Thursday, April 30, 2009

In theory

The latest installment in Your Humanities Degree Means Nothing falls into the category of things I'd rather not deal with, like studies telling you that everything seemingly innocuous in your life (the occasional steak! that one glass of wine!) will give you cancer. Plus, Rita already addressed the key points.

Mark Edmundson's take-down of the "readings" method of teaching literature courses, however, this I find interesting. What are readings? Explains Edmundson: "By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art."

Edmundson would be pleased: somehow I managed to get a BA in French Literature from a reputable college without once being asked to read a book through the lens of someone else. The Chicago Way, as I understood it, was to read each book, whether by Marx or Foucault, Flaubert or Proust, through your own lens. Meaning, it's not that we weren't introduced to critics, we just weren't told to mimic them in our own thinking, but instead to read them as we would read the authors themselves. (Or maybe the readings approach was the norm in all the French classes I didn't take? Of those, there weren't many...)

The only time it occurred to me that the 'what do you make of the book' method might cause problems was when I took a class where I was the only undergrad. The whole way through, it seemed as though there was some different language everyone else had been taught, above and beyond French, that I had not been let in on. I figured grad school orientation was a great big bang-you-over-the-head with 'This is Derrida and what you're to say when his name is mentioned.' I wrote a paper, I remember, in which I misspelled Lukacs, throughout. ('Lou Koch.' Just kidding. I hope?) The part of the paper where I read and wrote about Zola novels went OK, I guess, but the Language of Grad School remained a mystery. Since at that time I had no intention of going to grad school in French, I was not overly concerned.

Then, hello. Apparently at other schools, people are taught these matters as undergrads, and there is an assumption once you get to grad school that you Know. I'd learned heaps at Chicago, but the Names remained a mystery; I've been piecing them together, through classes and outside attempts, ever since.

Still, I like the Chicago approach, that just because a book is Great doesn't mean an 19-year-old can't read it and say something intelligent about it, or at least learn how to do so for next time. The readings approach is, for someone just starting college, potentially intimidating, since what you're essentially looking at when you read the Great Critics is what a Hum or Soc paper would look like if written by a god. Who needs that?

And, along those lines, I think Edmundson makes some great points.* However, he couldn't make those points were he not himself versed in the Language. Case in point:

"Thus Blake, admirable as he may be, needs to be read with skepticism; he requires a corrective, and the name of that corrective is Karl Marx. Just so, the corrective could be called Jacques Derrida (who would illuminate Blake the logocentrist); Foucault (who would demonstrate Blake's immersion in and implicit endorsement of an imprisoning society); Kristeva (who would be attuned to Blake's imperfections on the score of gender politics), and so on down the line."

Is the answer, then, to raise a generation of literature scholars who haven't a clue what the sentences above are getting at? Is Edmundson advocating that literature scholars not have the skills necessary to say what a Marxist view of Novel X? If the switch he suggests were to take place, how would there ever be any kind of conversation among scholars? If we ignore what's been written about books, why would anyone, then, write about books under the new regime?

Theory, as I understand it, is basically a lesson in humility, saying to the collective That Guy of humanities students that, 'Yes, genius, someone has thought of that before you, that, plus so many other things you'd never think of in a million years.' Then again, on this matter, I haven't a clue.

* However, here's where I'm not on board with Edmundson: He writes that someone who reads literature "sees that there are other ways of looking at the world and other ways of being in the world than the ones that she's inherited from her family and culture." Why is leaving one's culture of origin seen as the only true way to be 'converted' via literature? I ask because French literature turned me into a raving Zionist.

Oh, Jezebel...

From a post re: new plus-size lines for teens: "So is accommodating plus-sized customers actually reaching out to overlooked teens? Or just a savvy business decision?" (Emphasis theirs.)

I'm confused. How is this even a question? Are stores that only stock smaller sizes "reaching out to" smaller women and girls? Does a woman buying a 4 at a store that only goes up to a 10 think to herself, 'Gosh, this store must think I look fabulous, which was why it went to the trouble to make me this new outfit'? Such a woman might understand that society thinks along these lines, but the store itself? Does one ever expect good will of this sort from clothes shops? Isn't reaching out to "overlooked" markets - teen and otherwise - what "business" is all about?

This question - this post - isn't even about body issues, women, or Young People Today. It's about the uselessness of asking whether companies care about our self-esteem. I mean, they'll pretend to care if that's what they think will sell their products (ahem, Dove).

(A vaguely-substantive, academics-related post, having nothing to do with this one, is next up.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wanty list

These sandals.

These sunglasses. Anyone know where they come from?

This elbow-patch plaid shirt, if it came in a size smaller than Men's Medium.

A drivers' license. (Sniff.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Against 'naturally thin'

Having made the case against 'natural beauty', I'm going to attempt the same with regards to the concept of 'naturally thin,' a subset of the category already discussed, but one that poses its own set of problems.


Every women-oriented thread about fashion models, once it passes the 'she should eat a cheeseburger' stage and the 'eating disorders are no laughing matter' one, includes someone pointing out that for all we know, many of these models are 'naturally thin.' Some people are just built that way! Who are we to judge?

This brings up the question: what is 'naturally thin,' anyway? Sometimes it's presented as including all thinness resulting from healthy or moderate measures (salad versus fries with dinner, yes; cocaine and bulimia, no). But, as it's usually understood, 'naturally thin' refers to any and all thinness not the result of intentional dieting or weight-maintenance. A woman who is naturally thin, the thinking goes, simply can't gain weight. Even if she wanted to. But why would she, now that even those famous pockets of the world where fat was considered desirable are giving way to pro-thinness norms? Which brings us to the problem.

So, here's my theory: despite the popularity of the expression, there are almost no 'naturally thin' women walking around these days. Moreover, the expression, 'naturally thin', misused in 99% of cases, should be abandoned, because it does more harm than good. Here's why:

1) There is no such thing as 'natural' food consumption in our society.

The 'naturally thin' woman is thin despite her 'natural' approach to food - eating what she wants, when she wants, without intentional restriction. A 'natural' approach to food is free of neurosis - no binge-eating out of anxiety, but also no choosing the salad over the fries if the fries appeal to you more. Alas, if you have an uncomplicated, eat-when-you're-hungry attitude towards food, you're far more likely to be overweight, given the availability of food today, not to mention the existence of foods specifically engineered to be extra-tasty and extra-fattening, than were your equally non-neurotic predecessors. A healthy attitude does not necessarily, in this case, lead to physical health, and only rarely leads to thinness. Making a conscious choice to eat foods marketed as 'natural' (or Pollan/Waters/Bittman-approved) might have some advantages, but it is not eating 'naturally'. What would natural even be, anyway? What people ate in 1850? Cavemen? Where would we draw the line?

2) The 'naturally' emaciated are often naturally not-big, but are rarely naturally as thin as they appear before you.

This is to answer the question re: models, the one so preoccupying women everywhere. My point here isn't that models would be average-sized if it weren't for eating disorders, or that all women, if they didn't watch what they ate, would be overweight. There are certainly women who, eating only pastries, are small. Call these women the naturally not-big. But 'naturally thin'? It's been known to happen, but above, oh, age 11, there's not a lot of it going around. Yes, models are young, but not that young. They look prepubescent not because they are in fifth grade - in most cases, they're not - but because they are paid to take their naturally tall and thin bodies (remember, I admitted that some women are naturally thin, just exceedingly few, but models are among those few) over the border into emaciated. Of all models, there are, again, surely some who are just 'like that', but if the level of salad-and-cigarette consumption by this demographic around Union Square West is any indication, that's not the usual situation. Point being, it's not that models aren't naturally thin, or that we're all just one eating disorder away from looking like a model (we're not), it's that they aren't, generally speaking, naturally that thin.

3) Much like 'natural' beauty generally, 'natural' thinness is used to describe the opposite.

Just as various allegedly subtle shades of eyeshadow and the like are marketed as 'naturals', Google "naturally thin", and you'll find a wide array of diet books and websites with that title. Which seems strange, given that by definition, 'natural' thinness can't be gotten from a diet book. What these programs appear to have in common is that they are all being marketed as alternatives to diets. Given that diets are rarely referred to as such by those selling them, this is unsurprising. But the programs promising "natural" svelteness go further. And, as with the makeup-free Elle France cover, the decision to switch from calling diets 'diets' to calling them 'anti-diets' gets called heroic by those incapable of realizing that nothing has changed. "Thank god. I am so tired of dieting books!," writes one commenter... who goes on to list two diet books she likes, and a third she intends to buy.

4) Of those who are indeed naturally very thin, 'naturally' as in, without intentionally restricting calories, there's a good chance what's keeping them that way isn't something you'd want.

Dire poverty, stomach ailments, life-threatening illnesses, serious drug habits, or an inability to eat enough when depressed (depressed, in this case, about something non-weight-related), these are not things anyone looking for a way to shed those last ten pounds is signing up for.

5) As with other forms of 'natural' beauty, 'natural' thinness is about a posture of effortlessness, not about an actual lack of effort.

No one wants to be 'that woman' at lunch, admitting that she's ordered a salad because she doesn't like the way her hips spill out over her jeans. Which is why so many extremely thin women claim they are 'naturally' the way they are, as thought the basic calories in - calories burnt formula does not apply to them. Thus the clichéd interview with a model, in which she makes a point to eat, say, a cheeseburger, so that the interviewer can comment on how genetically blessed this woman must be. Yet very thin women often do eat tiny amounts, even openly so, for reasons they attribute to health (convenient allergies to all densely caloric and tasty foods, perhaps alongside a 'fitness'-inspired daily 20-mile run) or to morality ('I'm not eating this cake, not because it's fattening, but because eating animal products hurts the environment!'). It never comes as an immense surprise when someone with a thinner-than-model physique turns out to be a vegan. (I am, however, always shocked to see vegans who are any size other than emaciated. What, other than Camembert, are these people consuming?) Women in Category #5 thus pretend to be in Category #4, thin despite their best efforts otherwise, leading to some, but not many, truly ambiguous cases. Further confusing matters, 'naturalness'-wise, there are women thin for reasons of health or poverty who still watch what they eat for getting fat. But, the thinking goes, you're allowed to be particular about food, but only if it's for a cause more noble than your attempt to go from a 4 to a 2. (A hint: the quickest way to go down a dress size is to try something on at H&M, then go try on a similar item at the Gap. Much better than worrying all waking hours about your weight.)

If I'm against 'naturally thin', it's not quite for the same reasons as I came down on 'natural beauty'. Here it's really about the fact that the myth of 'naturally thin' both dangerously ignores the inordinate amount of time and energy women waste on weight-related fussing, something that we really should address, and at the same time valorizes a total lack of concern about what we put into our bodies, as though a 'natural' approach is a sign of superiority, the model who eats cheeseburgers winning out over the cheeseburger-eating woman of normal size, as well as the salad-eating model. Because, if this makes any sense, we should care what we eat, just, you know, not too much.

Voluntary track practice

Though an atheist, I do sometimes think I've found evidence of God's plan for the world. Today, for instance, I learned that God does not want me to work out, now that it's no longer a requirement for getting into college. Evidence:

1) Running the 3.3 mile, hilly loop in Prospect Park, not to mention running to said loop? Kind of painful. Will remember not to do it again, at least not pre-coffee.

2) Jo promised to buzz me in, so I wouldn't need to bring keys. A good plan, except that our buzzer is apparently broken. It took my remembering that we can hear every single thing from outside (usually children screaming mooooommmmyyyyy, in that it's Park Slope), so I tried yelling Jo's name and, sure enough, this worked.

3) When I run, inside or out, rain or shine, I turn the color of the vegetable Obama famously will not touch. It's startling.

4) My run finished at about five to ten. The shop near the park selling expensive pastries and cheese opens at 10am Sunday mornings. You do the math.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Following the shameful tradition of the likes of Cher Horowitz, I just failed my first road test. Didn't hit anything, parked fine, three-point-turned fine, but apparently the seemingly basic tasks of making left and right turns at intersections are beyond what I'm capable of. Not 'apparently' - I knew this, but since I decided to take the test after taking half the recommended amount of lessons, and without being shall we say unusually talented at driving, I did kind of bring this upon myself.

What's frustrating about this is that here I am in my 1,000,000th year of school, so used to studying for tests, and here's one I can't study for! Each 'study session' is a lesson, which not only must be done at a location that's neither my apartment nor the library, with an instructor, but which costs... let's just say it will be a long time before I buy anything non-essential without heaps and heaps of guilt. And this driving school, or so says Yelp, is relatively inexpensive.

All that needs to happen is, I need to drive around the block, many, many times, which doesn't sound like it should be such a production. But does anyone I know in NYC have a car? It's looking like not. (To those who have offered to teach me to drive, but who either do not have cars or do not live in NYC, much appreciation, but lessons it is.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The jokes write themselves

I just received an email, from a legitimate source, offering a possible $250 if I fill out a brief survey on my Jewish identity. Which of course I did, being both a Jew and - more to the point - a graduate student.

The survey was like a little visit back to Birthright, where a running theme was WILL YOUR CHILDREN BE JEWS?, expressed oh-so-subtly between the lines. As with Birthright, the survey permitted grad students (those born in 1983 or later - now I feel ancient), but was quite clearly aimed only at college students. Thus the many questions about extracurricular activities (does "French Grad Conference Organizing Committee" count?). And thus the option on the Relationships question to put something along the lines of, 'I don't date Jews or non-Jews, I just hook up, and since in the US circumcision's no guide, no matter if you're into guys or girls, casual sex will not tell you if someone is or is not Jewish.' (Would that it had been so phrased. But 'I just hook up' was definitely, startlingly, an option.)

My answers were, I think, a bit all over the place. I am at zero when it comes to religious activity, Hillel participation, and Appropriate Jewish Boyfriend, but the questions about 'Have you read a book on Jewish themes?', I mean, are there any books on French Jews left at NYU's library? Also, I was amused by the question asking whether I felt ambivalent about Israel being the "Jewish" state, because this conflicted with my "pluralistic" values. I could just see the eyes rolling of whoever wrote the survey, as my own do when I see such arguments. "Strongly Disagree", indeed.

I know full well that the results of this study will go towards various articles about ARE YOUNG AMERICAN JEWS TODAY GOING TO MAKE THE JEWISH BABIES?, and I accept that. If my accepting that wins me $250, all the better. But what would be super would be if they would allow you to meet with the others who filled out the survey as you did. I want to know if there are others with crazy academic and Zionistic interest in things Jewish, unambivalent but non-proselytizing atheism, and a desire to see Judaism understood as something other than Semitic pro-natalism. It can't be that uncommon...

The sanctity of marriage in the columns of 'Dear Prudence'

-Case one: A girlfriend describes a generally happy relationship with her live-in boyfriend, but wishes he were a bit more excited about doing chores, and were generally a bit more motivated. Prudie's response? "This is also why I have qualms about people who are so young moving to together. Have you two decided that you are making a lifetime commitment? Or is living together just more convenient?"

First off: nothing in the question suggests either party is "so young" - she works and is in school and says she is "working for a future"; he works, but not with much enthusiasm. That could make them 18 or 38. Also, in terms of "convenience", isn't that one of the reasons people are encouraged to marry, that living in a couple is more convenient? It's not the main or the only reason to pair off, but it's a reason for both official and unofficial couplings.

If what Prudie disapproves of isn't cohabitation, but youthful impulsivity, shouldn't the age of the couple be established before the living situation denounced? Guess not: "Instead of figuring out how to get him to clean up the house, you need to use this period to figure out why you two are playing house."

Good grief. "Playing house"? Adult couples who live together are not 'pretending' to do anything. I'm quite sure I cooked an actual dinner last night, and that my boyfriend - unprompted - washed the actual dishes that resulted.

While I agree with Prudie that cohabitation isn't marriage, it's also worth remembering that neither is 'forever' in our society. Which brings us to...

-Case two: A man describes his "unhappy marriage (which we're trying to work out)", and his Ambien-fueled black-out sex with a sexually forward acquaintance. Prudie's advice? Tell the other woman to stop calling. And, as for the spouse: "And since you don't know what you did, you're hardly in a position to confess anything to your wife."

First off: STDs, hello? This should always be a concern, but especially when the sex was during a fugue state, and when the person it was with calls up later in a way that suggests that casual sex with strangers is kind of her thing. Even if Ambien excuses the moral aspects of cheating, it is not to my knowledge a magical shield against diseases that could well be passed on to someone's wife. Or, for that matter, against getting Miss Acquaintance pregnant - what if she initiated sex with Mr. Sleepy in order to get a hold of some sperm? Or if she didn't want that, but Mr. Sleepy was a bit lax with condom usage, as I'd imagine unconscious people would be?

But the broader question here is why Prudie does not for a moment suggest the guy end his marriage. Is it because of his parenthetical, "which we're trying to work out"? No children are mentioned, so it can't be that. Is it because it's Marriage, which must be respected? On the one hand, I agree completely that, in an ideal world, things should have to go much worse in a marriage for it to end than they would need to in a different relationship. But things sound so much worse for Mr. and Mrs. Sleepy than for Ms. Dishes and her live-in beau. What Prudie should have done is given her stock 'how to get your husband to do chores' answer to the live-ins, and given her stock 'maybe consider leaving' advice to the marrieds. Just a thought.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Conservatisms of food*

Food can be male or female; it can also, it seems, be liberal or conservative. On the conservative front, John Schwenkler defends Alice Waters and other real-food advocates from the criticisms of the National Review Online's Julie Gunlock (and I am ignoring comments about her last name and its aptness given the publication).

So today's question: Is a conservative meal the Big Mac of the hard-workin' arugula-shunnin' Real American? Or is it the locally-grown, home-cooked, and sensibly-portioned meal shared by a family at 6PM?

Just as conservatism can go in different and contradictory directions, a variety of approaches to food can rightly be called right-wing. There is the conservatism of anti-elitism (Sarah Palin conservatism), but there's also the conservatism of elitism (Great Books conservatism). Both are and have long since been part of the American right-wing. Moreover, there is pro-business conservatism (pro-Twix conservatism) as well as anti-modernity conservatism (home-ground buckwheat conservatism). So in a sense, there's a place on the right for kale and for corn dogs. So why can't it be left at that?

Schwenkler makes the case for seasonal-local-organic (otherwise known as 'real food') as the true conservative option, and he does have a point. For one thing, embracing the local over the foreign and potentially tainted is an undeniably conservative idea. Plus, home-cooking goes naturally with, if not stay-at-home mothering, then at least having a family to feed - as Rita points out, recipes for one, or even two, are inefficient. But above all, making quality judgments, as in, Thing A is simply better than Thing B, is arguably best-suited to the right.

Gunlock, meanwhile, wrote a somewhat convincing take-down of Alice Waters and her ilk. Her approach could perhaps better be described as no-nonsense than conservative, although as staid conservative grandfathers everywhere have shown, no-nonsense-ness and conservatism go hand in hand. Then again, her assessment of Waters as a hippie and a coastal-elite places her firmly in the conservative camp. If her categorization of good (as in, healthy, tasty, and ethically-produced) food as only for snobs goes overboard, what I do like about Gunlock's piece is this bit: "There are others, in her [Waters's] view, who are making better choices — namely, the Europeans. Waters gushes over the European slow-food movement even as she dismisses American food sensibilities." Where Gunlock goes on to praise American local cuisines, she could just as easily have pointed out that Europeans consume their own share of mass-produced fake foods, diet foods, packaged foods, and so forth, many of which cannot be blamed - not directly, at least - on America. If Alice Waters were just slightly less enamored of France, the case for her movement as conservatism would gain much ground.

So, which philosophy of food gets the conservative stamp of approval? (As though I had such authoritah, but moving on.) My take is, both and neither. And that the impossibility of pinning the real-food movement to a political bent is a good thing. While Schwenkler is correct to point out that conservatives need not reject the movement outright, brushing it off as just more liberal nonsense, it would be a great shame if the movement were to become fully a part of conservatism. If that were to happen, the farm-is-better-than-city, local-is-better-because-we-can't-trust-creepy-ferners, mom-should-stay-home-and-cook potential to the movement would develop, whereas the eat-less-meat-to-save-the-planet aspect would in all likelihood fall by the wayside.

*Consider this a continuation/revision of this post.

Monday, April 20, 2009

(Possibly) unintentional hilarity

For a while now, Abercrombie and Fitch shopping bags have had on them vivid photographs of the near-life-size head and torso of tanned, blond, body-hairless, flawless (well, of a certain type) male models. The bag leads to some pretty amazing images. For one thing, one implicitly compares the person carrying the bag to the sun-kissed man on it. Just now, in the rain, I saw a haggard-looking woman of about 45 carrying such a bag. Everything about the situation - her age, the rain, the activity of schlepping - made her seem from a different world than the muscular boy in his late teens or early 20s at her ankles. A woman who'd have otherwise seemed upper-middle-class and unremarkable now looked, by comparison, like a bag lady who'd invaded her young son's beach-volleyball tournament to ask him if he'd be home for dinner.

But the best is when someone's on the subway, holding one of the bags. It will, depending on how the bag is being held, either look like the torso of the man is the torso of the person carrying the bag (which, depending on the physique and gender of the shopper, and on the season - say, someone in an overcoat - can look more or less ridiculous, but guarantees ridiculousness in any permutation), or like the shopper is in a sexual encounter of some sort (which sort, again, depending on the angle of the bag) with our chiseled friend.

Germans and Jews

So I considered posting something about Roger Cohen's latest, but Matthew of Stanford, CA pretty much covers it, writing, "I think it's a really obnoxious way to start an article by saying that the perpetrator of genocide has managed to move on more successfully than its victims."

To preempt a possible response to Matthew (sorry folks - looks like I'll have to post after all): Should the Holocaust be evoked as an excuse for everything that goes wrong in Israel? No - just as colonialism can't be blamed every time a formerly colonized but now independent society screws up. But to say, gee, look how wonderfully Germany's doing, after getting past a stage during which it was convinced of its own national and racial superiority, as versus Israel... it's just missing something fundamental about the psychology of the thing. To say that Germans have created "a wonder from the ashes" - it's unfortunate wording. Yes, Germans and Jews were both in bad shape postwar, and yes, there's all kinds of complex stuff going on in the German psyche, then and now, but really, it's not the same thing at all. Which brings us back to Matthew's excellent point.

So this makes me thing of a couple things. One, "Walk on Water", the Eytan Fox movie, in which a macho Israeli learns pacifism from a gay German descendant of a Nazi war criminal, a young man who wants to know why we can't all just get along. There, as in Cohen's piece, the German and Israeli situations are painted as analogous, and we're supposed to see the German way as superior. Germans are, in the film, gentle and tolerant creatures, granted with some 'issues' stemming from their heritage (neither Axel nor his sister has German lovers, preferring Arabs and Jews, respectively - Axel even makes a point in saying he's never been with German men). But it's ultimately the Israeli with the lesson to learn, which he learns, abandoning Mossad for the rearing of a towheaded half-German baby, the great, symbolic Rebirth at the end of the film.

The other thing I'm reminded of by Cohen's 'look how great the Germans are doing these days, compared to the Jews' is how well his column supports the 'oops, my bad' school of nation-building. As in, the Germans got rid of the populations they didn't want, were able to say, 'That was so wrong of us, we'll never do it again', and now get Roger Cohen praising their 'recovery.' One wonders what Roger Cohen would say to a theoretical Israel that had, in 1948 or 1967, gone the 'oops, my bad' route, killing off the Palestinians, feeling really bad about it... and then conveniently rebuilding the homogeneous (OK, there could be some Arabs, just as there are some Jews now in Germany) civilization they'd wanted in the first place. Hmm.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Silliness repeats itself

- The Obama-Beet Scandal of 2009:

Maureen Dowd on Alice Waters:

Her most ambitious vision involves President Obama, who didn’t want beets in his garden. “I would just like to serve him some golden beets sometime that were roasted in the oven, that were not overcooked, that were dressed with a lovely little vinaigrette, maybe even diced in a salad,” she says in her seductive way. “Squeeze ‘em with a little lime. It’s fantastically nutritious.”

Are beets a healthy food? No doubt. Is a person who never has a beet in his life, but who eats well otherwise, on the brink of malnutrition? Doubtful. Again, it's time we allow the President to dislike one vegetable, to refuse it even in its Alice Watersian incarnation.

- Cinematic narcissism and breakfast-in-bed:

Since Netflix means seeing everything eventually, Jo and I recently watched Elegy, a movie based on Philip Roth's worst-ever book (of those I've read, at any rate), The Dying Animal. After breaking up with Penelope Cruz's character, a sensuous Latin lover 30 years his junior, David Kepesh, the Roth alter ego, is served breakfast in bed, on a special tray, by his best friend. Why might this scene have looked familiar? It was like being back in Mexico with Carrie and the gang. So, to repeat: a friend, even a close friend, does not, when the other friend breaks up with the latest in a string of lovers, sit by the friend's bedside as though this were a death-bed situation, spoon-feeding bland food products into the mouth of the recently dumped.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Slurs and self-defense

Does it matter, with discrimination, if the victims are 'really' members of the group bigots see them as representing? What if they are in some cases but not others? Who, ultimately, is responsible for defending those victimized as such-and-such? The members of the group Such-and-Such, or all recipients of slurs aimed at that group?

Example: Judith Warner concludes that insults like 'that's gay', or 'he's a fag', have "almost nothing to do with being gay," because those taunted as such in high schools across America are frequently not attracted to members of the same sex. She sees as the victims not so much gay youth as all young people who, through an artistic bent or an inadvertently glamorous scarf, find themselves accused.

Since 'gay' is not always visible, it's not surprising that homophobia has its non-gay victims, just as anti-Semitism, aimed at another sometimes-visible minority, has its gentile victims. In France a few decades ago, a non-Jewish man had his store ransacked by anti-Semites because he happened to be named "Blum." In other cases, an entire space gets identified as 'Jewish', such as a Jewish community center or synagogue, and anyone in the area is a potential victim of an anti-Semitic attack. But does the fact that some victims are not Jews make the attack one against Humanity, and not against Jews in particular?

When, after a 1980 attack on a Parisian synagogue, a certain French politician condemned the act, because, as he explained, it had hurt both Jews and "innocent" French people who just happened to be passing by. While Raymond Barre's terminology was unfortunate - "innocent" not being the way to go, implying as it does that to be Jewish is a crime - the question itself is an important one. What role do 'collateral damage' victims of bigotry even have? How should they be understood?

With both 'gay' and 'Jewish', there's an internal definition and an external one. For 'gay', it's simple enough: a man who has romantic relationships (or hopes to) exclusively (or almost) with men, and who identifies as gay. For 'Jewish', it's also straightforward, that is, until you start getting the Israeli Orthodox bureaucracy involved. A Jew is the descendant of a maternal Jewish line and identifies as Jewish, or someone who, for cultural or spiritual reasons, identifies as a Jew and has, you know, done something about it, whether or not that something would 'count' by this or that particular rabbi's standards.

Whereas, when it comes to external definitions, 'gay' includes the internal definition - those over 8 yelling 'fag' tend to know what it refers to - but opens the gates, letting into the category of 'gay' boys and men of unknown or known-to-be-straight sexuality who seem any one of the following: stereotypically gay, stereotypically female, unathletic, intelligent, attractive, unattractive, etc., etc. 'Gay' is not just some undifferentiated synonym for 'bad' in the mind of the high school bigot. OK, it might be when directed at an object (as in, 'Man, that field trip was so gay'), but it rarely is when directed at a person.

The two-definition rule also goes for Jews. Anyone who fits the internal definition counts for the external, but so does anything with stereotypically Jewish looks or behavior (and please, no comments along the lines of 'there's no such thing as looking Jewish' - we're talking about stereotypes), or anyone with a Jewish last name. Thus many people who neither thought of themselves as Jews, nor would have been thought of as such by Jews, were killed as Jews in the Holocaust. Because of this, I never know what to make of Jews today who say that by not intermarrying, or by going the Orthodox route, one is 'sticking it to Hitler'. When, when it comes down to it, simply having Jewish ancestry and not killing one's self is sticking it to Hitler as much as would any more specific behavior. But the fact that Hitler's definition included many non-Jews doesn't change the specificity of the genocide, and in its continued impact on those who are Jewish but who were not direct victims of the Holocaust. But at the same time, asking all who were/are victimized as Jews to unite in Jewish pride is ridiculous, when it means asking non-Jews to deny their own identities. Similarly, high-school anti-gay slurs most definitely are about homophobia, insofar as even if it's a straight kid who's the target, gay classmates feel themselves under attack. Yet I can't imagine asking non-gay kids tormented for being 'fags' to march in a Gay Pride parade, to defend themselves as gays, if they aren't, even if they're being attacked as such.

Confused yet?

If this makes any sense... 'gay' used as an epithet means 'gay' to the people using it, it just doesn't mean the same 'gay' that gays themselves, and that those respectful of gays who thus defer to gays for the definition, would use. But, if we borrow from vocabulary used in the Jewish case, we could say that 'the gays' are those who are gay-as-understood-by-bigots, whereas 'gays' are gays as defined by gay people themselves. 'The Jews' are, of course, that menacing entity acting in concert, claws and horns at the ready, whereas 'Jews' are a collection of mostly unremarkable individuals, living out our mediocre lives. Yet ultimately, the defense of 'the gays' falls on 'gays', because there's really no way for 'the gays' - a group that includes non-gays - to organize. Again, if any of this makes any sense...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Musical exams

Every time I have a stack of exams to grade, the gods above decide it's time for the noise to begin. Last time? A St. Patrick's Day Parade. This time? A domestic squabble - not the call-the-police-omg-are-these-people-OK? kind, just the woman-yelling-man's-name-in-annoyed-voice-and-yelling-in-what-might-be-a-language-from-former-Yugoslavia kind. What is it about the act of removing exams from an envelope that provokes such sounds? Regular grading (essays, homework and the like) sets forth nothing more than the usual car alarm or boisterous Little League Parade. But exams, they're something else entirely.

I suppose that would make this the time to invest in those hideous rubber ear inserts intended to bring silence and serenity to just these situations. But I just invested a whopping $4 in a strap-of-jersey-cloth headband, the kind that were really popular circa 1991, which will prevent me from using 'my hair's now too short to go into a ponytail' as an excuse not to work out. And In This Economy, for this grad student, that's enough shopping for the week.

Against 'natural' beauty

Via Amber, here's a rather pointless article congratulating a French magazine for having the courage to feature women (who just happen to be among the more beautiful models and actresses) with (what they claim is) no makeup. Now, there's something to be said for not taking out loans for liposuction or binges at Sephora. Insofar as some women do risk their lives or spend more time and money than they can afford on beautification, the occasional reminder that you're allowed to, you know, slow down, isn't a terrible thing. But the answer is not to celebrate 'natural' beauty. Here's why:

-'Natural' beauty, as presented in French Elle, isn't natural. It's not just that they chose beautiful women to shoot sans makeup. Take a photo of a stunning - but make-up free! - model or actress, and what you've got is a photograph of the collective results of years' worth of dieting, skin-care regimens, tooth whitening, eyebrow shaping, and so forth. Just because nothing was slathered on pre-shoot (but gosh, did they put moisturizer on Monica Bellucci) or altered via technology after the fact doesn't mean you're looking at how the woman in the shot would look without intentional efforts made towards making her attractive.

-'Natural' beauty is about race, in all kinds of unpleasant ways. Mostly, it's about the woman who does not need to use a hairdryer or relaxer to get her hair smooth, or a plastic surgeon to get her nose into the Grace Kelly mold. A 'natural' beauty is not a woman who accepts herself as is, but one whose resemblance to an undernourished Latvian 16-year-old comes naturally.

As a response, non-white women (black, yes, both others as well) have appropriated 'natural' to refer to the choice not to try to look white. Thus a very complicated, time-consuming, costly-to-maintain hairstyle can be classified as 'natural', not because it's the result of how anyone's hair naturally falls, but because no relaxers went into producing it, or because straight hair is not the result. 'Natural' thus means a lack of racial self-hatred. Which is certainly a worthy goal, but the point of 'natural beauty' is supposed to be that a woman does not have to spend much time and money on her appearance, something this definition of 'natural' doesn't really address.

(Side note: if you are white, do not tell your college roommate, who is non-white or 'ethnic', that you can't believe she spends that much time on her hair. Though white by some standards and, like Amber, pale in such a way that when I wear no makeup, I'm told I look ill, I was on the receiving end of this for my refusal to wash-and-go. Had the roommate seen the result of wash-and-go, let's just say she might have reconsidered.)

-'Natural' beauty means not being able to use one's appearance as a mode of self-expression. Not all things women do to ourselves to look different is aimed at making us look younger, thinner, and whiter. Denouncing artifice means not only chucking nose jobs, relaxers, and concealer, but also glitter eyeliner, neon-blue hair-dye, press-on nails, and other manifestations of artifice designed not to make the average 40-year-old American woman look like an above-average Swede, but to make the wearer, whoever she is, look the way she wants.

This also, of course, goes for those born as men who wish to look like women, or vice versa. There, the natural option is not really on the table. To suggest a 'natural' look in such cases would be both offensive and, well, idiotic.

-'Natural' beauty does not eliminate the question of beauty, it just reframes it in terms of 'what God gave you', a fatalistic approach. With or without artificial enhancements, the societal phenomenon of beautiful people being admired, ugly ones insulted, and the great within-normal-limits majority being ignored will go on. Only without makeup as an option, it will all come down to genetics. If it seems as though I'm speaking of some never-to-come utopia, just think of any subculture in which artificial beautification is frowned upon. Who were the 'hot' hippies, if not the ones with naturally long, blonde hair and delicate features? The same is true today, in the various cult-of-low-maintenance subcultures still around, or in magazines choosing which women to feature without makeup.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From the dept. of Plus ça change

Library, Twix, diet Coke. A texte in need of immediate explicating. If I were looking out on swastika-shaped carrels, and not Washington Square Park, this would be 2005.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bonus points for a sign on or near a tip jar asking customers to bus their own damn tables

A few weeks back, I urged readers to send me photos of "signs admonishing customers in independent coffee shops across America." No such avalanche followed (perhaps in the future, I should make such requests somewhere other than in the comments), but here's Paul Gowder with some quite remarkable (and photographed!) findings in this area.

So, consider this post Call #2.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"It's very sophisticated"

-Sugar babies, sugar daddies, should we care? The NYT Magazine thinks so, and only so much of the paper can, after all, be devoted to the far more interesting question of pirates.

The gist of the piece is that couplings between pretty young things and men at or near the age for Viagra are more fraught than you'd think. The real takeaway, though, is that the arrangement is kind of brilliant. Men pay for sex, while convincing themselves they are in sophisticated relationships (cue the "he's sleeping with his maid" episode of Seinfeld - do these men not get TBS?). Meanwhile, women get paid for sex while convincing themselves they're the girlfriends of men who just happen to be rich. Whatever ambiguities such relationships might hold if conceived in a natural setting - sometimes someone fabulous in all ways turns out also to be a billionaire - disappear when you consider that the couples profiled met through a website whose stated purpose is pairing "sugar daddies" with "sugar babies". Sorry, folks, a line can be drawn between couples with income disparities who nevertheless have joint bank accounts and arrangements explicitly about the trade of euphemistic "sugar" of one kind for another. If you have to keep telling yourself that, when it comes down to it, all relationships are basically commercial exchanges, then there's a good chance you either are a prostitute or are paying for one. (And if you are a prostitute, remember: 'I'm putting myself through school' garners a lot more sympathy than 'OMG Jimmy Choos!')

-Though not a sugar anything, I did some serious shopping today, by my own Aspartame standards. First off, a dress, from the semi-permanent Chelsea Market sample sale, oh so temptingly placed across from the Thai food to which I am severely addicted. The dress... is long but fitted on top, with spaghetti straps and a v-neck/leotard-type top. I thought the dress was black, but the tag (and Jo) confirms that it is navy, thus confirming my color-blindness. Obligatory, guilt-induced price citation: Although the printed tag says it was originally $148, I tend to think the $25 it was on sale for is at the high end for a dress, however chic, made from t-shirt material. (Ahem, Topshop.)

I also have a Berlitz German phrasebook and CD gotten. We'll see how that goes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Alternate paths to fluency

Alas, I only really know two languages, English and (in my non-native way) French. But, if the topic interests me, I can understand bits of other languages, too. For example, in Dutch (Flemish), I understand conversations about food almost in their entirety. All other conversations in the language are in Danish for all I know. But once kaas, fritjes, and rijstpap enter the picture, it's as though I took a class or something, it all makes so much sense!

Same goes for Hebrew, except less with food than with fashion. While I understand maybe 30% of what people are saying, reading remains a challenge... except when it's about what people are wearing on the streets of Tel Aviv. This I apparently find very important. "ניקול ריצ'י הישראלית", in reference to this striking image, looked at first glance like a whole bunch of letters, especially because the first two items are not common Hebrew words, but on further consideration involves a blog commenter insinuating that the younger woman in the photo is an Israeli version of Nicole Richie. Because, you see, nonsense online stops being nonsense online once a foreign language - preferably with a different script - is involved.

(Once my Hebrew improves, I will get past the part of this post where it's explained where a certain Ronit was photographed, and where the important question of where she got that amazing space-age shirt is addressed. I'm sure this was what Ben Yehuda had in mind.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Why we can't all just get along: Laundry Edition

If you point to a yoga mat in an otherwise empty dryer and ask if it's anyone's, and no one claims it, do not boot the yoga mat and everything from a separate, entirely unrelated dryer that someone else (me) was about to start. Do not, when the person you just booted says, in a pleasant tone, fine, whatever, use that dryer, take that to mean it's lecture time. (I explained that I thought she just meant the mat, but that it was fine, whatever, I wasn't annoyed, it was a misunderstanding, that's all, but this only seemed to get her more riled up.)

More to the point: do not begin offering unsolicited 'This is how to do your laundry' advice, as though speaking to a child, to a person your own age, if you yourself have brought with you to the laundromat a whimpering (if very cute) lap dog, whose leash holds it such that the dog has access to other people's clean clothes, not to mention such that the dog-leash combo makes it impossible to get one's laundry from Point A to Point B without tripping over the dog, the leash, or both.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Knocked off and marked up

So I finally took Kei's advice and entered Topshop. Yes, there was a line to get in, and I'm ashamed to say I waited on it, knowing full well that the line is there to create/sustain hype, and that the store would not be at all crowded once I got inside.

The verdict? It's H&M but 2-3 times the price. Since Zara already exists, and since Zara and H&M are both a ballet flat's throw from the new place, what void will Topshop fill? Is the whole thing that it's British, and that now we can all own what some friend of ours bought in London? Is Anglophilia (or Kate Mossophilia) so strong in 2009 New York? I'm missing something, clearly.

If I'm less than enthusiastic, it could be because at Topshop, the 'cheap' accessories hover at $30 per item, a price well above the impulse-buy threshold, not to mention a ridiculous amount to charge for Ray-Ban knock-off sunglasses that have, in at least one case, already snapped. An intact pair runs you $6, give or take, on St. Marks Place, something anyone trendy enough to be interested in the opening of Topshop (ahem) presumably knows. T-shirt dresses, meanwhile, are in the $50-$80 range. If they were super amazing t-shirt dresses... I still wouldn't have bought one, true, but I'd have at least understood. A number of these garments looked washed-out, not in the sense of intentionally 'distressed' denim, but in the sense of the cotton piling. I mean, it's not that $60 is an insane amount for a dress. It's that it's an insane amount for an extra-long beat-up-looking tank top.

But I tried some stuff on, because what the hell. Here's the rundown:

-These neon-pink leggings were wonderful, but not priced as leggings. So much for that.

-The skirt part of this dress had a weird elastic thing that cuts into the upper legs. The shirt part didn't work for ways I won't go into except to say that thank goodness nothing ripped, as I feared it might.

The other two dresses are classified on the Topshop website as "tunics", a subset of "tops", which I'm guessing explains why they were slightly less expensive than the dresses referred to as such. Of these two, one was a pretty color combination but had extra flaps of fabric that serve as hips for the woman who hasn't any, or as an extra set for one who does. Hips are not a body part (body parts?) I give much thought. If I wore that dress, I would probably have to start.

-The next dress-that-wasn't (this, but a different color combination) cost $28 (more online - why?), presumably because it is in fact a shirt that fits me as a dress because of my 5'2"ness. It turned out to be a clingier, costlier version of a dress I have from the GAP, that's also, now that I think of, technically a sleep shirt. Clingy could work, except who wants a summer dress that can't also double as sleepwear and thus work year-round?

Perhaps, if I think this way, I am not in Topshop's target audience.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The middle school peace process

Can middle school kids - rich ones in particular - be made non-obnoxious? There will be peace in the Middle East before that feat is accomplished.

As for banning the wearing of bar mitzvah sweatshirts at school the Monday after, so as not to offend the kids who weren't invited to someone's party... gosh. I thought those shirts were relics of the 1980s, dug up and worn ironically by hipsters circa 2006. Seems they not only still exist, but are potent enough when worn non-ironically to hurt a middle-schooler's feelings.

I did get a kick out of this, however:

"Jason Thurm, 13, collected more than 200 of the personalized sweatshirts from his friends and donated them to a church."

Friday, April 03, 2009

Be a Kate Moss, or just look like one

Since the new New York Topshop happens to be located smack between where I teach and where I take driving lessons, I figured that a pleasant use of the 20 minutes I had to kill between these two activities I could spend checking out the new store. No such luck - I'd have missed my lesson altogether, given the round-the-block lines of models and the modelesque waiting to get in. Turns out glamorous types were given gift cards to the store prior to opening day, thus explaining why, for the entire block of Broadway from Broome to Grand, I kept thinking OMG there's Kate Moss, but it was just someone who looked just like her. Seems she has many admirers.

Curious to see what I missed, I just took a look at the Kate Moss for Topshop Spring Collection, the alleged highlight of the enterprise, and, err... why is this supposed to be worth waiting on line for? I mean, yes, these jeans look like they might contain Kate Moss, but for those of us who do not look exactly like Kate Moss (and contrary to that one stretch of lower Broadway that one day might make you believe, most of us don't), they look like jeans missing the button that holds them up. In a non-Kate-Moss size - say, something as gargantuan as a 2 or 4 - the look would change completely, which is not what you want with clothes. They're allowed to look better on the model, but no more. So, it's clear enough why gift cards were given to those who resemble Kate Moss. The real question is, why would anyone line up who's not one of those people?

Moving on. This bra (dare I ask - shirt?) also evokes Kate Moss, in that her cup size is the only one that would not burst out of it. Similarly, this sweater looks designed expressly to create the illusion of hips on a woman without any - not something too many women who aren't Kate Moss should consider. (The best that can be said of it is that it will cover the fly of your no-button jeans, when the zipper makes its way down.) And finally, this shirt looks like a t-shirt version of the X-rays shown in those anti-tobacco commercials, unfortunate given that, aside from dating rock stars unsavory even by rock star standards, Kate Moss is famous for chain-smoking record amounts, even by model standards. But, once again, we can say that the clothing item in question has some association with Kate Moss. (In desperate search for something nice to say about the clothes, this scarf is not bad. Nor does it seem especially Kate-Moss-y. Connection?)

So, long story short, the entire point of this store seems to be that, if you pay more for your clothes than you would at "anemic" Uniqlo (Cathy Horyn, with all due respect, how dare you insult the Greatest Clothing Store Ever!), you will have an aura of Kate Moss about you. I'm not sure whether I'd want the aura of Kate Moss about me, but am nevertheless confident that it's something no amount of money could buy. That said, if there are not lines like this on my next day of teaching-and-driving, I am sufficiently suggestible that I will be sure to check it out.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

All the single dames

This week is all about the French-Jewish press... of 2009, and of the 19th century. Although the titles tend to blend together, the main difference is that where a 19th century paper would have "Israelite," a 21st-century one will have "Jew." (It's a cycle.)

While I am ostensibly looking in the recent newspapers for politics and identity issues and in the old ones for social history, seems I got distracted...

In case anyone was concerned, it looks like French Jews are also experiencing something of a singles crisis.* What struck me most about this article by Paula Haddad, about how tough it is for single, 30-something Jewish women, was the amount of English used, as though West 96th Street hovers over even Paris. First off, the title, "Feujs and The City," suggests, upsettingly, that France - elegant, sophisticated France - is also packed with women thinking to themselves, 'OMG I'm such a Carrie.' (That would explain the popularity of SoHo with French tourists.) Leaving aside English words that are not unusual in French ("job" or "week-end", say), the article contains such Academie Francaise-offending terms as: "jewish mamas"; "fast-dating"; "brunchs [sic]"; "working girl"; "timing"... and perhaps more, but at any rate, a whole lot for such a short article.

The point is, there's obviously something very American, very Jewish-women-left-behind-by-Jewish-men-inspired-by-the-Roth-Allen-two-headed-monster, about the issue at hand. It's so much in the culture to associate the single Jewish woman with New York that, thanks to globalization/American cultural hegemony, even a French Jewish woman with no ties other than Judaism in the broadest sense to that particular Ashkenazi subculture will find herself identifying with Rhoda, Grace Adler, and every other single-and-desperate icon of New York womanhood either explicitly written as Jewish or implicitly cast as such (ahem, Elaine Benes). Cue the line from "Sex and the City" dryly uttered by voice-over Carrie, when uber-WASP Charlotte, after converting to Judaism for Harry, finds herself without a man for about five minutes: "Just what New York needs, another single Jewish woman." Cue a large-sized Tasti-d-lite. We're not in Paris anymore.

Although of course, for French singles, there is an acronym involved: "CDI : célibat à durée indéterminée." At least some things can't be blamed on New York Jews.

*"J’ai l’impression que beaucoup de choses sont faites pour les célibataires juifs, séparés ou divorcés," says Agnès Abécassis, author of "Chouette, une ride !". If things in France are anything like here, that would be the understatement of the century. Anyhow, I am now set on reading her book, as well as Aldo Naouri's "Les Mères juives n’existent pas," once things on the 19th-century front quiet down a bit.