Saturday, February 28, 2009

A van without a man

Ariel Levy's New Yorker article about the Van Dykes, a group of separatist lesbians who, yes, traveled around North America in a van, was fascinating, and I've been trying to figure out what about the article made it so.

Levy traces the history of 20th and early 21st century American lesbianism, from a 1970s political movement independent of sexual preference (renouncing sex with men in the name of feminism) to one tied to sexual preference but also about shocking the staid and uptight, such as with openly-announced affinities for S&M, all the way to the present, with an influential gay movement interested in integration into mainstream society via same-sex marriage and gays in the military, not in ruffling feathers and bringing about the revolution.

While it's amusing to think about a 1970s notion of lesbianism embraced by ostensibly heterosexual women who, unsurprisingly, opted for cuddling over anything more explicit in their 'lesbian' relationships, this was not, I think, the most interesting aspect of the article. These women were not the first nor the last folks to act in ways opposed to their natural inclinations - whether towards or away from convention - to make a point. The story itself, about one woman's trajectory towards radical lesbianism, culminating in a reunion with a daughter she'd had with a Black Panther, could easily have swung in the ostentatiously PC direction, but luckily it does not.

What struck me most in the piece was the notion of separatism itself, and how homosexuality might - or might not - permit this approach to life. The cliché of the straight woman, perhaps dumped by a cad, announcing she wishes she were a lesbian, only to get a well-deserved earful from gay friends about how much discrimination gays are still up against, is worth taking another look at. What the straight woman wants - and perhaps what all straight people are curious about on some level - is a world in which everyone is a potential object of attraction, a world in which those who are the easiest to talk to, because they are your sex, are also the most exciting to talk to, for the same reason. Which brings us back to the Official WWPD Definition of Sexual Orientation: all things equal, and even when sex-the-act is not at stake, members of the sex to which you are attracted are simply more interesting to be around.

Yet much as we might like, women cannot, by definition, enter all-male environments, nor men all-female ones, successful cross-dressers excepted. Which brings up the locker-room conundrum: for every straight person made uncomfortable by the presence of gays in the locker room, there's another straight person who thinks how much more interesting life would be if he or she could go to the Women's or Men's locker room, respectively. But that wouldn't work, because if one man could go into Women's, they all could, and the room would no longer contain only potential objects of attraction.

All of which is a roundabout way of wondering whether a separatist movement could work, assuming it were economically viable and not held responsible for propagating the species. By 'work', I mean, would it get annoying to just be with other men, even if one was only attracted to men, or vice versa? In pop culture, gays (particularly gay men) are often represented as preferring to spend time with members of the opposite sex (particularly skinny, red-headed women named Grace). This squares neither with what one would expect of gays - who are, by definition, attracted to members of the same sex - nor with what I've observed at any point past high school, when, for reasons specific to the social climate of American high school, this type of counterintuitive socializing is known to occur.

Yet from what Levy describes, it sounds like the Van Dykes ended up fighting with one another as much as would any group of straight women stuck for years on end sharing a van. Which leads to another question: was the problem the van, which is to say, the fact that logistically, separatism - even in non-van variants - lends itself to extensive dealings with a tiny group of people, which can be claustrophobic no matter what, or was it the purely same-sex environment? Do we need the opposite sex even if we don't need the opposite sex?

Now, back to gender in nineteenth century (pre-van) France.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Neurosis or cirrhosis?

Great news for women who interact socially with other humans, and who did not have the good sense to be born Muslim or Mormon: Any alcohol consumption, even one drink a day, even less than that, causes cancer. No word yet on what sticking with bread and water in social situations does to a person's well-being, but that bread had better be whole wheat!

Or had it? With studies out explaining that a thimble of wine sends you to an early grave, and that sharing an elevator with someone who just smoked a cigarette will do you in, that is, if the trace amounts of alcohol you've consumed first-hand do not, it's hard to know what to make of the latest in health panics: we are now ill from all our panicking! And what better angle to approach this from than Won't Somebody Think Of The Children.

Whereas health-obsession used to be the exclusive realm of Jane Brody and the like, now even fetuses are worried about trans-fats. OK, it's just that eight-year-olds will only eat organic. Same deal. Children have always been moral absolutists, so it's no surprise some have latched on to whole grains as their cause of choice, that for every clichéd child-raised-on-no-sweets-who-goes-to-a-friend's-house-for-the-Froot-Loops, there's a kid lecturing his friends on how one Froot Loop, just the one, will be the end of them.

Some well-meaning adults speak up for the wisdom of babes, citing this or that Industry that forced us to think this or that vice is appealing, as though if it were not for advertising, we'd all subsist on kale (which I tried recently-blech) and brown rice. Meanwhile others blame illness on our refusal to embrace the principle of moderation, like they do in Europe... except that, oh well, moderation won't do, now that experts have found that so much as sharing a subway car with someone eating McDonalds is health-wise the equivalent to jumping in front of the train.

Long story short, health articles will, sooner than a glass of wine, turn a mind into mush, and will by all accounts take more years off your life.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Steep discounts on high heels

Every so often, I return to the Barneys Warehouse Sale like a bird into a window, or whatever the expression is to denote that I never learn. The thing is, I need shoes. Practical but elegant shoes that do not a) fall off as I wear them, or b) make an incredibly loud clicking sound with each step, which describes, respectively, my two non-disintegrated pairs of flats. Why did I think this was the solution? (Because once, in early college, I found some space-age Japanese Pumas there that are to this day my favorite sneakers. Also because I've looked elsewhere to no avail, and will not bore you with the process-of-elimination leading up to this point.)

It's the tail-end of the sale, so the discounts are steep. But all of the shoes, save maybe one pair per size section, were utterly impractical. And I don't mean impractical in the sense of four-inch-heel pumps one would wear at work but not to work, at a party one hosts but not at one that requires leaving the house. I mean six-inch or higher all-but-needle-thin spikes, similarly high cones ending in a point, and a remarkable number of what would have otherwise been fall or winter shoes with teensy open toes, just open enough to make, say, wearing them outside impossible. They're the kind of shoes that tell you when you look at them skeptically, 'Aha, of course someone like you wouldn't go for this, because this is capital-F Fashion, and you're too bourgeois to appreciate shoes-as-art, or too poor to buy even drastically discounted shoes-as-art, or both.'

Unfortunately, few of the shoes were appealing even as shoes-as-art, but this could have had something to do with the bargain-basement manner in which they were displayed. So what I'm trying to figure out is, does the fact that the sale only has these shoes mean that this is what the women are wearing, or that this is not what the women are wearing, thus the steep discounts?

Craving the sensation of actually wanting to buy something, I took a brief glance at the clothing, by which I mean the jeans, all of which were $50, down from the month's-rent prices to which designer jeans seem to have climbed, all in the time I thought leggings had replaced designer jeans as the thing. In full view of a family of Russian women trying on avant-garde dresses, I found a great pair of jeans by the unfortunately named but apparently very hip brand, Acne, which I proceeded not to buy, because I am indeed neurotic like that. I hope to hold onto this neurosis till at least the end of grad school.


Totally unrelated, but I just received an NYU email not about Kimmel or Madoff, but an upcoming "Inaugural Latke-Hamentashen Debate" at NYU. Whaaa?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On staring blankly

Rita's post about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" as experienced in 2009 via Hulu brings up some Major Questions of Our Age, among them why do we watch what we do? (It also, I should point out, helps to refute the notion that watching TV in childhood prevents scholarly pursuits later in life. It can be done!)

Although I want to do so, I have a tough time arguing for television-as-escapism when the two current shows I watch most avidly are about rather specific situations I happen to be familiar with, neither of which I'd have ever imagined would be made into a TV show: class conflict at a Manhattan girls' school and the unique experience of hanging around with physicists, respectively. (OK, anything about young Manhattanites probably has future-TV-show written all over it, but the difference between theoretical physics and astrophysics?) At any rate, if "Gossip Girl" merged with "Big Bang Theory", I could simply cancel all future endeavors and watch my life thus far on loop, in a narcissistic stupor on the couch.

These preferences, however, are a fluke. In high school, I could not get enough of "Designing Women," precisely because being a shoulder-pad-wearing Atlanta interior designer preoccupied with a particularly 1980s brand of pseudo-feminist outrage could not have been further from my experience. Nor do I know what it's like to stay in, let alone run, a hotel in Torquay, but that's never made enjoying "Fawlty Towers" a problem.

But in general, my favorite shows are the ones set in real American high schools, ones with universally-recognized popular kids (who are also the rich kids, as well as the ones wearing visibly expensive clothing, because any other way would require too much explanation), sports teams, parking lots, and house parties held in actual, detached houses, in parts of the country where 16-year-olds actually have trouble obtaining liquor. Thanks to glorious American cultural hegemony, young people the world over grow up with a shared experience of suburban American high school. The lockers, the cheerleaders, the prom, we've all been there, even if we haven't. Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clichéd the school environment.

(In this post, I just eliminated the possibility that Helen Rittelmeyer will ever read this blog. But parentheses are a tough habit to break.)

It's online!

Must. Promote. Self.

Now, must finish lesson plan.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Roger Cohen's Persian Letter

Roger Cohen's column boils down to this: 2009 Iran is not 1938 Germany, Iranians were super friendly to a Jew (who happens to write a column in the New York Times and thus to have gobs of power in terms of PR)... therefore Iran is a decent place for Jews.

Cohen will of course be heralded for his courage to shatter the myth that Iran is pure evil, for his daring to add nuance to the situation. And there's nothing wrong with nuance. What is wrong is an approach to Jew-hatred that defines as 'tolerance' any behavior towards Jews that falls short of genocide. Cohen overshoots the nuance mark, feeling the need to declare Iran not only not as intolerant as one might think, but a place where Jews are treated with "warmth."

The beyond-nuance approach is sometimes found in historical writing--such and such a place had 'only' humiliating laws against Jews, whereas at the same time another part of the world had pogroms, therefore Place A was a wonderful place to be Jewish. Or, these Christians 'only' demanded that Jews convert, whereas these other Christians killed every Jew in sight, making Group A a 'tolerant' set. Is relative tolerance tolerance? On the one hand, remembering a historical context is important, i.e. that 21st-century multiculturalism was not an option anywhere in, say, 1800. On the other, that such and such crap behavior happened in the Past, when Everyone Was Racist, seems a poor catch-all excuse for all past crap behavior, especially when said crap behavior was considered crap behavior by its victims at the time.

But, back to Cohen and the here-and-now:

"It’s important," he writes, "to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquillity."

His take: "Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric."

OK, so, question: how are words not facts? If I were to step out this morning and find a mob denying the Holocaust and shouting 'Death to Israel' (unlikely, I should note, even in Park Slope), would I tell myself how lucky I am that no one firebombed my apartment and the local synagogue, and that I live in a place that tolerates Jews? If a reporter asked me what I thought, and the angry mob was in sight, then yes, I would probably say just that. But I would expect the reporter would take in the entirety of the situation, and not go back to his newspaper and write up a story on the charms of Jewish life in Park Slope.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Timing is everything

By some unfortunate coincidence, the part of the Oscars where Natalie Portman came out to present nominees occurred just as I was cleaning the tub. I told my boyfriend, who was sitting on the couch at the time, that this had to be a pleasant moment for him, girlfriend cleaning the bathroom and Natalie Portman, looking lovely, on the screen at the very same moment. I had requested the TV be on while cleaning up, since doing so otherwise is a form of torturous medieval reenactment, but this was not quite what I'd had in mind.

That said, after getting that particular chore out of the way, I returned to the living room just as there was some montage of different movie stars over the years saying 'Thank you' after receiving Academy Awards.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Recent accomplishments

So there are galleries on and off 10th Avenue in Chelsea. I'd heard this was the case, but was always in too much of a post-Thai-food stupor when in the area to take a look. What I'd been picturing was something like one or two galleries, but it turns out art establishments stretch all the way from 19th up to... whatever street it is sleazy realtors claim as Chelsea's northern border, but is probably more like Clinton or Hell's Kitchen. (I'm assuming by the time you reach Zabars the galleries have stopped.) It's like another whole city! One that takes a whole long time on the crosstown bus to emerge from, but I suppose it was worth it, if only because among the fashionable passersby were Parker Posey and her poodle. (Alas, not my photo.) I noticed the poodle first, and only as they were about to pass that the owner was famous. (Poodles 1: indie celebs 0.) As for the art itself, some was political (about the Palestinians, unsurprisingly, but at least the artist herself is Palestinian and not just trendy, hint hint Kimmel-protesters), some was Haring/Warhol, and some was whoa what a lovely all-white space, and what a pretty and well-dressed recent art-history BA at the desk. All in all, the area was lovely, and if it were not for my severe addiction to Thai food, I would at some point want to go try this place. Lentil salad and steak, what could be better, other than Pad Gra Prow?

That said, there is no need for any of us to ever go to a restaurant again, ever, or at least not to order dessert in one, because this molten chocolate cake, on the Bitten blog, is nothing but a much better version of $7 fancy-restaurant cake, but at easily half the price, including the ramekins at $2 each, and of course less should you already own said ramekins. I realize this is a dessert commonly referred to as 'clichéd', but a) I don't eat out enough to be jaded re: desserts more complicated than a Twix; b) a dish reaches the status of cliché for a reason; and c) 'clichéd', like 'sinful', is a word that does not apply to food. If there's a culinary equivalent of North-Face-and-Uggs, it's probably delicious.

Finally, lest anyone be concerned, the WWPD Conservative Shoe Lust of 2009 has officially come to a close. To get a sense of what I wanted to find a cheaper version of, I tried on a pair of ridiculously expensive loafers at Cole Haan, which were both uncomfortable (despite the magical air Nike apparently pumped into them) and god-awful hideous. These may make a frighteningly loud noise with every step, especially startling in that they look like flats, but they are clearly the answer to my (not at all first-world) problems.

Shiny shoes, messy beds

The goings-on at Kimmel have turned me into even more of a staid reactionary, aesthetically at least, than I already was. This has had an immeasurable impact - temporary, I hope - on my taste in shoes. For reasons beyond my control, I now find these the height of perfection, although my aversion to buying shoes online (and, post-paying for driving lessons, buying shoes, period, even if they are shoes stylistically associated with driving) means there's a good chance I will not go down this road. I can imagine thinking they were a huge mistake, should I go through with it, but, shiny! And with weird soles that are bumps instead of soles! Still, any purchase that would contribute to GOOP, however indirectly, is probably an immoral one.


In other news, and with the knowledge that mentioning the Obama girls and fashion in one post might bring on the torch-bearing commenters, what do we think of the Obamas' attempts to keep the girls grounded? I want to say, sensible and admirable, and further proof that the First Family is without flaw. (OK, one flaw: 8pm is way to early to make a 10-year-old go to bed.)

While telling the housekeepers not to make the girls' beds in the morning seems reasonable, bed-making is something I've never understood altogether--why must a bed be made, except on the occasion of sheet-change/laundry day? Can't a person (child or adult) OK with a messy bed have it messy in the morning and return to it messy each night? I get how having a maid clean a room could spoil a kid, but I tend to think parents who make their children make their beds (as opposed to saying, your bed will be as you leave it) do so to make a point, a point that could just as easily be made by having children help out with chores that actually must get done, such as dishes, laundry, vacuuming, cooking, etc.

For the Obamas, whose goal is providing normalcy, I can understand why such a rule might make up, character-building-wise, for chores the kids simply wouldn't get a chance to do, it being the White House and all. But what of the rest of American families, where normalcy is the default? (I do not speak of families raising American Jewish daughters, where the underlying fear that the girl will grow up into a 'JAP' is so pervasive that an Obamas-like fear of raising brats who covet - and receive - shiny pink shoes can often be found, particularly if one parent or both are Israeli but living in the States.)

As a non-parent, I can only speculate, but maybe enforced bed-making is a way of telling your children that they don't make the rules, that this isn't their property, and that they must not only pull their weight around the house and lack grown-up privileges - both reasonable requests - but also submit to constant reminders of their inferior status. And I'm not sure I see the point of taking things that far.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Knowledge for all! UPDATED

The Youth are still at it. Ironically, given that part of their platform is to open the library to the public, it is now increasingly difficult for even those with honest-to-goodness NYU IDs to enter the building with the books. (Ironic, that is, unless what they're going for is no access until access for all is instituted, in which case I'm really starting to dislike them.) One route to Bobst is blocked altogether, and the others require showing a cop your ID. (The good news, as far as I'm concerned, is that I still look like a Youth myself, as I was asked by one of the cops if I go to NYU, suggesting I do not look like the haggard instructor-of-undergrads I in fact am.)

OK, but back to the library thing. From what I understand, The Youth are for opening the library (as opposed, I'm assuming, to the day-pass-type arrangement that currently seems to be the rule) because they want knowledge to be accessible to all. Alas, the NYPL has far, far more books than NYU does, and is very open to the public. Of course, if what they want is to extend lending privileges to every raving lunatic and European shopper-tourist who happens to pass by West 4th Street, then the protest is bad news indeed.


The 'quiet reading' section of the library, at least up in the PQs, sounded just now like it was host to a drum circle. Why? Because someone, long ago, had the brilliant idea to place student centers next to university libraries.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Posted too soon...

when obviously the real story of the day is that Kimmel is now occupied by The Youth. Their demands include solidarity with the Palestinians (no mention of Israelis) and improved conditions for TAs. Well that does put me in a bind.

For what it's worth, should any of the protesters be reading this, I'm pretty sure NYU already does have special scholarships for Palestinian students. Might be worth looking into before declaring the university a great big Zionist conspiracy. (If it were, I'd have summer funding like whoa.)

Things that are not rocket science UPDATED

Today's one of those maybe-I-should-sign-up-for-a-job-advertised-on-the-subway days. (Once I get my license, $12/hr car-parking, here I come!) Not much helping. (Second link via Belle.)

So, two thoughts re: grad school vs. law school, the subject of the second post. My authoritah, having never been a law student, is of course nil, but anyway...

1) If you're interested in both, fair enough, but there are clearly better and worse orders of doing things. If you first go to law school, then owe tons, then before paying it all back head to a PhD program... I'm not even quite sure how that would work. Whereas if you go to grad school and, at the end of the tunnel, there are no jobs, tragedy of tragedies, you enter law school-- still without grad-school debt-- at 28 rather than 22. Again, if you were interested in both to start with. Which, anecdotal evidence tells me, is not that unusual.

2) Belle's suggestion of a double-major with something practical makes sense for the brilliant all around, but not everyone who's an A student in humanities can pull so much as a C in the hard sciences. (No comment.) Is this because word people are not always number people, or because literature classes are objectively easier than physics classes? Either way, the point is that taking on as a major a subject outside your areas of strength will kill your GPA, and thus your chances of going to a top law school, which would have otherwise been your best option for a lucrative career.


Grades! I know, those of us who teach undergrads are supposed to hate grade-grubbing, but how can you, when you know their futures largely depend on the numbers and letters you affix to their assignments? That they care about grades means not that they are entitled brats, but that they are aware of the precariousness of their futures. Jacob Levy has a good defense of the undergrads. Although Levy's post does seem to describe a theoretical undergrad who was the star student at a mediocre high school and is put in his place during his first semester at an Ivy or similar, and who can reasonably be assumed both exceptionally intelligent and hard-working, most of what he writes strikes me as true of the situation generally. (Again, having never taught at a non-selective school, my authoritah here as well=nil.)

Still, I'm left with a question: Levy quotes a professor (one who, as Levy points out, had the strange idea of complaining about his students to the New York Times) as saying "Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before," and argues that this complaint is understandable, coming from an 18-year-old who really hasn't been that challenged before. Understandable, yes, but what are you supposed to do, as a teacher, in that situation, that will not further rile the student who's come to complain? A grumpy 'life isn't fair' speech won't do, and unless you're grading a math problem set, subjectivity comes into play, so a methodical adding up of points will not convince a student of the justice of his grade. Explaining what it takes to, say, write a stronger essay is probably the way to go, but such advice, given more or less in passing, might not work either, and might make grading seem altogether arbitrary, when, alas, it's not. So, thoughts?


Jezebel also responds to the NYT-TNR-grades debacle. Their post is reasonable, so this update is about an anti-undergrad comment that begins, "I taught my way through grad school," and appears to mean teaching undergrads. Huh? If you are a grad student, you do not 'teach your way' through your program. You are a TA, or an adjunct, or whatever your school calls it. Should TA's earn $500,000 a year for their efforts? I'm game, but regardless, the teaching is part of your professional training. One waitresses/brick-lays/lifeguards/strips/babysits one's way through school, because these are jobs that do not have direct relevance to your degree. It's a matter of terminology, but also of the heights to which the Jezebel-commentariat-as-proletariat trope seems to have risen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

'This one time, I had a real-person job'

Sadie at Jezebel comes down hard on Caitlin Kelly's NYT piece about working in retail on the side while trying to make it as a freelance writer. Having read both the article and the post, I'm still wondering what the complaint is, other than the broader point that it's totally unfair that Person A's articulate-enough whining gets into the Times, while Person B's does not, even though Person B has superior authoritah on the very same subject. It strikes me as just as unfair that Person B gets to rant on Jezebel, whereas Person P over here rants for assorted friends and family members, as well as a pseudonym named Petey. But such is life.

Sadie writes, of Kelly, "if she wants a medal, she's not getting it." I did not see where in the article the request for a metaphorical medal appeared, but the Jezebel commenters get really into it, as they do whenever a situation merits (or seems like it might merit) either a 'bish plz' or use of the word 'whambulance.' In other words, accusing someone else of whining, while whining yourself, is totally awesome. Because calling someone else "privileged" is proof beyond any doubt whatsoever that you are in fact typing your comment from a sub-basement studio in a Brooklyn neighborhood the trust-fund hipsters haven't heard of yet, but will soon so as to give you something new to complain about.

So, long story short, everyone commenting at Jezebel is more hardcore than everyone else, or than this one NYT writer, or who knows, but every commenter there worked this real-person job this one time and it was way harder than what the NYT writer is dealing with. How the pyramid-building and so forth allows time for keeping up with the Jezebel comments remains one of life's great mysteries.

If having once held a less-than-fulfilling job made one a good person, as goes the myth, not only would all working-class people be Mother Teresa (yet, strangely, nasty people exist at all income levels), but not-good people would be hard to come by indeed. Aside from Rothschild-level elites and those who head straight into leadership positions in the family business, everyone, even members of the much-hated college-educated upper-middle classes, will sooner or later find himself with work less well-paid and stimulating than, I don't know, brushing Queen Elizabeth's corgis. The reason a post about 'I once had this job' garners a gazillion comments it that we all once had a job like this or that, and it's human nature to think your own story matters. (Am I, P of WWPD, the exception? Take a guess.)

So. This comment is ground we've seen before:

"I'm pretty sure we'd have a much kinder society (and I might get benefits!) if people had to support themselves in the service industry for a year."

OK, slight problem: if those who don't need to work work all the same, so as to have some independence from their parents, or so as to avoid being that guy who's never had a real job, that leaves fewer jobs for those who need money, not 'character'. If you think it sucks to deal with someone who spent all her weekends shopping while you were folding the clothes, would you prefer losing a potential retail job to someone who only took the job so as to buy even more designer jeans than is already the case?

Ultimately, even if 'builds character' is a legitimate reason to take a job, if that's why you signed up, no one's offering, especially not in this economy. For the college-educated or college-bound, Jezebel-approved real-person work is often harder to snag than snooty-sounding low-paid work for which a degree/veneer of snootiness is required. This is why I found Paul Gowder's bafflement at lawyers who choose low-paid legal work over similarly low-paid service-industry work altogether baffling--no one would hire someone with a legal degree, or someone who took the J.D. off his resume but still seems like someone with a legal degree, to work as a waiter, because if it's your restaurant, you want someone a) who will stick around at the job, and b) who won't act as though the job is beneath him. Just as stores, restaurants, and other locales known for employing teens often refuse to hire young people still living at home who only seek pocket money, and who will leave once Swarthmore or Oberlin starts come the fall, these same places will not want to hire lawyers going through a screw-the-Man midlife crisis. Unless you can act that well, or really do need the GAP as much as you claim, good luck out there.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing and reading

There's still a Ladyblog, and because the loud, allegedly headphoned music of the guy near me at the library made sending an email to a prof all but impossible (UPDATE music's stopped, back to academic activities), I just found the time to keep hope alive over at the site formerly operating as Culture11. But seriously, the Ladyblog might live on, so keep reading!

Unrelated: A few months ago I bought a book by, I thought, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a book I hadn't heard of... because the author was not the Singer I'd thought, but in fact I.J. Singer, I.B. Singer's brother, which Jo found hilarious, thus the tag to this post. Turns out (via ALDaily) the book's supposed to be good. Mr. Jashevis is now next up on my non-academic reading list. Still, buying a book, even a used dollar-book, by the wrong author is kind of hilarious.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Anything-But-American Paradox

A close cousin of the Americans who praise the eating habits of all countries other than our own are their countrymen who fancy themselves somehow European and thus enlightened when weighing in on American drinking habits. That the NYT now has a blog devoted to "Alcohol and American Life" has invited comparative responses declaring the superiority of Europe, and of non-America generally. Such as: "I live in Europe, and it is clear that children are much better socialized with alcohol here than I was when growing up in the US." Or, "My upbringing reflected the European attitude toward wine and beer." Or, from someone with little knowledge of the rules of Islam and that religion's popularity in the world today, "only in america.. could people be so uptight about drinking." The various comments about moderate wine-consumption in Italy were not too surprising, but it seems even Germans are, in the American fantasy, thimble-of-wine-type drinkers.

The myth of the Mediterranean as a region where you can live to 100 subsisting on ouzo and feta is also alive and well in Britain, as amusingly expressed just now in the Guardian: "The belief in some middle-class families that you can teach children to drink by giving them wine with meals, as it is assumed happens in some Mediterranean countries, is not founded on any evidence, [medical chief] Donaldson said." (Wine would go far better with an Israeli breakfast than with a traditional French or American one, but I doubt if that pairing has ever taken place.)

I haven't been keeping up with "Proof" and its copious comments section well enough to notice whether anyone has yet pointed out that Europe's youth are in fact drunker than our own. The Europeans-and-alcohol myth comes in part from conflating alcohol problems with an inability to hold one's liquor--that a European teen could drink an American one of equal weight and non-Ashkenaziness under the table means Johan has more practice drinking than John, not that Johan is a more sensible person from a superior culture.

But it's also about wanting the world to work in appealing ways, and insisting that it does, in fact, work in those ways, because for it to work otherwise would be too much to handle. It would be lovely if drinking wine with every meal from the age at which one first wants to do so prevented drinking problems later in life, or if an uninhibited attitude towards something potentially harmful removed its potential to harm. I get why people, not all of whom simply find America aesthetically vomitorious, want these things to be true. I wish, if I had an uninhibited attitude towards twenty-dollar-a-pound Spanish sheep's-milk cheese, I could consume as much of it as I wanted without this affecting my build or bank account. And so on.

I guess the reason I find all this silly is that the need to declare a pleasurable lifestyle indistinguishable from a healthy one is, clearly, as American a need as they come. After all, a) taste is subjective, and b) even if we could agree upon what foods and activities were most pleasing to the most/most discriminating people, it's unlikely the results would just happen to line up with whatever contributes most to long life. To hold forth on the superiority of Europe and articulate this in terms of health is to be super-American, more so even than the Americans shamelessly filling their carts with health-food-store knock-off Cheetos.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Seasonal activities, out-of-season fruit UPDATED

Holidays that revolve around desserts are always the best, which is why, although I'm a Jew who stubbornly refuses to go in for Christmas, I am all for Easter. So, to be timely: Is Valentine's Day stupid, as in, depressing if you're single, awkward and forced if not? Not if you use it as an excuse to make pastries! (For the best commentary on how sensible women view the day, see Prudence's answer to this week's first question, a more articulate version of what I'd been trying to express here.) The plum (local/seasonal be damned) tart I made this afternoon (as in, it took the whole afternoon), a mix of various recipes gathered online and off, required that whole dough-made-from-iced-water extravaganza, not to mention the dirtying of exactly all the dishes we own, so it had better be good. In fact, it will be good, as I know from trying each of the component parts (custard, plum goop, crust) individually. If it does not fall apart upon removal from tart pan, and there is a charged camera someone in the apartment, there will be a photo. After muffins, muffins, and more muffins, baking that requires no technique whatsoever, this counts as progress.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Food, Freud, and Fussiness

My friend Lauren Shockey has a very cool article in Slate about attempts at recreating restaurant food at home. Restaurant cookbooks, it seems, do not actually want you to recreate their food, as doing so would eliminate the need to go to the restaurant. Sneaky bastards! I especially appreciated her mentioning how many dishes one recipe took to prepare at home--this is an important question far too often left out of food writing, as though dishes did themselves. (I could go on...)

In totally unrelated news, two quotes of the day:

1) "Gordon's wife, Rebecca, 27, has the same career as his mom -- teaching gifted elementary-schoolers -- and the women share a love of cooking and talking on the phone."-from a CNN story (via Jezebel) about people who marry all Freudian-style. Gordon's in quite the predicament. Two women, both elementary school teachers, who enjoy talking on the phone and cooking, what were the chances? If it turns out both his wife and his mother like shopping for shoes, they're all in Greek-tragedy territory.

2) "'I don’t even look at [manicures] as luxury,' she said. 'It’s basic cleanliness.'"-Some woman foolish enough to agree to be interviewed by the NYT Styles section, who seems to have confused nail polish with Purell.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

In which France joins the Orient

Forces literally* beyond my control cause me to find the "Well" blog endlessly fascinating. What is it about health columns that make a person want to wade in a pool of lard, sunbathing, and downing Cheetos by the bucketful? The nutritionists quoted in health articles might consider doing a study on the health-article-induced-unhealthiness phenomenon.

So. In the latest installment of "Well", Tara Parker-Pope, who means well, explains what the Mediterranean Diet consists of, after, I take it, explaining why this is how we should all eat, personal preferences and regional limitations be damned. Despite this explanation, I'm more confused than ever. "Mediterranean" apparently doesn't mean eating what is actually consumed near that particular sea, or what those living in those parts would have eaten during the Golden Age if they had had the money to eat as they pleased. It's about mimicking semi-starvation as experienced in a region that happens to have amazing local produce. If you happen to live somewhere where all foods save delicious vegetables are abundant (say, anywhere in the U.S. that isn't Berkeley), good luck.

But, back to my confusion as to what this Mediterranean noms is all about:

"Mediterranean eating is focused on simple cooking and includes all the foods you already eat, just in different proportions."

What is it I already eat, that the "Well" blog sees, via the camera-thing I don't even use in my laptop? Why not 'the typical American diet'? Why make it personal, especially when the "Well" blog readership probably eats only yogurt, kale, and quinoa, washed down with a decaf and the latest Philip Roth.

"[T]he portions are smaller than typically consumed in a Western diet."

Take that French Orientalist-types, who spend your days sneering at your Arab-immigrant concitoyens! You're not even Western! Western now equals American! How'd you like them pommes! (But why oh why, when a commenter points this out, does TPP ask said commenter to reread the post? France and Italy have not moved, nor has the not entirely geography-specific definition of Western civilization changed so as to exclude all countries other than America.)

"Refined sugar and flour and butter and fats other than olive oil are consumed rarely, if at all."

What is it, then, that pasta is made out of? Is semolina not refined? Is it an American myth that Italians eat pasta, or that French people eat baguettes? This is a serious question. I am genuinely confused. Isn't whole-wheat bread something particular to contemporary diet-conscious Americans?

"One of the key components of Mediterranean eating has to do with the elevation of the meal as a social event."

Fair enough. But is there a culture, other than Evil Contemporary America and all that it has influenced (again, see Rita's wonderful post), that does not elevate the meal in this way? Ashkenazi folk back in the less lean days of the shtetl surely lingered for hours over gefilte fish, pastrami, schmaltz, and sugary tea, along with some cookies baked with animal fat so as not to disrupt the milk-meat what-have-you, but no one's suggesting a Shtetl Food Pyramid.

"Many of the recipes we typically associate with Mediterranean countries don’t come from coastal communities, but from regions farther to the north."

Take that, blond-northern-types! A swarthy diet is a healthy one. (Though dark-haired, I'm resistant to this point because Camembert, from the non-healthy part of France, is one of the best foods out there.)

"Research on the diet took off in the 1990s, as scientists noted that people in Mediterranean countries lived longer and had low rates of serious disease despite high rates of smoking and drinking."

Indeed, being beautiful, tanned, and European prevents cancer, as we've all known all along. Results obviously not replicable among lower forms of humanity, such as Americans.

And finally, from the Mediterranean Food Pyramid, one more question:

Legumes only weekly? Really? What health problems are associated with eating too many lentils? (OK, I see where this could go, but this not being Jezebel, it won't.)


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Installment II: And now, the best fashion writing

Upon leaving the subway this morning, I nearly collided with yet another model, this time because I stubbornly refused to obey the unspoken law of Shorter Person Steps Aside for Taller Person, that is, until the last moment, when it became abundantly clear that if I didn't move, it would be yesterday all over again.

So it seems as good a time as any, now that I'm done with my cathartic anti-fashion posts, to offer up, as promised, some more positive examples of clothes-obsession. An incomplete list:

Mike Albo's Critical Shopper columns: Here he is on a dog-accessory boutique. And here, on some fancy British men's clothes. Sample passage:

The cardigan was worth more than my income for the month and, therefore, worth more than me, so I had to try it on. It felt nice, but it seemed two sizes too small, and the cuffs landed on my forearms. This made sense, though, because Thom Browne makes fastidiously tailored suits, coats, sweaters and shirts that are meant to be worn in a narrow Pee-wee Herman kind of way. At this point, you have probably seen his clothing — the high-seam floodwater pants, narrow lapels, snug jackets — in some worshipful style piece or magazine spread. You may have seen Mr. Browne himself wearing the distinctive clothes. He is a very handsome, symmetrical man, often photographed. He always looks dapper and cleanshaven, his ankles exposed, his jackets tight and sleeves receding above his wrists. There is no lint in this man’s life. In interviews, he seems like kind of person who keeps a neat desk, files his receipts months before tax time, eats three square meals, and has one simple cocktail after work. In other words: not me.

A little self-deprecation makes commentary on high fashion and even dog fashion palatable, and even entertaining. Not all fashion writing needs to be about well-arranged thrift-store purchases. Some acknowledgment that narrow-cut, thousand-dollar-range clothes are too damn small and pricey makes it possible to discuss which designer duds are covetable and which are not, all the while keeping the possibility of actually buying them off the table.

Kei: Not only a fabulous astrophysics lab partner, but one who finds fashion in all places.

Tavi, 12-year-old fashion prodigy, found via Kei: So there's a part of me that thinks, minus the I'm-not-12-anymore build, I too could look high-fashion in the clothes I wear every day. But then I realize this girl really does have talent. (Whereas, much as I adore this outfit and these boots, I can't include "Sea of Shoes", even though it counts as good fashion writing, because if you are not a beautiful blonde Texan with the funds for high fashion and the ability to walk in seven-inch heels, you will be preoccupied by jealousy - of the girl, her corgi-filled life, and of course her shoes, to the point where it becomes impossible to think of the clothes and shoes in isolation.)

Zana Bayne: Encouraging news for those of us who neither are nor look like blonde preadolescents that we, too, can look space-age and awesome.

The Streetswalker
: Here, my pro-Tel Aviv bias is showing. The blog's a whole lot like The Sartorialist, but Tel Aviv is the most wonderful place ever. The clothes come second, but the blog itself still, for my admittedly subjective reasons, made the cut.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Wrinkles and models

Tara Parker-Pope's post (say that three times fast) about twins and wrinkles says one thing but shows another. The science says all sorts of things age us, and that the study of twins reveals nurture, not nature, to be the deciding factor.

The WWPD verdict? Looking at the photos without the commentary, what I saw were a bunch of identical twins, some of whom are better at hairdye maintenance than their siblings. Contrary to popular opinion, and to the evidence as presented in the article, smoking does not make a person more wrinkled, just thinner, which does, as Catherine Deneuve, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and now Science know full well, make older women look even older, thus the ass-face dilemma, far less obscene than it sounds. If there's any health message to be had, it's that if smoking barely makes a difference, and being overweight makes skin smoother, wrinkles are not an indication of much of anything, health-wise. Or so I concluded. But, says Scientist:

"'Excessive loss of weight can be detrimental to youthfulness and attractiveness,' Dr. Guyuron said. 'It’s a warning if you lose too much weight after the age of 40.'"

And the "warning" is what, exactly? Isn't it worse, health-wise, to be overweight over 40 than to face "an older appearance"?

And as always with matters vaguely scientific, the comments provide some insight:

"Seems to me diet would also have a big effect - I often notice that people who eat a poor diet of all processed foods look much older than those who eat healthy."

Who would have enough to go on to make such an assessment? By which I mean, how would you know, without really studying a set of people, 24/7, over time, who eats what, and how old each person is, versus how old they look? Also, how many people eat "all processed foods" or "healthy", one or the other, exclusively? I ask because it is entirely possible to be on your way to the store to buy salad, meat, and other real foods and be so hungry from having to throw out most of an inedible falafel sandwich at lunch that a Twix is necessary to get through the remaining hours of shopping, commuting, and cooking. Man perhaps could live on Twix or salad alone, but both have their place.

Speaking of which, today has been Day of the Model. As in, from morning till night, runway models been everywhere, from the subway station to the sidewalk to the store, more than the usual, and the usual is a whole lot of models. I even collided with one at Whole Foods (where they are everywhere, although given their apparently empty carts, I don't know if this is proof that they eat; I did see one looking at the tomatoes with intent to purchase), her awkwardly dangled basket and my overstuffed Institute of French Studies tote entangled, much to Jo's amusement. Why amusing? These women are, and I barely exaggerate, twice my height.

Coming and going

Relax, everyone. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is currently being solved by none other than the Gawker commentariat.

Pareene at Gawker recently learned, second-hand, that when you travel to Israel, they question you like crazy, mistakenly attributing the questioning to the traveler's critical-of-Israel bloggings. I promise that you can blog Zionist day in and day out and still get a hard time on your way to Ben Gurion. All the more so if traveling with someone who is a) not your spouse, and b) not a Jew, because why would someone do such a thing if not for nefarious purposes? After all, interfaith romance is basically terrorism, right? Finishing what Hitler started and all that. Is the over-the-top security, not just on the way to Israel, but anywhere where Jews are identifiable, justified? Yes and no, but to those who are questioned, for god's sake don't take it personally.

The Gawker thread is strangely interesting. After a whole lot of back-and-forth I-P blah blah blah, it is revealed that the pro-Israel contingent is not a man, as others had assumed, but a woman, one married to a Christian man, at that. This confuses other commenters, who do not understand how a Jewish person might a) defend certain Israeli policies (not every last one), and b) act in ways not 100% in line with the Jewish religious establishment. Jews can be so confusing! Anyway, the gender revelation leads to a gotcha one-liner from someone who'd considered converting to Judaism but thought better of it: "My balls were part of the reason I didn't go through with the conversion--I didn't want to have them removed by some Jewish woman like you." The charming commenter, so threatened by a woman with political views not his own, seems not to realize that converting would not have brought him closer to a woman like the one with whom he's sparring, whose dude is, it seems, unconverted. His balls are safe either way.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

So different, yet so the same

This engagement announcement at Jezebel reads like either an apology for being conventional (the writer specifies that she and her fiancé were together for nine years prior, so it looks like there was some resistance, on someone's part at least, to convention along the way, that is, unless they were together since middle school in which case, carry on) or, in a harsher reading, like an announcement that, contrary to appearances, the author is Different ("I have never, in my life, dreamed about my wedding day") or, in a still more unflattering light, like bitterness at having a fiancé who took nine years to propose, and who, when he did, did so with a lollipop ring (because after all, there's a tasteful-jewelry middle-ground between candy and whatever's flashiest at Zales).

So, a belated disclaimer: I don't know the woman who wrote the post, but since it's up there, I'm looking at it as a piece of published writing at a high-traffic blog, intended to make a point, not as a diary entry accidentally left on the Internet. I know nothing of her life with her man, or, for that matter, whether or not she and her situation are entirely fictionalized, 'she' being a 'he', the entire scenario a figment of some elderly man or teenage boy's imagination.

OK, back to the post. I completely agree that the media demands that all women dream of weddings, the endless wedding movies, and so on, are out of control. And I couldn't agree more that the person matters more than the trappings. But the author lost me when, after a prolonged 'no offense' to those having more traditional weddings, she adds, "but for fuck's sake, universe, some of us just don't feel like picking out table settings or touring country clubs or meeting with florists." Obscenities denoting, of course, a woman who shuns convention. Does the universe care whether this woman has a big wedding, a city-hall on-the-go one, or none at all?

So, the question: is there a way to criticize convention that does not involve claiming (implicitly or explicitly) to be the great exception to the herd of sheep that is humanity? One option is to fault followers while admitting to one's own unoriginal tendencies (says she who combined an Uggs-North Face take-down with a Patagonia-laundry-day confession.) But even that comes across as pointless, as in, if you're guilty of the behavior you object to, you're not really making a point.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Flemish realism (but where were the pastries?)

Jo and I just got back from seeing "Moscow, Belgium," playing at a tiny theater on 12th Street with seats so crammed together no one much taller than I am (which is to say, no Belgians) could be seated comfortably. Since the film seemed to attract very elderly New Yorkers, this was not much of a problem for most of the audience. Thanks to my stature; a student discount off already lower-than-average movie prices; and the unpopularity of artificial-butter popcorn among the art-film-preferring 90-plus set, I was, for once, quite comfortable.

The movie itself was most excellent, both as a portrait of life in Flanders (complete with beef stew and fries! no Wallonia, this) and as an almost painfully realistic portrait of relationships involving indecisive men. (I'm guessing more realistic than some other contenders, if realistic is your thing.) Further realism: said indecisive man is played by actor Johan Heldenbergh, who is not only the most Belgian-looking man in the history of Belgian-looking men, but apparently grew up in the bleak-but-gloriously-stew-filled apartment building where the movie was filmed.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

In defense of your grad-student neighbors

New York Magazine readers are not so pleased with the students living in Stuyvesant Town. I knew, from visiting grad-school friends in those apartments, how hated the students were, but it now becomes clear why: the residents think they're all undergrads! The housing is, as far as I know, offered at below-market rates to first-year grad students only, but since something like ten billion people live in Stuy Town total, surely college students are among the residents. Heck, Bin Laden could be in the mix, and no one would find him. ('Where is 987 14th Street, and why is it not on 14th Street?', asked the Bush Administration team sent to look for him.)

But, onto the matter at hand, which is how terrible it is that young people go to school and must live somewhere while doing so. So, some quotes for the commentariat. OK, the fury is mostly at some real estate developers who are, contrary to their career reputation, in it for the money, but the students don't come off so well, all the same. A sampling:

"The dogs and the NYU students that the Speyers have allowed into Stuy Town are echoing thru the paper thin walls and ruining every tenant’s chance for a peaceful existence."

"they are gleeful throwing elderly out of their apartments to turn stuy town into an nyu dorm."

"As for the other type of new tenant, in the past three years, we've slowly been surrounded by students. The result? Weekend parties until all hours of the night, and the regular smell of pot smoke drifting through where my kids sleep. One Monday morning, I found a kid passed out in the hallway. Try explaining that to a five year old!"

"six years old, playing with another six year old in Playground 12 for the entire summer, thinking I had a new best friend; I was raised in a nominally Jewish family, he in an Irish Catholic family. Childhood bliss, until one day in late August when he arrived at the playground and announced that he wasn't going to play with me or talk with me any more, since I killed Jesus. Stunned, I asked, 'Who's Jesus?'" (OK, not about grad students, but every Jew had a childhood moment like this. Really! One would think all American Jewish elementary school students helped kill Jesus. I wasn't going to say anything, but...)

"NYU students are WORSE neighbors than any loud family or fighting couple."

And finally, from another NYMag item on Stuy town:

"[...] renting to the NYU and New School kiddies whose mommies and daddies pay their rent."

So, Haters, two things. One, undergrads are people, too. The System makes going to college necessary for so many jobs, it's hard to fault individual 18-year-olds for signing up, or parents who can pay for doing so. Charles Murray will get around to it sooner or later. Two, first-year grad students are not undergrads. They may live in what looks like hipster squalor, but the Stuy-town ones are working to pay for their own hipster squalor, and usually by spring semester, the parties die down and the retreat into serious adulthood kicks in. Young-looking and debauched for grad students, by February they're... low-earning teachers, or teachers-in-training, i.e. the people the Defenders of Stuyvesant Town Authenticity Preservation are supposed to want in the buildings.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Gender, portions, and the Golden Age

It comes as no great surprise that participants in "The Biggest Loser" gain the weight back after the weight-loss reality show ends. Julia Moskin's piece includes a quote from a scientist about how "The decline of home cooking worldwide [...] is an underlying cause of obesity." The statistics Moskin cites show not decline in time spent cooking, but decline in time women spent cooking, implication being, that was and still is who cooks in most families. To remedy this, weight-loss experts today of course encourage all to take up cooking, not just women, because blaming obesity on feminism is potentially offensive.

But then it hit me that maybe the fact that women, not men, did most of the cooking did help keep us thin back in the Golden Age, that home-cooking on its own wouldn't solve the problem. After all, women tend to be smaller than men, and perhaps some gendered food preferences preceded the Great Split of our restaurant-going age. When cooking, a woman's first impulse of what a portion looks like, what a meal looks like, comes from what she would make for herself. A man might complain about lentils where they might have been steak, but he's unlikely to head over to a different house and have a different woman cook him dinner on account of this alone, whereas he might well choose one restaurant over another for just this reason. Furthermore, not only do restaurants provide big portions to attract customers faced with multiple possibilities, but those cooking in restaurants are more likely than those cooking at home to be men, and thus to be guided by male-specific ideas of what a meal looks like. What any of this, if true (and it may all be complete B.S., brought on by eating too much hypnotically delicious Thai food) means for solving the obesity epidemic, if calling it an epidemic is even accurate, is unclear.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fluff 'n stuff

Does the market value of frivolity make life easier for female than male journalists or, more broadly (sorry) women than men? Is lady-journalism best understood as fluff, or as a form no less worthy than current-controversy op-eds?

There seem to be two things operating at once. One, as Elizabeth is right to point out (via Amber), being a woman makes it easier to fail, because women have more options in terms of opting out of the workforce, but also because when a woman is inept, it can be seen as neutral or even add to her charm, whereas few men advertise their inadequacies of any kind. (Are there 25-year-old American men who still don't know how to drive? No doubt, but they would be less likely to be open about it.)

(But are women weaker, or is weakness not condemned as strongly in women? It's like the question of whether women are more social, or whether there's just so much pressure on women to be friendly and people-people that even girls with Aspergers find their way in the world of cliques.)

The other is that 'failure' is defined as feminine behavior. Staying home to raise kids, fussing about shoes and makeup, interest in social and domestic (as in, abortion and the US, not dinner parties and Windex) issues over foreign and economic policy, willingness to admit one might be wrong in a blogospheric argument (starting sentences with 'I think' and ending them with 'but I don't know really', as opposed to the 'you're wrong, you idiot' approach taken by oh, one or two male blog commenters, or blog-commenters presenting themselves as such)... all of these things are defined as negative in part, at least, because they are associated with the ladies. Even moving beyond obvious examples of fluff (like the amusing one Elizabeth gives: "5 Ways to Get Beach Hair"), the female and the silly are often defined as one and the same.

It's not clear to me (to use a female sentence-starter) how to get around this. One could say buying one's children binders is just as important and worthy as rocket science, that shoe-bloggery as crucial to our society as bloggy analysis of constitutional law. It's clear enough where the drawbacks there lie. Another possibility: women could decide to live without men. The problems with that, too, are self-evident.

Some ways out of this puzzle:

-We could remember that time wasted is time wasted. Looking for just the right new pair of shoes or watching the game, these are both time-wasters. Sure, great shoes can help further a career (but a couple pairs would do), and watching sports can mean socializing and thus networking (but can also mean beers and sitting on the couch alone). The point need not be that female time-wasters are actually productive activities, just that girly-nonsense is no more nonsensical than the male equivalent.

-There is excellent writing on fluff, and dreadful writing on Serious Issues. Think Proust on disappointment in love versus an American college sophomore's op-ed in the school paper about how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. The comment Amber links to about how brilliant law students write about law, whereas lesser minds deal with "clothes, recipes and literature," is so off, I don't know where to begin. Clearly a link to Zappos is not Supreme Court-level analysis of the US Constitution, but I can't say I understand throwing out there as though it's established fact the notion that writing about literature is what one does when one is too dense to write about law. In fact, I bet I could round up some folks who'd argue the opposite. The law student writing exclusively about something other than law should be held guilty only of having chosen the wrong field.

-Sometimes fluff is just fluff. But other times, an undertaking thought silly when done by women comes to be considered Important when men take an interest, or vice versa. Food beyond haute cuisine, for instance, was thought fluff (not to be confused with Fluff, mmm) until men entered the picture. Or the humanities, once a serious endeavor, now the object of mockery, now that women are over-represented among those whose job is to read a book and write a paper about it. No doubt there are male and female ways of writing about literature, food, or anything else. We seem to equate 'serious' with 'male,' allowing that some men will write fluff and some women seriousness, but that these will be the exceptions.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

When pasta won't do

Sometimes you can find delicious, ooh-fancy meals for shockingly low prices. Sometimes you can't, so here are a couple suggestions:

1) Despana, in lower-east SoHo: I'd been before, mainly to get samples of about 100 different Spanish cheeses before guiltily buying a third of a pound of one of the less pricey variants. But it turns out (as I learned after wandering in in search of samples) the place also has lunch, as in, seats and some counter-type surfaces, and a number of sub-$10 (and sub-$5!) options, including at least one amazing $7 salad. More than a $5-Footlong, yes, but the one I got came with more Spanish cheese and almonds than I knew what to do with, not to mention bread. Highly recommended.

2) Bouley, in Tribeca: The name screams not-for-grad-students. The locale, same thing. But for whatever reason, the part of the Bouley mini-empire that was once the posh restaurant is now the café. The tables are huge and -- almost unheard-of in New York, outside of restaurants too fancy to even contemplate -- they are set apart from one another, such that entering and exiting the place does not involve whacking someone in the face with one's coat. In fact, the room is plenty amazing, with those vaguely coffin-like fancy-restaurant arched ceilings, and red-velvet benches on which to recline post-afternoon-pastry. I felt like I was staying at an extremely posh hotel, and had arrived, 4-ish, for breakfast. (I felt that way until we went to the nearby Whole Foods and bought nine bags of 99-cent, i.e. cheaper than Key Food, pasta, an item always sold out at the Union Square branch, where presumably we have more grad-student competition.) A small coffee at Bouley Bakery, served in a delicate saucer-cup combo, comes in at $1.35, a mark-up from making it at home, fine, but far less than one pays at Starbucks, Think, or other far less charming, paper-cup-offering establishments. (UPDATE: Jo just reminded me that we were even offered free refills, because the to-stay cups are smaller than the to-go ones. Who could ask for more? We couldn't, I guess, since we did not, in fact, ask for refills.) As for the pastries, Jo's chocolate croissant was apparently not good enough to finish (this didn't make me keen on trying it) but my cannele ($2) was so tasty it almost turned into me getting two canneles ($4)... until my degree in Cheapness Studies kicked in, and off to the pasta we went.

What makes good fashion writing?

Installment I: What doesn't.

Fashion writing need not be democratic in the sense of, a cheap outfit's always as nice as an expensive one, or a given outfit will look just as good on anyone else as it does on a model. Distinctions will always have to be made, and will sometimes end up falling along predictable lines. But without holding the fashion commentariat to impossible standards of political correctness, it's fair to say the ideal should be an emphasis on the interesting and attractive arrangement of clothes. If our reaction to a fashion shot is either, "damn, that woman's skinny, if one can call a 15-year-old a woman," or, "yes, how true, Angelina Jolie did dress appropriately, for a change, good for her,'" then what we are looking at falls short of this ideal. Case(s) in point:

-"Go Fug Yourself" is not, I repeat, not, a fashion blog. It is a middle-school clique ringleader, chastising those who look 'weird', but in the form of a blog aimed at adult women. Anyone who looks chic, different, or who does not put 'slimming' above all else when deciding what to look for in an outfit, has, according to the blog's writers, gone awry. Other crimes: dressing too retro or too avant-garde, showing too much or too little skin, basically wearing anything that is not 'classy', 'normal', 'appropriate', 'flattering', or otherwise uninteresting. Since the blog only targets bona fide celebs, and since no one is ever, ever accused of being fat, just of having chosen the wrong outfit for their 'curves', the problem with the blog is not nastiness, as some might imagine, but boringness. It's the fashion equivalent of going to a library and mocking all the novels that aren't 250-page easy (but not too easy) reads.

-"The Sartorialist" is a fashion blog, but one that tells you nothing you didn't know. For example, did you know that emaciated Swedish models out having a cigarette between fashion shows look more glamorous than Illinois sorority girls making the Chipotle-Frappuccino rounds? In Sartorialist land, the photography is interesting, the people are beautiful, but the clothing is so obviously secondary (tertiary?). We all own variants of this outfit, but some of us like cheese too much to wear whatever sub-zero size is featured in the linked photo. Since the gist of the blog is that it's about 'random' chicness in 'random' cities worldwide, the over-representation of the Nordic and the modelesque (or thinner) makes the blog not really about interesting arrangements of clothing much at all. That is, unless it, like fashion mags, works under the assumption that you cannot judge whether an outfit is nice/interesting or not unless the person wearing it looks like they've spent their food money on clothes. The tendency is understandable in "Vogue," because you know what you're getting into, but not with a blog that's ostensibly about clothes, not lucky freaks of nature.

Next up: what is good fashion writing. I have some ideas, but am open to suggestions.