Off The Record

Jonathan Safran Foer attends the 2011 WSJ Magazine Innovator of the Year Awards at the Museum of Modern Art on October 27, 2011 in New York City.
Jonathan Safran Foer attends the 2011 WSJ Magazine Innovator of the Year Awards at the Museum of Modern Art on October 27, 2011 in New York City. (Photo: Fernando Leon/Getty Images)


Incredibly, Incredibly Close: Deborah Solomon on novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, New York Times Magazine, Feb. 27:

[Our correspondence] came to include, in scarcely more than a month, some 150 e-mail messages from Foer, many of them wickedly hilarious, others gravely literary, and running to thousands of words ….

“That’s a lot to think about,” Foer wrote with his usual intensity. “It would take 1,000 letters just to scratch the surface, and I doubt the scratch would be too deep. I’ll give it a shot …. When I come back I’ll get started with letter #1.”

No. 1: I’m back now from walking the dog. You had asked me what I meant by giving you a piece of blank paper from the desk of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Was it “a comment on the futility of texts,” or “an evocation of all the beautiful ideas and feelings … that remain to be inscribed on that great blank page known as the future”? I’m starting to think that perhaps it was both. Or neither. Or some combination of the two.

No. 3: I must again stress, despite the source of that blank paper, and despite the portrait of Singer on my wall, and despite the fact that I, too, use three names, that it would be inaccurate to compare or equate myself to Singer in any way.

No. 15: That was a beautiful passage you wrote, about how when we said goodbye at 4 p.m., “the fading daylight lent the moment a veiled, elegiac feeling, an unsettling suggestion of oblivion.” Sometimes I weep at the end of the day. And I wonder: Is the sun truly going away from us, or are we the ones who are going away from it?

No. 23: It was kind or perceptive of you to say that I “might be called a European novelist who happens to be writing in America.” In the end, I think we are all sometimes prisoners of plate tectonics.

No. 120: I was walking George in the park again earlier this hour when she suddenly lunged and gobbled up half the remains of a dead squirrel. Five minutes later, she vomited it all over the grass. She vomited it up so easily and nonchalantly, it gave me a pang. Dogs have such pure, honest reactions to things-both coming and going.

No. 152: You don’t think it seems too aggressively butch for me to call my female dog “George,” do you? For what it’s worth, I adopted a tomcat this past weekend. I have named him Princess Jasmine Fluffytoes.

No. 274 or 275 (depending): Remember how I sent you that e-mail while I was waiting to meet up with you, so you’d get it when you got back from the interview? I am sending you this e-mail in the middle of writing another e-mail, so it gets there sooner. Wait till you see what I’ve already told you!

No. 338: Wrting this on my new BlackBerry frmo the bathroom. I’m hvaing a little troouble getting used to thesse tiny keys. But it occurred to me that every trip to the bathroom is a little act of letting go. I needed to tell you that.

No. 339: Well, not every act. If you’re just brushing your teeth, for instance. But even that, really. Suppose you brushed your teeth and you spat out a little strand of meat that had been stuck there and then you got hit by a truck? That would have been your last meal, and you would have missed the very last part of it.

No. 443: Paper towels, dish soap (unscented), mushrooms, milk (2 percent, skim). Am I forgetting anything? Oh, onions.

No. 516: The pineapple has such a tough, leathery skin. It’s almost an imposture to drink pineapple juice; it’s hardly a true experience of the pineapple. Drinking pineapple juice is life made easy. It’s fraudulence. I adore my pineapple juice, though.

No. 590: if the world were already silent, what would stillness sound like? then i think it would sound like the soft rustle of the newest leaves in a spring breeze. everyone would feel awkward.

No. 627: I told you that I wished I could talk like a black person. It’s more than that, really: I wish, in the give and take between us, that I could give myself to you as a strong black man. You could receive my thoughts as if I were making strong love to you on satin sheets with the music of Barry White or Marvin Gaye playing-making love to you with my large penis, which would not be an offensive racial stereotype yet would be a penis of unmistakable substance. Instead I feel as if I’m humping away in a rabbity fashion on a futon, after a dinner of takeout Italian, with Dido on the stereo, and I’m hoping to make up for my shortcomings with earnest cunnilingus in a little while. This is all just a figure of speech!

No. 820: Princess Jasmine Fluffytoes is asleep in my lap right this second.

No. 875: Writing is above all, I think, an act of faith. You put the words out there and hope. For instance, I can write “pat your head,” but I have no way of knowing whether you would actually pat your head in response. Or “stand up.” Now sit down. Stand up again. Blink three times. See? Pure faith.

No. 999: I feel as if I made a hopelessly inadequate profile subject. You are too kind to have paid so much attention to me. I really would be glad if I could give you the chance to do another profile. Maybe this one could be good enough to be on the cover. I know a literary novelist is less important than movie stars, especially Oscar week, but maybe there won’t be movie stars. I will try to give you everything you need. I am putty in your hands.

No. 1,000: It wouldn’t have to be the cover!

Some leading shopping experts had to miss out on last month’s Presidents’ Day specials: While New Yorkers enjoyed the three-day weekend, part of the staff at Condé Nast’s Cargo spent the holiday inside 4 Times Square, putting in extra hours on a revamp of the men’s shopping magazine.

“It is not common for staff to work on weekends,” Cargo spokesperson Mistrella Murphy said. “From time to time, as with the May issue, it is necessary for some staff to work extra hours to meet the closing schedule.”

Though the changes may have been time-consuming, editor in chief Ariel Foxman said they fell short of an outright redesign. “I consider us still in our launch mode,” Mr. Foxman said. “[ Cargo] has been evolving in terms of balance, in terms of depth of coverage, and in terms of breadth of coverage. We’ve sort of been tinkering with that all along.”

In the current Cargo, a feature on facial-hair shaping is sandwiched between a feature on clothes trends and a two-page spread on S.U.V. accessorizing. With the May issue, the magazine will begin segregating the consumer products by category: style, gadgets, body, wheels and culture. A travel section will follow in June.

That structure should make the magalog more quickly accessible-that is, more like a catalog.

Mr. Foxman said that as the magazine becomes bigger, the simplification becomes more necessary. “We were able to allow our reader to jump around a little bit in the previous incarnation,” Mr. Foxman said. “At a certain point, the element of confusion would overtake the element of surprise.”

Last month, Cargo ramped up its publishing schedule, jumping to 10 issues a year from six. In 2005, ad pages are up 45 percent over the same period last year, and circulation climbed 17 percent from 300,000 to 350,000.

Cargo and its older sister Lucky are closely identified with now-departed Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. But Mr. Foxman and Tom Wallace, Mr. Truman’s successor, said that the overhaul was not a symptom of the changes in the directorship.

“The current changes at Cargo are evolutionary changes that were well underway before James left. Ariel is perfectly up to the job implanting them,” Mr. Wallace said. “I think a magazine launch and its business plan are based on a lot of assumptions, and once the magazine is in the marketplace, it has the benefit of experience and can make adjustments. This will continue to happen.”

-Gabriel Sherman


Due to a series of elementary reporting failures, last week’s Off the Record misidentified the writer of a letter to the New York Times sports page. The Kevin Brown who wrote to The Times in defense of Jason Giambi was not the same Kevin Brown who pitches for the Yankees. “[I]f it had been the Yankees pitcher, we would have said so,” Times sports editor Tom Jolly wrote in an e-mail. “There’s more than one of me in the city,” the epistolary Mr. Brown said, reached at his office at the BBG-BBGM architecture firm (the pitching Mr. Brown was in Florida, at spring training). Mr. Brown said he is “more or less” a Yankees fan-“I have a cap,” he added-but that he is not especially fond of the pitcher, whom he described as “not very worthy.” And he was unaware himself that The Times had published his letter. “Nobody called to check that it was me or whatever,” he said. Off the Record regrets the error.

“I’m looking forward to being surprised,” New York Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins said. Ms. Collins was elaborating on The Times’ March 1 announcement that reporter John Tierney would be the newest addition to her stable of Op-Ed columnists.

Mr. Tierney, Ms. Collins said, is an “out-of-the-box” thinker with a knack for contrariness. Her department, she said, “has never quite recovered” from a 1996 piece that Mr. Tierney wrote for The New York Times Magazine, in which he argued that recycling was futile.

“As an editorial board, we really do love recycling a lot,” Ms. Collins said.

Mr. Tierney fills a vacancy created by the retirement of William Safire. Like Mr. Safire, he is seen as starboard-side ballast on a page accused of listing to port.

But also like Mr. Safire, Mr. Tierney is not a yellow-dog Republican. “My inclination is libertarian,” Mr. Tierney said.

Whether or not they agree with Mr. Tierney’s assessments-down with rent control! Up with automobiles!- Times readers should benefit, Ms. Collins argued, from having their “universal truths” challenged. “It’s still just really useful to be exposed to these kind of things,” Ms. Collins said.

If some of Mr. Tierney’s pronouncements may be unexpected, his appointment was not. Ms. Collins said that The Times had looked a list of a dozen possible candidates (some of whom, she added, may never have realized they were under consideration). But Mr. Tierney’s career has traced a more or less perfect trajectory toward an Op-Ed column, and Mr. Safire’s retirement created a more or less ideal spot for him to land.

“I’ve had editors starting with Joe Lelyveld saying, ‘You should think about trying to write there someday,'” Mr. Tierney said. ” … It was always a hope of mine.”

Author Christopher Buckley, Mr. Tierney’s longtime friend, said that Mr. Tierney’s position as a right-leaning Times columnist wasn’t always foreordained. When the two met at the Yale Daily News in 1973, Mr. Buckley said, “I’d have bet all the tea in China against it.” The young Mr. Tierney, Mr. Buckley explained, was “redistributionist, socialist, he was anti-authoritarian”-though not, Mr. Buckley added, to the point of “throwing Molotov cocktails at the National Guard.”

“So it’s really quite fascinating to have watched that evolution,” Mr. Buckley said.

Mr. Tierney is known for a puckish, often conceptual approach to reporting. “He brings as much zest to the table as a half-dozen lemons,” Mr. Buckley said. In 1999, Mr. Buckley recalled, when Rosie O’Donnell criticized a crackdown on the city’s homeless, Mr. Tierney showed up on the sidewalk outside the actress’ suburban house, unshaven and shabbily dressed, and wrote about being rousted-a stunt it’s hard to imagine Paul Krugman carrying off.

It’s not as easy to do shoe-leather reporting on the federal government as it is on metro-section subjects in New York, Mr. Tierney allowed. “No, there’s an awful lot of phone-leather here,” he said.

John Podhoretz said Mr. Tierney’s hiring brings “a welcome addition of actual levity to the page.” Is he funnier than incumbent rightish contrarian David Brooks? No, Mr. Podhoretz said. “Few people are as funny as David Brooks,” he added. ” … He’s funny in a different way.”

During last year’s Democratic convention, Mr. Tierney distributed surveys to his fellow reporters about which candidate they were supporting-then, to isolate the effects of their professional self-interest, he asked them which potential President they would rather report on.

Mr. Tierney did vote in the 2004 Presidential election, he said, but he declined to say whether that vote had been for George Bush or John Kerry: “In the last campaign, I had plenty of objections to both candidates.”

Mr. Tierney said that unlike some newly minted columnists, he doesn’t anticipate any nightmares about blank pages. Having already written the biweekly “Big City” column for the metro section, he said, he has learned a central lesson of column-writing: “Somehow, the space does get filled.”

Ms. Collins said that Mr. Tierney’s metro experience “reduces the trauma” of launching the column. “The trick of being able to do something twice a week at 705 words … it’s a very unusual gift, so it’s nice to have somebody who has already done it,” she said.

While Mr. Tierney is inheriting Mr. Safire’s newsprint real estate, he is not inheriting his predecessor’s well-appointed corner office. That space, with its burgundy leather couch, will be taken over by Thomas Friedman, according to a source in the Washington bureau. Mr. Tierney, currently in a cubicle, will inherit Mr. Friedman’s old digs. Off The Record