Brave men of letters

This seems to be a season of author losses. Now the reclusive J. D. Salinger is gone, as is contrarian-historian Howard Zinn.

Salinger proved that a small body of literary work can still be powerful and long-lived; Zinn demonstrated that history comes in many costumes.

I’d add that Salinger made it possible for young voices, people at the start of their adult lives, to be taken seriously in literature. And, for that matter, in real life. The wise and wise-cracking Holden Caulfield will outlive us all. Salinger’s hermetic life seems more admirable than eccentric now too. Would that a few more authors of our time would value their privacy so fiercely.

Zinn’s infamous work, “A People’s History of the United States,” continues to invigorate readers and annoy many of his peers.  It sold close to 2 million copies in 30 years, a staggering number for an academic title.  He, perhaps more than any other single historian of our time, goaded us to question the status quo, to view events of the past through the eyes of those who suffered, not just those who signed the important proclamations. His needling and challenging was accompanied by the sound of knee-jerking and more than a whiff of showmanship, but Zinn was good for us.

If there is an afterlife, the literary roundtable is a fine place these days.

Businesses behaving badly (updated, again)

There’s a bad behavior pattern cropping up in business dealings these days: management or owners taking cover behind tough economic times when they cut workers off at the knees.

Three examples are rolling around in my head, one big and well reported, the other two are smaller.

A New York Times story by Nick Bunkley reports that General Motors and Chrysler, after showing 2,000 auto dealers the door last year, are getting some up-close-and-personal attention from the feds. The automakers sent the dealers packing as part of a monster bankruptcy proceeding. But they didn’t reckon with the number of family-owned dealerships willing to call foul.

This isn’t just about money. As the son of one Utah auto-sales dynasty said:  “My mom and dad want their honor back as much as anything…It’s the ultimate showing of disloyalty, after all the years we’ve been loyal to them, to take our stores.”

This is a situation to watch. If the feds slap the automakers and forbid such sweeping “layoffs” and closures, it will dramatically affect bankruptcy reorganizations. Whether that benefits consumers remains to be seen.

The smaller, yet insidious, other examples: I’ve now heard from a few people about what I call the “work-now, pay-later” approach. It’s simple. You the employee put in two or three months at your new job…and THEN you get your first paycheck.

The first person who told me about this practice was a broker in a large Bay Area brokerage; an experienced and successful transplant from a Pacific Northwest firm. He waited three months for the first check…no small challenge when moving to spendy San Francisco. The next story that wafted my way came from a fellow freelancer, in this case an award-winning journalist of considerable stature. She’s writing for one of the biggest news sites on the planet…and the first paycheck came two months after she started.

And this:

An international cosmetic company, let’s call it Terrific Skin Co.,  places its employees at counters in upscale department stores. These workers are in an odd netherland: Not employed by Terrific Skin Co., its huge parent company, nor by the department store.

Instead, a third party, a “staffing agency,” employs them as temporary workers. They have contracts, but the terms all favor the employer. As a result, the Terrific Skin Co. salespeople are often let go without any reason or warning. They may not even be eligible for earned vacation time or anticipated benefits if the axe falls early in their tenure.

This business model is cropping up more often since the economy tanked. It allows operations like Terrific Skin Co. to staff their counters with top-drawer supervisors (licensed skin-care experts in this example) during holidays and sales, then send them packing when things slow down. This model is one that adapts easily to any number of employment scenarios, from department-store counters to basements full of software-code writers.

Worker bees getting delayed paychecks and staffing-agency casualties: Take a leaf from the book of the auto-dealership victims. Tweet, blog, out your employers; complain at city and state levels. Tell the rest of us so we stop buying whatever it is your cheesy bosses are selling.

(Second Update: Check out this blog item from NYTimes about low-wage workers getting routinely cheated.)

(Third update.)

End of a chapter

Two writers died this week, both proof that the approval of the so-called academy has little to do with pleasing readers or selling books.

Erich Segal, the Yale classicist who wrote the wildly successful “Love Story” and Robert B. Parker, whose nearly 40 lively novels delivered a memorable, wise-cracking detective named Spenser and a succession of short-haired pointers, all named Pearl, will be missed by their fans.

Both Parker and Segal (a scholar who horrified peers with his pop titles) provided countless hours of escapism, entertainment…even some enlightenment. And at least one very enduring aphorism. Both placed novels in Boston and both populated their fictional worlds with smart women.

Look around on the next bus, train or airplane you’re in — if you don’t see someone with a Parker book, I’ll buy you lunch. And whether or not you were around to read the first printing of “Love Story” (or see the 1970 movie), surely you know by now that Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

He skips the frames too

I usually do not get very far into stories about artists who work far outside traditional media. The sheep preserved in urine, the cloth-covered bridge, they just don’t work for me. Not a surprise given my magnetic pull to the Wyeths and John Singer Sargent.

But The New York Times Magazine piece on Tino Sehgal and his live sculpture kept me riveted right to the end. One of the most interesting things in Arthur Lubow’s article is the explanation of how Sehgal sells his work to museums, a tricky business given that the pieces involve people not paint or stone–making it tough to “own” or control viewing of them in the usual senses. Lubow does a fine job setting up this aspect of the story:

“He does not allow his pieces to be photographed. They are not explained by wall labels or accompanied by catalogs. No press releases herald the openings of his exhibitions; indeed, there are no official openings, just unceremonious start dates. All of this can engender skepticism, but the aspect of Sehgal’s work that his detractors find most irritating is the way the art is sold…”

Read this one, it is worth your time.

Posted in: Art |

Time for groundshaking change

Why is it that earthquakes always hit so hard in the poorest areas?

The erudite New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that poverty means shakily constructed buildings, inadequate water, sewer and medical services even before the disaster strikes. He offers grisly evidence of how that plays out: The 1989 quake in the Bay Area and the recent one in Haiti were the same magnitude: 7.0. But while 63 people died in California, upwards of 50,000 are dead in Haiti.

The United States sends trillions in aid to poorer counties like Haiti, and it clearly hasn’t helped enough. Brooks raises our dismal record at bringing about economic growth around the globe. He cites the various reasons: We’re basically clumsy at this sort of thing; micro-aid, while important, is only one piece of the puzzle; and — most interesting to me — our concerns about cultural correctness.

Brooks, comparing Haiti’s poverty to the Dominican Republic’s progress, puts it this way:

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.”

Haiti, he writes, has resisted progress for a number of reasons: the influence of voodoo religion that emphasizes life’s capriciousness; mistrust of authority; widespread neglect and abuse of children. (Who presumably do not grow up equipped to improve things.)

“We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks writes. “But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

The point here is not to hold back dollars to Haiti, but to use this nightmarish earthquake to take a hard look at how US aid can be used to help other countries grow out of poverty. We don’t have a great track record in this, but we do now have the right person in the White House to push the issue — someone who can speak plainly on the traditions and cultural behaviors that block progress.  The rest of the world will listen to President Obama when he talks about culture, poverty and duty.

The Macy’s bomb

First, let me assure you that you are not alone if you are just now figuring out that your credit cards are touchy little bombs, ticking away in your wallet and ready to blow no matter how careful you are.

In the past the only way to know how these cards worked was to read and decode the disclosures that come with the bill. What a handy word, disclosure. It’s derived from Latin roots meaning “dense, impenetrable jargon in 4-point type.”

Since the last round of changes to credit-card regulations, however, we have greatly improved “transparency,” meaning less Byzantine code about “grace periods” and obscured interest rates.

We do indeed have clearer info at our fingertips. As proof, I offer this quote from my January Macy’s bill:

“As a result of the minimum INTEREST CHARGE of $2.00 being applied to your revolving account, the actual ANNUAL PERCENTAGE RATE charged on that account is 60.84%.”

(The capitalization is theirs. What better way to be transparent than to use uppercase letters, right?)

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I do appreciate the clarity of that “60.84%” spelled out in type large enough to read. I appreciated it right through my nose with the half-cup of coffee I inhaled as I read the bill for the first time.

And I do appreciate Macy’s. If you’ve had a charge account at this mother-of-all-department-store-chains in the past, you know they bend over backwards to make it easy for you to buy things and feel smugly special. Coupons, cardholder sale days, even a “Star” club for those of us who really know how to shop. The Macy’s charge-account marketing people do everything but pick us up and drive us to the January white sale.

Now they have embarked on a breathtakingly clever strategy. It works this way:

(1) On Monday you charge $180 worth of stuff.

(2) On Wednesday you pay the bill in full online.

(3) Approximately two weeks later you get a bill that pretends you didn’t pay yet. The bill is for $180 and a $2 “interest charge.” (Remember, the payment was not late.)

(4) All of this is kosher because they spell out the interest rate associated with this out-of-nowhere interest charge.

When you dial them up to complain, the folks living on the other side of the world who answer such calls will assure you that the $2 will be credited back to you next month.

Thoughtlessly you go online and transfer another $2 to keep the account current. Only later it dawns on you that you’ve sent Macy’s a two-buck tip and asked them to keep it safe for a month, then give it back as a credit towards more stuff in their store.

I know: No one with a real job would dog this issue for a measly $2. And I won’t punish you by recreating the dialogue I had with the polite customer-service agent sitting 14 time-zones away. The bottom line is that refusing to pay the $2 is pretty much pissing into the wind. Feels good for a second, and then….not.

So, the choices are clear: Cancel your card and give up those discount coupons. Or resort to an Abbie Hoffman-like  gesture and pay the interest charge in some annoying way, such as sending a box of pennies or transferring an odd overpayment, like $2.02, via your online bill payer.  Or pay $1.98 today and .05 two days later. Yeah, way to mess with that computer’s mind!

It won’t diffuse the little wallet bomb, but you’ll feel better having lobbed one back over the fence.

Food tips made funny

It’s conventional wisdom that most of us have less-than-great eating habits. But a New York Times Q&A with food guru Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” reminds us that we know more than we think about healthy knoshing.

Pollan, a calm voice in the babble over nutrition and health, compiled 64 pithy bits of folksy and funny food advice, such as:  “Don’t buy cereals that change the color of the milk,” and ““The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,” a gem from his own childhood.

My favorite is the tip urging us to eat all the junk food we want — if we make it ourselves. As Pollan points out, if you had to go through the work to make your own French fries, you’d have them once a month at most, which is just about right. And Twinkees? Forgetaboutit.

Blazing new insurance trails

When my bathrobe belt got caught in the silverware drawer this morning, nearly giving me whiplash, it started me thinking.

Why isn’t the health-insurance industry bombarding us with new products? It’s clear that whatever way the wind ultimately blows, the days of “pre-existing condition” translating as “license to print money” are coming to a close.  Sure seems like an ideal time to drum up some business.

There’s nothing risky about blatant doom-based insurance marketing. When cancer insurance came out years ago, there was a collective gasp from those consumers who thought it opportunistic and macabre. But people got over their pique and bought the policies.

So, how about some coverage that meets untapped needs of aging boomers? Dedicated policies for deafness resulting from all those rock concerts? Stair-tumbles linked to depth-distorting reading glasses? I’m positive that many of us would jump at coverage meant to protect us from the costs of the inevitable carpal tunnel, blurred vision and squishy discs resulting from hunching over computers all day.

And, for sure, cosmetic-procedure protection would fly: Botox, lipo and eye lifts gone bad; sloppy tattoo removal, and please, please, please, some relief for those over-pursed victims of that lip-plumping, sheep-collagen injection nonsense.

Come on people, show some initiative. Those big ol’ insurance buildings and CEO salaries don’t pay for themselves you know.

Meat on our bones

A new study proves–are you paying attention?–that women with partners gain more weight than women without partners.

This finding comes out of a 10-year-long Australian study involving 6,000 women. I know scientists need statistical heft in order to confirm any finding, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t need to take so long or so many to drive this point home.

Women know it’s true because we’ve all experienced that combat-ready mindset that marks our mate-hunting years. We also know that I-can-live-on-coffee-and-air euphoria that comes with courtship. Nature wires us to snap out of such behavior the same way it programs bears to wake up in the Spring. Too much calorie-free bliss or too-long asleep in the hollow log will spell disaster.

The academics and other experts quoted by Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times article are walking on eggshells as they offer theories for the weight gain of paired-off females. Because I’m not worried about tenure or angry readers, I can say what they’re afraid to:

We gain weight because we’re not on the market anymore.

There, I said it. When seeking a mate (or even a date for that upcoming family wedding) it makes sense that we work hard to achieve whatever constitutes attractiveness in our sphere. Usually, in this time and place in history, that means thinner vs. fatter. It can also mean adopting certain styles of dress or behaviors. (See index for “bra, push-up” and “friends, pretending to like”.)

Men, of course, have their own versions of adaptive mating-season behavior. I’m sure if any professional ballet company kept personal stats on attendees, the number of men in the audience who were on early dates would out-number the husbands by, oh, about twenty to one. (I’m stereotyping hetero guys here, but the principle expands to include any genre.)

I’m guessing that if this study monitored the diets of these same 6,000 women it would turn up some more revealing trends. We may have weighed less back in the day, but we did it fueled by Tab and Cheez-Its instead of the whole-grains and spinach we inhale now.

So, what’s better–a thin and unattached woman riddled with chemicals or a sturdier partnered female powered by fiber and sporting iron levels high enough to build a bridge? Evolution, gotta love it.

Mourning the mail

I’m not sorry to see the holidays in the rear-view mirror, but I will miss the season’s mail-order catalogs.

Along about September, my mailbox began to fill with those ever-smiling, smartly dressed families. These folks live in spacious, well-appointed homes and they have everything, absolutely everything: puppies on monogrammed dog beds, log-filled fireplaces, backyard ski hills, attractive multi-generational gatherings in which no one is groping anyone else’s spouse or dropping the good china.

Yet they aren’t snobbish, you can tell. These are people who are just grateful to be living in a time and place when every man, woman, and child is entitled to a full wardrobe of plush flannel sleepwear. It makes sense. No one sleeping in one of those polished oak sleigh-beds would be caught dead in a ratty blue t-shirt from the Kerry campaign.

These folks have drawstring sweatpants—with the original drawstrings—that are inevitably slimming. Their slippers match their robes. There are never any white splotches on the front of those terrycloth robes from errant toothpaste spittle.

A lot of the middle-aged women are confident enough to let their hair go gray, and you have to admire that. We could all learn something from these gals. Despite their lack of age-fighting salon time, not one of their chisel-featured men ever seems to have a much-younger partner hanging on his arm, or a passel of second-round kids who will be in junior high when he is 80.

The kids who do show up in these tableaux are dazzling. Not one needs cripplingly expensive orthodontia. It’s hard to know for sure, but it doesn’t seem likely that any of them have head lice.

The catalogs don’t stop coming, of course. But once the holiday season is over, things just aren’t the same. People spend less time at home. Puppies grow into dogs. Flannel sleepwear gives way to brushed pima cotton. It’s just a few weeks until the bathing-suit catalogs come out.

Now there’s a bunch of shallow phonies. Don’t even get me started.

Dogs I see

A brown Cairn terrier, looking like a larger version of Toto in The Wizard of Oz, is the most frequent canine passerby I see from my chair at the wide front living-room window. He’s got the deluded confidence of his breed; a small, furred drill sergeant with chest out, legs pumping, eyes ahead.

There’s a household of some size connected to the Cairn. Three generations walk him, from a young boy who politely nods when anyone passes, to a Grandma-vintage woman in a crisp Burberry trench coat. The most frequent walker these days is a cranky looking, suit-wearing man who has yet to come to terms with the fact that his own long legs can’t keep up with the stubby ones of the determined dog straining ahead of him.

Then there’s Max, a black Labrador retriever. He’s well known throughout the neighborhood as the patient soul who sits outside the corner coffee shop each morning, untethered and unflappable. Max is never on a leash. He’s patient with strangers who insist on petting him, but he’s humoring them. He looks away while they talk to him.

Max heels alongside his bearded, middle-aged walking partner, who all winter wears an ancient black-and-red checked wool jacket and all summer wears a zip-up hooded sweatshirt of indeterminate color.

Unlike most Labs, Max is not trying to keep up with a lot of different things at the same time. Enticing piles of dog shit, blowing bits of paper, passing bikers and cars – nothing tempts him. He focuses all his energy on the patch of sidewalk immediately in front of him, padding along at the same slow pace, tail unmoving at half-mast, wagging only when the man next to him looks his way.

George, the English bulldog across the street, doesn’t get walked, just let out for hurried bathroom breaks, during which his owner chatters nonstop, alternately praising and ordering him to do his business.

The perpetually furrowed, Churchillian face of a bulldog is nearly unreadable, but there is no mistaking this particular dog’s thoughts. As his owner natters on, he has the exact expression worn by a teenager who has just realized that his parents are hopelessly, endlessly, stupid.

He’s no genius, of course, but I think it’s possible that George is slowly putting together a plan for a coup of sorts. As I watch him from the window, I almost always see George panning the yard, turning in a slow circle for a bit of stealthy reconnoitering. He’s got something in mind.

I hope I’m here when he makes his move.

77 Words: “Natural Elements” by Richard Mason

For more “77 words,” click here.

“Natural Elements” by Richard Mason (Knopf, 2008) –

The impulse to read this novel slowly to savor it belies its plot: A mother and daughter in contemporary London, each adjusting in her own way to the older woman’s move to a nursing home. Mason has a bold, uncanny ability to hijack the brainwaves of a driven middle-aged daughter; a mother with a complex past and other well-shaped characters, including the elder woman’s unlikely friends, from a devoted South African cabbie to a nerdish young librarian.

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

77 Words: “Food Matters” by Mark Bittman

For more 77 Words tiny book reviews, click here.

“Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2009) –

This NYTimes foodie’s niche is healthy eating without the heavy lifting, and his timing is impeccable. What better time to urge people away from McNuggets or faux organic junk-food and in the direction of quinoa wheat bread and blueberry smoothies? His arguments for being a Lessmeatatarian for the sake of one’s health and that of the Earth are compelling, not preachy. Recipes are terrific, especially the very, very easy breads. Food-safety worriers will like his approach too.

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

77 Words: “Natural Elements” by Richard Mason

For a collection of 77 Words reviews, click here.

“Natural Elements” by Richard Mason (Knopf, 2008) –

The impulse to read this slowly and savor belies its plot: A mother and daughter in contemporary London, each adjusting in her own way to the older woman’s move to a nursing home. Mason has a bold, uncanny ability to hijack the brainwaves of a driven middle-aged daughter; a mother with a complex past and other well-shaped characters, from a nerdish young man to a devoted South African taxi driver.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, April 2010

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

77 Words: “Cleopatra’s Daughter” by Michelle Moran

For more 77 Words, click here.

Cleopatra’s Daughter,” by Michelle Moran (2009, Crown) –

With lots of ancient history and just a touch of trash, this is a fine escapist novel. Moran’s research is broad and deep; her storytelling engaging. She steadily spins the story of Selene and Alexander, the twin offspring of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. (The twins are kidnapped after their parents take their own lives rather than satisfy their rival leader, Octavian.)  Delectable copious material-culture detail–clothing, food and furnishings—is used to chronicle the twins’ Roman lives.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, April 2010

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

77 Words: “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Stout

For more 77 Words, click here.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, 2008)

The title character is well-suited to her fictional hometown on Maine’s rocky coast. Olive Kitteridge is flinty, sometimes cold, solid yet full of surprises. The 13 interwoven stories are polished to perfection, managing to plot the arc of age as the funny, ironic, searing and unpredictable journey it is.  The Pulitzer for this work was well deserved; Strout writes brilliantly about the evolution of long marriages, and ably blends the dark and light ingredients of small-town life.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, April 2010

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)

77 Words: “Mockingbird” by Charles J. Shields

For more 77 Words, click here.

“Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles J. Shields (Holt, 2006)

The author of the 1960 Pulitzer-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” donated no archive, did no interviews; and gave no quarter to her biographer, leaving him without some of the usual tools. He succeeds nonetheless. Readers enamored of Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote, will be gratified by the detailed descriptions of the two writers’ unusual collaboration on Capote’s famous literary nonfiction work, “In Cold Blood.” [Update: Shields is now at work on a bio of Kurt Vonnegut.]

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, April 2010

(For book reviews with more words, see my archive at The Seattle Times, where I worked for some years. I freelance for the paper as a reviewer and over the years have been assigned some terrific books.)