Friday, 30 May 2008

Be gay, be anything -- just not single!

Aside from being very well-written, I bonded with the line about parents seeing unmarried children as a failure on their part. My folks have oscillated from resentment to guilt to self-recrimination. Now there seems to be tender resignation to my barren future:)

With same-sex marriage now legal in California, mothers across India and elsewhere are eager to see their gay sons and daughters finally get hitched.

By S. Roy

May 30, 2008 | When I left India for America, my aunts worried about who I might end up marrying. "I hope you'll marry another Bengali," an aunt told me. Over the years that relaxed to, "I hope she's a Hindu, even if she's not Bengali." Then it became, "At least another Indian," until finally we reached, "I hope you'll get married to someone before we all die."

She probably didn't mean another man.

But now it might just happen. Same-sex marriage is on a roll in California. First a Republican-dominated Supreme Court said there was no reason gays and lesbians couldn't get married. Now there comes a new Field Poll that says that, for the first time ever, a majority of Californians think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

As the pink confetti settles around us, I'm left wondering how immigrants are going to come out anymore. Many of us come from countries that really don't have a word for "gay." India certainly doesn't. There are epithets and some rather technical terms. Coming out in India is usually about marriage, as in, "Mom, Dad, I don't think I am going to get married."

Now the California Supreme Court has yanked that coming-out line away.

Perhaps it's time. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary has apparently had to recalibrate its definition of marriage to allow same-sex nuptials. The Field Poll shows that Californians support the right of same-sex couples to marry by a margin of 51 to 42 percent.

In a state where one in four Californians is foreign-born, that seems to be an astonishing change. When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing same-sex wedding licenses in 2004, some of the first protests came from Chinese churchgoers. After all, immigrant families are supposed to be socially conservative.

But that might be part of the reason why the tide is finally shifting on gay marriage. (Of course a younger, more socially liberal state helps.)

For my immigrant friends, being gay in California is not much of an issue. Being unmarried in their 30s and 40s is the real issue, the conversation-stopper at Indian potlucks, the thing that makes them stick out at Chinese banquets.

My friend said that when a heterosexual but unmarried Chinese friend of his told his parents that at least he wasn't gay, the parents retorted, "We'd rather you were gay with kids."

Immigrant families just understand marriage, even same-sex marriage, more easily that singlehood. Singleness means you never grew up. It's the biggest failing of parenthood -- the incompleteness of the unmarried child.

It leads to acts of desperation. I've seen the ads for marriages of convenience -- 29-year-old professional Indian gay, 5-foot-9, good job, looking for Indian lesbian facing similar family pressures. There was even a Web site devoted to Assisting Matrimonial Arrangements for Lesbians and Gays from India, complete with a "gaylerry" of posted ads.

In 1993 my friend Aditya Advani went to India with his boyfriend Michael Tarr and complained to his mother that no one would ever come to his wedding. She promptly organized a ceremony. The family priest presided over it. "Openly gay and married in my parents' drawing room at the age of 30," marveled Aditya. "Right on schedule as a good Indian boy should be!"

I recently watched their wedding video at their home in Berkeley while their cats purred on the couch. It still felt like a fairy tale, a lump-in-the-throat act of domestic revolution.

In 2004 when San Francisco started issuing same-sex wedding licenses, Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani rose at 5:30 a.m. to drive from their home in San Jose to San Francisco to stand in line to get married.

The couple were already married in a sense. Arvind's mother, who had once adamantly rejected her son's sexuality, presided over a Hindu ceremony for the two after they had been together for more than a decade. They are registered as domestic partners in Palo Alto and the state of California. The registration licenses hang on the wall where other couples might have pictures of their children.

Arvind and Ashok couldn't get married in 2004. Despite getting up so early, they were behind 300 other couples in line. They finally got an appointment but by then the Supreme Court had halted the marriages.

At that time Arvind was philosophical. He knew it was going to be a long fight. "We are just fighting to simplify our lives," says Arvind. "I don't want a Palo Alto date, a state of California date, a Hindu ceremony date. I just want one date, one wedding anniversary like everyone else."

Now Arvind and Ashok can get their one date after all. On June 17 California counties will start issuing marriage licenses to couples like them.

The next generation of immigrant gays and lesbians will have to come up with some other coming-out line.

And the revolution will have to find some new frontier.

Imagine this ad in the local Indian weekly: Hindu very well-established Los Angeles family invites professional match for daughter, 25, 5-foot-3, slim, wheatish complexion, U.S. born, senior executive in Fortune 500 company. Loves music and dance. Prospective brides encouraged to reply in confidence with complete bio data and returnable photo. Must be professional, under 30, caste no bar.

It might just be time for the gay arranged-marriage.

This article appeared on

Imploring Despots

This makes me kind of sick.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Miraculin Fruit changes flavors

CARRIE DASHOW dropped a large dollop of lemon sorbet into a glass of Guinness, stirred, drank and proclaimed that it tasted like a “chocolate shake.”

HOW’S IT DO THAT? Franz Aliquo, who calls himself Supreme Commander, right, supplied miracle berries grown by Curtis Mozie, left, to party-goers in Long Island City, Queens, last weekend.

Those who attended sampled the red berries then tasted foods, including cheese, beer and brussels sprouts, finding the flavors transformed. Beer can taste like chocolate, lemons like candy. Mr. Aliquo says he holds the parties to “turn on a bunch of people’s taste buds.”

Nearby, Yuka Yoneda tilted her head back as her boyfriend, Albert Yuen, drizzled Tabasco sauce onto her tongue. She swallowed and considered the flavor: “Doughnut glaze, hot doughnut glaze!”

They were among 40 or so people who were tasting under the influence of a small red berry called miracle fruit at a rooftop party in Long Island City, Queens, last Friday night. The berry rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so, rendering lemons as sweet as candy.

The host was Franz Aliquo, 32, a lawyer who styles himself Supreme Commander (Supreme for short) when he’s presiding over what he calls “flavor tripping parties.” Mr. Aliquo greeted new arrivals and took their $15 entrance fees. In return, he handed each one a single berry from his jacket pocket.

“You pop it in your mouth and scrape the pulp off the seed, swirl it around and hold it in your mouth for about a minute,” he said. “Then you’re ready to go.” He ushered his guests to a table piled with citrus wedges, cheeses, Brussels sprouts, mustard, vinegars, pickles, dark beers, strawberries and cheap tequila, which Mr. Aliquo promised would now taste like top-shelf Patrón.

The miracle fruit, Synsepalum dulcificum, is native to West Africa and has been known to Westerners since the 18th century. The cause of the reaction is a protein called miraculin, which binds with the taste buds and acts as a sweetness inducer when it comes in contact with acids, according to a scientist who has studied the fruit, Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. Dr. Bartoshuk said she did not know of any dangers associated with eating miracle fruit.

During the 1970s, a ruling by the Food and Drug Administration dashed hopes that an extract of miraculin could be sold as a sugar substitute. In the absence of any plausible commercial application, the miracle fruit has acquired a bit of a cult following.

Sina Najafi, editor in chief of the art magazine Cabinet, has featured miracle fruits at some of the publication’s events. At a party in London last October, the fruit, he said, “had people testifying like some baptismal thing.”

The berries were passed out last week at a reading of “The Fruit Hunters,” a new book by Adam Leith Gollner with a chapter about miracle fruit.

Bartenders have been experimenting with the fruit as well. Don Lee, a beverage director at the East Village bar Please Don’t Tell, has been making miracle fruit cocktails on his own time, but the bar probably won’t offer them anytime soon. The fruit is highly perishable and expensive — a single berry goes for $2 or more.

Lance J. Mayhew developed a series of drink recipes with miracle fruit foams and extracts for a recent issue of the cocktail magazine Imbibe and may create others for Beaker & Flask, a restaurant opening later this year in Portland, Ore.

He cautioned that not everyone enjoys the berry’s long-lasting effects. Despite warnings, he said, one woman became irate after drinking one of his cocktails. He said, “She was, like, ‘What did you do to my mouth?’ ”

Mr. Aliquo issues his own warnings. “It will make all wine taste like Manischewitz,” he said. And already sweet foods like candy can become cloying.

He said that he had learned about miracle fruit while searching ethnobotany Web sites for foods he could make for a diabetic friend.

The party last week was his sixth “flavor tripping” event. He hopes to put on a much larger, more expensive affair in June. Although he does sell the berries on his blog,, Mr. Aliquo maintains that he isn’t in it for the money. (He said he made about $100 on Friday.) Rather, he said, he does it to “turn on a bunch of people’s taste buds.”

He believes that the best way to encounter the fruit is in a group. “You need other people to benchmark the experience,” he said. At his first party, a small gathering at his apartment in January, guests murmured with delight as they tasted citrus wedges and goat cheese. Then things got trippy.

“You kept hearing ‘oh, oh, oh,’ ” he said, and then the guests became “literally like wild animals, tearing apart everything on the table.”

“It was like no holds barred in terms of what people would try to eat, so they opened my fridge and started downing Tabasco and maple syrup,” he said.

Many of the guests last week found the party through a posting at Mr. Aliquo sent invitations to a list of contacts he has been gathering since he and a friend began organizing StreetWars, a popular urban assassination game using water guns.

One woman wanted to see Mr. Aliquo eat a berry before she tried one. “What, you don’t trust me?” he said.

She replied, “Well, I just met you.”

Another guest said, “But you met him on the Internet, so it’s safe.”

The fruits are available by special order from specialty suppliers in New York, including Baldor Specialty Foods and S. Katzman Produce. Katzman sells the berries for about $2.50 a piece, and has been offering them to chefs.

Mr. Aliquo gets his miracle fruit from Curtis Mozie, 64, a Florida grower who sells thousands of the berries each year through his Web site, (A freezer pack of 30 berries costs about $90 with overnight shipping.) Mr. Mozie, who was in New York for Mr. Gollner’s reading, stopped by the flavor-tripping party.

Mr. Mozie listed his favorite miracle fruit pairings, which included green mangoes and raw aloe. “I like oysters with some lemon juice,” he said. “Usually you just swallow them, but I just chew like it was chewing gum.”

A large group of guests reached its own consensus: limes were candied, vinegar resembled apple juice, goat cheese tasted like cheesecake on the tongue and goat cheese on the throat. Bananas were just bananas.

For all the excitement it inspires, the miracle fruit does not make much of an impression on its own. It has a mildly sweet tang, with firm pulp surrounding an edible, but bitter, seed. Mr. Aliquo said it reminded him of a less flavorful cranberry. “It’s not something I’d just want to eat,” he said.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Friday, 23 May 2008


I'm of the school of thought that if you treat me badly, I'll try to prove you right. Call it vindictiveness or sheer bloody-mindedness ("Want to be right? I'll make damn sure you are") or even some kind of subconscious admission that I really am as bad as you say I am. The point is, I'm capable of behaving badly, saying and doing things I regret (almost immediately, as well, which speaks to the rapidity and depth of the rage into which I descend) and even if it's for the briefest moments, tapping into a kind of unadulterated self-destructiveness.

Anyways, I've been losing the plot a little bit lately (isn't that a wonderful expression? You have to give the English mad props at their skill with language, if not for much else) and, for a change, I thought I'd brainstorm into ways of not trying to undo all the good work I've done for myself. Examples of undoing good work include sinking into depression, locking myself up at home, smoking copious amounts of reefer and indulging in dark thoughts and (where available) emotionally-unsatisfying, sexual relationships.

I've noticed a disturbing trend in my dating life; in a nutshell, I seem to have two types of women I end up being with: Type A is a strong, independent, attractive (if not always good-looking) woman with equal measures of purpose and vulnerability. While type B is submissive, detached, overweight (almost always not good-looking) with very low self-esteem and a manic desire to be overwhelmed in some way.

If I'm fine, I go for type A, when I'm not I go for type B. Whatever 'fine' means.

Type A challenges me emotionally, and I relish that. But almost always, once I've had a chance to identify their weaknesses, I lose all interest in them and struggle to relate to them on any level. Sex, never a strong connector with this type, trickles into oblivion. I often don't miss sex with them, but they often do.

Type B offers me the kind of sex I guess I really enjoy: uninhibited, dominating, slightly degrading and no-holds barred. Type B women never say no to anything and they never seem to be enjoying themselves that much. They're not bored, but they are...detached. Despite that, they initiate a lot of sex and always claim they enjoy it. When the relationship ends, they are much more likely to attempt to engineer a continuing sexual relationship with me, even if it's just on that level. I'm more likely to say yes, because the sex is good.

I like type As but I lust after type Bs; I respect type As and would likely be friends with them, while I don't have much respect for type Bs and am less likely to want anything to do with them after the relationship has died.

Now, I'm not a fool. I know that my inability to connect with type As speaks to some emotional inadequacy that I have, almost certainly a few self-esteem issues and possibly some kind of power struggle that I resent. Freud would have said I see my mother in them, and Freud might have had a point.

Likewise, I'm aware that type Bs represent some kind of perverse attempt to exorcise whatever resentments I have towards women (and there are a few though you'd be hard pressed to find a man who doesn't harbour even one) by acting out a certain level of dominant sexual relations. I enjoy it very much and it relaxes me, but it's not a positive, constructive experience and I bond with the girl, not a bit.

Obviously, I'm torn; but seeing as I get torn by far more trivial fare, this won't surprise regular readers. It's kind of chastening (possibly the worst word choice of all time) to acknowledge to yourself you have out-there sexual fantasies involving domination and light bondage, but it's got two things in common with all sexuality:

1. You can't control what you like, anymore than you can switch from being left-handed to right-handed.
2. What you really like, I mean really, is always going to be some fucked up shit. If you're honest with yourself.

Anyways, I called an old type B this week, and we're meeting up next week. It's so depressing how weak I am.

Friday, 16 May 2008

This is how I feel today

Why Egyptians don't do Protests (well)

I think this quote explains the lethargy of the Egyptian citizen's reluctance to stand up to the corruption in their government:

"The genius of the Russian system was its appeal to people's laziness. They said, "Look, get drunk, don't do any work at all, we'll give you just enough money to live, and we'll take care of everything else." That's what Soviet Russia was all about: Live in your shitty village, we'll give you cheap vodka, and we'll take care of your medical bills, and you don't have to worry about all that other stuff. They counted on the fact that Russians would rather wallow in their own shit than organize and protest anything that's actually happening in their country. It is really kind of similar to what's going on here. People bitch and moan, but basically all they really want to do is sit in front of their televisions and watch the football game. Even people on the left who complain about Bush, when it comes right down to it, they don't really want to do anything. If they do go to protests, they go, and then they come home, and it's all over."

-Matt Taibbi, speaking to in 2005.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Call Your Mother


The ad popped up in my e-mail the way it always has: “1-800-Flowers: Mother’s Day Madness — 30 Tulips + FREE vase for just $39.99!”

I almost clicked on it, forgetting for a moment that those services would not be needed this year. My mother, Margaret Friedman, died last month at the age of 89, and so this is my first Mother’s Day without a mom.

As columnists, we appear before you twice a week on these pages as simple bylines, but, yes, even columnists have mothers. And in my case, much of the outlook that infuses my own writings was bred into me from my mom. So, for once in 13 years, I’d like to share a little bit about her.

My mom was gripped by dementia for much of the last decade, but she never lost the generous “Minnesota nice” demeanor that characterized her in her better days. As my childhood friend Brad Lehrman said to me at her funeral: “She put the mensch in dementia.”

My mom’s life spanned an incredible period. She was born in 1918, just at the close of World War I. She grew up in the Depression, enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, served her country in World War II, bought our first house with a G.I. loan and lived long enough to play bridge on the Internet with someone in Siberia.

For most of my childhood, my mom appeared to be a typical suburban housewife of her generation, although I knew she was anything but typical. She sewed many of my sisters’ clothes, including both of their wedding dresses, and boy’s suits for me. And on the side, she won several national bridge tournaments.

My mom left two indelible marks on me. The first was to never settle for the cards you’re dealt. My dad died suddenly when I was 19. My mom worked for a couple of years. But in 1975, I got a scholarship to go to graduate school in Britain and my mom surprised us all one day by announcing that she was going, too. I called it the “Jewish Mother Junior Year Abroad Program.”

Most of her friends were shocked that she wasn’t just going to play widow. Instead, she sold our house in little St. Louis Park, Minn., and moved to London. But what was most amazing to watch was how she used her world-class bridge skills to build new friendships, including with one couple who flew her to Paris for a bridge game. Yes, our little Margie off to Paris to play bridge. She even came to see me in Beirut once, during the civil war — at age 62.

The picture of her in Beirut makes me think back in amazement at what my mom might have done had she had the money to finish college and pursue her dreams — the way she encouraged me to pursue mine, even when they meant I’d be far away in some crazy place and our only communications would be through my byline. It’s so easy to overlook — your mom had dreams, too.

My mom’s other big influence on me you can read between the lines of virtually every column — and that is a sense of optimism. She was the most uncynical person in the world. I don’t recall her ever uttering a word of cynicism. She was not naïve. She had taken her knocks. But every time life knocked her down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists.

Six years ago, I was in Israel at a dinner with the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, which publishes my column in Hebrew. I asked the editor why the newspaper ran my column, and he joked: “Tom, you’re the only optimist we have.” An Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, was seated next to me and as we walked to the table, he said: “Tom, I know why you’re an optimist. It’s because you’re short and you can only see that part of the glass that’s half full.”

Well, the truth is, I am not that short. But my mom was. And she, indeed, could only see that part of the glass that was half full. Read me, read my mom.

Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always try to end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant. Late in his career, after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple — just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough voice: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, though, he decided to ad-lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences.

So on this Mother’s Day, if you take one thing away from this column, take this: Call your mother.

I sure wish I could call mine.

Friday, 2 May 2008

You Are Not Your Bookcase

Online profiles and painfully constructed "faves lists" have turned us into a bunch of unwitting snobs. Enough already.

By Megan Hustad

May 2, 2008 | A few weeks ago, a friend who grew up in Communist Eastern Europe told me he thought the "product endorsements" on social networking sites like Facebook -- those lists of each member's favorite books, bands and movies -- were paid for. You provide a plug for someone's book alongside your vital statistics? Surely you get paid, he reasoned -- this is America! He found this practice to be wonderfully efficient: In his eyes, companies had figured out a way to cut out the high-priced firms and just let people advertise to one another. It was, he thought, absolutely brilliant.

I gently explained that these plugs were entirely voluntary. But why do we spend so much time crafting such elaborate summaries of our buying habits? It gets us dates, for one. If a girl posts a halfway-decent photo and expresses a taste for George Saunders, "Lolita" and the Clash, she is guaranteed an e-mail asking her to elaborate over drinks next week. (I speak from experience.) But the prospect of trolling for dates doesn't explain the zeal with which people throw themselves into perfecting these lists, as anyone who's received an e-mail notification informing them that a faraway friend has just removed "The Flight of the Conchords" from her list of favorite TV shows can attest. We don't shill for profit; we post these lists to give people a sense of who we are. We plot points on a graph and hope it -- we -- will be interpreted correctly.

Using consumption habits as a sort of self-expression shorthand has become so ubiquitous that we don't even blink. Hi, I'm Megan, I'm from New York, and I like the Jam, Prince, Nina Simone, mid-1990s D.C. punk, "The Colbert Report," "Little House on the Prairie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," "Middlemarch," "The Moviegoer," Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect" and Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Too much, too soon, you say? Lately I've been thinking it's a bit too much -- period. The "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment, as Virginia Postrel succinctly put it in "The Substance of Style," has turned us into self-handicapping snobs: Since we've taken so much care to craft our own perfect list, we feel more entitled to shrug off anyone whose list doesn't similarly impress. Would you be interested in someone who identifies with "The Secret"? We're also keeping our distance from a whole array of cultural output because we think it sends the wrong message about who we are and what we want to be.

I'll stick with books, because I care most about them. In my pretentious literary circles, the reluctance to pick up anything beyond the aesthetic boundaries of our faves lists -- which run roughly from Dostoevski to Geoff Dyer -- is especially pernicious when it comes to the self-improvement genre. No one wants to be seen in this section of the bookstore. If you even mention the book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to these people -- as I have numerous times in the last year -- it's possible to make someone visibly flinch; it's as if the person you're talking to never expected to be at the same party with someone who read such books. I have friends who've endured numerous romantic humiliations who wouldn't, on pain of death, read relationship advice. When I worked in book publishing, I never thought of reading a tome of business advice, even during moments when the rising fumes of fetid office politics brought tears to my eyes. I was above that. I was hoping the right workplace strategy would reveal itself through a particularly nuanced reading of Gogol's "Dead Souls."

Of course one could say that the pretentious and literary like their dysfunction, and so their reluctance to pick up anything that's not them, even if it might help, shouldn't worry anyone. (And you could also say that most self-help or career advice books are too facile to be of help. More on that later.) But there's also the possibility that over-identification with our preferred products weakens our political instincts.

A few years ago I attended a panel discussion at a local college organized in part to let people blow off steam in the wake of the 2002 elections. I don't remember the exact topic, but I do remember that Janeane Garofalo was there, as well as famous flat-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Whenever Norquist started speaking, hisses would emanate from the crowd, and eventually, decorum gave way and scattered hisses devolved into outright booing. But the booers were abruptly shushed by a noted leftie on the panel -- not Garofalo -- who interjected that maybe folks ought to be quiet. Maybe just listen for a second. Norquist's political acumen, the noted leftie said, was about as keen as Lenin's, and if we really wanted to put our high-minded ideals into effect, perhaps we ought to be less precious about what ideas we allowed ourselves to hear.

And perhaps reading Norquist's "Leave Us Alone" could help someone organize a push for federally subsidized childcare. But the notion that what we're reading says something about us continually trips us up. Recently my conservative father suggested I pick up "You Are the Message" by Roger Ailes. Ailes is the president of the Fox News Channel and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. I made a face and started to protest that the prospect was noxious to me. My father replied that sound advice was sound advice and perhaps I shouldn't worry so much about the source.

Was he really suggesting that the pointers in "How to Win Friends and Influence People" would be worth following if, say, Robert Mugabe had authored it? Not quite. He was saying that if I'd decided a book had nothing to offer me before I'd read a single word, then perhaps I wasn't as cosmopolitan as I liked to imagine I was. Then he started boasting about how back in the mid-'70s, he forced his white suburban Minnesota high school students to read the Black Panthers' Ten-Point Program, too.

This conversation helped to dislodge some of my reluctance to pick up a book that was not "me." I didn't buy Ailes' book, but I did read it -- cover to cover, alone in my bedroom. Because while I was emotionally and intellectually ready to receive whatever wisdom Ailes' book offered, I was not prepared to be seen anywhere in public with it.

When I started asking around, I found that quite a few people were consuming "off-message" books, but only in the privacy of their own homes. As a painfully shy and awkward teen, my friend Ben procured a copy of Larry King's "How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere," hoping it would help him get through high school's more trying moments. But he was so embarrassed to have this book -- he even worried what his parents might think -- that he kept it hidden under his bed as if it were "Barely Legal."

Once when an ex-boyfriend was in the shower, I found a copy of Harville Hendrix's classic "Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles" in his apartment. It too was under the bed. I didn't say anything about my discovery at the time because, one, I had no business looking in that drawer, and two, to out him as something other than the self-contained, emotionally robust, Harvard-educated Master of the Universe that he presented himself as struck me as more than our fragile relationship could handle. (After he dumped me, incidentally, I bought a paperback of Lama Zopa Rinpoche's "Transforming Problems Into Happiness" and stashed it on the shelf behind the collected works of Philip Roth.)

Closeted self-improvement sessions have a whiff of sadness to them. But those who undergo them are far better off than those who can't bring themselves to. Too clever for "dumb" books, they never learn that even banal prose can illuminate experience. Or, as music critic Carl Wilson writes, that "stepping deliberately outside one's own aesthetics" can be an exercise in shaking off ugly social prejudices.

You have to ask yourself, who benefits most from the "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment? Apple? McSweeney's? Not the consumer, I imagine. That educated people are choosing not to access vast swaths of available help and information is hardly cause for glee. It would be awfully nice, instead, to read whatever you please without fear of being branded one thing or another.

I asked a journalist friend who, as he puts it, "has to read a lot of embarrassing books for work" -- most recently a coffee-table book celebrating Miller Lite ads, and yes, he took it on the subway -- how he copes. "Well, I'm so used to it now that the stares don't faze me." But he does abstain from the practice of posting his lists of favorites -- on Facebook or anyplace else. "I don't feel I'm capable of truthfulness there. There are the books I like, and the books I want people to think I like. A truthful list would probably range from Kingsley Amis to Michael Crichton. Would I post that? Would that seem too contrived (ooh, how very high-low!)? I would need a therapist to sort it out."

Or, we could just skip this fixation on product signifiers altogether. I propose a movement in another direction -- one in which we spend less time trying to fashion portraits of ourselves as curious, reflective, wide-ranging intellects, and more time … reflecting and ranging wide. Toward that end, here are a few short exercises that might help:

Go to the nearest bookstore and meander over to the self-improvement section. Stand in the aisle for 15 seconds. Leave. Proceed upstairs to the fiction and literature section. Browse. Come back downstairs to the self-improvement section and remain in that aisle for a full minute, during which time you must pick up one book and hold it long enough to read the back cover copy.

Start tossing around the word "research." If someone finds you holding an embarrassing book, you say, "Oh, I'm reading this for research." Most people will not inquire further. (I learned this when brandishing "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." For research.)

Take that book out from under the bed and put it on the bookshelf.

Type up a shadow list of products, one that really captures you. (My list, for instance, would be: ChapStick, Kleenex, $9 bottles of red wine, pumpkin walnut muffins, Mrs. Meyer's Dish Soap, and boy-short underwear from American Apparel.) Print it out. Stare at the list. Take a deep breath. Let yourself be humbled. Then toss it in the recycling bin. Step outside and take a walk.