Category Archives: America

The Pleasures of the Super Gossipy Johnny Carson Biography

On my flight to Armenia I read Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin, Carson’s longtime lawyer, business manager and friend. I recommend the book for three reasons: First, it’s the kind of book you can read in five hours like it’s a muthafuckin whodunit.

Second, it’s a portrait of an era so bygone it might as well be Jane Austen:

Sitting across the room was Tom Snyder, the host of The Tomorrow Show, the NBC program that followed Johnny’s. Snyder, who was dining along, sent our table a round of drinks. […] Johnny had long harbored a serious dislike for Snyder, based on nothing but his performances on TV. He thought Snyder had no talent and was an officious bore, and after Johnny had his second glass of wine, we could see his anger bubbling just below the surface. […]

Johnny kept eyeing [Snyder] and finally said, ‘Why the fuck is he staring at me? I’m going to go over there and kick the shit out of that guy.’ […]

Johnny lunged across the table and grabbed for Snyder’s throat. He got nowhere close. Quinn got in front of Snyder and I pulled on Johnny’s arm and McMahon moved his bulk in between.

And another one:

The last time I saw Rick Carson [Johnny’s son, who later died in a car accident] was at the Tonight Show anniversary party that took place on the Queen Mary in October 1987. […] Dinner, dancing and entertainment were part of the festivities, as was a casino where people could play blackjack, roulette and craps. Rick was playing in the casino and drinking heavily. His father went to see him in order the keep him under control, and a screaming match ensued. Johnny lost his temper and began yelling, and Rick responded in kind. Johnny pulled back his fist—he was going to slug his son—but somebody stepped in and hustled Johnny away.

In case it isn’t clear what’s happening here, this is the most famous person in America drunkenly attempting to beat up his own son at a fundraising event on a cruise ship. Media were in attendance, as were members of Carson’s staff, their spouses, hired help. Yet we are only hearing about this now.

Then there are the women. Bushkin describes the weekends Carson used to play Vegas. Two shows a night, 10 weeks a year, his material never changed, and neither did his pre- and post-show routine. He would glad-hand his celebrity friends (five minutes at a time—one of Bushkin’s jobs was to make sure Carson was never trapped in conversation with another person too long), then find girls from the slot machines or the front row and take them back to his hotel room.

The next day Johnny called to make sure the girls would be coming to the show. ‘Maybe they would like to join us at a small dinner party afterward,’ Johnny suggested, ‘up in my apartment.’ [...]

The three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served then wine from a silver platter.

Maybe I’m naive about the lifestyles of celebrities these days, but this sort of thing strikes me as unimaginable today. One of these women would tweet a photo of the Carsonalia, would YouTube a clip of Carson sleeping off the revelry the next morning.

But reading the book, you realize that it’s not just the technology that has changed. Carson’s fame peaked when he was in his late 40s to his mid 60s. This was a married man, with three kids from the first (of four) wives that he all but abandoned.

Bushkin notes that Carson smoked four packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life, that he drank to excess nearly every night, that he kept a .38 in his glove box. At every location, Carson relied on an architecture of bellhops, hotel managers and personal secretaries to facilitate a steady supply of alcohol and hook-ups with women of diminishing age-appropriateness.

‘In the environs of a Las Vegas hotel,’ Bushkin writes, ‘a free-fire zone where no wives were allowed, it was generally accepted that the bigger the star, the greater the latitude for indiscretion.’

It is true that we live in a time when this indiscretion-latitude is narrower, but it’s not just Twitter and TMZ that made us this way. The social norms of Carson’s era rested on a society-wide agreement that some topics were to be known but not said. Maybe we are more gossipy now, or maybe we are more prudish, less willing to wink-and-nudgingly protect a man in his 50s, inebriated, fucking the starstruck out of women in their 20s while his wife and children waited a timezone away. Either way, whether this means we are a better society or a worse one, it would be harder now for Carson to pull this off.

The third and deepest source of the book’s pleasures is its Big Reveal of Carson as an extreme introvert. As Bushkin describes him, Carson was charming, generous, lively and gracious—but only in small amounts, and under conditions where he controlled each interaction. A one-on-one interview, on his own show, six minutes at a time, with breaks to sell lawnmowers and hair polish, that was Carson’s ideal way of interacting with people. He hated cocktail parties and public appearances, situations where he wasn’t able to choreograph who he would meet, what he would talk about and for how long.

As you can see in the above clips, Carson had a nasty streak. His friendships, his professional relationships, his marriages, nearly all of them ended abruptly and permanently after a perceived slight. It’s like Carson realized that he liked being alone more than he liked his agents and managers, his wives, even (spoiler alert) Bushkin himself. One by one, they all end up under Carson’s emotional guillotine, never to be contacted or acknowledged ever again.

Bushkin notes that Carson died alone, his hospital bed un-surrounded by friends or family. The outpouring of emotion from his audience, kept always at a distance, was not matched by a more intimate group of friends and family. Carson had no inner circle, only the outer one.

It turns out that Johnny, who never carried a wallet but usually kept $1,500 to $2,000 or so in cash on his person, had noticed that at the end of every week for the last month or so, he would be at least $700 to $1,000 light.

Within days we caught his dresser, a union guy who was responsible for taking care of Johnny’s wardrobe, pilfering the money. Johnny was very proud that he had solved the mystery, but he never fired the culprit. He liked him too much as an employee. Instead, he sat him down and told him that as long as he didn’t steal anymore, Johnny would give him another $300 to $400 a week.

This is the same guy that fired dozens of his employees, threw a tantrum at Reagan’s inauguration, never visited his son during his stay in a mental hospital. Even Bushkin, who knew Carson as well as anyone, can’t explain why he acted so nice on some days and so mean on others. But, for 300 pages, it’s worth watching him try.

 

 

 

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Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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University Rankings are Terrible. Now Can We Stop Doing the Same Thing With Countries?

The release of the US News & World Report college rankings is as good an excuse as any to talk about the sheer ridiculousness of organising complex institutions into rank order and pert decimal scores.

The criticisms of the index itself are nicely summarized in this Atlantic article, but for those that don’t have time for the full Gladwell, they are basically of two kinds:

  1. The ranking is flawed. The methodology constantly changes, schools juke their stats, it’s based on bullshit surveys that only measure the school’s established reputation, etc. The data might be good enough to distinguish Harvard University from  Southern Methodist Tech, but there is too much noise to say that Yale is better than Princeton or that Oregon State is better than Penn State.
  2. Most of the information we use to determine the quality of education isn’t readily measurable. How good are the teachers? Do students get enough personal attention? Is the campus social life welcoming or cliquey? If you list everything that made your college experience positive or negative, you won’t find it in the number tables of these rankings.

A few years ago I was working at a human rights NGO, and one of my jobs was preparing reports for multinational corporations telling them about the human rights situation in countries where they were thinking of operating.  You want to open a shoe factory in Kenya? Here’s what you need to know about gender discrimination, corruption, occupational health and safety. Here’s how you make shoes there without violating human rights.

Sometimes companies would ask us for big packages of countries, 10, 20, 50 at a time.

‘Can’t you just give us a ranking?’ they would ask. ‘Tell us which country is the worst of that list, and we won’t make shoes there.’

Or, they would suggest, better yet, give us an index. If you tell us that Bolivia scores 8.2 out of 10 and  Iran scores 8.3 out of 10, we can make our decision on quantitative data rather than just putting our finger in the air.

‘But that is putting your finger in the air,’ I would tell them. ‘It’s just us doing it instead of you. Bolivia and Iran, their politics, their demographics, their economics, they look nothing like each other. Two numbers isn’t going to make that go away.’

This is one of my beefs with the Failed States Index, the Economic Freedom Index, the Human Development Index, the Corruptions Perceptions Index, the dozens of other indices that purport to rank countries according to some difficult-to-measure variable.

The problem is, countries have all the same problems as colleges. The data out there isn’t strong enough to justify precise determinations, only broad tranches. Yeah, Norway is less corrupt than Angola, but I don’t need an index to tell me that.

But is Norway less corrupt than Denmark? More developed than Switzerland? Given the limited data and even more limited number of indicators these indices use, the answers to those questions are a re-statement of your methodology, not a useful analysis of the conditions in those two countries.

I used to try to tell the companies this, that any attempt to rank countries according to their ability to prevent corporate human rights violations would be like trying to rank kittens according to cuteness. After you separate them into the already-obvious tranches, it’s just a judgement call, preferences disguised as data.   

‘But it would be so much easier for me if you could do that anyway.’ Only one corporate person ever actually said it this directly, but afterward I started hearing it, in subtler ways, from the others.

Eventually I realized that the only reason the companies pushed so hard, why they insisted so strongly on  rankings and scores over information and analysis, was because it made it not their problem anymore. They didn’t have the credentials to pull 50 ‘good’ countries from 100 uncategorised ones, so they used us to push the responsibility away. ‘It’s not me saying Bolivia is an 8.2,’ they could tell their boss. ‘A human rights NGO said it was. Making shoes there is totally approved. 

I don’t know if high schoolers use college rankings to decide where they should get educated. And I don’t know if multinational corporations use country indices to decide where they should make shoes. I just hope that in both cases, they know that most of what they’re seeing is either totally obvious or entirely unsubstantiated.

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Filed under America, Personal, Work

Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Originally posted at The Billfold

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.

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Filed under America, Food, Serious, United Kingdom

Paula Deen, Race and A Defense of Thoughtcrime

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Every American knows about the epic third-railness of racism in public life. Nappy-headed hos, you people, articulate and bright, macaca, let’s stop there. All public figures in America are one N-word away from utter and total ruin. No other word or opinion has anything like the toxicity of a racial slur. A white politician or actor (or, apparently, TV chef) can be on record saying just about anything (‘sugar tits‘, ‘takers not makers‘) and keep their job, their chance at a second chance. But say something racist and, well, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

This is correct. Racism in America is a uniquely ugly thing, something whose effects are still present in our policies, our economy, our workplaces, our schools. You’re not allowed to defend something whose impacts are still being lived by a significant percentage of your countrymen, especially if you are on the benefits end of those impacts. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about race, just that you have to be a little more careful when you do. If you can’t keep your eyes open underwater, don’t jump in the pool.

This sensitivity, this hesitation, is  unique in American history. You could get away with saying some bonkers-racist shit in public just a few decades ago. But racism is also unique relative to other social issues. If Paula Deen had said that the death penalty should be expanded, that poor people just don’t work hard enough, that public schools should be abolished, that Medicare should be defunded, that inequality in America isn’t wide enough, yeah the internet would have shitted on her, and maybe she would have lost an endorsement or two, but we would move on. She would have nothing like the systematic ostracism she’s getting now.

Again, this is not a bad thing. Discrimination was the great battle of the 20th century, and winning it is one of the progressive left’s greatest victories. I’m fine with a world where you have to be careful talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, where certain opinions (‘women shouldn’t be voting!’ ‘Slavery was adorable‘) will get you kicked off the TV and the ballot.

I am a great big homosexual. Every day I root for homophobia to reach this magical status, to get to the point where a politician says a mean, stupid thing about My People and is instantly shoved off the platform of public life. In fact, I hope when homophobia gets there, it brings some of its friends with it. Poverty, inequality, free health care, free(er) immigration, worker’s rights—I want all these topics to achieve the level of consensus we’ve worked so hard to reach on racism. I hope progressive activists are looking at the way we police each other on race and going ‘yeah, looks about right.’

This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with. But what I’m saying is that I want them  to feel prohibited from expressing the first thing that pops into their head. Race in America is something that, when you talk about it, you have to think a little harder, talk a little slower, squeeze a little empathy out of your words and your heart to be taken seriously.

This, that little pause before you speak, is what progress looks like, and there are a lot more issues in America that deserve it. Next time a TV chef sits down for an interview, I’ll bet they will take it. 

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Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

Is organic Nutella better for you?

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Everyone knows Nutella has basically he same nutritional profile as cake frosting, and that you should eat it about as often.

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Yesterday in the store I saw something called ‘Bionella’ — Organic Nutella. Look how healthy it looks! Green stripes everywhere, two certification stickers, even the font looks humble and nourishing.

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Ingredients! OK, this is in German so that’s annoying, but the gist is, Nutella is 13% hazelnuts. The other 87 percent is basically sugar and fat. ‘Reduced fat cocoa’ and ‘skim milk powder’ are both more than half sugar, and there’s not even that much of them in here. By contrast, even the Acme peanut butter you buy at the dollar store is at least 87% peanuts.

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So how’s Bionella compare? It’s … 14% hazelnuts! And has exactly the same ingredients as the non-organic Nutella!

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As you would expect from two products made from exactly the same things, the nutrition information is about equal.

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Though organic Nutella has more calories, less protein and more fat than the non-organic version. Somehow they have taken our culture’s most potent caloric napalm and made it even more powerful. I’m almost impressed.

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The one thing you can say about Nutella, at least it’s cheap. In Europe they sell tubs of this stuff the size of human babies for less than it costs to take the train to go get them.

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And … nice. Apparently if you want those extra calories, you’re going to have to pay for them.

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Filed under America, Food

Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

As a gay person it’s probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q&A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off of John Maynard Keynes’ famous line ‘in the long run we are all dead’ to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, since he was gay and didn’t have any kids. So he obviously doesn’t care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting so:

My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn’t hide behind ‘I’m sorry for any offense I might have caused’, or any of the other tongue-twisters politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment, took responsibility, we’re moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper where he argued that Keynes didn’t criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson’s books says WWI made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry.

That’s Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his un-bigotry.

Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

It’s easy to laugh at Ferguson’s naiveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go ‘Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let’s call this off!’?

But Ferguson’s gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don’t think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the ‘but I’ve got plenty of gay friends!’ defense, which sounds patronising and tokeney, and often is. We scroll through Ferguson’s 30-year career, we find two instances of problematic analysis, we tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles Ferguson wrote in his youth where he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister, or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I’m not trying to defend Ferguson. I’ve read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven’t been debating whether Ferguson’s books suck, or whether his comment was homophobic. We’ve been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson’s body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes’s homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes’ actions with that brush. That’s a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes’ homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-WWI German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago, his friendship with Andrew Sullivan, evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that’s something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson’s statement that Keynes’s homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes’ actions. I can’t help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we’re doing the same thing.

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Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Serious

And That’s When I Stopped Reading Michael Pollan

I used to think it was impossible to agree with someone’s conclusion, but find their arguments for it repellent. Then I read Michael Pollan.

One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Before I say why I find this argument, this article, so infuriating, a caveat: I like Michael Pollan. He’s a great campaigner for food that doesn’t make us fat or sick, and the net impact of his work has been positive, especially in the early years when most people didn’t know about how poisoned the US food supply is. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I hope he continues writing. 

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue reading. This entire article—and from the reviews I’ve read, this entire book—is some sort of ode to cooking, an aria to its sensory, health and spiritual pleasures.

Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Some of this sounds borderline convincing. I actually love cooking (though butchering a pig myself, less so), and I get a genuine sense of accomplishment when I serve my friends something I created from scratch. Pollan’s right, that’s a rare thing in this world, especially where most of us have jobs (‘solutions architect’, ‘strategic consultant’) that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.

But that’s really the problem with Pollan’s argument: He’s not making one. The only thing this piece (and, frankly, a lot of Pollan’s work) tells you is  ‘I like cooking.’

I’m sure that’s great for Pollan’s health and pocketbook and carbon footprint, but it’s not clear that his preferences are scalable, or that they offer any solutions for the actual, real health problems facing America.

Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy — even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization — against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.

I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan’s parade, but cooking is not withdrawing from corporations, it is simply trading one set of them for another. Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, these companies control, directly or indirectly, vast swathes of the American landscape. Monsanto makes the pesticides farmers spray on their crops, Ford the trucks delivering them, Safeway the shelves stocking them.

And that’s not in itself a bad thing. Corporations provide the great majority of the things we buy. If Pollan is serious about withdrawing from corporate specialization, why not make his own clothes, his own car, his own toothpaste?

This, ultimately, is why my problem with Pollan goes so far beyond this excerpt. His signature phrase, ‘Vote With Your Fork’, isn’t an argument for a better food system, it’s an argument for two food systems.

A hundred years ago, when Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ described the sweatshop conditions of meatpacking workers in Chicago, the cries weren’t for consumers to choose ‘sweatshop-free’ products. Fifty years ago, when the modern highway gave rise to the modern head-on collision, the cries weren’t for consumers to pay extra for a seatbelt. In both cases, the government did its job and raised the minimum standard to stay in business, and in doing so kept consumers safe and healthy, regardless of their choices.

The United States doesn’t need a higher ceiling, it needs a higher floor. Two-thirds of  adults are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1960. Diabetes went from 5.5 million people to 20 million people in just 30 years.

Sending everyone to Whole Foods with an apron and a vegetable peeler isn’t going to fix this. As long as our food system continues to produce cheap, unhealthy, ready-made food, cooking from scratch won’t be a viable alternative.

Instead of telling people to leave the world of corporate food, I’d love to see Pollan help improve it.  When the government gets serious about reducing obesity rates, it will stop subsidizing unhealthy food and start labeling it. It will restrict companies from advertising to kids and selling them junk in their schools. It will tax the obvious bad products like soda, and nudge us to consume less of the slightly-less-bad ones.

Should people cook more? Undoubtedly. But before we tell them to vote with their forks, we should tell them to vote with their votes.

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Filed under America, Food, Personal

I Feel Dirty For Reading This

Check out this final paragraph of a super-gossipy New York Times story about the ‘Today’ show:

Earlier this month, Lauer sought advice from his former co-host Meredith Vieira. On April 3 they met for lunch around noon at Park Avenue Spring, an upscale restaurant on East 63rd Street. They swapped stories about their children and then, according to another diner, talked about work in hushed tones. Vieira urged Lauer to tough it out, promising that the bad press would subside. Dessert arrived at the table by 1 p.m., but they lingered until 1:40, bantering the way they used to on television. Lauer held the door for her as they walked outside, and she embraced him, rubbing his back reassuringly and saying in his ear, “It’ll be O. K.” 

That ‘according to another diner’ is pretty gross.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious