Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Princesses: A Cure for What Ails You

As the Fourth of July approaches, I have to wonder, especially in light of recent events, whether Americans made the right decision. To revolt.

I get that the colonists were keen on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equality and justice and all that jazz. But perhaps we were a bit hasty in overthrowing the English king.

Because no king means no princesses.

Princesses are having a bit of a moment. Last weekend, in case you hadn't heard, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden married her prince--actually, her personal trainer. I gorged on the coverage like it was triple-layer chocolate cake. I pored over photos of the glittering gowns and bejeweled guests--Bulgaria has a king and queen, who knew? Lapped up fun facts about Victoria's Cameo Tiara (apparently a gift from Napoleon to Josephine). Obsessed over YouTube footage of the couple's first waltz and the groom's toast to his new wife, never mind that most of it was in Swedish. And I wasn't the only one. The Internet was buzzing with well wishers from around the globe. If you're looking to bring about world peace, there's nothing quite like a royal wedding to get us to all join hands and hum the Pachelbel Canon. Because even after Charles and Diana smashed the myth to smithereens, we still want to believe in fairytales.

And now comes word that Prince Albert of Monaco is engaged. This tiny principality, which, without its royals would be about as exciting as Andorra, will have its first Crown Princess, a former Olympic swimmer, since Princess Grace died in 1982. Can we handle another spectacle? Bring. It. On.

Royal weddings take the excitement of Christmas and multiply it by a gold-plated horse drawn carriage. There's nothing in the States that remotely compares--that's sort of the point of our country--and I for one miss the pomp and circumstance. Sure, we have our inaugurations, but those mostly feature old men in grey suits making speeches. Yawn. I want to see palaces and footmen and, did I mention, the Cameo Tiara.

Clearly plenty of my compatriots do as well, admittedly most of them of the female persuasion, otherwise how to explain the popularity of the Oscars or the Kardashians? What is "The Bachelor" but a modern re-telling of Cinderella, arguably the most famous princess of them all. In the absence of a titled aristocracy and their attendant glamour, Americans created Hollywood and a class of professional celebrities to fill the void, though they don't quite muster up, now do they. Where's the mystique? Where's the elegance? Even if you could picture Julia Roberts in a crown and a 20-foot train, would you wake up at 4 a.m. to watch her marry her cameraman? It's just not the same.

Celebrities are a dime a dozen--quick, tell me the difference between Jessica Biel and Jessica Alba. Enough said. While admittedly standards for royals have slipped in recent years, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway married not just a commoner, but a single mother (she definitely had some 'splaining to do), they remain, in their rarity, a breed apart.

Like a white tiger, there's something magical about royalty in general and princesses in particular. They're pretty and sparkly and not quite real--a pure escapist dream. Note, little girls don't play "queen." That's stodgy and boring and too much like a job. Listen to Paris Hilton talk about how hard she works to promote her "brand" and that's all you need to hear to know she's not a princess. Princesses sprinkle fairy dust, they don't attend networking events.

The other day, I spent the afternoon with a two-year-old, dressed in her Cinderella costume. She took my hand and walked me to her bedroom, where she showed off her princess dolls, along with Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse. Princesses, to her, are every bit as fictional as a Disney character (heck, some of them
are Disney characters). And perhaps, after all, that's their enduring appeal, to this writer at least: they're a bit of childhood fantasy come to life.

You can aspire to fame and fortune, but the mere fact that these goals are attainable--we have Lady Gaga and Bill Gates as proof--causes them to lose their luster. What's more, trying and failing to achieve that status--notoriety or unheard of riches or even a modicum of material success--is the reason entire categories of pharmaceutical drugs exist. That's what I appreciate about royalty: you can't possibly aspire to it, so just sit back and enjoy it like a summer popcorn movie. Instead of popping a pill to relieve the stress of modern American adulthood, doesn't having a princess to gawk at sound like a far better antidote?

Can't we have our Constitution and our princess too?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Inconvenient Truth About Public Transit

One of the benefits of being a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club is that it assuages the guilt I feel over owning a non-hybrid vehicle (frankly, our Honda Element verges on SUV, but we barely drive it, I swear, and it's a total lifesaver at IKEA). Another is Sierra magazine. It arrives every couple of months, which means that I have time to finish reading one issue before another shows up in my mailbox (New Yorker, I'm talking to you).

The current edition has a fascinating feature on ultralight backpacking for those crazy folks who like to hike thousand-mile trails, or blaze their own path from Maine to Washington. I'd totally love to join them on their trek if there were such a thing as indoor outdoors plumbing.

But what I found most intriguing were the results of a climate change poll that took a look at how well people walk the environmental talk. In other words, which potential conservation actions a person believes to be important vs. whether or not they engage in said behavior. For example, 93% of those surveyed thinks it's important to turn off unneeded lights, and 84% follow up by actually flipping off switches. Sixty-two percent believe in composting, only 14% do it.

The greatest discrepancy, not surprisingly, had to do with transportation. We all know Americans are profoundly attached to their cars (I cried when someone smashed in one of our Element's windows last year), here's how much: 73% believe public transit is important, only 10% ride it. Count me among that paltry latter group--I said I love my car, I didn't say I love to drive--but I'm not exactly out there beating the public transportation drum. Why not? Because it sucks.

I suspect a large number of, for lack of a better term, let's just call them hypocrites, eschew public transit for the sole reason that they don't have access to it. I grew up in suburban Ohio. There was no bus system, much less rail. We didn't even have a movie theater. If we wanted entertainment, we got drunk in the bowling alley parking lot. And we liked it that way. When I moved to Chicago (really, can you blame me?) I immediately started riding the bus to and from work and pretty much walking everywhere else. Later I graduated to the El system--once you go rail, you never go back to the bus. For the past 17 years, public transit has been my primary mode of transportation. So when I say that it sucks, I say that with a fair amount of authority.

Here's the trouble:
  • For starters, it's inconvenient. Sure, bus routes blanket the city, but to get from Point A to Point B might require any number of transfers from one route to another. If you think a connecting flight via airplane is a hassle, try waiting for that second plane in the rain or snow or blistering heat--for a half an hour. Rail lines are even less ubiquitous, leaving huge swaths of the city unserved. My personal solution has been to essentially live my life along the route of 1 or 2 train lines. And while I've managed just fine with this system, it's been limiting, to say the least, not just in terms of little things like where we dine out or where we shop for clothes, but major decisions like where I've looked for work. If I can't get there via the Brown or Red lines--or on foot--there's a pretty good chance I don't go there at all. I can understand why most people aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice.
  • It's public. I know, that seems rather obvious. But if you're used to driving a car, it's quite shocking to suddenly share your ride with dozens of other people. Most of whom forget they're sharing their ride with you. They clip their toenails. (Yes, they do.) They listen to their headphones, really loudly. They argue with their boyfriends--either in person or on their cellphones. (Oh, don't get me started on cellphones.) They eat fried chicken--though food is specifically prohibited--and leave the scraps on the floor or their seat. They beg for money or run con games. If they're Cubs fans, they tend to vomit after 9 innings of beer consumption. If you don't have to subject yourself to this, why would you?
  • It's messy. This point is not to be confused with the chicken scraps or barf. It has to do with walking to and from a train station or bus stop--which are not, make no mistake, situated in your driveway--in any and all kinds of weather. And in Chicago, there is always weather. If it's raining, you get wet. If it's snowing, you get slush all over your pants. If it's windy, your hair is destroyed. If it's hot, you need a second shower before you reach the station. By the time you get to your destination, you look like trash. And all those people in their cars--fresh as a daisy.
  • It's expensive. A gallon of gas costs about $3 in Chicago. Even a relative guzzler like our Element can go 25 miles for that amount, or about 12 cents per mile. Now let's price transit: A one-way rail trip, regardless of distance, will set you back $2.25. Same for the return unless you can accomplish your business in two hours or less. So let's say I travel roughly 4 miles to see a movie. That's $4.50 in train fair vs. 48 cents in gas. Even factoring in parking, and Chicago's skyrocketing parking rates at that, driving is still a better deal. Just this past weekend, my parents were in town and we took them to the Green City Farmers Market near the Lincoln Park Zoo. To and fro, with a transfer in between, cost four of us $19 in train fare. Compare that with $12 to park at the zoo. We went out to brunch on Sunday, this time taking our car, and coughed up two bucks in quarters for the meter. Two bucks versus almost $20 for the train, with a sizable walk from the station tacked on at that. My parents are in their late 60s and my dad's sciatica had been acting up all weekend. I look at them and I see myself down the road; I try to picture myself on the train at that age and it's not pretty. Makes me want to move to Florida where the seniors tool around in tricked out golf carts.

That's an abbreviated look public transportation--believe me, I could go on for pages and pages--and all the ways that it fails miserably as an alternative to cars. What I didn't mention is that there's no traffic, at least not on the train, and it's a great place to read a magazine if you can shut out all the distractions. That's pretty much the extent of the positives. For 90 percent of the people, they don't outweigh the negatives. Until they do, I don't see how we're going to move more people onto buses and trains. Sadly, I don't thinking anybody, at the local or federal level, is seriously trying to change that equation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake, If They Can Afford It

So we finished watching Season 1, Disc 1, of "Cake Boss" last night. First let me state unequivocally how much I adore this show. With that out of the way, let me pick it apart.

Yesterday I complained about Buddy Valastro's use of pound cake. Lo, in later episodes, he actually goes with red velvet for one of his concoctions, if only because it's a zombie cake and he needs something that looks like blood. He also, in perhaps my favorite segment of the series so far, demonstrated how to make the dough for an Italian pastry called lobster tails. When baked, it looked like puffed pastry wrapped around cream puff dough, filled with cream. I hate seafood, but I want one of those tails. Now. This was exactly the behind-the-scenes glimpse I had hoped for--how bakers make all those things that customers see when they walk into a shop.

That's the good news. The bad news is, this show feels naggingly scripted. Out of the blue, Buddy's mom forbids "exotic, erotic, whatever" cakes and a customer just happens to request one for a raunchy bachelorette party. The delivery team just happens to drop a cake on their way out the door, creating additional chaos. An engaged couple agrees to have live doves as part of their wedding cake. No. Way. There's not a bride on this planet who hears the words "you'll release the doves from the cake" and agrees to have live creatures winging around her reception, possibly pooping on her veil (though I was more concerned about damage to the cake itself). Perhaps most egregious was the scenario in which a husband purportedly surprised his pregnant wife with a delivery of baked goods from Buddy. I say "purportedly" because how surprised could a person be when a camera crew shows up at her house and sets up equipment to film Buddy walking through the door.

I'm starting to suspect that all of these "customers" have been recruited to create an excuse for ridiculously extravagant cakes. You ever heard of a "Zombie Walk"? Me neither. And in exchange, the aforementioned plants receive said cake, and perhaps the entire party, for free.

Which brings me to the "c" word. "How much do these cakes cost?" asked the voice of reason, aka, my husband.

I had posed a similar question to a local pastry chef, Peter Rios, the owner of Alliance Bakery in Wicker Park. He told me about a couple who had approached him to bake their wedding cake. The pair apparently lived or worked, I'm not sure which, right across from Pennsylvania Avenue. They wanted the Capitol Building for their cake, to feed 150 people. Rios spent half a day figuring out a design and quote for the cake, and arrived at $2,000. Let me repeat. $2,000. At that, Rios admits he's taking a loss. "We could never charge what goes into baking that cake."

The couple, on a budget, balked. Rios wound up creating a smaller dome and another cake on the side, for about half the original price. Even at that relative discount, Rios confesses, "I would never pay that."

Brides, or their fathers, often will. But Buddy's customers aren't all brides. In one episode, he creates a 4-tiered monster for a Sweet 16 party. The cake easily would have fed 200 and I counted maybe 15 girls at the soiree. The zombie cake was even more excessive--using Rios' pricing as a guide, I'd estimate the value in the $3,000-$4,000 range--and this for a group that seemed likely to be unemployed when they weren't busy being undead. I'm betting that in both these instances, Buddy donated the cake, having wrung sufficient drama out of their creation for yet another episode.

The problem is that your average couple from Peoria now wants, and expects, a Buddy-style cake for their special occasion. On the one hand, that's good news for freestanding bakeries that lost a fair amount of their cake business to grocery store chains and Costco over the years. "Now people understand that what we produce is of value," says John Roeser, owner of Roeser's Bakery in Humboldt Park, which has been in business since 1911. How great of a value they don't quite grasp. "People bring in pictures and want you to make a $7,000 cake for $200."

That only happens on TV.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yes, Mr. Letterman, We Do Need Another Cake Show

Usually, I'm on board with David Letterman's rants, but when he took on the proliferation of cake shows, we parted company. Check out the monologue here; it turns up about 2:30 into the video.

Thanks to the magic of DVD, a cable-free household like mine can enjoy the wonders of "Cake Boss," which follows the adventures of Buddy Valastro and his band of merry men and women at Hoboken's Carlo's Bakery. Last night, I gorged on five episodes from Season 1, munching on microwave popcorn for lack of an appropriate sweet.

Buddy is a wizard with rolled fondant and gum paste. He's a Rembrandt with a piping tube, deftly applying swirls and curlicues to a canvas of buttercream. Bridezillas bow down before him. And he owes it all, sniff, to his dead father, Buddy Sr.

But once the sugar buzz wore off, a question kept nagging at me, mostly because my husband wouldn't stop harping on the subject. "Noboby ever says how it tastes," Dave noted. (My Dave, not Mr. Letterman.) Much as I hated to admit it, he had a point.

From what I could tell, Buddy makes most of his creations out of pound cake because it's easy to carve into crazy shapes, like a bi-plane, a fire engine or a roulette wheel, not because it's inherently more flavorful than, say, red velvet. What's more, in all of the episodes I watched, I saw a sum total of one cake batter being mixed. (I confess I have an obsession with industrial Hobart mixers. I could watch giant vats of butter and flour churn for hours. Seriously, if somebody posts that on YouTube, I'll never leave my computer.) In fact, Buddy literally separates his baking and decorating operations--baking on the first floor, decorating on the second. And guess where we, the viewers, spend most of our time.

Sure, Buddy's quick to mention that all the frou frou--flowers, bows, gambling chips--is perfectly edible. But seriously, who's going to chow down on a figurine, shaped like a fireman, of solid gum paste. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. Once the grand presentation is over and the carvers get to work, it's the cake itself that matters.

I get that cake in the nude isn't particularly sexy, though if it's so bland, how come cake batter is only the most awesome ice cream flavor ever. It can't compete, looks-wise, with the finished, frosted product. At least not on television, which is all about the visual. But it could, and should, be part of the equation.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the cookie, but even I have to admit that there's nothing quite like an amazingly good piece of cake. I've had chocolate slices that were so rich I thought I would vomit if I ate another bite--and yet I took that next bite because I couldn't stop. I'm also a sucker for special occasion sheet cakes--somebody invite me to a graduation, please--and not just the cake itself but the crumb layer that stubbornly adheres to the cardboard underneath. When noboby's watching, I scrape up those leavings, which any cake expert will attest is the best part.

For my own wedding, because this is the way I plan all my menus, I started with the cake and worked from there. Ours was a four-tiered affair, a different flavor for each level. One was banana, one was lemon with raspberry filling, and a third was chocolate mousse. (The topper was chocolate cake with raspberry cheesecake filling. Oh yes, we hogged that one to ourselves for our anniversary. Awe. Some.) I had sampled each of these--and more--at a tasting with our baker. You never see Buddy offer this to his customers. It's all about the design. (And I don't mean to pick on Buddy. I'm totally powering through the rest of Season 1 tonight.)

So what we need, Mr. Letterman, is a cake show that's really about cake. There's more to life than pound cake and gum paste--goodness, there's an entire Cake Bible to choose from. My pitch: a combination of the two aspects of cake making--baking and decorating--the way "Law & Order," cha-chung, combines the cops with the courts. Food Network, you listening?

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Low Can You Go

I thought women over 40 were supposed to be more confident, more self-possessed, less concerned with the opinions of others. At least that's what Oprah keeps telling us.

To a certain extent, I've found that to be true of myself. I'm more willing to take chances than I was when I was younger, more willing to give myself permission to do what I want and be who I want, whether it's cool or not. Why, just the other day, I had my hair cropped short, all those other pony-tailed women be damned (an obsession Ms. O herself has caved to).

Then I watched the Tony Awards last night. Actually, because my husband was in the room with me, I flipped between the Tonys, the NBA finals and "Forrest Gump." I don't think I've ever seen Gump from start to finish because I'm pretty sure I would have remembered the part where little Forrest overhears his mom exchanging sex for educational services for her son. TV is like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're going to get, and this scene was like hoping for a caramel filling and biting into asparagus.

Anyway, back to the Tonys. This has to be the strangest award show on TV, in that most of the viewers have no first-hand knowledge of the nominees and/or winners. How many people attend the theater each year, much less Broadway? How many people, who think Hollywood is too liberal, went positively apopleptic at the sight of so many honorees thanking their "partners"? I suppose if you fall into this latter camp, you weren't watching the Tonys, you were sticking with Gump (and getting more than you bargained for there), or you were watching the Tonys, but only to get your daily dose of things to be pissed off about, which, clearly, the show delivered.

Me, I was watching because I love live theater and even if I'll never see a single Broadway production, I read all the reviews. (Reviews are like Cliff Notes for adults. I've never so much as skimmed a single page of "Harry Potter" or the "Twilight" series but thanks to reviews am fluent in both languages. Go Team Edward!) I was also watching because, as my husband would put it, there were dresses. Not necessarily on par with Oscar gowns, because Linda Lavin was a nominee not Charlize Theron, but fashion nonetheless.

And that brings me back to my original point, which I'd nearly forgotten amidst the Gump tangent. Cate Blanchett and Kristen Chenoweth. Chenoweth, 42 (almost), is a Broadway baby and former Tony winner, who also dabbles in TV and film. She played Glinda in "Wicked," but now more closely resembles a scarecrow. Blanchett, 41, is an Oscar winner who also dabbles in theater. More than dabbles, actually: she and her husband are currently artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company. She, too, looks like a scarecrow.

It's no secret that the vast majority of successful actresses are subject to insane requirements when it comes to body type, mostly so that they can fit into the pretty dresses that I tuned in to ogle and critique. But you would think--or at least I would think--that by the time these women reach a certain pinnacle in their profession, and a certain supposedly confident age, they would stop playing by the industry's rules and start making their own.

I'm not suggesting that they "let themselves go." I like the fact that women in their 40s, 50s and 60s (you go, Helen Mirren) are still considered attractive, in a way that they weren't twenty years ago. But I am suggesting that we need to adjust our opinion of attractive, which is to say that a 40-year-old Oscar winner shouldn't have to compete with this week's flavor of the 20-something month in the how-low-can-you-go on the scale sweepstakes. Speaking from personal experience, it's a lot harder after 35 to keep the pounds off. It scares me a little to think of what women like Blanchett and Chenoweth are doing to maintain their girlish figures (or not doing, which seems to be eating).

I don't know why we put celebrities on a pedestal. But we do. And as long as we do, we're going to take our cues from people like Blanchett and Chenoweth regarding what a women over 40 should look like. Which is why they owe it to us to look like a woman, a successful, confident, self-possessed woman. Not a scarecrow. And not a girl.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Eat, Pray, Film

People magazine wants to know which book-to-film conversion you're dying to see this summer. Well, actually they only give you three choices. I don't know, ever since Hollywood turned The Iliad into "Troy," I've been a little wary of film adaptations of my favorite books.

I'm not saying the novel-to-screenplay makeover is always a bad thing. For one, hearing that a book is going to be made into a film often inspires people to read the original source material. I've been seduced a few times myself. But what usually happens is that after I read the book, I don't want to see the movie. For starters, I already know the plot. But mostly I can't see how the movie can possibly be an improvement--subtleties are inevitably lost; interior dialogue, frequently key to understanding character motivation, is often jettisoned; casting choices are made with an eye on the box office, not what's called for on the page. I also tend to get too attached to the text; it pains me to have it altered in the slightest way (major case in point, "Atonement"; minor case in point, "Lord of the Rings: Two Towers"). In fact, the best adaptations are often of novels I never knew existed (ie, "Up in the Air").

So, which books has Hollywood mucked up the worst? Which book would you like to see get the film treatment?

The Best Talk Show Not on TV

Last week, I watched Ellen DeGeneres chat up Scottish actor Gerard "Call Me Gerry" Butler (the show was a re-run; the film Butler was hawking, "The Bounty Hunter," has long since slunk out of theaters on a tide of bad reviews). The surprisingly charming Butler was recounting a recent trip to Iceland, in which he and a pal camped out atop a glacier in the glow of the Northern Lights. It sounded amazing and I couldn't wait to hear more. But DeGeneres was only interested in whether Butler was or wasn't dating then co-star Jennifer Aniston. So after a few polite "uh-huhs" she cut off all the nattering about Iceland and interjected, "So, were there any women there?" I flipped the channel to "Jeopardy."

DeGeneres, like most hosts of celeb talk shows, is a comedian. She has no formal training in reporting or interviewing, which is an actual skill. And it shows. (Craig Ferguson is the rare exception in this stilted format and has a Peabody to prove it.)

I was reminded of this on Friday, at The Interview Show, a little local gem hosted by Mark Bazer, a journalist and syndicated columnist. On the first Friday of every month, Bazer gathers an eclectic line-up of Chicagoans (or folks with Chicago ties)--musicians, actors, designers, chefs, athletes, authors, politicians--and puts on the finest not-quite-late-night talk show around. Maybe it's because he has weeks, not hours of advance notice, but Bazer always comes uber-prepared. He's read the book, seen the play, eaten at the restaurant. And done a boatload of background research that goes beyond "look at this goofy photo of you when you were in high school." He has a list of questions, but those are just starting points; he gives the conversation room to breathe, lets it take its natural twists and turns, and, gasp, follows up on interesting revelations.

His most recent show included the god of Chicago chefs, Charlie Trotter; actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts; and former Cubs player-turned-author Doug Glanville. Where his network (and cable) brethren might fawn over such illustrious subjects, Bazer pulled no punches. Trotter was once named the second-meanest person in Chicago--with Michael Jordan, the former #1 no longer in town, did that elevate Trotter to top meanie?

The results were often meandering, but largely enlightening. Who knew that Trotter, Chicago's king of fine dining, was once an avid beer can collector? Glanville illuminated what really goes in those infamous baseball pile-ups: not much. No one wants to risk an injury by punching someone else.

Glanville, in particular, sparkled under Bazer's guidance. The two held one of the most measured, reasonable discussions I've heard on the subject of steroids. Free of the hyperbole and rhetoric that's the bread and butter of sports talk radio, Glanville explained the mindset of his juiced-up counterparts (clearly clean himself, Glanville looked slight as a cyclist), driven largely by fear--the daily fear that big league players have of losing their job, not just to the young hotshot in the minors but to the guy next to them on the bench. And Bazer listened.

It made me wonder, what if all talk shows were hosted by people skilled in the art of interviewing? And why aren't they?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Noo Way Uv Spelling

While Anamika Veerami was busy correctly spelling "stromuhr" to take home the prize in the annual National Spelling Bee, protesters from the American Literacy Council were questioning why bother to learn spelling at all.

The folks at the ALC think English is crazy hard to learn because of its wacky spelling, and they'd like some standardization, and logic, applied. So enough with "enough"--their SoundSpel method would change that to "enuf," and a whole bunch of other words along with it.

I don't know, the ALC seems at least a decade late with their protest. What with email and Twitter and texting, abbeviated, phonetic and otherwise incorrect spelling has become an accepted norm anyway. What nitpicking is left keeps a few dozen editors and proofreaders gainfully employed, which, in this economy, is a good thing.

Besides, do we really need to be encouraging further laziness, and a further dumbing down of the curriculum. So what if spelling is hard. So is algebra, so is chemistry. It's called learning. Are we giving up on that altogether?

Kudos to Anamika. She wants to go to Harvard and become a surgeon. And I don't mean sirjun.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Everything in Moderation

You'd never know it from FOX News or MSNBC, but there are moderate Republicans out there. Like Tom Campbell, a pro-choice, gay marriage supporter who's running for the senate in California. I'd actually consider voting for him, you know, if he weren't trying to oust Barbara Boxer and I lived in California.

Campbell is the subject of a piece in the June 7 New Yorker, that focuses on the senate race in general, but largely serves as a reminder that if extremist, attention whores like Sarah Palin would crawl back under their rock, this country might be able to reconcile left and right. Here's what's so unusual about Campbell--not just for a Republican, but for a politician of any persuasion--he doesn't pander. Asked during a debate whether individuals on the the "no-fly" list should be allowed to carry guns, he logically answered "no." NRA be damned. And then his opponents, who responded, WTF, "yes," had the audacity to call him soft on terror. Wha?

But this is where Campbell truly won my heart--he's the first Republican I've ever heard say, "If less government intrusion is desirable in economic life, why shouldn't it be equally desirable in private life?" Meaning, if you want to keep government out of your wallet, let's keep 'em out of your bedroom and uterus as well. Come on California Republicans--reward this man for not only being honest, but being right (in the best sense of the word).

Life Ends at 40

This week, the New Yorker announced its list of 20 fiction writers to watch. Half of them were women and a fair number hail from outside the U.S. None of them were under 40.

That's right, here we go again with an oh-so-original 20 under 40 list.

I was so annoyed by yet another publication's insistence on 40 as the demarcation line for success that I scarcely noticed, or cared, who made the New Yorker's role call. (I do recall Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, who happen to be married, so, phew, marital meltdown averted.) Apparently, I wasn't the only one offended. Ward Six provided a quick rejoinder: 10 over 80 rewarding writers who've been "kicking a** for longer than we've been alive." To which I say, it's about time.

I find 20 under 40 offensive for a number of reasons. True confession time: I'm no longer eligible to make the cut. I find this difficult to comprehend, and practically choke whenever I'm forced to give my age. I have no idea how I got here. A friend of mine recently turned the big 4-0, which was semi-traumatic for her. That's not even the hard part, I warned her. The hard part is that once you get over that hump, and make peace with it, the years keep turning. And it wouldn't be so bad--truly, I'm happier and in a far better place than I was in my 20s--if our entire society weren't conspiring to constantly remind me that my life is over. Or at least not worth recognizing.

In reviews, or comments on reviews, of "Sex and the City 2," I saw these stunning 4 over 40 actresses referred to as "crones" (definition: an old woman, hag). I've read suggestions that no one over 40 be allowed to work on "American Idol," as if the age of the show's producers is the sole reason behind theme nights like Songs from the Cinema. FYI: I've got Modest Mouse and MGMT on my iPod and would kill to ban Pink Floyd from radio airplay.

This ageism strikes me as schizophrenic. On the one hand, our culture is fixated on precocity and the youthful phenom. I was going to offer Mozart as an example, but that would date me, so how about Justin Bieber as a reference point. Or those 8-year-old gold-medal Chinese gymnasts. Or the toddler in Thailand who smokes cigarettes. On the other hand, we're living longer and, at least in the U.S., we're being expected to work longer, well into our 70s, when, if you're a woman, you're also expected to still be "hot"(for those of us who weren't hot to begin with, we just get to feel bad about ourselves for a few extra decades). Talk about mixed messages: We're told 50 is the new 30, but if that were the case, why no 50-year-olds on the 20 under 40 list?

"Golden Girl" actress Rue McClanahan died yesterday. She was 76, which, as my friend Lori pointed out, means she was 51 years old when she took on the role for which she's best remembered. Fifty-one. Playing a golden girl. Can you imagine that today? Thinking someone that age is ready for the old folks' home, when they're more likely to have a kid in elementary school.

I'm no fan of the Baby Boomers and their narcissism and the way they're going to bleed my Social Security dry, but they have made huge inroads in the way we think, not necessarily about aging--nobody really likes it--but about what we're capable of as we age. I was at a wedding last weekend where the groom was 50 and the bride was in her mid-40s, her first marriage. These two are just getting started, at an age when my own parents were walking my older sister down the aisle. But the media, with its lists, seems to not have caught up with this shift in the way people are living their lives.

Plenty of us are angling for second acts, myself included. And that's the other thing that irks me about the New Yorker piece. One of the things I love about writing is that it's not gymnastics--there's no biological component that lends an advantage to youth over age and experience. I'm constantly cheered by the fact that some authors produce their best work late in life. Case in point: Jose Saramago. Nobel Prize winner. You might have heard of him. I'm currently reading the latest brilliant novel by 67-year-old Peter Carey, who's likely to contend for a record third Booker prize. There's one to watch.

I know, the point of these lists is to shed light on up and comers. But does that mean no one over 40 can still be on the upswing? That we have nothing new or original to add to our public discourse? That late bloomers are less deserving of praise than quick starters? (BTW: Where will Bieber be in 20 years? Or 2?) At least 10 over 80 gives me something to aim for. By the time I get there, 80 will be the new 40. And I still won't make the New Yorker list.