‘A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Winter storms have become so frequent in the U.S. that they now have names, like hurricanes. This week saw the arrival of Seneca, making for a touch-and-go race about which will run out first: the alphabet or the jet stream. The weather in the eastern U.S. has been brutal enough this year that millions of Americans have been confined to their homes. In a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in six of us does anything like the recommended amount of physical activity, “Snowmaggedon” is a danger to the country’s health as well as its roads.

The ancients knew well that people will use any excuse to avoid exercise—bad weather, of course, being among the most popular. To counteract the natural human tendency toward inertia, the Greeks had their Olympics, the Chinese their tai chi and the Indians their yoga. The Romans went so far as to make exercise a legal requirement for all male citizens age 17 to 60. With the exception of Thomas Aquinas, who was colossally fat, lack of exercise was rarely a problem in the Middle Ages. Few people had time for aerobics when survival was the order of the day.

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‘Breaking Up Has Always Been Hard to Do’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

As Valentine’s Day draws near, let’s not forget its Roman ancestor: the festival of Lupercalia, a fertility rite (celebrated every Ides of February) that was about as romantic as a trip to the abattoir. The highlight of the day involved priests dipping their whips into goat’s blood and trolling the streets of Rome, playfully slapping any women who passed by. The ancients had no use for frilly hearts and chocolates.

Nevertheless, our classical forbears did know a few things about the flip side of Valentine’s Day: the art of the breakup. The Romans were masters of the poetic put-down. The 1st-century poet Ovid could offer some exquisitely worded insults; here is Elegy VI in his “Amores,” as translated by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century: “Either she was foul, or her attire was bad,/ Or she was not the wench I wished t’ have had./ Idly I lay with her, as if I loved not,/ And like a burden grieved the bed that moved not.”

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‘House of SpeakEasy Takes the Stage’ – Publisher’s Weekly

By Clare Swanson

At the January 27 inaugural gala for Seriously Entertaining, a monthly “literary cabaret,” the actress Uma Thurman read three fiery passages as part of a literary quiz called “Tip of My Tongue.” The 380 audience members at the City Winery in downtown Manhattan were charged with identifying the titles and authors of the texts from which the passages were quoted, as well as the decade when each piece was originally published. Only one member of the very literary crowd nailed all three: Salman Rushdie.

Emcee Andy Borowitz, a New Yorker writer and author of the Borowitz Report, proclaimed Rushdie the victor and, throughout the night, introduced the event’s cast of performers who riffed, ruminated, and reflected on the night’s theme: “Plays with Matches.” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik shared a story about delivering a somewhat improvised keynote address at a conference, while historian Simon Winchester scored with a comical and gory account of working as a mortuary assistant when he was a teenager. Susan Orlean, also of the New Yorker, pondered the city’s papaya chain phenomenon, and singer/songwriter Dar Williams closed out the evening with an acoustic set.

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‘Uma Thurman Reads from Moby Dick and Salman Rushdie Wins a Prize at House of Speakeasy’ – The Huffington Post

By Regina Weinreich

Good news: the written word thrives downtown. The brainchild of Doctor Amanda Foreman, the author of historical works like Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, “House of Speakeasy” was founded to keep writers visible, engaged with audiences, and earning money for their craft. At a sold-out salon at City Winery on Monday night, the first of a series, some writers who do, also showed another side of their chops as performers: moderated by humorist Andy Borowitz, authors Adam Gopnik (The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food), Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Simon Winchester (The Men Who United the States), and songwriter Dar Williams sang–in other words, working writers at The New Yorker magazine and other venues– who also earn a living–told stories on the theme of “plays with matches.”

Wit, particularly in the form of irony, has not died. Gopnik told a tale of addressing a crowd on the topic of “pluralism and the individual,” whatever that means, understanding finally that all such speeches are really variations on that subject. Orlean recounted her observations upon first moving to New York, on the city’s proliferation of Papaya Kings. Winchester’s piece was about working in a morgue, the perfectly explosive accompaniment to the evening’s comfort dinner: chicken on mashed potato.

The four hundred or so guests included Dick Cavett, Steve Croft, Barbara Goldsmith, Kurt Andersen, Marina Rust, and Salman Rushdie who picked up a prize for knowing three famous but not obvious passages from world literature–from Mary Shelley, Robert Frost, and Herman Melville– read to this erudite group by Uma Thurman. His prize: books by the entertaining authors. In something of a summation and echo of his talk, Adam Gopnik said he did not know what he was getting himself into. He just showed up and to his surprise, “It was a big deal. Everyone was there.”

‘Uma Thurman, Susan Orlean Host A Night for the Literary Elite’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: Amanda Schwab

Photo: Amanda Schwab

By MONIKA ANDERSON

Last night, City Winery in downtown Manhattan hosted the inaugural gala event for a new monthly literary showcase, ‘Seriously Entertaining,’ presented by the non-profit House of SpeakEasy Foundation. The organization was created six months ago by historian and WSJ columnist Amanda Foreman.

The emcee—Andy Borowitz, former sitcom writer and creator of satirical news column “The Borowitz Report”—began the evening explaining the group’s missions: to bring writers together with their audience, and to support the principle that writers should be paid for their craft. One of the foundation’s goals is to have SpeakEasy performers visit schools and reach young audiences.  He also shared haiku:

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”Think-y Entertainment’ for New York’s Book-Loving Crowd’ – The Wall Street Journal

By STEFANIE COHEN

Photo: AMANDA SCHWAB/STARTRAKSPHOTO

Photo: AMANDA SCHWAB/STARTRAKSPHOTO

In 1962, the author Simon Winchester attended a London science fair and lost his heart to a young woman as the two toiled over their science experiment.

“We built a hydroponic tomato and fell head over heels in love,” he told the audience at Monday night’s House of SpeakEasy gala.

Sadly, the girl lived in Canada, and a young Mr. Winchester (who went on to write “The Men Who United the States” and “The Professor and the Madman”) desperately wanted to buy a ticket to visit her. To raise the funds, the then-17-year-old applied for, and got, a job as a mortuary assistant, mostly because he was the only one who answered the ad.

“Basic anatomy preferred but not essential,” the classified read, according to the dapper Briton, who was wearing canary yellow pants and a matching pocket square.

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‘House of SpeakEasy’s Inaugural Gala’ – Vogue

House of SpeakEasy’s Inaugural GalaBy Caroline Palmer

The House of SpeakEasy’s inaugural event opened with writer and host Andy Borowitz regaling-slash-horrifying the legions of literary-minded folk in attendance with a tale of being asked to live-tweet the Oscars last year by an unnamed newspaper owned by “an Australian man” and turned the offer down once informed it was for no actual fee. “They said they would mention my website,” he dryly quipped. And while the online editors in the audience (ahem) may have cringed, the point was quite, and rightfully, clear: Writing is a profession, and professional people deserve to be not only paid, but respected and supported. And so the House of SpeakEasy was born. The philanthropic idea was dreamed up by Dr. Amanda Foreman, the author of several books (including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which was made into a movie with Keira Knightley), mother to an astonishing five children, and current girl crush of multitasking women everywhere. The overarching idea—to provide cultural entertainment with community outreach through live monthly events with authors and school programs, among other things—was properly ushered into existence by a bookish lot, including Susan Orlean, Salman Rushdie, Uma Thurman, Dar Williams,and the hilarious Simon Winchester, who gathered  at City Winery for an evening of stories, games, and song, all touching on the evening’s theme, “Playing with Matches.”

For more information on House of SpeakEasy, houseofspeakeasy.org.

‘The Backward Seating at the State of the Union’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: PETER ARKLE

Photo: PETER ARKLE

The end of January brings two certainties: another 49 days until spring and the president’s State of the Union address. In the past, the president often used to palm off this constitutionally mandated chore to a clerk; nowadays he (or she) is expected to deliver it in person. But in every other respect, the rituals associated with the event haven’t changed at all: The president speaks for about an hour, ecstatic applause erupts from one side of the chamber, and grim silence exudes from the other.

Many foreign observers find these partisan reactions reassuringly familiar. What they find puzzling is the placement of the Democratic Party to the right of the aisle and the Republican Party to the left. Equally confusing is the U.S. media’s long-standing allocation of the color red to the Republicans and blue to the Democrats. In the rest of the world, right-wing parties sit on the right and left-wing ones on the left; blue is the color of conservatism, and red is the color of revolution and communism—or pink, if one leans toward socialism—something apparently unknown to the networks and CNN.

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‘Resolved: No More New Year’s Resolutions’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Few New Year’s resolutions actually make it past January. If everyone followed through on their resolutions, the consequences for humanity would be dire: The fast-food industry would collapse, the gym would become unbearably crowded, and lifestyle magazines would have nothing left to say.

It is human nature to start off the year with a host of resolutions. The ancient Babylonians are known to have done it. The Romans even made a virtue of it, leaving us with January—named after Janus, the god of new beginnings.

The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, scorned the idea. It wasn’t humanity they doubted but the willingness of the gods to refrain from interfering in our affairs. “Men should pledge themselves to nothing, for reflection makes a liar of their resolution,” wrote Sophocles. Indeed, at the heart of almost every Greek myth was a warning of the terrible fate that awaited those who believed that all things were within their control. From Arachne to Oedipus, the message was clear: Don’t challenge the power of the gods lest you end up as a spider, or killing your father and marrying your mother.

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‘It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here’ – The Sunday Times

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…