These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.
In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the “productivity-pay gap” — the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.
But it was her cooking that threw my preconceived notions for a loop. Having moved to Paris after living in Philadelphia and New York, I arrived with a reverence for French cuisine that bordered on the religious. Restaurants and shops, magazines and cookbooks taught me that French food was the height of sophistication. It was delicate yet elaborate, refined and expensive — a performance art of finely julienned vegetables, sublime sauces, towering souffles. When I moved to Paris in 1986, I found work as an interpreter in a professional cooking school, where I witnessed the rigid training, technical know-how, and precision that went into each dish and pastry, from preparation to plating, confirming my opinion that French cuisine was complex and meticulous, impressive and intimidating.
But Madeleine’s cooking was far from all that. Her food was hearty and unadorned, and yet so flavorful. No trendy or costly ingredients went into her one-pot dishes, no spices beyond salt and pepper, no sauces other than homemade bechamel, mayonnaise or vinaigrette whisked up quickly with a fork. There was little precision or delicacy: She would roughly chop leeks, potatoes, beets, shallots and carrots, staples of her cooking, with a wobbly, chipped paring knife, the bits of peel flicking all over the cheap vinyl tablecloth. Her recipes were estimates of classic dishes that were assembled and seasoned “au pif,” by taste and intuition.
There’s a grand tradition of crying in public, especially in New York City, where it’s difficult to ever be truly alone. Guides have been written with best practices; maps have been marked with the best spots. And I’m certainly not the first to point out that Starbucks provides one of the more accessible tear-friendly spaces around (searching Twitter for the phrase “crying in Starbucks” yields fun results). All this literature on the subject would have you thinking there’s an art to it, but no: You just do it when you need to and hope no one interferes. There are only a few public spaces where criers can count on that kind of blithe indifference, and Starbucks happens to be the most ubiquitous.
If you ask me, there were quite a few cringe-worthy moments in the movie La La Land but one moment especially hit home. Early in the story, Emma Stone’s character, Mia, apprehensively confesses to Ryan Gosling’s idealistic jazz pianist that she “hates” jazz. It’s probably intended to show Mia’s relatability for the audience, but this viewer at least winced with recognition. The fact that Mia eventually discovers that she likes jazz after all is less about digging the music than about giving the viewer the Hollywood ending they want. She’s not alone in her defensiveness when it comes to America’s music — believe me, plenty of people tend to give us jazz fans the side-eye whenever the topic comes up.
The sad truth is that all too often jazz suffers the same kind of casual dismissal that hip-hop, country, and EDM used to get before they took over the mainstream. Granted, this might be something only a jazz lover would notice but since at least the ’70s, jazz has become something of a niche market, to put it mildly. In terms of yearly record sales, jazz usually sells as much as classical music does, one of the many things the two genres have in common. Far too often jazz comes off as dated or quaint; it’s your granddad’s make out music. Worse, there’s an implied snobbishness often projected onto loving jazz — it’s a little like explaining that you prefer to spend your Saturday nights translating Hegel or making artisanal cheese.
In 1999, when Scott McNealy, the founder and CEO of Sun Microsystems, declared, “You have zero privacy…get over it,” most of us, still new to the World Wide Web, had no idea what he meant. Eleven years later, when Mark Zuckerberg said that “the social norms” of privacy had “evolved” because “people [had] really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” his words expressed what was becoming a common Silicon Valley trope: privacy was obsolete.
By then, Zuckerberg’s invention, Facebook, had 500 million users, was growing 4.5 percent a month, and had recently surpassed its rival, MySpace. Twitter had overcome skepticism that people would be interested in a zippy parade of 140-character posts; at the end of 2010 it had 54 million active users. (It now has 336 million.) YouTube was in its fifth year, the micro-blogging platform Tumblr was into its third, and Instagram had just been created. Social media, which encouraged and relied on people to share their thoughts, passions, interests, and images, making them the Web’s content providers, were ascendant.
It’s not intimacy that these pieces afford; as much as Rich tells us, there is more that she conceals, especially about her private life — the apparent suicide of her husband, the years with Cliff. But it is a peerless pleasure to join her in the “long turbulence,” to think alongside her. I once read that a blue whale’s arteries are so large that an adult human could swim through them. That’s what entering these essays feels like — to flow along with the pulses of Rich’s intelligence, to be enveloped by her capacious heart and mind.