Friday, May 29, 2009

Vodka Chronic

For all of you who participated in the Great Martini Debate here a while back, The Wall Street Journal offers this review of Linda Himelstein’s “The King of Vodka,” a biography of 19th century spirits magnate and pioneer of marketing Pyotor Smirnov. It includes a not-so-helpful serving suggestion from Czar Nicholas II, who bypassed all the nonsense about mixing and “guzzled two wineglasses of vodka during lunch” each day. Cheers!

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I’ve never been all that much of a risk-taker, unless you count the nearly daily visits I made to a certain taqueria back in the mid-‘90s. Now that we’re in the middle of an economic mess that has been blamed on so much individual and institutional recklessness, you might think that some of us cautious types would feel a little vindication. But I’m not ready to start celebrating the virtues of uptight prudence. The problem with caution is that it’s not very much fun. No one one knows this better than a cautious person. When my second-grader started riding his bike to school solo a few weeks ago, I had to fight the urge to ride along at a distance behind him, shouting not-so-helpful reminders like, “Stay to the right!”

Lane Wallace, writing on The Atlantic’s site, under the headline “A Risk-Averse Nation?” quotes The New York Times’ David Sanger: “The entire mood of the country has swung from taking wild risks to taking no risk.” He worries that this “could be bad for the country.” Wallace picks up on the notion and points out that NASA, the Wright Brothers, and Google, to name a few, would never have gotten off the ground without some tolerance for risk. Wallace’s bio says she’s an adventure writer, pilot and “honorary member of the United States Air Force Wild Weasels.” I’m pretty sure that means that she’s a little more comfortable with risk that I am. But, no problem, I’m willing to do my part. So I hereby resolve not to trail my kid on his way to school, not to hover, not to overprotect. Consider it my small, patriotic part in helping to restore the American spirit of bold, adventuresome risk-taking.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Attention, Please

Good news for all of you who have spent too much of your day tweeting, texting and otherwise flitting between media. Sam Anderson reports in New York magazine on the “benefits of distraction and overstimulation,” including “better peripheral vision and the ability to sift information rapidly.” I take a back seat to no one in my appreciation for information-sifting, but Anderson’s piece is at least as compelling when it comes to the value of simply paying attention, which he calls the “Holy Grail of self-help.”

And if you’re neither a mentally acrobatic information-sifter nor an emotionally present attention-payer? Come on over and we’ll watch the Stanley Cup playoffs together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Flu Fighters

Working as I do on the front lines of the endless war to get my kid to wash his hands before dinner, I had to take notice of The Scrub Club, a group of superhero-ish cartoon kids who work to “fight off harmful germs and bacteria” in webisodes presented by NSF International. (Thanks to the Boston Globe’s indespensible Brainiac blog.) The only problem is that the villains are, as usual, more interesting than the superheroes. One of the good guys is Hot Shot, whose trick is to “make the warm water needed to start the handwashing process.” He’s up against Influenza Enzo: ‘the godfather of all viruses, he’ll make you a fever you can’t refuse.” Sounds like a mismatch to me. I wash my hands of this business.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Making exceptions for the Ministry of Silly Walks, there are two basic modes of walking: Taking a walk and walking to get somewhere. Writers seem to specialize in taking a walk. Geoff Nicholson’s newish book “The Lost Art of Walking” has him taking long walks in the desert and makng one martini-glass-shaped circuit around Greenwich Village, with stops along the way for, yes, martinis. Will Self, in his Psychogeography series from the Independent, tries to give his walks a sense of purpose—he walks nine miles from his hotel near Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to a Wal-Mart on the West Side, ostensibly to buy a pair of socks—but the whole endeavor still registers as a conceit, a stunt. (He could have gone to a Walgreen’s a block from the hotel, but that wouldn’t have allowed him the room to ruminate on landscapes, economics and class.)

Out our way, there are some beautiful places to walk, but not a whole lot to walk to. You can go for miles doing a loop around ponds and through woods and past meadows, but if, like Will Self, you want to buy a pair of socks or a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, you have to cross a U.S. highway or two and make due without sidewalks. As Ben Adler argues in this essay in The American Prospect, that’s a function of planning and zoning decisions that segregate residential and commercial space. “The way streets and neighborhoods are designed can make walking even short distances impossible,” he writes. I don’t have a lot of use for greener-than-thou New Urbanist arguments, but Adler is mostly right. It’s not so much that you can’t walk in the low-density hinterlands, but that walking ends up becoming a destination of its own. Sometimes you even hop in the car to drive somewhere where you can take a walk.

Somebody had the good sense to build some very nice bike trails and nature paths out here. But I wish they’d thought to connect them to more neighborhoods and downtowns and mini-malls. I wish all these swell walking places were attached to something worth walking to.

So, inspired by Nicholson, let me make a modest proposal: A martini-glass-shaped walking trail through the woods, with a few martini stations along the way. I’m picturing a few cafĂ© tables set up alongside some pond or overlooking a bend in the river, people sipping a cocktail, admiring the plum trees in bloom. That would be somewhere worth walking to. Though you might have to stagger home.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Cult of the Coach

What is it about basketball coaches that makes us want to turn so many of them into gurus, seers and heroes? Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker about how underdogs defeat stronger opponents by “refusing to play by Goliath’s rules,” confers the full genius treatment on the coach of a team of 12-year-old girls. Gladwell tells how the coach taught his undersized and underskilled team to employ full-court defensive pressure and ended up leading them to the third round of a national tournament. I think we’re supposed to understand that the piece isn’t so much about basketball itself as it is an analysis of innovation and unconventional tactics, using a pee-wee basketball team as a case study. (Lawrence of Arabia’s campaign against the Turks is also considered, making this one of those rare works of journalism that manages to link pre-teen girls from suburban California and Bedouin warriors as kindred spirits.) As masterful as Gladwell can be at this sort of thing, I’m not convinced that there is all that much life wisdom to be gleaned from dissecting pee-wee basketball strategies. I suppose we’d all like our own calmly perceptive authority figure, a version of Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” maybe, to guide us. Maybe that’s what the cult of the coach is about. Maybe that’s why you can’t watch a basketball game on TV without hearing some announcer say something like, “That’s a great timeout the coach just called.” But, really, the coach’s first job is to unlock the gym and let the players play. Which is enough of a life lesson for me.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Annals of Cheese-Licking

In all my years of renting—this was back in the late ‘80s, when the first President Bush and the Cosby Show ruled the land—I had just one really nice apartment. It was a duplex, with a spiffy metal spiral staircase and big windows that looked over a leafy yard. The catch was that the only way I could afford it was to share it with a series of roommates. My roommates and I mostly got along, though we did have the occasional blowup over such issues as the proper disposal of toenail clippings. But I suppose if you throw two or more post-collegians together out of sheer economic necessity, hijinks will ensue. Sure enough, there’s now a book for everyone who has ever had to deal with roommate conflict: “I Lick My Cheese and Other Real Notes From the Roommate Frontlines.” It’s a collection of the kinds of pissy missives roommates leave for roommates out of frustration, anger and sheer passive-aggression. A short item about the book in The New York Times quotes my favorite: “Why is my bed damp?” On the book’s companion site, I found a photo of a note left atop a plate of desiccated beans idling on a kitchen counter. “Three days!!!” it read. “It’s the principle of the matter.”

In retrospect I have to consider myself lucky for never having to leave or receive such a note. And if any cheese-licking went on, I don't want to know about it now.