Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Perpetual Winter

After the excitement of the holiday season dies down and the new year becomes old news, winter becomes a dreary period of time, a tiresome obstacle one must suffer through to get to spring. Long gone are the days of excitement over a new snowfall or in my case, living in California, a rainfall. In December, there is nothing I love more than winter and constantly wonder what it would be like to live in a place where it actually snowed. In December, winter means bundling up to go ice-skating and drinking hot chocolate by the fire. Winter is essential to the holiday season and so during this time, winter is embraced and cherished. As the holidays become a distant memory, winter becomes an encumbrance, the long bridge to cross on the way towards warmer weather and the rebirth of the world. Winter tempts and taunts in California. A warm January afternoon may reach 72 degrees and spring does not seem so far away after all. The next day, I will wake up to see frozen grass and a car thermometer that reads 33 degrees. I should not be surprised. Winter has a way of tricking people—you think it is over and then it is back the next day, stronger than ever.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Is Increased Marijuana Use the Fault of Prop 19 - or the Government?

Marijuana consumption in American teens is on the rise, but it is unclear who – if anyone – is to blame.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted an anonymous survey of 46,000 students aged 13 to 18 and found that the percent of 12th grade students who use pot daily is now at 6.1%, up from last year’s 5.2%. For 10th graders, that number went from 1.2% in 2009 to 3.3% this year. This marks the first time since 1981 that high school seniors report using marijuana more often than cigarettes.

Staunch opponents of legalization and medicalization have declared this upward trend to be a direct result of Prop 19, which was defeated by a slim margin last month with 53% of Californians voting No and 46% voting Yes. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the campaign sent a “terrible message.”

“We [as a nation] continued a talk about legalization of marijuana as if it’s some benign substance. When I meet with high school students all over this country, they tell me, ‘We’re getting the wrong message from adults,” he said in an interview last Tuesday.

Yet citing Prop 19 as the root of the increased marijuana use starts to look like quite the long shot when contrasted with real research.

15 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and 13 states have decriminalized it for personal purposes. In these states, marijuana-use rates escalate and drop at roughly the same rates as the rest of the country, as “consistently demonstrated by research, including a 1999 report commissioned by the very agency Kerlikowske works for,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Meanwhile, international studies, showing rates of illegal drug use in America to be the same or higher than those in Europe – despite harsher legal repercussions in the US – have concluded that stringency of drug laws has little effect on actual drug use. If more lenient laws on pot do not lead to increased use, it seems highly unlikely that Prop 19 would have this effect.

Notably, teen marijuana use today is nowhere near its peak in 1979. At that time, there was no legalization campaign, and still 37% of high school seniors reported using pot within the last month – compared to just 21% in 2010.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and one of the nation’s most respected critics on federal drug control policies, made another point. Rather than testifying to what Kerlikowske seems to be referencing as the ‘social danger’ of efforts to legalize pot, he said, the apparent increase in marijuana use “suggests that arresting 750,000 Americans each year for marijuana possession is a costly and inefficient deterrent.”

“The evidence on marijuana use suggests that it goes up and down in cycles like other fads,” said Nadelmann, rejecting the idea that the Prop 19 has inadvertently caused more teenagers to adopt pot.

It seems that Kerlikowske and his campaign are eager to wield any research against the proponents of legalization, but this survey may not have been a good pick. Already, Prop 19 proponents like Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, are handing the blame back to Kerlikowske himself, using the rise in marijuana use as an example of the government’s failed drug policies.

“Even though the United States made almost 860,000 arrests for marijuana last year, including 760,000 arrests for mere possession, teen marijuana use is on the rise,” Piper says. Meanwhile, he notes, “Policymakers haven’t criminalized tobacco or made mass arrests of tobacco users, yet tobacco use remains far below its 1996 peak.”

Whether the rise in teenagers’ use of pot is, as Nadelmann suggested, merely the ebb and flow of drug trends from year to year or, more gravely, the result of the government’s blundering drug control policies described by Piper, one thing can be drawn from the facts at hand: the blame does not belong with Prop 19 or its advocates.

“Opponents of any change in America’s failed drug policies always throw out the myth that talking about reform sends a dangerous message,” Piper says. “The evidence says otherwise.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Art of Food and Pleasure

In Àlit’s last article, Olivia pointed out the sharp divergences between Italian and American lifestyles, offering a few food-related examples to illustrate this remarkable contrast. Let me point out a few other interesting disparities between our gastronomic culture and that of our friends in Europe.

- French and Italian restaurants open at eight at the earliest (and by open, I mean start taking reservations at that time – no earlier). In France at the least, most diners arrive at nine; in Spain, adults often don’t arrive at the restaurant until ten or eleven. After arriving, you take your time to satisfy your hunger, and leave late enough that there's no extra stops for last-minute ice cream on the way home. The rush to get to dinner, the hurried waiters asking for orders five minutes after you’ve sat down, that extra midnight snack when you get home? Nonexistent.

- The French go shopping everyday at the fresh produce marché, and purchase exactly what they’ll need - and no more – for the next twenty-four hours. They don’t gorge on the food in the cabinets, because they need to make what they have last. There is no rushed bi-monthly grocery shopping spree at the nearest supermarket, but a half an hour each day to take time and decide on the best quality food.

- Nearly all Europeans, rather than snack, enjoy three long multiple-course meals a day, with little in between. While “grazing” (snacking very lightly) throughout the day, eating every three hours, is ideal for the metabolism, let’s be honest: most of us Americans take it too far, and eat much more than we need to feel satisfied. Europeans, on the other hand, hardly know the meaning of snack – and are thinner for it.

- French meals – dinner in particular – call for many courses and several hours, as do those in Italy. Le dîner is a four–course, sit-down event (l’entrée, le plat principlal, le fromage, and dessert) Wine or champagne is enjoyed at lunch. Everything is enjoyed – but enjoyed slowly.

As Olivia told us, the discrepancies of course reach farther than just food – overall, our European counterparts lead much more leisurely lives, if a tad less “ambitious” (and I use that word reluctantly). The French, for instance, are famous for their strictly enforced limits on citizens’ working hours, and relish long vacations during the summer. I focus on food in particular only because the drastically different European outlook seems to affect the practice of eating and dining more than any other aspect of daily life.

Food is huge to European countries, much more so than in America. Gastronomy is acknowledged as such an integral aspect of French culture that it is one of the first things an American student studies in French class. Food vocabulary, eating habits, even what French students eat at their school cafeteria – it’s all taught, because it’s that important to French culture.

Europeans in general place enormous value on food, and thus treat it with respect. A piece of chocolate is enjoyed, but in moderation, and the eater takes the time to appreciate its taste. Does this sound anything remotely like a New Yorker dumping a bag of M&M’s into his mouth while sitting in the subway with his laptop open, and simultaneously talking on the phone? No. Good food is appreciated, and Europeans give it the focus and attention they feel it deserves.

Take note: Europeans fully dedicate themselves to their food, and science backs them up on this habit. Studies have shown that those who eat more slowly feel more satisfied, and ultimately weigh less. Those who scarf down meals are prone to obesity and shortened life spans. We all know the Mediterranean diet (the eating habits of Greeks) lengthens lives and slims waists – but what we often forget is that following such an eating plan goes beyond replacing butter with olive oil or meat with fish. It requires taking time to savor our meals, with friends and family by our side. It is not a diet – it’s a lifestyle. And it happens to be a lifestyle that the Europeans have mastered.

Now is when I point out that America is an extremely fat country – whereas Italy, France, and Spain are not (see the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano). Could this have some relation to our grab-and-go eating culture, our weakness for all things fast and easy? After all, our tendency to munch down this and that at our desks or on the train could hardly be beneficial to our health.

Perhaps if we slowed down for a second and took the time to fully savor and enjoy our food, we would be all the more aware of what exactly is entering our bodies – and consequently won’t feel the need to eat as much for the same feeling of satisfaction? I certainly think so, but let me know how you feel.

- Meredith

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Comparing Two Cultures

I recently returned to California after spending a few weeks vacationing in Italy. Although each Italian city I traveled to had its own, unique flavor, they were all quite different from the United States. At first it was hard for me to put my finger on what exactly made Italy “feel” so unlike my country. Finally, I realized that it was because the entire mindset of the country was different.

The United States is a “fast” country. We pride ourselves on being efficient, hardworking, and always focus on getting things done. Quickly. Businesses churn out as much as they can for the cheapest price and people devote their lives to work. This directly contrasts with Italy. The Italian culture is much more laid back, relaxed and “slower”. People take their time and do not like to rush. They would prefer to take things one at a time and completely enjoy what they’re doing. Time and time again my travels in Italy proved this. For example, one morning I went to an Italian bakery to purchase some pastries for breakfast. Upon walking in, I found the baker sitting down, sipping coffee. “Come back in a few minutes,” she told me, “I’m having caffé right now.”

Nowhere in America would that have happened. A storekeeper would never have risked losing a customer just so she could sit for a few more minutes drinking coffee, while she was supposed to be working! The Italians are not as focused on making money and being productive. This is evidenced by the month of August. In Italy, the entire country shuts down in August as everyone goes on vacation and takes a month off work. Most shops and restaurants are closed for the whole thirty-one days. Imagine that happening in the U.S! The entire country closing down for over four and a half weeks?! Inconceivable.

The relaxed Italian culture is apparent from daily life. Just watch the restaurants. Ristorantes do not open until 8:00 PM and people often come much later. Eating out in Italy is not just a quick meal. People spend two and a half or three hours digesting their various courses, sipping wine and of course, conversing with friends and family. You are not rushed when eating out, but are in fact encouraged to take as long as you would like. The dessert menu will not be handed to you as soon as you finish the main course, as it is in the United States, and people sit at the table talking for hours after finishing.

How do the two contrasting cultures and ways of life measure up against each other? As one could predict, the American economy is much stronger and more powerful than the Italian economy. We work more and harder than them. Our philosophy towards life is simply different. Americans focus on results and production. But, is this worth it? Or is it better to just relax and enjoy life, doing exactly what you want to do at the moment, even if you won’t achieve as much or be as “successful” over time. That can lead to a different debate, what defines success? What is it that is important to achieve in a life? One thing is for sure: the two attitudes towards life are utterly different. However, which one is “better”, is not something that can be declared so easily.

~ Olivia

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Propaganda in the American World

While perusing Yahoo News the other day, I stumbled across an article: Iowa Billboard linking Obama, Hitler removed. The Iowa Tea Party group had put up a sign that likened Obama, Adolf Hitler and Vladmir Lenin as “radical leaders [that] prey on the fearful and naïve”. After reading the article, I was surprised, shocked even. The billboard was a perfect example of propaganda. And I will admit that I was surprised to see something like it, here in the United States, in 2010. As I’m sure most Americans will agree, the billboard was ridiculous. Comparing Obama to Hitler and Lenin? How is Hitler, founder of the Nazi party and the man responsible for the Holocaust and its 17 million deaths comparable to our president, Barack Obama? I was horrified by this notion. Mr. Obama IS our president and we may disagree with or dislike him, but advertising that Obama will be the next Hitler or Lenin is ridiculous. In my opinion, and I hope most will agree, saying Obama is comparable to Hitler, is an outrageous lie. I’m sure the Iowa tea party group knew this, but they did not create their advertisement to publish the truth. They put up their sign to inspire hate.

This Iowa billboard exemplifies extreme propaganda, and that is what makes it different from other political advertisements. This sign did not show true statistics or facts, nor was it put up simply to dissuade people from supporting Obama. It publicized a false analogy between our president and the evil Hitler, and its intent was to shock Americans and encourage them to fear President Obama. What’s ironic is that the headline of the billboard (“Radical leaders prey on the fearful and the naïve”) is more applicable to the Iowa Tea Party group, than it is to Obama. They put up an obviously radical, shocking advertisement with the intent of frightening Americans into hating Obama. The billboard paints Obama as the enemy, and puts him in the same boat as Hitler, a man generally feared for all his evil work. The idea of someone similar to Hitler running our country conjures up terror and the Tea Party wanted to convince people that this is the case; we should all hate Obama, he’s going to be the next Hitler.

In any case, I was shocked that this propaganda had been released, as I found it so utterly ridiculous. But, did all Americans feel this way? Would this extreme and untrue billboard actually convince anyone? Can we all see through its falseness? I certainly hope so and I have faith that we Americans can see its absurdity.

~ Olivia

Friday, July 16, 2010

East Coast, West Coast

This summer I have found myself spending a considerable deal of time in New England. I have always loved this area of our country, where I had family before they moved out West five years ago. However, it was only this summer that the acute differences of the East Coast from the West dawned on me.

For starters, the uniform. In California, people gravitate toward flowy, bohemian looks, as is often the local trend. The clothes show more skin. Personal style also seems to differ more substantially from person to person. In certain areas of New England, however - Hyannisport, Nantucket, not so much the larger cities but more the quiet beach towns - one look rules out the rest. The khakis; the Ralph Lauren polos; the unfathomably white, freshly-pressed dress shirts; the apparent lack of denim - all the stereotypes run true. In the land of high-profile politicians such as the Kennedy clan (whose famed compound is located in Hyannisport) and John Kerry (whom I sighted in Nantucket), everything is clean and crisp and, I have to say, pretty good-looking. It is strange, however, to see such a universal style of dress.*

*[As for Nantucket at least, the physical isolation of the island may contribute to its striking uniformity in style.]

The homes, too. Once again, way more uniformity than on the West. The houses are overwhelmingly Colonial: white with green doors and windows, white with navy doors and windows, and variations thereof. While homes in California, Arizona, and Nevada often seem predominantly mission-style, you also see more traditional models.

Lastly, the East Coast seemed to have a significantly less whiny attitude to the weather - at least compared to me and my clan. After arriving in Hingham, Massachusetts to around 99% humidity and 110-degree heat (yes, I'm from the Bay Area, this is a complete exaggeration), I was shocked at how curly my hair was, how slick my skin was, and how eager I was to locate water fountains and air-conditioning. In seasonless San Francisco, the weather - or lack thereof - is rarely a consideration. But in Hingham, there are about a million fans in each room, and plenty of snow shovels come winter. They're tougher there; they adapt better. I found myself full of admiration for their adept handling of the circumstances.

All this, I'm sure, sounds familiar. It's exactly what you've heard before: the East is the land of the prepsters, and the West is the land of the hipsters; when Californians are wakeboarding and stand-up paddling, New Englanders are sailing; etc., etc. But what are the more subtle differences you've noticed from coast to coast? I'd love to hear. In the meantime, keep reading.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Is Nothing New?

In every issue of the fashion magazine InStyle, there is an article detailing the latest buzz-worthy see-it-everywhere get-on-it-now trend, from gingham to boudoir. In the corner of this two-page article there is a small column, aptly titled "Is Nothing New?" Here the author offers three or so representations of the latest trend through history. I believe it was last summer that the most ubiquitous look was safari, popularized by the spring/summer runways. And under "Is Nothing New?" was a young Lauren Hutton wearing her usual endearing gap-toothed grin along with a safari blouse. And Yves Saint Laurent's collection a couple decades back, in which he popularized the safari jacket.
Now I want to ask our readers this question: is really nothing in fashion new? It seems that so often fashion is really just a recycling of looks of the past, perhaps with a slightly more modern twist. Everything has been seen before, and is now reborn again. Every other month fashion columns shout: "Eighties revival! Crop tops and acid-wash jeans are all the rage - again!" "Woodstock returns - fringed vests and patchouli are back!"
This love of the fashion past is reflected in the nation's obsession with the fashion of Mad Men, the show on AMC about an advertisement agency in the early 60's. Watchers drool over Betty Draper's bright red lipstick and perfect hot-roller curls, falling in love with the look of the era. Meanwhile, fashion writers chronicle their adoration of Joan Holloway's shiny pumps and her modestly-cut yet form-fitting shell dresses, touting her style as "the look of understated sex appeal." It seems that in fashion, everything before is better.
I am now holding the latest issue of Marie Claire, for lack of anything better to read. On the cover is Dakota Fanning pronouncing that she is "not a little girl anymore." Around her picture are eye-catching headlines: 293 ways to update your look. The shocking latest crime against women: honor killings have come to America. New diet plan - eat your way skinny. Under all of these features is the same theme - that since this magazine is new, its articles are all about new information, new ideas, new horrors, new discoveries. Dakota Fanning is newly adult, here is how you update your style, this is the latest kind of crime, this is the newest diet.
I begin to flip through the glossy pages. First ad: Guess models, scandalous as usual, with a retro twist: the female model wears a voluminous bouffant-style wig, and the male model is a reincarnation of Elvis, all slicked-back hair and 50's charm. Ah, and a psychadelic Ray-Ban ad boasts peace signs, "NO War!" pins, and groovy colors. Oh, and there's Beyoncé wearing Old-Hollywood earrings for a L'Oreal promo. This fashion magazine brags of spanking, 100% new content - and delivers quite the opposite.
Which begs the question: is that such a bad thing?
Technology has transformed our world into something very different than that of the twenties - or even the eighties for that matter. Computers weigh 0.00009 ounces and phones do the impossible. Meanwhile, fashion seems to be a lone time warp in our modern world.
On one hand, it is perhaps frustrating that, no, not that much of what we wear is really new. But it also seems somehow right that fashion pays homage to the past so often. After all, what other institution does the same?
It is fact that we live very modernized, forwards-looking lifestyles. But the one thing that seems to keep peering into the past is fashion. The world of fashion is incredibly unique because of its nostalgia, its profound respect for times long-gone. It is, in many ways, dutiful, vowing to remember the past. With every collection that throws us back a few decades, designers salute their predecessors. When we go bananas over retro trends, we acknowledge how much we have to learn from those who came before us - from those who didn't live in a get-it-now, insta-satisfaction environment.
There is a certain comfort in the preservation of those days in our clothes. Yet more importantly, the reason history is taught in schools is so that we do not let memories we can learn from simply fade away. And every time we slap on a Depression-era newsboy cap or a pair of Wayfarers, we remind ourselves of exactly this. We announce to ourselves and to the world that we will never forget.
Is this a laughably romanticized view of the catty, often superficial, profit-based world of fashion? Let us know; we want to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, if fashion's your thing, check out this great video of Ralph Lauren's Spring/Summer 2010 show:
I stumbled upon it shopping online a while back and fell in love with both the clothes (much of it was, predictably, inspired by the late '30's) and the corresponding music (the amazing "Ramblin' Man" by Hank Williams and the solemn "Where They Never Saw Your Name" by Eilen Jewell, both of which I have happily added to my iTunes library). We'd love to hear your favorite collections of this year or years past, and know your ideas about fashion in general.
Additionally, let us know what topics you want to hear about. We're open to new ideas and discussions.

- Meredith