Friday, February 29, 2008

Samedi, the photos

The photos from last weekend's French Department conference are online. To be an inconspicuous moderator, I decided to dress how I imagined a moderator at a French conference should dress, and I think it worked. There's also an unflattering photo of me eating cheese, surrounded by grad students from three different European countries--the 'Phoebe with cheese' photo has now become a Maison party grad student tradition, but I'll try to look a bit less enthusiastic next time. I do not just come for the cheese! But the cheese was, might I add, most excellent.

Ni droite

It's not hard to imagine a day, in the not-so-distant future, when the main defenders of gay marriage are social conservatives. Once gay marriage becomes an accepted norm, mainstream social liberals will realize what social radical-lefters already do, namely that marriage altogether is a stodgy and outdated tradition. This is because conservatism consists not of defending some unchanging Tradition, but of upholding whatever was the commonly accepted norm fifty years prior. Conservative rhetoric points to an absolute Past, but in practice, conservatism serves as a check on change, making sure change moves slowly, and that the sillier ideas never take hold. Those who do in fact dream of a return to the glorious and unchanging past, of a reactionary revolution, are fascists, not conservatives.

In other words, what Jacob Levy names as a problem in teaching conservative philosophy is also, as he seems to indicate, an issue having to do with conservatism generally. He writes, "One of the problems is that history keeps right on going-- and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling 'stop!' tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he's already living in hell-in-a-handbasket." Agreed. I'd imagine that the only way a conservative tract could hold up is if it asked readers to remember what was commonly accepted a half-century prior, and to urge their current societies to look back on that period nostalgically. This is not a way to get students or any readers enthusiastic about conservatism, but conservatism is by definition not about enthusiasm for change. Is there a way to convey enthusiasm for what ultimately functions as a source of moderation? Maybe the best way is to get at the value of conservatism is read extreme-left texts (past or present), and provide one's own counterarguments. That way it becomes clear that conservatism is not simply a force holding back progress, but rather the one that makes sure change happens as well as possible. As in, yes, things have changed, but if every change progressives ever demanded took place, we would not necessarily be in a better place than we are as is.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Neither nor

I'm doing a class presentation on Zeev Sternhell's Ni droite ni gauche. The book is sort of what Liberal Fascism would be if it weren't a partisan polemic (or, more accurately, ni partisan polemic, ni revisionist history). I can't decide if I should mention Liberal Fascism in said presentation--it's part of what made me interested in Sternhell's book, and is, let's face it, where Sternhell's ideas have most recently been adopted in American thought (or 'thought,' depending how one sees it). But bringing it up is also ni bringing up a serious piece of scholarship, ni referencing Ann Coulter's latest rant, but something in between.

That's the end of the French grammar lesson of the night.

Sparkly toenails

I know Im supposed to be horrified that 9-year-olds are getting pedicures, but what can I say? I've had a whopping total of one pedicures, and I was eleven at the time. A friend's grandmother gave her a gift certificate to bring a friend for this procedure, and I can't say I was hooked. No one is touching my feet! But as for the anti-capitalist, innocent-childhood-saving backlash against the Toenail Polish Industry, I'm not having that, either. The NYT Styles piece concludes,

But cosmetics for girls at any age worries Lucy Corrigan, a mother of two daughters, 8 and 11, in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, N.Y. Still, last year she allowed her younger daughter to go to two salon birthday parties for 7-year-olds. “Of course, it was alarming,” she said. “But I’d rather my girls try it and decide they don’t need all these products to be beautiful, and then do something more vital with their time and money and efforts, like write a poem or take a walk or save the world.”

Because once toenail polish is applied, it is impossible to write verse, emulate Al Gore, and, of course, walk. The problem here is a whole lot like Heather MacDonald's conviction that a college cannot simultaneously host sex workshops and Plato symposia.

"Sparkly shoes"

Hurray for the Internet for making me feel not special. Google has yet to reveal the existence of another Phoebe Maltz (I know I'm the only one), but I now know that I'm not the only person to go to Paris and seek out good food, books on the Dreyfus Affair, and Repetto ballet shoes, in that order. I, like this Gawker blogger, also had to turn down a pair of sparkly Repettos on account of how many Euros the store (Bon Marche, for what it's worth) was asking. It also helped that Jo was there, acting as the anti-shiny-shoe superego that I, of course, lack. (When we got back, I got a pair of silver Rocket Dog ballet flats at Filenes. Not the same.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grass is greener

I could be wrong, but I bet I'm the only person, in the 21st century, who can claim to have become a Zionist on account of the Dreyfus Affair. But I totally did! It happened on the fourth floor of the Reg, to be precise. Or maybe I just looked out the window, saw snowy Chicago, and dreamed of this.

Either way, the point is, I'm a self-hating Jew, but not in the usual sense. I wish I were born Israeli.* Given that there are so many Israelis in NYC that it's hard to believe any are left in Israel, I realize there's something odd about a native New Yorker, lucky enough to have interesting work in NYC as an adult, wishing what I do. And I know that I could become an Israeli citizen relatively easily, as versus, say, a citizen of Japan. But, as I am reminded each day, since my boyfriend and maybe half of my classmates are not American, I am oh so American, and will be this way always, no matter where I live or what my passport says. While I was sitting in the Reg, reading about Herzl to the sound of a grad student clipping his fingernails under the table, my Israeli counterparts were living it.

*I'd imagine this post would be held against me if I ever decided to run for president. But, no danger there.

"Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated?"

Russell Jacoby and Alan Jacobs take a stand against the tendency of academics to "complicate" or "problematize" an issue rather than come up with an interpretation of it. As Jacobs notes (why such similar last names!?), Jacoby himself is, in his denunciation, actually "trying to complicate our understanding of academic habits of mind." But is Jacobs not complicating what Jacoby has to say about complicating? Will my brain stop spinning, or will it keep on rotating furiously?

What's "complicating"? It's taking something that everyone (in your field; in the world) takes for granted and showing that it's not so simple. This is always a necessary first step in academia, so the question is whether you show how it matters that things aren't what they seemed. If they simply aren't what they seemed, end of story, your professors will yell at you and, back to the drawing board. Or so you'd think, but then you see papers that don't go further than, look, neat, who knew? But is this a problem?

I'm not sure. Do all college professors really need to be offering up new ideas? If someone is 100% fantastic at regurgitating every last detail of his field and related fields (and, say, proficient in many languages), is this such a disaster, as long as some other profs are doing the innovating? Plenty of innovator-types would have problems with the regurgitation once it meant leaving their narrow fields of interest.

I think the issue of "problematizing" or "complicating" is the result of the pressure for innovation, the idea that simply passing knowledge on to the next generation (what a teacher is expected to do in a high school) is not an end in itself. And while innovation's great, it's not for everyone, and even more than that, an innovative idea doesn't necessarily pop up in one's head just when the final paper is due, or, alas, the dissertation proposal. So a rhetoric develops that offers the aura of innovation to projects that need this to float, which functions as almost a formality before announcing, and I will now tell you what happened during World War I, because how many people know this anymore, and it's important stuff.

However--and this strikes me as key--complicating/problematizing is typically a first step to coming up with something new. If listeners tune out as soon as they hear either expression, they will miss both the regurgitation (which, to repeat, I don't think is necessarily so bad) and the innovation. "I will complicate the notion of..." doesn't always signal "I will offer up a timeline of World War I, with a few small additions."

OK, I have more thoughts on this, but, off to complicate...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sur le pont...

The thing I was most jealous of in this slideshow of a couple's chateau-esque house in Avignon was the dishwasher. It's towards the left of image #4, and by far the least objectively noteworthy aspect of this house. (It's a house with it's own name!) But oh, how I miss that appliance. My eyes automatically scan for them whenever I see or see a photo of a kitchen, and as far as I'm concerned, any home with a working dishwasher is Versailles. I mean, the massive French house surrounding the dishwasher would be nice too, but I'm thinking of building a thatched hut with a dishwasher, or pitching a tent with one, preferably somewhere near campus. I'm totally serious about this.

Name changes

Georges Perec's last name, in Hebrew, is apparently Peretz (well, prtz), as verified by two people I talked with at the conference last weekend. I told this to my mother and she pointed out that this makes me a Mademoiselle Malc.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The real problem...

...with sex workshops is so clearly the same as the problem with Victoria's Secret: when sex is obvious, it stops being sexy. The connection between the workshops and the underwear chain occurred to me, I think, at the gym. I know people supposedly meet partners/spouses/other people's spouses at the gym all the time, but... why? Everyone's in form-fitting clothing, in compromising positions, and making odd grunting sounds, and it's grotesque. OK, not grotesque, but not appealing either. I don't doubt that many of the gym-goers are quite attractive in street clothes, but no one looks good in an outfit that goes with puffy white sneakers.*

Point being, social conservatives should really be encouraging how-to-orgasm workshops, condom-on-banana seminars, and so forth. Such activities are not only time away from the unsupervised dorm room, but are also (I'd imagine) sufficiently technical to make even the most hormonal college freshman lose interest entirely.

*I also don't understand what's supposed to be so great about George Clooney, so maybe this is just me.

Asking for it

The counterargument that always comes to mind when someone claims that Jews are the cause of anti-Semitism is that this is like saying that being female causes rape. By definition the victims of rape are female (or sexually passive), just as by definition anti-Semitism targets Jews or those perceived of as such. But, as the saying goes, don't blame the victim. Heather MacDonald's discussion of the "campus rape industry" brings to mind another "industry"-based argument, and for more than just its implicitly anti-capitalist rhetoric.

MacDonald argues that women can in fact be blamed for rape, and sees it as contradictory that college campuses encourage both sexual freedom and rape prevention. After neatly tearing apart the myth that one in four women is raped, she announces that colleges today involve "A booze-fueled hookup culture of one-night, or sometimes just partial-night, stands." I'd like to see some numbers to back this up. Of course, conservative scare tactics about girls gone wild do not need to be based on anything concrete. All you need to do is declare a hookup culture to exist, and it becomes a problem.

MacDonald, like so many conservatives, imagines sexual freedom to mean jumping on everything that moves, and being too busy having orgies to show up for class. What they do not admit is that for many college students, sexual freedom simply means monogamy without pregnancy. But the real mystery for me is why women allowed in men's rooms and vice versa is supposed to mean an end to any and all intellectual pursuits. I'm not going to ask for a show of hands, but among readers who went on to postgrad studies in serious fields, I'm going to imagine that not all left college or even high school as 'pure' as they arrived. Nor was every author of a Great Book a model of sexual restraint.

After listing the many 'sex workshops' on today's college campuses (including at NYU--I wasn't even aware of these), MacDonald asks,

"Why, exactly, are the schools offering workshops on orgasms and sex toys instead of on Michelangelo’s Campidoglio or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin? Are students already so saturated with knowledge of Renaissance humanism or the evolution of constitutional democracy, say, that colleges can happily reroute resources to matters readily available on porn websites?"

And, concluding,

"Maybe these young iconoclasts can take up another discredited idea: college is for learning. The adults in charge have gone deaf to the siren call of beauty that for centuries lured people to the classics. But fighting male dominance or catering to the libidinal impulses released in the 1960s are sorry substitutes for the pursuit of knowledge. The campus rape and sex industries are signs of how hollow the university has become."

This is rubbish defined. As an NYU student, to repeat, I didn't even know there were workshops on the orgasm, but have attended countless lectures, both at NYU and as an undergrad at UChicago, on subjects on par with what MacDonald imagines universities have abandoned. That one exists does not mean the other has disappeared, except at colleges so small as to have only one classroom. Until MacDonald, or any other conservative worried for American universities, is able to show the discrepancy between the funding and interest in sex workshops and the funding and interest in scholarly talks, there's really no argument to be made.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My trip to church

I thought of Rita's amazing LOLSecret today when Jo announced, during a brief outing in Brooklyn, that he was not going to buy any books today. Sure enough, we ended up just happening to pass by a church book fair, and well... We now have a) eight more books, at least four of which we both want to read, and b) no more shelf space. Our limit at the sale was how much cash we had on us--the books ranged in price from 50 cents to $2, and combined, we had $14.50. This meant I had to set aside a biography of Disraeli (translated from French, which seemed pointless since my one life skill is the ability to read books in French) in favor of one of Heine, all part of my quest to contextualize the lesser-known French converts in their broader Western European context. And where better to do that than at a church? For a church book sale there were a ton of books on Jewish themes--donated, perhaps, by the Heine's of Park Slope--so my trip to church was in fact one of my more successful attempts at bargain-hunting for books on Jewish themes, for which the jokes make themselves.

Makeup and accessories

Last week, I ran into a friend from college, and told her that not only did I like her gold ballet flats, but that they looked familiar, since I have the same ones in black. She replied that she knew we had the same ones, since she'd read about it on my blog. Today I ran into a different college friend, who said that before she recognized me, she recognized the scarf from my blog photo. Gar! In other startling, scarf-related news, McCain's daughter, the one actively helping his campaign, sports the keffiyeh, which means that scarf has had its day. We don't assume Islamic fundamentalists love America just because they sometimes wear blue jeans.

Now onto makeup. Via Unfogged via Bamber I learned that it's hard shopping for makeup if your skin is dark. I've experienced the less politically-charged but equally frustrating problem of being too pale for all makeup, but looking ill without any (a problem Amber mentions in her post). Being told to go for the palest one means there's probably a paler shade that's your color, but they have to sell you something; not surprising it's the same story on both ends. It seems the ideal for all races is an often-unattainable honey-golden complexion (think the spectrum from Jessica Simpson to Tyra Banks). You cannot be too rich or too thin, but too pale is possible, so the analogy to plus-size shopping made in the comments to the post at Unfogged does not strike me as apt. Just like Israel is these days considered too Western for the West, certain Ashkenazi Jews (named Phoebe) are too pale for the Eurocentric makeup industry. As, I'm sure, are plenty of non-Jewish women, but I'm willing to accept that my ancestry may be overrepresented in the 'try the concealer that looks like chalk' category.

As for Amber's point, that "Everyone looks better with a little eyeliner. Even boys," I agree wholeheartedly,

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Today I was a moderator at the French graduate student conference at NYU. Moderating is about a million times less frightening than giving a paper; moderating for the second time (my first was at the IFS conference last semester) is maybe a quarter as frightening as doing so the first time. So all told, lots of fun, and not scary in the least. Turned out one of the panelists I was introducing, a first-year grad student at Northwestern, was in my dorm at UChicago, the world-renowned palace that is Broadview. How far we've come! Turns out she's also interested in Philip Roth and French literature--two of us in one dorm, amazing. Broadview is indeed a special place. Some former residents even clerk for the Supreme Court! (end advertising section). I also introduced myself to an Israeli classmate, and told him that he is the reason I can no longer take silly notes to myself in Hebrew, thinking no one will understand. He takes his notes in Hebrew, which was what tipped me off in the first place. And I compared/contrasted, with a different classmate, studying all that is gay and French and studying all that is Jewish and French. Proust may have come up once or twice.

Before moderating, I went for coffee and muffins with Jo, and the café in question had a copy of The Article, the one in which it's announced that no man finds both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson attractive, unfortunately not followed by an article about how no American likes both pizza and hamburgers. It took much longer to find the article than to read it. I guess it's been a while since I've looked at a woman's magazine, but is the table of contents usually more than 140 pages in? Is the point that you're so distracted trying to find what you're looking for that you neglect your muffin, thereby fitting into the clothes advertised on pages 1-140? Either way, all that research to learn that Natalie Portman went to Harvard, while Scarlett Johansson is known for her enormous breasts. If either of those bits of information come as news to you, then your ability to feign ignorance of pop culture is admirable indeed.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Le cinéma Duane Reade

This calls for a whiny post:

The day began with a man out front of what I can only assume was his brownstone shoveling snow obliviously and vigorously. I tried to make my presence known; this didn't seem to work, as he shoveled a heap right at me. Um, thanks!

This was on the way to the train. Once on the train, while still in Brooklyn, the conductor announced that there was a "small track fire" ahead of us. Since I was in the first car, I got to hear people describe the fire, which didn't sound all that small, and continued reading my book. Eventually we were allowed to leave the train, which was sort of but not quite in the station, and switch to a train that was running local when it ought to have run express, then express when it was anywhere in the vicinity of my classroom. I was not as late as I might have been, had I not anticipated that the snow would cause the MTA to throw up its collective arms and give up.

The day did pretty much pick up from there. I taught my students "avoir" using the question of whether or not there was a sheep in the classroom, which was good fun and I think effective. Then, after class, I found a copy of "Walk on Water" at Duane Reade! For $10! How it got there I'll never understand.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Adventures on the 1 train

Hello from the Old-New computer. Our first trip (mine and the new harddrive's) was to the Jewish Theological Seminary's library, to read up on a not-so-famous French convert. The JTS library could not be more different from NYU's. Rather than being filled with mostly-female undergrads in leggings or skinny jeans, the place is chock full of orthodox Jewish men. For whatever entirely unfair and prejudicial reason, the JTS thus struck me as a better, more serious place to work. Of course, people chat loudly in both libraries, answer cell phones, and otherwise fail to respect the sanctity of the place, but a momentary respite from the Urban Outfitters spring collection can't hurt when one is researching the early 19th century.

I would switch study spots entirely were it not for several factors: 1) The JTS is on 122nd Street, and thus not remotely near school or home. 2) As a non-JTS student, I cannot use the internet, and what with my passion for emailing everything I write to myself as backup, this is a problem. 3) To go read an obscure book about the "Jewish Question" in Old Regime France requires a security check greater than what's needed to get on an airplane in Israel. Because it's a Jewish building, and thus a possible target for attack since (all together now) everyone hates the Jews, not only does a security guard glance at you suspiciously and go through your backpack, but, once this is done, he asks you to empty your pockets and waves a metal detector all around your torso. Seeing as someone (possibly in 1954) already spilled a beverage on the book in question, I don't know quite what problems they thought I would cause. Seeing as school shootings happen all the time at colleges across the nation these days, I doubt if Jewish sites are even that much more statistically at risk. Anyhow, that, plus the Early Modern dress of my fellow researchers, combined to make for a very authentic experience reading about anti-Semitism in pre-Revolutionary Europe.


This is some amazing evidence of having a type, assuming the alleged McCain-lobbyist affair took place. Sarkozy's switcheroo is also fine evidence of type-having by men with oodles of power; predictably, both women in the French example are stunning, not just strikingly similar to each other. Clinton's choice reveals either a lack of type, or a lack of interest in the state-recognized partner. Age was about the least of the difference in that case. So, under the heading of Major Questions of Our Age, when an older male head-of-state or would-be head-of-state decides to chase after (or allow himself to be caught by) a younger woman, is it a sign of integrity if the YW in question is a younger version of his wife? Or is it just a sign of not knowing how to exploit one's situation of power to the fullest?

$25 and Under

Blogging will of course be light until I once again have a hard drive. But a post, in the meantime.

If this whole studying French Jews thing doesn't work out (I'm still enjoying it, but you never know with anything) I will be qualified for something all the same, and that something is writing a guide to living in New York with very little money. Sure, such guides exist, but often enough what a magazine calls "cheap" is what a graduate student calls a twice-yearly splurge.

The problem with such a guide is that most of what grad students do to not spend too much involves not spending, period. While there's something fun about showing a designer dress alongside the H&M version and showing the thousands of dollars worth of savings, if you don't buy either dress, you save maybe $30, but there's no glamorous way of conveying that choice. Dinner for $25 is indeed less than dinner for $100, but pasta at home...

There are, however, some unquestionable cheap thrills. I will now list two latest discoveries, product-placement style:

1) GapKids: Not a recent discovery so much as a recent rediscovery. My quest to dress more like a grownup led me to the Boys section of the Gap, where there's currently a two-for-$25 special on polo shirts. I was the only woman shopping in that section who was not a) Hasidic, and b) shopping for her children, but if this should have bothered me, it did not. I got one polo in pink and one in white, and have now extended my 'professional' look by two days of each laundry cycle.

2) DessertTruck: In a quest to keep hip NYU students well-fed, trucks selling high-end sweets are now waiting whenever grad students finish up with two back-to-back seminar classes. Yes, $5 sounded a lot for a snack, but chocolate bread pudding with vanilla creme anglaise was even more amazing than that sounds. (Possible counterargument: But I'm always hungry after the two afternoon classes, so I might also have raved about a Twix). Yet getting a substantial, day's-worth-of-calories dessert on the way to the weekly trip to the supermarket meant that the impending three-hour shopping, commuting, and cooking process went by without impulse purchases or even a moment of crankiness.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Computer-free state of nature

My hair iron exploded, my computer decided to stop turning on, and I made myself some very bad spaetzles. All told, not the most successful week ever. So I took a moment off at the end of it to go to the movies. Jo and I headed uptown to the Austrian Cultural Forum to see "The Time of the Wolf", which, contrary to promotional materials, turned out to be in French, not German. I was the only one there who was happy about this, I'm quite sure.

But back to the Austrian Cultural Forum, the building. It's a modern structure with big, heavy doors that I had trouble opening. The doors read, in huge letters, "Under Pain of Death." This is the title of the art exhibition now going on there, although this is not clear to the passerby. Inside, there were signs on everything, warning you not to stand in this area, not to take the elevator, not to enter the theater until further notice... and more, but I've forgotten. The building is basically a small museum, and a confusing one. The sub-basement level with the restrooms is also where this intriguing, life-size exhibition resides. Ah, juxtaposition.

Between the warnings--some from signs, some from a presumably Austrian woman in a quilted jacket--and the death-themed art, the mood was set for the film. "The Time of the Wolf" is about French people in a state-of-nature situation, which is always entertaining, and yes, the subject of how to divvy up the last cigarettes was addressed. But the point of the movie is that it could be France, or anywhere, and that whatever it once was, it's now a Gallic refugee camp. There was a "Lord of the Flies" angle, for sure, but the movie also presented an exaggerated sense of what city people feel whenever they (we) spend a few days too many in the country. And I learned something new about myself. Unfortunately, no matter how tragic the situation, the sound of a goat bleating (is that their sound?) makes me laugh.

Now tell us what you really think

Who are these people? By "these people" I mean the endless source of individuals reporters seem to find in New York who are willing to say the darnedest things.

First there was "one parent, Angie Vazquez, 37, acknowledged that her upbringing had led her to wonder: 'Wow, we’re going to have a Jewish person [as school principal], what’s going to happen? Are the kids going to have to pay for lunch?'" Now, following in Ms. Vazquez's footsteps is Abigail Cusick, who has no shame. A postgrad returnee to her native Upper East Side, Cusick explains to the New York Observer:

"Having her parents close by has also proven convenient, she said. 'I can go over for dinner,' Ms. Cusick said, 'the housekeeper comes over to clean for me, I can stop by and pick up a bottle of wine; I get to play with the dog, then return it. It’s nice.'"

I bet! Of course it gets better:

"Even the most satisfied, young, life-time Upper East Siders admit there are some pitfalls to the neighborhood, like the overcrowded 6 train and 86th Street.

'My sister, who is seven years my senior, wasn’t even allowed to walk down 86th Street when she was in high school and now they are charging two million and up for these apartments,' Ms. Cusick said of the luxury condos in development on the Upper East Side’s most incongruous commercial strip. 'I think it’s laughable when you think about it 10 years ago. … I mean, it's still 86th Street. It’s where classes collide.'"

To repeat, who are these people? While the ranks of those who fear Jewish usury and who find East 86th Street déclassé surely extend beyond Vazquez and Cusick, respectively, what exactly motivates these people to announce these worldviews to the Internets? Is this the result of a fame-addled culture, or of clever selective-quote journalism?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Le week-end

My computer, just over a year old, is still not turning on. My method has been to press the on button and hope. Jo tried some stuff that looked a bit more hopeful, but... nothing. Important school-related materials and pictures are for the most part saved; my attempt at writing fiction was not. Can't say whether that makes me want the NYU Computer Store to be able to recover my files or whether humanity is better off if they're gone.

In more pleasant news, the quest for housewares continues, successfully. We now have the materials to make cold-brewed iced coffee (of interest only to me, the American) and a second pan (so that if we want two different dinners, or one very complex one, we can accomplish either feat). That was the high point of the weekend. The low point was falling asleep in the middle of Querelle, a movie that was, from what I caught, on the 'art house' end of the art-house spectrum. The stress of the ailing computer and the hours this will add to an already-work-packed week apparently canceled out the drama of the gay sailors.

In other cinematic news, there is now a movie starring both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. These two women, both of whom I've had the misfortune to see in person, are better-looking than the rest of us, in a completely objective, indisputable sense. Unless you are Natalia Vodianova, in which case you probably are doing something more glamorous than reading this blog. I feel like I've mentioned this before, but I (still) think the real advantage of bisexuality for women would be the ability to feel something other than jealousy when presented with female beauty of that caliber. No, beauty isn't everything, but I'd imagine that if asked to write a paper on 19th century French Jews, Ms. Portman would have no problems there either.


Religious courts have legal authority in the US? I had no idea. I figured with freedom of assembly, no one prevents a group of the faithful from voting on some internal matter, but did not realize secular courts considered any of this official. I also only recently learned who the governor is of New York, so who knows, but I found Adam Liptak's article fascinating. I definitely understand more about how religious versus secular law worked in colonial Algeria or Old Regime France than in 2008 America. So, please do not respect mah authoritah on this. But to me, most bizarre was this quote from the leader of a Muslim lawyers' group:

“'Muslims, Christians and Jews should all deal with their own family law issues in their own arbitration councils,' she said. 'The government should stay out of the bedroom.'”

But once there are "arbitration councils," isn't government involved all the same? Not the government, but if a religious council is the only court permitted to deal with these matters, it becomes just that. There's also, of course, the question of who gets to deal with the bedroom conflicts of the religiously unaffiliated. Is the choice thus between libertarianism (or really, anarchism) or religious law for all family-related matters?

On the one hand, I see the appeal of having the (secular, U.S.) government acknowledge only partnerships and let the "marriage" issue be left to individuals, whether these individuals gather to form religious groups or not. On the other, as Liptak's article shows, there are certain disadvantages to leaving religious groups with this much power. And what does it mean to consent to abandoning your national rights in favor of religious ones?

"Once consent is given, moreover, questions arise about whether and when it may be withdrawn. 'People have a right in Western systems to change religions,' said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan. 'Can they opt out after the dispute arises or after the judgment is given?'”

This really gets at my confusion. In pre-1789 France, to be a Jew was to be a member of a 'nation,' not in the modern nation-state sense, but not in a sense entirely removed from that either. Though submissive to greater powers, these nations--there were several Jewish nations in France prior to the Revolution--had political autonomy, and so were not merely collectivities of people who shared an understanding of God. From what I understand, you could not simply change your mind and think, gee, maybe Jesus is the son of God after all, and switch sides, no questions asked.

Fast-forward to 2008 America. If a Jew wishes to convert out (does this ever even happen?) or, more likely, marry out, Jewish blogs and newspapers may declare a Singles Crisis or a War on Intermarriage, but this will only have as an impact lessening whatever influence organized Judaism has in this country. In all likelihood, an intermarriage will not lead to a fall-out with one's family, will not mean changing cultures or being forced to move to a different town. But what if someone from an ultra-religious Jewish family decides to marry someone outside of the Jewish courts' jurisdiction? And what, court-wise, happens in terms of Protestants? Again we're in territory I know little about, but aren't there many, many denominations? Does each have its own council, and if so, who regulates the bedrooms of the Methodist-Baptist couples? In other words, violation of religious law can be internal, but it quite often arrives at the border of internal and external. It seems to me that it's in these cases, when an individual breaks the laws of his own religion, that the secular government needs to make itself most available.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hello from Jo's computer

Mine won't turn on. As predicted, Thursday's optimism about school, and stuff generally, proved short-lived.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

DS 135 F

"Not much has been written on that."

Those are the best words a graduate student could possibly hear. Not nothing, but not much, the happy medium. If I ever emerge from the pile of library books/xeroxed journal articles has taken over my living room, and make it to the primary sources, things just might work out. (This moment of optimism re: research means I can probably anticipate a month of pessimism. Such is the cycle.) Other excitement: Citarella Dark Blend. Sososogood.

Flyover underwear

What is it about Victoria's Secret that brings out the worst in New York writing about the mysterious Rest of the Country? First there was the New Yorker account of how the Myspace suicide wore their Pink line, as though this were evidence that she came from another planet, not just Missouri. Now, there's a whole article in the NYT reviewing the store, and by reviewing I mean mocking. Some choice quotes:

The Victoria’s Secret near Herald Square is a slick, two-story mega-sexopolis, catering mainly to the boudoir needs of angry tourists. If Siegfried & Roy ever wanted to start a Nevada chicken-ranch-plus-amusement park — a stretch-lace and animal-print McDonaldland of acceptable corporate erotica for the family casino crowd — this would be the ideal jumping-off point.

Judging by their names — Love Spell, Romantic Wish, Endless Love — lotions on a perfectly innocent, nursery-color wall seem to be hoping a nice boy will ask them to dance at the church mixer.

“Dream Angels,” according to Victoria’s propaganda, is America’s No. 1 fragrance, which makes sense in an obese nation with no self-control: it smells like an alcoholic Twinkie.

Cintra Wilson's main complaint about Victoria's Secret is that it fails to be subtly erotic, something with which Borat, we know, agrees. I'm pretty sure this is also true of underwear shops generally, from La Perla on down. On the one hand they are selling sexiness, but on the other, buying underwear is the most boring thing in the world (with one possible exception) and it's the store's job to keep you amused. Victoria's Secret is a bit like if Staples went all out on the premise that its shoppers were all going to use its notebooks to write the Great American Novel, and turned the chain's decor from big-box tedium into a wood-paneled, book-lined fantasy-land.

And yet. Victoria's Secret is overpriced and tacky, and a bad choice over such other obvious options as the GAP, as well as some NYC-specific options such as Century 21. There should be some way of telling Times readers that the store is not fabulous that doesn't come across as a tirade against everyone who doesn't live in New York.

Next stop, Essentials

"Feb. 11, 2008: Sunny, a 5-year-old Standard Longhaired Dachshund from Paradise Valley, Ariz., gets his ears blown dry after having a bath in the backstage area during the 132nd Westminster Kennnel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, in New York."-AP

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Politics of PMS

A Hillary Clinton presidency would not be a feminist victory because of the unique (Bill) situation of her candidacy. Agreed. This is the fundamental problem with her as a candidate. It is hard to believe that of all the women in America, one who happens to be married to a popular ex-president just happens to be the most qualified to run herself.

On Super Tuesday, at a café near campus, two black women--the demographic whose leanings everyone was talking about--were discussing Obama versus Clinton. (I realize as I type how odd it seems to identify these two individuals as "black," yet how natural it feels to mention their gender. But more on that later.) One woman was explaining to the other about how a male friend told her Clinton couldn't be president because you don't want the president having PMS. The woman telling the story felt she had to agree with this sexist-sounding remark. Really, who wants a president PMS-ing at an important meeting with other world leaders? Both women seemed to find the idea of a president with PMS quite amusing. Whatever small truth there is to PMS affecting a woman's behavior, surely a joke based on some minute statistical difference between blacks and whites would not be told so enthusiastically in a Greenwich Village café. (PC-era child that I am, I'd be just fine with hearing neither.) So what's going on?

Either, as I've suggested before, gender still matters far more than race. Few fantasize about an America where gender differences don't matter; the proponents of gender-neutral pronouns and toilets remain the small minority. To refer to a person's race when mentioning this person, when the race is not relevant to the conversation, is considered racist. To mention 'this woman I know' or 'this guy I've been seeing' is not considered sexist. (I would venture to guess that even those few who do consider gendered pronouns sexist accept their use in day-to-day conversation.)

The other possibility is that we've gotten past gender, and it's such a given that a woman can hold a position of power that it's now OK to mock women, the way it's OK to mock both WASPs and 'ethnic' whites. The more protected a group is from mockery, the worse shape it's in.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rocket science

I can't say my humanities-muddled brain can make sense of the content of the post I link to, but it looks like a certain Bovy is doing some interesting work!

WWPD goes socialist

I did what needed to be done, and headed to the Flatiron district (appropriate, given the situation) to see what Sephora had in the way of hair-flattening devices. Ricky's had a good selection, but the explosive device formerly known as my old hair iron was once a Ricky's purchase, so I couldn't get myself to repeat that transaction. I hadn't noticed this before, but right next to the Sephora on 19th and 5th is a store called Essentials--I'd thought the only one was on the West Side. As versus Sephora, Essentials has the feel of being the store for those in the know, those who will not be swayed by shiny things when out purchasing... shiny things. This is a subtle but important point: just because you want some beauty products does not mean you want to trade your entire paycheck for eyeshadow, which is Sephora's purpose. Essentials is an easier place to enter and exit in a reasonable amount of time.

One might think there's something contradictory about a store selling beauty products calling itself "Essentials," but as I mentioned, this was what needed to be done, so the name is justified. Both Jo and the woman at Essentials remarked that I didn't need much in the way of hair equipment since my hair is already straight; to both I replied, the thing only exploded once I'd finished using it that one last time.

The above less-than-riveting anecdote leads to the essential of this post: no matter how ardent a believer in the free market, everyone has certain stores or aspects of capitalism that cause her inner communist to emerge. Sephora doesn't much bother me, nor do Starbucks, McDonalds, or i-banking, whatever that may be. For me, it's the following (with no links to stores, since all links function as advertising):

1) Ralph Lauren: Come in, and I will sell you whiteness.

2) Kay Jewelers; more generally, TV commercials for jewelry: Come in, and I will sell you your wife's affection.

3) Ads in the NYT Magazine: Need an apartment with an extra 30 bedrooms? Or perhaps you just sold your company for $50 million, and are worried about how this will impact your family's values? Um, oh well.

4) Not having a dishwasher: I had one in my old place, for which I paid Chicago-ish rent for a Park Slope-ish location. My current apartment has... a sink, a sponge, and a drying rack, and has rent that's just a bit higher. Until I once again live somewhere with a dishwasher, I will have a constant underlying feeling of class resentment, a weird sort of class resentment that causes me to resent many people who are not in fact well-off.

5) The Annual Report from the girls' school I attended, grades K-8: In the photos, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves at some event or another in the Hamptons. Since I only receive these newsletters when I meet my parents in Manhattan and they give me the mail that still gets sent there, I always end up reading the Reports on slow, weekend-service subway rides back to Brooklyn.

Vive la Revolution!

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Bruges

Luckily, this does not represent all of Flanders.

The moment has come to post this map, in the spirit of Judeo-Flemish understanding, a cause unlikely to spark any student-activist movement or accessory any time soon. I don't have a link to where I found the map, but it's via a Belgian-Jewish Facebook group.


It is exciting that someone at the National Review deems NYU "one of the United States’ best universities." Less flattering is the portrait given of the university, in the very same sentence. Reference is made to "the hipsters paying $50k a year to live in the Village, explore [themselves], and cull a degree stamped with the name of NYU." How does Travis Kavulla reconcile the two? Is he using "best" as a euphemism for "most expensive"? If so, boo.

Frizz is in

Or, better yet, poufiness. It had better be, because my hair iron just kicked the bucket, loudly and violently, miraculously harming neither me nor my apartment. I don't care if hair irons are the tool needed to lure wealthy men. Mine just exploded. I had not seen something explode like this since I plugged an alarm clock in in my dorm room in Paris (duly noting the advice not to plug in a hairdryer, but not making the connection) only to wake up a couple moments after. This latest event has inspired me to become a low-maintenance hippie and embrace the neither-curly-nor-straight hair that Nature intended. Or to consider buying another, less volatile hair-taming device.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

And now, through the Jewish-studies lens:

"If you are Jewish and refuse the entreaties of a Mosaically challenged significant other, it ought to be based on something substantial - a Judaism that is relevant, resonant and meaningful and that manifests itself in one’s life on a daily basis. Anything else would be tribal, narrow minded, ignorant and, you know, stupid."

From Dave at Jewlicious. He's right. So why is so much emphasis placed on coupling off Jews just to couple off Jews?

The one thing that struck me when reading Lori Gottlieb's article on being middle-aged and single, but that I didn't get a chance to mention in the last post, (what with the distraction posed by the Bovary interpretation) was how the piece was very much of the Jewish-singles genre, though published in a general-interest magazine, and of theoretically universal appeal.

I point this out not to profile on the basis of Semitic-sounding names, but because Gottlieb herself writes on this issue quite often. The 'singles crisis' among American Jews is made all the more dramatic by the fact that any partner who is not Jewish, i.e. most anyone you'll meet in America, is going to be looked upon by the collective Jewish superego as 'settling.' The single, 40-year-old Jewish woman is a cliché because for whatever reason, Jewish women are expected to be searching for Jewish men more than vice versa.

This is really the missing piece in Gottlieb's article. For those intending to inmarry, settling is either marrying out or putting up with someone with the right halachic credentials but nothing much else going for him. Without this extra step of confusion, which seems primarily to confuse women (or, at any rate, it's women of all persuasions for whom marrying after 40 is a problem), the whole 'settle or not' issue would be far less complicated. If all those Jewish women who, though not observant, reject non-Jewish men and remain single gave the rest of humanity a chance, think how more Jewish babies there could be! And since there is no other Good than an upswing in the Jewish-baby population, that should settle that.

Research question:

Does anyone know where the joke whose punchline goes, "I used to be a hunchback," originated? Google (esp. Google Books) leads me to think it's from either Groucho Marx or Isaiah Berlin, but somehow I thought the joke preceded either of them. I need to know this, oddly enough, for my work. It would be convenient, but unlikely, if the joke came from early 19th century France.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


"Madame Bovary might not see it that way, but if she’d remained single, I’ll bet she would have been even more depressed than she was while living with her tedious but caring husband."

Oh? Lori Gottlieb's article in the Atlantic (via), advising women to "settle" for unappealing men, loses all credibility once she drops her contrarian (to put it kindly) interpretation of Flaubert. No, sorry, but Madame Bovary could not have been more depressed. Not to ruin the ending or anything, but, really. Jo suggested that had Emma not married, she might have killed herself even more, which is something to ponder.

After reading the piece, I cannot tell when Gottlieb thinks women should settle--at 15? 18? 35? Also not clear--are the happily-marrieds those who settled? I'd imagine some married people are quite relieved that they did not settle for earlier relationships, that they braved the uncertainty of singledom and flings before meeting the right person.

Yet there's a certain amount of truth to what Gottlieb is saying, or means to be saying. On the one hand, one is expected to settle if necessary by 35. On the other, and here's where the problems begin, is the assumption that any serious relationship prior to 25 (or 20) constitutes 'limiting options.' Somehow you have to marry the person you happen to meet at the magical age, with anything earlier 'rushing into things' and anything later, too late. In other words, the problem, in both directions, is the magical age.


Related, so in the same post, but not of it: younger women. The whole younger-women thing perplexes me, as a young woman. 24 feels old--I no longer find it amazing that I can enter a bar (nor am I carded when I do); I'm a decade older than many runway models; and the whole paying-bills, making sure I haven't run out of Swiffer-wipers pattern of life does what it does. But I am aware that I am the age of the Younger Woman, not barely-legal but barely grown up. This is what mystifies me: Who are these women, and why are they not with 24-year-old men? Barring cases of men with significant wealth or power, or of random attraction, what's going on? Is the appeal that they make you feel young, when the existence of Estonian 14-year-olds in Chanel makes you feel ancient? Is it a premature fear that a man your age would eventually run off with someone the age you both are now, so you might as well circumvent that by being the postcollegiate temptress yourself?

But at an age at which you're presumably at the bottom of whatever professional hierarchy you hope to climb, isn't it more appealing to have an ally than yet another person reminding you how much you have left to learn? Plus, if you're not going to date younger men when you're a younger woman, in the sexist world we live in, when's your chance?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Conspicuous consumption

Amber comes out against spontaneous book-purchasing, while Jezebel condemns Sephora, land of lipgloss you don't really need, but ooh, shiny...

If I could eliminate book- and eyeliner-buying, I would have enough money for... one really nice book, or one Dior eyeliner. I'm talking about a grad-student scale, so I'm still heading to the library far more than the Strand. Amber's concern, however, is less that I might buy yet another book with "France" and "Juif" in the title than that someone who reads nothing will buy War and Peace to place on the mantle before asking his date back to his place.

The anti-makeup and anti-unread-book crusades thus strike me as coming from the same place, i.e. fear of artifice. Yes, concealer improves appearances, and yes, filling an empty bookshelf makes a non-reader look more intelligent. In that I wear some, not heaps, but some makeup, may I justly condemn the decorative book-buyer? I too am showing the world something not 100% real. Yet I can, because of one key difference: someone, somewhere, is using some title with "France" and "Juifs" as his filler, making it impossible for me to get my hands on it. That, above all, is what's wrong with books-as-decor.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Hate Germans, love women." -"What about German women?"

American Jews care about one thing and one thing only: Israel. Not only is Israel the only issue Jews consider, but Jews all have identical feelings about what constitutes a pro-Israel position.

If you can accept both of the above, then James Q. Wilson's City Journal article advising Jews to align themselves with evangelical Christians makes perfect sense. If you consider that perhaps the Jews who put Israel first live in Israel, not the United States, and that perhaps American Jews want what's best for America (not necessarily inconsistent with what's best for Israel), then, well, not so much.

Wilson offers up impossible-to-prove statements, most notably, "The most anti-Semitic group in America is African-Americans." (Not white-supremacists?) He doesn't so much try to prove this as point out that some black leaders have made anti-Semitic comments, using two well-known and long-known examples, adding nothing new. So it's hard to take this article too seriously. However, to respond with some generalizations of my own... are American Jews more urban or more rural? How many blacks to you think the average American Jew knows personally and sees on a day-to-day basis? How many evangelical Christians? (And aren't some evangelical Christians black? But nevertheless...). Jewish politics are not black politics, but there's good reason the two would be closer than Jewish and evangelical Christian politics.

To generalize some more, there's the issue of education. Jews are said to go in for education. Evangelical Christians are known for their rejection of the theory of evolution, and for their distrust of the 'educated, urban elites.' Think Huckabee and the squirrel, meant to symbolize his real-Americanness. No matzo-and-mesclun salad for him! For blacks, Jews are a fact of life. For evangelical Christians, Jews are quite possibly behind Hollywood, gay marriage, and Britney Spears' breakdown.

And finally, one thing Jews (secular and religious) don't like is hearing day and night about Jesus. One thing evangelicals like is talking day and night about Jesus. Putting a certain type of evangelical in office means CNN becomes indistinguishable from televangelist public access.

But back to the article. A brief mention of what it means to be an evangelical Christian comes at the end of a paragraph describing how they're not so bad, they wouldn't declare Jesus the official President-for-eternity or anything. Fine, but then there's this: "Evangelicals strongly oppose abortion and gay marriage, but in almost every other respect are like other Americans." Hmm. I may never live in Israel, but until menopause I could potentially end up in a disastrous situation if the evangelicals win the day. The uterus knows no identity politics.

Finally, and here is where the piece loses me completely, Jews are supposed to align with evangelicals because our numbers are dropping, or might be, due to intermarriage. Now wouldn't the frequency of intermarriage suggest that American Jews today have concerns that do not totally revolve around being Jewish?

Skinny dollars, skinny men

OK, here's an issue with gender written all over it, but that's not the part of it I find interesting. The issue is the new, skinny male model, and I confess that this was the first article I read in the paper today.

For a while now, I've noticed that store windows in SoHo and the Village present an aesthetic that looks very much... not American. Outside of Europe, it would be hard to imagine any man dressed in the way these windows suggest. Certainly few American men would go for such a narrow silhouette, such a delicate paisley scarf. Even in New York. The clothes simply do not look like things American men would wear.

With the worthless dollar, this is not a problem, because after all, it's not American men buying these clothes in the first place. There's a clear, economic reason for fashion in New York to be marketed to Europeans, one that Guy Trebay's article doesn't consider. An American designer is quoted as saying, "Clothes now are tighter and tighter. Guys are younger and younger. Everyone is influenced by what Europe shows." But the phenomenon of the new, skinny model, the sort needed to wear European-looking clothes, is presented as some random fluke of fashion.

Ladies and gentlemen

Despite entering grad school convinced that gender studies was not for me, I keep finding myself dealing with questions in which gender does matter. I'm now taking a class on the family in 19th century France, which is shedding some light on not only issues I'll need to address in terms of research (more on that if the project I hope to do for this class gets the prof's OK), but also, yes, the current blogger debates. Rather than looking at our times as uniquely confused in terms of marriage and gender roles, it's interesting to see how conservative and progressive thinkers were arguing about what marriage should mean over a hundred years ago, in not entirely different terms. So far in this class, the issue of same-sex, state-sanctioned marriage has not come up (as I doubt it much did in the 19th century), but the many possibilities of which man and woman, how old, who met how, who relate to each other with what degree of equality, and so on, seemed to keep people busy. When Cheryl writes that "Women and men no longer have a reliable script for dating and marriage, that X will lead to Y which will lead to Z, etc." she is correct about the present but oversimplifies the past. It is not as though, in the implied past (which, again, I can never pin down--is it the 1950s? the 1800s? is this all really about the Pill? I'm guessing that last one is it...) couples effortlessly formed in ways that pleased both the individuals and their families. Unfortunately I have yet to read enough on this to know exactly how relationships were once complicated, well before there were blogs to discuss them, so I'll have to stop here. Basically, there should be some way of commenting about our times that acknowledges that we are not the first to experience the types of questions we face, while isolating that which truly has changed, and if it has changed, when.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Now that I'm awake, sort of, more thoughts on the other coast.

-There are Pain Quotidiens everywhere. In the five minutes I was in/around LA, I counted four, which is nothing. They are almost exactly like the ones in New York, except with a few menu items offering health benefits beyond the usual "organic," i.e. "omega 3" and "detox." Jo insists there's nothing Belgian about the chain, but my mission to overpay for coffee at all locations worldwide remains strong.

-Also Belgium-related: the Getty is filled with room after room of Flemish Primitive (and similar) paintings. After a tragically failed attempt to see such art in Brussels (that wing was closed) then Antwerp (the show was sold out), LA was at last the place. Who knew?

-Forgot to mention this in the last post: When we first arrived at UCLA, there was a news van in front of the guesthouse where we were staying. We later learned that this was because Britney Spears' latest breakdown was at the university's hospital. Even coming from NYU, where celebrity sightings are common enough, this was surreal.

-The stereotype of LA as a New Age mecca is oh so justified. Especially Santa Monica, but the whole place, really, with the possible exceptions of in/around UCLA and Beverly Hills. And how can that many psychics stay in business? They're like LA's version of Duane Reade.

-Fred Segal=Barneys with a better logo. Correct?

-Venice=pre-gentrification St. Marks Place with a better view. Correct?

-Despite the car thing, LA feels very much more like NYC than does Paris. America must mean something, then.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

'You'll need a car' UPDATED

Much has happened since my last post (thus the lack of posting). I survived my first academic conference, not to mention my first trip to Los Angeles. The conference itself was extremely exciting. Southern California was exciting as well, but in a different way. Being too young, too grad-student-incomed, and (here's the real problem) too lacking in a drivers' license or the ability to drive to rent a car, LA was daunting. But figuring I've done it in Chicago, which is also a car city, and with icier weather, Jo and I ended up walking across the city, from UCLA through Beverly Hills through Hollywood, past the Scientology headquarters and over to Los Feliz Village, on the day before the conference started. That's about it for my sneakers, and quite possibly my feet, but it was worth it, and there will, of course, be pictures.

While I was at the conference, Jo ended up at an Obama rally and saw Oprah. My celebrity sightings were limited to three in Los Feliz Village, a neighborhood the New York Times Travel section once referred to as "walkable," which is only walkable inasmuch as its main street lasts for three blocks. But in this Village, we saw 1) Phoebe's brother from "Friends," 2) Dharma from "Dharma and Greg," and 3) Lorelei from "Gilmore Girls," otherwise known as walking evidence of my wasted high-school years. I really should not have recognized any of these people.


The photos.