Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Maternity garb, Part II: realities

To discuss maternity clothes is to discuss bodies. There's no one situation of The Pregnant Lady (or to expand further, and open up another whole set of questions: The Pregnant Person). Every thought you've ever had about your body — including relating to the pregnancy itself — is going to enter into the feelings that impact the day-to-day question of how to get dressed. I come from this topic from a specific place, as does everyone. Consider this not so much a privilege disclaimer as an everyone's-different reminder. What's been easy for me may have been difficult for others and vice versa. With that, moving on...

The challenges:

 -There’s an assumption behind maternity fashion advice one finds online: that you want to look pregnant rather than fat. On the one hand I get it – I am a woman living in our society! On the other, if you’re a woman who shows from approximately day one, you maybe don’t want to announce to every single person you interact with. So the first step is giving up the notion that you’re looking for something that’s somehow both slimming (or as it’s euphemized, in this age that gestures at body-positivity, flattering) and pregnancy-obscuring. Ultimately you may want some clothes from both categories. But ultimately-ultimately, at least in summer, at least if you're as short as I am, nothing's going to be ambiguous.

 -Also tricky: the conventionality of maternity clothing. Or maybe just the limited options, which assume a universally-shared female end goal of looking like the “after” on an episode of “What Not To Wear.” Or there are shirts that announce, with Pinterest-era graphics, the situation (with "mama" or baby-inside or whatever). If you're someone who values dressing like yourself, whatever that means to you, you kind of have to avoid maternity clothes, but sizing-wise, this may not be possible. 

-Oh yeah, and the big one: $$$. At just the moment in life when saving money starts to seem particularly important, it becomes necessary to buy all these new clothes for yourself. And not just any clothes, but ones a) that will only fleetingly fit, and b) that cost a ton because they can. (Forgive me for being a peasant, but $150 strikes me as steep for a plain t-shirt.) Avoiding the bleak-for-different-reasons paths of getting ripped off and wearing absolutely any potato sack involves a bit of thought.

Practically speaking, what works:

 -Oversize t-shirt dresses. Helpful in that I already owned some. Muji probably has the best (I have the Breton-striped, short- and long-sleeved), made of sturdy but chic material, and with pockets. Uniqlo Marimekko had one (also with pockets) but I think that’s done now. Regular Uniqlo (along with Gap) seems as if it would have this, but not so much. H&M is the place to go if you're willing to forgo pockets but just get $10 t-shirt dresses. And if you’re short, you have the option of actual long t-shirts, or so I tell myself. (I realize that in a pale-blue shirt-thingy I recently bought at Kotn, it looks like I’m going out without pants on, but I can live with this.) Giving up entirely on the idea of a waistline helps. Think enormous t-shirt, not merely jersey-material (but likely too fitted) dress.

 -Hideous but loose shorts. I bought some at H&M in very much the spirit of, this'll do, but when it’s very hot out and I need to take my dog out in something with pockets, they do the trick. They don’t have the maternity band (they’re not maternity shorts), which means they work when it’s a million degrees out. Why hideous? Among other reasons, because they’re not actually cut to be worn low-slung, so when I wear them it looks like I haven’t pulled my shorts up correctly. Oh well.

-Lululemon Align cropped leggings. New York Magazine was right, what can I say? I went two sizes up, and they fit where other leggings do not. Something to do with the waistband material. The seams are a bit itchier than one might ask of leggings that, with tax, approach the shame-on-me $100 mark, and the pocket situation is minimal (a tiny one hidden in the waistband), but... I haven’t found better? Very Tribeca Whole Foods Mom, even if she'd go for one of the more obscure and still pricier brands. (Did I mention I'm embarrassed I bought these leggings, even though I've worn them a ton, because doubtless somewhere out there are much cheaper ones that would have been fine?)

-Actual maternity bottoms from the mall. I’m just not a dresses-every-day person. It’s not what I generally feel like wearing, and it’s not even practical from a summer-laundry perspective. (I’m not buying a laundry cycle’s worth of t-shirt dresses, and if 85 degrees feels like 150 for me, I’m not keen to re-wear these a bunch of times before washing.) And the leggings-or-terrible-shorts thing was getting old. The prospect of buying clothing this fit-specific online didn’t appeal, so I (braved the unspecified threat to popular sites that day in downtown Toronto and) went to Thyme Maternity and got some regular shorts and jeans, both with the (too warm but what can be done) stretchy band, which together came to about $100. They're both... fine, I think — needed a shorter length in the jeans, so will see once those arrive. Both seem an improvement over the one such item I had already bought – Uniqlo maternity pants, I think the one style they sell, which were an acceptable $40 CAD but went from too big to too small, skipping the bit where they're meant to fit.

 -Random clothes you have around and can still squeeze into. I’m thanking my past self for not getting rid of enormous sleep t-shirts or very washed-out regular ones, but am also able to get into my usual t-shirts, even if they look very odd at this point. I even found a sleeveless, cowl-neck black dress from the Uniqlo Inès de la Fressange range circa 2014 that wasn't fabulous as a regular dress but that may now be my only correctly-fitting garment.

-The pregnancy-book advice to 'just wear your partner's clothes!' I was very skeptical at first in my case, what with the height difference, and was picturing going around in jeans a foot too long. But this approach may be what means I don't need to order maternity t-shirts. A task I'd been dreading, not least because wherever you get them, they'll cost three times that of an equivalent regular t-shirt. And what are you then supposed to do with those side-ruched, stretch-material t-shirts afterwards?

And now, what seems like it would work but does not:

 -Empire waist dresses. I know this is the look that says ‘pregnancy’ but this is, again, because the style gives the illusion of a larger midsection, and not because it’s actually comfortable when pregnant. The waist won’t fall where it needs to, and or will go from fitting right one day to near-bursting the next. I got an absolutely stunning navy prairie-ish dress at Durumi, a Korean boutique on Queen West – $35 down from $129! – that would be perfect for Park Slope Writer Mom. Empire-ish waist, button-up torso. Pockets. It fit perfectly for a week or so, but if I try again it will almost certainly rip.

 -The jeans you find when Googling “maternity jeans,” or stocked in the posh maternity boutiques where you can go to buy bras but not under any circumstances look around at the clothes. These jeans are $300 (in Canada, at least) and even if they’re good (which, judging by how they looked on a Tribeca Whole Foods Mom I saw in the Toronto obgyn waiting room, they very well might be), they can’t be that amazing, because they're still jeans with a strange stretchy inset, and that will only fit correctly for a few minutes. If I were ever to spend $300 on jeans (unlikely), I’d want at least the prospect of decent cost-per-wear, which this situation pretty much rules out.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Maternity garb, Part I: fantasies


Before the day came when I, personally, required special clothing to accommodate an ever-expanding midsection, I had only the vaguest idea of maternity style, or put another way, what you do when, abruptly, none of your clothes fit anymore, and yet the societal requirement to go outside dressed persists. This is at once the very least on my mind at this moment and, in a practical, day-to-day sense, the most. There's an immediate, daunting quality to trying and failing to get dressed in the morning, which the bigger-picture questions (aka anxieties) sort of lack. It is a good, and (relatively) manageable, problem to have.


While pregnant women of course come from throughout society, and have the whole spectrum of attitudes towards their situation, the ones I especially noticed, and who formed my impression of maternity style, were those who Garfinkel and Oates sing about in “Pregnant Women Are Smug.” Women, that is, for whom pregnancy is the pinnacle of bourgeois success. Who’ve checked every box and have now arrived at that one as well. Whose pregnancy look epitomizes that general sense that everything in their lives have lined up.

Do such women exist, really? Almost certainly not - with pregnancy at least as much as everything else in life, particularly where bodies are concerned, there's a lot, even in this supposed post-privacy age, that goes unsaid, or unpublicized.

What I was picking up on, then, was an aesthetic, or more accurately, two overlapping ones: Tribeca Whole Foods Mom, and Park Slope Writer Mom. As for why these two, it’s because these are the women several years my senior who I’d see when walking around New York in my early-mid 20s, as a grad student living in neighborhoods around or not far from such women.

Tribeca Whole Foods Mom – epitomized by Gwyneth Paltrow, who for all I know has never even been to that Whole Foods – involves being unfathomably rich, and toned in a way only possible with infinite money and personal training. There’s an enormous rock of an engagement ring. She wears head-to-toe name-brand, but understated, athleisure. She swaps out her Chanel and La Mer beauty products for still-pricier organic alternatives. This lady would have been selected to do a maternity installment of Into The Gloss’s Top Shelf, and would have inspired my 26-year-old, very much not-pregnant self to buy some too-expensive non-toxic nail polish. A California approach, but a bicoastal lifestyle. 

Park Slope Writer Mom, then, involves not quite as much money, but still a bunch. (A brownstone is likely, but could well have been purchased before those got so expensive.) Its essentials: clogs and in-the-know literary tote bags. As for clothing? Those long, notoriously plain dresses sold in Brooklyn boutiques where everything’s at least $400 (but ethically produced!) and nothing’s on sale. She was probably eating organic already but now that she's pregnant this isn't even a question. She not only has feelings about being pregnant (who doesn’t??) but the openness, talent, and connections needed to weave those into a well-received essay or memoir.

These two aesthetics, then, sit in the back of my mind as I try to sort out my own maternity style. I say “the back” because ultimately the question of style has not much entered into it.

Here’s what happened: One day, my clothing all fit. (I’ve moved apartments a lot, so stuff that didn’t fit for other reasons hadn’t moved with me.) Then it was like, neat, my jeans are snug, I really am pregnant! Then, suddenly, and earlier than the internet said this would happen, even leggings were too tight to get on. Dresses and shirts that probably made me look pregnant when I was not didn’t work, either – maternity-esque is not good enough. The lower bit of my wardrobe became limited to sweatpants and (certain) running shorts, not that I'm running anywhere in them. And now, at just past the halfway point, t-shirts have become an issue.

What I was left with was more an engineering (and frugality) challenge than a fashion one: How can I go outside and look decent, in the covered-up sense, not necessarily the elegance one? How do I convince myself to get past my usual rule for clothing purchases — only buying stuff I desperately want and have contemplated for months — when the time has come to emergency-purchase any cheap pair of pocket-having shorts that are big enough but don't fall down? And least expected of all, given my previous experience of Toronto 'summer' as a whole lot of nothing for which a/c isn't even required: How do I combine these new proportions with the fact that it's ten trillion degrees out this year, and in my current state feels hotter still, in a world where "maternity" is code for "thick band of fabric going up to the armpits"? These questions and more will be addressed in Part II...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Toronto is better. Except for the thing with the cars.

Whenever I'm in both my hometown of New York City and my current home of Toronto in a short span of time, I can't help but compare. And it's a comparison where Toronto does quite well. Not always, but generally. Even setting aside (is this possible, though?) such things as universal healthcare; the knowledge that Trump either is or is not the leader of the country you're in (though I did see a MAGA hat today in Pusateri's); and Canada's flaws and xenophobes versus America's... baby-cage immigration policy, Toronto, for me at least, generally comes out ahead.

Day to day, it's just more livable. Mostly, the streets here are not coated in garbage-juice slick, with the accompanying smell (and water bugs) this implies. Apparently it's possible to have a big and vibrant city without a layer of filth. Who knew? The subways... there aren't a whole lot of them here, but the ones there are will arrive every few minutes, with the time posted, and with stations not covered in a still-stickier version of the sidewalk slime. The streetcars are also a good time, most of the time anyway.

And while both cities are expensive/gentrified, this is to wildly different degrees. In Toronto it means there are lots of often-but-thankfully-not-always expensive little shops and cafés. Whereas in New York, it's empty storefronts (the landlords apparently holding out hope for ultra-upscale tenants) interrupted by the occasional bank or Potbelly sandwich establishment. It baffles me to no end that Torontonians make shopping trips to New York, when the journey makes so, so much more sense in the other direction. What are they even buying? (The Everlane showroom and Reformation sample sale had such potential, but were meh and disappointing, respectively. Whereas Durumi, it's like, please ring it all up, yes even the stuff meant for 19-year-olds.)

But then there's this one teensy thing: cars. For whichever structural and cultural reasons, in Toronto, crossing the street is regularly a near-death experience, while in New York, not so much.

The structural bit is clear: Toronto's a city of large, two-way streets, with right on red permitted, and with much of the population living in places not well-served by public transportation.* Parking spots are often on the sidewalk itself, and even where they're not, ubiquitous garages mean you risk getting hit by a car even between intersections. Also: there aren't a whole lot of crosswalks, even in high-foot-traffic areas. West Queen West is basically a more dense (and fun!) version of Bedford in Williamsburg, with plenty on both sides of the street, but practically no way to get from one side to the other. The city's layout is such that the limited attention paid to car-alternatives seems to focus on biking, as versus walking. This, even though the climate here is maaaybe a bit more conducive to the latter. 

In terms of the city's layout, I have to admit, carless though I am here, it's genuinely limiting here not to have a car. A fact I'm reminded of every time I look up some destination (generally Japanese groceries) in another part of town. (Google Maps tells me it's an hour and five minutes to the Japanese strip mall by public transit, or 28 minutes by car.) But I can just... walk to HMart for many of the same ingredients. For me and my udon needs, it's not a big deal. But if any part of your routine (work, school, etc.) demands a journey like the one I've described, then yeah you likely need a car. I can't rule out the possibility of this at some point applying to me, either.

The cultural factors are trickier for me to make sense of, but I suspect the usual stigma on adult carlessness, which much of New York somehow avoids, exists here, even in the absence of necessity. There's also a pedestrian culture of respecting (or just not wanting to be mowed down by?) drivers. It's not just that, when the pedestrian and traffic lights turn green, one or several cars get to make the right turn before however many pedestrians get to cross. (You can try to march ahead, but this will lead either to coming close to getting run over or just to getting drivers furious.) It's also the infuriating thing where you get to an intersection and a fellow pedestrian is gesturing that rare, reticent driver to go ahead and make the turn, without acknowledging that maybe other pedestrians don't want this or more to the point, didn't see this in time.

In any case, the news here is full of stories of... exactly what feels like it's going to happen all the time. People walking or biking beside the massive highway system that is our downtown roads end up getting mowed down. As I understand it, political opposition to this state of affairs isn't where it needs to be. ('Cars are people, too' seems to be a respectable opinion.) So how about it, Toronto? Why not let the people cross?

*If you're willing to put up with NY-style space and amenities or lack thereof, then you, too, might be able to live somewhere in Toronto where driving isn't necessary. Whenever someone wonders at my walk to work, I feel obliged to explain the laundry; space; and a/c situations, none of which are, by this city's standards, what might be considered optimal. I also think having spent the first few years of my life sharing a one-bedroom with my parents makes me less sympathetic than most to the notion that having even one child somehow ethically necessitates such luxuries as extra rooms; a yard; and the ability to drive around several children at a time. The notion that carless urbanites are simply rich people who can afford to live suburban lifestyles but in the city center doesn't necessarily add up.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Incel Question

When it arrived in the last few news cycles, the incel phenomenon was not entirely new to me. I was in Santa Barbara not long after the most notorious incel attack, and was a couple Toronto neighborhoods away when the most recent one occurred. (Or maybe not the most recent? More on that in a moment.) And if we go back further still, in my too-online grad school years, I would sometimes horrified-read the "game" or pick-up artist blogs, or mainly just one of them. I knew that something along those lines was out there.

But I confess that despite copious depths-of-the-internet research behind me, involuntary celibacy is not my research area. (While I'm sure there is a privilege angle on incels, for the book, it didn't really come up.) Because of this, when the topic first made the news, I would just sort of nod along, thinking that yes, I know from offline life, there are some men who truly never get a date, despite (maybe?) wanting to, and while there are also some women in that situation, it's much more common-sense plausible to me that some men in that situation would become violent. (That is, unless self-harm counts.) It all seemed to add up, so I wasn't really questioning it.

Then it hit me. It was around the time the "Stacy" - "Becky" meme was making the rounds. The meme, for link non-clickers, shows the two types of women: one ("Becky") a slender, gamine-type brunette, ala Rooney Mara, the other, "Stacy," resembling a young Pamela Anderson. It was much remarked, on Twitter, that these are both young, conventionally-attractive, white women. Why does this matter? (I'm getting to my epiphany about this, I promise.) Not because it's the done thing on progressive Twitter to list privilege-category qualities for the heck of it (even if, sometimes, yes), but because it offers an insight into the incel outlook: "Women," for this set, are defined as hot women. As women they want to sleep with, or who it would impress their peers to have around. Plain-looking or ugly women, or women over whichever age (22?), or for the racists among them (and sounds like racists are indeed among them!), women who aren't white, simply do not register.

So here, specifically, is what hit me: There are - again, evidence being, offline life - men who think like this. Men who pull a 'no woman will have me' when what they mean is that they're 50 but no 20-something will go out with them. Or that they're a quiet, geeky boy and the homecoming queen hasn't reciprocated. These men are not, by and large, society's undateable outcasts. They're men with unrealistic expectations, who choose to ignore the romantic options they do have. Which is, in and of itself, no crime - if you want to restrict yourself to supermodels, but are prepared for the near-certainty of this demand keeping you single, then by all means! Which is, in general, what seems to happen where straight women with unrealistic expectations are concerned - if anything sometimes unrealistic stated expectations are a way for women who actually wish to remain single to deflect busybodies asking them why they haven't settled down.

The problem that inevitably arises is that these men are not OK with the injustice of 'no woman' wanting them. They get resentful, misogynistic, bitter. They feel - pardon the over-used word, but here it sure applies - entitled. The anger itself is real, even if the 'no woman will have me' bit is a figment of their imagination, fueled by their warped definition of who counts as a woman. Consider the more-recent-than-Toronto Texas school shooting, where the killer may (or may not) have been inspired by a girl's rejection. Was that an "incel" attack? Or might it fall within the depressingly everyday category of male-entitlement-fueled violence?

But that's only Part I of the epiphany. Part II: these men - the ones calling themselves incels or committing crimes in the name of that identity - are young. Teens, early 20s. If you feel, in high school, that no one will date you, or indeed if your experience, in high school, is that no one has expressed interest in you romantically, that is... not remarkable. Add to that cohort people whose high school experience is that no one they like likes them back, and this is truly a ton of people. Girls and boys alike.

There's thus something not just unethical (as has been amply discussed) but absurd about discussing "redistribution" - of sex, let alone of wives - to men too young to (necessarily) have either. That a man, at 21, hasn't found love doesn't make him one of society's forgotten. Most of the time, it makes him a man who hasn't had his first girlfriend yet, but who will within the next few years. The pain of being  21 - or 15! - and not having your overtures reciprocated is plenty real. But it's an entirely normal part of youth for many, regardless of gender. The way to address it is to remind young people of that fact. It's not to find ways to address the 'injustice' of not every teenager having a partner. To conflated undesired singleness at 35, 40 with undesired datelessness at 18 is quite bonkers. But it's what's required to believe "incel" is a thing, or, rather, is the thing it presents itself as.

Putting these two items together: There's been this great media discussion about The Men Who Can't Get A Woman - not consensually and not without paying. While such men doubtless exist, there doesn't appear to be any reason to believe the self-identified "incels" are all or even mostly members of that demographic. They might just as easily be a) men who can't get unattainable women to date them, b) boys and young men at an age where only their most socially adept classmates have paired off, or some combination. Yes, these men are angry. But men are - again, I speak from offline anecdote, not Reddit research - often angry for mundane Category A and B sorts of reasons.

Moreover, figuring out just how involuntarily celibate the incels are would be tricky, given that Category A men may genuinely believe that no woman would have them, simply because women over 22 or over 120 pounds are not on their radar.

The trouble is that The Incel is - to borrow from how historian Ronald Schechter brilliantly explained the role of The Jew (as in, the abstract idea of Jews) for the French Enlightenment - "good to think." The notion of the man who, try as he might, can't find a living soul who'll date him is indeed sad and intellectually compelling.

I'm not going to bother discussing "redistribution" arguments any further. Clearly, even if the incel phenomenon is indeed entirely about the most tragic cases, these men are not owed partners. I'm instead going to mention two otherwise good essays that make mistake of assuming, without questioning this, that "incels" are men who can't find women.

Jessa Crispin makes a thoughtful case for a society less fixated on coupledom:

If love and sex can be divorced from status and privilege, if we can reimagine what makes a partner desirable, if we can provide a stable alternative to married life that is something other than a life alone, we can alleviate suffering. Not only for the angry young men of the internet, but for everyone who is alienated and lonely.
As does Dan Savage, regarding stigmatization of sex work:
[A] cultural transformation that’s long overdue and goes hand in hand with the notion that women, not men, own their own bodies: adults who do sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals) and adults who hire adults doing sex work of their own free will shouldn’t be stigmatized (or treated like criminals). The former cultural transformation will solve the “incel” problem; the latter will lessen the misery of sexual deprivation, i.e. involuntary celibacy.
Neither Crispin nor Savage is coming at the topic with generosity towards violent self-id'd involuntary celibates. That's not the issue here. Both make persuasive arguments for a kinder society. (If not precisely the ones I'd make, which is really beside the point here.) Both, however, anchor their progressive arguments in the incel question: If society improves like so, this will make everyone happier, and also, no more incels. Both, in other words, implicitly agree that the incels are indeed involuntarily celibate, or as Crispin puts it, "alienated from the romantic and sexual marketplace."

Why am I holding forth on this? Because I think there's a danger in taking The Incel Question at face value. Doing so leads inevitably to sympathy where none (or, at least, far less) may be needed. It also reinforces the idea that there's something specific and urgent about men who aren't romantically satisfied. This is particularly true of Savage's argument, which begins with an acknowledgment that men and women alike experience ongoing rejection, but offers an answer that only addresses the men. I say this not just because the answer he gives is destigmatized sex work (which in theory could involve male sex workers for straight women), but because midway through the post, he switches over to talking just about men:
There are men out there who are so profoundly socially disabled—so socially awkward or maladapted or damaged—that they just as incapable of finding finding sex and/or romance through 'normal' channels as a quadriplegic confined to a bed in his mother’s home. 
Now, one might say, of course he's focusing on men; that's who, when lonely, sometimes get violent! But this just brings me back to my point about it being unreasonable (maybe even credulous) to pin male violence on extreme loneliness. Especially when one considers - as some of the response to The Incel Question, including by Savage himself elsewhere, thankfully has - that far more male violence targets women that men are or had been romantically involved with.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Toronto's best inconvenient eats

Among the many reasons I could not be a food critic: how much I like a meal is almost entirely dependent on how hungry I am at the time, and how much I'm up for the food in question. If the answer to both is "very," then chances are I'm about to eat the best pizza/udon/dumplings I've ever had.


Scarcity is everything where food is concerned, even among the world's fortunate for whom this isn't about necessity, but rather, about the freely-chosen decision to get on that enormous line for that place you read about. The more involved it is to actually sit before the food in question, the better the food. That's why San Francisco is known as this great gourmand destination - the city is just one enormous line for a decent-but-not-all-that croissant. But when you actually get the croissant, it's 6pm and you're just so happy to finally have breakfast.

Toronto's climate and culture don't lend themselves to this phenomenon. It's not an especially laid-back city, and more to the point, it's almost always too cold to stand outside on a line. And yet, it's a food city. Maybe more so than New York, where the hot new restaurant is going to be more of about the scene. (She says, having mostly read about those restaurants, preferring to spend time back home on a continual Murray's mozzarella - Shake Shack - Greenmarket - Sobaya loop.) So yes, people here line up, year-round. I can attest to this as one of the people in question.

That said, a caveat is in order! That there's a line doesn't necessarily mean the food you're waiting for is worth it. After months of contemplating doing so, I eventually waited for the line-having ice cream on Ossington. And it was... fine? Then there's the huge line near Trinity Bellwoods Park for soft-serve ice cream that's purple or jet-black or something, at any rate apparently very Instagrammable, maybe tasty too but I've never been convinced enough to find out.

So, in order of somewhat subjective inconvenience, and leaving out places (J-Town for raisin bread and assorted Japanese ingredients; Gourmand for chocolate chip cookies...) whose inconvenience rests solely on my refusal to own/borrow a car, or that (Yummy Yummy Dumplings) are a bit off the beaten path but straightforward enough once you've arrived:

-Soba Canada. This is a Tuesday-nights-only pop-up, walkable from my apartment. I taught this year on Tuesday nights, so for a long time trying this was the dream. (Toronto has infinite ramen possibilities, but soba/udon are harder to track down.) I made a reservation for the one Tuesday I could go, but there was a soba shortage in Manitoba so that didn't happen. Then eventually another Tuesday worked out, and I went! Most of what I remember about the meal was that there was this huge table across from us, taking professional-seeming photos of their food. I remember the soba as being very good, but also that a bunch of menu items were unavailable.

-Tasso. At a storefront in Cabbagetown, bus and subway away, but quick. It's got the best French pastries (kouign amann especially) in the city, but is only open Friday through Sunday (but not this Friday through Sunday - they're on break), only in the mornings, and tends to sell out quite early. Yes, I have seen lines at Tasso in winter. The drawbacks: no seating, and the distinct possibility you'll get off that bus to find you're too late. The second-best pastries - Nadège - are also quite good, and there you can do things like arrive at 3pm and sit down with your croissant (or kouign amann), but Tasso is just... incredible. Once it's again comfortable eat-on-a-bench season, I'll head back.

-Famiglia Baldassarre. A free local magazine appears in the mailbox every so often. On the cover of the latest issue was a photo of some pasta being handmade, at what the interior of said magazine explained was a former pasta speakeasy turned above-board, line-having pasta place. A line? I was already intrigued. Advice to arrive 15 minutes before opening time? Yes. Open only four days a week? Oh yes. In further scarcity: every day, there are just two pastas to choose from, so you have to check on Instagram (and, uh, wait for the semester to be over) to see whether it makes sense to head out and get on that line. (I would not have taken the bus for duck-filled pasta. Spinach-and-ricotta ravioli with butter and parmesan, however...)

Well! The day came that doing this made sense (as much as it ever would), and... it was pretty involved. First step was a bus - and not one of the ones I normally take, but one requiring a bit of a walk first - to a neighborhood (Davenport, according to Google Maps) I'd never been to, and didn't quite understand. Was it super posh and residential? Was it abandoned warehouses? Whatever it was, it seemed an unlikely place for a business requiring foot traffic, but it would seem this is not such a place after all. It was May, but well under 50 degrees F. And yes, the line to sit went outside. But when I say "the line to sit," I'm referring to what I thought this was the line for. It was, in fact, the line to order. (A line that took forever, but everyone on it bonded over obsession with the prospect of hard-to-get pasta.) Once you get indoors, you first wait in a warehouse-type entryway, complete with a list of rules about ordering. Only then do you reach the line inside the place itself, where you can watch the staff make from-a-movie-looking pasta from scratch, as you alternate between salivating and wondering if you were a fool not to just put up some DeCecco at home.

Reach the front and you then have to wait for one of the handful of tables to become available. This wouldn't have been so tricky if it weren't for The Lady, who was telling a friend some apparently very engaging or engaging-to-tell story and would not stop, even though both were clearly long since done with their lunch, sitting there oblivious to the horde waiting to sit.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The line takes so long that once you get to the front of it, you need to have decided on your order, as well as on any pasta you might wish to purchase to take home, but also whether or not you want a dessert gelato bar for after. I knew from the get-go I'd be buying more pasta (I mean), but wasn't sure if I'd want the dessert, so I asked at the counter if it would be possible, line-logistics-wise, to decide after the meal. It would not. I decided against - this was about the pasta.

Several decades after setting out for lunch, I was in front of the best plate of pasta I have ever eaten, ever. Yes, I do tend to think this about cheese-filled pasta, including the kind I'd have as a kid, from the frozen-foods section of very much pre-food-movement New York supermarkets. But even so, the dough and filling were just better than they ever are, ever. While I was indeed biased by the long wait, because the advice had been to show up before noon, and I hadn't arrived much later, I wasn't unusually hungry, so I'd like to think this was somewhat fair judging. It was so good that I... got back on the (admittedly by then far shorter) line, not just to pick up the pasta I'd already bought, but also to buy some more. It wasn't even 2pm, the end of the lunch service (the store itself closes at 5), but they were already running low. 16 ricotta-only filled ravioli were, however, available. The trick will be not to sit down and eat $15 worth of pasta in one sitting, since that sort of defies the purpose of eating in, but I will probably do exactly that any day now. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A year later

March 14. That felt familiar, but why? Pi day? But familiar beyond this. (I'm reasonably pi-day-indifferent.) And then it hit me: My book! The Perils of "Privilege" came out March 14, 2017. This is a date I was so keenly aware of in the year or so prior to it, but somehow less so once it passed. A year! I still can't quite believe I wrote a book, and am so grateful to everyone who helped make that happen, who read the book, bought/borrowed it, and reviewed or otherwise wrote about it.

Here's some of what the book is about:

-Why the privilege call-out ('check your privilege', etc.), which in theory seems like a way around making it about the person being called out, somehow manages to do just that.

-Misogyny presenting itself as progressivism (as in, it's not women who are the problem, of course not, just privileged women however defined, who are the worst).

-The way a privilege framework fails to address anti-Semitism, in part because Jews don't 'count' as marginalized, and in part because of the age-old anti-Semitic notion of 'Jewish privilege.'

-The trickiness of reconciling a privilege framework with idiosyncratic obstacles.

-Problematic faves.

-2016 (sorry!), and how Bernie and Hillary supporters were united in their belief that supporting the other candidate was evidence of privilege.

-Trumpism as a warped version of/pushback to the privilege framework.

-Blog comments. Tweets, but also blog comments. The all-too-common online situation of people getting called out for forms of privilege they don't possess. (My biggest regret about the book is that I didn't assertively make the case for treating online as part of life, rather than a distraction one can simply ignore. I'd gone that direction intentionally, but could have better spelled out my reasons.)

Writing a book falls into that category of experiences that can change everything and nothing. It can lead to fluctuating thoughts: My book is Very Important and this is insufficiently recognized followed up with My book is garbage and the most critical reviewers have found me out, in my profound foolishness. As I understand it, this is - in context - normal. And frankly the book has been more appreciated than I could have ever hoped: a review (and a "notable" inclusion) in the Washington Post, a mention in a NYT op-ed, TVO and C-Span Book TV, NPR and WNYC, and more.

But until the gods of your-ideas-are-actually-amazing appear and declare that you and your work count, the anxieties are there. (OK, even when something like that happens.) Partly it's because - how else to put this? - it's not super duper profitable to write a book. Unless you're offering up 12 Rules for making your bed the way lobsters do, book-writing is a side job. (Tangentially related: I'm fairly sure I managed to disappoint both those who'd hoped my book would be about how "privilege" is a myth and actually white men are the real victims and those who'd been expecting an earnest treatise on how the world would be a better place if everyone acknowledged their privilege already.)

The question of... what's next. I have a bunch of smaller-than-a-book projects in mind, some underway, so maybe one of those? (While I'm still - force of habit, plus people send me links - following "privilege", it may be time for something new.) Will need to wait until the end of the semester, but the dream of maybe writing a book again, maybe, isn't entirely kaput.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Anatomy of a troll: why the yoga pants story is a Work of Art

Some texts demand close readings, and none more so than today's NYT op-ed by Honor Jones, "Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women." First, we have the author: not, as some surmised, a pseudonym. But it's the piece itself that I can't put aside. By design, no doubt, but, just, wow. Nearly a thousand comments! (Including from the requisite dude who doesn't care about fashion, doesn't care so much that he simply had to comment on a fashion article. Maybe several variations - haven't combed through all 910.) A nerve was, as they say, hit.


As a traditional op-ed, it's... not the greatest. It's not urgent, not topical, not consistent, but *is* mean-spirited. The premise - "Whatever happened to sweatpants?" - falls apart instantly, upon noticing that lots of people these days do indeed wear sweatpants, just not on the elliptical machine because they're too warm for that activity. 

As a trolling, 2018 NYT op-ed page installment, however, it is magnificent. I have this compelling, inexplicable need to pinpoint why. Here goes:

Feelings journalism:

"I got on the elliptical. A few women gave me funny looks. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe they were concerned that my loose pants were going to get tangled in the machine’s gears. Men didn’t look at me at all."

What we're getting, to be clear, is not a report on something that happened. We're getting the author's feelings about others' feelings about her, as she imagines them. Projection, in other words. Like the original viral (also New Years-ish-themed!) yoga-class hate-read (the one in xoJane), we have a story built around one person's private anxieties, but presented as if offering the views of actual other people. I don't do yoga - maybe it lends itself to this? At any rate, feelings journalism is outrage-bait, because the reader immediately sees through the rhetoric and is like, you don't actually know what these other people are thinking, hmm!

A forced feminist thesis:

"It’s not good manners for women to tell other women how to dress; that’s the job of male fashion photographers."

This is, I think, the key to the text. Jones is making a feminist case for women telling other women they're dressed all wrong. Because... well, because it's a woman saying it, and because it's kind of like high heels, except it isn't. The problem - which is to say, the genius - is that yoga pants aren't uncomfortable, or some sort of tax on being a woman. They're just... leggings, give or take, which more men would wear if this were socially acceptable. "We aren’t wearing these workout clothes because they’re cooler or more comfortable. [...] We’re wearing them because they’re sexy." 

Except, are we? If this is the Very Enlightened Feminist Case Against Yoga Pants, why does Jones refers to them as "pants that [...] threaten to show every dimple and roll in every woman over 30"? Is the issue that women shouldn't try to look hot at the gym, or - and how exactly is this feminist? - that women are trying and failing

But the over-30 addition is just part of the sinister genius of the op-ed. How many NYT readers (or others who come across the article) are women, over 30, who own stretch pants? Add to that trillion the men with opinions on stretch pants on women of various ages and physiques, and there you have it.

Sartorial side note: there was a time when leggings showed everything, but the technology has improved, which may explain why women are all wearing yoga pants these days.

#MeToo, misunderstood:

"We felt we had to look hot on dates — a given. We felt we had to look hot at the office — problematic. But now we’ve internalized the idea that we have to look hot at the gym? Give me a break. The gym is one of the few places where we’re supposed to be able to focus on how our bodies feel, not just on how they look. We need to remember that. Sweatpants can help."

This brings up an interesting angle: Why not concentrate your spending - and your primping - on gymwear? Maybe we've finally gotten it right - office clothes can be purchased for not much money at H&M or Uniqlo or whatever (black slacks, navy sweater, done), whereas the outfits worn in the setting that's both me-time (or me-time-adjacent) and a place where it's (relatively) OK to flirt (again, compared with at work; caveat that I've never actually belonged to a gym, and have no idea) are the ones you really save up for. Maybe leggings should cost more than blazers! In the name of work-life balance!

But what we're looking at here is, it's like the ukelele video. Choosing to mention the need to look hot at work, in a piece not really about that, but offering up only an ironic "problematic" as commentary, is... problematic! Which is, I think, the point.

Inconsistency:

"Frankly, I’m annoyed by the whole booming industry around women’s exercise..."

Is this an article about women wearing the wrong thing to the gym, or about it being wrong to be at the gym in the first place? 

Personal-finance judginess:

Telling people they're paying too much for X is just always always always irritating. You can't know that someone with $100 yoga pants didn't save up for those, or that this is somehow evidence of financial irresponsibility. Also? There are a whole lot of cheapo leggings out there, so the fact that a woman is wearing stretchy pants doesn't mean she's wearing those stretchy pants. And sales exist, as do thrift stores. As do people who quite simply knowingly pay a lot for workout wear because they want to, what's it to her???

The 2016 election:

"Pantsuits had a moment, back in 2016. I think women are ready to give them another chance."

Hillary! No troll is complete without the opportunity to spark a Twitter debate over whether Bernie would have, if given the chance, won.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the rest

It's becoming something of a truism, even among those who support it, that #MeToo needs to make room for nuance. Once the question moved beyond whether Harvey Weinstein was the worst (I mean, clearly?), it started to be clear that the way ahead couldn't be declaring half the population equally the worst, let alone extending that worst-ness assessment to all women who fail to get it right on a proper schedule.

Unfortunately, there's a pronounced lack of nuance on the ostensibly pro-nuance side. Not always, but... often. Arguments against purity politics have this way of overstating exactly what happens when otherwise progressive types disagree on one point or other. The reality is bad enough; there's no need to claim it's worse than it is. (Unless that claim has become your brand; more on that in a moment.)

Witness this, one of the good (if not Good) parts of Katie Roiphe's notorious Harper's essay*:

Part of what bothers many of the people I talked to is the tone of moral purity. As a culture, we seem to be in the midst of dividing ourselves into the flawless and the fallen, the morally correct and the damned.
Yes. Also yes:
To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.
And yet, where's the nuance in this pro-nuance manifesto? Roiphe dwells on "thought policing," and tends towards hyperbole, to put it mildly. (A New Republic article guilty at most of being a bit of-the-moment and preaching-to-the-converted has, to Roiphe's ears, "the friendly yet threatening tone of a low-level secret policeman in a new totalitarian state.") She leads with the refusal of her sources to speak on the record, concluding that this is because questioning conventional feminist wisdom on #MeToo leads to banishment. Which... how could it, when so many high-profile backlash pieces have appeared?

How could Roiphe conclude anything greater from the reticence of her sources, when as she herself acknowledges, hers was an unusual case: Justified concern that her piece would be outing the identity of the "Shitty Media Men" document's creator, along with widespread knowledge of where Roiphe stands on this issue, meant that she wasn't simply a reporter looking to see which opinions were out there. To speak to Roiphe on the record meant something beyond the usual risk of having one's words quoted out of context. Nuance here, I should think, would require proportionate annoyance or anger at male misbehavior as well as a proportionate response to progressive sanctimony, which is not in fact totalitarianism.

And yet, and yet, while witch-hunt rhetoric overstates the case; confuses matters; and has this way of presenting the very powerful as the only real victims... there is an expected stance on everything (and everyone) these days, and if you don't agree to it, you risk something. But what, exactly? 

That's where it gets tricky. The fear of being ostracized often exceeds the reality of that threat. The pain caused by being called garbage on Twitter - and please please please read Katie Herzog on this phenomenon - can exceed the power of the 20 people who've just declared you the worst. 

There's a psychic toll from a culture where you're Good or Bad, and forever at the risk of slipping into the wrong category. Yes, even if you're someone who in theory stands to gain clicks or book sales from causing controversy, but goodness knows, especially if you're not. Also! Given what writing pays, it's, not a long shot that someone who stands to gain clicks, even book sales, from controversy could also lose their livelihood from the same.

As I see it, the goal here shouldn't be praising nuance for its own sake. It's that a Good vs Bad framework leaves a vacuum for the (genuinely) Bad, as well as for qualm-less profiteers prepared to embrace Unapologetic The Worst status in exchange for such things as Patreon income or the US presidency.

*My other, sleepily-expressed thoughts on the piece:

-Yes, it's odd that someone not used to using Twitter is claiming expertise on Twitter, and yes, it's possible to read too much into individual tweets, but no, it's not inherently bad journalism to treat public tweets by professional writers as writing they have done, and to quote it and respond to it.

-Why couldn't the piece have been what it at first seemed like it would be about, namely about how women somehow wind up the ones held accountable (in this case, via purity-politics demands) for men's misbehavior? (Already - I promise - a somewhat controversial stance.) Why the men-are-the-real-victims direction?

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Skincare overanalysis overanalyzed

A writer questioned the skincare craze, and Twitter - OK, a good % of the women writers I follow on Twitter, plus a couple of early, quick-take articles backlashing the backlash - let this writer know that she'd been way off. Easy for a young woman (the writer is, apparently, young) to write something like that! And it's sexist to dismiss pursuits just because women enjoy them! And dismissing skincare as evil toxic chemicals is anti-science! Can't anyone have fun?

There were problems with the original piece, most notably the choice to snark at the skin quality of skin-routine-havers. That said, the response - or, rather, the skewed version of it my 34-year-old self was getting - struck me as overshooting the mark. Or maybe not that exactly - more like, the flaws of that specific article segued a bit too easily into a defense of skincare itself. Which... maybe doesn't need defending? Or maybe does? Gah!

To write about skincare (which I've been doing, here and there, for... long enough that my age is showing), you sort of have to situate yourself. If I say I'm meh about skincare, but don't say who I am, I'm a clear-skinned 20-year-old with no stressful life events to speak of. So allow me to gaze in the mirror and offer you a glimpse of My Skin, as of January 30th, 2018:

Now that I'm ancient and live in the arctic, I use a facial moisturizer. It's this one. For soap, this one. I also own, but never remember to use, a foaming face wash from Japan via Markham. I do not - should, but I don't - wear sunscreen in winter, in Toronto, under my giant hat-and-hood combination. In summer, yes - it's a Vichy stick. Because I wear makeup - eyeliner, sometimes mascara, concealer, sometimes that Glossier eyebrow mascara because who am I to judge - I also use eye makeup remover. Which is... it, I think? Where this puts me on the maintenance-ness spectrum isn't so clear.

Why I don't have (much of) a skincare routine is less about having good skin (more on that in a moment) than about having complicated hair. There's only so much time and $$ I'm willing-and-able to throw at looking like the best-looking 34-year-old 5'2" woman I possibly can. I chose hair, or maybe hair chose me. Between a natural hair texture described in countless essays by my fellow Ashkenazi ladies (who rarely mention their ethnicity in these pieces, lest that lead down the sinkhole of discussing what "Jewish" hair can mean, when not all Jewish women have it, I know, I know) and an immature devotion to dyeing my hair all different ways, there's just sort of a lot going on, hair-product-and-equipment-wise, at any given time. That means various conditioners and hair products in rotation, plus a recent trip to a salon to (this is embarrassing) fix the ombré I thought I could do myself but as it turned out, no. (My hair, for the record, isn't orange-tipped anymore.) Plus a hair dryer, hair iron, plus a somewhat-coveted hair-iron brush thingy.

Point being: I'm in zero position to tell other women a) that I'm sure their skin looks just fine, what are they worrying about, or b) that skincare, because I don't personally get much out of it, couldn't possibly be fun. I don't like how I look with unstyled hair. I also enjoy doing my hair! Both! Self-hatred? Self-care? Self-something; I'm quite certain no one else is losing sleep over what my hair is up to.

So it's partly a hair thing, but also... I suppose I do think skincare is - for me - fairly pointless. Not pointless because I have no complaints in that area - other stuff too, but most saliently, I'm 34! and I look 34! and our society demands women look under 25! I do not lead a stress-free existence! - but because I'm not convinced any intervention I could afford, and feel OK with, would do anything other than cause breakouts. I don't doubt that there are interventions that would remove every enumerable feature that makes me look 10 years older than I did 10 years ago - how could I doubt this when half the storefronts in my part of Toronto sell just that service? It's that I'm cynical and am convinced the women whose public personas have them looking flawless from $10 serums may well use those serums but look the way they do for other, more expensive (injectable) reasons.

(If I find I'm looking a bit pale and are-you-feeling-ok, I'm so easy-breezy that I don't use glow-inflecting skincare products... but instead go with the obviously much nobler option of a Charlotte Gainsbourg for NARS Multiple stick. Obviously. And - need this be stated? - if in ten years my home resembles a Shoppers Drug Mart parapharmacie aisle, never mind any of what I just said...)

What gets to me about skincare, then, isn't skincare routines themselves (which, again, I get it, even if I don't get it), but the increasing conflation of this one thing with conventional femininity, and more specifically, with a sort of humility. There's this odd shame in not going in for this, in not treating your skin as an ever-perfectable part of yourself. It's as if, if you're not really into skincare these days, it's because you think you're all that, or, conversely, because you don't value yourself enough to establish once and for all, and on your own face, what exactly is a retinoid.

To which one might say, skincare fans aren't asking others to care if they don't! Which, argh, it's tricky. Yes, it's annoying when non-hobbyists, in any area, make a bit thing about their indifference. But it's also the case that baseline expectations on what normal self-presentation requires can ramp up, and that there's this whole industry demanding that women, well, ramp up. And if the only thing that can be said about skincare routines is that it's rude to insult those who have them - which it is - where does that ramping-up stop?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Remember the Food Movement?

Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy's Toronto Star exposé of a Toronto-area bread factory is great journalism. Great for so many reasons, but here's a less-obvious one: it's about the factory, not the imagined consumer of factory-produced bread. It's not that there isn't any connection made in the piece between factory conditions and consumption, but it's an aside, early on: "These may well be the croissants you eat for breakfast." The point of the article is not to make you, the individual possible-croissant-consuming reader, more closely examine your breakfast choices. It's about labor conditions and - as the headline "Undercover in Temp Nation" suggests - the structure of today's economy. That bread is an everyday item we're all familiar with is a way of bringing the reader in. The essential, though, is what happens in the factory where Mojtehedzadeh works undercover:

No one tells me where fire extinguishers or exits are. Another temp confides she didn’t buy safety shoes, which cost the equivalent of a day’s wages. She makes it through the screening anyway. 
The story is about injury, death, and shady business practices at bread factories. The implicit fix the article demands involves changes to, and increased enforcement of, labor law. There's no suggestion whatsoever that the source of the issue is the modern consumer, demanding bread produced in a factory. No cultural archetype posited as The Bad Croissant-Consumer, to be shamed either for being fancy, bourgeois, and croissant-nibbling, or, conversely, for being lower-class and not getting an artisanal-enough croissant (or for having processed carbs to begin with). Nope, the (correct) assumption underlying the piece is that people of all sorts eat packaged bread; that eating is a necessity; and that the issue is how the people producing that bread are treated. It's a story about consumer products, but not about consumption.

It's my sense that ever since the 2016 election, the food movement - and with it, the more general movement to consider individual (posh) consumer choices the ultimate political act - has been kaput. Yes, food is still political. But the thing where status as a good person hinged on choosing spelt over quinoa, or avoiding winter asparagus, that thing is, for better or worse, over. (Better because it was silly, worse because it's a sign of dire times that silly preoccupations get forgotten.)

It feels like ancient history, but there was a time when I felt a bit guilty about my grocery habits. Not for sometimes overspending on cheese (that I still sometimes do, and still feel guilty about), but for ignoring The Rules. Rules laid out by various prophets: Use only the freshest, most local, most seasonal, or else. Or else what? The concern was always a bit vague, but very much rooted in something ethical.

It wasn't 'clean eating' (which persists, as the euphemism for dieting it always was), but this arbitrary dividing line between real food and fake, where authenticity was measured by inconvenience. Inconvenience, and something a bit more sinister, but always between-the-lines: certain food could be trusted (sourced ingredients), whereas other food - in particular, ethnic food - could not. Everything, to be trusted, had to be served to you by a white, flannel-clad, bearded hipster, at a place with farms listed on the menu. This excluded all dining establishments and grocery options falling under the category once problematically referred to as "ethnic." Oh, but Scandinavian food, that was OK. (Gee, I wonder why the food movement as it once was feels passé?)

While the writing itself would often be in the third-person plural, it was clear that a "we" including food writers weren't buying packaged food at supermarkets - those other people were. "We" were spending 60 hours a week sourcing ingredients at Berkeley farmers markets, at Cobble Hill fishmongers (and to be fair, it is a good fishmonger). Except who were "we," anyway? Much was made of food and privilege - of how not everyone is able to live off kale and locally-sourced squab or whatever. But of those who could, how many ever were?

There was also this eternal pre-food-movement mother, the one who foolishly fed her kids supermarket foods, and who didn't value time-consuming food prep the way her son (there, generally, there was a son) the food writer would. Remember that? That was something.

Individual ingredients were declared problematic, the way individual celebrities (and internet randos) are these days. Everything was scary, in this semi-/pseudoscientific way. Tomatoes sprayed to look red, and farmed salmon treated in some way to be pink! Did you know that asparagus came from Chile? Did you? Exposés about how packaged food was engineered to... taste good, a fact presented as if inherently sinister.

From the prophets trickled down an aesthetic, but an aesthetic you could ignore at your own risk - if properly trained, you would think a Rules-meeting diet was the most delicious. There was no subjectivity to this, no possibility that anyone might actually honest-to-goodness prefer certain packaged foods to fresh, or value time over from-scratch preparations. Genuine nutritional concerns (why is sugar added to so many packaged foods?) mixed with aesthetic ones (much of locavorism), as well as ones that were clearly pointing the way to worse eating habits.

When I thought about this rationally, The Rules made little sense: wasn't it a better idea to eat less (or no) meat, rather than locavoring one's way through traceable steak dinners? Wasn't purism re: local/seasonal inhibiting vegetable consumption, if it left grocery-shoppers feeling guilty for buying the only vegetables actually available to them, for months on end, or at all? But most of all: if there were issues with the food system - there were! there are! - why was the proposed solution a change in individual consumer behavior? I found the whole thing irritating at best, pseudoscientific as well as casually sexist and xenophobic. But it still, somehow, led to this nagging sense of guilt, one I can't say has entered my mind in ages.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The pre-Moment moment

I'm thinking of a time that seems long-lost, but was really just a few months ago. The moment before The Moment. During that age, a vision of sex-positivity had emerged that seemed - in practice but not on paper - distinctly focused on giving straight men things they'd always wanted, and had indeed once had, before pesky feminists got in the way. Specifically: sex-positivity meant open relationships (for men; extended to women only if the men in question go for that), sexual adventure, threesomes (with two women). Anything-goes in theory; in practice, anything the people in society with the power over how things go demand. The freedom to be sexual, as long as being sexual involved being that model from that music video, being quoted as saying your latest photographed nudity was about empowerment.

It could seem, then, as if a pre-feminist men's utopia was just getting recast in new terms. As long as antiquated - that is, gendered - language (the "philanderer," say) was studiously avoided, we (intentionally vague "we") were expected to forget about who - for all sorts of reasons, including culture and economics - generally winds up in which role, who's the powerful, who's the passive or screwed-over. As long as there was a nod to the existence of individual women making the most of the new order, as long as there was the occasional Guardian story about a woman with ten boyfriends, that was - or was meant to be - enough.

For me, this all culminates with a Savage Lovecast call, from the immediate pre-Weinstein/#MeToo moment: A young man called in to say that a middle-aged male college professor of his had just asked out his female friend, a recent college grad. Eww! was the caller's thinking. She's just 22! (Or 21. Or 23. Something like that.) The caller was distraught because he'd considered this prof a real intellectual hero. How could A Great like professor whatshisname do something so crude, so tacky, as to ask out a girl he's friends with?

Dan Savage's answer - about consenting adults, the "campsite rule" (Savage's wise suggestion that in age-gap relationships, the older partner leave the younger better than they'd found them), and the possibility that there's something in it for the younger partner as well - struck me as technically right but... incomplete. Yes, there was something up with the caller, with his notions about sexuality (why wouldn't a prof exist as a human being, outside the classroom?). Yes, a 22-year-old college graduate is an adult, not a (college) student, and as fair-game for an aging prof to hit on as a random 50-year-old, 90-year-old, etc. And yes, it sure did between-the-lines seem as if the caller wanted to date his same-age friend, and was squicked out not so much by the prof but by the mere fact of another man hitting on the woman he wanted for himself.

But was that the end of the story? Consenting-adults - well, potentially consenting, assuming she returned his interest - and therefore, no one's business but theirs?

There seemed to be a missing piece: There, to my ears, something not great about the situation, but what? What language was there for describing a situation at once OK and not OK? OK as in, yes, consenting adults, we should wish these two people (assuming the woman was interested) all the happiness in the world. Not OK as in, a clichéd scenario like that, playing out for the trillionth time, points to unpleasant things about sexism and power structures. It's OK that this prof asked out this former student; no one's individual, consensual relationships should be judged on the basis of whether they further a progressive cause. But it's not OK that 'powerful older man pursues much-younger woman' is the love story. Which, look, it is, whether it's being celebrated or condemned. Not the only one that's out there in the world - hardly! - but the only one that reliably, and across genre, sells.

A letter to an advice column is always going to be about real people, but also archetypes. And think of it like this: How many Great Genius professors - recognized as such by students of all genders, are middle-aged women? But also (and this gets at why the story was squicky): How many male students must deal with the anxiety of not knowing whether their (female) professors are helping them as educators, or are after something more?

Now what we have is pushback that goes... not too far, exactly, but in sort of the wrong direction. Is it predatory that a pushing-50 movie director has started dating one mid-20s woman after breaking up with another? Is it sinister that a 30-something male comedian was even going on a date with a 20-something female fan in the first place?

I don't think it makes a drop of sense to use the language of abuse to discuss consensual relationships that evoke, by their mere existence, broader unjust structures. But maybe don't ignore those structures, either? Maybe don't treat it as sex-negativity - or as evidence that women just plain don't experience desire because hormones - to mention and challenge the existence of these structures.? I don't know exactly which language is necessary, so platitudes about nuance and middle-ground and so forth will, for now, have to suffice.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The straight-lady non-bleakness manifesto you have been waiting for

What is female heterosexuality, in the age of #MeToo? It strikes me that we're stuck, as a culture, in "an evening that a woman in her early 20s spends with a man in his 30s." Time stands still at that specific life stage, at the moment when a straight (or straight-relationship-having) woman is out in the world, very desirable to others but not quite sure what she herself wants. Also, I suppose, in a specific cultural situation - the young woman is probably either a college student or a recent grad pursuing a glamorous profession, but still at the very lowest rungs. The wide range of women's romantic experiences (real or imagined) that don't fall into that framework are ignored.

Once the ubiquitous Story shifted from Weinstein and the truly vile (or, in a way, even before), it became this odd thing where entertainment narratives about powerful men seducing sheltered women got reinvented as something for everyone to be very concerned about, even if the genuinely very-concerned are a handful of earnest feminists on Twitter, and 99.99% of those following these stories are titillated or just entertained. How much of the Story is about a collective sense that the disappointing-and-worse encounters experienced by early-20s women of a certain class are among the more dire feminist causes has to do with a (justified I think!) sense that they matter, and how much is about the fact that this demographic of women plus this topic will get clicks?

But beyond this, there's a piece missing when it comes to how female sexuality itself gets discussed. There is, of course, the focus on consent, which is both necessary and something that can make it seem as though female heterosexuality consists of sometimes agreeing to what a man has suggested. Add "enthusiastic" to "consent" and what you get is a woman very happy to have said yes to acts suggested by a man, a man who had, initially, shown interest in her, before she'd had a chance to think about him either way. There's increasing understanding about the need to go beyond mere consent, which is a start. And I think B.D. McClay is onto something when she examines why female desire gets left out of the equation:

The problem is that you can't say yes in a world in which your yes is presumed until someone gets a no, just as you can't say no and be understood if no is the only word you're permitted. You can't express desire to a partner who can understand your desire only in terms of acquiescence.
Yes.

There's a challenge, though - a couple of them, actually - as long as this topic stays in the realm of arguments. First has to do with the sheer bleakness of female heterosexuality as presented even in opinion-writing I agree with (or have, for that matter, written myself.) It's not clear what to do, in opinion-land, with the existence of female desire for men. Is it a real pity? How can it be, when it is, for so many women, a source of so much joy? Or, at least, for some women. For a non-zero number of women, is the most I could state with absolute confidence. Which... gets, in turn, to the problem with any conversation about what it means to be a member of an enormous category such as 'straight women.' What does it mean, then?

For some women who so identify, straightness doubtless is about not feeling drawn to women sexually, and just sort of going along with convention - boyfriend, husband, settling down. For others, it's closer to what (some) gay men experience, and involves intense desire for men. (A sort of wiring that doesn't magically disappear upon encountering male awfulness of the #MeToo variety.) For others still, somewhere in between, or something else entirely. There's also a range in how affected individual women are by cultural scripts. It's possible to receive all those many cultural messages about who has which role, who wants what, and then go ahead and just... not live your life like that.

But I - like everyone else I suppose - have trouble believing my idiosyncratic thoughts about everything don't have broader political applicability. And really, wouldn't it be better if The Moment assumed that female heterosexuality consisted of something more than hoping the men life throws at you aren't terrible? Wouldn't recognizing I mean really recognizing the existence of women's desire for men - including for men who may not desire them back - help out in terms of banishing, once and for all, the foolish, dangerous myth that with enough persuasion (or force), any woman would want to have sex with any man? It couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

Friday, January 12, 2018

How to teach French if you are not and never will be Inès de la Fressange

A decade ago, I began teaching French classes. Also began teaching, period. I was 24, and arrived at the role petrified. I was, most importantly, Not A Theater Person. Language-teaching, I learned, was a performance, above and beyond how teaching is generally. How was I going to do this?! How was I - someone who had applied to history grad school but gotten into French grad school instead (long story), who had not specifically sought out the job of French teacher but who had somehow landed on the track where studying French history involved funding gained through teaching conjugations - how was I going to not just teach conjugations but do so in a way that would wow an audience? That anxiety sorted itself out easily enough, and more quickly than I'd have guessed. I just sort of go into teaching mode, not sure exactly how I do this, but it happens. All that my natural non-theatricalness means is that I need to sort of zone out in a chair for a while after doing so.

But my big anxiety, early on, was that I'm not French. Not a native French speaker, but also, not French. At NYU, it was my impression that there was a lot of value placed on being French. (Why did I have this impression? Neurosis, maybe, but also: A professor once told me how good the French was of one of my classmates... a classmate who happened to be - as we both knew full well - French. As if my own then-deficiencies in ease with the language could be fixed, if only I followed that classmate's example.) French classmates with perfect French and shakier English were (or this was my impression) revered for the thoroughness of their Frenchness. Ease in English was like white sneakers (pre-Phoebe Philo): not chic.

I, meanwhile, was in a bit of a bind. I'd gotten into grad school on the basis of being good-enough at the French itself and stronger on writing papers in English about texts I'd read in French. But all attempts at improving my non-nervous-breakdown-having while speaking French were impeded by the fact that I associated the language with an unrealizable goal: being and having always been French.

This sense of failure as a non-French person manifested itself most dramatically in my feelings re: teaching. While the job title was TA, it was always either teaching or co-teaching a course, and here was my big fear: What if a student asks me something I don't know? There's nothing like fixating on this, and more specifically, fixating on how if this were to happen, it would be the end of the world, to guarantee that when students would ask me about words I did know, and I'd freeze and suggest they consult the dictionary that they were ostensibly meant to use in class in cases like that regardless. (The great "poubelle" incident of 2007. How do you say garbage can? How indeed.)

It's only in the past year or so that I've come to realize the following: There are advantages to teaching a language as a non-native speaker. I know, I mean I know, that French proficiency is a skill that can be learned. I know that there's no shame in arriving at French not knowing the gender of new-to-you nouns. And I know that it's entirely possible to communicate in French while still sounding identifiably, to a knowledgeable ear, like a non-native speaker of the language. Yes, pronunciation is important. But the end goal - at least in most French language classes - isn't to turn everyone, no matter their ear, into one of the handful of people who can speak a foreign language and genuinely convince everyone, including the Académie Française, that this language was their first.

I credit this revelation to a bunch of things, but partly to the fact that I'm now teaching French in Canada. There's no expectation here that someone teaching French - native speaker or not - is from Europe as well as give-or-take Inès de la Fressange. That, and working in a French department in a bilingual country means I'm actually using French, at work, to an extent I never was at NYU. In any case, these days, when I teach French, I no longer feel the emotional need to apologize to the class for having not grown up in the 7th Arrondissement.