Monday, September 29, 2014


Why does anyone bother starting a business in Cambridge? I've lived here on and off for the past six years, and walking down Mass Ave from Central to Porter Squares, I'd say that more than half the businesses that line it have changed during that time. The life cycle, especially in Harvard Square, is something like:
1. discover boring old thing is closing, lament, b/c small local business that tried so hard, like little engine that could (but couldn't)
2. hear that new thing is coming in its place! we don't have one of these particular things yet! cast aside lamentation, recall pleasures of novelty, rejoice!
3. new thing opens, so new! stand in line during opening week for it, rejoicing!
4. within first three months, new thing acquires 200 gushing Yelp reviews, six regular customers, 12 irregular customers, and 24 people who are perennially planning to check it out soon, thereby reaching equilibrium, while other new things open in the vicinity and novelty of this old-new thing begins to wear off
5. within six months, Yelp reviews begin to emphasize lack of "creativity" in food or merchandise, complain that place is "bland" and "tired," notice that it is "overpriced"
6. within two years, profits sink, overhead costs increase, place looks empty all the time and cuts its hours
7. evince concern, recall fond memories of the two times you ate/shopped there when it first opened, insist that old-new thing is "an institution" that can't possibly be permitted to close even though, yes, it's a bit dated and no, you personally haven't stepped inside in the last 12 months
8. old-new thing announces closure, lament, rend garments, decry corporate capitalism
9. new-new thing announces opening in old-new thing's place, promises novelty, inspires new bout of rejoicing
10. old thing is gutted, new thing opens, everyone rejoices and forgets what was even there before, but probably something old and lame?

There do seem to be some establishments that are neither churches nor hospitals yet remain insulated from the laws of novelty and boredom, like this wretched hole. But the survival of such places can probably be attributed to the indiscriminate appetite-increasing side effects of illicit substance use among the undergraduates under whose noses they are located.

UPDATE: A timely case-in-point. Ramen! We don't have one of those yet (except up in Porter Sq.)! So new! Rejoicing stage commences.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

John Updike, Olinger Stories

Remember when our recurring nemesis William Deresiewicz wrote this stunning review of a new Updike biography that was so lovely that it compelled us to go read Updike immediately although we never had the slightest interest in him before? Well, we did that, while still dangerously under the influence of our recent reading of Cheever, and found that Deresiewicz was right, the stories are wonderful. The bait in Deresiewicz's review was the promise that Updike would contribute to the vindication of my desire to find something valuable in nostalgia, which all right-thinking people treat as a low-minded self-delusion but which I can't figure out how to understand my life without:
Updike’s nostalgia is not for a specific historical moment; it is the ubiquitous modern ache for time past, and in particular, for youth. We applaud it when it comes to us in cultured Continental form (when the odor is of madeleines and tea), but less so, for some reason, here...Atheism, alienation, and angst; elitism and cosmopolitanism; aesthetic 
austerity and experimentalism; political and spiritual extremism: these were not for him. Updike’s life and work are testaments to the idea that mid-American values, beliefs, and sensibilities are adequate to address and interpret modern experience. 
This is pretty much the sum of the middle-brow conviction that I don't know how any amount of education, travel, reading, or haranguing from the sophisticated will flush out of me. But, admittedly, it's hard to reconcile this conviction with the small-scale misery of the homely but thwarted aspirations and the dread of death despite the smallness of life experienced by nearly everyone who actually lives this way. So you can either reject all that bourgeois nonsense in the blind hope that the unknown is better, or you can try to dignify these small sufferings, to make the mundane momentous by recording it. Updike is aggressively concerned with this kind of sanctification.

One of the stories, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," calls this approach to sanctification through precise description "the evocation of days." Deresiewicz points to "Pigeon Feathers" to show that Updike takes writing to be an imitation of God's creation (and destruction). There, the narrator is reassured of his immortality when he examines the bodies of the pigeons he has shot, concluding that "the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let 
David live forever." In "The Blessed Man of Boston," the narrator is even more explicit about what he's doing: "O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance Your work of resurrection."

There is a lot that is reminiscent of Cheever in the Olinger Stories, but the foundation of Updike's idea of fleeting middle-brow happiness seems to be Christian faith rather than, as for Cheever, marriage:
"We would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm." 
What a thoroughgoing piece of Protestantism that is - pleading for grace through self-abnegation - but for the anachronistic invocation of the novelist, this would fit comfortably into the rhetoric of the sixteenth century. We are worthless nothings who make no more impression on the world than a trail of snail shit in the dirt, our lives are a storm which we lack even the capacity to fully understand. All we have is the paltry power to recount a "few flakes" of our experience. But for all that melodramatic cringing, Updike's faith is much like Cheever's marriage - a flexible thing, subject to frequent assault and deformation, just as long as, in the end, it's not surrendered. You can cheat on your wife in Cheever, or renounce Jesus in Updike, but if you divorce or deny the possibility of immortality, well then civilization is lost.

But Updike seems to write mainly for the sake of the "evocation of days," and rarely gets so shrill about things. His similes are inventive, often because they pick up such mundane domestic experiences that you'd never remember them but for these promptings, as when a character described trying to comfort himself lying in bed at night "with the caress of headlights as they evolved from bright slits on the wall into parabolically accelerating fans on the ceiling and then vanished." A minute observation of childhood fixations. Nostalgia as simply an account of time passing in small lives can be funny too. This is one character's first effort to kiss a girl: "It was as if I had been given a face to eat, and the presence of bone - skull under skin, teeth behind lips - impeded me."

It's a mode of writing that's delightful while it lasts but can get tiresome pretty easily, when it becomes so much about making unexpected observations that plot is forgotten, or everything becomes indiscriminately significant in a desperate bid to record every last detail of living. Or maybe when Updike just gets too obsessed with adulterous sex to be any longer interesting, as even Deresiewicz's review, which emphasizes the early stories, suggests will happen. I suppose I'll find out about that in the next volume.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Argentina

Public health campaign: get your blood pressure measured in the middle of the park

Chip flavors available in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: chorizo, asado, quesadilla, empanada, pollo con limon. Chip flavors not available in in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: any other flavors. These chicken chips tasted so much like an actual grilled chicken that my husband refused to eat them for fearing of spoiling real chicken for himself.

Porto Madera

Ambiguous midday meal consisting of parts of all other day's meals - breakfast, lunch, and tea.

A 200-year-old rubber tree that takes up approximately the space of a city block and is supported by special branch crutches.

The only copy of Locke I was able to find in the city. As against a million copies of Hobbes and the Heidegger/Benjamin/Foucault triple-package of bad ideas.


Empanadas stacked like potatoes, a sight that should be found in every supermarket.

Iguazu falls

Coati: basically a jungle raccoon. Cute but vicious.

The butterfly situation was out of control but the pretty ones refused to sit still for photos.

Full moon over the Iguazu River.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Outrageous indignities

When Fedex loses the box in which you shipped all your clothes from San Diego to Boston for the year, and you have to substitute several years' worth of careful curating and collection with the current clearance rack at Gap.

UPDATE: After talking on the phone with probably every employee of Fedex over a period of five days, the box has been located somewhere completely random and is being re-sent to me. This demonstrates the importance of having personal connections in the lost package world. Fortunately, I only purchased two duplicate items so far on final sale; the rest of my compensatory online shopping can go back whence it came. (But maybe I'll keep one skirt as, you know, a memento of this trial of patience, or a duly deserved reward for my suffering...)

Friday, September 05, 2014

Platforms of the future

I'm in Buenos Aires through next week, and it's pretty great here when you come with American dollars and discover that a three-course dinner with a bottle of wine at one of the nicest French restaurants in the city costs the equivalent of $40 per person. Also good is the omnipresence and frequently expected consumption of facturas con cafe, which similarly cost next to nothing, and are available from cafes that are open at all hours and offer free wifi. (Those who, like me, fervently believe that pastries are a breakfast food, take note: there appear to be about four or five daily meals here, and three of them consist of pastries.)

Which raises the question: in a society so totally conducive to the grad student lifestyle - everything is open late, fine dining and alcohol are cheap, and caffeinated workspace is everywhere - why isn't everyone a grad student? I posed this question to some of my husband's relatives, who were puzzled by it and replied that being a grad student is hard. Maybe, but it seems a lot less hard here! My husband suggests that people are generally about as inefficient as grad students, so it amounts to the same. (I don't know about labor efficiency, but the kids do seem to spend a lot more time in school each day than Americans, but we never hear about any impressive outcomes of the Argentine education system.)

Finally, there is the problem of the platform shoe. Every woman in Buenos Aires is wearing the chunky platform that very briefly reached maximum coolness in 1997. Since leather goods are also cheaper here than in the US, I was hoping to obtain a pair of ankle boots, but it seems that, given local trends, this aspiration can only result in the unfortunate acquisition of something like this:

The question is, would owning such shoes make me fashion I prescient, like an early adopter of a thing that is just about to become huge back home? Or will it make me a late-90s goth teen revivalist?