The Ombudsnerd

Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.” At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)

Is online celebrity strange?

It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.

What did you do after Jeopardy!?

Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers—they weren’t bad answers—but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.


What Happens If You Put Placenta on Your Face?

“It’s, like, gooey.” “Yeah, dude, that’s the placenta.”

After the incredible success of our first foray into the placenta-powered world, Jaya Saxena and Jazmine Hughes decided to go one further. We learned that putting placenta in our hair made it a little bit softer and smell slightly of cornchips (which men LOVE)—what would happen if we put it on our faces? Enter the Placenta & Collagen Premium Facial Mask Pack, available on the well-known site Amazon.com for as little as $5.95.

Here is the only information that the Amazon listing gives:

- Placenta & collagen mask pack with placentl liquid will give you a fantastic beautiful treatment – Also gives your tired skin moisturizing effect and beauty effect – Our placenta & collagen mask pack contains green tea, aloe, licorice, seaweeds extracts and so on.

Green tea! Aloe! Licorice! Placenta! All things that sound very chill and normal to put on your face. We were excited! Then we read some reviews:

I just apply the mask after I wash my face then apply the mask and keep it on for about 15-20 minutes, rub in the juices lol

It comes drenched in the baby sheep juice,so as long as you seal it up and don’t leave it sitting out in the air, it will stay moist.

Helpful and gross! It is far better to just stick to the official company description.

Undeterred, we opened the masks — Jaya was right; they were, indeed, incredibly gooey, and it was at that moment we realized what we were putting (placenta, if you forgot) onto our beautiful faces. We put on our masks and looked at each other. “You look like you’re a robot trying to convince someone they are, in fact, a real human.” “You look like Hannibal Lecter.”

Here’s how it went.


Eat the Garlic

Almost everything I cook begins the same way: Take out a head of garlic, separate the cloves, and begin peeling, trimming, and chopping. From there, ninety-five percent of the time, its job is to help accentuate the flavors of something else: vegetables, seafood, tofu, beans, pasta. Garlic is a key ingredient in the flavor bases for most world cuisines, and yet few people treat it as anything more than a spice, or an aromatic. That should change. Every recipe this week will destroy your breath and create a difficult predicament for your loved ones, who will be simultaneously impressed by your cooking and very turned off by your aromatics.

There are two main types of garlic: hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-neck can typically only be found at farmers markets; like its name suggests, it has a long, hard stem, and is very expensive. It has fewer, but larger, cloves, and also has a slightly more intense, complex flavor. Soft-neck garlic is more common, more inexpensive, and more mild in flavor. Honestly, I tend to buy hard-neck garlic once in the springtime and think “huh tastes like garlic” and then go back to not spending like four dollars for a single head of garlic. (Oh, and there’s black garlic, which is a fermented garlic. It’s tasty but not a raw ingredient so we will ignore it today. Garlic scapes are the young necks of the hard-neck garlic variety, but they won’t be available for another few months so we’ll set them aside for another day.)


The Time I Tried to Be a Literary Agent

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and TakePart Food Editor Willy Blackmore tells us more about what it’s like to sort of, but not really, work as a literary agent.

omg I tried to be a literary agent once and people maybe still query me? http://t.co/e7ZODWeHtW

— Willy Blackmore (@willyblackmore) February 12, 2015

Willy! So what happened here?

I was googling myself the other night, as one does (in my defense, I was searching for some old stories), and I came across this listing for Willy Blackmore, book agent, on a website called QueryTracker. It’s a sort of forum that writers use to keep tabs on agents, the queries they’ve sent out, etc., etc. Considering that I have a backlog of a couple hundred unread agenting emails sitting in a strange corner of my Gmail, it’s unsurprising that I have thoroughly shitty reviews on QueryTracker. Writers have determined that I do not find phone, email, or snail mail queries acceptable. Queries, apparently, are unacceptable.

My page on QueryTracker says that emails have repeatedly bounced, and the website of the agency that I so briefly worked for has now been taken over by pay-day loan spam bots. (“Opt for Wisely When Contemplating A Pay Day Loan.”) I haven’t been an agent for nearly six years—and arguably never really was one in the first place.

I moved from Iowa to California in 2008, and the indie publishing house Jennifer Banash—my then-girlfriend and now fiancé—and I ran out of our apartment in Iowa City moved along with us. It was a shitty time to move to a major city without any job prospects, to say the very least, and while there was plenty of work to do on the books Impetus Press was slated to launch the next spring, finding actual paying work was nearly impossible. I worked at an art gallery for a month or so before Lehman Brothers failed, after which the position just kind of disappeared. And while I found a few different food-service jobs after some hunting, they were part-time and low-paying and didn’t satisfy my artistic needs. So I started writing a series of resumes that (somewhat) exaggerated the work experience I had that could apply to fields other than art or publishing. Social media marketing “ninja” or young adult novel ghostwriter. Literary agent.


Rose Bertin, The First Celebrity Stylist

The first celebrity stylist predates Instagram by a long shot. Thanks to reality TV and larger-than-life personalities like Rachel Zoe, celebrity stylists have become famous in their own rights. This phenomenon has pulled back the curtain on a formerly behind-the-scenes role, allowing us to see just how responsible stylists are for creating the looks we associate with our celebrities. As a career, it seems somewhat recent: a red carpet necessity that developed with increased paparazzi, media attention, tabloid fashion sections and social media. But the origins of the job actually go all the way back to the eighteenth century.

Rose Bertin was born as Marie-Jeanne Bertin in 1747 outside of Paris. As a child, she became obsessed with having her palm read by a fortune teller in her town. Her family had barely enough money to scrape by; she starved herself in order to pay the palm reader with her own food. According to Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette by Emil Langlade, the palm reader told Bertin that she would “rise to great fortune, and one day wear a court dress.” An ambitious hard worker with a new specific goal in mind, Bertin set out for Paris when she was 16 and became an apprentice at a millinery shop.

During her apprenticeship, Bertin was sent on an errand to deliver dresses to the Princesse de Conti and spent some time chatting with someone she thought was a chambermaid. That chambermaid turned out to be the princess, and while Bertin was mortified, the princess found her charming and called on her to work on the bridal trousseau of an upcoming royal wedding.


The Last Player in The Game Wins

So!! Once upon a time there was a very determined man and there were a lot of odds against him, but he just couldn’t be held back by “The Man,” and he pulled himself up by those bootstraps we’re always hearing so much about, and he figured out a totally honest and admirable way to make himself rich and provide a service that people really, truly wanted, and everything was great and cool forever and ever. That is the story of a book I would never want to read. But, I mean, nobody really needs to write that kind of book anymore; we all know that story like the back of our capitalist hands.

In 2009, Mary Pilon was writing for The Wall Street Journal and wanted to include a line about how we all know the story of Monopoly—the classic origin tale of Charles Darrow, an unemployed and broke man who sold his board game to Parker Brothers during the Great Depression, just the kind of uplifting rags-to-riches story people love to hear. Like so many other stories that fit into archetypal narratives, it was total bullshit.

Charles Darrow was, perhaps, the last person to create the game Monopoly as we know it, but the game had been invented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in the early 1900s. Magie was a writer, an inventor, and an outspoken feminist, and she invented something she called “The Landlord’s Game” and patented it in 1904. Her version included both a “monopolist” set of rules and an “anti-monopolist” set of rules, and it became kind of fashionable with certain prominent public figures like Upton Sinclair.

People made their own boards with their own set of rules and started casually referring to the game as “the monopoly game,” like the Quaker community of Atlantic City, who created a board to reflect their neighborhoods. One such Quaker invited Charles Darrow and his wife over to play their board, and, I mean, I’m sure you can see where this is going: Darrow copied their board, sent it to Parker Brothers, complete with a perfectly packaged revisionist mythology that just so happened to suit the values, aspirations, and beliefs of American society at that time.

Magie’s story might have been lost if it hadn’t been for Ralph Anspach, an economics professor who tried to make his own version of the game called “Anti-Monopoly.” His goal was to have a “better” capitalist board game, one that encouraged players to produce better goods as governments destroyed existing monopolies. Parker Brothers sued for an unauthorized use of the brand name that they owned, but as Anspach and his lawyer quickly found out, it wasn’t even their brand name to begin with. What happened after that? You’ll just have to read The Monopolists, in stores today, to find out!!!

Mary and I spoke about the five years she spent writing this book, the importance of telling Lizze Magie’s story, and—whoops—how much I hate Monopoly.


The Suburbs

About a month ago, my little family and I sold the tiny townhouse we’d lived in for just five years and ditched Brooklyn. We packed up and moved about one hour north of New York City, into the heart of the suburbs, in the middle of winter. We always move in the winter.

It would be easy to say that the decision to unceremoniously desert New York City was all our daughter’s fault, but it’s important to admit that the thought has crossed and uncrossed our minds several times, washing over us in tiny waves, over the course of the entire decade my husband and I have been together. The reasons were always the most obvious ones: space, crazy real estate prices, bad air quality, space, traffic. There were always reasons to look around and think, Maybe somewhere else will be different, or better. There are always reasons to look around and think maybe somewhere would be better.

Then Zelda was born, and my Brooklyn neighborhood—a radius of approximately twenty blocks—became our entire universe. From her birth in February through the following autumn, I made it to Manhattan fewer than a dozen times. New York City with a baby is equal parts unparallelled conveniences and unrelenting, brutal misery. You can walk out the door and see people and friends in a moment. You can get to a store in even the worst weather without having to travel too far and you never need a car. But the downsides are also unavoidable: there are so many people. When you’re one person walking down the street it’s manageable. When you’re two, one of whom is in a stroller and needs serious luggage just to leave the house, it can quickly become exhausting. Going anywhere with a baby is a trial, a commotion. In New York City it can be devastating.


(Quick) Pickle the Vegetable

Pickling is utterly twee, from start to finish. This is a technique that, in some forms, actually requires a mason jar. It conjures images of grandmothers preserving the year’s harvest for the hard winter ahead, and what could be more authentic and shitty than that? Pickling is tailor-made for Pinterest, is what I’m saying. But you should not let that count against it. Pickles are delicious. And, in the form I prefer, pickling is an extremely easy and quick technique to bring a ton of intense flavor to a variety of plant items.

Pickling is a pretty vague term; it can refer to any of several preservation techniques involving salt, vinegar, or both. Some involve heat, some do not. The main branches of the pickle tree (this metaphor works because pickles do not grow on trees) are the salt branch and the vinegar branch. The salt branch is probably the oldest and still feels the most primal: A vegetable or fruit is placed in a salt and water solution, usually at room temperature, which causes various anaerobic bacteria to begin to eat the plant. They die and let loose with gaseous byproducts, which changes the flavor and sometimes the texture of the plant. A classic, ultra-traditional New York City deli pickle is an example of this; the most ornery of deli pickle recipes rely on no vinegar whatsoever. This method requires a long period of time and can also be sort of gross; the byproducts are often referred to as “scum,” because that is a good way to refer to a mass of white fungus-y stuff.

A vinegar brine is easier and quicker. Vinegar is not as excellent of a preservative as salt, which means a vinegar pickle won’t last as long, but if you’re just looking for that pickle-y flavor, which I am, vinegar takes the place of the natural byproducts of bacteria that a salt pickle takes so long to force out. But because we don’t really care about a vinegar pickle remaining shelf-stable for months, we don’t mess with the rigamarole of sterilizing jars and boiling them to seal them. A vinegar pickle is more like an XXX-TREME marinade (with some mild preservative properties) than the ancient mystical bacterial forces that turn cucumbers into deli pickles or cabbage (or whatever) into kimchi. But that doesn’t make it a lesser pickle; it’s merely easier.


The Middle-Classism of Teen Movies

There’s a scene in Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging where sisters Trudi and Shade slouch in a truck stop diner booth. Nora, their mother, a waitress, is covering two stations. Trudi (played by Ione Skye) won’t eat because she’d rather starve then risk “smelling like grease and fish.” Trudi hates her town, the trailer park where she lives, and the busboy who spills a soda on her lap. She blames her mother for all of her bad choices, but mostly for her mother’s bad choices in men. She lashes out at her mother and her sister, but really, it’s the world that’s at fault.

The scene captures what we take for granted in teen movies—not the indignant teen, but the frustrated parent struggling to pay bills, who sometimes has to work two shifts, or double shifts, or the graveyard shift. Even in smart teen movies like Mean Girls or 10 Things I Hate About You, there’s endless money for all the fries and Cokes and movies kids want. The kids are sheltered; financial realities simply don’t exist or aren’t addressed. And understandably so—who wants their teen movie filled to the brim with our parents’ problems? Even Charlie Brown dismissed adults as background noise.

Except teen movies—and movies about teens—in the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Gas Food Lodging, delved into some heavy socio-economic plots and subplots. There was John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood about three black teenage boys living in South Central Los Angeles and the demoralizing effect gang life has on them. There was the exhausted single parent in Whatever. There was the no-parent household in The Outsiders. There was the money-is-tight-let’s-move-across-country subplot in The Karate Kid. There was the parent moving to the rich suburb so his kids could go to better schools in Slums of Beverly Hills. There was the rough coming-of-age of three high school seniors in Girls Town, in which the tag line read “This ain’t no 90210.” There was the my-stepfather-is-a-lazy-piece-of-shit-drunk-who eats-all-of-our-food-while-mom-works-her-ass-off subplot in River’s Edge. There was Mi Vida Loca, about Latino teen girls living in gang-riddled Echo Park. There was the I-want-to-be-seen-as-more-than-just-another-black-girl-on-the-subway in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Even John Hughes, the king of rich white kids, tackled class warfare with Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink, a romantic who lived on the “other side of the tracks,” and Eric Stoltz and Mary Stuart Masterson’s characters in Some Kind of Wonderful were poor artists/drummer/mechanics.

Fast forward today and the middle class struggle is hardly touched on in films about teens. There are 50 million people living in poverty in the U.S., according to the 2013 Census report, but we’ve only seen a tiny sample of contemporary teen movies (Thirteen, Precious, Beneath the Harvest Sky) even attempt to grasp those topics.