Support Your Local Cat Café

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency.

Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.

Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself. Continue reading

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Scorsese’s Catholic Dilemma

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan.

Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, Ibaraki City Museum of Cultural Properties, Ibaraki, Osaka, Japan. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to watch Silence, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited religious epic. It’s hard, first, because of all the torture: torture by crucifixion amidst crashing waves, by being hung upside down with your head in a pit, by boiling water poured, over and over, upon your flesh. But also hard is grappling with a moral dilemma that no longer seems like much of a dilemma: Which would you choose? To deny your faith or to allow innocents to suffer?

Silence, based on the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name, is about two fifteenth- century Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreria, a priest who is rumored to have apostatized. (Ferreria is an actual historical figure, by the way, and Endo was a Japanese Catholic, whose novel is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century, especially well-loved by Catholic intellectuals.) The movie focuses on Rodrigues, and while Scorsese’s film is about many things, it’s primarily about whether Rodrigues should deny Christ for the good of the world.

For a secular audience, and even the modern world’s secularized Christians, the question is hard to fathom. Our modern era has just as many questions about suffering, but they take on different ethical shapes. Should we put limits on immigration, allowing more distant suffering to maintain a particular lifestyle here in the states? Should we donate all the money we can to those who most need it, or should we give to our own communities, or simply our families, or just enjoy it ourselves? And what does need even mean? These are complicated questions, but what’s striking about them is how they’re all ultimately questions about bodies, about a material world and how humans can best exist within it. Continue reading

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Pericles in Waveland

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1.  Erik Drost via Flickr.

Cleveland Indians fans bringing goats before 2016 World Series Game 1. Erik Drost via Flickr.

Even as winter finally descends on Chicago, fans of the Cubs are lingering over a November moment frozen in time. As every American was reminded during the World Series, for one hundred and eight years the Chicago Cubs labored under a curse. Then, all of a sudden, the curse broke—with a ball flipped almost casually from a boyishly grinning Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, who deposited it in his back pocket after tallying the final out of those 108 years and winning a World Series.

There’s no such thing as a curse, not even in baseball, and yet we’ve seen three such curses end in the last dozen years: Boston’s curse of the Bambino (1918–2004), the Chicago White Sox’s curse of Shoeless Joe (1917–2005), and finally the Cubs’ curse of the Billy Goat. Each ending was cathartic, the pitcher’s-mound dogpiles amplified by the famous fans, the stories of parents and grandparents who didn’t live to see it, and the accumulated pressure of so many implausible near-misses and narrow escapes. Failure—so grinding and unaccountable that the only way to make sense of it was to borrow the language of witchcraft—undergoes an instantaneous and total reversal. The curse measures the vindication. There may be nothing like it in the world of sports.

Like any dramatic denouement, the ends of these championship droughts are the products of a certain kind of artifice. And it can be an alienating artifice. No American sport inspires the kind of good-bad writing that baseball does, with its hackneyed narratives, its wistfulness that always courts cheapness, its grittiness that skirts kitsch, its philosophy that degrades quickly into mediocre verse–all of it housed within the pure artifice of the game itself. Continue reading

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Will Trump Cure the Great (White) Depression?

Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

In a recent offering, “Trump Voters Are Feeling It,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall comments sagely on a raft of social science research on the white working- and middle-class voters who embraced Donald J. Trump as the leader who would cure America’s deep malaise—or a least their own. For the moment, according to Edsall, these former sufferers of what might be called the Great White Depression (documented by scholars like Princeton’s Nobel economist Angus Deaton, with depressing data about high rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse) are feeling “elated”:

In a survey conducted by Pew after the election, 96 percent of those who cast votes for Trump said they were hopeful; 74 percent said they were “proud.” They were almost unanimous in their expectation that Trump will have a successful first term.

This is in itself may hardly seem surprising, and of course it is possible that these enthusiasts will feel let down if the greatness Trump promises does not improve their lives. Nevertheless, Edsall notes, evidence suggests that “just by giving voice to those in the white working class who are distrustful, alienated, and isolated from contemporary culture, Trump will provide temporary relief from the stress that these voters experience.” And if past is prologue, this relief alone may have surprisingly positive effects on their mental and physical health, and indeed on their overall morale. A study based on a survey that oversampled Hispanics and blacks after Obama’s election in 2008 found that “among African Americans, the likelihood of reporting excellent health nearly doubled, from 7 to 13 percent, and for Hispanics it nearly quadrupled, from 6 to 22 percent, although the Hispanic sample was small and less reliable.” Continue reading

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After the Know-Nothings

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

Pro-Trump chalk messages at Virginia Commonwealth University. Eli Christman via Flickr.

I.

In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept New England. They won local offices and gained the statehouse and almost every seat in Massachusetts’s legislature in 1854. They showed strong in Pennsylvania and New York. Many observers thought that the Know-Nothings would win the presidency—and in 1856 they even ran a candidate, former president Millard Fillmore.

And then, they disappeared. Some went back to the Jacksonian Democrats, but many aligned with the new Republican Party which offered a vision of hope and rejected the hateful messages proffered by the Know-Nothings. By 1860, the Republicans would win the presidency with a positive message. The Republicans transformed voters’ rage, hatred, and anger into an optimistic vision for the American future. And it is from their experience that I, too, have hope.

In a previous essay, written as then-candidate Donald Trump was gaining popularity, I argued that we have much to learn from the Know-Nothings. At a time when native-born white Protestants were nervous about their future and thought the political system unresponsive, Know-Nothings channeled those widespread anxieties into hostility toward Catholic immigrants. Know-Nothings in various states barred teaching foreign languages, prohibited state courts from naturalizing aliens, and attempted to limit immigrant voting through literacy tests and longer waiting periods for citizenship. Worst of all, violence broke out between Know-Nothings and their opponents. Continue reading

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An Academic Haven Under Fire

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was (to my parents’ despair) an undecided teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I loved physics and cosmology.  I wanted to get involved in several forms of activism. But  when it came to college, I had to make a decision. So I decided to study journalism, hoping it would help me develop skills for writing and activism. During my first semester, however, I took a mandatory philosophy course. I had never studied philosophy before, and it changed everything. In philosophy I could pursue all of my interests: literature, science, activism, art. So I transferred to a philosophy program at a different university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ).

The philosophy program, however, did not allow me to work with literature. So after graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in literature. Now I could write about any topic related to literature and art—but was forbidden by my advisor to speak or write about science. My job, he said, was to pick an author and write about his work, keeping my own ideas out of the way. So I wrote a small book on Jorge Luis Borges, got my degree, and told myself I would never do graduate work in literature again. Instead, I pursued another master’s—this time at Tufts University, in philosophy, hoping things might be different in America. But there, too, the general atmosphere discouraged students from pursuing their own ideas.

By the time I’d left the PUC-RJ, I had over ten notebooks filled with thoughts about the interrelation between science and literature. By the time I left Tufts, I had lost all desire to pursue an academic career. I found a part-time job at a telemarketing company and decided to do my writing and research on my own time. Around this time, however, a friend told me about the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. The next year, I arrived in Baltimore for my first semester. Continue reading

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The Election Everyone Lost

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940.  U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr.

One of the truisms of American politics is that there are winners and losers. For Americans, this binary world of win-or-lose is second nature: It is embedded in our two-party system and ritualized in the structures of our political rhetoric, the spectacle of our public debates, and the signage on our private property.

The reason that it is a truism is that it is mostly true. Every two years, millions of us find ourselves in one of two positions. Some, victorious, cheer in ballrooms as their candidates claim victory and return home invigorated by the fresh hope of democratic change. Others, defeated, gather in similar ballrooms across town to witness the concession of their defeat, and then return home resolved to realize their hopes in days to come.

It is now evident to most of the world that this democratic ritual of triumph and defeat has once again taken place—though in an admittedly dramatic fashion—in the 2016 presidential election. Donald J. Trump won the presidency of the United States, while Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party she represents, lost. But what seems less evident to many of us is the very real sense in which this election represents a departure from the conventions of win-or-lose that have become so familiar: That it is, in fact, an election that everyone lost. Continue reading

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Where Now, America?

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Immigrants leaving for New York from Ellis Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in suburban San Francisco, on a court with families of different ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Our family was from India. We knew that our court had much diversity. Some on the court were Catholic. Others were of Japanese heritage. Many of our own family friends were from Pakistan and India.

But every morning, we kids gathered on different driveways to carpool together to our local public school. On New Year’s and Fourth of July, the neighbors would come together to celebrate. I remember running over to neighbors’ houses excitedly on Christmas mornings to share my new toys with my friends. One neighbor with a swimming pool would hang out a flag on the front lamp post to let us know that we could all come over and jump in the water.

Those common rituals and values sustained our diversity. It made it possible for each of our families to be different because we shared so much that was also the same. We were all American, not in some abstract way. Nor were we American because anybody can be American according to some abstract principle. We were American because we did American things together as Americans. And yet we were all so different. Those differences were not threatening, and were even celebrated, because we had so much that we shared with each other too. Continue reading

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