Monday morning inspiration: the tragic genius of Bobby Fischer

Today the Los Angeles Times posted this archive photo to its Facebook wall with the following caption: “Bobby Fischer, a 21-year-old U.S. chess champion from Brooklyn, plays against 50 opponents simultaneously in April 1964 at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Fischer won 47 games, lost one and drew two.”

As a child I was fascinated by Bobby Fischer because 1. he was a genius, and 2. nobody knew where he was. (I learned both of these things from the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” the title of which was mostly metaphorical but not entirely.) Genius and illusory is a potent combination. Fischer remained a mythic figure in my head until he died at age 64 in 2008, when the New York Times obituary revealed to me the true extent of (what must have been) a mental illness. He thought an international Jewish conspiracy was trying to destroy him personally and the world in general — even though he was raised in Brooklyn by his Jewish mother.

I believe we can accept a person’s tragic reality and still be inspired by them; the truest form of admiration accounts for a person’s flaws. Fischer was not just a genius; he was a genius who knew how to strategically nurture his talent. This might seem like an obvious skill for a chess master to possess — given the tactical nature of the game itself — but skill in navigating a chess board does not necessarily correspond to skill in navigating one’s own talent, especially for someone as unstable as Bobby Fischer.

Bruce Pandolfini is an author and chess coach who learned to play at the Marshall Chess Club in New York City when Fischer trained there as a teenager. He told the New York Times in Fischer’s obituary that the young prodigy would arrive early in the morning and play games from the 19th Century that featured strategies long dismissed as too risky or too romantic. The club had a file with thousands of outdated games, and Fischer would learn them one after the other, much to Pandolfini’s confusion.

“I couldn’t understand why he was doing it,” Pandolfini told the Times. “But Fischer’s argument was that the old ideas were not necessarily bad ideas. They had merely fallen out of favor, and by injecting new thinking into an old idea, you created state-of-the-art logic.”

And that’s how you beat 47 opponents at once.

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Layers of security at the Istanbul airport

“Where are you coming from?” the guard asked me.

I had booked my flight home from Italy on Turkish Airways because it was hundreds of dollars cheaper than my other options, making the six-hour detour to Istanbul wholly worthwhile. I spent my layover buying espresso cups and baklava, and then I was scheduled to fly to JFK before continuing on to LAX. When I booked my ticket I hadn’t even thought about the implications of flying from the Middle East to New York City, but here I was, starkly reminded by several extra layers of security.

In addition to standard airport security, a private Turkish firm called Gozen Security Services had been hired (I’m not sure by whom) to conduct additional screening at the gate. A Gozen guard checked my passport and boarding pass, and then asked me a series of questions:

“Where are you coming from?”
“When did you go there?”
“Are you connecting anywhere in New York?”
“How many bags do you have on this flight?”
“Whose are they?”

That threw me off for a moment. Didn’t we just call them ‘my’ bags? Why are you asking me that? “They’re my bags,” I replied. I reminded myself to focus on answering the questions, not analyzing them, if I didn’t want to face further delays.

“Who packed the bags?”
“Are you carrying anything for anybody?”
“Is there anything in there that could be used as a weapon or looks like it could be used as a weapon?”

I finished answering and was admitted to the next station, a somewhat-involved passport check. The guard spent several minutes typing my passport information into some type of system before he gave me the all-clear. Then I went to another guard, who again checked the name on my boarding pass against the one my passport. She also made sure we had been approved by the other guards, who had put stickers on my boarding pass and passport before letting me through. Anyone with a non-U.S. passport then had to run their carry-on luggage through another scanner, and had to open their bags so guards could search them with wands. Finally we all had to show our boarding passes again when they admitted us onto the plane.

I wasn’t surprised by all of the additional security, but like I said, I hadn’t really been expecting it either. 9/11 was more than a decade ago. (I should also note that our gate seemed to be the only one in the terminal with the added measures.) I also realized I felt edgy and guilty immediately after I was questioned — sort of like a kid who has been caught doing something wrong, and the teacher is trying to find out exactly what happened in order to properly dole out punishment. Considering it felt that way as someone with blue eyes and an American passport — and it was just a standard questioning — being racially profiled must be exceptionally unpleasant. I also realized how easy it would be to get tripped up by an intentionally misleading question. I vowed to remember that in the future when I read legal transcripts.

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The Rupert Sanders/ Kristen Stewart affair and perceived norms in Hollywood

Normally I don’t pay that much attention to the imploding relationships of strangers, but I’ve been strangely fascinated by the revelation that “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders cheated on his wife with the film’s star, “Twilight” scion Kristen Stewart.

Stewart, aka KStew, had been in a four-year relationship with her vampire co-star Robert Pattinson, aka RPatz (although I prefer my old co-worker’s nickname for him: Robby Patti). KStew and Robby Patti lived together; Rupert Sanders and his wife have two young children. It’s not clear how long the relationship lasted; Stewart’s statement called it a “momentary indiscretion,” but the scorned wife’s brother said it had been going on for at least six months, starting during production of the movie and continuing until the pair were busted in late July. This is another detail that normally would not interest me but is relevant to the bigger picture.

That bigger picture would be the public’s reaction to the scandal, and no, I don’t mean the Twilight fans sobbing hysterically on the Internet (which they are — oh they are). I’m referring to an opportunity — so far a missed opportunity — to use something that everybody in the entertainment industry is talking about to ask some genuinely interesting questions about power, sexism and the inner workings of Hollywood.

First, the whole thing has been most often described as the “Kristen Stewart affair.” There’s a sizable number of “Kristen Stewart scandal” headlines, but searching “Kristen Stewart affair” on Google returns about 20 million more hits (90 million vs. 70 million). “Rupert Sanders affair” turns up 40 million. There has been some legitimate debate about whether this is a form of “slut shaming,” or blaming the woman as the more “morally culpable” party simply because she’s a woman and therefore the home wrecker. Men don’t wreck their own homes, of course; women wreck them. I don’t think that’s what is happening here, though. I think Kristen Stewart is the one with more name recognition — and a rabid teen fan base — and therefore gets top billing in the scandal. Higher rise –> harder fall. That’s life.

However, I take issue with calling this the Kristen Stewart affair. Stewart did not have an affair according to the widely accepted connotation of the word. Rupert Sanders was married; he had an affair. Kristen Stewart was not married; she had a cheating scandal. I realize these are not dictionary definitions, but I’m confident that if I said, “Josie had an affair,” most people would assume Josie was married. John Edwards had an affair; Rielle Hunter did not. Consistently using the headline “Kristen Stewart affair” characterizes it in a way that blames Stewart for something that 1) requires two people, and 2) is worse than what she actually did. At least “Rupert Sanders- Kristen Stewart affair” shares the blame and includes the person who actually did, you know, cheated on a spouse.

My best guess for why media outlets are using the “Kristen Stewart affair” headline: search engine optimization. More people are probably searching for “Kristen Stewart affair” than anything else. When we’ve reached a point where media outlets are willing to write linguistically disingenuous headlines in order to cater to a layperson’s search terms, we have a problem. (Or maybe these outlets don’t realize they’re being sexist and imprecise, which raises the timeless question: is ignorance really any less damaging than dishonesty?)  

Headline speculation aside, I think it’s interesting that media outlets have downplayed, if not neglected entirely, the fact that Sanders was essentially Stewart’s boss when they got involved. If Stewart and Sanders worked in, say, a PR firm, and he were her supervisor, a sexual relationship would violate many company’s codes of conduct because the lower-level employee is a more vulnerable party. Now consider the actor-director relationship, which presumably involves far more trust and proximity — and maybe admiration — than a PR firm supervisor and his subordinates. Why isn’t anyone acknowledging that Kristen Stewart was clearly the more vulnerable party, not because of her age and gender, but because of the power dynamics involved in their working relationship? Sanders is more culpable than she is not only because he’s the one with the wife and children — in other words, the actual adulterer here — but because he had significant professional control over her when the relationship started.

All of this could be an interesting gateway into exploring established norms regarding power, control and vulnerability in the movie industry. Director and starlet is a pairing that’s even older than the movies, but why do we regard that as normal instead of seeing it for what it is: supervisor dating subordinate?

Is it that we write it off as human nature for an older man confronted with the trust and admiration of a beautiful young woman to be tempted to exploit that — consciously or not — for sexual purposes? Is it the perception that these women (and some men) are using their sexuality to get ahead and thus don’t deserve protection? Is it really okay as long as two consenting adults are involved, or have we been sold on the fantasy of the entertainment industry? These questions are not new, but given the changing media landscape, they are certainly worth revisiting. The Stewart-Sanders affair could be the perfect context for doing so. 

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Ryanair budget flights: worth it, but barely

You never realize how much you appreciate the seat-back pocket on an airplane until you don’t have one.

Not only is there nowhere to put your book, there’s nowhere for the airline to store the safety-instructions card. To remedy this, the safety instructions are tattooed on the back of the (plastic) head rest in front of you. It’s not just ugly — it forces you to spend the entire flight thinking about your plane plunging into the ocean. These thoughts are exacerbated by the notoriously low-paid, inexperienced pilots, and a flight crew comprised of stewardesses who don’t look old enough to buy cigarettes legally in the U.S. Throw in a 2-hour live infomercial and you have Ryanair: Europe’s cheapest yet sketchiest airline.

Above: Ryanair transforms the Boeing 737-800 in to a tube of misery.

My dad has a saying about money: easy come, easy go. I have another saying: you pay one way or another. Ryanair is a classic example.

For 23 Euros one-way ($32 USD), I was en route from Spain to Italy. That’s a 1,300-mile trip for less than the price of a cab to the airport in a major city. What Ryanair doesn’t charge you in ticket fares, though, they charge you in corporate whoring and overall pain-in-the-assness. The entire enterprise is like one giant commercial. Just to book the flight you have to turn down several offers and promotions for cars, hotels, suitcases, etc. You can take exactly one carry-on bag that weighs less than 10 kg (22.04 pounds); after that it’s 50 EUR per bag, each of which must also conform to strict weight standards. Seats are not only not assigned, but depending on the airport you might have to fight a wave of people crowding the gate because Italians don’t believe in lines; the Spaniards seemed a bit better about it. Then everyone walks out on the tarmac (apparently planes don’t pull up to the gate in Europe, which is actually kind of cool when it’s not freezing cold out, aka you’re not in London in May), runs to the front or rear doors (depending which line is shorter), boards the plane, and fights for overhead luggage space. Every luggage bin has an advertisement; ours were National Geographic Traveler and the Catalan Tourism Board.

So you’ve succeeded in battle, settled into your seat, and gotten over the initial surprise of coming face-to-face with illustrated people surviving a plane crash. Your barely pubescent flight crew does their thing, take-off goes smoothly, and you’re ready to relax for two hours until you reach your destination. Except there will be no relaxing; for the rest of the flight the poor stewardesses will be forced to hound you mercilessly, in several languages, to buy shit. It starts with the cafe service. Water, soft drinks, juice, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sandwiches, etc. Next it’s lottery tickets; some of the proceeds even benefit a children’s charity! Those are a surprisingly big seller. Then it’s bus tickets for some company located in your arrival city. Then it’s perfume and jewelry. Then it’s more cafe service. The stewardesses are constantly in the aisles peddling this crap, so hopefully you don’t need to use the restroom. All you can see and hear — whether you look up, over or down — is someone trying to sell you something.

As I said before, you pay one way or another. The cost of this trip is not in Euros; it’s in the most unpleasant plane you’ve ever been on. Ryanair is notoriously shameless in its pursuit to cut costs. At one point it proposed charging passengers to use the restroom, and when that idea failed, the CEO, Michael O’Leary, wanted to take out lavatories to make room for more seats — all so the price would drop just 2 EUR per 40 EUR ticket, according to the UK Telegraph. O’Leary actually petitioned Boeing to re-certify its 737-800 aircraft to allow six more seats, which would have meant 200 passengers and crew sharing a single restroom, according to the article. Ryanair has a 4.5-hour flight from Liverpool to Greece, by the way. The company also releases an annual “charity calendar” of its flight attendants in bikinis.

Ryanair is sometimes called the “Southwest Airlines” of Europe — O’Leary was apparently inspired by Southwest’s strategy of quick turn-around, no-frills flying — but really it gives me new appreciation for the American version. The history is pretty interesting, though; the company was originally founded in 1985 to break the duopoly that British Airways and Aer Lingus held over air travel between England and Ireland. It benefited from Margaret Thatcher’s pro-capitalist government, which gave the new airline permission to fly in Great Britain even though Ireland wanted to protect the duopoly holders. EU airline deregulation in 1992 opened the door for expansion.

Ultimately, if I weren’t living on a student budget, I would pay more for a better airline. But four hours of misery (round-trip) is the only way I could afford to go to Spain, and it’s certainly better than not going at all.

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What I saw this summer — photos of Italy, France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway

The Grand Canal in Venice

As seen through the Rialto bridge

Wine casks in Emilia-Romagna

The oldest university in the world

Love locks on the Seine

The Louvre in the afternoon light

The Eiffel Tower in a storm

Parisian street art

Architectural convergence at the Sacre Coeur

Offerings at Notre Dame

Copenhagen rooftops

The Danish royal family’s real-life chess pieces

The Copenhagen harbor’s tragic fairy tale heroine

An illegal WWII newspaper press used by the Danish Resistance

The inspiration for Disneyland

Stockholm Harbor after the rain stopped

Stockholm’s salvaged shipwreck — the Vasa

A domesticated reindeer in Sweden

Rembrandt’s self portraits at the Swedish National Gallery

Drawings by Nobel Prize winners

The Oslo Fjord

A polar exploration vessel — the Fram

The best meal I’ve ever had — dill marinated raw salmon

Baking traditional Norwegian flatbread over an open fire

The Scream by Edvard Munch — one of four versions

My favorite guys in a traditional Norwegian farmhouse

My world-class mother at Copenhagen’s Cafe Norden

A girl’s best travel companion: a motorcycle jacket

Plus the restaurants where I ate my favorite meals in each city:

Bologna: Drogheria della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10 (Non-itemized, 2-hour traditional Italian dinner for a fraction of what we should have paid.)

Gelato: Cremeria Cavour S.R.L., Piazza Cavour 1

Paris: Au Pet’t Grec, 62 Rue Mouffetard (Sweet and savory crepe counter)

Copenhagen: Cafe Norden, Ostergade St. 61 (Tomato soup, tuna fish sandwich)

Stockholm: The ferry to Drottningholm (Seriously)

Oslo: Cafe Hemma Hos in Bygdoy (The marinated salmon from above; included barley salad, asparagus and French potatoes)

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Kardashian-era considerations

Yesterday I was cleaning out a folder when I found some notes from an event with Michael Fuchs, the former chairman/ CEO of HBO, who spoke at Loyola Law School on March 23. One quote that I particularly liked was:

“We are a country adrift, and as artists we have an obligation to confront that. Do not dedicate your career to escapist programming.”

He added:

“The more mediocre the club, the stricter its entrance.”

That was in reference to the movie industry, and I took it to mean that those who lack substance compensate with exclusivity. It reminded me of one of my other favorite quotes, which oddly enough comes from Neil Strauss’ “The Game,” a disturbing foray into the world of pick-up artists:

“A rich man doesn’t have to tell you he’s rich.”

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Things at which Italians excel

Compared to, say, the 1.29 billion people worldwide who live in poverty, my 2009-2010 was not that bad. Nobody died. Only one person was maimed. But compared to normal American life, this was not one of my better years. Two jobs, no health insurance, weekend graveyard shifts at work, cancer in my immediate family, a fairly traumatic break-up, a work-related move to a city where I knew exactly one person (and where the sun does not shine from June until September) — overall not great.

This summer, however, the universe and I are officially back on good terms. Thanks to some bull-headed maneuvering and a lot of good luck, I’m spending the summer researching international law in Bologna, Italy. If that weren’t enough, I will spend my school-mandated work break in August riding a Vespa around the southern coast of Italy. (My life = soon to become a movieeee!)

In order to try to live like a local (and practice my Italian), I rented a room with four Italian students through http://www.airbnb.com. (More on airbnb in a different post.) Over the last couple of months I’ve observed many things that Italians do well — some of which Americans would be wise to adopt — and decided to list them here. To be fair, I’ve included a few things that drive me crazy as well.

Areas in which Italians excel

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Trains — 9 euros to take the train to the beach in Rimini. And you can bring beer!

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Energy efficiency — See the little washing machine in the back room? Super efficient. And there’s no dryer here; most people use clotheslines and drying racks because electricity is so expensive. The toilets are all low-water models.

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Food in jars —Here we have homemade (not by me) picked eggplant and Friselline toast. Italians jar everything: homemade pasta sauce, potatoes, pesto, you name it. It’s much tastier (and more energy efficient) than refrigerating.

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Dubbing — Italians are notorious for dubbing everything instead of using subtitles. So far I’ve been privy to the Simpsons, Gossip Girl, Dragon Ball Z, Dirty Jobs, L.A. Ink, the Real World, and Private Practice in Italian. Also my roommates watch Jersey Shore. No wonder the rest of the world hates us.

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Arches —Great shade in the summer and tall indoor ceilings year-round. In general the buildings here are huge; often they’re designed around inner courtyards/ parking lots.

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Clothes — I’m only moderately interested in fashion and even I want to buy everything in the store windows. In mid-July the whole city of Bologna goes on sale to make way for the fall lines. Lace dress and leather platform sandals: less than 100 EUROS total. Hell yes!

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Breakfast — Complete with little kid honey for the Greek yogurt.

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Espresso — Made right on the stovetop. Apparently you don’t need a $100 espresso machine to enjoy it every morning at home.

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Flower shops — I mean yeah, all American cities have flower shops. But good lord are the ones in Italy adorable.

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Scooters — It’s very common to see people in business suits riding scooters, probably because they’re more efficient than cars but you don’t arrive at work sweaty and out of breath like on a bicycle. Even my 50-year-old international arbitration professor rode one.

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Library cards — People staying in Bologna for less than 90 days can still get city library cards as long as they sign a form with their temporary local address. In San Francisco I had to bring in a bill to prove that I was a resident of the city before they would issue me a library card.

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Libraries — While we’re on the subject, LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS LIBRARY IS. Deep breaths, deep breaths. I guess it doesn’t hurt that their starting point was the interior of a Medieval building.

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Gelato — Gelato is absolutely everywhere in Italy, ranging from good to other-wordly. This thing practically had whole raspberries in it. T

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Wine cellars — One of Bologna’s best traditional Italian food stores, Gilberto, keeps the wine in the basement, protected from the summer light and heat. The suit of armor points the way to an entire room of local wines. Check out the store here.

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Less impressive, however, are the…

Emergency contraception situation — The Pope considers the morning-after pill a form of chemical abortion, even though it’s not. (Unlike the abortion pill, which is separate, the morning-after pill prevents pregnancy instead of ending it.) Emergency contraception is therefore unreasonably difficult to obtain. The details deserve their own post.

Salads — Italians have no idea how to make a good salad, largely because they don’t believe in salad dressing. Even in the U.S. I tried for years to enjoy salads with just olive oil and vinegar, but I’m sorry, they’re just boring. Also they put rucula on everything, which, ew. It’s like eating leaves directly off a tree. Most grocery stores here don’t stock any salad dressing whatsoever, and the ones that do carry a thick, greasy German brand called Devely (apparently the Germans are not good at salad dressing either). I went to Paris for three days and ate as much salad as possible because finally, FINALLY, here was a good vinaigrette! Anyway it took six weeks, but eventually I was able to cobble together a decent salad in Italy: mixed greens, Devely caesar dressing (ironically their least heavy option), cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls, crutons.

Face soap options — Grocery stores sell body soap, but unless you’re in a giant superstore (or a pharmacy), you’d be lucky to find a single gentle(r) facial wash. (My roommates wash their faces with hand soap and still have perfect skin, so that’s a little unfair.) As for brands that includes salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, the grocery stores carry just one (Garnier).

And finally, things I should hate but occasionally love

Globalization — Although the influx of American brands in Italy can be frustrating (i.e. the McDonalds in a Renaissance building), sometimes it’s nice to see a cheap shampoo on the shelf that you know won’t leave your hair feeling like straw.

Also sometimes when it’s 101 degrees outside, you just want a glass of chocolate milk.

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