Lobster Reconsidered

January 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was at the fish counter in Citarella, trying to decide what to get for dinner. I did not consider the lobster.

Eighty dollars a pound is a bit out of my usual price range.

Lobster, as David Foster mentions in passing in his famous essay,* was not always a delicacy. In the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, lobster was trash food. It was fed to prisoners. Two hundred fifty years later, the social status of lobster hadn’t improved. In the 1870s, indentured servants sued, successfully, so that their masters could feed them lobster no more than three times a week.

Several accounts I found online say that lobster became a delicacy in the 1950s, but I’m not so sure. When I noticed that $80/lb price tag, I remembered a 1953 New Yorker article by St. Clair McKelway that the magazine had recommended not to long ago as retro reading. The main figure is Pearl, a salesgirl in a New York department store.

For a while, she lived with her mother and her stepfather in Brooklyn, but as soon as she got a job—as a salesgirl in a department store—she moved to a furnished room all her own on the upper West Side of Manhattan.. . . She made friends quickly with many of the salesgirls at the store and lunched at a soda fountain every day and dined in a cafeteria almost every night with large groups of them.

I picture her as much like the Rooney Mara character in “Carol,” the Todd Haynes movie set in early 1950s.

And what did Pearl have for lunch?

Her favorite lunch was African-lobster-tail salad and Coca-Cola, followed by a junior banana split. Her favorite dinner was chicken potpie with mushrooms, pecan pie with whipped cream, and coffee.

If shopgirls were eating lobster — even canned lobster — for lunch, how much of an upscale delicacy could it have been? Besides, the price of lobster did not begin to rise until a few years later [source].

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Besides the rise in prices after the 1950s, the chart also shows a steady decline in price from about 1975 to 1990. Funny, but I didn’t notice. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Since then, there has been a steady increase in production accompanied by a seemingly paradoxical rise in price as well. That’s because of increased demand from China. That trend was interrupted by the global financial crisis but has now returned. It may be a while before I haul out my recipe for the lobster mousse that I once served to dinner guests.

* “Consider the Lobster” is the title piece in DFW’s 2005 collection of essays. Wallace is concerned mostly with the ethics of boiling lobsters. That and footnotes.

Gary Burton, b. Jan 23, 1943

January 23, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometime in the early 1970s, I was listening to the radio and heard Gary Burton’s recording of the great Jobim tune “Chega de Saudade” (inEnglish, “No More Blues.”)  It sounded like this. Go ahead, click and listen to at least the first 16 bars (15 seconds).

If you’ve never heard this recording before, you probably are thinking what I thought: That can’t be one person playing vibes. He’s overdubbing, accompanying himself, like Bill Evans on the “Conversations With Myself” album released ten years earlier.

But no, it’s just Burton by himself. “Alone At Last” as the title says. No overdubs, no tricks. Here’s a live version. You can see him holding the four mallets, sometimes playing chords, sometimes rapid single-note lines.

Burton revolutionized jazz vibraphone. Before Burton, jazz vibists had used only two mallets. Even if they used four to play chords when comping behind a soloist, when it came time for their own solo, they would lay two mallets aside. Burton even invented a different way of holding two mallets in each hand, now called the “Burton grip,” that allowed for an easier adjustment of the interval between the mallets in each hand. 

What had seemed an incredible feat nearly 50 years ago has now become a standard part of the vibes repertoire. On YouTube you can find a 22-year old Austrian kid playing Burton’s “Alone At Last” version note for note (here), and an 18-year old American girl playing her own Burton-inspired arrangement of the same tune (here),  the familiar part starts at about 0:55).

Burton is also one of the few gay jazz musicians. He came out during a Fresh Air interview in 1994.

Abortion Rights and Motherhood — That Was Then, It’s Also Now

January 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with these women, especially the ones in this #MeToo movement. They’re over sensitive. They get offended by any little comment. Men have to walk on eggshells or they get accused of being sexists. These women want to make their issues a big deal in this election, and now more of them are running for office, as though that’s going to make things better. Guess what.* It isn’t. Not for the country, not for men, and not for women.
It’s easy to imagine who would applaud this statement and who might want to wring its neck. It’s also easy to imagine how those people would divide on the issue of abortion. But why? The abortion debate  usually divides on the status of an embryo. The pro-life side argues that an embryo is a baby, with all the rights and protections that babies have, especially the right not be killed. Pro-lifers often equate abortion with infanticide.

That’s the audible part of the debate. The usually unspoken part is not about embryos. It’s about women. The #MeToo movement is not about embryos. It was a response to rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, especially by men in positions of power. Yet only 23% of people who oppose abortion have a favorable view of #MeToo, compared with 71% of those who favor the right to abortion in most or all cases.

(Click for a larger view.)

(The chart is from a survey of likely voters done last summer by PerryUndem and housed at the New York Times (here). I wasn’t aware of it at the time; it popped up yesterday in my Twitter.)

Thirty-five years ago Kristin Luker reported this same correlation among pro-life and pro-choice activists. I don’t recall whether she said explicitly that attitudes about the role of women shape ideas about the status of the embryo. Conceivably it’s the other way round: if you believe that an embryo is a person, you won’t think highly of #MeToo. But she gave her book the title Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, implying that the primary issue is the role of women, specifically their role as mother, and that ideas about embryos derive from ideas about gender roles.

Luker interviewed leaders in the movements for and against abortion rights, so we don’t know whether their rank-and-file supporters also shared their respective ideas about motherhood. On most issues, not just abortion, activists have more politically consistent sets of views than do ordinary people who are less involved. But however those views lined up in the early 1980s, today the thinking of ordinary pro-life and pro-choice voters resembles that of the leadership.
The Undem survey did not have a question explicitly about motherhood. But it did ask about something directly related to the decision of when and if to become a mother — birth control. Three-quarters of pro-choice voters agreed that access to birth control contributed to women’s equality. Only one-quarter (slightly more) or pro-life voters thought so. Why should pro-lifers discount the importance of birth control? The idea common to both issues is not the protection of innocent human life. If the condom, LARC, IUD, or other contraception works, there is no innocent life in the picture. Instead, the link is the question of how important it is that a woman becomes a mother.

Luker was right that motherhood and the role of women are the real issue in the abortion debate. They still are. She also predicted that the issue was going to remain contentious rather than becoming settled by civility, compromise, and moderation. She was right about that too.

* “Guess what” gets a hat tip to Jim Jordan (R-OH). If you didn’t catch him at the House impeachment hearings — he was on both committees — just Google his name and that phrase.

Jeopardy II: Audiences — à la Goffman and ABC-TV

January 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Montclair professor who saw yesterday’s post about my having been on Jeopardy asked me how we could have known each other for decades without her knowing this about me. My answer is that it’s not the sort of thing you bring up. You don’t meet someone and say, “Hi, I’m Jay Livingston, and I was on Jeopardy.” It wasn’t a peg to hang even a small part of my identity on. I wasn’t even particularly proud of it. In Goffman’s terms, it was not a piece of “information” that was part of my “presentation of self” for the Montclair “audience.” Besides, that was a long time ago. I had a beard. I had hair. I had a suit with very wide lapels.

Here I am, between Mary, the woman from Virginia, and Pam, from Bloomfield, NJ. Italian American, mother of five. Poor Pam — already $40 in the hole at this early stage.  She finished in the red, and at Final Jeopardy was represented by an empty desk.

Even at the time, I didn’t tell people at work that I had been on the show. As I said when the host Art Fleming asked if I’d told my students, “No, but I expect word will get out.” But after the episodes were broadcast, nobody at the college said anything to me.

Fast forward eight years. The first day of the school year, a warm day in early September. I do my usual first-day routine — have students fill out 3" x 5" index cards (name, phone, major, etc.), go over the syllabus, talk about grading, including my standard pitch about class participation. It doesn’t count towards your grade, I say, but if I’m the only one here who talks, it’s going to be a very long semester.

And don’t be reluctant to ask a question, I add emphatically. In fact, here’s your first lesson in sociology. We think of our thoughts and feelings as internal and individual. But we’re less unique than we think. Our reactions are also social; they’re part of the situation. You all share the same situation — this class — so if there’s something you didn’t get or aren’t sure of, I guarantee that there are others here sharing this same situation who had the same reaction. And they’ll be very grateful if you ask about it.

Class ends. I’m putting my papers together. A girl comes up. She is short, with black hair. In those days, the ethnic make-up of Montclair was a bit different from today. Or as I used to say, half the girls were named Cathy. The K-Kathy’s were Irish, the C-Cathy’s were Italian. This was a C-Cathy.

 “Can I ask you a question?”

Goddamit, girl. Why the hell didn’t you ask during class? Didn’t you hear what I just said about asking questions? That if it’s not clear to you, then several other people also didn’t get it? Now I’m going to have to answer it for you and then, if I remember, answer it for the whole class next time.

That’s what I was thinking. What I said was, “Sure.”

“Were you on Jeopardy once?”

I was stunned. How had she discovered this fact that nobody else at Montclair knew? “Yes,” I say, “but that was years ago. How did you know?”

“My mom was on that show.”

I looked at her again and remembered — the woman from Bloomfield, the next town over from Montclair. “Oh, that’s right,” I said and added sympathetically. “She didn’t do very well, did she?”

Sometimes a student’s question is unique. And sometimes, we cannot control which audience sees which performance . . . and remembers it.