Wednesday, March 31, 2010

no I

Und so lang du das nicht hast,

Dieses: stirb und werde,

Bist du nu rein truber Gast

Auf der dunklen Erde

As long as you do not know how to die and come to life again,

you are but a poor traveler on this dark earth

- Goethe

Death is the epitome of the truth that in each moment we are thrust into the unknown. Here all clinging to security is compelled to cease, and wherever the past is dropped away and safety abandoned, life is renewed. Death is the unknown in which all of us lived before birth.

Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that “I” cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting it go he finds it.

- Alan Watts


O empty glory of human endeavour!

How little time the green remains on top,

Unless the age that follows is a dull one!

Cimabue thought he held the field

In painting, and now the cry is for Giotto,

So that the other’s fame is now obscured...

Earthy fame is nothing but a breath of wind,

Which first blows one way and then blows another,

And brings a fresh name from each fresh direction.

What greater name will you have, if you are old

When you put aside your flesh, than if you had died

Before you had given up baby-talk and rattles,

Once a thousand years have passed? And that is a shorter

Space to the eternal than the flash of an eyelid

To the circle which turns in the heavens most slowly.

- Dante

Many celebrities sour on fame as their careers progress. The rock star Pat Benatar told an interviewer that she was desperate to become famous at the age of twenty-two, indifferent at twenty-six, and by the age of twenty-eight had come to detest fame. The famous face higher expectations, greater demands on their time, and greater pressures to succeed, given the large sums of money at stake. Many people underestimate these costs when they start to seek fame. The television actor Jason Priestley said, “You never think about the price of fame when you start out. You’re far too busy trying to work. All of a sudden you find yourself a working actor and six months later you’ve got Hard Copy camped out on your doorstep.” And the actor Michael Maloney said that “anyone who craves fame is not aware of the consequences.”

The search for fame derives in part from personal insecurities. Both Blaise Pascal and Adam Smith argued that individuals look to others for approval when they are uncertain about the quality of their decisions and contributions. According to Pascal, if someone tells us that we have a headache when we do not, we are not upset. We know that the opinion has no merit. If someone criticizes us and tells us that an opinion of ours is wrong, however, we are greatly disturbed. We cannot be certain that our opinion is correct, and the expressed disapproval makes us nervous. Approbation has its greatest force when insecurity is most prominent.

Adam Smith compared poets and mathematicians. The quality of poetry, he thought, is difficult to judge, which makes poets insecure about their work. They seek favor with great ardor, and divide themselves into cabals and factions. Mathematicians, by contrast, have greater assurance about the quality of their work, even when they receive little or no public recognition. Since right and wrong answers usually can be proven, time will validate the merit of their contributions. According to Smith, mathematicians enter into less intrigue than do poets, and they reject participation in factions and cabals.

To the extent that fame-seeking is based in personal insecurity, the attainment of fame will not eradicate performers’ underlying feelings of inadequacy. The receipt of approval of ten feeds upon insecurities. It nourishes and magnifies fears, rather than alleviating them. The fame-seeker is trying to fill a personal void by addressing symptoms rather than causes, by looking for external approval instead of internal self-respect. The magnification and intensification of fame brought by modernity can heighten these tendencies and spread them to larger numbers of people. Hegel viewed the attainment of recognition as alienating for both parties, since it elevates the status of one human being over another.

- Tyler Cowen

Monday, March 29, 2010

Kiehl’s Since 1851

About twenty years ago, long before online shopping, a colleague in Boston asked me to stop by Kiehl’s Since 1851, an obscure drugstore in Manhattan. She explained that it had a special skin lotion she loved, and always eager to please, I volunteered to head a few blocks out of my way one day to pick some up.

I walked into the store not knowing a thing about Kiehl’s, but curious about why someone would insist on a skin cream only available two hundred miles away from home. The first thing I saw when I walked into the tiny store was a Ducati motorcycle and a tiny stunt airplane.

Now I was officially intrigued. Why was this expensive real estate devoted to housing items that clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with skin care? The rest of the store was just as interesting. The rough-hewn floors were at least a hundred years old. The staff was far better trained than I’d ever expected to find in a drugstore. The labels were filled with information and each item was lovingly displayed.

The message was loud and clear: this is the work of a person, a unique individual, not a corporation. Only a person would waste so much space on his hobbies (and it had to be a him, it seemed to me). Only a person would be so persnickety about the formulas and the labels and the making everything just right. In a marketplace filled with anonymous competitors, this was the real deal—genuine cosmetics made by someone who cared.

The store was filled with other tidbits of information. Detailed narratives about animal testing and motorcycle racing, about the founders and about their customers. The prices were ridiculous, the bottles unlike any I’d ever seen sold for money (they appeared homemade—and still do). I bought my colleague her cream and headed for home, but not before I’d bought myself some shave cream and my wife a bar of soap. And just like a little family business, they insisted on giving me samples of other products to take home—for free.

Apparently many others have had a similar experience. Kiehi’s Since 1851 is now a cult brand. Sold by exclusive, service-oriented shops around the world, this business is doing many millions of dollars a year in high-margin sales. The story is compelling. It’s easy to believe the lie we tell ourselves. So easy to believe that most of its customers are shocked when they discover that industry giant L’Oreal has owned the company for several years.

Is the brand worth the premium they charge consumers? Well, if worth is measured in the price charged compared to the cost of the raw ingredients, of course not. But if Kiehl’s customers are measuring the price paid compared to the experience of purchasing and the way that using the product makes them feel, it’s a no-brainer.

Is Kiehl’s for everyone? Not yet. Only people with a certain worldview even notice Kiehl’s, and then it takes a subset of that group to fall in love with the story, to tell itself the lie. These people embrace the brand and tell the story to their friends as well. If a consumer believes that cosmetics should be cheap or ubiquitous or the brand that a best friend uses, then Kiehi’s is invisible. But if a consumer’s worldview is about finding something offbeat, unique and aggressively original, then the story resonates.

Ironically Kiehl’s didn’t set out to succeed by telling a unique story. This brand is the work of an idiosyncratic individual, and lucky for him, his story meshed with the worldview of the people who shopped there. In other words, it wasn’t Kiehl doing the marketing—it was his customers. Kiehl’s told a story, and the customers told the lie to themselves and to their friends.

- Seth Godin

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Alexander McQueen - Armadillo (2010)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Night Ripper

Girl Talk - Night Ripper (2006)

Were living in this remix culture. This is a time where any grade-school kid has a copy of Photoshop and can download a picture of George Bush and manipulate his face how they want and send it to their friends. And thats just what they do. Well, more and more people have noticed a huge increase in the amount of people who just do remixes of songs. Every single Top 40 hit that comes on the radio, so many young kids are just grabbing it and doing a remix of it. The software is going to become more and more easy to use. Its going to become more like Photoshop when its on every computer. Every single P. Diddy song that comes out, theres going to be ten-year-old kids doing remixes and then putting them on the Internet.

But why is this good?

Its good because it is, in essence, just free culture. Ideas impact data, manipulated and treated and passed along. I think its just great on a creative level that everyone is so involved with the music that they likeYou dont have to be a traditional musician. You get a lot of raw ideas and stuff from people outside of the box who havent taken guitar lessons their whole life. I just think its great for music.

- Gregg Gillis


Candice Breitz - King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) (2005)

This work is based on a pretty simple premise: there are enough images and representations of superstars and celebrities in the world. Rather than creating more images of people who are already overrepresented, rather than literally making another image of a Madonna or a John Lennon, I wanted to reflect on the other side of the equation, on what goes into the making of celebrity.

The idea is to shift the focus away from those people who are usually perceived as creators so as to give some space, some room, to those people who absorb cultural productswhether its music or movies or whatever the case may be. And to think a little bit about what happens once music or a movie has been distributed: how it may get absorbed into the lives into the very being of the people who listen to it or watch it.

Even the most broadly distributed, most market-inflected music comes to have a very specific and local meaning for people according to where it is that theyre hearing it or at what moment in their life theyre hearing it. What goes hand in hand with the moment of reception is a dimension of personal translation.

In African and other oral cultures, this is how culture has traditionally functioned. In the absence of written culture, stories and histories were shared communally between performers and their audiences, giving rise to version after version, each new version surpassing the last as it incorporated the contributions and feedback of the audience, each new version layered with new details and twists as it was inflected through the collective. This was never thought of as copying or stealing or intellectual property theft but accepted as the natural way in which culture evolves and develops and moves forward. As each new layer of interpretation was painted onto the story or the song, it was enriched rather than depleted by those layers.

This process of making meaning may be more blatant in the practice of certain artists than it is in the practice of others. Artists who work with found footage, for example, blatantly reflect on the absorptive logic of the creative process. But I would argue that every work of art comes into being through a similar process, no matter how subtly. No artist works in a vacuum. Every artist reflectsconsciously or noton what has come before and what is happening parallel to his or her practice.

- Candice Breitz


Saul Steinberg - View of the World from 9th Avenue (1976)

Ravel - Pictures at an Exhibition

I. PROMENADE: Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto
A stately stroll into the gallery, played by a solo trumpet, is the initial image. This opening theme will be heard in several guises throughout the suite, usually serving as the bridge between musical pictures. Once the trumpets pronouncement is complete, the other trumpets, horns, and tuba respond in an equally regal manner, the richness of the brass instruments blending to create an impressive wall of sound. This pattern of announce and respond is repeated several times as the movement unfolds. When the strings join, they add a tremendous elegance, building gradually to an expansive outburst, then pulling back as the excitement wanes. But it quickly rebuilds, heightened by glorious horn calls in the midst of the orchestras huge sound. A fabulous chorus featuring the brass instruments alone literally rumbles, preceding one final phrase played by the entire orchestra before the movements abrupt end.

II. GNOMUS: Vivo (1:39)
This portrait of a limping dwarf and his grotesque movements begins with the clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contra-bassoon, violas, cellos, and basses in unison loudly blurting out an angry statement, followed immediately by the horns reacting and quickly fading away. The music seems to have trouble developing a flow; like the dwarf, its movement is jerky, starting and stopping, then coming to a complete halt.
A new theme, more steady but still jerky, begins featuring the flutes, oboes, and a hollow-sounding xylophone. It is haunting and creeps along deliberately, abruptly stopped by two nasty comments from the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, cellos, and basses. Mysterious sounds created by the celesta, clarinet, harp, first violins, and the violas and cellos sliding up and down their strings quietly mimic the new theme.
Slow and heavy are the key qualities as the wind instruments plod through each note, accentuated by the pounding of the bass drum, like the resounding steps of Bigfoot. The somewhat discordant sound of the winds only underlines the ugliness of this section. With each passing phrase the volume and intensity increase, eventually leading to a gripping eruption, straining to become wild. A loud clap, played by the wood block, stops everything until the bass clarinet quietly trills, restarting the mysterious theme with the xylophone. Two brassy, harsh blares from the horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba launch a wicked race to the finish.

III. PROMENADE: Moderao commodo e con delicotezza (4:24)
It is time to stroll to another painting, and Mussorgsky returns to the first movements melody played initially by the horn, this time less powerful, more delicate and pensive. The oboe, clarinets, bassoon, and the flutes carry the melody for most of the movement joined only at the very end by the violins

Muted cellos introduce a sorrowful solo for the bassoons. The saxophone assumes the melody, its hollow tone eerier than the bassoons, languorous but not lethargic as it moves steadily, pushed by repeated notes in the cellos. The violins, also muted, stir the stillness before the oboe and saxophones share a strange, short duet.
The pace seems to slow down as the intensity diminishes until the flutes and clarinet take the lead and steadily restore the intensity. But this, too, fades away, leaving the bassoon quietly playing what had been the steady beat of the cellos introducing the muted violins. One last, sensuous saxophone solo shrouded in haze restates this movements main theme and fades away. The void is broken by a final cry from the saxophone, like a last gasp, that slowly dissipates.

V. PROMENADE Moderato non tanto, pesante (9:33)
The trumpet calls us to stroll to the next work joined by the lowest voices in the orchestra, cellos, basses, bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon, making this walk ponderous. When the upper strings and wind instruments are added, the mood brightens. The promenade stops suddenly and ends with a delicate three-note call.

VI. LES TUILERIES: Allegretto non troppo, capriccioso (10:00)
This delicate movement is a depiction of children and their governesses at play in The Tuileries, the famous Paris park. An octet of woodwinds starts out capriciously, the mood happy and light, especially in the passages given to the flutes and oboes. The violins change the melody and slow the pace. This section is fluid and a little quirky; an image of children playing a game of hide-and-seek is suggested. A single chime from the triangle restarts the woodwind octet and a repeat of the initial happy melody, followed by another abrupt ending.

VII. BYDLO: Sempre moderato pesante (11:10)
If you have ever wondered how a composer might portray an ox wagon with huge wheels, heres your chance! Weight is the key, and the lower voices including the bassoons, contrabassoon, cellos, and basses accompany a tuba solo. While the tuba surprises with its melodic ability, the other instruments plod along relentlessly. When the violins, violas, and harp join, the mood lightens somewhat, but still has its restrained quality suggestive of prisoners marching, hopeful but most probably doomed. This steady march grows as more instruments are added, and when the snare drum joins, the feeling that this is a desperate death march becomes overwhelming.
Soon the march seems to move on, the sound growing softer, and the tuba resumes its sad melody, again plodding. One weak reprise by the muted, distant horn is heard, just before the movement ends, exhausted.

VIII. PROMENADE: Tranquillo (13:42)
Three flutes and two clarinets begin this tranquil reprise of the stroll music. They are replaced by the oboes and bassoons continuing this atmosphere of total calm. But there is a sudden mood swing, and the calm changes to strain and darkness. The melody stops, and this promenade ends with a short, giddy, final comment.

IX. BALLET DES POUSSINS DANS LES COQUES: Scherzino: Vivo leggiero (14:22)
Mussorgskys inspiration for this movement was a drawing of a scene from the ballet Trithy, oddly titled Ballet of the Chickens in Their Shells. The pace is fast as it scurries about, light and delicate, especially in the flutes and oboes. A sustained chord, sounding strangely like cartoon music, leads to a repeat of the movements first few seconds.
After the repeat the flutes and bassoons play a strange duet while the violins trill relentlessly, like chirping birds. Briefly the violins take the lead, but the unstoppable, annoying flutes reprise the movements opening, and the flutes, oboes, and piccolo chirpingly bring this pecking to an end.

There is no promenade before we encounter this depiction of a conversation between two Jewish men, one rich and one poor. The introduction is heavy, with a distinctly Slavic/Gypsy tone created by the strings, the English horn, clarinets, and bassoons, although it is the rich string sound that is predominant. A rapid-fire, sniping solo trumpet accompanied only by the oboes and clarinets contrasts with the somber opening. Sneering, the trumpet seems to be hurling insults while the horns add to the tension.
Angrily, the strings, clarinets, bassoons, and contrabassoon answer the trumpet. Now the weighty first theme and the sniping, rude second theme are heard together as the argument grows louder and continues until it is abruptly cut off. A new theme played by the oboes and first violins fills the silence; it is sullen and plaintive. Reminders of the argument crop up occasionally as this movement grinds to its conclusion.

XI. LIMOGESLE MARCHE: Allegretto vivo sempre scherzando (18:12)
Another argument, this one among women in a market, is the theme of this fast movement; from the outset the horns establish one voice, and the violins answer with another. (The violins may remind you of the Pick a Little, Peck a Little number from the show The Music Man.) The music is busy and flighty and seems to bounce around out of control. A sudden stop silences everyone, then the music resumes even more frantically, a truly wild scene filled with hysteria. A final race brings the argument to a screeching halt, and we are thrust directly into the next movement.

A startling change occurs as the flighty fight in the market is replaced by the ponderous reality of mortality and the catacombs. The source of this movement was a drawing of Hartmann himself exploring the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern. The heavier instruments, primarily the trombones, tuba, and horns, solemnly announce our arrival at this hallowed burial area, The chords are sustained, swelling and receding like the music for a gothic horror movie. The only trace of light is provided by the solo trumpet and its forgiving melody slicing through the somber brass. But angrily the other brass instruments bring back the horror movie music. This attack quiets, and one final blast, leading to an eerie rumble from the tam-tam, ends the visit to the catacombs.

XIII. CUM MORTUIS IN LINGUA MORTUA: Andante non troppo, con lamento (21:30)
This movement bears the creepy heading Speaking to the Dead in a Dead Language, an image Mussorgsky conjured up by himself inspired by Hartmanns creative spirit leading the composer to the skulls in the catacombs. He speaks to them and they slowly become illuminated from within, an interesting premise for a musical composition,
Extremely quiet, muted violins play a sustained chord introducing the oboes and English horn, who play a slowed-down variation of the original promenade theme. The violins, now joined by the violas, tremble while the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, cellos, and basses take the melody from the oboes. The low, slow-moving voices combined with the shaky upper strings yield a creepy sound reminiscent of a graveyard scene in a horror movie.
Emerging from the haze, the oboe and clarinet begin to brighten the mood. The creepiness diminishes, replaced by tranquillity as the harp lightens the tone. One can almost see the dense fog rising, allowing the sun to shine through. Calm prevails, the movement ending softly with a sustained chord that just fades away.

XIV. LA CABANE DE BABA-YAGA SUR DES PATTES DE POULE: Allegro con brio, feroce (23:24)
There is no pause as we are catapulted into a ferocious attack highlighted by the timpani and bass drum. The Hartmann painting inspiring this movement was of a clock in the shape of the legendary Russian witch Baba-Yaga. The beginning starts and stops, seeming to build up energy, the strings, English horn, clarinets, and bassoons snapping out a series of gruff comments. Once the engine gets going, it sounds driven as if possessed, developing relentlessly until the trumpets cut through like the cavalry trying to gain control of a wild situation. But the other brass instruments angrily blare out sustained retorts and the orgiastic excitement continues unabated, eventually growing slower and heavier. Instruments drop out one by one until there is only a solo trumpet left playing a series of eight notes.
The flutes change the mood and begin a free-flowing, gossamer-like solo accompanied only by occasional comments from the bassoons and basses. Mystery abounds, especially when the tuba heavily burps its notes and the response is led by the celesta, xylophone, and harp. (This section may remind you of the music played during the witchs-castle scene in the movie The Wizard of Oz.) As this creepy music fades away, an angular outburst from the flutes, piccolo, oboes, clarinets, xylophone, and violins abruptly snaps everything to attention. But the trembling cellos and basses, and an eerie single tam-tam crash, sap any remaining energy to reach a dead stop.
The silence is shattered by an angry interjection; this is just the first volley in a series of outbursts that reprise the section of the engine getting going. Steadily, with its vulgar blasts, the pace and intensity increase, and as before the trumpets try to cut through the wildness, but are overwhelmed by the witchs power. The violins, screeching demonically, seem to fly up and down over their strings, ending the movement abruptly on a high note.

XV. LA GRANDE PORTE DE KIEV: Allegro allo breve. Maestoso. Con grandezza (26:42)
Without a pause between movements, the final impression begins; this time Mussorgsky drew his inspiration from an architectural design for a large gate in Kiev. The majestic melody, played loudly by the bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, and bass drum, is reminiscent of the Promenade theme that began the work. Now, it is broad and overpowering, and when the rest of the orchestra joins in, led by the crashing cymbal, the sound is even bigger, a fitting musical portrait of the massive Russian structure it depicts.
A sudden quiet takes hold as the clarinets and bassoons play a prayer-like interlude, a tremendous contrast to the power preceding it and the explosion that follows it. Here the brass instruments dominate, while the flutes, oboes, harps, violins, and violas excitedly race through exhilarating passages. Another midphrase interruption silences this most recent eruption, replacing it with a reprise of the prayer-like calm provided by the clarinets and bassoons, with the flutes adding an angelic quality. As the interlude ends, a heavy plodding starts, the lower voices steadly alternating pulses as the second violins and violas rustle, quickening the pace, like a reawakening. The contrast of the flowing string phrases against the heavy plodding creates a bit of tension that begins to resolve when the flutes, piccolo, oboes, and clarinet sneak in. All of this leads to the reemergence of the melody, now more splendid, shining like the sun slowly coming out from behind clouds, growing brighter and brighter by the second.
As if what has already been heard was not powerful enough, there is yet another explosion with the full orchestra reprising the main theme, broader and more majestic than ever. The pace slows dramatically giving plenty of time to bask in the powerful radiance of the sound. One final quieting starts the final push to the end; gradually the sonic power rebuilds, instruments chiming in one by one until a huge explosion featuring the brass instruments takes hold. Unbelievably, the sound grows larger still in another eruption, as the tam-tam, drums, cymbals, and triangle, along with the rest of the orchestra, joyfully reach the final musical image of this stroll through the art gallery.

Concert Hall

everyone is in the best seat
- john cage

Marshall McLuhan

Friday, March 26, 2010

objects of beauty

While a common reaction to seeing a thing of beauty is to want to buy it, our real desire may be not so much to own what we find beautiful as to lay permanent claim to the inner qualities it embodies.

Owning such an object may help us realize our ambition of absorbing the virtues to which it alludes, but we ought not to presume that those virtues will automatically or effortlessly begin to rub off on us through tenure. Endeavoring to purchase something we think beautiful may in fact be the most unimaginative way of dealing with the longing it excites in us, just as trying to sleep with someone may be the bluntest response to a feeling of love.

What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.

- Alain de Botton

Out For a Drive (Part 3) - Professional Zones

As we drive farther, we begin to notice that the houses are getting bigger, the lawns look professionally manicured, and the driveways tend to be filled with Audis, Volvos, and Saabs. In these upscale neighborhoods, it is apparently socially acceptable to buy a luxury car so long as it comes from a country that is hostile to U.S. foreign policy. Soon you begin to see discount but morally elevated supermarkets such as Trader Joes. Here you can get your Spinoza Bagels (for people whose lives peaked in graduate school), fennel-flavored myrrh toothpaste from Toms of Maine, free-range chicken broth, gluten-free challah, spelt-based throat lozenges, and bread from farms with no-tillage soil. (What, does the dirt turn itself over?)

Trader Joes is for people who wouldnt dream of buying an avocado salad that didnt take a position on offshore drilling or a whey-based protein bar that wasnt fully committed to campaign finance reform. Someday, somebody should build a right-wing Trader Joes, with faith-based chewing tobacco, rice pilaf grown by school-voucher-funded Mormon agricultural academies, and a meat section thats a bowl of cartridges and a sign reading Go ahead, kill it yourself. But in the meantime, we will have to make do with the ethos of social concern that prevails at places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods.

You get the impression that everybody associated with Trader Joes is excessively goodthat every cashier is on temporary furlough from Amnesty International, that the chipotle-pepper hummus was mixed by pluralistic Muslims committed to equal rights for women, that the Irish soda bread was baked by indigenous U2 groupies marching in Belfast for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation, and that the olive spread was prepared by idealistic Athenians who are reaching out to the Turks on the whole matter of Cyprus.

The folks at Trader Joes also confront higher moral problems, such as snacks. Everyone knows that snack food is morally suspect, since it contributes to the obesity of the American public, but the clientele still seems to want it. So the folks behind this enterprise have managed to come up with globally concerned stomach filler that tastes virtuously like sawdust ground from unendangered wood. For kids who come home from school screaming, Mom, I want a snack that will prevent colo-rectal cancer, theres Veggie Booty with kale, baked pea-pod chips, roasted plantains, wasabi peas, and flavor-free rice clusters. If you smuggled a bag of Doritos into Trader Joes, some preservative alarm would go off, and the whole place would have to be fumigated and resanctified.

You usually dont have to wander far from a Trader Joes before you find yourself in bistroville. These are inner-ring restaurant-packed suburban town centers that have performed the neat trick of being clearly suburban while still making it nearly impossible to park. In these new urbanist zones, highly affluent professionals emerge from their recently renovated lawyer foyers on Friday and Saturday nights, hoping to show off their discerning taste in olive oils. They want sidewalks, stores with overpriced French childrens clothes to browse in after dinner, six-dollar-a-cone ice-cream vendors, and plenty of restaurants. They dont want suburban formula restaurants. They want places where they can offer disquisitions on the reliability of the risotto, where the predinner complimentary bread slices look like they were baked by Burgundian monks, and where they can top off their dinner with a self-righteous carrot smoothie.

The rule in these pedestrian-friendly town centers is Fight a war, gain a restaurant. Youll find Afghan eateries, Vietnamese restaurants, Lebanese diners, Japanese sushi bars alongside dining options from Haiti, Cambodia, India, Mongolia, and Moscow. And this is not to even mention the J Cosi-style casual dining spots offering shiitake mushroom panini sandwiches or the gourmet pizzerias serving artichoke, prosciutto, and brie pizzas (which can also come with a black-bean topping). When you stumble across Teriyaki Fajita Salad du Jardin, you realize it is possible to cram so many authentic indigenous cultures together that theyve created something totally bogus and artificial.

Ozzie and Harriet would find it odd that their old suburban town center now has a vegan restaurant for feminist reproductive-rights activists and their support circles, but these inner-ring suburbs are sophisticated places. They are the home of the upscale urban exilesaffluent sophisticated types who disapprove of the suburbs in principle but find themselves living in one in practice. Like the crunchy suburbanites, they disapprove of the sterility of suburban life, the split-level subdivisions, the billiard rooms, and the blueberry bagels. But unlike the crunchy suburbanites, these inner-ring people just happen to have landed jobs that earn them a quarter million dollars a year, darn it, and they somehow moved into recently renovated Arts and Crafts mansions with an Olympic-sized Jacuzzi in the master-bathroom spa, the emblem of their great sellout.

The people who live in the inner-ring suburbs are hardcore meritocrats and the chief beneficiaries of the information age. This economy showers money down upon education, so the fine young achievers who went to graduate school and got jobs as litigators and mortgage-company executives can now live in towns that are close to downtown theaters and concert halls but also filled with houses big enough to support a kitchen the size of Arkansas. About 15 percent of American households now earn over $100,000 a year. There are over seven million households with a net worth over $1 million. This nation, in other words, now possesses a mass upper class, and many of these folks are congregating in the upscale archipelago of such places as Bethesda, Maryland; Greenwich, Connecticut; Tarrytown, New York; Villanova, Pennsylvania; Winnetka, Illinois; San Mateo and Santa Monica, California; Austin, Texas; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. In the mornings, there are so many blue New York Times delivery bags in the driveways of these towns, they are visible from space.

Back when the old WASP elite dominated these places, they were rock-ribbed Republican. But the new educated elite has brought new values and new voting patterns. In 1998 National Journal studied the voting patterns of the richest 261 towns in America and discovered that the Democratic share of the vote had risen in each of the previous five elections. In 2000 the Democrats went over the top. A Democratic presidential candidate carried the area around the Main Line, outside of Philadelphia, for the first time in history. And the first Democrat ever won the area around New Trier High School, north of Chicago. Once Republican strongholds, the inner-ring suburbs have become Democratic zones, thanks to the influx of the educated and affluent cultural elite, with their graduate degrees, high incomes, and liberal social values.

These places have their good and bad features. On the downside, they are strangely insular. Though the people here are in most ways well informed, and often can name the foreign minister of France, they tend to live in neighborhoods where everybody has a college degree (only about a quarter of adult Americans do), and they often dont know much about the rest of the country. They might not know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are, even though these men are among the nations best-selling authors, with over fifty million books sold. They often dont know what makes a Pentecostal a Pentecostal, even though Pentecostalism is the most successful social movement of the twentieth century, starting in Los Angeles with no members a hundred years ago and growing so fast there are now roughly four hundred million Pentecostals worldwide. They cant name five NASCAR drivers, though stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country. They cant tell a military officers rank by looking at his insignia. They may not know what soy beans look like growing in the field. Sometimes they cant even tell you what happens in Branson, Missouri, though, as sort of the country music Vegas, it is one of the top tourist destinations in the country. On the other hand, they are really good at building attractive and interesting places to live. This is, after all, the red-hot center of the achievement ethos, and while few people in these neighborhoods have fought in wars, many have endured extensive home renovations.

So if you are in an inner-ring suburb, you are likely to be amid people who have developed views on beveled granite, and no inner-ring dinner party has gone all the way to dessert without a serious conversational phase on the merits and demerits of Conan countertops. People here talk about their relationships with architects the way they used to talk about their priests, rabbis, and ministers. Bathroom tile is their cocaine; instead of blowing their life savings on narcotic white powder they blow it on the handcrafted Italian wall covering they saw at Waterworks.

The sumptuary codes in these neighborhoods are always shifting. Highly educated folk dont want to look materialistic and vulgar, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have an in-house theater with a fourteen-foot high-definition projection screen to better appreciate the interviews on Charlie Rose. Eventually these advanced-degree moguls cave in and buy the toys they really want: the heated bathroom floors to protect their bare feet, the power showers with nozzles every six inches, the mudrooms the size of your first apartment, the sixteen-foot refrigerators with the through-the-door goat cheese and guacamole delivery systems, the cathedral ceilings in the master bedroom that seem to be compensation for not quite getting to church. Later, when they show off to you, they do so in an apologetic manner, as if some other family member forced them to make the purchase.

Inner-ring people work so arduously at perfecting their homes because they dream of building a haven where they can relax, lay aside all that striving, and just cocoon. They have deep simplicity longings, visions of having enough money and space so they can finally rest. Yet you know they are wired for hard work, because they feel compelled to put offices in every room in the house. Mom has an office in the kitchen, Dad has an office off the bedroom, the kids have computer centers near the family room, and its only a matter of time before builders start installing high-speed Internet access in bathrooms. That dream of perfect serenity and domestic bliss will just have to be transferred to the vacation home.

Inner-ring people tend to have omnivorous musical tastes. Theyre interested in zydeco and that Louisiana dance music they heard on Fresh Air, even if they do tend to drift back to Melissa Etheridge and Lyle Lovett. They prefer independent bookstores, and they bend down and read the recommendations in the staff-picks section. Thats how they stumbled across Anita Diamant, Paul Auster, and Wally Lamb before they got really popular.

If they are not perpetually renovating their properties, inner-ring people are off on allegedly educational vacations improving their minds. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he didnt go to Queen Isabella and say, Well, I didnt find a trade route to India, but I did find myself. That, however is exactly what highly educated inner-ring people are looking for in a vacation. They go on personal-growth Greek cruises sponsored by alumni associations, during which university classics professors lecture on the Peloponnesian wars while the former econ majors try to commit adultery with the lifeguards.

As you sit with them intimately in their reading alcove (not the one in the master bedroom suite; rather, the one beside the office, near the nanny suite) they tell you about the weeklong painting seminar they took with Comtesse Anne de Liedekerke in Belgium, the cooking seminar in Siena, the tiger-watching adventure in India, or the vineyard touring week in Bordeaux. When they put all this hard-won knowledge to work by using the word geometric in reference to a cabernet, you want to applaud their commitment to lifelong learning, but you are distracted because your butt is shaking as a result of the eighteen-inch woofer their architect cleverly embedded in the built-in divan you are resting upon.

When people in their twenties are surveyed on where they want to live, more of them answer inner-ring suburbs than any other place. Its easy to see why. These places combine the sophistication of the city with the child-friendly greenery of the suburb. The people here are well educated, lively, and tolerant (unless you want to, say, build a school in their neighborhood, in which case they turn into NIMBY-fired savages ripping the flesh from your bones with their bare hands).

- David Brooks