Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Reading

Eat A Bug — Frank Bruni waxes about how the season has been a disappointment.

A “ceiling” defined the season, and there was no skylight in this one, no sunshine filtering through. “Down” was the dominant syllable, a suffix and prefix both. On the second day of summer President Obama assured us there would be a “drawdown” of troops in Afghanistan, because we could no longer afford our onetime degree of intervention and needed to be “as pragmatic as we are passionate.”

Economists talked ceaselessly of the “downturn,” so prolonged that it has come to seem less a dip than the new normal. Then of course there was the “downgrade,” courtesy of Standard & Poor’s, which rewarded our galling political constipation with an unprecedented demotion to AA+ from AAA. We could mock the inept arithmetic en route to it. We could quibble with the reasoning and motivations behind it. But none of that changed the symbolism — or the symbol. We were one vowel shy of what we used to be.

And we were under siege, by not just the economy but also the elements. Extraordinary flooding gave way to severe drought. The earth trembled where it wasn’t supposed to. And then, to top it all off, a hurricane drew near, screaming toward some of the country’s densest population centers and threatening a magnitude of damage we were hard pressed to afford. Nature hammered home the message that the Dow was sending as well. We had only so much control over our fates, and better hunker down.

Some perspective: weather is weather and storms are storms, not the galloping horsemen of the apocalypse, as the half-in-jest hysteria in cyberspace would have us believe. (I tripped across one Twitter message prophesying the revelation of Bear Mountain, just 50 or so miles north of Manhattan, as an active volcano.) And America, for all its troubles, remains by far the wealthiest nation in the world, its G.D.P. more than twice that of China, our nearest competitor. In many of our cities you can look in many directions and not see much evidence of hardship, but rather restaurants and hotels, stadiums and parking lots, airport terminals and movie theaters full to the brim.

Still, this summer crystallized a growing sense that our country’s can-do spirit was being replaced by a make-do resignation, and that our best days might well be behind us. I kept finding myself in the same conversation, over and over, and only occasionally was I the one to initiate it. It concerned whether children in America today were likely to enjoy lives as privileged as their parents’.

More below the fold.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. — Getting a spine.

I am pleased to report the sighting of an artifact so rarely seen among Democrats that it has become the stuff of legend and conjecture, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. It is called a spine.

Said spine was briefly glimpsed a little over a week ago at a “jobs summit” in Inglewood, Calif. in the person of Rep. Maxine Waters. “I’m not afraid of anybody,” the California Democrat said. “. . . And as far as I’m concerned, the ‘tea party’ can go straight to Hell.”

Her words left the Tea Party Patriots sputtering about the need to play nice. “The president and all leaders of the Democratic Party, who have called for civility in the past, are neglecting to censure their own,” the group said, according to The Washington Post. “Is civility only required from their opponents?” Which is funnier than a Bill Cosby monologue, coming from the folks who turned town hall meetings into verbal brawls and threw rocks through windows because they opposed healthcare reform.

I intend no blanket lionization here of Rep. Waters, who is the object of a protracted ethics probe and whom I have for years privately dubbed “Mad Max,” in both consternation and admiration of her feistiness. Moreover, as hypocritical and self-serving as the Tea Party Patriots’ statement is, it is also correct: telling people to go to hell is about as uncivil as it gets. I could never, in ordinary times, applaud such conduct.

But no one will ever mistake these for ordinary times.

Hanging Tray — Katie Van Syckle writes about her life as a waitress.

My name is Katie. I went to Dartmouth, and I am a waitress.

I like talking to people and I take pride in what I do. If my customers are nice or my hair looks particularly cute, they might ask me a question about myself. Most often the question is, “So what do you do, other than, you know, waitressing?”

I want my customers to enjoy themselves. But I understand that the moment you step on the floor to ask someone what they would like to drink or whether they have questions about the menu, you become their servant. It’s an adopted role and you are, in fact, serving someone and getting paid to do it. Perhaps some of my hipper colleagues feel bad about themselves. It’s not as if society hails waiters and waitresses—trust me, I just spent a week at the beach with my white-shoed grandfather and never disclosed the profession that I actually really enjoy.

GQ’s Alan Richman recently opened a discussion on declining service standards at popular New York City restaurants, and his article, in the September issue, made me think about how servers’ attitudes and levels of professionalism can vary depending on where they are. New York City, where I live and work and where Richman had an unpleasant experience that set off his piece, is of course a metropolis of haves and have-nots—and your waiter is probably a not. However much you love David Chang’s pork buns, the people ensuring that they arrive hot probably don’t get health care. They probably don’t have a contract, their shifts might be cut at any time, they might be sent home early, and the amount of money they make daily might depend on a complex calculation of the number of bottles of wine sold divided by the number of busboys on the floor.

Doonesbury — Daydream believer.