Thursday, January 20th, 2011

The Most Emailed 'New York Times' Article Ever

It’s a week before the biggest day of her life, and Anna Williams is multitasking. While waiting to hear back from the Ivy League colleges she’s hoping to attend, the seventeen-year-old senior at one of Manhattan’s most exclusive private schools is doing research for a paper about organic farming in the West Bank, whipping up a batch of vegan brownies, and, like an increasing number of American teenagers, teaching her dog to use an iPad.

For the last two weeks, Anna has been spending more time than usual with José de Sousa Saramago, the Portuguese water dog she named after her favorite writer. (If José Saramago bears an uncanny resemblance to Bo Obama, the First Pet, it’s no coincidence: the two dogs are brothers. Anna’s father was an early fundraiser for Barack Obama; José Saramago was a gift from the President.)

Anna takes José Saramago’s paw in her hands and whispers in his ear. He taps the iPad and the web browser opens. José Saramago gives a little yelp.

“It’s entirely conceivable that a dog could learn simple computer functions,” says Dr. Walker Brown, the director of the Center for Canine Cognition, a research facility in Maryland. “Word processing, e-mailing, even surfing the web: for many dogs, the future is already here.”

In Anna’s bedroom, decorated with the trophies and medals common to young achievers, José Saramago is on Facebook, the popular social networking website. He’s helping Anna organize an event to raise money for her greatest passion: sustainable ibex farming.

A member of a generation that seems to have lost interest in the idle pleasures of sleepaway camp, Anna has spent the last three summers working on an ibex farm in the Catskills, just ninety minutes from her Manhattan home. Anna's parents, Leslie Wilhelm, an editor of style and fashion books, and Walter Gilliam, a partner at a boutique investment firm, love that they can see their daughter often. (Williams, Anna's last name, is a portmanteau of her parents' surnames.) How often? "The toll collectors on the New York Thruway are becoming close friends," cracks Anna's father, referring to the highway connecting New York City to the Catskills. "We've always let Anna pursue her dreams, but we like to be able to visit wherever they may take her," counters Anna's mother, who has accompanied her daughter on long trips to Uganda, Bangladesh and the Mississippi Delta.

The Catskills ibex farm is owned by an unlikely pair of friends: Steven Jones, an African-American former police officer from Camden, New Jersey, and Marco Levin, a rabbi from Buenos Aires. Jones is one of the thousands of Americans who have turned to alternate investments after losing his savings in the financial crisis. Rabbi Levin is the founder of the Deuteronomy Diet, which recommends eating only foods available to the Jews of the Old Testament.

Levin believes that the ibex, a wild goat defined as kosher in the Book of Deuteronomy, is one of the healthiest foods in the world. “In Biblical times, men and women regularly lived for hundreds of years,” says Levin. “If we ate as our ancestors did, there’s no reason why modern man cannot do the same.”

Anna Williams first came to Yael Farms (yael is Hebrew for “Nubian ibex”) after her mother read an article by Dr. Walter Andersen, a clinical physician who specializes in adolescent health. Andersen thinks teenagers today are too focused on their minds, often at the expense of their physical well-being. “Their brains are getting plenty of exercise,” Dr. Andersen says. “It’s the rest of their bodies I’m worried about.”

At Yael Farms, Anna gets plenty of exercise. She spends the day herding ibex, drawing water from a well, and moving heavy stones. After a Deuteronomy-friendly dinner of figs, unleavened bread and honey-drizzled ibex, she practices her Mandarin. Like many of the ibex farms sprouting up across the northeastern United States, Yael offers an intensive Chinese-language immersion course.

“We speak Chinese here,” says Jones, the farm's co-owner. “It’s just smart business.” Foreign policy analysts like Wilbur Jenkins, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, think entrepreneurs like Jones have the right idea. “In China, children are being taught English in utero,” Jenkins says. “American teenagers better start catching up.”

It’s not all manual labor and pinyin at Yael. After three summers in the Catskills, Anna Williams has also become an authority on Borscht Belt comedy. Anna’s interest in 1930s Yiddishkeit led her directly to Rebecca Smythe, a blogger from Brooklyn.

On a once-gritty block in Canarsie, Smythe is opening what she says will be New York’s first coffeehouse inspired by Yiddish musicals. While Anna helps Smythe book acts for the coffee shop, Sal DiPaolo watches with some concern. DiPaolo has lived in Canarsie for all of his 77 years and worries that newcomers are driving up the cost of living in his neighborhood. Sal’s cousin, Anthony, takes a different view.

“Look, it’s New York,” Anthony DiPaolo says. “I welcome the new blood.” DiPaolo has invited many young people, including Anna, to join his bocce club. Bocce, once the exclusive province of Italian men like Sal and Anthony DiPaolo, is becoming popular among a new generation of New Yorkers. Six months ago, Anna started her own bocce club. It’s already one of the most popular extracurricular activities at her school.

Will bringing bocce to the Upper East Side be enough to get Anna Williams into Harvard, Yale or Princeton? She’ll find out next week. Until then, she’s got her hands full: José Saramago just learned how to use Twitter.

David Parker is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Politico and the Huffington Post.

Photo by Thomas Mueller from Flickr.

86 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)


KarenUhOh (#19)

It is impossible to lose at Scrabble if you get "ibex."

Tulletilsynet (#333)

The only way you could improve this would be getting it printed in the Times. Please do that.

Who and why?

Murgatroid (#2,904)

Today won't get any better.

offthewawl (#8,258)

I may just have skimped on lunch, but "figs, unleavened bread and honey-drizzled ibex" sounds delicious.

ftrain (#3,271)

When I got to the ibex farm I stood up out of my chair and said YES. Thank you, David and the Awl.

KenWheaton (#401)

Shouldn't there be some inappropriate teenage sex in this?

Bittersweet (#765)

And a gay somewhere.

I was thinking the farm owners but the Rabbi's Old Testament literalism seems an impediment. But then…that's just the angle that could make this thing big!

freetzy (#7,018)

Nothing's gayer than an ibex.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

All my exes are ibexes.

She could be neighbors w/ Vernyl Klinkenbourg, too.

beatbeatbeat (#3,187)

missing tag: THE END OF THE WORLD

I'm having one of my dogs post this to my daughter's Facebook so that when she's old enough to read she'll have a nice blueprint for the next 14 years.

Drew Robertson (#9,483)

My daughter won't eat ibex.

hman (#53)

I'm wearing my favorite portmanteau today, you guys.

"once-gritty". I love you?

s. (#775)

Along the same lines: “Uganda, Bangladesh and the Mississippi Delta.”

mamacita (#127)

I wanted to lick that line, it was so delicious.

Dan Kois (#646)

There's no "to be sure" paragraph, though. But wow.

MythReindeer (#5,553)

I'll e-mail this after I get done pushing around a bunch of rocks.

Ken Layne (#262)

That'll do, ibex. (Slow clap.)

(Slow clap, indeed)

petejayhawk (#1,249)

(Slow clap, indeed, indeed)

pemulis (#903)

But where is David Brooks in all of this?!

cherrispryte (#444)

Wait, is this what New York Times articles are actually like? I don't read it that often ….

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The sales force is just amazing — "WE HAVE THE BEST WRITERS IN THE ***WORLD***" is their usual gambit. Peh.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Cherri, go to and look at the "most-emailed" articles. It makes me want to make a papier-mache model of the words "TREND PIECE" and then bash it to bits with a baseball bat.

@cherrispryte: Every day when I open up the Times, I know that somewhere inside is going to be The Most Insane Article The Times Has Ever Run, At Least Until Tomorrow's Edition. It's like a little treasure hunt!

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)


BadUncle (#153)

I'll gladly give you two ibex on Tuesday for a rock hyrex today.



Eugene Langley (#9,363)

Oh man this is so good.

atipofthehat (#797)

Let us crown Mr. Parker with a crown of Ilex!

celynnen (#9,495)

that would be more painful than this article merits =oP

miette (#2,704)

The ibex isn't dead. it just went to live on a nice farm in the country.

Smitros (#5,315)

Anna Williams is the Sidd Finch of our time.

hockeymom (#143)

Think it needs more of this to be a true NYTimes Sunday Mag feature; (full disclosure, the author and Walter Gilliam attended Choate together. Also, the author and Leslie Wilhelm share a colorist and Pilates instructor.)

Miles Klee (#3,657)


texinthecity (#9,489)

really? ok WTF? what the heck does this article have to do with "the most emailed article"….why? this makes NO sense. i am so confused. and BTW i am so glad i don't have kids. this spoiled brat is so elitist. college is not the answer. it is not guarantee. gag.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Is parody. Of Times. Maybe your comment parody also?

barnhouse (#1,326)


BeccaBecca (#9,225)

This is beyond perfect! It's the details: "the popular social networking website" and "referring to the highway connecting New York City to the Catskills."

Kudos. I love this.

God I love this so much. And I would love it even without the ibexes, which I have always had an inexplicable love for.

some would even call it ibexplicable

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Here, have a Kleenex.

sigerson (#179)

WOW. Simply awesome. I didn't get the joke until I was about 35% through reading this and then I did and I re-read this piece and my head exploded.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Me too! So embarrassing what a lot of this I'd swallered right down before I even started to go HEY.

"Like many of the ibex farms sprouting up across the northeastern United States, Yael offers an intensive Chinese-language immersion course."
Just brilliant

Tulletilsynet (#333)

This just gets better every time you read it.

Telegram Sam (#3,847)

Wait, what's that bird called? Ibis? Okay, never mind.

katiechasm (#163)

For New York Times, A Mild Rebuke

Hamilton (#122)

Haha this is awesome. Ten years from now: "Tell them how you got your job at the Times, Dave. Classic story."

alexewing (#528)


jaundiceboy (#9,501)

You forgot the space-time expanding universe articles.

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

I read this in my head with an NPR radio voice.

Bopomofo rules, pinyin drools!

Tulletilsynet (#333)


aandy (#9,512)

Cute, but Erin Judge did it more hilariously a couple months ago…

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

More cute than hilarious. Though I almost broke the warm smile barrier at "A Thing Happened at Harvard."

Anna Williams is Keyser Söze!

deisner (#9,526)

The best bogus social trend piece. Ever.

Tulletilsynet (#333)


What did you do, google "ibex farm"?

smileyfacesusan (#9,576)

I did. LOL!

ddh (#9,536)

All it needed was volunteer work at a LGBT hotline for military personnel.

Greg Kemnitz (#9,539)

Just wait until six years from now, when we get the writeup about how she ran up $300K in student loan debt double-majoring in ibex studies and Sanscrit philology. Her powerful CV qualifies her for a job at Steve's Coffee, with occasional gigs as a valet at high-end clubs in the NYC area. But there's good news! She just got accepted to Brooklyn Law, where she'll doubtless be a partner at a prestigious firm within six months of graduation. She also plans on doing pro-bono work for a local ibex-rights group.

Marc Sopher (#9,555)

Somewhere George Plimpton is smiling.

So, not much a surprise here that a hyperbolic parody of the bland and pointless would itself be supremely bland and pointless.

This is exactly as funny as Pedobear, or Rickrolling, or any other dumb internet meme that is celebrated only as an inside joke where there's no joke at all, only references that are intended to gratify those who recognize them. "Ha, ha, I know what that reference meant! Hilarious!" No. Not funny at all. Doesn't even rise to the level of bemusement. And worse, here, because those celebrating the "joke" fancy themselves to be of a higher sophistication and class for being "in" on it.

ChrisJ (#252,445)

@Thomas E H Solmer

Good point, but…it was well written and capable. Funny? No, I agree. Clever? Yes.

smileyfacesusan (#9,576)

I thought this was real. I was looking up Ibex farms in the Catskills to send my kid this summer to learn Chinese.

Hugo de Naranja (#9,575)

To Mr. Solmer's credit, he indeed has a point. And a chilling one, at that.

For far too long, even disgracefully so, America's self-styled "elites" have strenuously forestalled anything approaching broad-based democratic access to alternative poultry venues in the Catskills and at other locales yet farther afield. (Appalachia leaps most readily to mind, likely because its very name recalls the term "appalling.")

Around and about the mere concept of "alternative poultry," these in-joke fancying sophisticates have constructed and jealously maintained an anti-egalitarian Berlin Wall, fiercely defended with a lethal arsenal chock-a-block with withering disdain and fetid scorn.

This disgraceful arrangement is hardly one America's Founding Forefathers should have showered with their hard-won approval, even on those days when they weren't beset by the multitude of responsibilities attendant to the impregnation of slaves.

It is therefore well within the time-honored tradition of Yankee outrage that Mr. Solmer's exception-taking finds a comfortable, if modest, home, and sets about stoking a warming fire of righteous indignation in its ample hearth, steadfastly using the hyperbolic amusements of America's own anti-American "elites" as the kindling which shall serve to feed the patriotic conflagration that will consume them, thereby trailblazing a clear path whereby all U.S. citizens ought secure safe conduct to alternative poultry, fictional or otherwise.

Let us not dally, then, in an utterly notional Cretan Labyrinth roiling with the reddest of herrings, and instead set our sights on the comparatively higher aim of denying gratification to those who would laugh at, much less celebrate, journalistic parody.

Thank you, Mr. Solmer, for having the "class" to put us to rights, once and forever.

theGoldenAss (#4,853)

Is this supposed to be a parody of one of the comments on the NYT? Brilliant.

JacobMiller (#9,587)

I included this online article along with others on my blog, "freedomrantonline." I entitled the post, "Lessons in Journalism: How to Make an Insignificant Story Newsworthy." Check out the blog for my response to this article and look at the categories to see if there is anything else on my blog that interests you.

Atencio (#399)

Nahhhh. Thanks, though.

Sidd Finch (#9,890)

does she also play the french horn? a novelization of anna williams' final few months of high school would most surely make it to the top of some newspaper's "best-seller" list.

la_chica (#11,101)

you know someone at the Times is slapping their face on their desk for missing this story

this is just perfect.

starjonestown (#195,623)

Cain't teach no dog to use no compruter!

City folk…

"It’s not all manual labor and pinyin at Yael." EXCELLENT

ChrisJ (#252,445)

Hifuckinglarious, utterly believable until the dog training bit on the iPad…which was so PC a thing that I swallowed and kept going. Not sure when I was convinced of the article's intent to be silly and satirical but the Ibex bit pushed it along. The final part of teaching Chinese at ibex farms…perfect.

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