. What I realized was that women were willing to talk about and analyze what they watched. Men watching ball games would congregate in other areas. It was the women, regarded as the more social sex, who really made internet communities. MySpace and Facebook might have been founded by men, but Television Without Pity was formed by two women. Women think more by niche, going off their interests; parenting and other “feminine” topics sometimes seem like the only things women of a certain age are interested in, but that’s natural; after all, Urban Baby (founded by a woman) is a top site, and it has a rabid following and is a vibrant community of its own.

One of the things I found most interesting was the observation that women’s sites, as a whole, tend to be more ambitious than strictly male sites. Both types of sites feature a lot of gender-specific content and the appropriate style graphics and colors, but male sites will be about busty women and stupid videos, whereas female ones will discuss a subject, no matter how frivolous, in depth. If men want to be ambitious, it seems, they’ll go on a specific niche site (like politics) to say what they need to say. CollegeHumor, as much as I love it, is meant to tickle the funny bone of college boys, so much of their humor is gross-out or physical. That’s fine; it serves its purpose well, and girls will always be attracted to men’s worlds. But women, whether or not they are out to prove something, have a strong desire to make a difference, to be heard and seen, and being a respected member of a community is a form of legitimacy and power. Or so I’m trying to rationalize…are men, on the whole, just more likely to take an easy way out? Rest on their laurels? Get lazy as they get older? Distracted by things like money and women?

Let’s hope with the increased attention comes legitimacy, money, power, and above all, the ambition to make female-centric websites not totally about celebrities, gossip, and fashion.

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American Idol: As Mainstream As It Gets

Every week my father complains about the contestants on American Idol. But aside from the usual “no one stands out like Carrie Underwood or Jordin Sparks”, he’s downright dismissive about contestants that sport unorthodox fashion choices: dreds, funky, multicolored hair, large tattoos, earrings in unrespectable places…he was even against Taylor Hicks because his gray hair labeled him a geezer. My parents don’t like contestants that are too outside the mainstream. They find them weird and off-putting, no matter how talented they are.

When I heard that Amanda Overmyer was eliminated this week, instead of the expected bland Barbie Kristy Lee Cook, I began to think they’re onto something.

Apparently I’m not alone:

I’m not saying that you have to pick a hit to win, but a hit is a hit for a reason…That was a lesson I learned from the Idol producers. I used to submit for clearance the most random songs, like ”Rockin’ the Suburbs” by Ben Folds. I had no rhyme to the reason — I just liked those tunes. …But Ken and Nigel would always give me suggestions-that-weren’t-really-”suggestions” (because that would be unfair), saying that I needed to pick something the public knows and likes and that shows off my voice — essentially, a hit song. I think I was trying to tell them, ”Hey I’m cool, look! I’m a fan of Motörhead, yippee!” But luckily they didn’t let me sing ”Ace of Spades.” …They remind me that this whole thing is more like a political primary than a music concert.

Now, granted, this is from an ex-contestant, but what he’s saying is true, and as much as many would love for them to feature more offbeat songs, it’s not going to happen. Seeing further that Carly Smithson landed in the bottom three proved that viewers want someone who fits in the mainstream mold, as she received high marks from all the judges as well as the crowd. The three most successful Idol performers are Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, and it’s easy to see why. To just compare the current contestants to them is unfair, but so is trying to picture them on the radio, if only because several of them can fit provided they have the right song at their disposal. After all, even long-haired Bo Bice came in second place and scored a modest single on Adult-Contemporary radio. Why? Because that song fulfilled the “rocker” niche, with just a little hard-edge/bad boy to him, yet still at the core was mainstream.

Extrapolating from this (and I know from doing my own research that people say they don’t vote based on looks, but on talent), it’s clear that people want what’s comfortable. It’s easier to judge contestants when they sing recognizable songs; if you don’t know them, you don’t care. Voters might say they choose on talent, but with the little time they have to review the candidates they need to go with what they’re given, and if they’re alienated they tend to want those candidates out of the way. Boring performers, they reason, can get better with the right improvements and songs, whereas weird ones will only get weirder. This idea isn’t new—for even casually watchers, it’s a virtual “duh”—but it’s getting recirculated as performers are willing to showcase their true selves.

I myself have criticized the show for being too mainstream, too bland, but by season seven now most people have realized and accepted that the contestants must fit within a narrow framework that is accessible to a wide audience yet still fall within a suitable genre. And hey, even I have come to understand that I don’t really care for certain “nonconformists” myself; I like innovation within a certain archetype. I’m less judgmental than my father–I don’t rule out bandannas, or bald heads on white guys–but they’re usually not my favorites. But it is American Idol after all, and I’m sure there are definite trends and types with the people who actually vote versus the viewers and at the end, as Simon pointed out just this week, the show is a popularity contest. Most music fans like both mainstream acts and cult favorites, and, as Amanda so refreshingly acknowledged, she has her niche, and it wasn’t comparable with the show. She knew she would have to change who she was, and that would never have worked.


Is Saturday Night Live Endorsing Hillary Clinton?

After watching the first two post-strike episodes of Saturday Night Live, the political commentary left me laughing but also wondering if SNL was endorsing Hillary Clinton.

As much as I love Tina Fey’s smackdown of misogynistic voters/Hillary Clinton haters, it’s pretty obvious that she’s for Ms. Clinton. It’s the “Texas and Ohio, it’s not too late!” that really pushes it over the edge. In fact, all the jokes—both that week and the Ellen Page episode—criticized Obama and left Amy Poehler’s Hillary fumbling to get her word out. The much-discussed sketch—referenced by Hillary Clinton in the Ohio debate (5:10 mark)–came across as very much pro-Clinton, since the audience could sympathize with her. She just wants fair treatment. Even though Tina Fey was head writer, it’s hard to tell how much of that particular episode she wrote, and that sketch was written by veteran SNL political sketch writer James Downey. Yet all of a sudden the line between what’s funny and what is actually an endorsement has blurred, in a way I don’t remember ever happening in the other two elections SNL has covered that I’ve watched: 2004 and 2000. This has become a way of measuring if the political comedy is valid, if it is underscored by some sort of favoritism by the creators.

When Hillary appeared on the March 1 episode, there was so much speculation on this topic that she referred to it: “That scene you just saw was a reenactment, sort of, of last Tuesday’s debate, and not an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can say this confidently because when I asked if I could take it as an endorsement I was told absolutely not.” The line elicited laughs and cheers. But while they do skewer her in the sketch, calling out those things that others won’t say, how she’s determined to be “so ingratiating, annoying, and bossy” that everyone will cower to her as president, an argument can be made that the sketch leaves the impression of again pitying Ms. Clinton for how unfairly she is treated compared to the white gloves Obama is given. It’s in the Weekend Update that the zingers are leveled on Hillary, but unfortunately (or fortunately) they are not repeated online; we’ll only see those in reruns this summer.

But it’s the cumulative effect that matters.

So far, over the past three episodes, I’ve found the skewering roughly equal. SNL, like the rest of their media brethren, have focused more on Hillary overall than Obama, mainly due to her visibility and because frankly there’s more to go on: her desperation, her personality, her wonkishness, her husband, her history…Obama’s critiques are even in Clintonian terms, in that they are framed around lampooning Clinton. The opening 3 am sketch—a parody on the red phone ad—was more about Hillary than Obama; it’s her dark vision of the future, but it’s also acknowledging that Obama could be president, and that even if he is, she’s still going to hold the reins, so either way America’s electing her. It’s a very clever skit.

I noticed the Hillary focus last week, too. This time there was no Tina Fey to hold responsible. Maybe it was because I was looking for it, maybe it was because so many other people have Obama blinders on—and certainly, SNL makes sure to remind the world that this is true and the mainstream media have since begun to take pains to rectify that. The show’s been a change agent before–in 2000, Al Gore famously used the lockbox sketch [thank NBC Universal for not having old sketches up online for my inability to link it] to correct what his advisers felt was his woodenness on the podium.

Whether or not Tina Fey actually endorses Hillary Clinton is irrelevant. There are some fans who take her character Liz Lemon’s line in 30 Rock (“There is an 80% chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends that I’m voting for Barack Obama but I will secretly vote for John McCain.”) as proof that she has no political allegiances and she’s just trying to be funny. None of the writers on the show have appeared or announced their endorsements and I don’t think they will. It will ruin what they’re trying to do.

SNL will never endorse a candidate and they shouldn’t. But as their political satire has gotten sharper and relevant, they have to pay attention to what they are doing. This shouldn’t make them sissies nor make them hard-nosed on anything, and despite what Tina did on her hosting night, she made one of the most memorable and funny moments on not only the show in a long time but also one of the most pointed. She knew what she was doing, and she didn’t care. If only more people would take such risks.

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Why Chicken Fingers Are Destroying American Cuisine

Me: So I told him that if he ordered chicken fingers and French fries I wouldn’t talk to him the rest of the night.

My dad: Chicken fingers? He hasn’t grown up yet?

Chicken fingers have ruined American cuisine. I know that the term “American cuisine” immediately connotes McDonald’s hamburgers, frozen dinners…and maybe a charitable apple pie or milkshake. It’s always unhealthy, usually fattening, and disgusting in large quantities. Fried comes a close fourth.

I am incredibly dismayed when I see anyone eating chicken fingers in a restaurant. Chicken fingers are ubiquitous–and they are nothing more than a nicer version of chicken nuggets, just all white meat. Most of the time they aren’t even that good.

As a friend asked me the other day: Why do I bitch about chicken fingers and not hamburgers?

Hamburgers can be eaten many different ways. They are even getting quite upscale (see anything about burgers in New York magazine). They can be cooked differently, and that doesn’t include mixing cheeses, sauces, vegetables, seasonings, or buns. Chicken fingers remain chicken fingers no matter where you go. Burgers can be turkey or vegetarian, soy or bean. Chicken fingers remain smushed chicken bits and fried coating; only the preference for dipping sauce changes: barbecue? honey mustard?

What a limiting meal.

The pervasiveness of chicken fingers, especially with regard to children, is stunting Americans’ palates. For all the talk of obesity in this country, would it hurt a child or a parent to order something a little more nutritious and tasty than a deep-fried piece of meat? Since chicken fingers cannot really be made at home (unlike a delicious burger, which is merely slapping a handful of ground meat on the grill) without much prep and oil, there is no incentive to keep eating them. They are, essentially, junk food for dinner.

Since chicken fingers, like their cousin the nugget, are finger foods, they are by association considered kiddie foods. This isn’t finger food as in appetizers (although if they are included as an appetizer, I immediately think they are doing this to service the kids–ugh–or the host has no taste. It’s usually the latter.), but finger foods as laziness, meant for the ones who do not have purchasing power.

Chicken fingers are incredibly depressing as a meal. They are best hot–that is their taste. They work excellently as a quick junky meal, like at college or break to Wendy’s. Ordering them in a restaurant basically labels you as a person who has no culinary taste, no desire to try anything, someone who is uncultured.

A few summers ago, I was in a nice seafood restaurant with my father in Long Beach Island where a family with several children next to us ordered chicken fingers. We were appalled. They ordered CHICKEN FINGERS in a SEAFOOD RESTAURANT. Why would anyone do such a thing?!?!? It’s gauche. It’s vulgar. It’s a slap in the face to the establishment. Hell, if I was the restaurant, I wouldn’t even bother serving such a thing.

The best children’s meal I ever had was a steak dinner at a nice, upscale restaurant on vacation many years ago. The steak–perfectly tender, a small but fulfilling size, with appropriate sides–was merely a smaller version of an adult-sized entree, but this was listed on the children’s menu. My brother and I were in heaven. We ate the whole thing. My parents loved that we could get an excellent meal at a good price without having to wrap up the rest. We never found another restaurant that had a children’s menu remotely like it, and I’m sure that that place is rarer than people who actually eat rare steak. Most children’s menus feature disgusting, low-market options like the obligatory hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, spaghetti, and chicken fingers. How does that distinguish the restaurant? Maybe they dress up the options, but the children’s menus often have little in common with the rest of the establishment’s food. What type of coherence is that? How can we expect to nurture another generation of healthy, smart, cultured food lovers when all they are exposed to is packaged crap?

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this entry that as a child I dazzled adults by loving such things as bagels, cream cheese and lox, vegetables and dip, and antipasta. I still love those foods, and I’d never exchange them for something as piddly as chicken fingers.

I once asked my brother, after observing this phenomenon of everyone ordering chicken fingers as default when I went out to eat with friends if he did so. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he ever ordered deep fried sneakers as a appetizer.

At least I know we’re on the same page.

(The New York Times verified my opinion by publishing this rant back in May, and I urge everyone to read it. For one thing, it’s way better written than this entry, and offers a brief history of how chicken fingers came to be the food of choice. I reread the article after I wrote this entry, since I hadn’t read it since it was published. And please, for the love of God, do not order chicken fingers when you’re in a restaurant with me again.)


Megan Meier, Vigilante Justice and Misplaced Revenge

When I first heard the Megan Meier “MySpace Suicide” story in November, my first thought was “thank God MySpace didn’t exist when I was thirteen.” I know how easily things go out of whack online, and middle school and high school are hard enough without internet games.

The basis of the story is that Megan Meier, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday, hanged herself in late 2006 after a boy she was friendly with online—but had never met—told her he refused to continue the friendship because she was “mean to her friends.” After insulting her, he signed off with “The world would be a better place without you.”

It turned out that the boy, 16 year-old Josh Evans, was a creation of a neighbor, friends with Megan’s parents and the mother of a girl who used to be friends with her. She knew Megan well—had even taken her along on a family vacation—and so created the account to gain Megan’s trust to learn what she was saying about her daughter. The mom also decided to involve an 18 year-old employee in the prank, using her for help, and told another teen girl who lived across the street.

After a year-long investigation by the Feds which resulted in no charges, the Meiers broke the story to the news media. The St. Charles Journal broke the story locally, and they made the executive decision not to publish the name of the mother who created the fake identity. Bad idea, as bloggers got ahold of the story and with a little investigating, found not only her name—Lori Drew—but her address, phone number, and details of her and her husband’s businesses and local dealings. As the story grew and notoriety spread, the Drews became victims themselves, losing all privacy. On the internet, they were vilified. Their business had to close, they had to put up cameras on their house because people were ready to attack. Once the Times published it the story exploded, which was how I heard about it.

At first, like many others, I was horrified. The woman knew her actions would cause this girl emotional distress, and for an adult to bully a 13-year-old—one who she knew already had problems—was appalling. But the more information came to light, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to see it isn’t so black and white.

None of the accounts I’ve read, including blog entries, ever brought up the topic of revenge or the fact that, as it seems to me, hanging oneself is a premeditated action, not a sudden inkling to obliterate yourself by swallowing massive amounts of pills. Hanging takes planning, gumption, and knowledge, as you have to know how to kill yourself with the least of amount of pain possible. It reminds me of a memorable scene in The Sopranos where Chris is injecting heroin into his arm: doing this drug takes work, boiling water, tightening the muscle, finding the proper vein, loading the needle with the drug, having the right angle, all to pass out in exhaustion. Too much effort for a high. Megan Meier, for some reason, had decided that hanging was the way she was going to kill herself, and she decided this long ago.

Which brings me to the conclusion that Megan Meier had been planning to kill herself—or at least attempt suicide—before that particular day. She had been bullied online for a while, so maybe she came to this conclusion a few days earlier and at the last contact she decided she was ready to put her plan into motion. So in that regard, Lori Drew did basically lead her to her death.

But I’ve also thought a lot about why Lori Drew would do what she did. She knew what she did was wrong. She’s said that she wanted to mess with the girl. But she takes no responsibility for it, which is insane. She basically said that the girl was troubled anyway so it didn’t matter what she did to her. What kind of logic is that? No, obviously if the girl was troubled, and you knew it, intentionally causing her pain and distress isn’t going to make things all better. A normal teenager girl wouldn’t have killed herself, but she sure would feel that her life was over.

I understand revenge, which to me is what this boils down to. It’s misplaced revenge, though. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like Ms. Drew’s daughter came up with the idea; she was just carried along with the hoax. It’s been implied that it was Ashley Grills, the 18 year-old employee of Ms. Drew’s, who came up with the idea. It makes perfect sense that an 18 year-old would devise that scheme: she is old enough to understand MySpace and dynamics with other girls, old enough to understand the culture yet still be firmly enmeshed with it that she can work it inside and out. She would be excited by this game, and hey, it would only help her in her boss’s eyes. She would know that it would be easy to create a fake account, and Lori Drew would fill in the details. Preteens and manipulation are practically like braces and bad hair: it’s a requisite of the age. They naturally go together. It’s impossible to break away from the pack mentality at that age, and mean girl behavior is rampant. Causing pain and humiliation is practically automatic.

Bullying now is so pervasive because it can follow you everywhere. Technology has made nasty messages both persistent and replicable. Can you imagine hearing about this in school? You’d immediately hit up the MySpace profiles in question and marvel at the gossip. The idea of facing this in school is enough to make any teenager consider suicide as a viable option.

What I didn’t realize until after a few days of obsessively following this story was that I had been a target of internet bullying. I had never quite put it in those terms before, but it was true. And then it struck me how much better equipped I was to deal with this type of harassment at 20 than I would ever have been as a teenager. At 20, I had a life where I was able to escape the harassment: I had tons of supportive friends, I had a job and school to keep me busy, all separate things that had nothing to do with the people who were harassing me. But no matter how hard I lobbied, I could never get anything to stick to the perpetrators. Although I came with proof—hard copies of the MySpace and Facebook messages, things pinned to my bedroom door—and witnesses of behavior, no charges ever stuck. It was grossly unfair.

And that’s why I feel that Lori Drew should be charged. MySpace has just been issued a subpoena, so the process is starting. There should be laws on the books about internet harassment. It gets murky when it deals with schools, because if things happen off the premises the schools often cannot intercede, but clearly technology informs our relationships with other people, and we cannot tote the benefits of instant connection without understanding the drawbacks and minimizing it as much as possible. Parents can only do so much. Megan Meier didn’t really do anything stupid—who could blame a sad, lonely girl from talking to a boy who seemed to like her?

For those of you who think “Megan’s mom should have monitored her use of MySpace,” she did. She wouldn’t let her have a MySpace unless it was private, which is why she questioned how Josh knew her. She would always be in the room when she used the site. And when she heard about the comments Josh said, she told her to log off immediately and to cut off contact. While she was making dinner, mulling over the situation that they were to continue discussing during the meal, Megan hanged herself in her closet.

How can you monitor the internet? Ms. Meier knew about all of this, and while she didn’t approve, she knew that belonging to the site—a necessity in the preteen world—and interacting with peers was not only a fact of modern life but made Megan feel happy and that she belonged. While both Facebook and MySpace have received loads of negative press, the roots of it have been very different, mainly due to the type of people who use the sites and the culture within them. MySpace has always had a problem with anonymity, since people don’t use their real names, and with child predators. Facebook is hipper, caters to an educated and (increasingly) adult clientele and has complex business-y problems but privacy issues of a different sort, with Beacon and open-source applications—not things that parents and teenagers care about. Undoubtedly as a result of this tragedy, MySpace has instituted some new policies, the most notable being that all profiles under 18 will automatically be private. Regardless, there is no effective way to prove who you are with just an account.

One of the reasons this story is so fascinating is that it has multiple angles from which to analyze it. This will become a case story in journalism classes, because it deals with sensitivity, privacy, and whether or not to reveal sources—and proves that today, especially with a juicy story people will find out what they are desperate to know. Lots of people felt that because Lori Drew violated Megan Meier’s privacy it was justified for her privacy to be violated as well. The idea of vigilante justice, and how the internet feeds this, is another hot topic. Should we burn down Lori Drew’s house? Up until a few days ago, the only person charged with anything in this case was Megan’s father, Ron Meier, who smashed a foosball table the Drews were hiding in their basement as a Christmas gift for their kids. That’s actually how the police first heard the story, since the Meiers dumped the destroyed table on the Drews’ lawn with a nice welcome message. Honestly, I can’t blame them. A lot of other folks—and it’s all over the internet—would have and want to do a lot worse.

As more and more details emerge the story has just become even murkier. I will be following it. I hope that because of this case, anyone who thinks that messing around with some little annoyance for kicks will realize that it does real damage.

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