THE BLOG
09/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Week in Magazines : Jenny Sanford Exacts Revenge, Newsweek Provides Helpful Alien Advice

Some jilted lovers don't get mad, they get even. Jenny Sanford, wife of the South Carolina governor, decided to get Anna Wintour.

"Notes on a Scandal" in the annual giant September issue of Vogue is the de facto national coming out of the spouse of Mark Sanford. And, ah, it's quite the unveiling.

There she is at the front door of the family house on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, attired in a Ralph Laurence Black Label white tunic, a J. Crew hat and K. Jacques St. Tropez sandals. Her hairdo is courtesy of "Tim Rogers for TRESemme/contactnyc" and "makeup, Susan Sterling." She resembles a contented member of the American propertied class on vacation, with perhaps only a nearby gin and tonic, nanny and Jaguar missing.

One can only imagine the race to get Jenny Sanford, praised for her tough but caring initial response to her husband's titillating disclosure that the Appalachian Trail actually makes it to Buenos Aires. One can almost hear the voice mail messages left by network morning show anchors, filling up Jenny's mailbox as they proclaimed their sympathy and high-minded desire to tell "her story" in the fairest, most sympathetic manner. Ditto the co-hosts and producers of our favorite prime time fare.

So it is a surprise that she chooses Vogue (which has enough advertising here to keep the ailing newspaper industry going for a month or two) to expand, at times interestingly, on her husband's frailties (she alludes to "issues" he has) and ego. Along the way, she offers irrefutable insights into the arrogant myopia of many politicians, so often addicted to a universe of sycophants and suck-ups.

"Politicians become disconnected from the way everyone else lives in the world," she says. "I saw that from the very beginning. They'll say they need something, and ten people want to give it to them. It's an ego boost, and it's easy to drink your own Kool-Aid. As a wife, you do your best to keep them grounded, but it's a real challenge."

She refreshingly admits to have Googled the other woman. She chides her husband's "bad choices" and again exhibits a willingness to forgive him, albeit doing so in a $555 tunic and $230 sandals.

My initial, visceral reaction was to roll my eyes, then wonder why she couldn't let her initial, one-page statement suffice. Can our culture somehow stop the now irresistible morphing of our natural compassion for victims into the celebrityzation of them? Then I thought about it some more.

There is the political world's inherent push for victims, usually women, to stand by their miscreant man. In this case, Jenny Sanford decided to stand on her own. Hey, she may be sandwiched between a profile of a Brit fashion tycoon and an essay on the ascension of the bar stool to being the new "hot seat" in restaurants. But good for her.

----"The Rubber Room" in Aug. 31 New Yorker is as a tale of intransigence and rank stupidity in American education, with media entrepreneur Steven Brill returning to his reporting roots and offering depressing detail on the previously-revealed system by which New York City deals with public school teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence. With his lawyer's eye, he shows the befuddling intricacies of a system in which $100,000-a-year, apparently awful, teachers can get paid full salary for doing nothing except show up in a room as their individual cases drag on for clearly unjustifiable periods, often years.

Even if "the stated rationale for the reassignment centers is unassailable: Get these people away from children, even if tenure rules require that they continue to be paid," this leaves no doubt that taking from two to five years for an arbitrator's resolution is nuts. And when Brill delves into individual cases, and thousands of pages of transcripts, one does wonder if the inmates are running the asylum of public education.

This is an important topic, especially when placed against the backdrop of the Obama administration's claimed desire to tie significant education funding to teacher performance. Indirectly, it gets one thinking about the real problem faced by so many committed, idealistic principals, namely how the heck to get rid of rank mediocrities on their faculties. Those teachers may not be guilty of misconduct or rank ineptitude but still may be committing education malpractice on a daily basis.

Having talked to wonderful public elementary school principals in Chicago recently -- each of whom is trying to turn around a mess -- I can attest to the almost Sisyphean administrative task they face in ridding our classrooms of folks who should be working in other fields. Brill's examples may be inherently more vivid, given formal misconduct charges in some instances, but are ultimately no less instructive.

---Aug. 31 Time's "The Real Cost of Cheap Food" is Bryan Walsh's argument that "Unless Americans radically rethink they way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs -- and bland taste. Sustainable food has an elitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plant -- and as every farmer knows, if you don't take care of your land, it can't take care of you." This is especially notable on the "hidden costs" of our reliance on heavily fertilized corn, leaving us with cheap food, and leaving many of us overweight (though one might occasionally wonder about our collective inability to exhibit sanity with a modicum of portion control).

--"Afghanistan, The Growing Threat of Failure" is the Aug. 22 Economist cover and part of a spiraling body of analysis that we may be getting deeper into a foreign misadventure. "Americans, relieved to be getting out of Iraq, and caught up in a national row about health care, are paying little attention to the place. But if things there continue to slide, Afghanistan could turn out to be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency."

---Aug. 31 Newsweek's "Aliens" cover informs us that there's water on other planets; indeed that there are many thousands and thousands of other Earth-like planets. It's thin but engaging and may prompt some to seriously contemplate the possibility that we're really not totally alone. "We're not at the Star Trek stage yet," this concludes, but makes clear we shouldn't close the door to civilizations elsewhere.

---September Martha Stewart Living has a sneakily engaging opus on sofas, "Layer of Comfort." It's a reminder of how little we know about the sofa we purchase, namely what exactly is under all that fabric? This is a primer on what to look for, including what actually constitutes a top-quality frame.

---And this week's Journey into the Obscure, for a piece about which my five-year-old might exclaim, "This makes my head hurt!" might, in fact, not make it hurt. In fact, the five-year-old might offer some counsel on "Anthropology and Play: The Contours of Playful Experience" by Thomas Malaby, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in New Literary History. How has the rise of games, in particular online games, altered the traditional distinction between work and play?

"The rise to prominence of games in recent years, particularly online digital games, has attracted new scholarly, policy-making, and popular attention, both to games as a cultural form and to play itself. One of the most important developments has been the way in which this explosion in games, together with the increasing recognizability of game-like elements in other domains of experience, has challenged the longstanding distinction between work and play. It has become difficult to deny that play is often productive and that work, rather than always a matter of routine, can be shot through with the open-endedness we most often associate with play. Along the way, it has also become more difficult to sustain claims that play is essentially about "fun," "pleasure," or other positively charged sentiments. While it is obvious to anyone who has studied gambling that playing games can be powerfully compelling without being fun, this realization is starting to make its way through the rapidly expanding scholarship on games and play."

"I suggest, however, that it is surprising that this questioning of our ideas about games and play has taken so long and especially surprising that my own field, sociocultural anthropology, did not lead the way many years ago. That field's hallmark has always been a willingness to move past Western preconceptions. It is characterized by an unflinching interrogation of inherited, seemingly foundational concepts, leading to the demonstration of their situatedness in Western modernity. Its work on such concepts as family, identity, race, and illness may constitute anthropology's greatest contribution to the academy over the course of the twentieth century. But with a few important exceptions, play was, for the most part, left out of this critical project as anthropology on this issue stayed firmly within the modern tradition."

"In what follows, I outline the tendencies of twentieth-century anthropological work on play and argue that anthropology, despite its ostensible neglect of the matter, nonetheless has much to offer the current aim of rethinking play. I begin by suggesting that, while the ingredients of a more useful conception of play as a disposition (as opposed to an activity) were always present, and even found expression on occasion, the field as a whole stressed only two viable possibilities: play as nonwork and play as representation. Departing from this pattern prepares us to recognize a better model for thinking about play, one that draws ultimately on the pragmatist philosophers' portrayal of the world as irreducibly contingent.

On this view, play becomes an attitude characterized by a readiness to improvise in the face of an ever-changing world that admits of no transcendently ordered account."