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This weekend has been kind of a low-key one for me (and, er, it’s ending on Monday night, so…you kind of see how tricky this self-employment business is, because all of a sudden, my weekend was three days long). I did manage, however, to get an enormous amount of much-needed rest by having one very specific thing happen.

House.

I had bought Season Two of House a while ago, and I honestly don’t remember why I bought Season Two instead of Season One, but…there you go. And I owned it for a long time and never got around to watching it, and then on Saturday morning, I picked it up and started watching it.

Aaaand then it was all day Saturday and all day Sunday and much of today, and I have seen more people have seizures than you can possibly imagine.

This is what I’ve been doing instead of anything productive. I’m totally serious. But it’s one of those things where sometimes, three consecutive days of rest means you needed three consecutive days of rest, and since I was in a position to give it to myself, I figured I would.

What did I learn? Not only is it never lupus, but it’s never sarcoidosis, either. It’s never what they think it is at minute 23. It’s almost never an allergic reaction, because that’s boring. It’s frequently an infection, somewhat more frequently an autoimmune disease (BUT NOT LUPUS), and even more frequently something wackadoo that the patient ran into in his or her daily life that never seemed capable of result in harm. Never eat dirt, sand, or South American lettuce. Animals are very, very bad for you, unless they die in a way that provides a clue about your own serious illness. (R.I.P., Jenny O’Hara’s cat.) Babies and little kids almost always live. The answer to the question “Are you okay?” is always, always “No.”  Try not to break your skin any more than necessary, because it’s amazing how stuff gets in there.

Montages are very comforting.

My absolute favorite YouTube discovery, courtesy of my pal Jane Wiedlin’s Boyfriend, who found this before I did:

Watch all the “Related Videos” to see more Dance Party Friday. I can’t believe they don’t have Dance Party Friday where I live.

Considering how many blogs I read and how many of my friends have them, it’s surprising how long it took me to become a Google Reader person. I resisted, partly because when you look at your feed, you see a sort of stripped-down version of the post, sometimes not even showing the entire post and often not showing images (this is a problem with, for instance, Go Fug Yourself). But after hearing about it from a bunch of people and realizing that it would probably make my life a lot easier, I dove in and entered all my subscriptions.

I love it so much, I really do. It feeds me all my friends’ sites, so I don’t have to keep checking them. It feeds me news, and fashion, and things that are funny, and it updates me instantly about all manner of pop-culture detritus. And it keeps me from forgetting to look at little sites that I’ll neglect to bookmark and not check for weeks.

But now, it feeds me, like, a thousand posts a day. I realize this seems impossible, but if you consider that the Gawker Media sites alone — not all of which I read exhaustively, but most of which I read sometimes, not just the gossip sites, but Jezebel and Consumerist and Idolatorsometimes post thirty or fifty times in a day, you can see how it gets there. Gothamist, Apartment Therapy, the New York Magazine blogs…all of a sudden, I have to figure out how to eliminate things, because there’s just no way.

I knock off Defamer and Gawker, which post so much that it’s basically hopeless to keep up, just marking them as if I’ve read them, unless there’s something in particular I want to read. And if it happens to be a day when Engadget and Gizmodo get their hands on fifty digital cameras each, I have to ignore those, too, because: no way. Oh, and Curbed/Racked/Eater, I cheat on sometimes, too.

Am I the only person who has this problem? How do you manage your subscriptions so you don’t wind up with that dreaded “(1000+)” indicator all the time? Every time I clear things off without reading them, I worry that I’m missing something brilliant. Like the ONE POST that was going to change my life is in there somewhere, and I missed it. It’s like finishing a book by skipping every other page until you get to the end. How do you know what was on that page? Maybe that was the best part!

I think I have GoogleReaderitis.

I don’t have kids. I don’t have any particular reason to care about parenting advice, I don’t like Mary Poppins that much, and watching little kids throw tantrums, when I see it in person, is not on my list of experiences that entertain me most.

But I love watching Supernanny. If you’re not familiar with the show, you can roughly classify it in your head as an instructional reality show, where normal people who are terrible at something get advice on how to be less terrible at it. How Not To Parent, sort of. It used to be that there were a couple of shows like this — specifically, this competed with the very inferior Nanny 911, which had this insane construct where there were these British nannies in uniform who lived in some sort of compound where their Reverend Mother Of Nannying would choose one of them to send off to a needy family, like she was going to rescue the Von Trapps. Except those nannies were mean and sour and chilly, and nobody ever liked them. I mean, you had to pretend to like them, because they were so mean, and it seemed like they’d whomp you with an umbrella if you didn’t. But they weren’t likable.

Jo Frost, however, who’s the one and only Supernanny, is immensely likable. She’s just as British, but her approach is very different. Rather than a starched uniform, Jo just wears regular-person clothes, though she does always show up on the first day with her hair in a tight, authoritarian bun. The show always opens with her in the back seat of her Brit cab, watching a DVD of the family she’s going to see. The parents are always begging for help, showing footage of their children biting, screaming, swearing, hitting each other, hitting their parents, breaking expensive stuff…and then Jo looks at the camera and says something like, “They really do need my help!” And then there’s some more DVD footage, and then some kid yells “That’s bullshit!” at his mom or something like that, and Jo looks right at the camera with her best Jim Halpert face, and then she says, “I’m on my way,” and she’s on her way.

Jo always starts by observing the parents and the way they handle their kids, which usually means that some kid throws a fit, and the mom says “You quit that!” about forty times. Sometimes, the parents have clearly studied parenting techniques on their own, and they know enough to try to give time-outs. But the kids don’t stay in time-out, and they just wander out of the time-out spot and ask for a hamburger, and Mom says, “Okay, well, one hamburger, and then go play with your brother.” “I WANT FRIES!” “Okay, a hamburger and fries, but that is it.” And Jo looks at the camera again, and her eyes are all boggly, and it’s hilarious.

I always love it when they have to learn bedtime, as they did this week. Jo has a very specific way she does bedtime. You put the kid to bed, and the first time she gets out of bed, you say, “It’s bedtime, darling” (she always adds the “darling”) and take her back and put her in bed. And the second time, you just say it’s bedtime, and you put them in bed. And after that, they get nothing. No talking, no arguing, you just put them back in bed. Watch the technique at work!

So that’s bedtime, and it almost always goes the same way. The first night is, like, the worst night of the parents’ lives. They put the kid back in bed fifteen, twenty times. And at the end, when the kid finally wears herself out and falls asleep, Jo congratulates them like they’ve just survived a military campaign. And they do that one night, or maybe two, and then the kids start going to bed on their own. I realize this is not how kids operate in real life, but it’s remarkable, the consistency with which the parents say, “This will never work! They will never go to sleep!” Often, these parents have resorted to some completely insane routine like sleeping next to their kids on the floor, letting their kids sleep on a blanket in the hallway…I mean, if these things work, that’s fine, but if the reason is that you believe your kid will never go to bed except in the hallway, that’s bazoo.

One of the things that’s so interesting about the bedtime thing is how much time Jo spends teaching parents — especially moms — how to cope with the kid standing there screeching like his hair is being pulled out without feeling like ogres. I’ve heard this from people I know who’ve had to do bedtime with their own kids, but you can tell what a powerful biological imperative she’s up against. People feel like they’re the devil.

But anyway. So in addition to bedtime, Jo is famous for the Naughty Spot. Sometimes it’s the naughty chair, naughty corner, naughty step…depends on what you’ve got in the house. It’s like time-out, and the kid gets plunked onto the spot for the same number of minutes as she is years old. Observe:

You give the warning, they do it anyway, you put them on the spot and tell them why, you put them back on the spot as many times as it takes (this is like bedtime — I’ve literally seen kids get off the naughty spot over and over for two hours to avoid sitting there for four minutes), and then when it’s over, they have to apologize. And then you give them a hug and a kiss and they’re done. That’s my favorite part! I love the fact that you can get in trouble, serve your time, repent, and be instantly forgiven. If only real life were like that. Maybe we should let Supernanny run our penal system.

I can’t really explain why I love this particular show; I’m entirely outside the target demographic, and I don’t really require parenting advice. I think it’s partly just the same fascination with behavior that I like about other reality shows — no one technique works for all kids, but it’s amazing how often she turns out to be right that a kid whose parents announce, “He’ll never sit in time-out for five minutes” can indeed be made to do so, provided you’re willing to put him back, like, three times. You can see how people give up — they try it, it doesn’t work, and they think, “This is making it worse.” Which it almost always does. But then it gets better! Hooray for Supernanny!

Tara and I had a discussion once, jumping off a conversation she once had with her sister, about whether it would be worse to have Tim Gunn upset with you, or Supernanny. My conclusion has been that having Tim unhappy with me would be more devastating, but having Supernanny unhappy with me would whip my behavior into shape faster. They need to make an automated Supernanny who tells you to floss and stuff. That would make my sorry behind a little more compliant, I’m betting.

In the order in which I remember them:

Kristy Lee Cook: When Simon Cowell called the choice of “God Bless The U.S.A.” a “clever” one, what he meant was this: “The only people who would ever vote for you are unsophisticated buffoons with spiritual wall hangings in their bathrooms who haven’t like anything in popular music since Elvis’s gospel phase, and those people will absolutely love this, because they love saying they love America almost as much as they love saying they hate sin.” Whether this is true or not is a different question, but that’s what he meant. Every time I hear this song, it makes me want to burn my passport and move to France, but I admit that her singing was not as painful as anything she did to The Beatles.

David Cook: I can’t really decide what position to take about this kid. I don’t enjoy listening to him at all, just as a leisure activity, but I like the fact that he does such wackadoodle things with songs sometimes. I wasn’t wild about the “Billie Jean” arrangement, but I hadn’t heard it before. I found his reference to his giant head sort of endearing also, but then…I still don’t like listening to him sing.

David Archuleta: Oh my God, seriously? He’s now traveling to foreign lands to find inspirational songs that fit the theme of the week? Nothing from his own birth year about controlling the pet population or recycling aluminum cans? This performance was flat-out wretched. Off-key in places, dull throughout, and just artistically vacuous. I’ve often agreed with Simon, but when he said the words “animated creatures,” I thought to myself, “Oh my God, that is IT EXACTLY.” He is exactly singing in a kids’ show about making the world a better place. As I texted during the show, I felt like I was at the finale of Dora The Explorer On Ice.

Chikezie: I understand that he wants to sing ballads, and also that he has this soul-singer vibe that it really means a lot to him to follow. I don’t want to be all, “Sing happy songs and dance around every week!” But…I really liked him the last two weeks, and I agreed with Simon and Randy that this was just completely boring. I’ve forgotten it already, except that I didn’t like it.

Ramiele Malubay: She started out so strong the first couple of weeks, you know? She looked like a really smart pick by the people I knew who picked her in the pool I’m in. But she’s been on a slide, and I’m afraid this is going to be it for her. Fairly or unfairly, legend has it that Carrie Underwood killed this song, and you have to be careful. You also have to 100 percent have those top notes, and she really only about 75 percent had them. Whether that was because of illness or because of her voice, it didn’t work for me at all. She’s exactly the kind of singer who slips through the cracks really, really easily, and I think Simon was jumping to conclusions (and not counting on Kristy’s appeal to your love of America, YOU PINKO) when he predicted she’d get through this week.

Carly Smithson: This was…fine? I…guess? It…wasn’t bad? I barely noticed it going by on the TV. That can’t be good.

Brooke White: I love Brooke. I love singers like Brooke, and I picked her for the same reason I picked Blake Lewis last year — when all else fails, I sometimes pick a kid who seems to be an actual musician. But she doesn’t get “Every Breath You Take.” That song is creepy, and it’s creepy on purpose, and making it into a breathy, plinky piano song really doesn’t make any creative sense. I totally disagreed with Simon and Randy that she should have continued with the style she used at the beginning — she sounded like she was playing it on a toy piano. This, to me, was a performance that once again proved that she’s a good singer and a good technical musician, but it made me concerned about her musicality, because who doesn’t understand “Every Breath You Take,” other than wedding singers?

Syesha Mercado: I didn’t care about this, and I didn’t understand why they were making such a big deal out of it. I feel like I’ve seen this performance a hundred times from a hundred girls, and it’s always fine, but it’s never really my cup of tea. She’s a little screamy for me, and I never get a lot of subtlety out of her. There’s nothing wrong with this, and she’s more musical than Kristy Lee Cook, but the overexcited talk felt to me like they were trying to get a woman in the race.

Michael Johns: For the second week in a row, he tried to cram way too much song into the 90-second (or whatever) slot they have available. Trying to do “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” made it almost impossible to create any momentum in either segment. There has to be a build, and I think as a bar-band singer (or whatever), he kind of knows that, but he’s ignoring it, because he wants to get to these great Moments, like if he puts together enough Moments, he’ll get somewhere. And he winds up looking like a clip show, is all that happens.

Jason Castro: Man, I had to go look him up this week, so thoroughly did I forget him. The problem with “Fragile” is that it sounded hopelessly pretentious and self-important even when Sting sang it, and he had a history with Amnesty International by then. So when this kid does it, it seems even more ridiculous. But I freely admit that it’s possible that the reason I blocked out this performance was that I was thinking, “OH MY GOD HE WAS BORN THE YEAR THIS SONG CAME OUT.” I mean, there’s good stuff on this record. He was born before Sting became ridiculous. That’s amazing.

The title of this book is misleading in a way I think is unfortunate. Frankly, I’m a bit ambivalent about the trend toward stunt writing — a person doing a thing in order to write a book about it. This has resulted in some books I’ve really liked, like the A.J. Jacobs books about reading the encyclopedia or living by the Bible for a year, but the more you get these “I ate six eggs every morning for a year, and here’s my book about it!” books, the less impact they have. The title Gang Leader For A Day makes it seem like maybe Sudhir Venkatesh (who first came to prominence when his research on gangs and drugs was featured in the terrific Freakonomics chapter about why drug dealers live with their moms) dove into a gang just to do a stunt, be a “gang leader for a day,” and write a book.

The irony, given that title, is that what will strike you about the book as you read it is the length and depth of Venkatesh’s research. He wasn’t remotely famous then; he was a student working on a dissertation under the supervision of, among others, the superstar urban sociologist William Julius Wilson. As part of his work — and against the advice of Wilson and others, in many cases — Venkatesh spent years as a companion to JT, a Chicago gang leader, drug dealer, and community facilitator of sorts. He got to know the people in the Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago’s most notorious public housing projects, in their last years of life before they were demolished. He went to parties, he had dinner with families, and he listened to discussions of possible drive-by shootings. He even dragged a guy who had been shot to safety. The title makes it sound like a dabbler’s story or a gimmick, and it’s the opposite.

It’s refreshing that Venkatesh is so open about how charmed he often was by people he met, how put off he was at other times, how utterly naive he realized he was, and how often he did things that could have gotten him in an enormous amount of trouble had he not developed the close relationship with JT that he did. His account is warm, but impressively unsentimental in most respects. It’s an absolutely fascinating book, both as his personal story of carrying out such an unusual research project and as a study of poverty and gangs.

I will add that I actually listened to this as an audiobook (I am a big, big audiobook fan, as I’ve sometimes mentioned), and the only thing I didn’t like about the book was the hilarious attempts of the gravitas-filled narrator to sound like a young Chicago drug dealer when reading JT’s words. Audiobooks often have this problem, where the reader has to do different “voices,” and one of the things that makes a successful reader, for me, is the ability to do it unintrusively. This is not a great example of that. But it’s still a marvelous book — highly recommended.

It’s rare that I can tell you exactly what is wrong with a movie, but I can tell you what’s wrong with this one. I actually thought the previews were kind of funny, with Owen Wilson as what seemed to be this ultra-committed sort of ninja pothead, full of Army training and little sayings he undoubtedly learned at the knee of some punishing military father. Owen Wilson has a particular talent, which is taking himself hilariously seriously — seeming good-natured while being so earnest that you almost can’t be mad at him. Remember him in Meet The Parents? Stole that movie from a hell of a lot of people who were more famous than he is, because he was so sincere. He wasn’t smarmy at all; he was just insanely perfect.

What’s wrong with Drillbit Taylor is that in this movie, Wilson’s character is a fraud. This isn’t a spoiler, really; they don’t hide this fact in the movie — only in the trailer. The guy is a fake, who is pretending to be a fighting expert. Now my guess is that you know yourself, if you give it even a moment of thought, which is funnier: Owen Wilson playing a crazily overcommitted soldier going after bullies with guerilla fighting techniques, or Owen Wilson playing a slacker bum PRETENDING to be a crazily overcommitted soldier? You know the first one is funnier, and when it’s the second one, all the air just drains out of the movie.

There are some good gags — Wilson still has his moments, in spite of the script’s basic flaw. There is a top-notch cross-movie joke that is perfectly executed and that I don’t think ONE PERSON in the reasonably full theater got except for me. (Sarah would get it, I know.) I enjoyed it, in a time-passing sort of way, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how much funnier it would be without all the dumb cloak-and-dagger where he’s trying to hide his real identity. He should really be that guy; that off-kilter, possibly dangerous Army guy. Much funnier.

While we’re discussing television, and while I’m up too early on a Saturday because quitting my job has predictably led to a nasty cold (I completely believe the stress-hormone explanation, based on…every experience I’ve ever had like this), I have to say something about Addie.

Addie is the first person they’ve ever made over on What Not To Wear where I don’t like anything they did with her. Did not like any of the clothes — any! Did not like the hair. Did not like the makeup. The first outfit had her in skinny jeans, and because she’s not six feet tall and willowy, they looked horrible on her. The second outfit featured a sweater with a pattern that distorted as it stretched over her chest, which even I know is a no-no, and the length of the top was wrong and made her stomach look poochy. The third outfit was a dress that was just…an ugly dress, I thought.

I often don’t like what Nick does to curly hair — it winds up looking very poodle-y. Very much a topiary, and then it doesn’t move. It also tends to be un-feminine, in my opinion, which is fine if that’s what you’re going for, but it often isn’t. The makeup was okay, but as much as I love Carmindy and her “five-minute face” philosophy, if you’re just putting on a midtone eyeshadow, you’re really pushing it to call that a quick version of a “smoky eye.” Do the damn smoky eye or don’t, but don’t get all mock-apple-pie-made-of-crackers about it.

At her party, while her dress was a nice color, it was much too old for her, I thought. She started out with the advantages of seeming natural and approachable, and she wound up looking starched and uncomfortable. I usually like the makeovers pretty well, but not this one.

When we left our little show, Jonathan had just taken a powder in order to avoid having his leg turn green, fall off, and be auctioned for the benefit of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Airai was on a winning streak, Ozzy was demonstrating (over and over) that he wasn’t actually capable of carrying Malakal to challenge victory singlehandedly, and Kathy’s belfry was lousy with bats. Baby bats, maybe, but definitely capable of some high-level flap-flap-flapping if the situation were just right.

Ozzy’s appeal to treating chickens as renewable resources in the opening scene would make a lot more sense to me if he would at least acknowledge that Tracy’s entire argument was based on the fact that the chickens didn’t lay any eggs that day at all. It seems logical to me that egg production would slow, once the contestants were doing the feeding, and there would come a time to just eat the chickens. And I would note that Ozzy isn’t exactly the Chicken Management Wunderkind anyway, since I was helpfully informed after last week’s “oyster shells” discussion that the chickens are indeed supposed to have the oyster shell bits; they’re in there for a reason, they’re good for the chickens, and picking them out is not only tedious, but actually counterproductive. So there, smarty-mouth. Chickens love oyster shells! Whatever, I grew up in the suburbs; I only learned just recently that chickens start out with feathers. (I AM KIDDING.) Furthermore, Tracy is 100 percent right that Ozzy’s actual reason for not wanting to eat the chickens right now is that he wants to eat them later when there are fewer people to share with. No way that isn’t true.

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Over at the Freakonomics blog, they’re discussing tipping, specifically in the context of race, but also more generally. As you’ll see in the piece, there’s some survey research indicating racial bias in tipping both cab drivers and restaurant servers, which I unfortunately don’t doubt is very real. More generally, the post addresses the very idea of tipping and how it allows subtle biases like these to affect pay in a way that’s much more difficult to police than it would be if, say, a restaurant directly paid servers differently based on their skill levels and just happened to pay servers differently based on race.

I hate tipping. Not because I’m not willing to pay the server adequately; like most people who hate tipping, I would greatly prefer that the server be paid adequately to begin with and the cost built into the price. I don’t feel the need to entice people to provide good service with the promise of providing or withholding a tip in tip-traditional situations, any more than I feel the need to make the checkout person at a grocery store handle the order accurately and courteously by paying extra. Obviously, I tip — always, usually pretty generously — because I know the wages of servers are constructed on the assumption that they receive tips, and in most states (not all — Minnesota! — but most), they’re allowed to be paid less than minimum wage because they receive tips, so if you don’t tip out of some “I don’t like tipping” principle, the effect is to screw the server. Not by failing to pay extra, but by failing to provide a base wage. Yes, the restaurant should be responsible for providing a base wage, but they don’t, and if you aren’t willing to participate in the basic agreement where a server’s wage is made up of the pay from the business and the tip you provide, you should not eat at restaurants.

I tend to wildly overtip cab drivers, moving guys, and so forth, just because the idea of accidentally stiffing people really bothers me. But I’m not confident about it, I hate it, and I wish it didn’t exist. I agree with one of the Freakonomics commenters who noted that a cab driver generally takes me from Point A to Point B, and most of them provide no more “service” than the person who rings up my purchases at Barnes & Noble. Unless there’s luggage involved, it’s pretty much driving — often while talking on the phone, listening to the radio station they’ve selected themselves, and so forth. I’m not sure what sense tipping makes in this situation, I admit.

In some cases, it makes perfect sense. At my salon, I tip generously because my cut takes 45 minutes and is done meticulously every time. It’s also a situation where you’re building a relationship, which is also why I tip the change for my morning coffee every single day. It’s not a lot, but it’s a little bit. Oddly, people often complain about tip jars at coffee shops, but that’s the place I’m most comfortable tipping. They know me, they greet me by name, they know how I take my coffee, they hand it to me without my asking, and they sometimes even hand it to me when there are still a couple of people ahead of me in line, but they’re waiting for a bagel to toast or something. For that, I tip happily, because that’s great service.

But, returning to the Freakonomics article, the other good result were we to ever successfully get rid of tipping would be that little personal biases based on the attractiveness of your smile, your accent, your race, and other things that actually have nothing to do with your performance or the service you provide, wouldn’t affect your take-home. I’ll be interested to see if anyone pursues the legal angle — it’s not without merit, I don’t think.

March 2008
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