Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Weekly Update

The news never slows down, and I have some updates on recent blogposts of mine, in no particular order:

  1. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg added a lot of wood to the presidential fire yesterday when he announced his decision to leave the Republican party, which he's been a member of since 2001, and to register instead as an Independent. If Bloomberg isn't running for higher office, then there seems to be no good reason for a popular mayor who is prevented from running for reelection due to term limits to change parties in the middle of his term, unless, of course, he just wants to stick out his tongue and tease his fellow social liberal, fiscal conservative and faux Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Bloomberg can run for President, but Schwarzenegger can't since he wasn't born in the U.S.)

  2. Fairfax County voted on Tuesday to approve an elevated rail line through Tysons corner, meaning the tunnel idea is (almost) officially nixed.

  3. Making her acting debut, Hillary announced the results of her campaign song vote yesterday in a clever parody of the Sopranos finale. The winner is "You and I" by Canadian singer Celine Deon. (Audience, hold your applause).
  4. Following Hillary's excellent music selection, a majority of voters composed entirely of one person (me) have decided to pick the song "Pleasure is All Mine" by Bjork for when I make my run at public office. Nothing says God Bless America like an Icelandic singer who dresses in swan costumes when she goes to the Academy Awards.
  5. I'm still eating my pasta.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dear Miss Manners

Twenty years ago, my grandfather sat me at a table, placed books under both my armpits and then had me eat dinner while squeezing the books between my arms so that they wouldn't fall. His ideas may have been slightly draconian, especially for a nine year old, but thanks to his instruction I've never eaten a meal with my elbows splayed out and sticking in my neighbor's plate. I've also (almost) always had a napkin properly sitting in my lap, known which fork/knife goes with each course, waited dutifully until everyone was served at the table before starting to eat, and eaten my meals using the more efficient European method, which involves cutting the food with the fork in my left hand and the knife in my right and then bringing the food to my mouth while still holding the fork in my left hand. (The American style, also known as the "zig zag method" involves cutting the food with the fork in your left hand and the knife in your right, and then putting the knife down and switching the fork to your right hand in order to bring it to your mouth).

This past week, I had the opportunity to revisit my grandfather's etiquette lessons under the watchful eyes of the very prim and proper Ms. Michelle Pollard Patrick, III, alternatively known as Michelle Patrick Pollard, III, and her assistant, a younger version of herself. Without even a trace of humor, and with every bit an air of condescension, Ms. MPP ("Yeah you know me!")* instructed my summer associate colleagues and me on the nuances of eating at a formal dinner for three very long hours. These rules included the following:

-To greet your fellow diners, shake their hands with a not-too-firm and not-too-weak grip, make eye contact, pump your hands twice, and say your name, followed with something along the lines of "it's a pleasure to meet you";
-Approach your seat at the table on the right side and leave from the left;
-To drink water, or any other liquid for that matter, bring the cup to your lips and then tilt your head back about 10 degrees so that you don't slurp;
-When eating bread and butter, don't spread the butter on the bread all at once and then eat it. Instead, put the butter on your plate, break off a bite size piece of bread, spread it, and then, if you're still hungry, eat it;
-If asked to pass the salt, also pass the pepper;
-Never let your fork or knife touch the table once you have started using them. They should always remain in your hands or on the plate;
-When eating soup, scoop the soup onto your spoon away from you instead of towards you;
-Twirl only 2-3 strands of pasta on your fork at a time;
-Neither toothpicks nor business cards should make an appearance at the table;
-Never drink to a toast made for you;
-Always thank your host for the meal.

Ms. MPP made very clear that if I don't follow all these rules than I will fail miserably in my career as a lawyer, especially given the numerous clients I expect to have dinner with as a first year associate (zero). Except for bathroom and sleep breaks, I'm also still twirling my pasta, two to three strands at a time, even though lunch technically ended five days ago.

Besides not cracking a joke the entire time, what made lunch so painful was Ms. MPP's failure to distinguish between good manners and proper etiquette. Good manners, which is really what my grandfather taught me, means being respectful at the table; eating in a way that isn't too messy, noisy or intrusive on one's dining neighbors; and showing an appreciation for the meal even if the food isn't to one's liking. Those principles will undoubtedly help me to succeed as a professional, but they also make me a better person overall.

Proper etiquette, on the other hand, involves a list of arcane rules that many people aren't even aware of, and that only come in handy when dining with royalty or when attending a 17th century-themed costume ball, assuming dinner precedes the dancing. I'm impressed that Ms. MPP is able to make a career out of being an etiquette specialist, but I walked away from lunch having felt talked down to for three hours and not having enjoyed my meal very much, except for the chocolate brownie sundae at the end. I don't need a tutorial to know that eating habits vary with culture and setting, and that establishing good relationships, whether they be for business or pleasure, can happen even if I don't tilt my head ten degrees to take a drink. Imposing a set of rigid rules on eating out may even make it more difficult to build a rapport with the other people sitting at the table, especially if the rules are ones that they don’t follow. My grandfather got that point through my head twenty years ago, but Ms. MPP has yet to figure it out.

*That's an (ironic?) reference to the band Naughty by Nature

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mr. Bloomberg LLP

I was planning on writing today about the age-old debate of cats versus dogs (which species makes a better pet) because I've had this conversation numerous times in the last few weeks and I want to make absolutely clear that dogs are nice but felines reign supreme. However, I've been in DC now for ten days and I'm starting to feel the politics bug so I'm going to save that topic for another day and write instead about my take on presidential politics (I realize that I'm passing up the opportunity here to make some jokes about cats, dogs and presidential politics).

I recently finished reading Philip Roth's novel Plot Against America, which considers what our country would have become had FDR lost the race for a third election term to Charles Lindbergh, best known for his solo flight across the Atlantic and for having a reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. The book has gotten me thinking about some political what-if scenarios, albeit less fantastical ones than FDR losing an election, and how they might affect the ongoing presidential race. I'm especially interested in the idea of New York City mayor and gazillionaire Mike Bloomberg running for President. (Full disclosure: I've already thrown my "considerable influence" behind the Hillary Clinton campaign, after she came to me and politely requested my endorsement).

Bloomberg is a relatively unique figure in American politics: he's an extremely moderate Republican (some would say a Democratic in Republican clothes), and, because he came into office after funding his own campaign, he's been able to champion his own agenda without having to tailor it too much to special interest groups. Thus, he had enough political capital to enforce a smoking ban in New York city bars, he weathered a city-wide transit strike, he's spearheading a national campaign in favor of gun control (much to the chagrin of the NRA), and he's taken ownership of the New York city public school system. Though many people in New York might argue that he's also done many things wrong, Bloomberg has enjoyed widespread popularity, and is increasingly being mentioned as a possible Independent candidate for the presidency.

I haven't looked at any polls, so I have no idea how a Bloomberg campaign is projected to fare; however, right off the bat, it's clear Bloomberg would have at least one distinct advantage because he has enough disposable income to outspend all the other candidates. Also, while Independent/Reform party candidate Ross Perot's wealth wasn't enough to propel him to the presidency when he ran in 1992 and 1996, Bloomberg is probably seen as more of a mainstream candidate than the eccentric Perot. Lastly, as a technocrat and businessman Bloomberg can make credible claims that he has the experience to fix the fiscal mess that President Bush has made for us.

Despite these strengths, Bloomberg also faces significant hurdles. Most importantly, he's a political neophyte. Being the mayor of New York city has certainly provided him with a significant amount of political acumen, however, Bloomberg is not a career politician, like Rudy Guiliani. If he chose to ran for the White House, Bloomberg would also have greater difficulty sidestepping special interest group pressure, even though he still wouldn't have to rely on them for fundraising. And, his business holdings will come under heavy scrutiny as reporters and competitors try to dig up any dirt that might stick on him.

Ultimately, the main question regarding a Bloomberg candidacy is whether he could generate enough votes to play a political spoiler in the general election or even win the White House. Without a doubt, if he runs, the Democratic and Republican nominees for the general election will have their hands full trying to fend him off. If Guiliani is the Republican candidate, for example, he'll almost certainly lose most of the moderate vote he's already courting by being pro-choice to the Bloomberg camp. Similarly, any Democratic candidate could stand to lose moderate Republican and conservative Democratic votes to Bloomberg's candidacy.

The other main question to ask is whether it would be a good thing if Bloomberg rocked the boat by injecting a third party into the normally staid (and stable) politics of a two-party country. On the one hand, if the vote is split three ways, then the ultimate winner may lack any real mandate to accomplish his or her agenda. On the other hand, it could force candidates to take real positions on issues so that they are able to distinguish themselves from one another.

I'm definitely intrigued by the idea of an Independent running for President, but I think that the present list of candidates already represents a comprehensive range of political viewpoints, from the very liberal (Kucinich) to the very conservative (Fred Thompson, assuming he runs), to the libertarian (Ron Paul), to the centrist (Hillary, Obama, Guiliani, McCain, Romney, etc). If he doesn't add anything to the race, then Bloomberg will simply be playing the role of election spoiler. And, Bloomberg could probably achieve much of his own agenda after he leaves the mayor's office, by serving as a philanthropist or even, potentially, as a cabinet member in the next administration. So, while it's an interesting what-if scenario to consider, my vote for the time being is for Bloomberg to avoid the calls he's been getting to join the race, serve out the rest of his term as mayor and then take a break from elected politics. Mr. Bloomberg - if you're reading my posting - now that I've given such serious thought to your future career, I'll be happy to meet with you and provide additional unsolicited job advice anytime you like (assuming I'm available).

Friday, June 01, 2007

Copy That

During lunch today I happened to sit next to someone with a flat Midwestern accent, which got me to thinking how bad I am at doing on-the-spot impersonations. Some people are really good at imitating an accent or impersonating a movie character. I'm not. When it comes to cracking a Borat joke, or speaking with an exaggerated foreign accent I'm a non-starter. I'll even venture to say that my lack of aptitude in this area qualifies as my greatest weakness, though if I gave that as my answer in a job interview I'm pretty sure the interviewer would look at me funny. Lest anyone start to feel sympathy for me, this shortcoming of mine doesn't affect all aspects of my life. When I'm living or traveling in another country (or down south, as the case may be), I do a pretty good job of adopting the regional inflections and voice modulations so that people don’t peg me as a "damn Yankee" the moment I open my mouth.

The root of my problem stems from my inability to vocalize and act out the impersonation. My ear isn't perfect, but I'm pretty good at recognizing different pitches and nuances in speech. However, between my ear and my mouth something gets lost in translation. If I hear an Indian accent, for example, I wind up trying to imitate it with something that sounds like it originated in England but then made a diversion to Germany for some polishing. Similarly, my attempts to speak English with a Russian accent, or to sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who, I realize is Austrian), both come out sounding like I grew up on a kibbutz.

Without overanalyzing all of this, the disconnect is probably related to the fact that I'm a relatively even-keeled kind of guy (Ok, I’m a very even-keeled kind of guy). This characteristic serves me well in certain situations, but it doesn't lend itself to letting loose and acting out in dramatic fashion. My balanced personality (or, some might say "reserved" personality) doesn't affect me when I'm living somewhere else or traveling, because I don't consider speaking in another accent as acting out then, I just think of it as trying to better appreciate the culture and interact with the native residents.

The moral of this whole story is that I need to go spend a few weeks in the midwest, so that I could have lunch again with my neighbor from today.

P.S. If you're interested in an update on the Tyson's Corner subway tunnel that I wrote about a few weeks ago, it's still not getting built.