'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

If health care is just a numbers game, we all lose

Rep. Nancy Pelosi: She of the million-dollar page. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

Rep. Nancy Pelosi: She of the million-dollar page. (Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

A million dollars a page. So went the headline over at Drudge. This was the conservative web warrior’s way of dismissing the 1,000-page-plus health care proposal prepared by Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

It’s a classic gambit of the now utterly dispiriting debate surrounding the reform of health care in this country.

So shrill! So hateful! So selfish! What this argument — it’s too expensive; why should I have to pay for somebody else’s care? — seems to forget is that health care is much like so many other essential government services.

Don’t like socialized systems? How ’bout we do away with fire departments, roads, defense, police, etc. Few — even among the fiercest libertarians — are arguing for that.

And what’s maddening is that so often the most angry voices against a public option for health care are the same pro-military oldsters who benefit from Medicare and consider socialized Veteran’s services essential and patriotic.

The whole debate is painful for fresh ears: On a layover at LaGuardia this summer, my wife and I were aghast at the endlessly looping CNN footage of the town hall debacles. Such rage! Such hatred! Who are these people?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business, Death, Health, Politics, , , , ,

Amazing: I actually don't miss NYT food guru Frank Bruni

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

When the New York Times announced it was anointing a new food critic, I was nervous. For a lot of reasons, I’d looked around and felt like the good days were over. I’m old and getting older, the Internet sucks, journalism is dying, and the Yankees could barely win a game.

Then things started changing. I have a secret reason to feel young again, I started writing for the Web in a way that pleases me, journalism stopped dying for a minute, and the Bronx boys are booming.

So then what about the neo-Bruni? I’ve already written about how the new critic, Sam Sifton, is maybe being groomed for very big things. I was happy with his first pieces — really happy.

Would it stand up? Yes, very much so. His two reviews this week — one of a lobster joint in Red Hook and the other of a Cantonese palace in Queens — are both lively, surprising, at once intimate and authoritative. Not only do I envy his style, but I trust him and also want to be his friend.

Enjoy:

Time was in New York City that eating Chinese food meant eating Cantonese food, however bastardized: light stir-fries, lots of ginger and scallion, black-bean sauce, crisp chicken, steamed fish. This was true all over the United States. After all, China’s first immigrants to America were from Canton — Guangzhou these days — and on their backs were Chinatowns built. These men — and they were men at first, almost entirely — cooked what they remembered from home. They cooked as best they could without wives and sisters and mothers, and then they adapted the result to the tastes of those who suddenly wanted not just to taste what they smelled cooking in their work camps and crowded urban neighborhoods, but to buy it and often.Thus were Chinese restaurants in America born. That sweet and sour pork you ordered in a mall in Scranton came out of Canton in some way; so too the chow mein you ate in a school cafeteria, the dim sum you had one hung-over morning in a city not your own.

And remember: It’s never over until you give up.

Bonus question: Does food criticism actually matter? I think so — discuss.

via Restaurants – At Imperial Palace, Crab is the Calling Card – Review – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Business, Entertainment, Media, New York Times, Writing, , , , ,

The two best pieces you'll read about Afghanistan and Pakistan

In this image released by the New York Times, ...

David Rohde in Afghanistan in September 2007. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

If Iraq is increasingly the forgotten war, I fear too that memory and foresight could soon fails us in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given news that NATO ministers have endorsed General McChrystal’s plans for more American troops, clear-eyed vigilance is even more urgent. Here are two sources to sharpen your knowledge.

The first is New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s devastating assessment of the growing U.S. “drone” program. The twin military and CIA programs use a convoluted web of contractors, official authorizations, and shady Bush-era kill commandments to seek out and assassinate key Al Qaeda operatives. The thing is, scores of civilians have been killed or injured in Afghanistan and worse, in Pakistan, with whom we are not at war. And earlier this year, one of the drones, called a Predator and armed with Hellfire missiles, went astray and had to be shot down. Even with important enemies taken out, is this program worth the collateral damage?

Helping answer that question is David Rohde’s stunning five-part account of his capture, seven-month detention, and ultimate escape attempt from the Taliban. The drama of his personal ordeal is riveting enough. Better still is his almost revolutionary access to Taliban in their natural habitat. Moved by his kidnappers from southern Afghanistan into the Talib microstate in northern Pakistan, this New York Times reporter has first-hand intelligence on the cold-blooded leaders, fanatic underlings, and tragic malevolence of a little-understood movement. Guess what? His captors are terrified of being vaporized by a drone. But when one strikes nearby, more recruits join the Taliban fold.

This is Obama’s war. It’s confusing; it’s heartbreaking; it’s not going away. The least we can do is our homework. And Mayer and Rohde are essential sources.

Bonus: My friend Adam B. Ellick makes video documentaries for The New York Times. This is his harrowing, heartbreaking story from Swat.

Filed under: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Media, New York Times, Pakistan, Taliban, The New Yorker, , , , , , , ,

Sorry: We are no longer watching you die

I just read perhaps the most unnerving result yet of the decline of journalism. Pressed for cash, news organizations are no longer assigning reporters to cover executions.

There’s one exception: Michael Graczyk, based in Houston for the AP. Being that his beat is Texas, America’s leading state for capital punishment, Graczyk has in his 20-year-plus posting witnessed some 300 deaths.

No reporter, warden, chaplain or guard has seen nearly as many executions as Mr. Graczyk, 59, Texas prison officials say. In fact, he has probably witnessed more than any other American. It could be emotionally and politically freighted work, but he takes it with a low-key, matter-of-fact lack of sentiment, refusing to hint at his own view of capital punishment.

So what does it do to a man to watch 300 people die? Graczyk is as subdued as the act itself.

“The act is very clinical, almost anticlimactic,” Mr. Graczyk said. “When we get into the chamber here in Texas, the inmate has already been strapped to the gurney and the needle is already in his arm.”

Witnesses are mostly subdued, he said, and while “some are in tears, outright jubilation or breakdowns are really rare.”

They stand on the other side of a barrier of plexiglass and bars, able to hear the prisoner through speakers. And the only sound regularly heard during the execution itself, is of all things, snoring. A three-drug cocktail puts the inmate to sleep within seconds, while death takes a few minutes. Victims’ family members often remark that the killer’s death seems too peaceful.

It’s hard for met to imagine being able to sleep at night with so much death on my eyes.  Or maybe, worse, having the memory of watching the victims, some of whom Graczyk said give each other high fives.

But this is the kicker, and one I will not soon forget:

One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,” Mr. Graczyk said. “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

This is America. As Thomas Pynchon wrote: “We live in it, we let it happen, let if unfurl.”

via Fewer Reporters Are Covering Executions – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Business, Death, Economy, Journalism, Media, New York Times, , , , ,

As 'Times' constricts, a look at its sickly sweet heart

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Image via CrunchBase

A regular feature in the Monday edition of the Times, the Metropolitan Diary is a typically quiet collection of Dear Diary submissions from readers with a unique New York experience to share. Often drawn from overheard conversation, tender accounts of stolen moments, or funny encounters, the feature sounds pretty treacly. And it can be. But for whatever reason, I absolutely love it.

Take this entry, from this Monday’s paper.

Dear Diary:

When you work at a luxury hotel, as I did, employees must make sure the guests get exactly what they request. This can be especially frustrating when a guest is asking for something completely irrational.

In this instance, a couple of years ago, it was a businessman on a fiery tirade about reducing the noise that garbage trucks make in the morning. I stood at my doorman station with a hotel security guard and watched the man berate our co-worker at the front desk until the guest finally picked up his briefcase and stomped in our direction.

He passed me and stopped directly in front of Julio, the security guard. “Call me a cab,” the businessman ordered.

This was not Julio’s job, but not wanting to ignore the guest’s request, Julio looked him straight in the eyes and calmly replied, “You’re a cab.”

Julio turned around and walked away as I wandered into the street, waving for the nearest cab and grinning from ear to ear.

Maybe it’s because I’m homesick, or because I’m excited to see evidence that New Yorkers can be impressible, humble beasts, but I can’t look away. This is an appreciation made more poignant given that later this fall, my favorite newspaper will be letting go up to 100 — or eight percent — of its newsroom staff.

If it’s not already part of your routine, head to Metro section each Monday and enjoy. Who knows how long it’ll be an option?

PS: There’s some question as to how rigorously, if at all, the Diary is fact-checked. This seems important, but I read anyway.

via Serious Money in New York, but Chump Change in Greenwich – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Entertainment, Homesick, Journalism, Media, New York City, New York Times, , , ,

Padgett Powell has a desire to break your heart

powell

Padgett Powell wants you to beware of warm potatoes. (Courtesy University of Florida)

There are a few times in your life when you meet someone truly great. Even better when that greatness makes you want it, not fear it.

Fiction, Powell once wrote, is taking strange truths and making them into less-strange lies. Here the relative levels of strangeness might be debatable. But in Powell’s world strange truths do seem to manifest themselves regularly. When I arrived to visit him this summer at his house in the woods, he was engaged in a furious war against the local raccoons, which had murdered 17 of his 18 chickens. Powell, who is 57, thick-chested and muscular, had come home from a trip to Morocco to find the neighbor he left in charge — a shoeless machinist Powell paid to build the coops and safeguard the birds — gone AWOL, having taken Powell’s truck, leaving only a note, written on the back of a receipt for $70 of cheap liquor, asking for some money from Powell’s teenage daughter. All that was left for Powell to do was to revenge himself on the raccoons. So now he was trapping them nightly. But unable to shoot an animal trapped in a cage, he had failed to execute the first two he caught, and when I showed up he was girding himself to shoot his latest capture, a shifty-looking, smallish specimen, and be done with it, but he was dithering a bit and growing annoyed with himself that he had enough N.R.A. in him to feel he should have no sympathy for the thing but then also enough NPR in him to hesitate.

Well now there’s enough New York Times in him for the magazine to send a writer down to Gainesville to do a profile. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy:

ON THE DAY he was steeling himself to kill the third raccoon, I came to meet Powell at his house, a two-story Victorian that sits about half a mile down a dirt driveway. We were headed an hour northeast to the St. Johns River, where we intended to do some mullet fishing. The house sits on 10 acres of woodland he bought in 1992 with his wife, the poet Sidney Wade (they divorced in 2005), just to the south and east of Gainesville’s city limits, where the population is predominantly African-American and mostly poor. When I told him where I was staying — on the west side of town — he wrote to me, explaining how to find him: “I am far east (black side). You are in the proper zone.”

Maybe I’ve never felt like I belong in the proper zone either, but at the same time I guess sometime in my early 20s I realized I wasn’t great. Powell most certainly is — maybe too great. His feel for the human voice might be a knowledge akin to a calculator’s of arithmetic.

What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision. Here is the simple opening of the title story of his third book, from 1991, a collection called “Typical,” in which the narrator, John Payne, a laid-off steelworker, looks at his life and concludes he is an unpleasant person of little worth:

Yesterday a few things happened. Every day a few do. My dog beat up another dog. He does this when he can. It’s his living, more or less, though I’ve never let him make money doing it. He could. Beating up other dogs is his thing. He means no harm by it, expects other dogs to beat him up — no anxiety about it. If anything makes him nervous, it’s that he won’t get a chance to beat up or be beaten up. He’s healthy. I don’t think I am.

This is what happened when he debuted, in 1984:

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago things looked very different. The publication of Powell’s first novel, “Edisto,” in 1984, occasioned a reception almost like a coronation. The comic chronicle of Simons Everson Manigault — a linguistically precocious 12-year-old assigned by his mother to gather material in preparation for literary greatness — “Edisto” was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was also one of Time magazine’s five best fiction books of the year and exuberantly reviewed across the country. Walker Percy said it reminded him of “The Catcher in the Rye” — except, he said, “it’s better.” The book was excerpted in The New Yorker, won Powell a Whiting Award and a Rome Prize and got him a job teaching fiction writing at the University of Florida, and to this day it often appears on various critics’ best-of lists.

So what it’s like to be 25 years past a comparison to Salinger? From 2002 to 2006, I spent five summers in St. Petersburg, Russia, sharing that phantasmagoria with Powell. Seeing him pound through the city, glasses affixed to sturdy nose, fishing shirt stuffed with literature and pills, lips pouting, jaw clenched, I saw what greatness looks like on vacation. It’s a wonderful sight.

Bonus: Sizing up one of my overcooked paragraphs in 2002, Powell regarded me sourly and said this: “Mr. Deuel, there are warm potatoes sitting in your sentences doing warm harm.” I’ve never written the same.

Thank you, Mr. Powell.

via Padgett Powell’s Southern Discomfort – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Books, Entertainment, Florida, New York Times, Writing, , , , ,

Russia's epic fail — and the people's imminent revolt

A tractor factory in Chelyabinsk in the Soviet...

A tractor factory in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (Image via Wikipedia)

There are few modern nations more depressing than Russia. Crippling alcoholism, barbaric armed forces rituals, woefully corrupt police, rampant bigotry and homophobia, gun-happy journalist killers. Now we can add to that growing list the steady decline of the so-called “monotowns,” one-company factory cities that came to pass under Soviet rule.

According to a biting Times op-ed yesterday, such towns were conjured out of nothing in remote areas, where 20,000 people would be shipped out to make concrete or toothbrushes for the sole factory and employer, which would be charged with providing all other social services.

So what happens now, when such factories are bankrupt, crumbling, and unused? The people — thinking in classically fatalistic Russian fashion that they have no other options for movement or employment — begin to eat grass, consider protesting and, as the Times suggests, risk being brutally repressed by the government.

Here’s Putin’s response to one factory owner’s decision to close:

Prime Minister Putin traveled by helicopter to Pikalevo. Russian crisis management techniques haven’t changed much since the days when czars threw boyars off the Kremlin walls to be torn, limb from limb, by rebellious hoi polloi below. With national television cameras rolling, Mr. Putin berated the local administration, plant managers and the plant’s owner, Oleg Deripaska, formerly Russia’s richest man, whose BaselCement conglomerate is now almost $30 billion in debt. He then ordered them to sign a pledge to reopen the plant. “I did not see you sign!” Mr. Putin barked at Mr. Deripaska. “Come here and sign!” (“And return the pen!” Mr. Putin snapped afterward.)

And if that isn’t enough to ruin your day, the Times goes on to suggest that there are so many of these failed towns and so many of the people don’t realize they could access the state unemployment system, that a snowballing incidencce of widespread chaos is just a matter of time. Add to that the spread of cheap cell phone video and Twitter, and you just might have something truly revolutionary afoot in the motherland. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: World, , , , , , , , , ,

Pakistan confuse you? Watch this, now

[youtubevid id=”a6T5DeZ9Z4c”]

My friend Adam B. Ellick makes video documentaries for The New York Times. This is his harrowing, heartbreaking story from Swat. If the dimensions of that region’s suffering — and the nature of Pakistan’s problems — remain unclear to you, watch this.

And thanks to Adam for all his hard work.

Filed under: Islam, Journalism, New York Times, Pakistan, Religion, Taliban, , , , ,

Can a guy named Sam save 'The New York Times'?

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Image via CrunchBase

I am addicted to The New York Times. I love it, read it every day, and can not imagine a world without it. It took strong counsel from friends smarter than me not sink the little money I have into Times Co stock.

But people keep saying the paper’s dying, that my beloved source of information is in decline. No! So it was with keen interest that I read a story last week suggesting  Sam Sifton, the new dining critic, would be an excellent candidate to run the greatest paper in the world.

Really? This certainly hadn’t occurred to me when I first read Sifton would be replacing the departing (to an editor at large Times magazine job) critic Frank Bruni. But the article, in Slate.com’s The Big Money, made an interesting case:

What makes Sifton the man who ought to be considered a future editor of the Times is his ability to attack and explore popular subjects with intellectual rigor. Combine that with an ability to attract readers to stories with compelling headlines, art, and ledes, and you have all the tools necessary for leading the Times into the future on the web. Because out there on the flat, infinite plane of the Web, all stories have an equal opportunity to become the story of the day. The challenge for the Times is not to promote the soft news over the hard but to be able show, when relevant, that what happens in the kitchen (or on the playground or on television) can be just as important as what goes on in Afghanistan.

So it was with no less interest that I read Sifton’s pieces this week. The flagship one was a two-star review of DBGB, the new beer and food joint on the Bowery. OK, fine: He makes the requisite points about the place being near CBGB and how no one cares enough to retaliate by kicking in the door. Not that different than what I’d expect from Bruni, or any other competent Timesman of Sifton’s age, 43, to write.

But the second piece — a brief on a place called Cowgirl Seahorse — was a kind of sparkling revelation. You should read the whole thing yourself, if you care, but I’ll leave you with this taste:

And so there is on the menu coconut shrimp ($7.95) from Sugar Reef. Sugar Reef was nutso fake Caribbean eating in the ’80s East Village, fun like a fifth-floor walk-up with a pretty girl by your side. The shrimp are weird and wonderful time machines, crunchy and large, not so revelatory in flavor but a pleasant and intense reminder of a neighborhood filled with boys in pegged jeans late to band practice.

If the Times needs to lead the future of newspapers not by breaking news but by being the supreme cultural arbiter and guide, I think a good boss might be the guy who wrote that. (Or we’re all screwed. I just reread the piece and am concerned drug-taking may have been involved. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing, too.)

So where should Sifton do requisite time on the foreign desk? Beijing? Berlin? Bogota? I want to believe the future is bright, not bleak!

via Eating His Way to the Top | The Big Money.

via Dining Briefs – Recently Opened – Dining Briefs – Cowgirl SeaHorse – Review – NYTimes.com.

Filed under: Business, Jobs, Journalism, New York Times, , , , ,

What almost killed Wall Street? Smart people.

Harvard University

Way to go, Harvard. (Image via Wikipedia)

The always entertaining Calvin Trillin steps out of the pages of The New Yorker to tell the grey lady’s masses how Wall Street went wrong. Recreating the bar-side chat in which the writer himself learned the secret, Trillin assumes we know a bit about Harvard, club ties, and straight-up martinis. That’s OK, right? Because I bet most of you who are reading do.

Anyhow, the really clever idea is that Wall Street for generations had been the reasonably well-paid refuge for the Ivy League’s underachievers — the ones who slept through geology but grew up in Greenwich and figured they, like their dads and granddads, would hit the trading floor and buy a sailboat.

But then Harvard’s smartest — and MIT’s and CalTech’s even — realized they could forgo being professors and lawyers and other relatively less lucrative professions in order to make billions on Wall Street. Seeking fortunes — or at least a way to pay off student loans — Trillin says these top-of-the-class types messed up the stuffy, functionally mediocre world of stocks and loans with their slide-rules and overachieving. Credit default swaps, derivatives, blind short-selling? That’s all apparently fancy stuff that could have only been invented by the new influx of smarties. And no one up top could stop it, because the bosses were all old-school, sub-geniuses who didn’t know what was going on.

“When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”

Let that be a lesson to you, ye of good grades. Please stay where you belong: Away from the billions, safely ensconced in the various padded cells of privilege, where the most harm you (me? my friends?) can do is write a snotty blog post. And what damage could that do?

via Op-Ed Contributor – Wall Street Smarts – NYTimes.com.

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Filed under: Business, Economy, ivy league, Jobs, New York Times, , , , , ,