Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve breakfast

Yesterday's breakfast at Cafe Fixe: bracingly tart sheep's milk yogurt, almond macaroon, French press coffee and the b.f.'s beloved lemon scone (Max, the owner, said he'd been hoping we'd come in because he knows the scones are the b.f.'s favorite. So nice of him.) And a hearty helping of food policy angst via the NYT. I've been anxiously awaiting the answer to this question (the article concludes that the answer is "sorta").

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A language lesson

This weekend, my friend Alexis invited me and two other friends to visit him at his apartment in Cambridge as he prepared to fly home to France. Now, I've done the last-minute "goodbye hangout" before, and it usually consists of me running around folding clothes or searching a closet for a lost pair of ski goggles while a friend or two sits perched on my bed with a glass of Kool-Aid, chatting with me as I go.

Not so with Alexis, who is a) French and b) a professional diplomat. Before I came over, he had already gone to the store and picked up a small feast of sushi ("for the vegetarian" - moi), carrots, tzatziki, pita chips and (of course) hummus, as well as a few bottles of wine. Our last-minute goodbye ended up lasting until 3 a.m. I never saw him fold so much as a sock, but he was packed and ready for his flight the next day. (Although his bags did get lost, temporarily depriving his French relatives of the Orville Redenbacher popcorn and Goldfish crackers he was bringing over to Brittany).

It seems natural now that the conversation drifted to the topic of sprezzatura. It's one of my favorite words, Italian or otherwise, and the perfect word to describe Alexis' special talent for this sort of thing. The word comes from Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier", and a courtier, I suppose, was an early form of the kind of diplomat Alexis is today. In the book, one character, Count Ludovico, explains the meaning of grace, and in it he mentions sprezzatura.
"It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things, a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it....obvious effort is the antithesis of grace."
The idea of sprezzatura went on to hold great sway during the Renaissance -- and still does today, especially in Italy, where living life with great pleasure is an art form, and therefore an act into which some degree of affectation or pretention can creep. Even modern-day observers like The Sartorialist have noticed this, in this case by recognizing the way a carefully careless Italian has left his shoes fashionably unbuckled (scroll down to see the text/photo).

Hinting as it does at a kind of illusion, sprezzatura lends itself to both positive and negative associations, I think: at best, it can define the way a trained athlete can make the impossible look easy, and at worst, it can imply a certain calculating disingenuousness, the way a socialite will accept a compliment on a carefully put-together outfit by saying, "Oh, this old thing?"

Alexis, of course, embodies the former. He's like the star shortstop of sweetness. He's the sort of person who doesn't so much light up a room with his presence as he does the individual people in it, going from person to person paying genuine compliments in a careful way, like a priest lighting candles, until every person is glowing. If you try to tell him that you've noticed and appreciated him doing this, he'll wave you off and say, "Oh, please, I am a diplomat," in a way that in itself suggests he's simply doing his job, like an off-duty firefighter rescuing a cat from a tree. (Okay, I think three metaphors enough for this paragraph.) But I suspect that in truth, Alexis' personality naturally led him to the profession that most suits him, so that he, as a citizen of a notoriously standoffish country, has an official reason to imbrace his inner warmth and geniality, the way his beloved Americans do.

Strangely enough, Alexis, who is taking Italian lessons (yes, boys, and he's single too!), was unaware of the word's meaning. But my friend Aaron, another champion of sprezzatura (in that he's a veteran party thrower, former Quiz Night host and sometime sommelier) recognized it immediately. "It's the ability to throw a dinner party at a moment's notice, and to make it look easy," he said.

(Alexis, embodying sprezzatura)

Alexis seemed to like this, and repaid the linguistic favor later that night, when we were talking about Margaret Anderson. (Yes, we talk about early 20th century lesbian feminist pioneers at our casual social gatherings. We also talked about boys.) Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about sustainable seafood in which I employed a quote from Anderson. I pulled this up to read it again, because I was trying to explain how my how-can-I-help-you-today approach to life often gives way to angry bouts of WTF-itude when issues of fairness and responsibility are on the line. Anderson wrote:
I wasn't born to be a fighter. I was born with a gentle nature, a flexible character and an organism as equilibrated as it is judged hysterical. I shouldn't have been forced to fight constantly and ferociously. The causes I have fought for have invariably been causes that should have been gained by a delicate suggestions. Since they never were, I made myself into a fighter.
"That does seem to describe you", my friend Jenna ventured.
"Yes, but you are not angry," Alexis said. "You just reven -- " and he stopped himself. "I don't know if this is a real English word."
We looked at him quizzically.
"The word is revendiquer. I don't know if there is a word for it in English."

So we looked it up.

According to, revendiquer means "to claim, demand, take responsibility for." The example they give is "Il faut revendiquer vos droits - You have to demand your rights." Alexis explained that the word has been used in situations where, for example, workers were demanding their rights to better pay or reasonable hours.

"It means you fight for what is right, for what is owed," Alexis said.

Jenna wondered if its English analog -- or at least its English cousin -- would be vindicate, which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, can mean "to avenge" or "maintain a right to".

For some reason, I prefer the French word. To vindicate sounds almost clinical or legal, as if you're stamping a document: "vindicated." Pronounced "reh-VON-di-kay", revondiquer sounds like a proper action verb. It sounds like the way a large flag whips as it's raised into a strong wind. It sounds like it should have an exclamation point permanently attached to the end. In short, it sounds like an onomotopoeia for the action and emotion of stepping up, at first begrudgingly and then with greater and greater intensity, to fight against an opposition that should never have existed.

(Margaret Anderson, founder and publisher of The Little Review, who fought to have James Joyce's Ulysses published in the United States)

As I thought about this exchange, I realized how often I am moved by this concept. In this blog alone I have posted diatribes on subjects outside the purview of my professional work, to which this blog is supposed to be dedicated. In these cases, I have gone beyond the assignment, when there was an assignment at all, to express my anger at an act of unfairness or incompetence that, in my mind, was beyond comprehension or legitimacy. Revondiquer was all I could do. I suppose that's one of the reasons why I became a journalist. (That, and the free cheese.)

This month, I posted on the failure of one of the English-speaking world's top fashion writers to provide consumers of my generation with an adequate guide for environmentally-conscious clothing consumption, and the failure of the fashion and luxury community at large to acknowledge issues such as poverty and environmental responsibility, when such awareness is de rigeur for their peers in the equally glamorous fine dining industry. Last month, I posted on the misguided best intentions of the Prop 8 proponents I knew and the demoralizing consequences for our GLBT fellow Americans. Before that, I posted on the ignorance of a restaurateur who could not tell me where his food came from, and the laziness (or lack of courage?) of other restaurateurs who know but don't care. Before that, I posted on the inefficiency and waste within our country's current agricultural system as described by Michael Pollan.

But my need to revendiquer, to demand what is "owed" to us as a thinking, compassionate people, often goes beyond (or should I say below) the scope of this blog. I am a mad forwarder, sending on news stories both bizarre and infuriating to my friends, and more than one person has commented on how frequently I post these stories to Facebook. It seems that these days I am generating a veritable newsfeed of la revendication. In the spirit of the new year and new President, a quick roundup:

- Campbell's decided to run an ad featuring a lesbian chef, her partner and their young son eating soup for the holidays, and the right-wing American Family Association called for a boycott of Campbell's. A boycott, for acknowledging that families with lesbian moms exist, and that they sometimes like to eat soup. Campbell's stood their ground and defended both their ad and the family. asked its readers to buy a can of Campbell's and mail it to the AFA with a note expressing their support of gay families and the companies who aren't afraid to do the same.

- On December 19, the Bush Administration quietly attempted to auction off parcels of public land (that's public land, as in land that belongs to you and I) adjacent to several of Utah's national parks that had not been adequately reviewed, in a process that was not cleared with the National Parks Service. Now several environmental organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the high bidders (who had to cross a line of shouting, angry picketers to get into the auction) from taking possession of said lands.

- In one of its most spine-tinglingly inspiring and visionary editorials in recent history, the New York Times has called for a "secretary of food" to replace the Secretary of Agriculture position in the cabinet, someone who will reform the food system to reduce consumption of fossil fuels (for fertilizer and transportation), increase standards for animal treatment and organic farming, and push for healthier foods to be made available to the poor to combat diseases like obesity and diabetes. Obama appears to have ignored this plea -- he's appointed a Sec. of Ag. with ties to Monsanto -- but advocates for food reform are not giving up.

- While consumption of bottled water continues to outstrip that of beer and milk in the U.S., Toronto's attempting to divert 70 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2010.

And so it goes.

The idea that we should work hard to preserve our environment so we and our descendants can continue to live in it, I think, is the most pragmatic thing in the world. The idea that we should not deprive other human beings of the same rights we enjoy is ingrained in me. These are not issues I want to fight about. The causes I have fought for have invariably been causes that should have been gained by a delicate suggestion.

I still maintain that, like Margaret Anderson, I wasn't born to be a fighter. But perhaps no one is.

I wish that my job entailed simply offering delicate suggestions, as Kristof so eloquently did when he recommended, via the NYT, that Obama bring some sanity to the way our our broken country nourishes itself; as Rachel Maddow so skillfully does when she suggests that perhaps, maybe, we should do something about all those banks wasting our money and all those loose nukes stashed away in the bunkers of countries hostile to us; as Tim Russert so gracefully did when he asked simply that politicians confront their own words and tell the truth. But sometimes even well-intentioned people (and Presidents) are deaf to gentle suggestions. Sometimes we can't all get along. And since we can't, revendiquer is the only choice. And I am so grateful to Alexis for helping me to find in his language a word for the urge I could never adequately explain in my language, a word that belongs to all good journalists the way sprezzatura must belong to all good diplomats.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Short Catalogue Of Things You Think You Want

For a long while, my b.f. has struggled to share my passion for books, as he, along with many other people I know (mostly males, for whatever reason) tends to prefer to communicate and learn from listening rather than reading. For a long while, I have struggled to accept this, as I live and breathe through the books I read, and generally tend to share them and talk about them with everyone I know while I am reading them, and often for months afterwards. However, we had a bit of luck over this last Thanksgiving break, because the b.f. had a long drive home to his family in the South, and he quickly grew sick of the increasingly inane talk radio dominating the airwaves Down There. So he decided to try out audiobooks for the first time in his life -- and found that he thoroughly enjoyed them and retained the info very well.

And so it came to pass that for the last 18 hours of his drive up to Boston through the blue ridge mountains down in Tennessee and the traffic snarls of New York City, the b.f. became acquainted (at my behest) with one of my favorite books: "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith.

Ironically, it was because of this b.f. that I discovered Zadie Smith -- I found her book "White Teeth" (which I like even more than I like "On Beauty") sitting on his bookshelf, in the "purchased for an English class that I then transferred out of" section. I read it cover to cover with barely a breath or a meal in between, it was so enjoyable.

When the b.f. returned, the first thing we talked about (at five in the morning, in the dark with the dog sleeping soundly between us) was Zadie Smith. Her masterful command of tone and dialect and narrative. Her bizarre and lovable characters. Her ability to run up and down the black and ivory keys of race and class and intellect like a virtuosic piano player. Her ability, which she shares most notably with the writer Junot Diaz, to say words like "postmodern" and "dude" in the same sentence. Her ability to engage us both as a very particular kind of modern young reader, despite the fact that we experienced her in two different mediums.

I aspire to sound like Zadie Smith one day. Not to speak in her enviably smoky North London accent, of course -- which I remember clearly from when she held me and my fellow audience members in thrall at the Brookline Booksmith when she came to read "On Beauty" for the first time years ago -- but to play the keys of culture the way she does, in full-length narrative form.

In the meantime, while I work on my writing and we wait for Smith to come out with a new novel, the b.f. and I are enjoying this essay Smith wrote for The Face back in the day, which exemplifies the kind of range, humor, randomness and preternatural wisdom one will find in her longer work. It comes at a good time of year for me -- at a time where we're reflecting on how far we've come and trying to hang on to some semblance of humanity and simplicity through the insane holiday season. I've decided to post it here, in part to save my friends the trouble of having to listen to me rave about Smith one more time.

A Short Catalogue Of Things You Think You Want
by Zadie Smith

So, what is it that you think you want? The received wisdom goes that you want Fame, that we all want it now, the same way our parents wanted a good melon. But it only means one thing, it has only ever meant one thing: more people knowing you than you know people. Everything else is an accessory. Just don't bother with this thing, more people knowing you than you know people. Shun it. Put a black cross on your door. It's no fun. It's just for people who have lost something. Amputees.

What else? Well, you want Muscle Definition and at any cost. Nothing I can say can convince you otherwise, and you will get your trainer and your home gym, even though I am not alone and there are others who would like to touch you, soft as you are, in this hard city. But you think hardness is what you need to survive these days, and maybe you are right. I can't fight you (I'd lose).

Now, your mother tells me you want Something That's Comfy Like A Sofa But Doesn't Look Like A Sofa, because you hate the suburbs and you never want to go back there, but at the same time you appreciate the fact that everybody's got to sit down. This is a laudable statement. Only, it wasn't the sofa that made life suburban, and it wasn't the curtains or the carpet or the neatly trimmed flowerbeds. It ran much deeper than that. And no amount of Conran furniture and Japanese wall prints will change what's in the marrow of you.

You want it, I want it, we all want The Love Of Someone Better Looking Than Us. Maybe you have someone better looking than you sitting right next to you now, reading over your shoulder, stroking on the nape of your neck. It's like having the TV on, isn't it? Shiny, pretty, distracting. You've got human TV all the time, you lucky thing.

Of course, some of you are more hardcore than that. You want A Big Shiny Cause You Can Get Behind and, friends, I can see your point. After all, your great-grandfather got a war, so did your grandfather -- hell, even your dad got the Sixties. What did you get? Bupkiss. Or rather, a whole load of intricate claims and counter-claims, civil conflicts involving five different factions, rights that look like wrongs and vice versa. Feels like too much sometimes, huh? You'd like things a little simpler, more black and white. Well, that's over. Frankly, everyone's tired of protecting you from what some people deal with every day. Best advice I can give you is to start small. Sort out your bathroom cabinet and go from there.

Surely any right-minded 21st-century type wants to Get Sushi, Whenever, Wherever? And a Decaf Chocolate Mocha Espresso, Anytime, Anywhere? Well, want it, but know what it is that you're wanting. I read that Leonardo called it a service-station culture which takes the needs of a Fat White American and reproduces them all across the globe. No, I couldn't believe he said anything that smart, either.

Speaking of Leo, is it true you still wish to be Forever Young? To be, or to be with, The Perfect Woman? A cautionary tale: my 73-year-old father has the hots for the big-haired one off Friends. He thinks about her constantly. That is what happens in a culture that won't put childish things away. Remember: these two things do not exist. Remember: these two things will hurt you more than anything else, if you let them.

In the end, it's New Trainers you want and don't try to tell me different. Well, the good news is you don't only think you want them. You really want them. Despite their three-month life span, Nike's profits and the children who make them. Because they are beautiful, because they are Art. And as we have learnt these 20 years, Art will make you do shit like that, nine times out of ten.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Ham is vegetarian in the Czech Republic.

So my college buddy Christian and his girlfriend Marta left earlier this year to live out one of the most popular fantasies of my generation: moving abroad to teach English. What's more, they headed to the Czech Republic, one of my top Must Visit destinations, as part of my family comes from that area of Europe, and, well, I hear Prague is awesome. I was more than a little envious of their seemingly glamorous plan when they told us about it, even though they also explained that they were choosing this expensive, logistically complex career path only because they had struggled to find other employment in the U.S. (and that was before the sh*t hit the fan with our current economy).

Now they're firmly esconced in Czech life, as evidenced by a new slew of Facebook pictures which I immediately seized upon as a way to experience their adventure vicariously (admit it, you've totes done it too).

One picture in particular, though, made me feel slightly relieved to be here in Boston, where new vegetarian cafes, vegan dessert tastings and raw vegan takeout services are emerging on the regular.

Note the options available to vegetarians here:

1) Fried cheese, cranberries, tartar sauce
2) Fried cheese, tartar sauce
3) Ham.

Too funny.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Weekly Dig: Green is the new blegh

Unfortunately for me and the author of"Green is the New Black", the book I reviewed for Greenland this week, I hated every page of it. It was absolutely awful. After having gone through the book writing and editing process, I can only conclude that the editor of Blanchard's book must have either hated or feared her, because it's full of errors, nonsensical ellipses, non sequiturs, and rambling offshoots into Blanchard's personal life that have little to do with saving the planet. I don't know what I expected from a writer who uses the word "fashionista" without irony, but what I got was extremely irritated.

The published review is here, but unfortunately for me and the Dig readers, it also received a less than careful treatment in the editing process. So I'll print the uncut (albeit even more rant-y) version here:

Green is the New Blegh

When it comes to the environment, what you wear is nearly as important as what you eat. The pesticides that soak conventional cottons are as harmful to farmers as the pesticides that seep into the ground on conventional lettuce farms. The labor conditions under which fast-fashion clothing is produced overseas are often deplorable. The implications of highly disposable, cheap sweaters which will sojourn only briefly in your closet before spending the next few millennia not biodegrading in a landfill are as daunting as the ones we face daily every time we choose (or don’t choose) to eat a Big Mac wrapped in cardboard.

So why, asks Brit fashion writer Tamsin Blanchard, author of “Green is the New Black”, aren’t we doing more about it?

The reason is, partly, writers like Tamsin Blanchard.

It’s apparent from her badly-edited, sloppily turned-out “guide” to eco-consumerism that fashion writers like Blanchard, who’s worked the style beat for several leading London publications, still believe that “fashionistas” to be strongarmed into caring about the environment. That they don’t truck in measured, devastating arguments like the “foodies” who read Michael Pollan. That any innate curiosity or concern they might have about the origins of their clothing is likely to be eclipsed by their need for omigod shoes. That they’ll be able to sort through Blanchard’s self-indulgent, blowsy rambling to find the useful nuggets of information that the writer does present in her guide, such as pointing out that even mainstream chains like H&M and American Apparel feature organic cotton lines that are better than the less responsible alternative, or that UK company People Tree may actually have a workable model for Fair Trade, sustainable fashion.

What fashionistas need, it seems, is for a high-ranking insider to teach them about a new concept called “vintage” and to reassure them that it’s, like, totally posh to shop at “charity stores” and to buy hemp-based clothing from Marks & Spencer without becoming a “hippy-dippy”. (Did we mention this book is all in Brit-speak?)

Sigh. Is it any wonder that kids today have turned to those newfangled weblogs for real, useful information?

We recommend recycling your copy of “Green is the New Black” and turning to the paperless resource of IdealBite instead, which will deliver daily tips with links to products you can use, written in a style that non-fashionistas can read without retching on their “hippy-dippy” vegan fair trade shoes.

This was the first time in a long time that I've written something so unabashedly negative -- but you know what? It felt good. Some people see green and they don't think "saving the planet" -- they think "lining my pockets by jumping on this trend". Blanchard has come on the green scene and attempted to make a quick buck by purporting to tell environmental "fashionistas" what they already know (that vintage is green, that organic and bamboo-based materials are the way of the future, that we need to buy less and think more about our purchases).

Blanchard has also proven something about the fashion world that "fashionistas" need to know, and to fix: that the high rollers of the fashion world are becoming increasingly disconnected from the people they clothe and from the people who work for them all over the world. For example, this comment from Anna Wintour: "I see a lot of people in my industry who are over-reacting. Stores that are over-discounting, designers who are creating collections for the price and what sells rather than to reflect who they are." Replies, "It takes a special understanding of the world — wasn't the Dow just below 8,000? And aren't advertising pages in this month's Vogue down 22% compared with last December's issue? — to frame the fashion industry's biggest problem right now as charging too little for its wares."

Even luxury conoisseurs are feeling a little ashamed of buying bling these days, but that emotion is not in the best interests of fashion magazines, which thrive on luxury ads -- so with tastemakers like Wintour wielding the whip, the consuming must go on, even when it makes no sense to the consumers themselves. The devil wears Prada, indeed.

While the luxury fashion world's "let them eat cake" attitude may infuriate the actual thrift shoppers among us, my feelings about this go beyond sour grapes to real moral outrage. As long as this reality-be-damned luxury continues to be defended, encouraged and even lauded by magazines like Vogue and Elle (and breezily passed over by the likes of Blanchard), the fashion world as it stands will continue to contribute to greater poverty and environmental degradation worldwide in the years to come while calling it "art". I doubt there's a designer or a consumer among us who would be willing to argue that authenticity and environmental responsibility are mutually exclusive, so let's get real. It's time to acknowledge that clothes are a commodity as well as an "art form", and their production needs to be managed more carefully and with greater conscience.

Unfortunately, Blanchard does not tackle this topic, or many others of substance. Like Bush, she simply tells us to shop to solve the world's problems, albeit in the Marks & Spencer organic section. It's not good enough. Blanchard's book is lazy, indulgent, and worst of all, not useful. I sincerely hope that she makes very little profit from her book sales -- because those books will most certainly all end up in the trash, which will only make the problem worse. Blegh!

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