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April 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 4:37 pm

Slate Magazine

I Did Not Love My Adopted Child

The painful truth about adoption.

By KJ Dell’Antonia
Updated Tuesday, April 13, 2010, at 7:14 AM ET

“I no longer wish to parent this child.”

Those words aren’t mine. They come from a letter written by 33-year-old Tennessee nurse Torry Hansen, who sent it on a plane back to Russia with the 7-year-old son she’d adopted last September. But there were moments last summer, after we brought home our newly adopted 3-year-old from China, when they could have been mine. That line perfectly encapsulates the way I felt for weeks after we returned from our adoption trip (although my version would have included more cursing). I did not love that child. That child did not love me (although, when she wasn’t screaming at me, she clung to me like the last tree standing in a tornado). I did not wish to parent that child, and I did not think I ever could.

Obviously, I eventually did, or the storm that now surrounds Hansen would have enveloped me instead. But without taking away anything from what her adopted son was suffering, I understand, deep in my bones, what Hansen must have been going through when she bypassed all other emergency options and put that child on a plane. In the same way that women who’ve experienced post-partum depression understand mothers who kill themselves and their infants, I get it. There, but for [fill in saving grace here], go I.

Like me, Hansen must have thought she was prepared. She was screened, questioned, and evaluated. She would have sat through the mandatory “adoption education” session on institutionalized children featuring descriptions of sexual and other abuses, violent anger, and unpredictable procedural delays. She would have filled out forms, she would have been evaluated by social workers, and, because of Russia’s strict travel requirements, she would have traveled there twice—the first time to meet the child she would adopt, and again, after a waiting period, to confirm her commitment to parenting him and to legalize their ties. But prospective adoptive parents are either incorrigible optimists (that was me) or people of deep and abiding faith, and it does not really sink in with most of them that things might end badly—might really end badly—until it is too late.

Hansen’s case isn’t the first to end this way. She’s not even the first parent to return her child to Russia—a couple from Georgia took a 9-year-old girl back in 2000, saying they could not get her the help she needed. Russia is notorious for difficult adoptees—its institutional system is more rigid than those in other countries and often offers less opportunity for young children to bond with a caregiver, which is considered key to transferring trust and affection to an adoptive parent later. But there are tragic adoption stories from every part of the world. A Florida woman left her adopted Guatemalan kindergartener in the airport immediately after bringing him to the United States. (He remained in foster care until she sought, and regained, custody of him 16 months later.) Not every tough case ends in tragedy or rejection, but plenty of adoptive parents (including some of my closest friends) cling to some sort of “Plan B” as they get through the first months home with what is essentially a stranger—an angry, troubled stranger that you’ve promised to love unconditionally for life.

Hansen adopted a 7-year-old boy from a country with a long history of troubled adoptions of institutionalized children. I adopted a 3-year-old raised in the best possible circumstances for an abandoned girl-baby in China—a foster home, with a loving couple whom she called Mommy and Baba, who’d parented her since she was 2 months old. With their help and support, she was transitioned to us with as much loving care as the Chinese government would allow. Yet we still struggled. My daughter screamed for hours for Mommy, and we both knew I wasn’t the mommy she wanted. She kicked, shouted, and defied me; she slugged her new brothers and sisters when they tried (always at the worst possible moment) to hug her. She said she did not like us; she begged to go back to Baba Mike. Her bottomless well of need meant I often had to ignore one of my other three children. I was sure I had ruined all of our lives forever.

It got better—it’s still getting better; we work daily for our happy ending. Well-meaning is a term that takes a beating, but Hansen (and I) obviously meant well. With some crazed exceptions, few adoptive parents go through this process intending to do harm. The problem is that harm has already been done. Even the best adoptive parent is just the clean-up crew.

The older children waiting for adoption in the United States and in other countries are children who’ve already been abandoned or abused. Prospective parents are warned about all that, but there is also a parallel mythology that’s risen up around adoption that sounds like that of giving birth in the days before Anne Lamott and her spiritual heirs burst the bubble. The stories adoption agencies include in their material, the books, the blogs—even the very signatures of the parents on adoption forums (“mom to DD Mei Mei, joyfully home since 2007”) all speak of an experience that’s supposed to be wonderful. Your child is “home,” his or her orphaned life has ended, your respective travels are over, and you have been united into one big forever-family. Even the politically correct terminology surrounding adoption insists that once it’s legal, it’s a done deal—your child “was” adopted (not “is”), and now you are its mother, amen. We do not want adoption to be a process; we want it to be a destination—and that makes us even angrier when it doesn’t work out that way. Torry Hansen betrayed her son, and she betrayed our belief system. We were willing to accept him as her son, and she wasn’t, which makes her the villain.

This is not really anyone’s fault. Humans seem to have an overwhelming need for a tidy narrative, which in adoption almost always butts up against the uglier reality. The law understands that, which is why, however wrong Hansen’s actions seem to us, putting her adopted son on a plane back to Russia does not appear to have been illegal. Rash, yes, and ugly, but not against the law—because the law still recognizes that adoptive parenting of older children is different than parenting from birth. What’s next is for the rest of us—jaded but experienced adoptive parents and the adoption professionals who surround us (often adoptive parents themselves) to stop relying on adoption education and social workers to convey the darker realities of attachment disorders, institutional delays, and post-adoption depression and start talking about them ourselves.

As long as we keep insisting that the typical adoption narrative is one in which a family comes home to joy and laughter and a happily ever after, cases like Hansen’s will give fuel to the alarmists who insist that all adoptive parents are naive and unprepared. Russia will seem measured rather than vengeful when it threatens to temporarily suspend all U.S. adoptions—a knee-jerk reaction that will leave hundreds of children, many of whom have already met the families who plan to take them in, waiting in institutions for months or even years while “additional safeguards” (which will probably affect only a very few adoptions) are put in place. This family is waiting in St. Petersburg to finalize its adoption. This one just arrived there. Hansen’s actions—or rather, Russia’s overreaction—might make their adoptions, if and when they happen, even more likely to fail: The longer a child is institutionalized or the older she is when adopted, the more difficult the adjustment for both child and family will be.

Our family’s adoption was far from perfect, although for the moment it seems to have ended better than Hansen’s. Of course, we still don’t know how it really ends. Even if my adopted daughter turns out fine, there are the other children to consider—my 3-year-old biological son may spend years on the couch because my adopted daughter displaced him; either my older son or my older daughter could seek the love and affection they lost this past year in a cult or a series of destructive one-night stands. We won’t know until we know (and we’ll never know what might have been different).

With the publicity surrounding his return, Hansen’s adopted son will surely be taken in by some Russian family, and no matter what’s said about it publicly, that will not be a smooth sail down the Nile. Probably none of it will work out as anyone would have intended—in fact, by definition, it already hasn’t. A perfect world would be one in which every child could be well cared for by the mother he or she was born to. That’s not what we’ve got. A “successful” adoption story is one in which you can tell yourself that it worked out better than the alternative. That has to be enough.

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KJ Dell’Antonia is a writer living in New Hampshire. She writes the EcoLiving column for Kiwi magazine and is the co-author of Reading With Babies, Toddlers and Twos: Choosing, Reading and Loving Books Together.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2250590/


January 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:20 pm

The Google Decade EndsBy chris.thompsonCreated 12/31/2009 – 12:24am

If the search king hasn’t ripped up your business yet, just wait.

As we near the end of the second decade of the Internet as a mass medium, no one can deny that the last 10 years have been all about Google [2] (GOOG). When the aughts began, Google was a clever search algorithm with a little venture capital but no CEO, no substantial brand recognition, and no clear way to make money. Now, it’s a verb, a tech empire, and a public company with a market capitalization just shy of $200 billion (and sitting on $20 billion in cold, hard cash).

But perhaps the best way to assess Google’s impact on our lives is to tally the firms that had never imagined the company would ever matter to them but now see it as lethal. Year after year, Larry Page and Sergey Brin thought up new industries to penetrate and disrupt, sending old companies into utter disarray. Google went from a simple search and page-ranking algorithm to a mortal threat to the media, the entertainment industry, telecommunications, traditional advertising models—even coal mining. Today, in corporate boardrooms across the country, executives are looking at their companies’ long-term prospects and asking themselves: When will Google try to kill us?

Company by company, industry by industry, the growth of Google can be measured by the rivals who are dead, dying, or struggling to live. Here’s a sampling of the butcher’s bill.

In 2000, the conventional wisdom around search looked utterly different than it does today. Companies like Yahoo [3] (YHOO), Lycos, Altavista, GoTo, and Excite all thought that the key to making money was to keep people staring at their Web sites for as long as possible. That way, you could flash garish banner ads at them, or pop-ups that distracted people as they searched for something that typically had nothing to do with the ads’ content. In some cases, search engines offered companies a deal: Pay us a wad of cash, and your firm will rise in the search result rankings, regardless of how relevant it is to the search itself.

Larry and Sergey rejected every one of these principles, hewing to the notion that search should be, you know, useful. They worked overtime to rank search results as accurately as possible and made sure you found what you wanted and got off of Google’s pages as quickly as you could. No banner ads would clutter their home page, and no pop-ups would slow the loading time. No one would be able to bribe their way to the top of the list.

At the time, this seemed the very height of silliness. How else were you going to make money? But once Google thought up selling small, contextually relevant text ads next to the results, its money problems were over. In 2001, the company turned its first profit and went on from there. One by one, its rivals in those early days started to die off, being gobbled up by other firms and turned into specialty services. Only Yahoo and Ask.com remain—along with newcomer Bing—and Yahoo is desperately trying to find a way back to its glory years.

Meanwhile, another line of businesses faced a mortal threat from Google: advertising agencies. Google adopted a concept from GoTo known as “cost-per-click,” in which advertisers paid only when someone clicked on their text link. In addition, Google’s vast amount of search data gave advertisers an unprecedented amount of information about their targets. Google could match advertisers to their target audiences more accurately than anyone had ever been able to do. Before Google, advertising was an art, in which Madison Avenue offered oblique advice on how to reach customers. After Google, it was a science—and all those witch doctors were suddenly a lot less relevant.

And Google was far from done. With these scalps hanging from its belt, the company had established its core business. Now, almost to pass the time, Larry and Sergey began to wonder what other industries they could disrupt.

Shortly after 9/11, a badly shaken Google engineer named Krishna Bharat decided that he had to do something to make the world a better place. And what the world needed now more than ever, he decided, was fast and easy access to international news, especially given the conflict that was about to play out in the Middle East. Using his “20 percent time” to play around, he invented Google News. Although newspapers hadn’t exactly been growing prior to this moment, the launch of Google News was a bullet aimed straight at the old media and typified Google’s seemingly naive attitude toward industries it was mauling.

Thanks in large part to Google News, Craigslist, and Google’s core advertising business, traditional media went into a tailspin. Newspaper advertising revenue would drop by 9.4 percent in 2007, and 17.7 percent the following year. The Tribune Company, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Philadelphia Daily News all filed for bankruptcy. The Knight-Ridder chain would be broken up. The Boston Globe nearly closed down. The two major newspapers closest to the GooglePlex were hit hard as well; the San Jose Mercury News was forced to lay off 200 reporters and editors, and the San Francisco Chronicle began posting annual $60 million losses.

Google isn’t the only reason for this catastrophe, but media moguls have all but declared war on it nonetheless. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. [4] (NWS), Dean Singleton’s national suburban newspaper chain, and the Dallas Morning News have all announced plans to charge subscriptions for their content—and ban the Google News spybots from scanning and indexing their pages.

Meanwhile, Google was blithely menacing another outpost of traditional media: the book publishing business. In 2004 the company launched Google Book Search, a massive effort to digitally scan, archive, and present to the public millions of books from the country’s largest libraries. From Google’s perspective, this was a classic case of doing well by doing good; the company would expose millions to excerpts of books they could never access otherwise, and Google would dramatically expand its universe of searchable information. But to authors and publishing houses, who watched as book sales grew flatter and flatter with every year, the plan was practically an invitation to piracy. How easy would it be, they asked, for garden-variety hackers to download millions of copyrighted books and offer them for free?

The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google for copyright infringement in 2005. The resulting proposed settlement may have satisfied the plaintiffs, but it unsettled untold numbers of copyright holders, who realized that the settlement would give Google the right to publish copyrighted material without informing the authors. And since the settlement empowered Google to sell digital copies of books online, it also unnerved another major player in book sales: Amazon (AMZN).

And in 2006, Google threw the entertainment industry into a tizzy when it bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Soon, users were uploading clips from The Daily Show and music videos onto the site, and Google—which planned to sell ads next to YouTube content—didn’t seem to care that other companies owned the work. Or, rather, its leaders claimed that it was up to the owners of that work to notify Google when someone in the world uploaded a five-minute clip of copyrighted material—even though policing someone else’s Web site would take enormous amounts of time and resources. This attitude left Hollywood, the television networks, and the music industry livid, and Viacom [5](VIA.B) led the charge when, in 2007, it sued Google for $1 billion in copyright infringement damages.

Earlier this year, Google added another group to its enemies list: the telecoms. In March, Google launched Google Voice, a new service that promises—or threatens—to change the telephone forever. With Google Voice, users can consolidate their home phone, cell phone, and work phone numbers into a single number that they can keep even when moving to a new city. More importantly, it made phone calls, even long-distance calls, virtually free. Everyone from AT&T [6] (T) to eBay [7](EBAY), which produces Skype, suddenly realized that they, too, were in the path of the Google juggernaut.

In the meantime, Google has almost accidentally challenged the viability of countless other industries. Its release of Google Maps wiped out the business plan of AOL’s MapQuest. In 2007, Google announced a scheme to invest millions in renewable energy, with the express intent of reducing Americans’ reliance on the coal industry. Larry and Sergey have personally invested a small fortune in manufacturing electric cars, which can’t make Big Oil very happy. This year, Google announced that users of Android-based smartphones would be able to use GPS navigation services for free—upending the whole point of the TomTom, which you actually have to buy.

There’s just one case of a company picking a fight with Google, rather than the other way around. As Google showed the world how much money you can make on search, the tech world’s great behemoth, Microsoft, jumped into the business and took direct aim at the industry’s leader. But just as quickly, Google struck back, developing products that directly compete with Microsoft’s core business. Following its cloud-based computing model, the company rolled out Google Apps, a line of word-processing and spreadsheet services that goes head to head with the Microsoft Office software. Gmail competes directly with Hotmail. Google’s Chrome browser is designed to eat into Internet Explorer. And with the recent launch of the Chrome operating system, Google is offering an alternative to the Windows operating system. Google is now locked in a global war with one of the largest technology companies on Earth.

If there’s one company that Google has historically been perfectly amicable with, it’s Apple [8] (AAPL). The two firms share a similar creativity-is-God ethos, and until recently Google CEO Eric Schmidt sat on Apple’s board of directors. But that friendship came to an end when Google decided to get into the business of selling ads on mobile smartphones. The company launched Android, its mobile Internet operating system, and gave it away to anyone, from Samsung to Motorola, who wanted to build a device that would go head to head with Apple’s iPhone. (Almost as a postscript, Google has launched the Chrome browser for Mac, which will directly compete with Apple’s Safari.) And after numerous smartphone manufacturers spent millions developing these phones, Google recently announced that it had built its own smartphone and may release it for sale in January. Companies that once depended on Google to help them compete with Apple now worry that the search giant may compete with them—and keep all the niftiest Android apps, which are key to any mobile device’s value, for itself.

Of course, Google has stumbled a few times during the decade, particularly in the area of social media. Google Video, the company’s initial answer to the rise of YouTube, fizzled out. Knol, its attempt to build an alternative to Wikipedia, languishes somewhere in a dark corner of the Internet. And Orkut, Google’s effort to challenge MySpace, has itself been eclipsed by Facebook.

And of all these challenges, none has yet proved lethal to the companies or industries in Google’s crosshairs. In fact, of the 150 products Google offers, only two—AdWords and AdSense—make significant amounts of money. In fact, Google’s threats have forced many industries to race to adapt to a new Internet reality that was coming anyway. Record labels and some movie studios have cut deals to offer content on YouTube and share revenue, for example. And NBC, News Corp., and Disney [9] were spurred to develop Hulu, the video-hosting site that may well signal a new revenue model for the entertainment industry.

But consider all the mortal foes Google has racked up in the last decade. Microsoft. Amazon. Viacom. News Corp. AT&T. Every publishing house and newspaper in America. That’s quite a list for two men who once merely aspired to put the Gettysburg Address on your screen in a microsecond or two. What other businesses will they disrupt in the coming years? Will they set up a hedge fund, as Sergey Brin once suggested? Will they start predicting the weather? Just last week, the Federal Trade Commission reportedly began an investigation into whether Google was scanning local restaurant and business reviews posted on sites like TripAdvisor and OpenTable, organizing them on Google Maps, and selling ads next to content it didn’t generate.

In industry after industry, by offering services for nothing, Google has metastasized the modern economic dilemma: Everything is free, but no one has a job. This was probably inevitable, and maybe we should thank Google for forcing us to face reality now, and in such a dramatic fashion. But as we look back on the last 10 years, one thing is clear: Google should change its slogan from “Don’t be evil” to “Be everywhere.”

chris.thompson [10]

November 19, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:53 pm

‘Twilight,’ the love that dare not speak its shame
Good, smart, literary women tried to resist the romantic-vampire phenomenon. And then, alas, they bit.

By Monica Hesse
Thursday, November 19, 2009


We know. You hate “Twilight.” You don’t want to hear anything more about “Twilight.” That’s why this is not another story about the “Twilight” or “New Moon” mania, nor will it rhapsodize on the vampire craze, nor does it contain any interviews with Robert Pattinson.


This is a story about shame.


All across the country, there were women who managed to avoid Stephenie Meyer’s series about a star-crossed human/vampire teen couple. (Vampire Edward lusts for mortal Bella, but also for her blood; the books are less plot than endless yearning). They resisted the first three books — refused to read them, didn’t know they existed — and the lunacy that was “Breaking Dawn.”


“Twilight” came for the tweens, then for the moms of tweens, then for the co-workers who started wearing those ridiculous Team Jacob shirts, and the resisters said nothing, because they thought “Twilight” could not come for them. They were too literary. They didn’t do vampires. They were feminists.


Then something happened: the release of the “Twilight” movie, which last year introduced $384 million worth of audience members to Kristen Stewart as mortal Bella and Pattinson as lust incarnate.


“Prior to ‘Twilight,’ my favorite books were by Anthony Burgess” and Ayn Rand, says Jenny West, 32, who had never heard of the series until she saw ads for the movie last year. “I bought ‘Twilight’ [the book] with the full intention of ripping it apart.” Then she read it. In one night. Bought “New Moon” the next day. “I was kind of horrified with myself, and I had to keep going.” When she finished the last book, she reopened the first one and started again.


She founded the blog Twitarded, to process what had happened to her. She and co-Twitard Debbie Connelly were last spotted soliciting donations to win a charity benefit date with Peter Facinelli, the actor who plays Edward’s dad.


Beware the dark side

People, be warned. “New Moon,” the “Twilight” movie sequel, opens on Friday. Everyone is vulnerable.


One minute you’re a functioning member of society, the next you’re succumbing to the dark side, wondering how deep you’re willing to go — and what that longing says about you.


In “Twilight,” Edward Cullen waffled between wooing and eating new girl Bella Swan. He chose love. In “New Moon,” the darkest installment of the series, Edward becomes convinced that his girlfriend would be safer without him, so he dumps her in order to protect her and then vanishes. Bella, catatonic from the pain, finds solace in Jacob Black, the devoted friend who has just learned he is a werewolf, and their relationship grows deeper, and this description is utterly, utterly useless because none of it gets at what the “Twilight” series is actually about, which is being 17.


It’s a time capsule to the breathless period when the world could literally end depending on whether your lab partner touched your hand, when every conversation was so agonizing and so thrilling (and the border between the two emotions was so thin), and your heart was bigger and more delicate than it is now, and everything was just so much more.


“I noticed in that first week of reading that I was feeling things I hadn’t been able to feel in a long time,” says Lauren Ashlock, 27. She’d avoided the “Twilight” series ever since the 2005 release of the first book, because when she saw the passion of so-called TwiHards, she thought, Wackos.


She relented last year only because she wanted to be an informed hater. She snuck the books into her house, at first reading them in the bathroom so her husband wouldn’t laugh. The floodgates opened. “I’d locked away a lot of emotions,” she says. “I’d numbed out.” It had been a terrible year, with unrelenting job stress, and yet suddenly she was feeling alive again.


The behavior that followed will make perfect sense to someone who has read “Twilight” and seem bat-crazy to anyone who hasn’t: Ashlock got three dogs and named them after “New Moon’s” werewolf pack. She and her husband traveled to Forks, the two-bit town in Washington state where Bella and Edward fictionally live. When the Ashlocks have a child, they will name it from the novels: “If it’s a girl her middle name will be Renesmee, and I don’t care if you hate the name because I love it.”


The people who have not read “Twilight” do not get it. Worse, they think that what happened to Ashlock could not happen to them. They’re so smug, talking about how they once read a chapter of “Twilight” in a bookstore and the prose was just awful. Meyer never uses one adjective when she could use three, and most of the time that adjective is a hyphenate combining “dazzling” and “chiseled.”


The people who have not read “Twilight” think they are astoundingly brilliant when they point out the misogynist strains of the series, like how Bella bypasses college in favor of love, like how Edward’s “romantic” tendencies include creepily sneaking into Bella’s house to watch her sleep, like how Bella’s only “flaw” is that she is clumsy, thereby necessitating frequent rescues by the men in her life, who swoop in with dazzling chisleyness and throw her over their shoulders.


In response: We know. We know.


The women who have succumbed to “Twilight” have heard all of these arguments before. They wrote those arguments. This self-awareness is what makes the experience of loving “Twilight” a conflicting one, as if they had all been taught proper skin-care routines but chose instead to rub their faces with a big pizza every night.


A love most ‘exquisite’

It’s embarrassing, to love something you wish you hated.


Witness the progression experienced by West’s mother, who agreed to read the books after her daughter’s site went gangbusters:


E-mail 1:


How many times does Bella describe Edward’s face as “exquisite?” . . . and that whole scene with Bella riding on Edward’s back as he races through the woods . . . cooooorny.


E-mail 2:


Dad and I just finished watching “Twilight” and I must say we both liked the movie.


E-mail 3:


I have a serious problem with [“New Moon”]. My problem is I can’t put it down.


E-mail 4:


Where the heck is Edward? The suspense is killing me!


Oh, Mrs. West. Welcome.


Witness the downfall of Sarah Seltzer, a freelance literary critic who also writes for a reproductive rights Web site:


“I wanted to write about the abstinence subtext,” Seltzer says, which is why she read the books to begin with. She planned on questioning the allegorical “abstinence only” theme that runs through the series. “But the books are kind of hypnotic, so it’s very much that while you’re reading them you’re sucked in, and then you take a step back and you think, this is kind of troubling. She jumps off a cliff because she misses her boyfriend?” What?!


“New Moon” shows Bella at her most pathetic, and so the grown women who love “Twilight” have methodically come up with rebuttals to the accusations that the character is anti-feminist. Perhaps her single-minded desire for a relationship is actually a Third Wave feminist expression? Maybe it doesn’t matter that she’s choosing Edward over everything else, as long as it’s her choice? Maybe her wish to become a vampire is really a metaphor for asserting her rights over her own body?


Is Bella regressing or progressive? The past or the future?


And Edward — Edward might be imperfect, might be too possessive, but then why does he still seem so insanely dreamy?


“I remember when the movie first came out,” says Mindy Goodin, 36, a special needs teacher in Stafford. “I remember thinking,” whoever that boy is, “he really needs to brush his hair.”


How things have changed. Recently, when Goodin’s 10-year-old daughter wanted to lash out, she did so by yelling the words she knew would cut her mother to the core: “I don’t even think Robert Pattinson’s cute, anyway!”


For mothers of tweenage girls, there are added complications. Is it sweet or twisted to share the same crush as your 14-year-old? (Taylor Lautner as Jacob. Ahhhhhhh. Only 17. Ewwwww.) How do you reconcile cooing over an on-screen relationship that, if your daughter had it in real life, might be worth a restraining order?


What women want

It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie.


It’s just a movie — well, movie and books — but it’s a movie that’s come to represent such big things, from the future of girls to what women really want (they want men who will shut up and come to watch “New Moon,” and not ask how many points they’re getting for the evening).


Men feel perfectly comfortable slathering their chests in greasepaint and screaming like half-naked ninnies at football games, but women too often over-explain their passions, apologizing for being too girly or liking something too trashy.


The grown women of “Twilight” will no longer apologize. They will go to those midnight “New Moon” screenings.


But as for telling them how silly they’re being, how Edward is not real and neither is Jacob, how their brains are rotting and their sense of reality is being distorted and this obsession is crazy, just crazy? There’s really no need.


They already know.















































November 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:24 pm

Male Immunization with Gardasil Not Deemed Cost Effective

By Drucilla Dyess
Published: Friday, 23 October 2009
teenage boy and girl
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Although Gardasil has been proven to protect against two strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer, as well as two additional strains that cause genital warts, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has voted against its use as a routine immunization for boys and men. However, the committee did vote, almost unanimously, to allow doctors to recommend the vaccine be given to males to reduce their likelihood of acquiring genital warts.

HPV is a sexually transmitted pathogen that is believed to cause approximately 70 percent of all cervical cancers. In addition, HPV has been associated with more rare forms of cancer of the throat, genitals and anus, as well as genital warts. Studies have found Gardasil not only to be safe, but also to be nearly 100 percent effective in preventing pre-cancerous cervical lesions from the four HPV strains that it targets. In addition, findings have shown that Gardasil is far more effective in females when given before they become sexually active.

Since first being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 for use in females, the issue of whether or not to use Gardasil for males has been strongly debated. Advocates for use of Gardasil as a routine immunization among males believe that widespread use of the vaccine may reduce cervical cancer rates, since males commonly transmit HPV to females.

Although in early October the FDA approved the Gardasil vaccine for use among males aged 9 through 26, results of a study conducted in the same month revealed that immunization among males was not cost effective, as costs would outweigh the health benefit of the vaccine. Now, the results of the final vote by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has apparently put this issue to rest. The vaccine will not be approved for boys as part of the childhood immunization schedule.

The pivotal study published in the British Medical Journal made a comparison between a female-only vaccination program and a co-ed vaccination program. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health performed the analysis. According to lead researcher Jane Kim, an assistant professor of health decision science, “This study found that while vaccine coverage and efficacy are high in girls, including boys in an HPV vaccination program generally exceeds what the U.S. typically considers good value for money.”

The basis of a good value was deemed as having cost-effectiveness ratios ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 per quality-adjusted life year, or the cost of the vaccine versus the number of added years someone would gain by getting the vaccine. By assuming lifelong protection among 75 percent coverage, the routine vaccination of girls who were 12 years of age was found to be a good value at less than $50,000 per quality adjusted life year. However, by adding boys of the same age, the cost-effectiveness ratio was increased to over $100,000 per quality adjusted life year.

Currently, the CDC recommends Gardasil for girls ages 11 and 12, and for women ages 13 to 26, who have not been vaccinated for the prevention cervical cancer. The disease claims 4,000 female lives annually in the United State alone.

November 12, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 5:24 pm
Hillary and Sarah’s Common Theme
by Meghan McCain
November 9, 2009 | 12:36am



I have admired Hillary Clinton for years. Though we disagree on nearly everything politically, I respect the barriers she has broken as a woman in American politics, and what she’s had to go through to get there. Those “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” will hopefully make other women’s journeys in politics easier in the future, but sometimes I am not so sure.

During her years in the White House, Hillary Clinton redefined what it meant to be first lady. She was involved with policy meetings and decisions her husband made—something that is still controversial to this day. Hillary was either a pioneer or overstepped her boundaries as first lady, depending on who you talk to. Since leaving the White House, she became the first former first lady to be elected to the Senate and the first appointed to another administration’s Cabinet. Admittedly, it has been a complicated and somewhat controversial first year as secretary of State. Then again, to be a powerful woman in politics is to be controversial.

Admittedly, it has been a complicated and somewhat controversial first year as secretary of State. Then again, to be a powerful woman in politics is to be controversial.

Perhaps the most famous incident in her tenure was the day she snapped at a student in the Congo after a question was mistranslated and she was asked what President Clinton thought about an issue rather than President Obama. “My husband is not the secretary of State, I am,” she roared back. “You ask me my opinion, I will give you my opinion, I won’t be channeling my husband.”

When I first saw the video, I thought she was great and reacted as strongly as any man would. After all, she is the secretary of State and for someone to ask her spouse’s opinion is ridiculous, even if the translator misspoke. In retrospect, I wish she had kept her cool, because the incident only seemed to confirm what misogynists have said for years—women are too unstable to hold positions of power.

Tina Brown: Hillary Finally Doffs Her BurqaI myself straddle the line between political commentator and a member of the political universe (in the sense that I have campaigned and know what it’s like to be in the trenches when you’re under fire) and it’s not easy being a woman. But it’s a dilemma that I and every woman of my generation face. We want to be involved in politics—perhaps even run for office—but it’s a steep price to pay. One day there will be a woman president, we are all told as little girls. You too can be a congresswoman or senator. But the reality of today is that to do so, you have to give up so much, in a way that is never asked of a man, and I believe running for office has become less and less appealing for women.

In fact, it’s gotten so ugly out there that two of the most prominent women in politics—Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin—have become verbs: Candidates now regularly get “Hillary Clintoned” or “Sarah Palined” in the media. Misogyny works on both sides of the aisle.

The brutal criticism of Sarah Palin—which will only increase when her memoir comes out—is yet another example of the double standard and cruel treatment of women in politics. Sarah has been attacked for everything from her hair to her clothes to the number of children she gave birth to. Maureen Dowd even nicknamed her “Caribou Barbie.” I can’t even begin to think of what that kind of judgment—criticizing parts of your life that have nothing to do with what you stand for or want to accomplish politically—feels like.

Through it all, the example both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin set is so admirable. I respect any woman who will go out there and run for office. Maybe it’s a cliché, but no matter how many differences I may have with a woman politically, there is still a sense of kinship I feel for a woman in politics.

But having seen female candidates attacked on the right and the left, why would any woman my age ever feel inspired to run for office? What kind of example has the media set for my generation of women? I struggle with this. I don’t have ambitions to run for office—I have already done enough campaigning for one lifetime—but I already have a pretty good idea of what it would feel like. I have often wondered how the media would react if it were my brother writing these columns and speaking out on behalf of moderate Republicans. I can pretty much bet that his weight wouldn’t have been an issue.

So yes, Sarah Palin is a woman with five children and her physical appearance is deemed “too beautiful for politics.” And on the other end, Hillary Clinton is criticized for not being beautiful enough, for being “too tough” in the man’s world that she resides.

It seems to me the male-dominated media suffers from a Goldilocks Syndrome that keeps women from shattering the glass ceiling. Worse, I fear it will prevent tomorrow’s female leaders from even seeking office.

This one is too hard. This one is too soft. Who will ever be just right?

Meghan McCain is a columnist for The Daily Beast. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She is a New York Times bestselling children’s author, previously wrote for Newsweek magazine, and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.


BS Top - McCain Hillary Michael Loccisano / Getty Images As Sarah Palin braces for a fresh round of attacks linked to her book release—and Hillary Clinton returns from a bruising trip to Pakistan—Meghan McCain says the media’s constant bullying of women leaders is scaring young women away from politics.

November 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:41 pm

Why Is Nancy Pelosi Always Smiling?

Like Obama, she is more pragmatist than liberal ideologue. Unlike Obama, she doesn’t care what you think of her. In fact, she may not even know.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in her office at the Capitol, October 28, 2009.  

(Photo: Marco Grob; Makeup by Ann Miller)


A few weeks ago, on a Thursday around noon, Nancy Pelosi whirls through the second floor of the Capitol in a sea-foam pantsuit with lots of gold jangling on her arms. The Speaker of the House, the highest-ranking woman in government and third in line to the president, is about to walk the pink-painted halls of her private chambers to another series of closed-door meetings with the Democratic caucus about the health-care bill. Today, she’s set up a powwow of progressives in one of her conference rooms, and another for the Blue Dogs down the hall, but first she has some smiling to do. The Nancy Pelosi smile, as you may have noticed, is a thing to behold, mostly released in conjunction with serial spasms of eye-widening, an odd tic that is likely meant to connote sincerity and optimism (wide-eyedness and all that). Her smile, too, is very big and very quick, coming out of almost nowhere like the Cheshire Cat’s, then disappearing without a trace, often replaced by a wholly unnecessary grimace, a look of vast disappointment at some slight, threat, or sign of disrespect�either real or imagined.


Smiling, then, is what she does as she whips into the Capitol’s 180-foot Rotunda dome that abuts her office, where a hundred or so nervous high-school pages in ill-fitting blue blazers and gray slacks shuffle their feet under a painting of the surrender of General Burgoyne, waiting for her to catapult into the center of a ceremonial photo. Next, she beelines for her office balcony, the one with a killer view straight down the National Mall to the Washington Monument, where she joins her college interns for another portrait, chatting with each about his hometown: �Puerto Rico? My college roommate was from there! My husband and I went on our honeymoon there!� For the most part, they’re from California, where Pelosi, 69, began to make her home 40 years ago, after a stint in Manhattan and a childhood in Baltimore as the daughter of the mayor. �You’re the one who lives next to Phil,� she squeals, talking to a skinny blonde. �Oh my God, is his houseboat something! I’ve been there�both before and after it sank.�


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Then she’s on the House floor, banging the gavel in a monthly moment of silence for the armed forces before making her way out, squeezing shoulders here and there, whispering in a few ears. �Speakers in the past tended to be untouchable people, but Nancy Pelosi is around,� says José Serrano, a congressman from the Bronx. �She’s not hiding. If you disagree with her, she’s there for you to disagree with.� He guffaws a little. �Of course, she doesn’t come around to talk to you about sports or the weather. She’s trying to get something she wants.�


She’s rounding a bend, low green heels tapping away, when, suddenly, a gaggle of nuns appears. Apparently, the U.N. decreed a couple years ago that today is the International Day of Non-Violence, and these tiny women from Mother Teresa’s order, peering out from under white habits with blue trim, want to wish the Speaker �happy peace.�


The House chaplain, Daniel P. Coughlin, steps forward to make introductions. �I told the sisters you are a good Catholic from the Catholic state of Maryland,� he booms, turning to Pelosi.


The smile gets very, very wide. �Oh, yes,� she says, clasping her hands together. �Let me say, I had the joy of hearing Mother Teresa speak in San Francisco at a cathedral. And she sounded like an angel from Heaven�so beautiful. It was very thrilling for all of us.�


�Happy peace, happy peace,� say the nuns.


�Thank you,� says Pelosi, releasing another smile�but then her lips turn down and there’s a flash of slight contempt, as she thinks, perhaps, of the people who stand in the way of peace, and fairness, and all that is good in the world. �Sisters, please pray for us,� she says, eyes widening to the size of over-easy eggs. �Pray for us to do the right thing!�


The way that Pelosi always thinks she knows the right thing to do can be very annoying to a lot of people. To conservatives, she’s the devil: �Mussolini in a skirt,� �Nancy Botox,� a �domestic enemy of the Constitution.� In August, when she and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote a USA Today editorial calling town-hall shouters �un-American� for stifling national debate, a radio host said he’d like to punch her in the face; Joe the Plumber wanted to �beat the living tar� out of her; and Glenn Beck brought out a cardboard cutout of her likeness, then pretended to drink wine alongside it: �I wanted to thank you for having me over here in wine country,� he cackled. �By the way, I put poison in your�no, I look forward to all the policy discussions we’re supposed to have. You know, on health care, energy reform, and the economy. Hey, is that Sean Penn over there?� She’s a high-handed lady who needs to be �put � in her place,� as the National Republican Congressional Committee said when she questioned General McChrystal’s advice on Afghanistan. �It’s really sad. They really don’t understand how inappropriate that is,� Pelosi shot back, smirking a little and trailing a hand in the air. �That language is something I haven’t even heard in decades.�

Next: Is she even concerned with her poll numbers?

(Photo: (Clockwise from top left) Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images )


There’s a knee-jerk aspect to much of the criticism of Pelosi, of course, because she is the most powerful woman in U.S. political history�and we know what the problem is with that. But even to liberals, Pelosi can come across as shrill, strident, too rich. Humorless, odd, tone-deaf. She’s a kind of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, imperious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like �If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off.� She’s a talking-points machine, who is by the way not above compromising on principle to protect the old boys, like Charlie Rangel, a castrating San Franciscan shrew who banned smoking in some communal areas of the House and makes everyone in congressional cafeterias eat with biodegradable utensils. It does seem like the more we see of her, the less we like her. Pelosi’s national numbers have begun a queasy drop of some ten to fifteen points, and two weeks ago, a poll of Californians put her approval rating at 34 percent, down from 48 percent in March.


All of which might inspire some worry in a person who was paying attention. But Pelosi, pretty much, isn’t. She doesn’t often watch cable news or follow blogs, and her cell phone of choice is a Motorola Razr. She definitely isn’t watching Fox, and can’t really tell Sean Hannity apart from the other anchors. For the most part, Pelosi is in a bubble, where much of what passes for politics doesn’t penetrate. Her face, the one with the frozen smile, is her mask. She often seems unaware of how it looks. For her, the world consists of her members, her donors, and her family, plus President Obama and Rahm Emanuel, whom she sometimes speaks to several times a day. As far as she’s concerned, anything else, and that includes the press, is a petty distraction from her �historic work,� as she likes to say, before ticking off the accomplishments of Congress on her watch over the last two and a half years: the passage of large increases in college aid and veterans’ health care, raising fuel-efficiency standards and the minimum wage, and ethics reform, not to mention the stimulus, bailout, and a climate-change bill that she masterfully shepherded through the House�where it passed by a margin of one vote.


And then of course there’s health care. Before she unveiled her $894 billion bill last week, she and her liberal allies were playing a game of chicken with the public option��the robust public option,� in the jargon�for months. The base, the bloggers, the Obamaniacs who have lately been losing a little faith in their hero, wanted their due, having been rolled by the moderates over and over, at least that’s how they felt. The robust public option was not only a policy but a kind of battle flag, and Pelosi was the one carrying it, saying just what they wanted to hear. �A trigger is an excuse for not doing anything,� she said, dismissing out of hand the vaunted Olympia Snowe proposal, and breathed fire at the insurance companies: �It’s almost immoral, what they are doing,� she said. �They are the villains in this.�


But Pelosi has got a House to run, and her progressive friends were not the only ones who had to be taken care of. Out of sight, politics in the House was much squishier, and Pelosi was trying to tell everyone what they wanted to hear while counting votes, which she does with precision. The president was nowhere to be found; �It’s like waiting for Godot over here,� says Representative Anthony Weiner.


The face the public saw was that cartoon liberal�but in the bubble, the story is a little different. Privately, she was getting frustrated with the progressives and their whining and carping. �There they are, posing for holy pictures,� she likes to say. �Oh, they want to be sainted.� Noble aims are one thing, but this goop is quite another. To her, you can stand in the gallery and have a media moment. Or you can come into her office and pass this legislation.


Some of this internal struggle became visible when Harry Reid, after acting milquetoasty all summer, decided that the Senate’s public option should include an opt-out provision for states that, by the standards of the Senate, was robust indeed. Suddenly, Pelosi’s unruly flock became the story, and it became clear how tough it was to be in charge. She’d called an emergency vote count on the robust public option�never a good sign�but the results were inconclusive. She looked, truth be told, a little weak, which, being the first woman in her position, is not her preferred method of presentation. But she’ll do anything to win, and weakness, in this case, might have been good politics. The bill she came out with last week was less robust by a long shot than the one she’d been shilling for all year�but it keeps her moderates and freshmen happy for another day, and still may be the camel’s nose under the tent for a single-payer system (which is, of course, what Pelosi supports: �I’ve been for single payer for 30 years,� she tells me, �and back then we were with signs in the street and all that�). And she’d given the progressives as much as she could, which was commitment almost to the finish line.

Next: Why she dislikes the perception of hogging credit.

President Obama with Speaker Pelosi at a fund-raiser in June.  

(Photo: Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson)


In any case, this compromise may have been the plan all along. �There could be a larger Kabuki dance going on here between Reid and Nancy,� says a Democratic congressman. �Nancy staked out the strong public-option position, knowing in advance that Reid would come in her direction, and once she saw his light at the end of the tunnel, she moved closer to him.�


Pelosi’s bill will get diluted later in conference, and who knows how reform might actually play out. As a health-care CEO put it to me, �the only thing that keeps an oncologist out of a patient’s coffin is nails.� But national health care, even a watered-down version�what a legacy.


�Not so fast on that, on the legacy,� says Pelosi, taking a seat in a cream-colored chair in her beautiful office, sun pouring into the room from a high narrow window. She breaks into one of her grins. �I said to Al Gore one time, �Your work here will be part of your legacy,’ and he said, �Um, is there a message here?’ � Then the smile is gone, and she begins to frown: Pelosi dislikes the perception of hogging credit, and has even decreed that her staff not use the word I when writing for her. �No,� she says. �This is about the health of our country, diet, the way we live, pursuing a more wholesome path. It’s personal. It’s economic. Imagine what would happen if you could have any job you wanted without worrying about needing health care.� She pauses. �And it won’t be my legacy. It will be everyone’s legacy.� She gives a tight smile. �I don’t even think in terms of legacy.� The eyes pop. �I mean, what?�


Suddenly, a door opens, and a beaming servant zooms to Pelosi’s side, stooping to show her the contents of his platter: a delicate bowl, piled high with two luscious scoops of dark-chocolate ice cream.


She lets out something you’ve never heard from her before, at least not on TV: a tremendously long and high-pitched giggle, like one that would come from a girl about a half-century younger. �Hee-hee-hee-hee,� she goes, pushing her chin to the sky. �Oh, no, Michael,� she says, �I don’t want that now. Later, later!�


Chocolate ice cream is the staple of Pelosi’s diet: She doesn’t cook herself, so except for a salad for lunch and whatever an aide hands her for dinner, that’s what she eats. �I think that’s the first time she’s ever turned it down,� whispers her personal assistant, later. �The other day, she came in at 8:45 a.m. carrying a pint of Häagen-Dazs with an inch left in it�she’d eaten the whole thing on the way in. She handed it off to Michael, and then two hours later, she said, �Where’s that ice cream? Can I eat the rest of that?’ � (At one point, when she mentions to me that she likes artisanal ice cream, I joke, �Oh, elitist ice cream,� and she shoots back: �It’s not elite. It’s not elite. It’s just a small operation.�)


Apparently, this is a serious energy booster, because Pelosi maintains a breakneck schedule, turning in at midnight and rising six hours later. She’s been doing that since she became minority whip in 2001, and even earlier, in the seventies, when she had to get up before her kids to read the New York Times. She takes the stairs in the Capitol, never the elevator, with her security huffing and puffing behind. She doesn’t curse, drink, or smoke. She does the Times crossword puzzle for a couple of hours to get a buzz. When she’s starting to get tired, she calls her grandkids, spending twenty minutes on the phone with a 3-year-old, cooing away in a preverbal trance. �That’s her power nap,� says her assistant.


Unlike in the Senate, the majority rules absolutely in the House, and that suits Pelosi. She may not want to be a queen�when members of the Black Caucus called her that once, she said, with typical regal flourish, �I am not an emperor or a queen, but neither am I a fool��but in reality, the House is hers to rule. If Pelosi wants to put a member on Ways and Means, she just makes the committee bigger. If a member is upset, she can give him a big office budget. If he’s still not happy and she knows he has an interest in NATO, she can prioritize his access to an airplane and off he goes. This has let her create a leadership style that’s less stick and more carrot. She maintains goodwill by feminine touches like presents of flowers, weekly meetings with freshmen, thank-you notes, calls to associates’ sick family members. �Nancy has a minister’s political skills,� says Majority Whip James Clyburn. �She looks for common ground, seeing and feeling things that most people don’t.�

Next: Her attitude towards Republicans.


That’s important, because Pelosi is leading the most diverse Democratic caucus in memory, a �great kaleidoscope,� as she likes to call it. This is her Congress: She engineered the strategy for taking back the House in 2006 with Rahm Emanuel, a two-year congressman she tapped to be her deputy, and who likes to call her �mommy.� That was a time of some intense giggling, with the two of them�the fancy lady and the potty-mouthed Rahmbo�so ambitious, so driven, that every possible seat that could be occupied by a Democrat is now occupied by a Democrat, which is an opportunity and a challenge. There’s nowhere to go but down. Forty-nine House Democrats are from districts that McCain carried. Twenty-six of the 35 freshmen Democrats are in seats occupied in the last cycle by Republicans. �I mean, every day she is subjected to constant criticism and griping,� President Obama joked about Pelosi at a DNC fund-raiser in mid-October. �And then there’s the other party.�


The other party is very much outside her bubble, barely noticed. �Nancy really doesn’t care about Republicans, because she doesn’t believe the whole bi-partisan thing exists,� says a close associate. �Her attitude is, �God bless their souls, but these people don’t believe in global warming. They just don’t agree with us.’ � She loves Obama, knows that he’s her best hope. �She has a new source of energy, in wanting this young man to succeed,� says Congressman George Miller, a close friend, a bit gooily. But there have been a few rocks here and there. She was getting upset over the summer, says a source, at the way Obama was pandering to conservatives to secure a bi-partisan bill, though her office says she was more concerned with the lethargy of the finance committee at the time. Don’t waste your time, they are not voting with us, she told him. Did someone tell you they would? The president’s attitude was, well, the Republicans are elected, and we’re elected; let’s all make this work together. Emanuel would get the same earful from her: Does the president not understand the way this game works? He wants to get it done and be loved, and you can’t do both�which does he want?


So, in August, she went back to California to take a breather, at her Napa Valley winery. She hung out with her husband, a handsome guy who performs in musicals and likes breaking into song at cocktail parties, and her grandkids, who call her Mimi. �Do me a favor, elect me,� she likes to say. �Do me two, let me stay at home with my grandkids.� She has eight of them, plus four daughters, including politician-in-training Christine and documentarian Alexandra, and a son in environmental advocacy. David Axelrod came to one of her donor events in Napa with his wife, but Pelosi didn’t let on that she was upset with the president. This is a process, she thought, everything is a process. It’s just like dealing with your kids: Count to ten, calm down, don’t yell at anybody, and they’ll come around eventually.


But then the bubble was penetrated, as happens on rare occasions, and something actually did get to her. At the height of the tea-party movement, she was disturbed by the anger, the hate, the talk of Nazis, a census worker found hanging from a tree. On September 17, during her weekly news conference, she cracked. �We are a free country, and this balance between freedom and safety is one that we have to carefully balance,� she said, her voice starting to shake. �I have concerns about some of the language that is being used, because I saw this myself in the late seventies in San Francisco.� She was thinking of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and the way their deaths rocked San Francisco politics at the start of her career. �This kind of rhetoric was very frightening,� she said, blinking back tears. �It created a climate in which violence took place.�


It was the first time she had shown emotion in public, let alone nearly cried, and she seems almost ashamed now when I bring it up. �Those things happened 31 years ago,� she says nervously. �I said what I said at the time.� Then she draws herself up in her chair. �But the fact is that in all of these debates, we have to talk about ideas, and where we go from there, and not characterize or personalize experiences,� she declares. A look of vulnerability crosses her face. �Perhaps I got too involved in my own experience when I spoke in that way,� she says, trailing off and peering at the floor. �I don’t know.�

Next: How the San Franciscan got her start in politics.


To look weak in public, well, that’s Pelosi’s worst nightmare. Hillary might cry to boost her poll numbers, but a powerful woman nearing 70 always keeps a stiff upper lip, never showing more emotion than Maggie Thatcher. And, in a way, it works for Pelosi, having the world see only the hard shell, thinking she’s an archetypal female monster with a pasted-on smile. The smile is meant to balance out her aggressive rhetoric, to calm men down, to seem less threatening (it doesn’t work, of course); but it is also a way of shutting people out of her true emotions, who she really is. But that’s okay�she is willing to have people not understand her. If need be, she’s willing to be hated. Not caring makes Pelosi powerful. She’ll listen to her poll numbers from her staff, but she doesn’t really process them. �I’ll take the hit,� she likes to say, waving a hand. �I’ll take the hit.�


In the bubble, she’s who she is: a noodgy, content golden-ager who has remained young at heart. In person, she’s attractive, the monster’s odd doppelgänger: One of her biographers, Vincent Bzdek, says that every male legislator he interviewed for his book Woman of the House commented on her good looks, without prompting. She’s not often a diva, not a screamer. �Nancy is about forward momentum, never looking back, never thinking about the past,� says a friend. �If you try to talk to her about regrets, she just looks at you and says, �Don’t be ridiculous.’ � It’s much more fun to giggle, especially with Obama. A photograph of the two of them sits on a mantel in her office, his birthday present for her 69th. In it, he has on his resolute Mount Rushmore face, but she is smiling, and not with her bug-eyed, automaton smile�he picked a picture with the chocolate-ice-cream smile.


After all, for Pelosi, vote counting is something you do with people you love. She’s the seventh child and only daughter of Thomas �Big Tommy� D’Alesandro Jr., a slick dresser who wore diamond rings on each of his pinkies and began representing Little Italy in Maryland’s House of Delegates at 22, followed by five terms in Congress and three as Baltimore’s mayor. (When asked about his rival in one election, D’Alesandro said, �I don’t know [who he is], but it’s some no-good son of a bitch, that’s all I can tell you.�) Nancy’s childhood home functioned as D’Alesandro’s auxiliary office, with a portrait of FDR in the living room, copies of The Congressional Record stored under her bed, and an open door for constituents searching for jobs, permits, stop signs. The kids manned the front desk, Mom stirred a pot of stew for the hungry, and the blessings that constituents received were written on index cards, then organized into a �favor file.�


After graduating from Trinity College, a girls’ school in D.C., Pelosi married a financier, with whom she then moved to Manhattan��I love the way the adrenaline just comes up through the ground in New York,� she says�and then San Francisco, when her husband was offered a job at a bank that was lending to tech companies beginning to spring up in Silicon Valley. She began to host Democratic fund-raisers in her home to meet the new community. �Moving to San Francisco at that time, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for her to trip, but she’s as straight as can be,� says Marc Sandalow, author of Madam Speaker, another biography of Pelosi. Jerry Brown, a high-school acquaintance of her husband’s, needed help running against Jimmy Carter in the 1976 primaries, and Pelosi offered to set him up in Maryland. He carried the state, and she was awarded a seat on the Democratic National Committee for her efforts, quickly rising through the ranks by formidable fund-raising skills and helping to organize the 1984 convention in San Francisco. She ran for national party chairman, but withdrew when she realized that she didn’t have the votes. It’s the only election she hasn’t won in her political career. �People tell me that I was the best-qualified candidate,� she grumbled at the time. �But some of them tell me it’s too bad that I’m not a man.�


But being a woman soon became an advantage. In 1983, Representative Phillip Burton, an architect of the city’s powerful coalition of blacks, environmentalists, gays, and working-class voters, died suddenly of heart failure. He was replaced by his widow, Sala, who soon fell ill with colon cancer, but tapped Pelosi before she died. In the election, Pelosi was a complicated symbol for some feminists�she was demeaned by opponents as a rich mom, a dilettante, a Pacific Heights party girl, and they weren’t sure she wasn’t�but squeaked by in the primary by 3 points. �But Nancy wasn’t a plum picked off a political tree just because someone died, and came to Washington to figure it out,� says Representative Anna Eshoo, a close friend. �Nancy knew who, she knew how.�

Next: What really upset her about the CIA skirmish last May.


The new job was familiar, in fact, though in her telling it had less to do with her father and more to do with her life with her kids. �It felt like an extension of my role as mother,� she says. �From my view, the best thing for my children was for them to live in a world where other children had opportunities, too, where the environment was safe and clean. Back then, there was a tendency for women to minimize what you could bring to the table in intellect and strategic thinking. But men don’t have any secret sauce. So every step of the way, I said to myself, �I can do that.’ � She grins. �And then I knew I could win elections. That’s when I had my breakthrough. I said to myself, �You know what? I really know how to do this.’ �


She crosses her legs. �You know, even being picked as leader of the minority in Congress was a great honor,� she says. �Because they’d never had a woman. Never thought of it. And I’d never have said to someone, �Well, isn’t it time we had a woman?’ That would have killed you in terms of votes.�


Pelosi is not thinking about what’s out there, in the hustings. She’s thinking about what’s in the favor file. Votes are what matter. That’s how you keep a majority together. When she asks for members’ votes, she is never strident, telling them what they owe her. (On the other hand, with Paulson and Geithner, she has been known to use some harsh language.) It’s a soft sell in soothing tones��How are you feeling? How is it looking? Well, you have to vote your conscience,� she’ll say, in almost a whisper. Then she begins to apply pressure behind the scenes. She knows how to get to someone in everyone’s orbit: a wife, a sister, an upper-class donor in the community. This spring, when she heard that new congressman Zack Space, a Greek from a shaky district in Ohio, was balking at voting for the climate-change bill, she quickly got on the phone with powerful donors from prominent Greek-American families, asking them to make a call to him to express their feelings on the subject. Within a day�for whatever reason�he changed his mind.


After all, who brought the new Democratic majority here, may we remind you? Pelosi. She’s the chief fund-raiser of her party: Not only did she personally raise the money for a lot of her members in this Congress, but now she sweats it out every other weekend for the next one, flying commercial to stultifying fund-raisers in Missouri, Wisconsin, Florida, anywhere there is a buck. She’s the best fund-raiser that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has ever had, raising $155 million since 2002, and double the RNCC in September. Each year, she kicks off the party in San Francisco�which, besides being liberal, is rich. �Nancy comes through with candidates for the next election cycle, and you have to give your max contribution to her first,� says a liaison to big donors in the area. That means these donors can only give another maximum payment to the Senate or the national party�not both. �Not everyone wants to do this,� he says. �She makes you.� Money, of course, gives Pelosi an extra dimension of power over her members. �When she helped you to get into office to vote one way and then you don’t,� says a friend, trailing off. �Well, that’s what gets her.�


After all her hard work, she demands loyalty. That’s not too much to ask, is it? And that’s what really upset her about the CIA skirmish last May, what almost became the most damaging moment of her political career. It was such a dirty trick: She’d called for a special truth commission to look at the enhanced interrogation techniques authorized by Bush officials�over the objections from Obama and senators like Harry Reid, who didn’t want to distract from policy priorities�and then word began to circulate, fanned by Republicans, that she too knew about waterboarding as early as September 2002. She immediately denied it, then upped the ante, saying that the CIA had explicitly said that they were not using waterboarding at that time, that they misled Congress. (She did, however, admit that she learned that waterboarding was being used from a staffer in 2003, but didn’t say anything because she felt that it was more important to �change the leadership in Congress and in the White House.�) Then everybody got upset when she basically said the CIA lies, which isn’t exactly a controversial statement, as far as she’s concerned. It was just insane.

Next: Her post-Speakership plans.


Eventually, her colleagues came out to support her, like Senator Bob Graham, who kept meticulous notes of his CIA briefings. But where was Leon Panetta, her old friend from California? He didn’t warn her, says a source. And she should’ve known, she should’ve known everything that was about to happen.


That’s part of why, when it became clear that the scandal was deepening, Pelosi still didn’t really understand that she needed to deal with it�if her pals hadn’t told her she was in trouble, why should she worry? But events were overtaking her. Before one of her press conferences, her staff had to sit her down and explain that this is what the reporters were going to ask about, and she couldn’t believe it. She was in the middle of getting votes to pass her �historic� climate-change legislation, and now everybody wanted to talk about this? What’s wrong with people?


Her office now says she was simply tired of all the repetitive questions. These days, she still thinks she did nothing wrong. �We have to protect the American people, and our founders said we have to do it in a way that honors our Constitution,� she says, an edge coming into her voice. �And they��the conservatives��don’t always agree with me on that, so they come after me one way or another.� She shakes her head. �They know it’s a ridiculous charge.�


It is ridiculous, a lot of what Pelosi has to put up with, barely worth noticing, but that’s government for you. Her next fight will be about the war in Afghanistan, which she thinks we should have been talking about years ago: �It’s a tremendous challenge, exacerbated by the fact that there was no plan for eight years�and nobody denies that,� she sputters. �It’s just�just�ridiculous!� So every week, she’s out there, banging the drum for what she thinks is right, like closing the Medicare drug-benefit �doughnut hole� with ancient representative John Dingell��This is about older Americans,� she says. �And I say that proudly; I don’t want anyone to think I’m talking about anyone else��or helping to unveil the new Helen Keller statue in the Rotunda (she took the hand of a blind man and guided him to touch it). �It’s a fight,� she tells a group of education advocates, assembled in the basement of the Capitol to give her an award, about her negotiations on education legislation. �You fight to get it to a certain place, and then it’s zeroed out, and you have to fight to split the difference. And you hope for a high split.� Her voice rises. �It shouldn’t even be. I mean, these are priorities��the eyes are coming out��that should compete favorably with anything else going on here.� A big smile: �We are, after all, talking about the education of our children!�


So that’s what she’s going for with health care, too, a high split. She’s knows that this is the moment to accomplish a lot of her agenda�and if she loses some of her members in the next election, well, that’s why she built a majority. The progressives are mad that they’re not going to get a robust public option, sure. But she threw in her good name, and she still couldn’t get it. That’s not a reason to revolt. �There’s a good deal of resentment,� says a congressman. �The liberals are going to go through the seven stages of grief.� But Pelosi loves them, and she’s going to make them take their medicine.


In 2012, or 2016, if she loses the House, well, she might go home. Pelosi doesn’t harbor any national ambitions after the Speakership. She’s not going to be walking the halls like Denny Hastert, or protesting with Lynn Woolsey�she’ll be going to the ballet and the opera in San Francisco with her husband. She worries about getting older, about whether she’ll see her grandkids go to high school.


But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to do a bit more theater. Last week, at the unveiling ceremony for her new health-care bill on the Capitol steps, she smiled away, reminding everybody that they should celebrate this historic day. On the lawn, a knot of protesters kept shouting at her, distracting from her important purpose. �You will burn in hell for this,� one man yelled into his megaphone, over and over.


She tried to ignore him, but finally shot a withering look his way. �Thank you, insurance companies of America,� she declared, smirking a little.


The mask is back on.


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October 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:53 pm
November 1, 2009
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The Obamas’ Marriage




Another Washington dusk, another motorcade, another intimate evening played out in public view. On Oct. 3, just a day after their failed Olympics bid in Copenhagen, Barack and Michelle Obama slipped into a Georgetown restaurant for one of their now-familiar date nights: this time, to toast their 17th wedding anniversary. As with their previous outings, even the dark photographs taken by passers-by and posted on the Web looked glamorous: the president tieless, in a suit; the first lady in a backless sheath.

The Obama date-night tradition stretches back to the days when the president spent half his time in Springfield, Ill., reuniting at week’s close with his wife, who kept a regular Friday manicure and hair appointment for the occasion. But five days before he ventured out for his anniversary dinner, the president lamented what has happened to his nights out with his wife.

“I would say the one time during our stay here in the White House so far that has. . . .” He paused so long in choosing his words that Michelle Obama, sitting alongside him, prompted him. “Has what?”

“Annoyed me,” the president answered.

“Don’t say it!” the first lady mock-warned. “Uh-oh.”

“Was when I took Michelle to New York and people made it into a political issue,” he continued, recalling the evening last spring when they flew to New York for dinner and a show, eliciting Republican gibes for spending federal money on their own entertainment.

We were in the Oval Office, nearly 40 minutes into a conversation about the subject of their marriage. Watched over by three aides and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, the two sat a few feet apart in matching striped chairs that made them look more like a pair of heads of state than husband and wife. The Obamas were talking about the impact of the presidency on their relationship, and doing so in that setting — we were in the room that epitomizes official power, discussing the highly unofficial matter of dates — began to seem like a metaphor for the topic itself.

“If I weren’t president, I would be happy to catch the shuttle with my wife to take her to a Broadway show, as I had promised her during the campaign, and there would be no fuss and no muss and no photographers,” the president said. “That would please me greatly.” He went on to say: “The notion that I just couldn’t take my wife out on a date without it being a political issue was not something I was happy with.”

Everything becomes political here, I offered, gesturing around the room.

“Everything becomes political,” he repeated very slowly. Then he said: “What I value most about my marriage is that it is separate and apart from a lot of the silliness of Washington, and Michelle is not part of that silliness.”

Perhaps she is not. But the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before. Almost 10 months ago, they swept into Washington with inauguration festivities that struck distinctly wedding-like notes: he strode down an aisle and took a vow, she wore a long white dress, the youthful-looking couple swayed to a love song in a ceremonial first dance and then settled into a new house. Since then, photograph after official White House photograph has shown the Obamas gazing into each other’s eyes while performing one or another official function. Here is a shot of the Obamas entering a Cinco de Mayo reception, his arm draped protectively around her back. Next, a photo of the president placing a kiss on his wife’s cheek after his address on health care to Congress. Poster-size versions of these and other photographs are displayed in rotation along the White House corridors. It’s hard to think of another workplace decorated with such looming evidence of affection between the principal players.

The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union. Since he first began running for office in 1995, Barack and Michelle Obama have never really stopped struggling over how to combine politics and marriage: how to navigate the long absences, lack of privacy, ossified gender roles and generally stultifying rules that result when public opinion comes to bear on private relationships.

Along the way, they revised some of the standards for how a politician and spouse are supposed to behave. They have spoken more frankly about marriage than most intact couples, especially those running for office, usually do. (“The bumps happen to everybody all the time, and they are continuous,” the first lady told me in a let’s-get-real voice, discussing the lowest point in her marriage.) Candidates’ wives are supposed to sit cheerfully through their husbands’ appearances. But after helping run her husband’s first State Senate campaign in 1996, Michelle Obama largely withdrew from politics for years, fully re-engaging only for the presidential campaign. As a result, she has probably logged fewer total sitting-through-my-husband’s-speech hours than most of her recent predecessors. Even the go-for-broke quality of the president’s rise can be read, in some small part, as an attempt to vault over the forces that fray political marriages. People who face too many demands — two careers, two children — often scale back somehow. The Obamas scaled up.

“This is the first time in a long time in our marriage that we’ve lived seven days a week in the same household with the same schedule, with the same set of rituals,” Michelle Obama pointed out. (Until last November they had not shared a full-time roof since 1996, two years before Malia was born.) “That’s been more of a relief for me than I would have ever imagined.”

The couple now spend more time together than at nearly any other point since their early years together. On many days, they see Malia and Sasha off to school, exercise together and do not begin their public schedules until 9 or even 10 o’clock. They recently finished redecorating the White House residence, the first lady requesting an outdoor rocking chair for her husband to read in, the president scrutinizing colors and patterns, said Desirée Rogers, the White House social secretary. The pair recently began playing tennis. (He wins, she admitted; for now, he added.) This summer, the first lady surprised her husband for his birthday by gathering his old basketball buddies for a weekend at Camp David.

Barack and Michelle Obama are also a more fully fused political team than ever before, with no other jobs to distract them, no doubts about the worthiness of the pursuit dogging them. Theirs is by no means a co-presidency; aides say the first lady has little engagement with banking reform, nuclear disarmament or most of the other issues that dominate her husband’s days. But their goals are increasingly intertwined, with Michelle Obama speaking out on health care reform, privately mulling over Supreme Court nominees with the president and serving as his consultant on personnel and public opinion. When they lounge on the Truman Balcony or sit inside at their round dining table, she describes how she believes his initiatives are perceived outside Washington; later, say advisers, the president quotes the first lady in Oval Office meetings.

If winning the White House represents a resolution of the Obamas’ struggles, it also means a new, higher-stakes confrontation with some of the vexing issues that fed those tensions. Their marriage is more vulnerable than ever to the corrosions of politics: partisan attacks, disappointments of failed initiatives, a temptation to market what was once wholly private. Some of the methods the Obamas devised for keeping their relationship strong — speaking frankly in public, maintaining separate careers, even date nights — are no longer as easily available to them. Like every other modern presidential couple, the Obamas have watched their world contract to one building and a narrow zone beyond, and yet their partnership expand to encompass a staff and two wings of the White House. And while the presidency tends to bring couples closer, historians say, it also tends to thrust them back to more traditionbound behavior.

For all of their ease in public, the Obamas do not seem entirely comfortable with the bargain. As they talked about their marriage, they seemed both game and cautious, the president more introspective about their relationship, the first lady often playing the big sister dispensing advice to younger couples.

Then I asked how any couple can have a truly equal partnership when one member is president.

Michelle Obama gave what sounded like a small, sharp “mmphf” of recognition, and the fluid teamwork of their answers momentarily came to a halt. “Well, first of all. . . .” the president started. His wife peered at him, looking curious as to how he might answer the question. “She’s got. . . .” he began, but then stopped again.

“Well, let me be careful about this,” he said, pausing once more.

“My staff worries a lot more about what the first lady thinks than they worry about what I think,” he finally said, to laughter around the room.

The question still unanswered, his wife stepped back in: “Clearly Barack’s career decisions are leading us. They’re not mine; that’s obvious. I’m married to the president of the United States. I don’t have another job, and it would be problematic in this role. So that — you can’t even measure that.” She did add that they are more equal in their private lives — how they run their household, how they raise their children, the overall choices they make.

Interpreting anyone’s marriage — a neighbor’s, let alone the president’s — is extremely difficult. And yet examining the first couple’s relationship — their negotiations of public and private life, of conflicts and compromises — offers hints about Barack Obama the president, not just Barack Obama the husband. Long before many Americans, Michelle Obama was seduced by his mind, his charm, his promise of social transformation; long before he held national office, she questioned whether he really could deliver on all his earnest pledges. For nearly two decades, Michelle Obama has lived with the president of the United States. Now the rest of us do, too.


JUST BEFORE THE Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. pronounced Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson man and wife on the evening of Oct. 3, 1992, he held their wedding rings — signifying their new, enduring bonds — before the guests at Trinity United Church of Christ. Michelle’s was traditional, but Barack’s was an intricate gold design from Indonesia, where he had lived as a boy.

Neither needed a reminder of just how fragile family — the black family, marriage, life itself — could be. Barack Obama Sr.’s relationships, not just with his wives but also with his children, were fleeting; in 1982, he died at the age of 46. Michelle’s parents had a long, stable marriage, but her maternal grandparents split without ever formally divorcing, and her paternal grandparents separated for 11 years.

Before Michelle, Barack had brought only one woman to Hawaii to meet his family, according to his younger half-sister, Maya Soetoro. He in turn was Michelle’s first serious boyfriend, according to Craig Robinson, Michelle’s brother: none of the others had met her standards.

During their three-year courtship, the couple shared thrilling moments, like when Barack became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. But there were crushing ones too. In early 1991, Fraser Robinson, Michelle’s father, came down with what seemed to be the flu. Just a few days later, he was brain-dead, and his family had to decide whether to end life support, according to Francesca Gray, his sister. Barack was in the middle of classes, with no money to speak of, but he flew to Chicago anyway. At the wedding the following year, Craig Robinson took his father’s place in walking Michelle down the aisle.

The Obamas were married just a month before the presidential election, a time of mounting excitement for Democrats in their neighborhood of Hyde Park and beyond. Bill Clinton looked as if he might take the White House back from Republicans. Barack was helping by running a voter-registration drive so successful that he won notice in Chicago newspapers and political circles. (Clinton ended up carrying Illinois, then a tossup state.) Obama’s efforts also helped make Carol Moseley Braun, a fellow Hyde Park resident, the first African-American woman in the U.S. Senate. Suddenly politics seemed full of new possibilities. Barack had talked to Michelle about running for office; she had misgivings but thought the day was not imminent.

For the moment, he was enmeshed in writing his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” He had retreated to Bali for several weeks to work on the manuscript and was still preoccupied with it after his return. “Barack was just really involved in the book. [Michelle] and I would do lots of shopping and movies,” Yvonne Davila, still a close friend, remembered.

“Barack doesn’t belong to you,” she told me she warned Michelle.


IN THE ANNALS of presidential coupledom, the Obamas more than slightly resemble the Clintons: a pair of Ivy League-trained lawyers, the self-made son of an absent father and a wife who sometimes put her husband’s ambitions ahead of her own. But unlike Bill Clinton, who turned his wife into an unlikely Arkansan, Obama planted himself on his wife’s turf. And while the Clinton marriage seems forged in shared beliefs about the promise of politics, the Obama union has been a decades-long debate about whether politics could be an effective avenue for social change. Even as a community organizer, Barack aimed to prod elected officials into action. His wife, who was more skeptical of politicians, tried to bypass them: when she took a job promoting community-organizing techniques, she focused on what neighborhoods could accomplish without their help.

In 1995, a State Senate seat was opening up, and Barack, then 34, announced his candidacy. “It allowed me to get my feet wet in politics and test out whether I could get something done,” he told The Times two years ago. Because he wasn’t from Chicago, had degrees from two elite schools and a background that others found odd, a friend said, he felt he had to begin by running for a relatively modest office.

As the Obamas sat with friends around their dining room table, eating Michelle’s chili and planning the run, she was plainly hesitant. “She was very open about not wanting to be in politics,” Davila said. Michelle had always wanted to be a mother, three years had passed since their wedding and now her husband — with his all-consuming memoir just finished — would be gone several days a week. Michelle “just wasn’t ready to share,” Carol Anne Harwell, who became the campaign manager, recalls. Besides, he was the former president of the Harvard Law Review, a writer and a teacher at a premier law school, the University of Chicago. Springfield was home to financial scandal so pervasive it was barely considered scandalous. “I married you because you’re cute and you’re smart,” Michelle later said she told her husband, “but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do.”

She became his most energetic volunteer anyway. “She did everything,” Craig Robinson says. Every Saturday morning, she and Davila knocked on doors for petition signatures that would put Barack on the ballot.

As a first-time candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. “She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary,” one friend recently put it. But like Hillary Clinton — and countless other political wives — Michelle sometimes took on the role of enforcer. If a volunteer promised to gather 300 petition signatures, “299 did not work because 300 was the goal,” Harwell says. “You met the wrath of Michelle.”

Harwell also noticed that the candidate’s wife was constantly trying to upgrade the campaign, eliminating anything that seemed tacky or otherwise redolent of the less-than-exalted standards of Illinois state politics. Instead of a beers-in-a-bar fund-raiser, Michelle arranged a party at the DuSable Museum of African American History with a band and a crowd of young professionals. When Harwell found an inexpensive office space with dingy walls, Michelle vetoed it. “She was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ ” Harwell says. “ ‘Why would we reduce ourselves to this?’ ”


ONE DAY LAST SPRING, I walked into the Hyde Park apartment the Obamas bought when they married, hoping to find clues to their old lives.

Their unit, part of a complex of redbrick houses turned condominiums, had a few appealing touches — a green-tiled fireplace, a dining room with elaborate woodwork and a small porch in the back (where Michelle let her husband smoke, a friend said). But the apartment was narrow and worn, with fixtures that must have been aging even several years ago.

The Hole — as Michelle called her husband’s tiny, dark office — lived up to its name. The cramped master bedroom had a closet barely big enough for one wardrobe. Where did Michelle keep her clothes? The apartment was neat, friends said, but bursting with children’s gear and toys. The dining table tilted so much that food sometimes skidded south, eliciting an embarrassed look from Barack.

He would eventually learn to make his way in the State Senate, but his initial reports home were dismayed: Republicans held control, legislation he drafted was not even heard and even some Democrats teased him about his name. “He would call me and say: ‘This person is an idiot. They get an F,’ ” Harwell says.

“He went to Springfield without fully appreciating all of the consequences,” said Judson Miner, Barack’s boss at the civil rights law firm where he’d been working for several years. Shortly after arriving, Barack called Miner to tell him that he was scaling back his legal work: he could not stay on top of it from downstate. Barack took on a heavier teaching load to compensate for the lost income. Michelle, who had given up corporate law, now earned less than $50,000 a year at her nonprofit job training young leaders, a former colleague estimates.

For Barack’s swearings-in, Michelle would travel to Springfield. Harwell remembers Barack calling up with a report from downstate: “ ‘Michelle just couldn’t believe it, she had to come down to see this mess for herself.’ ”

As she heard Barack’s tales from Springfield, Michelle learned “how good legislation vanished overnight for political reasons,” Valerie Jarrett, one of the Obamas’ closest friends, told me recently in her White House office, where she is senior adviser to the president. This, Jarrett said, left Michelle even more frustrated than her husband. “He’s more of a pragmatist,” Jarrett says. Michelle “takes a very principled position, and she thinks everyone should do the right thing.”

If Barack’s career was not going quite as he had hoped, Michelle did not seem settled on what she wanted to do professionally. She had taken a new position organizing student volunteers at the University of Chicago. After she became a mother in 1998, she was tempted to stay home, but like many political spouses, she felt financial pressure to work.

“Michelle would say, ‘Well, you’re gone all the time and we’re broke?’ ” the president recalled when I spoke to the two of them. “ ‘How is that a good deal?’ ”

“You do the math,” Michelle told her friend Sandra Matthews, one day as the two sat on a playground bench. “The time is coming pretty soon when I’m going to have to decide. I’m torn.”

When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff.

In addition to serving in Springfield and teaching law, Barack Obama was making his first bid for national office, challenging Bobby Rush, a popular South Side congressman. The race placed further strains on the Obamas. Unlike the wife who smiles tightly and insists everything is fine, Michelle sent a clear series of distress signals not only to her husband but to everyone around her. “Barack and I, we’re doing a lot of talking,” she would say when asked how she was holding up, according to the Rev. Alison Boden, a former colleague at the University of Chicago.

Barack initially seems to have seen his absences as a manageable issue, something to be endured, just as he had as a child when living apart from his mother. Entering politics would be hard on a family, he knew, but he didn’t quite understand until he lived it, Jarrett told me. Sher remembers Michelle “talking to him, after the kids were born, about the importance of sheer physical presence, which wasn’t something he was really used to. She ­talked about how important it was for them to at least talk every day.”

Barack helped as much as possible: on top of juggling jobs, he paid the household bills and did the grocery shopping, often wandering supermarket aisles late at night. When business in Springfield was done for the week, he always drove home that same night, sometimes arriving past midnight. “As far as I was concerned, she had nothing to complain about,” he wrote in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

One afternoon in July, sitting in Jarrett’s airy West Wing office, I asked her how the young politician responded to his wife’s assertions that he was leaving her to raise their children alone. Jarrett, whose own marriage ended in part because of career-related conflict, not only recalled Barack’s replies but she also started reciting them. “ ‘I’ll make it work,’ ” said Jarrett, speaking in his voice. “ ‘We can make it work. I’ll do more.’ ” It sounded as if she could have been describing the Barack Obama of today, certain of his ability to juggle an intimidating number of priorities.

Two months later in the Oval Office, I asked the Obamas just how severe their strains had been. “This was sort of the eye-opener to me, that marriage is hard,” the first lady said with a little laugh. “But going into it, no one ever tells you that. They just tell you, ‘Do you love him?’ ‘What’s the dress look like?’ ”

I asked more directly about whether their union almost came to an end.

“That’s overreading it,” the president said. “But I wouldn’t gloss over the fact that that was a tough time for us.”

Did you ever seek counseling? I asked.

The first lady looked solemnly at the president. He said: “You know, I mean, I think that it was important for us to work this through. . . . There was no point where I was fearful for our marriage. There were points in time where I was fearful that Michelle just really didn’t — that she would be unhappy.”

Several years later, he devoted several pages of “The Audacity of Hope” to the conflict. (Judging from interviews, more than a few Chicagoans knew that Michelle once openly resented what her husband’s political career had cost her, so he may have been wise to raise the issue before anyone else.) In the end, what seems more unusual than the Obamas’ who-does-what battles — most working parents have one version or another — is the way they turned them into a teachable moment, converting lived experience into both a political message and what sounds like the opposite of standard political shtick.

“If my ups and downs, our ups and downs in our marriage can help young couples sort of realize that good marriages take work. . . .” Michelle Obama said a few minutes later in the interview. The image of a flawless relationship is “the last thing that we want to project,” she said. “It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.”


IN THE HISTORY of Barack Obama, his landslide loss against Rush is now regarded as a constructive political failure, the point at which he shed some early dreaminess and hubris and became a cannier competitor. For the Obamas, this period was also one of constructive personal failure, forcing them to reckon with their longstanding differences.

Michelle Obama accepted that she was not going to have a conventional marriage, that her husband would be away much of the time. “That was me, wanting a certain type of model, and our lives didn’t fit that model,” she told me in an Iowa lunchroom in the summer of 2007. “I just needed the support. It didn’t have to be Barack.” Craig Robinson later told me that he and his sister, Michelle, had another realization: if their father, a city water worker, had the kinds of opportunities their generation did, he probably would not have been home for dinner every night, either.

Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, offered crucial help, often picking up Malia and Sasha after school. The Obamas’ closest friends — doctors, lawyers, M.B.A. types — also faced the strains of two-full-time-careers-plus-kids marriage. Now they banded into a kind of intergenerational urban kibbutz, a collective that shared meals and carpools and weekend activities.

Unlike many political wives, Michelle was almost never alone. And she mostly skipped public events. When Barack spoke at the 2002 rally protesting the impending invasion of Iraq, now considered a pivotal moment of his career, his wife was not present. “I’ve had to come to the point of figuring out how to carve out what kind of life I want for myself beyond who Barack is and what he wants,” she told The Chicago Tribune during his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

During that race, Michelle was still a somewhat reluctant partner: at the outset, they made a deal that if he lost, he would get out entirely. “It was a compromise,” Marty Nesbitt, one of the president’s closest friends, told me. “O.K. One. More. Try,” he explained, banging out each word on a side table.

When her husband was far outspent by a local millionaire in the primary, Michelle “was almost like the mama cub coming to protect her young,” says Kevin Thompson, a friend and former aide. By the time it became clear that Barack might be the third African-American senator since Reconstruction, she was headlining a few campaign events herself. “It really clicked with her that this may be the destiny everyone was always talking about,” Thompson said.

Michelle, who was often wary of her husband’s ambitions, may have also pushed him ahead with her high expectations of what he could achieve. “Forward propulsion” is the quality Maya Soetoro says her sister-in-law brought to Barack’s career.

Two years after the Senate race, despite lingering reservations, she helped her husband define his reasons for running for president. On an autumn day in 2006, the Obamas sat in the Chicago office of the consultant David Axelrod, surrounded by advisers, weighing whether Barack should move forward.

“What do you think you could accomplish that other candidates couldn’t?” Michelle asked, according to Axelrod. The question hung in the air. Clearly, an Obama agenda would not look very different from that of Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

“When I take that oath of office, there will be kids all over this country who don’t really think that all paths are open to them, who will believe they can be anything they want to be,” Barack replied. “And I think the world will look at America a little differently.”


A FEW DAYS before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Anita Dunn, a political consultant who joined the Obama campaign, was reading the newspaper when a voter’s quote, expressing surprise that Barack Obama was a good family man, leapt out at her.

Ever since Obama made his debut on the national stage, he’d been a solo act, telling the story of his singular, even lonely-sounding journey. In Pennsylvania, where Obama lost, “the visuals of so many of our rallies was him alone,” Dunn told me, which did nothing to allay voters’ concerns that the candidate was too distant — too foreign, professorial or precocious. Now Michelle and sometimes the girls were appearing more frequently onstage with Barack. Dunn shared the quote about Barack being a good family man with advisers, reinforcing their growing view that he was a more appealing candidate when surrounded by his family. The candidate beat expectations in both Indiana and North Carolina, all but locking up the nomination.

The Obamas began the presidential campaign, it seems, still thinking of politics as Barack’s pursuit, not Michelle’s. She would need to participate heavily only at the beginning and end, and not much in the middle, Michelle told Sher. Despite her outward confidence, there were clues she was not entirely comfortable in her new role: staff members recall that of the 26 primary debates, forums in which he struggled, she attended only two or three. At the first, in Orangeburg, S.C., she sat frozen in the audience, so anxious she was unable to speak. “It was like sitting next to a pillar of salt,” says Melissa Winter, now her deputy chief of staff. She refused to even watch the remaining debates, avoiding television screens lest she catch a clip.

She also struggled to figure out where she fit in her husband’s organization. Political operatives have a habitual disdain toward candidates’ spouses, one adviser told me, which Michelle, who had trouble obtaining even routine information like talking points, initially could not overcome. She had only two staff members and no speechwriter, and when she raised issues like the need to reach out more to women voters, she wasn’t sure she had any influence on her husband’s advisers.

Because the couple rarely campaigned together, interactions between them swelled with intermediaries. Winter would get a nightly phone call from Barack, then pad down a hotel hallway and tap on her boss’s door. For Michelle’s 44th birthday, Barack deputized Winter to prepare his gift, a silver pendant necklace. “He wanted to be sure I had it wrapped appropriately, that it had a ribbon on it,” she told me. “There was a lot of back and forth.”

When Jarrett officially joined the campaign at the behest of both Obamas, in addition to a long list of duties, she served as Michelle’s representative, as well as a kind of marital guardian and glue. Michelle took her concerns about Barack — for instance, her worry that his schedule allowed him no time to think — to Jarrett, who passed them on to aides. Barack worried, Jarrett said, that his wife had taken on too much. “Was that O.K. with her?” Jarrett says he wanted to know.

From the beginning, Michelle turned Barack’s courtship all those summers ago into a parable of political conversion, casting herself as a stand-in for the skeptical voter. When she first heard of him, his name and background seemed weird, she told voters who probably felt the same way. The first time Barack asked her out, she refused. He was a newcomer, her mentee, so it would be strange for him to become her boyfriend (or the president). But slowly he worked on her. One day she heard him give a speech and found herself captivated by the possibilities of what might be.

“When you listen to her tell that story,” Robert Gibbs, the campaign spokesman and now the White House press secretary, told me, voters thought, “It’s O.K., yeah, this could work.”

She also played a vital role in heading off the most promising female candidate in United States history. It was essential for the Obama campaign to present some sort of accomplished female counterweight to Hillary Clinton, to convince Democratic women that they could vote for Barack Obama and a powerful female figure besides. Consciously or not, Michelle made herself into an appealing contrast to the front-runner. She was candid; Hillary was often guarded. Michelle represented the idea that a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow up to be first lady of the United States; Hillary stood for the hold of the already-powerful on the political system. And Michelle seemed to have the kind of marriage many people might aspire to; Hillary did not.

As the campaign accelerated after the first voting contests, Michelle Obama went from headlining intimate campaign events to enormous ones. Television cameras appeared, and some of her more forceful comments were endlessly replayed. When cable shows, bloggers and opponents fixated on her — on her supposed lack of patriotism, her supposedly angry streak — Barack was irate. As unflattering reports played on television, he would tell aides stories about her parents, about her as a mother, according to Gibbs, as if defending his wife in private could somehow help. Barack even met with the Fox executives Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes in part to insist that they treat her more respectfully.

Michelle was annoyed that advisers — who had noticed for months that she could grow a bit too vehement in speeches — had never informed her of the developing problems, according to aides. Fearful of hurting her husband’s chances, she even raised the prospect of ceasing to campaign, said one adviser who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Jarrett recalls that “she felt she had not gotten support.” According to Sher, “She was hurt at the idea that it was possible she wouldn’t be an asset.” It was almost as if she was reverting to an old pattern in her marriage: let Barack be a politician, and she would stay out of it.

But unlike other times, Michelle did not withdraw. In fact, the woman who had once resisted campaigning now told friends she enjoyed the crowds, the laughs and the votes she was earning. Her husband promised that the staff could fix whatever problems she faced. And he clearly needed her help. After years of leaving his family behind, he now turned to his wife to help carry him to the presidency.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said to her husband’s team, according to two aides. “I just need you to tell me what to do.”

Campaigns often prove toxic to participants’ personal lives, but Jarrett says the Obamas’ relationship improved in the crucible of the race. “They both rallied to each other’s defense and support,” she says. “By having to work hard at it, it strengthened their marriage.”


ON A HUMID September day, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago stood on a platform on the South Lawn of the White House hawking his city’s Olympic bid. The Obamas flanked him, consciously or unconsciously assuming a series of identical positions as he spoke. When Michelle Obama clasped her hands in a downward triangle, the president did, too. When he folded his arms across his chest, so did she. During their own short speeches they gave outsize laughs at each other’s mild jokes and even mimed what the other was saying. As the president noted that the White House was just a tad larger than their home in Chicago, the first lady pinched her fingers to demonstrate. Milling around afterward, watching judo and fencing demonstrations, the couple leaned into each other, talking and nodding.

Friends who visit the White House describe occasionally turning corners to find the first couple mid-embrace. They also seem unusually willing, for a presidential couple, to kiss, touch and flirt in public. It may be that they are broadcasting their affection to the rest of us, an advertisement of their closeness. Or they may simply be holding tightly to each other as they navigate new and uncertain terrain. “Part of what they provide each other with is emotional safety,” Jarrett explained.

In many ways, the Obamas have made the White House into a cocoon of sorts, with weekends full of movie-watching (“Where the Wild Things Are”), Scrabble games and children’s talent shows. They have surrounded themselves with those who have known them longest and best: Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother, has settled in (unaccustomed to being waited on, she won’t let the staff do the laundry). Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, left Chicago to rent a house nearby for the summer, while Maya Soetoro, the president’s half-sister, and her husband, Konrad Ng, just moved here temporarily from Hawaii.

Though the president reads aloud with his children in the evenings — he and Sasha are finishing “Life of Pi” — parenting in the White House is more complicated. Because the first couple cannot move freely about, their relatives take Malia and Sasha to the bookstore, on a walk through Chinatown, to the multiplex to see “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.” Last spring, according to Sher, well-meaning White House residence staff members tried to give the girls cellphones, so their parents could always reach them; the first lady stepped in to refuse.

Even the Obamas’ jokes seem like coping mechanisms for the epic changes in their lives. They are still in their 40s, and they appear to deal with the grandeur and ritual of their new home with a kind of satirical distance that is hard to imagine coming from first couples of a pre-Jon Stewart generation. The president playfully addresses his wife using her official acronym, “Flotus” (first lady of the United States). She keeps up a running commentary on her husband as he navigates his new home, according to friends and relatives. Seeing him in the Oval Office cracks Michelle Obama up, she told me. “It’s like, what are you doing there?” she said, gesturing to the president’s desk. “Get up from there!” In September, as they waited to greet a long, slow procession of foreign dignitaries and their spouses at the Group of 20 Summit in Pittsburgh, the first lady whispered in her husband’s ear about things “that I probably shouldn’t repeat,” he said.

“She can puncture the balloon of this,” he added, making him feel like the same person he was 5 or 10 years ago.


CLEARLY, THE OBAMAS prefer to think of themselves as largely unaltered. “The strengths and challenges of our marriage don’t change because we move to a different address,” the first lady said, the president studying the carpet as she answered. But even as they serve as sources of continuity for each other, their own partnership is undergoing significant change, not just in outward circumstance — the city, the exposure, the security, the staff, the house and so on — but far more fundamentally. Michelle Obama has gone from political skeptic to political partner to a woman with a White House agenda of her own, and an approval rating higher than the president’s.

Initially, her office was seen as so peripheral by some in the West Wing that one aide referred to it as Guam: pleasant but powerless. Now Michelle Obama is towing the island closer to the mainland. In June, she appointed Sher — a lawyer, health care expert and member of the tight knot of hometown friends — her chief of staff. “The first lady wants her office to be fully integrated into the president’s agenda,” Sher says. Early this summer, for example, the first lady directed her staff to plan events that could help support health care reform and then volunteered to speak publicly on the topic. The president and first lady share a speechwriting staff, the East Wing’s press and communications team attends their West Wing counterparts’ meetings and every week, Dunn, Sher and Jarrett meet to discuss the integration of the president’s and first lady’s business.

When asked about how her insights affected the president’s thinking, the first lady seemed to bristle at the question. “I am so not interested in a lot of the hard decisions that he’s making,” she said, drawing out the “so.” “Why would I want to be in politics? I have never in my life ever wanted to sit on the policy side of this thing.” Earlier in my conversation with them, the president faced forward, even leaning a bit away from his wife, but now he uncrossed his legs, swiveled and studied her, looking amused.

“Did she say she’s not interested in policy?” Sher, who also attended the Oval Office interview, tried to recall the next day, shaking her head and smiling. “She always says that.” (The first lady may have learned from Hillary Clinton’s example the perils of appearing too involved with policy.) While her boss has a limited appetite for policy details on many subjects, Sher explains, she regularly reads briefing papers from her staff on social issues. Early next year, aides say, the first lady will become the administration’s point person on childhood obesity, working with her husband’s policy advisers as well as her own on a problem that has stymied public-health experts for years. While the overall success of the administration is Barack Obama’s test, Michelle Obama is beginning to gauge her ability to affect public opinion and behavior as well — which means risking criticism and failure.

The first lady also speaks to her husband about White House management and personnel decisions. “She is not shy about expressing her views at all,” Sher told me, recalling a conversation last spring between Barack and Michelle about a personnel problem. “She was like, you should do this, dah dah dah dah and dah dah dah,” Sher said, smacking the table. The first lady was so forceful, Sher said, that the president just grinned back until they both started to laugh. “It’s probably great that she does get worked up about injustices,” Sher went on to say. “It ­clearly seems to have an impact on him.”

Michelle Obama is also one of her husband’s chief interpreters of public sentiment. On almost every “domestic issue that’s come up — up and through health care,” the president told me, the first lady has offered “very helpful” insights on “how something is going to play or what’s important to people.”

“She’s like a one-person poll,” he explained. “Everyman!” the first lady called out.

“We’ll sit at the dinner table,” the president said. “If our arguments are not as crisp or we’re not addressing a particular criticism coming from the other side, Michelle will be quick to say, I just think the way this thing is getting filtered right now is putting you on the defensive in this way or that way.” (Sometimes, Sher says, when the president is describing some complicated issue, his wife interjects: “You know what? People don’t care about that.”)

During the campaign, Michelle Obama made much of her regular-person credentials, but they may now be expiring. She has not only a personal trainer and a stylist but also a staff of chefs and gardeners. Her world is somewhat less rarefied than that of her husband: she can steal away with less fuss, and her events bring her into more contact with ordinary citizens than his constant march of briefings. But her celebrity is nearly as great as her husband’s, her world nearly as artificial. (By the time of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle told friends, she stopped knowing what the weather was each day: she lived in the permanently controlled climate zone of airplanes, cars and hotels.) A year or two ago, when Barack Obama talked about staying grounded, he mentioned his wife; now he tends to talk about his children or his dog instead. All presidential couples experience this sort of isolation, which is part of why they tend to come to resemble each other more than they do the rest of us.

As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.

Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

Jodi Kantor is a Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

October 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 7:28 pm
October 28, 2009

Living for Candy, and Sugar-Coated Goblins


HALLOWEEN always brings bogeymen to terrify children, but this year the bookstore holds its own terrors for parents. “I Shudder,” ($23.95, HarperCollins), the new book by the playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, reveals a horrible truth no parent wants published: It is possible, it seems, to live on candy.

Mr. Rudnick is the living proof. At 51, 5-foot-10 and an enviably lean 150 pounds, Mr. Rudnick does not square with the inevitable mental image of a man who has barely touched a vegetable other than candy corn in nearly a half-century. Apparently, one can not only live on a dessert island, but can also do it happily and long.

“People always assume I’m lying,” said Mr. Rudnick earlier this month in his West Village apartment packed from ceiling to floor with Gothic ornamentation. “They always say: ‘That can’t be true. You’d be dead. Or huge.’ ”

But as Mr. Rudnick insisted (as he does in “I Shudder,” a collection of short pieces ranging from recollections to screeds), he is not dissembling or diseased. “There was never a time when I was not refined-sugar-centric,” he said flatly. “I was always appalled by almost all other foods; I could not understand why anyone wanted them. I did not like the taste, the smell, the concept.”

At the age of 6 he was even sent to a psychiatrist, who told his parents their son was otherwise well-adjusted, and to let him eat what he wanted and just see what happened.

“His advice was, basically, ‘Just let it go, otherwise, you will have to tie him down, force feed him, and shield your face from the projectile vomit,’ ” he recalled. “I was so dead certain about it, so completely unwilling to entertain any options that they basically had no choice.”

An invitation to take him to lunch hit a wall. He does not really eat meals, he said, more of a so-called grazer. For example, what he ate over the course of a recent, typical day was this: a plain bagel, a three-pack of Yodels, a small can of dry-roasted peanuts, some Hershey’s Kisses, and some breakfast cereal, which he eats by the handful, dry, out of the box.

(Previously acquainted with Mr. Rudnick and having heard of his dietary quirk, I had been at a Sunday lunch with him a couple years ago, where I noted that he ordered nothing and merely ate a delicacy or two from the pastry basket.)

“People imagine that I eat an entire chocolate cake for dinner,” he said. “They think of Willy Wonka-style gluttony, but that’s their fantasy.”

But surely his favorite time of year was upon us? The day when Mr. Rudnick’s dark-humored output and sugar-sweet intake come together in a rare convergence of trick and treat? True enough, he said, and agreed to tour a variety of New York confectioneries to refine the definition of his ideal treat.

First stop: The Food Emporium near his house, where the Halloween aisle received high marks. Though well-meaning friends always give him gourmet treats as gifts, he said, Mr. Rudnick turns up his nose at them. He doesn’t like gelato; he likes ice cream. He doesn’t like Maison du Chocolat or Godiva. He likes Kit Kats. And as it turns out, this view is not limited to candy.

“What I love about Halloween is its childhood honesty,” Mr. Rudnick said. “It’s about what children want rather than what parents want them to want.”

Recalling trick-or-treating as a child in suburban New Jersey, he’s still in awe of people who gave out full-size candy bars, and is still appalled by those people who dared to put apples in trick-or-treaters’ bags. “No,” he said. “Halloween is about free candy, not diet tips.”

Still distrustful of any kind of candy-coated health message, he loves to skewer the twisted ways adults rationalize eating what they love.

“One of the greatest urban legends of our time is that dark chocolate is a health food,” he said. We had moved on to Li-Lac, the cult chocolatier in the West Village and the only gourmet spot that gets the Rudnick seal of approval. He bought a big piece of milk chocolate almond bark. “I have now read countless interviews with movie stars where they talk about having a single square of dark chocolate every day — as if they have a prescription for it.”

Underscoring this point, we went to Milk Chocolate Central: the Hershey’s store in Times Square, the source of one of Mr. Rudnick’s favorite-ever gifts, a 5-pound, 18- inch-by-9-inch Hershey’s chocolate bar. We were met almost instantly with a unnerving clatter. In the corner of the store, a giant, gleaming machine stretching some 15 feet from floor to ceiling, was pouring a silvery stream of Hershey’s Kisses down a twin helix of chutes and raining them into a bucket.

We went right over. A charming saleswoman, Mary Anne by name, let Mr. Rudnick crank the giant wheels, which magically released another avalanche — this time of Hershey’s Miniatures.

Had he been to Hershey, Pa.?

“The happiest place on earth!” he exclaimed. “But sadly they don’t offer the full factory tour anymore. There’s only a faux tour that gives you a sense of the Hershey process instead of being able to stick your arm up to the shoulder into a vat of molten chocolate, which was my dream.”

After Hershey’s, the M&M store across the street was a total letdown — just loud music and mountains of M&M-themed merchandise. After this disaster, we paid his first visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side, offering nearly every conceivable kind of candy over three floors.

“It’s nice to see that Dylan has done something altruistic with her life, rather than merely following her father into retail,” said Mr. Rudnick (a dry reference to her father, Ralph Lauren). A display of hard-to-find Wonka candy bars reminded him of his all-time favorite book of childhood, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“That was my ‘Bell Jar,’ my ‘To the Lighthouse,’ ” he said. “I thought that if it had been real they would just give me the factory — they wouldn’t even bother with a contest and those other kids.”

By then, we were both candied out — a feat achieved through few calories. I wondered if I could lose weight on an all-sugar diet, given how unappetizing it fast becomes.

For his part, Mr. Rudnick said that his latest blood tests were fine, and that he has had no more dental problems than any nonsugar-fixated members of his family. And, he added, his diet does include some foods, which, if not exactly health foods, do at least have a sugar level that is minor or nil, like Cheerios.

And for those who still think he should be dead from malnourishment, Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietician and a clinical associate professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offered a different view.

“Some people defy all odds,” she said. “The body really can adapt to an amazing range of dietary conditions. I remember consulting for a group home, and there was a little girl there I always thought of as an air plant. She only ate white bread and fruit. I followed her for years, and she grew up all right. Somehow she got enough to grow on.”

She also thinks Halloween should be fun and sugar-packed. “I learned my lesson one year when I tried to be good and hand out boxes of raisins,” she said. “You can’t take life so seriously.”

As for Mr. Rudnick, he does not celebrate the holiday itself. “I’m one of those people who just leaves the basket outside, with the implied imperative: Don’t Knock.”

Which is probably just as well. You don’t want him setting an example.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 1:48 pm

Michelle Obama’s Body Woman

From the campaign trail to the East Wing, Kristen Jarvis helps the first lady navigate each day.

By Dayo Olopade | Newsweek Web Exclusive 


Oct 26, 2009



Renegade, Renaissance, Radiance, and Rosebud, better known as the Obamas (Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha, respectively), were off on Marine One, which meant Kristen Jarvis could relax, briefly. Moments after the first family were whisked off to their vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, Jarvis, whose title is special assistant for scheduling and traveling aide for the first lady, took a breather at her East Wing office. Through her indefatigable smile, she ticked off the items that Michelle Obama needed on the presidential campaign trail last year: several Sharpies, her BlackBerry, Oreo cookies, and hand sanitizer. “There’s no time to get sick,” says Jarvis, referring to her boss and herself. “You’re on call.”


Being a young, African-American woman overseeing the affairs for the first black first lady in the White House has its unique, historical responsibilities. During the grueling campaign year Jarvis spent with Mrs. Obama, that meant a shared spreadsheet for black hair salons from Las Vegas to Chicago. “Hairdressers in every state!” she laughs now. “It was a struggle.”


Just as “Obama’s cooler little brother“, Reggie Love knows a thing or two about the president and his needs, Jarvis knows her fair share about the first lady. She calls Michelle “a big sister.”


“I worried a lot about the first lady as the campaign continued and as all of our lives changed,” said Mike Strautmanis, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett’s chief of staff and Jarvis’s former boss from Obama’s Senate office. “I wanted her to be around people who I knew would take care of her; and Kristen, I knew, would take care of her.”


The effervescent 28-year-old is a graduate of Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college. Her history with the Obamas has given her insight into the couple and a unique vantage point to help the first lady make the transition from Chicago to D.C. “It’s change for them,” says Jarvis, who has introduced the first family to some of her favorite eateries around Washington. “Change is good. She’s very low maintenance. I think just being here together makes all the difference in the world.”


The 2004 election cycle was a blessing in disguirse for Jarvis. A staffer for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, her political world collapsed that November when her boss was bounced from Congress and George W. Bush won reelection. That’s when Pete Rouse, Daschle’s chief of staff and now a senior White House adviser, brought her into the office of a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In those days, “We always knew,” she says now. “We always believed that if there was going to be a first African-American president, he was going to do it.”


Jarvis served as scheduler in Nevada and on the press advance team for the Obama campaign before joining Mrs. Obama for the general election. “Literally, I was in a different state every week,” she says. “A lot of it was just making it work with the resources that we were given.”


That, too, has changed completely from the Senate days when Obama flew coach to Chicago. Today, when the first lady wants to jet to Copenhagen with Oprah Winfrey, transform the East Room into a Stevie Wonder concert, or import 650 pounds of Hawaiian pork butt to the South Lawn of the White House for a luau, Jarvis and countless others are right there to make it happen.


Mrs. Obama has a personal aide, Dana M. Lewis, in the residential part of the White House. But once she steps out of the White House, Jarvis is at the first lady’s side. When Mrs. Obama decided to take a tour of government agencies including the departments of education, agriculture and veterans affairs—introducing herself to the neighbors, as it were—Jarvis was there to see the stunned looks on the faces of career employees. “It was refreshing,” she recalls. “A ‘thank you’ goes so far, and to have it come from the first lady is just great.”


Some of her fondest memories with the first family so far include their trips abroad. “Ghana was the most humbling experience of my life,” she says. “Just to see people on the other side of the world so excited about this first family, it was almost numbing.” The recent jaunt to Copenhagen, to make the case for Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics, was bittersweet. “I haven’t cried at one of her speeches in a while, but this one brought me close to tears,” she says, of Mrs. Obama’s presentation for her hometown’s failed bid. “It was a tough week.”


Despite managing East Wing affairs, her influence extends to the West Wing, as well. In Obama’s Senate office, Jarvis hired Joshua DuBois, now executive director of the White House faith office, and junior staffers John Oxtoby, Karen Richardson, and Amanda Brown—who now work under Jarrett, health-reform director Jeanne Lambrew, and political director Patrick Gaspard, respectively. “I’ve come to admire her,” says Strautmanis. “She has a maturity that is uncommon not only for someone of her age but just for anyone.”


Jarvis has been with the first lady for some of her most memorable moments before and after her husband’s election. On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Jarvis watched her boss pace the floor as she practiced for one of the most important speeches of her life. Election night was another experience entirely. She and Love were shepherding the family through the doors of the Hyatt hotel in downtown Chicago. “When we got to the hotel, I think they had just called Virginia,” Jarvis recalls. “Right after [Obama] gave the speech, I said ‘Congratulations, senator,’ and I stopped because I was wrong. I looked back and he gave me a look like, ‘Wow, I am the president.’ ”


Now that the entire team is in Washington, things haven’t changed too much. Michelle is still mom in chief. “First and foremost her main priority is taking care of the kids. A lot of our life depends on what they’re doing,” says Jarvis. But the campaign days of snacking on chips and cookies are over. “She’s on this healthy kick now. She’s over Oreos.”


Perhaps Michelle Obama is worried about practicing what she preaches: she has made healthy eating among children her signature issue, and Jarvis is working with her on that. A stack of health-conscious food writer Mark Bittman’s cookbooks litter the East Wing. Glossy photos of Mrs. Obama bending and planting in the new White House kitchen garden hang next to iconic images of her holding a Bible for her husband on Inauguration Day. At a Healthy Kids Fair last week with a crop of schoolchildren, Michelle Obama sampled zucchini quesadillas and baked apples prepared by visiting chefs. When it was time to remove her wireless microphone for hula-hooping and double-dutch, Jarvis trailed behind, repositioning the first lady’s favorite Azzedine Alaïa belt.


The hours are long for a White House job as intimate as Jarvis’s. But over the five years they’ve worked together, the Obamas have become like a surrogate family to her. Jarvis has lost both of her parents in the last decade. When her brother passed away last year, the president called her cell phone directly. “It was the North Carolina primary night, a big day. And he took the time to call me. The first lady called me,” she remembers. “There’s a million and one staff members and you take the time out of your day. That’s why I’m here. I work for great people.”

Find this article at http://www.newsweek.com/id/219710


© 2009 



















October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 6:40 pm
October 18, 2009

The Song Decoders


On first listen, some things grab you for their off-kilter novelty. Like the story of a company that has hired a bunch of “musicologists,” who sit at computers and listen to songs, one at a time, rating them element by element, separating out what sometimes comes to hundreds of data points for a three-minute tune. The company, an Internet radio service called Pandora, is convinced that by pouring this information through a computer into an algorithm, it can guide you, the listener, to music that you like. The premise is that your favorite songs can be stripped to parts and reverse-engineered.

Some elements that these musicologists (who, really, are musicians with day jobs) codify are technical, like beats per minute, or the presence of parallel octaves or block chords. Someone taking apart Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” documents the prevalence of harmony, chordal patterning, swung 16ths and the like. But their analysis goes beyond such objectively observable metrics. To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of “Hey Jude”? How “joyful” are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how “busy” is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of “These Foolish Things”? How emotional? How “motion-inducing”? On the continuum of accessible to avant-garde, where does this particular Getz recording fall?

There are more questions for every voice, every instrument, every intrinsic element of the music. And there are always answers, specific numerical ones. It can take 20 minutes to amass the data for a single tune. This has been done for more than 700,000 songs, by 80,000 artists. “The Music Genome Project,” as this undertaking is called, is the back end of Pandora.

Pandora was founded in Oakland a decade ago, and for much of the intervening time has lived a precarious existence (the founders spent one three-year stretch working without salaries while they scrambled for investors). But thanks in part to the popularity of the Pandora iPhone app, its fortunes have lately improved. It has attracted 35 million listeners and claims about 65,000 new sign-ups a day (more than half from mobile-device users). About 75 companies are working Pandora into a variety of gizmos and gadgets and Web platforms. The business model relies largely on advertising, and its founder, Tim Westergren, says Pandora will very likely turn its first profit in the fourth quarter of this year.

However things play out for Pandora as a business, its approach is worth understanding if you’re interested in the future of listening. It’s the “social” theories of music-liking that get most of the attention these days: systems that connect you with friends with similar tastes, or that rely on “collaborative filtering” strategies that cross-match your music-consumption habits with those of like-minded strangers. These popular approaches marginalize traditional gatekeepers; instead of trusting the talent scout, the radio programmer or the music critic, you trust your friends (actual or virtual), or maybe just “the crowd.”

Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?

Tim Westergren is a familiar type: the musician who was not as successful as he might have been and concluded that the system is flawed because it underrates talented people who deserve a bigger audience. He played in bands that never quite took off and for a time worked as a film-score composer. It was that job — a “methodical, calculating form of composition,” he says — that led him to dwell on the way music works and forced him to decode the individual taste of whatever director had hired him. He says he was getting pretty good at this. “So I thought I’d try to codify it,” he says.

Rangy and bright-eyed at 43, Westergren comes off more like the head of a fan club than an erstwhile rock star. The only time he seems annoyed is when he’s talking about how some unpopular musicians are unfairly overlooked — or how some popular ones are unfairly maligned. Pandora is, in effect, a response to both of those problems.

He founded his company with two tech-and-business-savvy pals in the start-up-friendly year of 1999. Back then it was called Savage Beast Technologies, and the early (not exactly farsighted) business model involved listening kiosks in record stores. Eventually the company got new financing, beefed up the executive team and landed on using its genome as the engine of an Internet radio service “that plays only music you like.”

Pandora went online in 2005 and looked much as it does today. When you arrive at the site, you’re invited to type in the name of an artist, or a specific song. Let’s say you type in “These Foolish Things,” by Stan Getz. The Pandora genome looks for something it judges to have a similar infrastructure — like, when I tried recently, “I Don’t Know Why,” by Don Byas.

This is Pandora’s first guess at a song you will like, based on upon its analysis of the song you picked. You can simply let it play; click a “thumbs down” icon to try another song; or give it a thumbs up if you want Pandora’s algorithm to know this was a particularly good choice. You can also click to learn why the song was chosen: you don’t get a full breakdown but rather a kind of thumbnail summation. In this case the Byas tune was chosen “because it features swing influences, a leisurely tempo, a tenor-sax head, a tenor-sax solo and acoustic-piano accompaniment.”

If you click a lot, the idea is that Pandora’s algorithm adjusts, squaring your taste with the genome’s database. There are other ways to tweak things — adding more songs to a “station” for the system to scrutinize, creating different stations based on other artists or songs, telling the service not to play a given song for a while. (This happens on a station-specific basis: whatever preferences I express on a station based on “My Sharona” would not affect the songs on, say, my Yanni station.)

Relying on advertising revenue — visual ads on its site as well as occasional audio ads interspersed between songs on your stations — means that much depends on Pandora’s genome doing a good-enough job to keep people listening. (There’s also a “premium” ad-free service for $36 a year, and Pandora makes a small commission if you click through its site to buy a song on iTunes or Amazon.com, but it’s primarily an ad-driven business.) Its biggest expense is the licensing fee it pays to publishers and performers; the performance fee, paid to an entity called SoundExchange, which distributes royalties to artists, is equal to something like 50 percent of Pandora’s revenue. When you start a station with a specific song, that song isn’t the first thing you hear, because this would an entail an “on demand” license, which costs even more.

By way of Pandora’s Twitter feed, I issued a call for users who not only listened to the service a lot but also felt that it had had some kind of impact on their listening tastes. Summer Sterling, a 21-year-old senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., often starts by typing in well-known bands like the Dixie Chicks, and that has led her to music by groups she had never heard of but now loves, like the Weepies. Stephanie Kessler, a 24-year-old M.B.A. student in St. Louis, started by typing in K T Tunstall and has found her way to Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe.

Aashay Desai, a 25-year-old computer engineer, has become a “very meticulous” user, building some 30 stations and paying for Pandora’s premium service, which offers better sound quality and more features. Aside from his hard rock/metal station, he has a “metalcore” station that’s “a little more aggressive,” as well as a “polyrhythm metal station” that is probably his “most aggressive.” He has also built an R&B station and a trance station; more recently he discovered Django Reinhardt, whom he used as the basis for a gypsy jazz station.

Others, of course, are not impressed by the genome’s results. Someone passed along to me a harsh assessment by Bob Lefsetz, whose popular Lefsetz Letter critiques pretty much every aspect of the contemporary music business. “I tried and rejected it,” he wrote. “Was flummoxed when a Jackson Browne station I created delivered a Journey song. Huh? . . . Jackson is music for the mind, Journey is music for the MINDLESS!”

Jonathan McEuen told me he heard about Pandora a couple of years ago and started using it immediately, “with the goal of breaking whatever algorithm they had.” A devoted music fan and a musician himself, McEuen says he did not believe an online service could understand what sort of music he would like and introduce him to new artists based on some deconstruction of his listening tastes. “You can’t just reduce it to a bunch of numbers,” he recalls thinking. “This is a romantic, emotional thing,” and Pandora’s approach to it “can’t work.”

He has changed his mind. A 28-year-old clinical neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, he’s a listener who lacks the time to keep up with music news the way he did while amassing hundreds of CDs as a student. Sometimes he runs Pandora as background music; sometimes he’s more engaged, using it as a way to learn about contemporary classical and opera — and as a result has become a fan of the music of a young composer named Eric Whitacre. “I don’t know how else I would have found out about it,” he says. “Except through the exhaustive process of making new friends on the Internet. Which is something I’m kind of loath to do.”

What I didn’t hear Pandora users talk about was the Genome Project; many didn’t really know about it. They cared about the music Pandora served up, period. But I wanted to know what was behind that music.

Nolan Gasser was the primary shaper of the lexicon that could reconcile Westergren’s genome metaphor with something a computer could evaluate. Gasser, an actual musicologist, wrote a doctoral thesis that dealt with close analyses of Renaissance composition. “I really needed to know what made that music tick,” he recalls. That systematic study flowed well into his work with Westergren — although they started with 20th-century pop, not Renaissance vocal music. First every piece is broken down into large-scale aspects of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, form, sound (meaning instrumentation and, if necessary, voice), and in many cases the text, meaning lyrics. Each of these broader categories might have 10, 30, 50 elements.

“We have a number of characteristics for vocals,” he continues. “Is it a smooth voice, is it a rough, gravelly voice, is it a nasally voice?” Similar questions are evaluated for every instrument. The upshot was about 250 “genes” for every song in the original pop-rock version of the “genome.”

Gasser also helped develop the training mechanisms to make sure the analysts are consistent about more subjective matters — like how “emotionally intense” that Stan Getz solo is. (It’s a 4 out of 5, in the genome’s view.) The test that candidates take involves being able to pick out, quickly and by ear, harmonic structures, melodic organization and other musical elements. The indoctrination that follows revolves around examples. (You think that vocal gets a 5 on the gravelly scale? Here’s Tom Waits. Is it that gravelly? )

Recently I sat in as several of Pandora’s song deconstructors gathered in a small conference room to talk about Indian music. Pandora listeners have been asking for Indian music for a while, but adding it to the service hasn’t been a simple matter. A new genre must arrive in a big batch — about 3,000 pieces of music — because Pandora’s algorithm needs lots of choices to be able to recommend something similar-sounding. And all of it has to be pulled apart first. This entails squaring the very different structures of Indian music with Pandora’s “genome” data points.

Over the previous six weeks or so, the Pandora analysts listened to 650 Indian pieces, and the session I observed was a refresher course. Steve Hogan, who oversees Pandora’s analyst squad, had given a half-dozen of its members the same two songs to analyze. The first was “Raga Ahir Bhairav,” recorded by Bismillah Khan in 1955. But the analysts had not been given this cultural information; all they had for the assignment was the music and their ears. Hogan played a snippet and pointed to Kurt Kotheimer, a bass player who often gigs around the Bay Area.

Kotheimer consulted his listening notes: “Flat second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, flat seventh.” Everybody nodded: that’s the tone set, which helps identify the particular raga, one of 25 new “genes” added to Pandora’s algorithm to accommodate this variety of non-Western music. Based on the beat, everyone agreed that this raga was set in Teentaal, with a 16-beat rhythmic cycle often heard in North Indian classical music; it’s now in the genome too. But that was the easy part, apparently.

They moved on to vocals, and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.

But while some of the genes involve expert, subjective judgment, they aren’t qualitative in the most traditional sense: there’s no rating that allows an analyst to conclude that a vocal or a sax solo is simply lousy. What Pandora’s system largely ignores is, in a word, taste. The way that Gasser or Westergren might put this is that it minimizes the influence of other people’s taste. Music-liking becomes a matter decided by the listener, and the intrinsic elements of what is heard. Early on, Westergren actually pushed for the idea that Pandora would not even reveal who the artist was until the listener asked. He thought maybe that structure would give users a kind of permission to evaluate music without even the most minimal cultural baggage. “We’re so insecure about our tastes,” he says.

While his partners talked him out of that approach, Westergren maintains “a personal aversion” to collaborative filtering or anything like it. “It’s still a popularity contest,” he complains, meaning that for any song to get recommended on a socially driven site, it has to be somewhat known already, by your friends or by other consumers. Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice. (When I ran Bob Lefsetz’s dismissal of Pandora by him, he laughed it off, and transitioned to arguing that Journey is, actually, a great band.)

He likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

This anecdote almost always gets a laugh. “Pandora,” he pointed out, “doesn’t understand why that’s funny.”

By the time the Genome Project got under way, the idea of taking music apart and evaluating it by its acoustic elements was not actually new. “Machine listening” was pioneered in various university settings, often by people who had the exact same problem with collaborative filtering’s reliance on social data that Westergren has. Machine listening basically involves teaching computers to assess sound (or really, waveforms representing sound) into something resembling the way that humans hear it, with the goal of eliminating living, breathing listeners from the evaluation process completely.

Like collaborative filtering, machine listening can deal with a lot of data quickly. And when Westergren was trying to raise a second round of financing after the dot-com bust, most everyone involved in the business of music and technology had come to believe that any recommendation system needed to be able to handle millions of songs, instantly. A bunch of musicians sitting around discussing the finer points of drone and monophony wouldn’t cut it. “Everybody thought it was ridiculous,” Westergren agrees. He gave something like 350 pitches to venture capitalists over three years. “Most investors could not get over this idea that we were using humans.” But to Westergren, there were elements of music that machine listening just couldn’t capture — like the emotionality of a Getz solo. So yes, he wants listeners to experience new music on the basis of the music and not the influence of other people — but to do it right, people have to analyze the music.

Whatever the algorithmic equation, of course, there’s a listener on the other end who is much harder to decode. What you want to hear can depend on your mood, or whether you’re listening at work or in a nightclub. Context affects any cultural product, but music is different from, say, books or movies. Even a casual listener hears many thousands of songs; and to love a song is to take it in — whether attentively or as background music — over and over. Mick Jagger was once asked what makes a tune a classic, and the co-author of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” replied, “Repetition.” And yet, even the most conservative listener knows the feeling of hearing a hit single once too often. Maybe because music is so ubiquitous, we respond to it almost like food: sometimes we want to try the new restaurant, sometimes the comfort of a familiar favorite dish.

Still, are all these listener-specific factors really enough to explain what music we like, and why? “Music is an inherently social experience,” argues David Goodman, the president of CBS Interactive Music Group, which includes the popular Last.fm Internet radio service. Last.fm’s social-networking model revolves largely around this idea. “The way in which you experience music by sharing, by storytelling, being part of a community. Last.fm is built on what is organic to music.”

Ali Partovi, the C.E.O. of iLike, makes a related point. Used as an application on Facebook and similar sites, iLike bills itself as a “social music-discovery service” and claims more than 50 million registered users. There’s a huge difference, Partovi argues, between “this computer thinks you’ll like this song” and “your friend thinks you’ll like this song — even if it’s the same song.” The problem with a computer reading waveforms is that it “has no common sense,” summarizes Mike McCready, a founder of a company called Music Xray, a digital-music business for entertainment companies and artists. “It doesn’t take into consideration whether the artist is just starting out or they’re at the pinnacle of their career, it doesn’t take into consideration what they wore to the Grammys or who they’re dating or what they look like or what their age is. You have to factor all of this stuff in.”

And why is that? Surely no one consciously says, “My cool friends like the new Jack White, so I’ll memorize the lyrics and pretend to like it, too, for sociocultural reasons.” Yet the research about how listeners link musical taste (at least at a genre level) and identity is extensive. Surely that’s one reason so much of digital music culture is devoted to opportunities to “share” your taste: the endless options for posting playlists, recommending songs, displaying what you are listening to now, announcing your favorite artists.

Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate. Last.fm, for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know. Maybe even in our most private listening moments, what our peers think matters.

Much attention has been focused in the last few years on studying music-liking at the brain level. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist (and musician) has been one of the high-profile thinkers in this area, by way of his popular books “This Is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs.” One of his central themes is that pretty much all humans are wired to enjoy music, and he says he believes musicality is even important to the evolution of the species.

But when you start talking about individuals, instead of humanity in general, universals are a lot harder to come by. Much depends on culture. The emotions expressed in many of those ragas that Pandora’s experts are presently decoding, for instance, are lost on the typical Westerner. Just as we’re hard-wired to learn a language, but not to speak English or French, our specific musical understanding, and thus taste, depends on context. If a piece of music sounds dissonant to you, it probably has to do with what sort of music you were exposed to growing up, because you were probably an “expert listener” in your culture’s music by about age 6, Levitin writes.

The cliché that our musical tastes are generally refined in our teens and solidify by our early 20s seems largely to be true. For better or worse, peers frequently have a lot to do with that. Levitin recalled to me having moved at age 14 and falling in with a new set of friends who listened to music he hadn’t heard before. “The reason I like Queen — and I love Queen — is that I was introduced to Queen by my social group,” he says. He’s not saying that the intrinsic qualities of the music are irrelevant, and he says Pandora has done some very clever and impressive things in its approach. But part of what we like is, in fact, based on cultural information. “To some degree we might say that personality characteristics are associated with, or predictive of, the kind of music that people like,” he has written. “But to a large degree it is determined by more or less chance factors: where you went to school, who you hung out with, what music they happened to be listening to.”

Pandora’s approach to listening violates at least three pieces of conventional digital-music wisdom: it rejects the supremacy of social-data taste communities; it shrugs off the assumption that contemporary listeners must have instant on-demand access to any single song; and, most striking, it rejects what many observers see as a given, which is that music consumers are fundamentally motivated by access to the most massive pool of songs possible. Slacker.com, a rival Internet-radio service, says its library contains about 2.5 million songs. Spotify, the European music streaming service, expected to be available in the U.S. by early next year, is generating enormous buzz because of it offers free, on-demand access to more than 5 million tunes.

Pandora’s 700,000-song library sounds puny by comparison. And yet the service has millions of devoted listeners. Why? One answer, perhaps, involves the ways that the genome, quietly, doesn’t really screen out sociocultural information. For instance, its algorithms are tweaked by genre, and the inclusion of genes for “influence” (“swing” or “gospel,” for example) brings in factors that aren’t strictly about sound. And Pandora’s algorithm does adjust if, for instance, users routinely thumbs-down a particular song under similar circumstances, meaning the genome’s acoustic judgment can at times be trumped by crowd taste. But the biggest cultural decision of all may be the one that also happens to guide Westergren’s response to the issue of scale: how, exactly, does a given piece of music get into Pandora’s system anyway?

Pandora claims to add about 10,000 songs a month to its library. The “curation” of Pandora, in effect, falls to Michael Zapruder, another musician who has found himself working for a tech company. Zapruder ended up as Pandora’s curator because he had a habit of identifying holes in the service’s collection. Eventually he was told to fill all the gaps he could. “I had a field day,” he recalls; he’d stroll through record stores, buying every single Johnny Cash CD or every tango disc available, plus anything that looked interesting. He paid attention to users’ suggestions. Somebody wrote in to say that Pandora needed to improve its jazz-trombone selection; somebody else complained about the dearth of barbershop-quartet music. He took care of it. He has beefed up the Latin-music and the J-pop catalog. The major acquisition project right now is Afrobeat, because by far the biggest failed search is Fela Kuti. Zapruder is in the midst of this research but knows that as this new batch of music comes online, “we’re going to get educated by our listeners.”

Every Tuesday he looks at the New Music Tipsheet, which lists a few hundred new tracks in a typical week. He scrutinizes the Billboard and CMJ charts. He hears directly from a wide array of distributors, from indie-focused Revolver Records to big shots like Universal Music Group. In addition to what is simply sent to Pandora (by labels, artists, P.R. firms), the company buys hundreds of CDs a month, as well as electronica and hip-hop downloads, acquired from sites like Beatport. Every month, hundreds of bands send songs, and Zapruder does his best to get onto Pandora what he figures his listeners want to hear. Still, the labor-intensive genome simply can’t absorb it all.

Westergren maintains that catalog size receded as a problem at around the 300,000-song mark. Since passing that, he says, the number of “missed” searches has declined markedly, so the great majority of people who come to the site and type in an artist or song name get a proper introduction to the Pandora system. But the more surprising part of Westergren’s response is his claim that he isn’t worried about compiling the biggest possible catalog. “This may seem counterintuitive,” he told me, “but we struggle more with making sure we’re adding really good stuff.” That sounds like a rather subjective, cultural judgment — shouldn’t the listener decide what’s good, based purely on the genome’s intrinsics-of-music guidance? Well, there’s no question that Westergren is a champion of the unheard music that gets marginalized by sociocultural judgments. But even he has standards.

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the magazine and is the author of “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.”

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