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Grad School Fantasies December 12, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : books , 7 comments

On Chess Life Online, I just posted an essay on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success I finally got a chance to voice my dissatisfaction with my birthday, December 31. As I elaborate on in the article, it prevented me from playing an extra year in World Youth Chess competitions. Now that I’m long ineligible for such events, I’m still annoyed by the birthday. I prefer partying on December 30 or January 1 to December 31. Too many crazy drunks on NYE and the prices for dinner, drinks, entry fees are inflated. This year, I’m going to dance my ass off at the Gogol Bordello and West Philadelphia Orchestra show, so I’m leaving my mind open: Maybe 2008 will be the year that everything changes and I learn to love the countdown.

Writing this review also reminded me how I miss the process of writing longer pieces, like Chess Bitch, or even college term-papers. One particularly memorable research experience was three years ago in the dead of winter when I visited the Cleveland Library, which has the largest chess book collection in the world. There I discovered a book by Sonja Graf, a woman’s chess professional and  rival of 7-time Women’s World Champion Vera Menchik. Sonja had a whirlwind of a life, residing in three different continents and pursuing love affairs with both genders. She also denounced the Nazis, and was lucky enough to find herself in Buenos Aires in the fall of 1939. Luckily, I studied Latin American literature in college so I was able to read Graf’s books, which were written in Spanish. I dived into the mostly forgotten books, written in a wild, passionate style, and I was so thrilled to uncover them that I felt as though I’d discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls! Later Sonja Graf co-starred in the second chapter of Chess Bitch, "War-Torn Pioneers." 

In the case of my Outliers Review, I acquired data on champion youth player birthdays, which are not available to the public anymore because of tightened anti-predatory laws. I wanted the birthdays to test whether a theory espoused in Gladwell’s book, the "Matthew Effect" would also hold true in chess. The Matthew Effect asserts that an age cut-off in sports will create a glut of athletes born just after the cut-off. I was really surprised to see that in a modest sample of 715 birthdays, the data was also tapered, with January being the most frequent month and December the least.

Finding and analyzing new sources makes me fantasize about going back to school, but I’m not even sure what for: Economics, Literature, Media Studies, Gender Studies, Art? My lack of focus is not the only reason I resist grad school- I’ve come to value public opinion. The writing I learned at NYU was based more on how to appeal to a professor rather than a typical reader. College was enormously helpful for my writing and thinking, but I have mixed feelings about ever returning.


drs are boring May 29, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : books , add a comment

Last week I dreamt that I willfully swallowed a few pills that would kill me within a few hours. After the suicidal act, I had several final meetings with friends and family. Through it all, I was full of regret over my obviously poor decision. The idea of pumping my stomach occurred to me, but this was a rational thought, and in my dream state, it only flitted in and out, unable to take form.  The emotions in dreams are more pure and intense than in waking life, because human rationality, mostly absent in dreams, tempers both joy and sadness. I woke up and at first I was very happy to be alive. But I also felt guilty and depressed the rest of the day.

To cure myself, I visualized my dream, refused the pills and went running instead. This is a technique that my former therapist taught me in New York. It’s also in lines with Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The History of Last Night’s Dream, which is an ambitious and literal analysis of dreams. Kamenetz, who also wrote the Jew and the Lotus, often uses the Old Testament as a source. In the chapter, "Jacob the Hero of the Revelation Dream", Kamenetz writes about how Jacob’s initial response to going up a ladder to god and heaven is appropriate awe, but then turns into analysis of how he can use the dream to improve his waking life: "Jacob turns a brilliant promise (to be protected by god) into a mere bargain."

I worry that the many biblical quotations limits the audience of Kamenetz’s book, and I wish there were more dramatic examples from the lives of others, especially women and children.  But the book did affect me in that my inkling about dreams has now turned into a conviction. Dreams may be related to life, but I prefer to think of them as an opportunity for a second life. Last night I dreamnt about a man sliding through the most dangerous streets of Philadelphia on a board, his face toward the concrete.  I don’t care why I dreamt it, I want to tap into the  pure fear and sensual pleasure in it.   Sure, it would be great if my dreams could reveal to me the secret of happiness, but maybe for that to happen, I need to focus on dreaming happy dreams.

 Dreams are a tricky subject, very similar to drugs in that the experience of having them tends to be interesting only to you, your mother and your lover. This week, I was reminded of the two risky "dr’s" when I went to a "story slam" which totally packed a fancy Philly Old City bar at 8:30 on a Tuesday night. Despite my lack of a seat, I was thrilled. In spite of the limitless joys of facebook, Wii and reality TV, we want to go out! Summer is here!

 Although the overall quality of the participants was pretty high, several of the contestants wrapped their stories around drugs. I felt like I could be talking to any dude in the world about how fucked up he got the night before. I mean, what do people want after stories like that? An Advil and some congratulations on still being alive?

Drug and alchohol experiences and dreams are difficult topics because they resist a beginning-middle-end. Instead they are "experience" stories in which you go into a bubble, have a great time, and leave the bubble, essentially unchanged unless you actually did something dramatic due to the dream or the drug: It’s the drugs are boring paradox. 

The concept of dreams being boring was best expressed to me in the Built to spill album, Almost Perfect. Unfortunately, the transcription of the lyric will not do justice to the line, so I suggest you buy the album.

Another thing you should do if you live in New York is attend the Whitney Biennial by the end of the week. (Closes on June 2) I loved a piece on blind people touching elephants. It reminded me of day-long photo shoots with my friend Gabi in the abandoned Brooklyn pool where the video was shot. It also reminded me of being 19, when I was mostly driven by the pursuit for new sensations. Sensuality now has to share space with ambition: A tough pill to swallow, but not worth dying over.  

What Eggers and Obama Have in Common April 30, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : books,politics , add a comment

I went to preschool at Trinity Church, the same place in which I voted for Hillary Clinton last week. Memories of forced naps and bananas swirled as I realized that I was still torn. My final choice was not only based on colorful blazers and gender; more importantly, I like Hillary’s chances against the vicious attacks that the Republicans will unleash against either candidate. I love Obama’s writing style and his ability to inspire and shake out apathy— I even have some regrets about casting my ballot for H.C. I still believe in my logic, but I worry that I’ve become part of the problem, the divisiveness that is dragging this race out, and will make it harder for either candidate to win against McCain.

To console myself, I thought about the positive side of the long drag. Perhaps the proximity of the result to the actual ballot-casting will allow the interest in the race to peak in the summer, and simmer until election day in November.

So, what do Barack Obama and Dave Eggers have in common? They both have terrible book titles. I know this is an easy criticism to mock, since both have written big bestsellers, but seriously, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope? In a title-only book contest, those would be low on my list. I love Obama’s writing, but I hope he consults me on title #3.

 I resisted reading Eggers for years because of the annoying title, Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius and then also rejected What is the What? which sounds like a book that you can only read if you’re really smart. To me, that’s pretentious titling and also absurd, since the book is an accessible and soul-searing memoir of a boy’s walk through war-torn Sudan, and his eventual immigration to America.

I gave into What is the What?, because it was selected as the "One Book, One Philadelphia." I enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read this year. It’s beautifully written, brilliantly structured and the ending is sublime. The next book I read was of course, Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was also great for the first 100-150 pages, but then became virtually unreadable in its self-obsessiveness. In his debut, Eggers failed to solve the problem of keeping first person narration interesting for 400+ pages, but in What is the What, he solved it in a brilliant way: although the narrative voice is always Valentino Achak Deng’s, the audience shifts. In one chapter, Deng directs his writing to his pious upstairs neighbors, and in the next, it’s a jogger that he checks in at the gym he works at.
After voting, I ate a Calamari Caesar salad (as good as it sounds) and gave up on Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius. On my way home, I ran into a black man, who was pushing a cart with a limp. He may have been homeless. He asked me "What is that, auburn hair?" I told him I’d call it red, and we both agreed that regardless of nomenclature, it was a great color. This type of exchange has become typical for me in the past few weeks: the number of black men who have hit on me since going redhead has gone through the roof, while white men flirt with me the same amount, maybe even less. For instance, today at the 7-11 I got: "I want to have a redheaded baby."


I asked the man on the street if he had voted yet, and he told me not yet, but that he was on his way to the polls. He looked at me, and said, "you’re voting for Hillary right?",  an annoying question because he was right but how did he know?  I avoided the question, and asked who he voted for. He said "Obama" and I said, "yeah, he’s great, good choice." So I wished him well and walked off but he asked louder, "So who did you vote for?" I waffled again and said, "Both good choices." When I was already on the other side of the street he shouted the question one more time. I didn’t want to admit to a probably homeless and definitely poor black man that I voted for H.C. But I couldn’t lie and could no longer escape his inquiry. I was already across the street when I finally yelled: "Hillary." Before walking away, he told me: "Good choice too."

Fires in Paradise April 11, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : books,chess , 3 comments

Last weekend, I traveled to San Diego for "Disorderly Conduct", a program of video arts, conversations and installations at collector Eloisa Haudenschild’s 20-car garage, which she converted into a gallery and performance space. I had some insights and weird experiences that I’d like to share.

1. San Diego is stunning from every vista, almost too good to be true, so I asked around for ugly San Diego tours. The hotel’s shuttle bus drvier Freddy clued me into a  hidden dwarf city, but my answer came at a brunch that was part of the weekend’s decadent schedule of events. I met 15-time author Mike Davis, who co-wrote a book on precisely the topic of my curioisity, "Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See. " I’ll get back to you on the book, but here are some photos of beautiful San Diego and one that reminded me that there’s always an ugly side.

2.  The weekend’s headline event was a chess tournament with candles as pieces, Burning Boards by Glenn Kaino. The candles descended in height from king to pawn except the rooks, which despite being the second most powerful chess piece, were actually shorter than the bishops and knights. This,  together with the decision to not do anything about the fact that the black candles burned faster than the white demonstrated that aesthetics, not chess accuracy, was Glenn’s top priority. And he was successful; Burning Boards debuted last year at the Whitney Museum, but even that event couldn’t hold a candle to last weekend’s dramatic, stark installation. Thirty chessplayers and artists lit their pieces on fire and then the diaphanous curtain was drawn, revealing the action to dozens of spectators.

Can you recognize this position?

  I wrote about the chess in a uschess.org article, where you can play through my game with Liu.

I felt lucky to be in a home created out of passion for art. Books were stacked on tables because wall space was reserved for photographs and paintings. The house was so impressive that one probable millionaire from the area looked around and asked  me, "Is this how the other half lives?" but then soon admited that he really meant, "is this how the other .006% lives?"

3. In San Diego, I met my 9queens partner Jean Hoffman, who I email several times a day but haven’t seen since October. Jean has been amazing at promoting 9queens and getting it off the ground.

Jean Hoffman, my 9queens partner

Check out this article in a Tuscon paper, which both describes the organization and promotes the ChessFest benefit that I’ll be attending next month. If you happen to be in the vicinity of Tuscon in May 10, definitely register or come and say hi.

4. The Disorderly Conduct program included a lecture on the Aesthetics of Murder led by artist Daniel Martinez (pictured below playing against Glenn Kaino in Burning Boards) and writer Mike Davis.

The discussion explored whether the repetitive watching of the most disastrous events in our times makes audiences and the media complicit in creating heroes, even artists, out of villains. Another implied idea of the conversation was that you can understand evil better if you momentarily remove morality from consideration. The topic idea came from the 19th century British author Thomas De Quincey’s essay, "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts." Honestly, I was not able to focus my ears, because images of Columbine, Abu Ghraib and 9/11 were projected and running on youtube loop. I purposely avoid those sorts of images as I think they are totally pointless unless educational or edifying. Why do I ever have to see Columbine? I feel that my life and the life of the victims would be ever so slightly better if I NEVER saw it. I felt attacked, which I suspect was part of the point . 

5. Since I was in California, I read the L.A. Times for a change. Of course the L.A. Times is a great paper, but I had to laugh at the front-page story, "Cosmetic Surgery Business Sags as Purse Strings Tighten"  I came up with even better headlines: "Plastic Surgery thins as recession pumps itself with collagen implants" or "Plastic Surgery wrinkles as Recession schedules yet another face-lift." In all seriousness, I found the article surprising; I’d think it would be even more important to look beautiful during a recession.

Hats and Rose-colored glasses March 22, 2008

Posted by Jennifer in : books,poker , add a comment

I first heard about Martha Frankel’s new memoir, Hats and Eyeglasses about online poker addiction, in a lurid piece on NPR. I was laughing while listening because the  interviewer was very bad at masking extreme SchadenFruede, or pleasure in the misfortune of others. Her questioning style was in the vein of a modern day morality tale, and I kept expecting the next inquiry to be "Why didn’t you stop playing after losing your first 300$ in ten minutes?" and "what was the difference between your advance for this book and the total credit card debt?" and "did it destroy your sex life?"

Martha Frankel, like me,  grew up in a house of games, where "Never play to an inside straight" was as important of a principle as "use butter when baking." Later she became a celebrity interviewer, famous writer, and her fascination for poker grew. It’s hard to tell whether she was talented or just fascinated, because in the book, she makes it seem like it took her a long time to grasp very basic things, like the ranking of hands.This could be just to make the book more accesible. In Positively Fifth Street,James McManus did the same sort of thing, and he was known as a very good player, so his "geewhiz" attitude was definitely disingenous. In Martha’s case her skill level is less clear, but she wins in live play, in casinos and cruises, largely due to her poker coach and cousin Keith’s excellent mantra to "Crush them all by folding." (That’s really my friend Donny’s quote, but same point.)

The worst thing about the book is that Martha strongly implies that there is rampant cheating, robots and collusion in online games. She does allow the possibility that she played badly on Paradise Poker, but  briskly, as if it’s a minor possibility not worth more than a paragraph or two. The childhood stories are so much more vivid and considered than her account of addictive internet gambling spell, which is both the book’s selling point (that’s all NPR wanted to talk to her about), but also its most superficial and defensive part. Despite the hidden truths that remain, most poker players hate to admit when they lost, so what Frankel did reveal required bravery.

Hats and Eyeglasses offers insight into gambling addiction and the risks and benefits of an extremely independent marriage that somehow survives catastrophic online gambling losses. I would never back Martha Frankel in a poker tournament, but I must say that in terms of men and publishing, she seems to be blessed.