Tag Archives: homepage

F train, 4:55pm

It is near-rush hour on the F train which is to say it is crowded but not packed. A pair of drag queens crack each other in a nook by a shut door. One baby wails in each half of the car. The one attacking my left ear is a little more persistent than the one attacking my right. A panhandler says “Excuse me” in a clear smooth voice so he can move past other riders before adopting a pitted groan to give his  SPARE CHANGE pitch.

I’m attempting to read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb which is a long and heavy book and not conducive to standing-up-on-the-subway reading but I’m reading it anyway. I’ve read this book before but I recently felt compelled to reread it.  I’m not sure why.

We are stalled at the Queensbridge stop when a yell asserts itself above the din. I look down at the far end of the car and see a man in gray packed against a closed door. His brow is knotted as he unsheathes his shaved dome from his headphones.

IT’S CROWDED BUT IT AIN’T THAT CROWDED! he shouts. WHY YOU GOTTA BE ON TOP OF ME?! From where I stand no one appears to be on top of him. I can’t see the target of his yells. I can only see the other riders craning their necks to get a look at the noise.

MOTHERFUCKER YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? he yells. These words are a signal that tell every pair of eyes to avert its gaze and every head to pivot away. Nothing good has ever happened after these words are spoken. No one ever says YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?! before handing out freshly baked cookies.

YOU GIVE ME AN ATTITUDE?! YOU TRY THIS CONDESCENDING BULLSHIT WITH ME?! The man was obviously convinced that he of all people should not have to stand for whatever transgression was just visited upon him. The world should have known that he was a man not to be trifled with or a man with a reputation or a man at the end of a long bad day or a man at the end of his rope.

The doors won’t close to move on to the next station. This gives the drag queens enough time to give each other a knowing look and run out onto the platform to find another car to ride in. I contemplate doing the same until a conductor squawks over the PA. For a moment me and all the other riders in the car believe someone will do something about the man’s escalating anger.

The conductor has other fish to fry. I told you you can’t hold the train doors to panhandle, he bleats in exasperated pixilation to some other miscreant. Let go of the doors so the train can move. You do that again and I’m callin the cops. The doors stutter back and forth for a few seconds to chase away this unseen annoyance.

Then the doors shut and we continue on out way but the yelling man is still yelling. YOU DO THIS TO ME?! he spits. Everyone else’s head is cast down. The F is an express once it leaves Manhattan. A long ride lies between Queensbridge and Roosevelt Avenue. It will be an even longer ride with this man screaming and everyone silently begging the train to move faster toward its next stop.

The car takes on the feel of a hospital waiting room. No one can stand to look at anyone else. Everyone expects bad news and they prefer it come sooner than later. The bad news will be nothing compared to the torture of waiting for the bad news.

I try to distract myself with my book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb starts with the amazing discoveries of physics in the early 1900s and how these advances laid the groundwork for the weapon to come. I’ve reached the point in the book where scientists first ponder the possibility of fission: Is it possible? Can a reaction be contained? Would this unleash more power than the world can handle? It’s also the point at which the rise of Hitler in Germany sends many of the world’s best physicists to America. At least the ones perceptive enough to recognize the approaching danger. Even some of the smartest people who ever lived had trouble believing the Nazis were going to do exactly what they said they’d do. It was all too monstrous to be real until it was monstrously real.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is about as accessible as a book mostly about physics can be. Rhodes’ prose alternates between breezy comparisons and touching profundity. But the finer details can be rough to negotiate even without a crazy person threatening to explode in your subway car. Someone who is wailing at a foe who I can’t see and who may have a weapon and may just be hunting in his overcharged brain for an excuse to produce it.

I kept my eyes on the exploits of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard because they were all past. We all know how that story ended. The one in my car had a more doubtful outcome.

Bohr did not think his compound model of the nucleus boded well for harnessing nuclear energy….THIS AIN’T NO GAME…Einstein had compared it to shooting in the dark at scarce birds…I AIN’T PLAYIN…the efficiency of slow neutrons “might never have been discovered if Italy were not rich in marble”…YOU GONNA DO THAT TO ME?!…The truth was, uranium was a confusion, and no one yet knew…THIS WHOLE CAR MAN THIS WHOLE CAR…Szilard saw beyond “energy for industrial purposes” to the possibility of weapons of war

The book slowly overtakes the voice. The yelling stops completely as light pierces the car and we approach Roosevelt. Whoever this man felt the need to yell at refused all that time to yell back—assuming he existed at all. Without someone to react with his anger burned up all its fuel and died off.

I dare to look in the yeller’s general direction as I depart for the local. I do not see him. He produced only fright before dispersing into the ether. If only every outburst failed to spark a chain reaction.

A Recap Disclaimer

PLEASE NOTE:  We have received complaints from readers who object that our episode recaps of the popular HBO series The Saga of the Clan Saga contain too many details of the episodes they review. We know that many people choose to record and binge-watch this series yet still want to be a part of the recap community. We also know that many people have never, ever seen an episode of this show but have contemplated doing so at some vague point in the future and do not wish to have their hypothetical viewing ruined for them.

Therefore, we want to warn all potential readers that the following recap of the most recent episode of The Saga of the Clan Saga contains a considerable number of such details that may fit the legal definition of “spoilers.” (See Korematsu v. Television Without Pity, 2005.) We realize there is much disagreement on this point, but we continue to believe that the best way to discuss an episode of a television show is to talk about what happened in it.

For those of you who have seen the most recent episode, please be advised that the writer of this recap included references to the series of books upon which The Saga of the Clan Saga is based. We are aware that many viewers have religiously read these books, but that not all you have. We’re also aware that many of you have read only some of the books, or read them while your attention was diverted, or may have thought you read the books but only dreamed you did.

We recognize that the events from the books alluded to in this recap may or may not be represented in future episodes and therefore may serve as spoilers. Please be advised that this will be especially true for those of you who have only read volumes 1 (“The Dragon-Scorch’d Plains”), 2 (“The Most Encarnadine Nuptials”), and 3 (“Prelude to the Afternoon of the Long Axes”). If, as many fans have, you chose to pick up the Saga from volume 4 (“The Blood-Soaked Plains of Samovar”), you may be safe, but we cannot vouch for this 100 percent.

If you have only read volume 7, it is imperative you DO NOT read this recap UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. We cannot stress this enough. If you do, you will understand immediately why we have warned you not to, but by then it will be far too late to atone for your horrible, horrible mistake.

If you fit into any of the above mentioned at-risk groups yet still feel compelled to read this recap, please switch your browsers to our specially coded REDACTED site. Here, you will find each of our recaps with identifying characteristics blacked out in the manner of classified documents. Please be aware that the site’s administrator will be unlikely to help you find the correct page for this episode, as he’s not quite sure where it is either.

Anyone who uses the details, descriptions, and accounts in this recap to spoil this or any other episode of this or any other series, via any means of information technology past, present, or yet-to-be devised, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Spoilage carries a maximum federal jail sentence of 10 years. Don’t become a statistic.

If you or anyone you know has been the victim of spoilers, call the Spoiler Victim Hotline for information about counseling and treatment in your area. If you accidentally swallow this recap, please seek immediate medical attention.

And now, without further ado, we present our recap of episode 507, “The One Where Wrathmire Kills Galdarf and Assumes the Throne, Only to Be Thwarted By His Bitterest Rival and Burned Alive”

Consider Doing More Than Nothing

I’ve pulled my book from Amazon.

Doing this will cause me no hardship whatsoever, either now or in the foreseeable future. My novel Hang A Crooked Number has sold as many copies as it will ever sell, having gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. I have no writing career that a break from Amazon could damage. I’m no threat to acquire such a career any time soon; I once thought writing would be my vocation, but I’ve accepted that it will be nothing more than a hobby.

In other words, this move involves almost no sacrifice on my part. The stakes could not be lower for me. I’m pulling my book anyway.

I was ambivalent at best about putting my book on Amazon to begin with. Did I really want to associate myself with a company that had destroyed Main Street as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Wal-Mart, if not more so?* One that’s laid to waste thousands of stores across the country, and apparently has its eye on taking out shipping companies, too?

I weighed Amazon’s force of evil against my desire to see lots of people to read my book and eventually decided to side with the latter. Since my novel was only going to be available in ebook format, I wanted it to be available in the format most people use to read ebooks. I saw a caravan full of demons barreling down the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride, figuring As long as they’re going my way…

I believe the word for this kind of reasoning is “chicken-shit.”

We all do this in some form or another, making explicit or implicit compromises with distasteful organizations because they might make our lives easier for a moment. It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t want to care all the time. Life is hard. We treasure those brief moments where one minute hassle has been removed from our days.

Many people who use Amazon are fully aware of, and have issues with, the company’s lowballing and bullying tendencies, its rapacious hunger to devour all competition, and its pitiful record of charitable donations compared to other giant corporations. We hit pause on these concerns because we really want to be able to pick up a deck chair and a pair of shoes and a DVD set without driving to three different stores.

Just a few weeks ago, I ordered a few items from Amazon, reasoning that it was hard to find them at local stores because there weren’t many local stores where I could find those items. It wasn’t until my package arrived that it occurred to me Amazon was the reason those local stores had disappeared.

By all accounts, this was Jeff Bezos’s intention from Day One: Become so large and eliminate so much competition that concerns about how you play the game become immaterial, because you are the only game in town. If you could bring to life a Gilded Age robber baron’s wet dream, this would be it.

Amazon’s current tiff with Hachette is just the latest example of what happens when you let some evil slide for a while for the sake of convenience. In a fit of caprice befitting an inbred Renaissance monarch, Amazon has stopped selling certain books because one publisher dared say no to them. The company actually has the balls to tell customers to seek these books out elsewhere, knowing full well that there are few elsewheres to seek out (especially when it comes to books), and that they’ve trained their customer base to look upon any offline shopping experience as an insufferable ordeal.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book, or if I’ll write much of anything in the future. I do know that I would like someone to keep writing books, and I would like those books to be available in as many channels as possible. I do know that I don’t want publishing to devolve into the same state as other culture industries, to become a Brazil ruled by a small coterie of the super-elite perched atop a sea of dog-eat-dog favelas stretching out in every direction.

And so I’d rather not be a part of something that is actively working toward that end, however infinitesimally small my part might be. On the off chance anyone still wants to read my novel, it can now be purchased here. I’ll trade the loss of hypothetical reach offered by Amazon for the knowledge that whatever future pennies are spent on my book won’t line Amazon’s pockets.

Pulling my book from Amazon is barely doing anything, but it’s not doing nothing. Consider doing more than nothing.

Donald Sterling’s Word Hole

As the current controversy swirls around Donald Sterling, many people are surprised he could be bounced from the NBA for making racist statements when he is a horrible human being who has done many horrible things over the course of his horrible lifetime. In his basketball dealings, the Clippers owner has consistently treated his players like chattel. In his other businesses, he’s even worse, as he did his best to impose racial quotas on his Los Angeles real estate properties and celebrated beating lawsuits brought against him by elderly widows.

For many, Sterling’s potential demise stemming from something he said in a secretly taped phone conversation feels unsatisfying, like Al Capone going to prison for tax evasion (or maybe racist tax evasion). He said some hideous words—the reasoning goes—but they were just words, which pale in comparison to his past actions.

Such reasoning fails to understand the character of what our world has become. In the 21st century, we have little else but words.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in the First World (the arena where the Sterling mess is being discussed in earnest), chances are you spend your day dealing in total abstractions. Rather than make tangible objects, you arrange words and send them to other people, who read them and arrange their own words in response. Or you interpret data into recommendations for possible future actions for someone else higher on the chain of command, someone you may never see.

If your job does involve making something, it is probably an app or a web site or something else that is, at its core, a carefully arranged series of ones and zeroes. The highest paid, sexiest jobs in our universe hinge on the writing and interpretation of huge blocks of letters and numbers and symbols we call code.

More and more human interaction is performed through some kind of electronic intermediary (the Internet, or some form thereof), free from physical contact and other sensory input, sometimes even free of any sort of context. As our world has grown increasingly abstract, the abstract has increased in value.

Words—abstract expressions, as opposed to action—mean more now than they have at any other point in human history. There was once a wide gap between saying I’m going to punch you in the mouth and actually doing it. The distinction between the two narrows more and more every day.

In such a world, an action is not as important as an event. An event is something that allows people to react publicly (on the internet) in the abstract form of words.

Donald Sterling made two fundamental mistakes that are indicative of him being a product of the 20th century (or, based on his racial politics, maybe the Dark Ages). His first mistake was assuming there’s any such thing as a private communication. His second was making his racism an event. He did so by condensing his horrendous views into a bite-sized chunk that could be easily disseminated and reacted to in the abbreviated channels in which most of us now interact.

In a world in which most of us get our news from condensed media like Twitter, Facebook, or frantic texts from friends and relatives, an event is not important unless it can be quickly understood and engender an immediate reaction across a wide swath of people. Such events have to possess as little ambiguity as possible, and allow people to construct outsized emotional reactions.

The events that have traction in this world are ones that allow uninvolved observers to climb atop soapboxes and adopt stances that bestow upon them a feeling of abstract righteousness. Something will stay in the news as long as it permits people to feel their reaction to it means they’re making a stand, even if that stand consists exclusively of tweeting about it once a day.

These abstractions push aside events that are, materially, far more important. A civil war in the Ukraine is kind of a bigger deal than anything Donald Sterling said, but a civil war has way too many complicating factors to afford any casual observer the luxury of feeling they’re on a side that is totally “right.”

An “important” event also has to emerge, progress, and reach its endgame in a timely manner. The missing Malaysian Airlines flight was enormous news for a few weeks, due to the weirdness of the mystery and human sympathy for those on the flight and their families. Then, it became clear that the story’s resolution was nowhere in sight. Now, as far as the internet is concerned, that story is as over as a TV series that never figured out its own denouement.

Had Sterling’s remarks left any room for interpretation, he could have continued owning an NBA franchise no matter how many employees and tenants he harassed. Instead, he said something so cartoonishly racist it ripped through the internet at lightning speed. It both allowed people to stand firmly against a specific person and a specific thing, and it seemed to point to a specific, imminent conclusion; i.e., kicking Sterling out of the NBA.

Should the NBA’s official reaction to Sterling’s words drag on for any length of time (which it almost certainly will), the internet will be happy to move on to another target of outrage, confident it did its part in getting rid of him. Even if Sterling remains a franchise owner, we will at some point stop talking about him after having talked about him at length for what seemed like a really long time, and that will be sufficient punishment in some people’s minds. If no words are spent on your behalf in this abstract world, do you even exist?

The Unbearable Heaviness of Slog

David H. Samson sits at a large oak desk in his cavernous office, stabbing fitfully at a freshly chopped salad with a plastic fork. The walls around him are lined with posters from the innumerable hit television shows he has created, shelves bowing under the weight of all the awards he has received, countless picture frames containing photos of him being embraced by celebrities, politicians, and royalty. But Samson is only here in spirit. His true vision is locked on the next great project that will occupy his fevered brain, even if, to the casual observer, it appears his gaze is on the small, viscous disk glistening on the end of his fork.

“What is this, a water chestnut?” he asks. His perception of food is as impeccable as his perception what TV audiences crave. It is, in fact, a water chestnut. “Never liked these things.”

Samson has just returned from a meeting with a team of foreign producers who hoped to adapt his latest masterpiece, the groundbreaking serial drama Slog, for French television. The producers were effusive with their praise, comparing Samson to Paddy Chayevsky and Gandhi while occasionally genuflecting. But when the time came to get down to brass tacks, Samson found his view of Slog and those of his would-be suitors to be incompatible.

“Ever since the show debuted, I’ve made it clear Slog was conceived as a 27-season arc, with 7 made-for-TV movie events, 3 theatrical releases, a Broadway adaptation, an animated series, and an imposter fragrance,” Samson sighs, showing the strain of explaining this yet again to uncomprehending minds. “The French producers could not guarantee the animated series and seemed iffy on the fragrance. It betrayed a complete misunderstanding of what Slog is all about.”

And what is Slog all about, according to its creator? “It is about…misunderstanding.”

Samson has TV writing in his blood, thanks to being the only child of the legendary producing team of Samson and Delilly. (Contrary to internet rumors, he does not have TV in his blood due to an experimental medical procedure he received in Geneva.) His parents, David H. Samson, Sr. and Marcy Delilly, were the husband-and-wife team behind such beloved sitcoms as You Make The Call!, Curtains!, and Mad About Madge! Samson-Delilly shows were noted for their gentle family-centered humor and earworm theme songs, while the couple themselves were known for their tireless political advocacy and generous charity work.

“Those two were a fucking nightmare,” Samson says.

Despite his comedy parentage, Samson’s own writing tended toward the shadows, even at an early age. He sold his first spec script for Hill Street Blues at age 5, then later used recess periods in grade school to do punch-up work for Law & Order. He grabbed Hollywood’s attention when, at the tender age of 16,  he dropped out of high school to showrun the short-lived pitch-black drama The Enforcer.

“It’s still one of best projects I’ve ever been involved with,” Samson says with a sigh, The Enforcer‘s failure fraught with all the regret of a lost love. “I know it seems ridiculous to us now, but back in 1994, America simply wasn’t ready for a tormented street vigilante prone to violent outbursts played by Jamie Farr.”

Undeterred, Samson sold three of his own shows to the networks for the 1998 season. NBC bought Street Cops, a police drama with a Nietzsche-quoting antihero; CBS opted for The Bar, a legal procedural whose main character quoted Camus; and ABC launched Deep Cover, a cloak and dagger thriller with a spy who quoted both Nitezsche and Camus. Samson promised to write every episode of each series, a commitment some observers described as “crazy” and others called “seriously fucking crazy.”

“I couldn’t trust another person to carry out my vision,” Samson explains. “Would you trust another person with your children? Yes, parents let teachers watch their children all day. And day care workers. And afterschool programs and nannies too, I guess. What I’m saying is that my shows are more important than your children.”

Samson not only shepherded each show, but turned all of them into huge hits, despite a grueling schedule and the crippling hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation. At the 1999 Emmys, he became the first person to accept awards for three different series at the same ceremony while also staving off imaginary bat attacks.

For the next several years, Samson cranked out one show after another, each more lovingly received than the last. Many credit him for ushering in television’s golden era of tormented, bestubbled antiheroes wrestling with their demons and the moral implications of their decisions. “Before Samson, dramas were drawn in broad, good-vs.-evil  strokes,” says Matt Zoller Seitz. “Now, thanks to Samson, every character on TV is a huge asshole.”

“It’s hard to say what it is about Samson’s dark vision that works,” critic Tom Shales wrote back in 2004 upon the debut of Samson’s landmark biker gang series, The Devil’s Disciples. “I do know that whatever it is you get when you watch a Samson show, you get a lot of it.”

Never was this more true than in Samson’s crowning achievement, Slog. In order to devote 100 percent of his energies to Slog, the former multitasker put all other work on hold, even abandoning his labor of love, the troubled domestic drama Doll Houses, which only managed to run 173 episodes without him.

The result was a show Dave Itzkoff called “the reason humans were put on this planet. Go to your ancestors’ graves and laugh at them for not being alive to see Slog.” At the conclusion of the Slog‘s triumphant third season, Entertainment Weekly proclaimed, “We declare David H. Samson our new god. Worship him, infidels.”

Slog follows the trials and tribulations of Brad Derwood, a morally conflicted mob boss/doctor/stay-at-home dad who may be hiding a terrible secret. Each episode contains a small slice of Derwood’s endlessly fascinating life, whether that slice includes crushing a stool pigeons head with a wrench or simply waiting for his laundry to be done.

“If I didn’t capture every single moment of this character’s life, I would do a disservice to both him and the audience,” Samson said upon revealing that a future 12-episode arc would just be footage of Derwood asleep in bed.

Slog inspires fierce devotion among its devotees, thanks to its gripping storyline, and Samson’s insistence that true understanding of the show can only be achieved by watching it constantly, “to the exclusion of everything else in your life. If you think you understand it, then you’ve understood nothing. Go back and watch it again and again and again until none of it makes a bit of sense.” When recappers give an episode a less than glowing review, fans have been known to attack with harsh comments on the offending blogs, and also with baseball bats on the writers’ heads.

I ask Samson if he’s heard of the roving gangs of Slog fans who pummel anyone they suspect of never having seen the show, he smiles. “Legally, I can’t say I condone such behavior,” he says with a knowing wink. “But I can say that savage beatings are the sincerest form of flattery.”

There are a few spoilsports who dare rain on Slog‘s parade. Some critics charge that Slog too often veers into self indulgence, as in a recent episode comprised entirely of the protagonist sitting in a Pep Boys while waiting to get his car’s oil changed. Others say Samson’s whip-cracking style is needlessly hard on his actors.

“I demand a lot of everyone who works for me and I will not apologize for that,” Samson says. “I need everyone to keep focus and perspective and remember than making television is the most important job in the universe.”

Despite this, Samson has no comment on the charges that he forced series regular Bill Thompson to eat a brick on set. Accounts of the incident differ, but Thompson himself has refused comment, as his mouth is still wired shut.

Still others contend that the hyper-macho world he created for Slog leaves no room for women, and that he has never written roles for actresses that weren’t long-suffering wives, strippers, or murder victims. To this charge, Samson responds with a resounding, irrefutable, “Sure I have.” As an example, he names Lucinda, a prostitute featured in a two-episode storyline during season seven. “She dropped a cinder block on a pimp’s head. Gotta be pretty strong to do that.”

Can he name any others? “Not offhand, but the fact that I can’t proves I’m not a misogynist. If I was, I’d have preloaded examples in my brain to plead my case. This shows I’m not so sensitive.”

Samson is less annoyed by charges of sexism than by those who take issue with Slog‘s dramatic pace.  “I’ve even heard people say that Slog drags a bit for the first 90 episodes,” Samson mutters with a roll of the eyes. “To them I say, Of course it does. It was always intended to drag for the first 90, then have a sharp uptick for the next 20, then plateau for the following 15, then dip a bit for another 15, then get really bad for 10. Only then is the stage set for the series’ real action.”

“If I have to explain this,” he adds, “I’ve probably failed as a writer. But it’s more likely you’ve failed as a viewer.”

Even after creating a work of art of such unflinching mastery, Samson stares beyond his salad, pupils thrusting toward the next idea. “I have this vision,” he says, expelling the words in a rush, as if glad to unburden his mind of such weighty thoughts. “It comes to me only in glimpses, sometimes in the middle of the night. I reach to grab it and it slips from my hand. I don’t know how I can make this happen, I don’t know when or where, but I know someday I will bring this to life.”

“I really want to make a show about America’s most racist magician.”

A Wintry Mix: Snow Days and the Parent-Child Time Gap

Mayor Bill de Blasio caught a lot of flack on Thursday for not closing schools in the face of an all-day snowstorm. He even raised the ire of the normally apolitical Al Roker, who horned in on Nate Silver’s turf by predicting de Blasio would be a one-termer for his shoddy response to the inclement weather.

The mayor’s office did a bad job of storm response, and an even worse job of handling criticism. However, his response pointed to an even bigger issue. Namely, that schools and municipal governments everywhere (not just New York City) have failed to evolve along with the changing needs of working families.

Once, it was more common for a family to have one breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent. This has not been the case in the majority of households for several decades. By 2007, there were three times as many households with two earners as households with just one. And that’s across America as a whole. It’s hard to find comparable stats for New York City, but the simple economics of living there require both adults in a two-parent household to work.

New York City tends to not shut down the school system because doing so induces a ripple effect that negatively impacts thousands of businesses, as workers are forced to stay home and watch their kids. The mayor’s response when criticized for leaving the schools open was clumsy at best; some of his assertions were straight up not true, like when he insisted the National Weather Service’s snow predictions underestimated the strength of the storm, which they did not. But de Blasio did one thing right when he pointed to the impact closing schools has on working parents as his primary reason for that decision.

However, the school system doesn’t work on the same schedule as most businesses. Most parents work 9 to 5 or 6, but schools close at 2:30, for seemingly no other reason than that’s when they’ve always closed, and because there used to be stay-at-home parents waiting to receive all these kids mid-afternoon.

For most parents, the childcare gap is occupied by afterschool programs. Some are run directly by the city; others are funded by city grants and run by community organizations. These provide a vital service for working families, especially for low-income households that can apply for such services at low or no cost.

Here’s where the issue lies. Education—as represented by the school system—is considered a vital service. Child care—as represented by the afterschool programs—is not. The number of two-earner households continues to rise, a trend that is unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes. And yet school systems, and the municipalities who own them, continue to regard child care services that serve working families (such as afterschool programs) as something “extra,” a nice add-on. In reality, these services are every bit as vital to working parents as school itself.

On Thursday, though schools were open, the Department of Education canceled all afterschool programs (see screenshot from the DOE’s website below), already the third time they were canceled since the first of the year. When afterschool programs are canceled, it forces parents to leave work early and travel home on roads that are, presumably, treacherous enough to warrant said cancellation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 1.11.00 PMHow this affects a working parent depends on what kind of work the parent does. If you have a professional office-type job, your management is probably sensitive to these issues. Thus, leaving work early to pick up your kid in a snowstorm is a mere inconvenience. If you’re salaried, you won’t have to worry about losing any money to do so.

But let’s say you work in retail or the service industry. Your boss might let you leave, but you won’t get paid. Someone who works a retail or service job will probably feel the loss of a few hours’ pay more keenly than a better-compensated office worker would. In short, the cancellation of afterschool programs hurts most those who can afford it least.

The failure to recognize the importance of afterschool programs is indicative of a larger failure of school systems everywhere to adapt to the needs of modern households. In New York State, for instance, there are around 180 school days per year. Assuming a parent gets two weeks’ vacation, receives all major holidays off, and never has to work weekends, he or she has to be at work about 230 days a year. That leaves a differential of 50 days, and even this gap assumes an amount of off time that many parents can’t count on.

Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, American adults have a pronounced antipathy to taking days off of work. This has to do less with ingrained Puritan work ethic and more to do with the fact that many of us simply can’t afford lengthy vacations. And yet, we give our children one of the shortest school years in the world. Making kids spend more time in school clashes with our post-Boomer notion that the ideal childhood is filled with acres of free time to play and be creative. This is how parents wind up with a gap of 50 days (or more for many parents) that must be filled by some form of child care.

What’s especially infuriating about this gap is how little bearing it has on the realities of modern lives. The bulk of those 50 days are comprised of summer vacation, an antiquated remnant from the days when most kids had to help out on farms during the hotter months. The rest comes  from extended vacations that do not correspond to any parallel time off received by working adults. The discrepancy between the schedules of school-age children and the schedules of earners forces periodic child care crises, adding unnecessary stress to the already stressful state of being a working parent.

Next week, kids in New York City won’t just have off for President’s Day. They receive five days of something called Mid-Winter Recess. Most working parents don’t get their own Mid-Winter Recess. There are day camps to take care of all those unleashed kids, assuming parents can afford them. Those who can’t have to hope a grandmother or friend can keep an eye on the kids. If not, they have to take off those five days, assuming their boss will let them come back to work when it’s all over. And keep in mind that this Mid-Winter Recess comes only six weeks after kids were off for eight days around Christmas and New Year’s.

All this time off has no relevance to a modern family’s schedule, and it might even be detrimental to children’s academic development. The same can be said of a school day that ends when most parents still have hours left on the clock.

Of course, there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Absent federal legislation for paid family leave (which seems a non-starter), it would basically require employers to be accommodating to working families’ schedules. Any solution would also require teachers to work more days and hours. Most teachers would say they work hard enough as it is, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the difficulty of arriving at a solution shouldn’t be a reason to not fix something that’s clearly broken.

There has to be some way to shrink the time gap between working parents and their children. Perhaps it begins with thinking of those post-2:30 hours not as afterschool, but school period, thinking of child care not as some extra thing but a necessary thing. Until we do, snow days are the least of our problems.

The Snark, Hunted

You may recall that a while back, I wrote a post about a failed attempt to do a “dramatic reading” of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” Nevermind; you don’t recall that. Nor should you.

Regardless, the reason I made that failed attempt is because Jean Shepherd used to read this poem on his radio show, and his recitations of it were one of my dad’s favorite things. He would attempt to recreate the effect by repeating certain lines in his best Shepherdian low. For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I could only guess at what Shepherd’s own version sounded like, because even though he reportedly read the poem on the air many times, there were no examples readily available. I scanned the darkest depths of the interwebs for months until I decided that alas, all of Shep’s readings were lost to the mists of time.

And then this morning, a man named David Director emailed me. He had a college roommate who taped many Shep shows in the early 1960s, as Shep fans often did back in the day. He had the foresight to make copies of some of his roommate’s tapes, including a series of shows from January 29-31, 1963, during which Shepherd read “The Hunting of the Snark” in its entirety.

David was kind enough to send me an mp3 of Shep reading the introduction to the poem (“Fit the First”) and to also give permission to share it here. So now, thanks to David (and his erstwhile roommate, David Singer), I present to you Jean Shepherd reading the opening to “The Hunting of the Snark.” Enjoy.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

What The Woody Allen Scandal Means For Me, A Very Important Writer

Surely no one wished to be in Woody Allen’s shoes when Dylan Farrow’s new accusations came to light earlier this week. But I assure you, gentle reader, neither did you wish to be me, a Very Important Writer, at that moment. For the news sent me into the kind of turgid self-examination and moral reassessment known only to Very Important Writers, the men to whom the world looks for guidance.

As you are no doubt wondering, how does an allegation of pedophilia make me, a Very Important Writer, feel? As shocking as it may sound to you, this is not a question I could answer immediately.

Foremost on my mind when hearing of Dylan Farrow’s tale of unconscionable sexual abuse and violation of trust was, of course, how would I enjoy Woody Allen’s films again? Could I restrict my enjoyment to one viewing of Annie Hall while sitting on an uncomfortable chair as penance? Would it be more prudent of me to watch his more difficult films such as Interiors instead? It was a quandary not to be considered lightly, and a burden that only I, a Very Important Writer, should be asked to bear.

You can be sure that when I, a Very Important Writer, heard this news, it caused me to pace about my brownstone, lost in the recesses of my Very Important Thoughts. The walls of my humble $3.5 million home soon grew too confining. I phoned up a Very Important Writer friend of mine, but he was busy preparing for the Bread Loaf Conference, and of course also preoccupied pondering the same questions about Woody Allen’s work as I. Could we ever enjoy Allen’s films again, he wondered, and if so what would be a respectable time to wait to do so? We reassured each other that we, two Very Important Writers, should be able to solve these dilemmas in our own due time.

Hoping to clear my head, I took a stroll around my colorful Brooklyn neighborhood, peering in the window of the antique shops and the coffee shops and the charming bistro that used to be a laundromat. I stopped at my favorite watering hole and sipped a 12-year-old scotch while exchanging pleasantries about a local sports team with the ruddy-faced barkeep. I sought solace in a delightful ethnic snack from a food cart while trying out snatches of Catalan I learned during one torrid summer in Barcelona. I believe I made myself understood, for all the deficiencies in my accent, and the considerable drawback that the delightful ethnic snack’s vendor was not from anywhere near Catalonia.

And as I ran across these people, I tried not to burden them with my own burden. To do so would have been unfair, for it is a burden they could not possibly have understood, no matter how much my soul yearned to cry out, You do not understand the grief Dylan Farrow’s lost childhood has caused me, a Very Important Writer.

I returned to my home, which began to seem very much like a prison to me. A prison with an ample garden and vintage pressed tin ceilings, but a prison nonetheless. The latest issue of The New Yorker was waiting in my mailbox, but it gave me no succor, despite a fascinating feature on the oldest bookbinder in Northampton. Nor did I find any relief in a sojourn through an advance reader’s copy of Franzen’s latest, The Tepids of Winona.

Alas, it is only in work that a Very Important Writer can find peace. We are much like the ant in that sense, or the miner, or the humble mechanic who toils on my Audi. And so I resolved to document my inner turmoil, because I wanted you, gentle reader, to know that even I, a Very Important Writer, can not answer every question. I must press forward nonetheless, though I can think of no person who has been hurt more by what Dylan Farrow was subjected to than I, a Very Important Writer.

Greene Avenue, 1930

My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.

The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.

Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.

This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.

This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.

Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.

So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.

If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.

Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.

You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.

I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.

26th Street, 1996

Thanksgiving looms, but the weather refuses to get cold. The temperatures dipped little by little from August heat to a mild October chill, then stayed there. I find this unsettling.

This school year has found many ways to be strange to me. NYU is in the midst of a housing crunch. Dorms near “campus” are needed for incoming freshmen and upperclassmen. That means sophomores like myself get the shaft. Most of my friends were placed at a brand new dorm on Broome Street, far away from classes but at the interesting nexus of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. (At this time, Soho is still vaguely interesting. Hard to believe now, I know.)

I did not land in Broome Street. I landed in 26th Street. This dorm was originally intended for the exclusive use of NYU’s dental students. Out of necessity, it has been drafted into the plan for dealing with the overflow of non-dental students. This arrangement that pleases no one.

The dental dorm is a charmless Brutalist slab near First Avenue, a few short steps from Bellevue, New York’s biggest and oldest public hospital. This proximity makes for some lively nearby foot traffic, particularly in the wee hours on the weekends. And Bellevue is not my only interesting neighbor. One day I come home from classes, turn on the news, and see Ti-Hua Chang (the victim of all of NBC-4 News’ thankless tasks) reporting on an incident at a methadone clinic down the block on Second Avenue. I had no idea there was a methadone clinic nearby, because methadone clinics rarely put up shingles outside their front doors. Go one block north and you find the Straus Houses, the last projects on the east side between here and Harlem.

Straus HousesAll my friends get cannolis and dim sum, and I get Manhattan’s last crummy neighborhood. It isn’t a dangerous neighborhood, just crummy. Unscrubbed, down in the mouth, just this side of hopeless. The architecture is so ugly that anyone who lives in it can’t help but feel they’d been dumped here. Everyone I see on the street looks unhappy to be where they are, be they medical student or methadone enthusiast. Even in this disturbingly warm November, it always seems gray here. At least I will only be here for one school year. Others don’t have the luxury of coming and going with the semesters.

Continue reading 26th Street, 1996