Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Halfway through Ulysses.

New York Navel Gazing

Last weekend I also made a trip to the Queens Museum of Art. I'd never been before (most likely because it is, as one might imagine, in Queens) to see a pretty interesting exhibit about Robert Moses curated by my once-upon-a-time undergrad thesis advisor, and the scale model of New York City pictured below. Since then, I keep telling everyone I know to go to the Queens Museum of Art to see the model...especially anyone who's only been in the city a few years, because the model can help you see the forest instead of the trees...it can give you a sense of the size of the different boroughs, where they are located, where population is concentrated. The model shows all five boroughs, at a scale of one inch to one hundred feet, and walking around I could find individual buildings at Columbia, and the street where I live now.

Looking from the Upper West Side of Manhattan south and east.

Looking from eastern Brooklyn to the west - Manhattan in the distance.

Looking from Queens south - with an excellent view of La Guardia airport.

Trivia: the General Assembly first met in the room that currently houses the scale model of NYC.

Second piece of trivia: Did you know that the Statue of Liberty faces Brooklyn? Or that this is because it looks in the direction of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ralph Nader

I did a Ralph Nader double-whammy a couple of weeks ago. I was listening to an interview with Nader on NPR, and it mentioned at the end that he's touring to promote his new book, The Seventeen Traditions, and would be speaking at the Union Square Barnes & Noble that evening. I didn't have anything in particular scheduled, so I decided to go.

Nader is a pretty fascinating speaker, because he's both incredibly eloquent and touchingly awkward. His words are very well-chosen, very apt, and he speaks thoughtfully and with deliberation. But he's not very good at transitioning from subject to subject, so his talk was very choppy (I noticed this at Barnes & Noble where I hadn't on the radio when an interviewer talked him through everything) and he doesn't have the kind of slick polish I associate with an orator.

What impressed me most about his talk was the way he dealt with the heckler in the audience. Events like this naturally attract the extremes - supporters and opponents. This heckler kept shouting out things like, "If you were so selfless, you wouldn't have cost Gore the White House," and other similarly angry comments about the 2000 election. I know Nader has a lot of experience with this sort of thing, but I admired his response. He didn't get angry, he didn't snap, nor did he ignore the heckler. Instead, he treated all of his loud-mouthed blabber with respect, and responded to all of his allegations calmly and rationally.

I actually really liked what he said - something like, "Well, and if I agreed with you then what, we accept that there will never be a third party?" Personally, I think it would make more sense to focus on reforming the electoral college and instituting instant runoff elections on a state by state basis, but the principle of the thing is right.

Later that week, I sat down to watch An Unreasonable Man with Melinda. It's playing at the IFC here in the city, but now all the independent movies that come out at the IFC are simultaneously available on On Demand, so anybody who has full cable can sit down and watch it anytime they want at home.

And I really recommend this documentary highly - first of all, because it's a good documentary. The filmmakers definitely have a point of view, and it's not hidden, but they do a good job of showing all sides of the story. In particular, they spend a lot of time interviewing apostates - people who were once active Nader supporters, but who have since either cooled towards him or turned against him.

But also because the documentary charts the whole history of Nader's career, and most people my age won't really know a lot about his accomplishments in the sixties and seventies, or have a solid sense of how he became who he is today. I certainly didn't, and I have to say I respect him a lot more know that I do. It also delves into all the controversy surrounding the 2000 election.

The title, and the full quotation that appears at the beginning of the film, gives away the documentarian's opinion on the man:

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw

And I leave you with a photo of Nader back in 1966, when he was young and looked like a more attractive version of Eric Bana:

Upright Citizens Brigade

OK, stay tuned for further posts but this one is fresh in my mind, so it goes first. Last night I went to see the Upright Citizens Brigade.

I had no idea what this was, so I was really pleasantly surprised. It's an improv comedy institution...at the beginning of the show, somebody from the audience calls out a word and then one of the improvers delivers a monologue based off of the word. Then, after that's over, the other improvers make up skits based off of the monologue. The monologuer did two monologues for each word, and they ran through the cycle four times.

I have been to bad improv before, and I have been to ok, that was fairly funny improv before, but I have not been to awesome improv before and all I can say is - if you want to see awesome improv, go to the Upright Citizens brigade. The comedians there last night were...

Amy Poehler (Saturday Night Live)
Seth Meyers (Saturday Night Live head writer)
Jack McBrayer (30 Rock)
Scott Adsit (30 Rock)

And a couple of other really funny people whose names I don't know off the top of my head and can't look up on an NBC website.

I don't know if you have ever tried to get tickets to Saturday Night Live, but I have looked into it and you have to send in a postcard in August (only August!) listing three dates you'd like to attend during the upcoming year, and then you are put into a lottery and maybe you will get seats sometime during the next year, hopefully on one of the dates you specified. Or you can show up at the studios really really early in the morning on a Saturday and stand in line and maybe get any tickets that have cropped up from cancellations or whatnot, if they are available and you are not too far back in the line. And then be ready to stay up late because Saturday Night Live is, I believe, actually live.

This show was free (free!), although you can also reserve in advance and pay like $8. It doesn't take a year's advance planning or trudging through the snow in the wee hours of your precious weekend, hoping against all hope that you're the only person insane enough to do it. On top of which, the theater is teensy tiny and it's really fun to see a lot of incredibly talented comedians improvise. Plus, everybody was free to be as foul-mouthed or inappropriate as they liked, which was also pretty fun.

I'd try to sum up some of the skits but I imagine they're only funny when a funny person tells the story/does the act. Humor is mysterious that way.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Elementary Particles

I'm on a roll here - my last post was about a play centered around a male prostitute, and now I've just finished a piece of filthy literature by Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles. Houellebecq is Big News in France - their current shining literary star and a subject of constant controversy. I'd wondered about reading him for a while, but so many people gave me dubious looks and said, "You know, Erin, he's great but I think you might hate his books," that I didn't pick one up...until recently, when Ariana assured me that he's a genius and Not To Be Missed.

Now, allow me to say the same to you, gentle reader: The Elementary Particles is great, but there's a good chance you will hate it. My one sentence review would be: Something along the lines of Borat, if you added more sex, a compelling voice, and lots of science. This is kind of inapt, but if you've seen Borat you probably remember thinking something along the lines of, "No matter how offensive this is, or how horrified I am, there's something true here..." That's the connection.

Here's an excerpt; not the most offensive, but not the least either:
For many women, adolescence is exciting - they're really interested in boys and sex. But gradually they lose interest; they're not so keen to open their legs or get on their knees and wiggle their ass. They're looking for a tender relationship they never will find, for a passion they're no longer capable of feeling. Thus they begin the difficult years. (193, Vintage edition, trans Frank Wynne)
I could go on and on about this book (it deserves discussion) but I'll finish off with two quick thoughts.

(1) More than with any other novel I've read recently, I found myself wondering what Michel Houellebecq himself is like and, in particular, what's wrong with him. Something is definitely wrong with him. Even if he is a genius.

(2) I now understand the reactions I got from Houellebecq readers. I appear to be doing a really bad job of recommending it myself - even though, in fact, I recommend it highly and hope somebody who reads this review will read the book, and talk about it with me.