Friday, December 31, 2010

Breeders!

This post is in honor of the fact that several classic Straight People Problems have been submitted to professional advice-givers. These are really the fundamentals, Straight People 101, the dilemmas that, if we answered once and for all, we'd eliminate the need for 90% of questions submitted to advice columnists.

1) From the latest Savage Love podcast: A man calls in, 26, in a one or two year relationship with a woman, 27. She has 'asked him to propose' by a certain date. He, meanwhile, has all this stuff to figure out before that time, even though he sees himself marrying her. He also mentions, in the call, that he has dumped other women due to his own ambivalence, leading to a don't-know-what-you-got-till-it's-gone situation. He loves his girlfriend, but...

2) Then we have this letter to Prudence:

Seven years into my marriage with my ex-wife, I still wasn't sure if I wanted kids. Eventually she stopped having sex with me—citing my indecision as her reason—and our marriage broke up two years ago. Eight months ago, I met my now-fiancee and fell in love very quickly. She's much more sexually adventurous than my ex-wife, our moral and political beliefs are more in sync, and we're a better fit for one another. I proposed to her on Thanksgiving shortly after learning she was pregnant. Here's the weird thing—I'm overjoyed about her pregnancy. I can't even explain it. Because I have many friends in common with my ex-wife, who's still single, news reached her quickly. She immediately called me, furious and in tears. [And so on.]
It is the same man.

3) Next up, another letter to Prudence, same link:
I am a college junior majoring in political science, and I want to study abroad and travel the world. My biggest hurdle is my boyfriend. We have been together for five years and have a loving and mature relationship. We plan to spend the rest of our lives together. But he is against me studying abroad. [And so on.]
If you've had the misfortune to sit through "Undeclared," you are now picturing Jason Segel's character, whose perfect embodiment of the clingy-bordering-on-creepy high school sweetheart of a college freshman made the show bearable.

4) Finally, we have this woman introducing herself in a text-only-but-NSFW letter to Savage: "I am a queer, cis-gendered woman in my 20s who prefers male partners (sexually and romantically)."

Wrap your head around that one.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A real head-turner UPDATED

Megan McArdle's remark, "Maybe I'm just oversensitive because due to my height, I am frequently actually mistaken for a guy by people who aren't paying much attention," got me thinking. Straight women, it is said, prefer tall men. This preference is the only arena in which it is socially acceptable for women to acknowledge judging men on the basis of looks. But I doubt, instinctively, that this is really what women care about, looks-wise, above all else. I'd think that face, body, hair, (body hair?), in short, so to speak, other factors enter into it. I don't think that height is for women what body-type is for men, if only because only one of these qualities is salient in the classic situation to which physical attraction eventually leads.

However, in many situations, women's heads turn for tall men only. Why? Because in a crowd, from a distance, in an age of gender-neutral dress, in a season of overcoats, it's simply more likely that the person seen from the corner of one's eye is of one's preferred gender if that person is in the 6'-and-up range than if we're talking 5'6". A woman who would be just as delighted to date 5'4" as 6'6", who could just as easily pick a shorter man on the basis of his looks, will nevertheless take a second look at the second man only, because statistically speaking, the chances of the stranger's head turning and a woman appearing are too great to make a head-turn worthwhile.

I'm not so sure it goes both ways. Men's heads turn for miniskirts, for visibly feminine attire, but also, I think, for height. A "striking" woman is not shorter-than-average. Just picture any commercial where a woman struts into a party and all the men's heads turn. She has long hair, high heels, and the men are not all looking down. Well, somewhat below eye-level, but not tilting their heads down to look at the top of the woman's head. A drag queen would, I suspect, get more interested looks from straight men than would an average-looking woman of 5' in a sweatshirt and jeans.

So while it wouldn't shock me if tall women have to contend with women checking them out for a millisecond before sighing in disappointment, I'm not convinced that men look away, or that tall women are ignored for being perceived of as insufficiently feminine any more often than short women are on account of not being in the line of vision of most men. At any rate, by the time interaction has reached the point of conversation, it's generally clear enough which six-footers are women, which 5'3"ers are men, and possible romantic partners know what they're getting into.

Finally, as for women being mistaken for men, height plays into it less than one might imagine. I'm 5'2", not square-jawed, naturally beard-and-mustache-free, thank you very much, and I've never worn my hair shorter than a bob. And I get "sir" every so often. Either it's my refusal to wear uncomfortable woman-shoes, or the gender-neutral grammatical use of "he" has a way of carrying over to interpersonal interactions. But yes, this probably is more of an issue for taller women, women with short hair, etc.

UPDATE

The commenters there are hilarious. I'll be sure to let my boyfriend, a grad student, know that what I care most about in a partner is "celebrity." (OK, James Franco is also a grad student, maybe not the best example.)

Mealy Diasporic tomatoes

For American Jews, "intermarriage" typically implies a particular scenario: it's the husband who's Jewish, and the non-Jewish partner represents a WASP elite, or at the very least a mainstream white Christianity devoid of all hyphenation and neurosis. A male Jewish outsider penetrating (get it? get it?) Real America. The Jewish-communal cry is for 'our' men not to be tempted away by a 'shiksa.' This may be an image with more to do with certain mid-to-late-20th-century fiction and film than with real-life, 2010 couples, but regardless, that's "intermarriage" in America.*

Not so in Israel. Apparently. The narrative there is a whole bunch of the other way 'round - the would-be intermarriers are Jewish women, not men, and the would-be non-Jewish spouses are Arabs. The genders are swapped, as is the role of the Other. (See also.)

What's bizarre about this, among other things, is that the rabbis' wives who've made opposing such marriages their cause claim to be fighting "assimilation." Meanwhile, if anyone's assimilating, it would be the Arab men who, according to the rabbis' wives, pose as Jewish: "'Yusuf turns into Yossi, Samir turns into Sami and Abed turns into Ami.'" Although I guess their claim is that Frieda becomes Fatima once the marriage takes place. I mean, who knows. The subset of Jews who'd get worked up about Jewish women and Arab men working together in a supermarket are in no place to start throwing women's-rights critiques at the Arab or Muslim world.

But I can't say I've given much thought to intermarriage in Israel. Marriage in Israel more so, because the rules are a mess, to the point that even a gung-ho Zionist looking to marry a fellow Jew might be well-advised to do the actual marrying elsewhere. But I'd always assumed that living in Israel made marrying in the default for Jews, and, based on that assumption, have encouraged theoretical secular American Jewish parents who decide to throw theoretical fits when they find out that their children they've raised with no religion or areligious Judaism whatsoever are lo and behold not committed to marrying in to consider that maybe, if this was their main concern, and they had no interest in participating in Jewish communal life here in the States, they might have considered moving to a place where it's possible to have Jewish grandchildren by default.

But I don't revel in being uninformed, particularly when it comes to topics related, however tangentially, to my research. So I Googled, and... hmm. So perhaps the intermarriage debate in Israel is just a wacko extension of the one going on in the Diaspora, as opposed to a home-grown one centered on the rare cases of Jews marrying out within Israel? This from 2009:

The Israeli government has launched a television and internet advertising campaign urging Israelis to inform on Jewish friends and relatives abroad who may be in danger of marrying non-Jews. The advertisements, employing what the Israeli media described as 'scare tactics', are designed to stop assimilation through intermarriage among young diaspora Jews by encouraging them to move to Israel. 
Unnerved yet? If not, there's also this:
One-third of Jews in the diaspora are believed to have relatives in Israel. According to the campaign's organisers, more than 200 Israelis rang a hotline to report names of Jews living abroad after the first TV advertisement was run on Wednesday. Callers left details of e-mail addresses and Facebook and Twitter accounts. The 30-second clip featured a series of missing-person posters on street corners, in subways and on telephone boxes showing images of Jewish youths above the word "Lost" in different languages.
More Googling, and the story only gets creepier, but at least it seems as though the campaign isn't representative of all (most? how much?) Israeli opinion on the matter. Anyway, I realize I'm more than a year late on this, but good on Esther Kustanowitz for pointing out how low it is to compare intermarrying Jews to people who are actually, well, missing or dead.

This is all kinds of blech. It strikes me less as racist, though, and more as tremendously counterproductive, if the goal is more Jews in Israel. The opposition to intermarriage doesn't seem to be all that different if Jews are the marginalized group, as in the Diaspora, or if the fear is that Jews will abscond with a marginalized group within Israel. If Yusuf wants to be Yossi, why not encourage this? Why take measures seemingly designed to repel the last remaining Diaspora Zionists (ahem, ahem), who had the audacity to fall in love before hopping on a Birthright party-bus. (Yes, I am slightly concerned my face made it to one of those flyers.) I mean, maybe some interfaith couples would like nothing more than to reside in Tel Aviv, subsisting on iced blended coffee and superior tomatoes and cucumbers year-round. Stories like this and I'm kind of like, fine, I will eat mealy Diasporic tomatoes, so be it.

*To those who say this cliché is ancient history, that I'm stuck hovering around 1997 culturally, well, perhaps so, but take this NYT Style list, "The 110 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2010:" We get, on the one hand, "Chelsea Clinton marries a nice Jewish boy," and on the other, three items down, "Natalie and Benjamin." Chelsea Clinton and Natalie Portman are comparably famous, around the same age, and famous from the same age, give or take. Their dudes are both best known for being their dudes. It's not that there aren't Jewish women off with (dashing European, why not?) non-Jewish men. It's that we as a society are only interested in labeling intermarriages as such when they fit the familiar scenario. Consider also that moviegoers have yet another opportunity to meet Fockers this holiday season.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Frahnce coute cher

If I add up the cost of visa fees, pre-visa Campus France fees, certified translation fees, and flights (and this isn't even including the near inevitability of my needing to buy a new computer - netbook at least - before leaving), it's a fair bet that my study breaks this spring semester will not be spent shoe-shopping. (This is why, while I keep track of my finances other ways, I am not adding up exchange-student-specific costs separately.) Good thing Paris has cheap thrills as well. Wine, knobs of goat cheese that would cost $12 here but go for 2 euros there, and walks (dare I consider: jogs!) by the Seine await.

Further thoughts on the behavior of Abs Millepied

Much is being made of the fact that Natalie 'stole' he of the French abs and endless legs away from a ballerina girlfriend with whom things were quite serious. Yeah, but not that serious, and I say this as someone at the abs-and-girlfriend life-stage, in other words as someone more inclined than most to think several years of cohabitation is different from several dates, even if both might confer "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" titles.

But that's the least of it. I mean, if you're going to be dumped, what reason, other than 'I'm actually of a sexual orientation that prevents this from working out', could be so not-insulting as 'I had a chance with Natalie Portman'? It's certainly better than 'I'm running off with a much younger version of you, while you're off bragging about being married to me on a Bravo reality show.' Or than being just run-of-the-mill rejected - for someone seemingly comparable, or for no one in particular, because alone is better than paired off with you. I mean, especially if you're a petite brunette of a certain type, you know any boyfriend or husband (probably girlfriend or wife too, but I'm not sure the appeal carries over) you'll ever have would pull a Millepied if his new co-worker were a leotard-wearing Natalie.

As far as I'm concerned, not knowing the couple or the particulars, the ballerina ex can hold her head high (metaphorically, that is - given her career, her posture is likely not a problem), and can comfort herself with the knowledge that she's better-positioned than most to find an equally ab-having replacement. (If she hasn't done so years ago - I feel like this is all old news that's come up again because of Natalie's Big Surprise.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Grade Pending

-"South Park" must - must! - take on "Bridalplasty."

-As Terry, the chef on "Fawlty Towers," would have it, "the better the kitchen, the filthier it is." True, true. All my favorite spots (including, alas, the only affordable sushi in Tribeca, the best almond croissants on the Upper West Side...) are worst-ofs according to the Health Department website. My preferred restaurant in Chinatown had been closed altogether. In theory. Christmas day, its business was booming. A Christmas miracle! Still opted to return to a different establishment.

-Spot the astrophysics joke. I made the mistake of reading this aloud to my boyfriend, who wasn't fully listening, and who thought I was saying some 24-year-old in his field had been described as "noted."

-What is "New American Style"? If we're going by what represents America abroad, I'd think something less... white than this description. (Theory: old rich white people style moves east to west across the Atlantic, young inner-city minority-group style moves the other direction.) But then again, preppy has long since been reappropriated by the least-preppy Americans. No doubt the same will be true of "heritage," if it isn't already, or if "heritage" isn't just preppy with natural fibers replacing whatever it is that goes into making fleece.

-Snow, finally! Of course, the cape I ordered ages ago arrived just in time. It probably could still be worn, but my commitment to making snow-angels prevents it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"Pretentious, moi?": Is French too fancy?

Withywindle asks whether the current trend in mocking the academic study of French stems from its "reputation as the major of choice for young ladies who will never need to work." I responded in the comment below his, but I think this merits a post of its own. Is the pile-on against French just a convenient pretext for an alliance between anti-elitisms on the left and right? Is French just too fancy for Times Like These?

John McWhorter, for one, appears to think French is the linguistic equivalent of those $90 t-shirts made of flimsy but 'premium' cotton. His stance is clear from early on in his contrarian anti-French manifesto, when he agrees, tongue-in-cheek, that "an educated person is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French."*

Then comes the serious bit:

Isn’t the sense of French as a keystone of an education a legacy of when few met foreigners who spoke non-European languages, French was educated Europe’s lingua franca, and the elite who went to college often had plans to do the Grand Tour?
That is, is knowing French really so obviously central to engaging what we know in 2010 as the world, or is it that French is a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?
Why "Caitlin" and not some preppy-sounding boy's name? There is, as I've mentioned before, something gender-specific about the War on French. It's definitely not just about class. Nor is it just about French - any liberal-arts subject where most of the students are female will get this response. (Art history, much?) The trust-fund-brat girl remains more a symbol of idle frivolity than her male equivalent, because it's assumed she'll go straight from being a little princess to a rich man's wife, whereas the well-to-do dude will do something more honorable than shop and yap, like go into finance. Or so goes the cliché.

However, as I mentioned in my response to Withywindle, it is no longer acceptable for women to be Caitlins. There are no more "ladies who lunch," no more "socialites." There are, instead, models with more attractive last names than faces. "Designers" who've never designed so much as a handkerchief. They all "work;" some, it seems, are the real deal. One, in the January issue of Vogue, claims to have DJ'd to pay her way through college.

If it's simply not done for the most decorative and well-connected of women to not work, where does that leave the rest of us? For young women these days, "privilege" doesn't mean not having to get a job, it means having the schooling and manners necessary to land a good one. Point being, the idea of the young girl who'lll never have to work a day in her life has persisted beyond the reality of young girls not working a day in their lives.

(This is of course a separate question from the stay-at-home-mom one. If a woman - or man for that matter - is home raising young children, cooking, cleaning, etc., that's certainly work. If it's a class marker of sorts - it assumes the other spouse makes a certain amount, or that there's family money - it's not the same kind of marker as the "Caitlin" remark is referring to.)

The unacceptability of pretty-young-things just being rich coincides with the unacceptability of any young person - pretty or not, male or female - showing evidence of having had it easy in life. In the age of Your Privilege is Showing, it's as advantageous as it ever was to have privilege, but any indications that one got where one is by anything other than one's own brains and hard work is a strike against. Even if French is less thoroughly associated with privilege than was once the case, even though real-life French majors come from the will-need-to-work-in-college-or-at-least-afterwards classes, even though students who major in French do so knowing there's such a thing as an LSAT, even though French is used in many places that are not France let alone Paris let alone the 7th arrondissement, the lingering reputation of French as a subject for students who summer in the South of France may have an impact somewhere - either on students themselves who are deciding what to take, or on colleges in deciding what to offer.

If you think about it, it makes sense that French would be picked as a target now, because its class-marker status has evolved, rather than disappeared, with new cultural trends. Gratuitously adding French words to conversation is a time-honored way of signaling pretentiousness. While in France, not all food establishments are upscale, any restaurant in the US with "chez" in the name is as good as announcing $20-and-up main courses. Nowadays, Francophilia is linked to sanctimoniousness about eating habits as well. No critique of the way Americans chow down is complete without tales of junior-year-abroads or vacations, and how wonderfully prepared the vegetables were in Frahnce, how sensible the portions, how the pounds just fell right off. This is, after all, a movement launched by the epiphany of an American student in France named Alice Waters, an infinitely-repeated story I will not do my readers the favor of Googling and linking to, so ingrained it is in the collective food-conscious. So, while French may not signal, to a younger generation, the notion of a Grand Tour, the reputation of Francophilic Americans as rich know-it-alls continues, if in a somewhat altered form.

*For more responses to the manifesto in question, see here and here.

The declining braggart economy

-A few weeks ago, at a sushi place in Tribeca (not Nobu or close), I overheard a woman explaining to her dining companion that she will make $2 million this year, up from $400k-plus last year.

-A couple nights ago, at an Italian restaurant in the Village, a woman took a break from complaining about her inability to get a man to tell the man across from her at the table that she makes $100k a year. She asked him what he makes: $75k.

-Yesterday, at a bakery on the Upper West Side, a middle-aged man announced proudly to his two elderly female dining companions that in the past year, in all his sidewalk-dropped-change collection, it seemed, he's found a total of $17.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fetal attraction

The new beauty ideal is 12. Someone got to the correct AbFab quote already, but others can easily enough come up with the concept on their own. What we really need is a telling-it-like-it-is manifesto about how female fetuses are not only the perfect runway models, but also the only women who haven't aged past attractiveness. Red-blooded heterosexual men can't help but prefer the images of a sonogram that indicate 'it's a girl' to the sad, desperate 23-year-old women they might meet at a bar.

They really are Geniuses

Moments after making an appointment with the Genius Bar - my trillionth for this computer - the screen stopped flickering.

Major majors

Is French useful for anything more than not coming across as an imbecile American while ordering croissants on vacation? Apparently! The first and second defenses of French Conor quotes may recall my own defense of studying abroad in Paris.

One more teensy comment for the French-Major-Anti-Defamantion-League files: Discussions of the worthiness of French inevitably compare the usefulness of French to that of other languages. When I would think the more useful comparison would be between French and other college majors. Is French really less useful than... I don't want to offend anyone by singling out their major as useless, but I can think of plenty that provide about as much marketable-skill-wise as French, minus the addition of any foreign-language training.

With that, back to my highly marketable dissertation.

The good, the bad, the ugly

-Got a visa to Frahnce! A process begun in June and pursued on and off since then has now come to a close. Now I just have a bit more non-visa-related paperwork to complete, a ticket to purchase, and a whole lot of esteemed French profs to email about meeting to discuss things French-Jewish.

-Also to file under I-forgot-I-ordered-that-but-what-a-pleasant-surprise, these shoes, which I ordered a long, long time ago, but which arrived yesterday. The idea is that they'll be an alternative to my usual favorite, ballet flats - chic, flat, slip-ons - but one with a more rugged sole, important because my walk to the subway involves dodging horse manure (yes, in Manhattan). I also hope that these shoes serve as a giant 'Why yes I am American' announcement in Paris, leading me to be served extra-large portions everywhere I go.

-Last Legs Laptop is kaput. Now it's the screen, and the tendency of the computer to seem as though it might electrocute me and/or the couch I leave it on. Nothing like needing to buy a plane ticket to mean another purchase of the same magnitude is in order.

-I witnessed a real-life instance of too-brilliant-to-bathe, a scene so perfect I must recount it here. A beautiful woman of about 30, casually but elegantly dressed, slim but shapely, with an oh-so-sexy French accent, was sitting near me at a café with a man in his 50s or 60s who was, it seemed, her editor in some capacity. They were, at any rate, both intellectuals. Granted the meeting seemed to be work-related rather than a date, but she was giggling and otherwise enthralled as the man held court at his table. He was out-of-shape, had hair that far exceeded unkempt, but most crucially, had filth, serious filth, under his nails, on his hands, to the point where I had been fairly certain he was homeless - a not unusual situation in NY coffee shops. But he was quite clearly the boss of some kind of major and elite operation - I'd speculate which one based on key words but I don't want to reveal anyone's identity.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shakespeare won't pay the bills

Dear Prudence today includes a back-and-forth between Prudie and a would-be grad student. Skim or for all I care do an explication de texte of the following:

Q. Corporate Career or Art Career?: I am in my mid-20s. I have been accepted in an extremely competitive theatre arts program in the U.K., 3,000 miles from my hometown, and had plans to start my MFA this coming fall. While it will cost me a lot, in both time and expense, I feel that it is a great opportunity and am excited to begin my future education. However, I had my yearly performance review with my boss last Friday and he has told me that he sees great potential for me within our company and wants to put me on the fast-track to management. We are not talking about managing a TCBY here. In a couple of years, I would be making about triple what I am currently making now. My dilemma is this: Do I stay, start a business career, and make more money, or do I go to grad school to pursue my artistic dreams but have no guarantee of being able to get a job in that field after graduation? I don't want to throw away a good opportunity, but it looks like I'm going to have to do so either way. My husband has said that he supports my decision either way and will follow me if I leave the States, which is awesome.
A: First of all, there is nothing wrong with managing a yogurt store . Lots of thriving careers have started that way. Second, I'm probably the wrong person to ask since every day I am grateful that my teenage daughter expresses no desire for a career in the performing arts. Of course, there's always the chance you could be the next Helen Mirren, and I'm wrong to tell you to stick with your job. More likely, you will spend tons of money on your MFA and then work at a yogurt shop while you're hoping for your big break. I think a career in business can be full of excitement and creativity. If you can see it that way, then stay. But if you will spend every minute wishing you were in England being a star, then go.
Q.RE: Corporate Career or Art Career?: Thanks for the advice. Actually, I'm not the acting type; the degree that I would be getting would be in Shakespeare Theory, so my plan was to get a job in secondary education teaching Shakespeare to undergrads. I'll definitely have to think about it some more, but it's nice to know that there are people out there who won't judge me for "selling out" if I do end up going the corporate route.
A: How about if, with all your big corporate earnings, you get a season subscription to your local Shakespeare theater. Or you fly to London once a year to take in as many plays as possible. Trading in a thriving career to take on a lot of debt in the hopes that you can teach Shakespeare to uninterested teenagers sounds like a recipe for feeling all your tomorrows creep in this petty pace from day to day.
First, the narcissistic, the personal, the least racy over-share ever: The letter reminded me of something I hadn't thought of in years - that right before learning I'd gotten into my dream grad program, I had the possibility of getting a more interesting and better-paid job at the same organization where I already worked. Before I found out how great of a possibility that was, I confessed to my plans for the fall, which put me definitively out of the running. I suppose my situation's not quite comparable to that of the letter-writer, if only because I made more last year as a grad student than my salary was at the real-world office job I had in my between-college-and-grad-school year. The market has told me where my skills are more valued, which turned out to be, of all things, studying French.

Now the more general. What's confusing is that it's virtually impossible to know, from the information provided, what, exactly, the letter-writer is choosing between. She (assuming a husband-haver to be, in most cases, a woman, although in the field in question this is perhaps a stupid assumption) wants a job in "secondary education teaching Shakespeare to undergrads." Isn't "secondary" high school? In the U.K., it apparently begins at 11. Does the letter-writer want to teach middle school, high school, or college?

Whichever it is, how is an MFA the relevant degree for teaching English at any level? And - and forgive me if this is something specific to MFA degrees - are there really degrees in "Shakespeare," as in, in the works of just one author, or degrees that promise jobs teaching that which one finds most interesting, defined so narrowly? The grad program is, according to the letter-writer, "extremely competitive," but it doesn't seem as though she knows what the program even is - or maybe she does but doesn't want to give away too many details to a public forum? She ends up coming across as the stereotype of a prospective grad student, who loves some ridiculously mainstream subject, who doesn't realize it's been done to death, and who refuses to contemplate the practical consequences of life choices. In other words, if "she" is neither she nor he but the creation of the advice columnist, I wouldn't be surprised.

Meanwhile,  the other option - big bizness - looks a bit hazy. Her boss "sees great potential" for her and "wants to put [her] on the fast-track to management." If she opts for that route, she "would be making about triple what [she is] currently making now." (Emphasis mine.) None of this seems to be in writing. The boss could lose his own job, or could be dangling the prospect of big bucks in front of a reliable but not amazing employee, with the hopes that she won't quit. She has not, at any rate, been offered a job that pays three times what she currently makes.

Finally, there's this: "My husband has said that he supports my decision either way and will follow me if I leave the States, which is awesome." Is this husband himself a freelance Shakespearean or a corporate hot-shot? This is the difference between Art meaning starving in an alley (or serving frozen yogurt) and Art meaning maybe the kids can't switch to private school till high school.

In other words, the variables are many, of which few indeed are available to Prudie and her readers. Why am I pointing this out? Because this is how every single discussion of grad school plays out. (Enjoy the latest installment if you have yet to do so.) We get a whole lot of generalizations - programs that pay livable stipends are conflated with ones that cost a fortune. Elite programs where simply having the name of a particular university on a CV is a plus are mixed up with ones where everyone will express shock that Obscure U even has a program in Obscure Studies. Medieval Studies gets conflated with Chemical Engineering. The Grad Student eats ramen and wears black turtlenecks, wakes up at 3pm and speaks in jargon.

At the same time, all alternatives to PhD programs are viewed as one and the same - the Great, Unnamed Stable Career, which might not sound like much, but which is what anyone sensible would have done. The GUSC promises 100% job safety till retirement, and has immediate openings for any recent college grad willing to forgo the chance to study poetry. Unemployment what? No, no, every grad student has turned down a theoretical GUSC. Because the woman considering grad school who wrote in to Prudence has such a GUSCy GUSC lined up, I offer the possibility that she is, in fact, a fictional creation. But I study literature, I see fiction everywhere.

On getting through the day

Today's off to a fine start - I got all kinds of paperwork in order, but somehow neglected to notice that the visa office only accepts said paperwork between 9 and 10 am, at which point my main concern was that the oatmeal not stick to the pot. A demain, alors.

As for this... I'm confused. (I get confused easily.) Conor asks whether newspapers should portray the world as it is or as it should be. But the Weddings and Celebrations section - like any of the various Style sections - is always "sugar-coated." I mean, are most marriages in the country, or even in the NY area, between high-achieving, photogenic young professionals who've spent their formative years in euphemistic Boston? The Vows are designed to provoke envy among not-quite-so-highly-achieving, not-quite-so-photogenic, not-quite-so-coupled-off. This week's column strayed from the norm, because it went the regular Style-section route - seemingly celebrating but between-the-lines (by allowing comments, say) mocking the frivolous rich. I guess the paper was trying to shake things up, to see if readers prefer self-hatred or smugness on their Sunday mornings. Either way, though, I can't imagine any part of that section telling it like it is.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year

The holidays are hard for Jews. But we are not alone!

The holidays are also hard for children, who have to gaze, pained, out the window of a room stuck in 1970s, in a sweater and haircut from the same decade.

Schedules, routines and rules can be thrown off at holiday time, which can lead to more behavioral challenges and stress for everyone. Problems relating to feeding, toilet training, tantrums and discipline can worsen and become harder to handle when families are caught up in the seasonal frenzy. [...]
Children can struggle with the transitions from school to vacation and back to school. Holiday travel and house guests can lead to disrupted sleep. And even happy activities like unwrapping gifts can lead to sibling rivalries or disappointment. 
But the holidays are hardest of all for Christians, who have to suffer indignities like the expression, "the holidays."
Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it. In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. 

Such a cliché

Eternally almost done with this chapter (but with a study-group artificially-imposed deadline of tomorrow morning, so there's hope), still haven't gone out today, still in stained Old Navy pajama pants and a very old, very pilled, Patagonia fleece. Lukewarm coffee in Zabar's mug. Slippers from Monoprix.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Think of the children. For real. UPDATED

I always find it icky when wedding announcements mention the couples' previous loves - anything from 'The bridegroom's previous marriage ended in divorce' to a cutesy anecdote about how when the couple met, they were both involved with other people. It's not that I think there's anything remotely icky about having been involved with others prior to meeting your spouse. It's that I think it's wrong to involve these other parties in the story, as though their role in the world, their only reason in all likelihood for ever getting written up in a newspaper, is to be the nameless loser who failed to impress.

(Also icky: announcements that mention the 50 times the couple broke up and got back together again. Not confidence-inspiring. Also: announcements that mention how one or both parties were 'not attracted to' the other for the first 15 years - or 15 minutes - they knew each other. Perhaps this is meant to show that theirs is a deeper love, but it always comes across as insulting. Count me in the Dan Savage camp of thinking it's if anything a good sign for its longevity if a relationship begins based on mutual physical attraction.)

These tales are particularly upsetting when young children from the previous relationship are involved. Even Dan Savage thinks couples should at least try to stay together for the sake of the children. Remember, social conservatives, rah-rah support of parents who 'follow their hearts' is not part of any reasonable socially liberal stance, either. In the 1980s, perhaps, but not for a generation who knows how this plays out.

This week's Vows, however, takes it to a new level.

Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla met in 2006 in a pre-kindergarten classroom. They both had children attending the same Upper West Side school. They also both had spouses. [...]
But it was hard to ignore their easy rapport. They got each other’s jokes and finished each other’s sentences. They shared a similar rhythm in the way they talked and moved. The very things one hopes to find in another person, but not when you’re married to someone else. [...] 
In May 2008, Mr. Partilla invited her for a drink at O’Connell’s, a neighborhood bar. She said she knew something was up, because they had never met on their own before.
“I’ve fallen in love with you,” he recalled saying to her. She jumped up, knocking a glass of beer into his lap, and rushed out of the bar. Five minutes later, he said, she returned and told him, “I feel exactly the same way.” Then she left again.
As Mr. Partilla saw it, their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly. [...]
The pain he had predicted pervaded both of their lives as they faced distraught children and devastated spouses, while the grapevine buzzed and neighbors ostracized them.
The couple left roadkill of their families, but just had to put their wedding in the Times, for others to celebrate. Celebrate, or judge - whereas if they'd simply gone and done this, others would only judge if they knew the couple personally, now it's universal fair game. The paper made the unusual move to allow comments on the announcement. Many of which say, in essence, that the couple are selfish narcissists. This was not a case of divorce as a result of abuse, verbal or physical. It was a straight-up case of grass-is-greener - a fine reason to end a relationship at 17, but a truly upsetting one in a case like this. Blech.

UPDATE

And there are Jezebel commenters, seemingly planted by Withywindle, to prove once and for all that society's going to hell in a handbasket, and perhaps that they don't make things like they used to. Even leaving aside the commenters who can't tell the difference between having broken up with one guy to date another and leaving a spouse and children, or who think it's so so wrong to judge, even though hello, they put it in the newspaper, there's a whole lot of impressiveness. The couple's relationship is "authentic," according to either two commenters or one especially prolific one, I don't remember. But my favorite of all, from a commenter who makes clear she definitely does not want anyone thinking of the children: "I understood making fun of the cluelessness of the article and the yuppiedom of the couple, but y'all...they did not personally cheat on you." Yes, "the yuppiedom of the couple." Because that's the issue here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Well done, Phoebe, well done

"if we view intermarriage as evidence of intermarriage"


Yes. I just typed this. No, not in a version of the chapter I'm even close to sending to profs.

The upside to discovering an idea has already been taken

Rereading a 1991 article, I now see that one of the main points I'm trying to make in my dissertation has already... you guessed it. Luckily, the section I'm working on now is the 'scholarship I'm building on' one - I already have too much (as will surprise exactly no readers of this blog) in the contrarian take-downs-of-scholars-far-better-than-I'll-ever-be section. Also lucky - this article isn't (mostly) about France.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Who cares about eyebrows?" UPDATED

The NYT Style section profiles Leandra Medine, the force behind the "Man Repeller" fashion blog, which I remembered having linked to here once before in reference to the perennial straight-men-and-women's-fashion question, but a search for "harem pants" lead me nowhere... turns out it was in reference to a certain chambray button-down.

So I will pause for a moment to kick myself for not thinking of the idea, and for a series of life choices based largely on the end goal of not living with my parents on the Upper East Side. My idea of the epitome of failure sounds, when described by a fashion journalist, like the very height of glamor.

In any case, I hadn't looked at Man Repeller in a while. Checking it out again, I was struck by how drop-dead gorgeous Medine herself is (and jealous, once again - am I the only dark-haired lady-Jew not born with those wonderful dark eyebrows? is there a woman in Scandinavia with my intended eyebrows, and when can we swap back?*), and what this means for the concept of her blog. Or, more broadly, what exactly is the relationship between beauty and fashion? 

A series on the Man Repeller blog is Medine putting on a sexy (slightly NSFW in this case) outfit, then showing how to style it so as to take it from conventional and man-getting to avant-garde, androgynous, haute-bag-lady territory. It's subverting expectations (think "What Not to Wear" or "Go Fug Yourself") to make those the "before" photos. To the uninitiated, "fashion" is about looking work-appropriate, age-appropriate, choosing flattering cuts, dressing to fit in, having the "right" jeans, looking "good." Medine is doing her part to show that that's precisely what fashion's not about. I, for one, approve.

While the concept is all about giving the finger to the notion that fashion's about pleasing men, the end result are a whole lot of pictures of a stunning young woman in skimpy clothes. Which brings us back to the question: if fashion isn't for men, how are fashion and conventional, man-attracting, female-jealousy-producing female beauty related? Two tentative thoughts on the matter:

-Even if the clothes fashion points women to are themselves not-so-sexy, a woman who thinks she looks good is one who will be drawn to clothing stores, or to looking at herself in the mirror in new arrangements of what she already owns, or to putting pictures of herself in lingerie on the Internet. 

-Ideally, fashion would be a way for those of all levels of attractiveness to express themselves through dress, and would allow even the odd-looking to be noticed, in a positive way, for their looks. In reality, dressing strangely and being appreciated for it is the privilege of the young and conventionally attractive. Not so liberating, when you think about it.

Finally, I found the end of the interview perplexing:
“I do think there are men who would see a girl wearing this stuff and think, ‘She has so much confidence and she still looks great despite the fact that I don’t know where her crotch starts in those pants,’ ” she said. “You can still tell when a girl is pretty. The men who really get repelled by what you’re wearing are a little shallow, and you probably don’t want to date them anyway.”
Is a man less "shallow" if he's able to look beyond clothes and see how good-looking a woman really is, than if he's thrown off by the presence of a miniskirt? This is like the nonsense about how men who notice women's faces rather than busoms are the nice guys, are not objectifying women. More than that, it reflects the opposite of what I took to be the point of the Man Repeller concept - that female concern about appearance need not have anything to do with "pretty."

But upon further reflexion, it kind of makes sense. The idea isn't that fashion is for women who don't care what men think of their looks. It's that fashion itself isn't employed to attract men. If that makes sense.

*"Seinfeld," distiller of all life's truths, uses the eyebrow question to show how straight women's perceptions of female beauty differ from those of straight men. As in, women notice eyebrows, men don't.

UPDATE

Sadie Stein at Jezebel takes the unsurprising-for-Jezebel approach, which is to point out that Medine's privilege is showing. Eh. Medine has a clothing budget that looks outrageous even to this Upper East Side-reared Jewess, but I'm not sure how any of that matters within the context of her blog and the questions it poses. (Of course, it appears she's living at home for college - maybe dorm money's just going to clothes instead?) If the issue is what man-repellent fashion means in terms of feminism, what matters is Medine's looks - her 'pretty privilege,' if you will. Along the same lines, I have trouble buying the self-deprecating, alternative-to-Fashion tone coming from Tavi, considering her slimness, symmetry, youth, and overall resemblance in everything but height (which is barely noticeable in pictures anyway) to runway models. And Tavi's not living in splendor in Manhattan, but is, famously, of the Midwest, of the suburbs, plucked from obscurity. I mean, there are certainly fashion blogs that elicit eyerolls at the ostentatious displays of limitless shopping budgets. But it's not the issue with the Man Repeller. Instead, this is another example of Jezebel spotting wealth and ceasing upon it as an opportunity to play the I'm-poorer-than-that-rich-bitch game.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This is it, I promise

Perhaps because it tangentially relates to my dissertation, I'm finding the Jews-and-Christmas discussion fascinating. My attempt at tying up loose ends of earlier thoughts on the matter are below; to those who've had enough of the topic, there's always the next post, computer pinball, etc.

-The existence of a Jewishness defined negatively, as non-celebration of Christmas (to stick with this example), isn't something to be celebrated, exactly, but a little understanding is all I ask. Jewish ambivalence about the holiday shouldn't be conflated with whining or making a big deal out of nothing. It's certainly possible to make too big of a fuss, about this or anything else. But it's also possible to so greatly fear being one of those Jews (cue Mrs. Broflovski whining) that one is compelled to mention how delighted one is with Christmas and how one wouldn't dream of complaining. The problem with the accusation of being a complainer is that there's no way to refute it while holding your ground. Or, as commenter Geoffrey puts it, "That [telling it like it is] only works for white men. Women or POCs aren't plain-speaking, they're 'shrill' or 'grievance-merchants' or some such."

-The reason everyone and their mothers have now commented somewhere on the internet that 'Christmas is secular' isn't because the holiday is secular, 'has pagan origins,' whatever, but rather because America is a majority-Christian, culturally-Christian country. Christianity is the default, so we only recognize Christianity as 'religion' when it beats you over the head with a New Testament.

-Because there's no clear-cut divide between religion and culture, different non-Christians approach this in different ways. The way I understood Jewishness as a child - associating it primarily with non-celebration of Christmas, brown rather than blond hair, and theoretical persecution from theoretical Nazis - includes some elements that would be familiar to other Jews, but is far, far, from universal. I've had, I think, a total of two Jewish roommates, one of whom put up a tree, the other of whom kept kosher to the extent that, although my cooking was limited to pasta-and-cheese-based meals, we did not share dishes. (While these are two different people, it wouldn't be all that strange if one Jewish person both kept kosher to the exclusion of cheese and decorated a tree.) Which is just one of the reasons why the question of how to approach the holidays isn't, in fact, exclusive to intermarried couples - if some Jews celebrate Christmas and others don't, it stands to reason that some children are raised with two Jewish parents and are still not sure what they do come December 25th. This is even in Lithwick's piece in Slate, that she and her husband grew up with different Jewish Christmases. All marriages involving at least one secular Jew are mixed marriages.

-Which brings us to... In the interest of further nuance and further repeating-myself, it also bears a mention that Jews aren't the only Other when it comes to Christmas in America. But even if a Jew marries the WASPiest of Mayflower descendants, that person is also a person, also has particular family traditions they might want to preserve. (Which is why a debate between an in-married and an intermarried Jew on whether Jews should have Christmas trees, in which they use their own families as examples, doesn't hold. But Jessica Grose gets it: "And what would you suggest for a Jewish woman married to a Muslim partner? Whose minority tradition should be preserved then?") There's a difference between Jews embracing Christmas because they don't want to come across as killjoys, Jews who grew up with Christmas and would find it abnormal not to celebrate it, and Jews who are in relationships with Christians celebrating the major holidays of both members of the couple. Only the first of the three is about a will to assimilate. Re: the second - if you're already assimilated, you're not assimilating by doing what your family's always done - 'assimilated' is if anything a screwed-up term, because it implies that each and every Jew is born Hasidic and may, in the course of his own life, reject that life. When in reality, many many Jews are multigeneration 'assimilated' and would have to make an effort to be 'more Jewish' - being true to their origins might well mean Christmas. Re: the third - contrary to popular opinion, Jews do not typically enter into relationships with non-Jews as a way of intentionally distancing themselves from Judaism, but rather Jews who are already 'assimilated' end up meeting more non-Jews than Jews, end up having about as much in common with Jews as with anyone else they meet. The 'damage,' if that's how you care to think about it, has already been done.

-This from Britta's comment and my response. It's politically incorrect, socially unacceptable, etc., to refer to Jews as being anything other than a religious group. Why? Because to do so is thought to imply that Judaism is immutable, that it's a 'race,' that one is maligning converts and sympathizing with racists, etc. Same as why the Jewish "American Girl" doll has to have light brown hair. This explains both why Christians and atheists-with-Christian-backgrounds ask why non-religious Jews would give a crap either way, and why Jews themselves who have only the faintest recollection of something called 'Yom Kippur' choose, as the one way of expressing their difference in a country where they don't have a whole lot of difference to work with, a religious statement.

Shoe-loving, boy-crazy libertarians

Rather than testing the limits on comment space at Amber's, here goes.

-I'm excited that "too brilliant to bathe" is now an official "type." I hope to apply these same language skillz to my dissertation.

-Necessary disclaimers: I haven't watched the video at Reason that Isabel Archer linked to, nor have I given much thought to libertarianism since college. So what follows is more like a poorly-thought-out blog comment than a post - and as we all know, blog posts require careful research.

-Perhaps there's a tendency of some libertarians to oppose not just government intervention, but an indefinite "they" - any and all entities that would impede in the ability of the individual to do as he pleases. This includes parents, teachers, churches, and - why not? - political correctness. ''They' don't want me saying this or that about women and minorities, so even if I'm in my heart of hearts a tolerant white dude, I want to show 'them' I can do what I want.'

-A related tendency - one that might be extra-pronounced among libertarians? - is to hold up telling-it-like-it-is as the greatest good. Even if the 'hard truths' this produces are nine times out of ten not true at all, but just provocative, just a way to get a rise out of the more sensitive members of the insulted group. 'Women don't have brains, and are basically orifices for men's amusement. I know this will elicit some angry emails, but it had to be said sooner or later.'

-But back to the specific question of why so few women. One way to look at it is that the 19th C bourgeois ideal of women as keepers of the faith - while men run off to deal with the big bad godless world - hasn't totally disappeared. It's probably still more accepted for a man than a woman to be an atheist. Think of the children! The political movements where one might see more women are ones with some connection to religion. Chastity-ring social conservatism and do-gooder social liberalism, civil rights promotion - heck, Zionism - these all have warm-and-fuzzy family-and-faith components. Even if women take these political movements and use them to reach all kinds of political heights, they can still portray their participation as 'feminine.' The only way I could imagine libertarianism as fitting into this role is if it were portrayed as being about pitting the family (warm and fuzzy) against the state (cold and godless).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dreams of my poodle

Inspired by Kei, I finally got it together to email the breeders responsible for the two most spectacular miniature poodles ever. Getting the timing right - we can't have a pet now - may be complicated, but in the mean time, I'll be doing all kinds of dogs-generally, miniature-poodles-specifically research. If all goes according to plan, prepare for this blog to switch over to puppy-coverage in under a year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Telling it like it isn't

Dan Savage, of all people, is the impetus for this blog's latest entry in the is-fashion-for-straight-men department. On a recent podcast, a man called in because his friend (or "friend," depending how cynical we want to be) is a mid-20s man with a thing for high school boys. After pointing out the obvious - adults with such inclinations shouldn't coach youth hockey teams - Savage, in full telling-it-like-it-is mode, explained that it's normal for men to like younger people than they could possibly pursue. His example, paraphrased, was to ask, "Why do we send 15-year-old girls down the runways and not their mothers?"

Why indeed. Whether men in their heart of hearts, so to speak, would all prefer 10th graders is another matter. As for why the runways are as they are, it's because it's easier to find, among 15-year-old girls, enough straight-up-and-down types whose breasts and (god forbid) hips have yet to develop. The girls on the runway are not built all that differently from the male hockey players the caller's friend finds so alluring. (Thus the often-voiced and mildly-homophobic suspicions that runways are cast in this way because gay men would rather see men than women, and so choose women who look as androgynous as possible.)

Savage noted, after making this remark, that he expects angry calls. But it's not so much an uncomfortable-truths issue as a bad-example one. The 15-year-old girls that all straight men - if we're going to take the telling-it-worse-than-it-is, stirring-controversy approach to the question - wish could be theirs are the ones bursting out of training bras. The ones who look like wrinkle-free 35-year-old women. The ones who fulfill some fantasy by looking like grown women, but having none of the baggage (demanding career and past serious relationships versus 45 minutes of pre-calculus homework and a few crushes on not-yet-out gay classmates) of an adult.

So, there are 15-year-old girls, and there are 15-year-old girls. The 35-year-old Estonian mothers of fashion models probably would be more appealing to hetero adult men, but perhaps the curvier 19-year-old cousins would be most sought-after still. Of course, compared with the time Savage explained with confidence that it's dangerous for women to wash their entire bodies with soap (!), only to, to his credit, play a call from a woman with woman-parts and decent hygiene, this was not so off-base.

Quotes of the day

-"Lamarr’s films were a hodgepodge of hit or miss (mostly the latter), her roles a chaotic series of European exotics, chilly patricians and dark-skinned seductresses, who invariably turned out to be of impeccable Aryan parentage (most ludicrously, as the'“Negress' Tondelayo in 'White Cargo')."

-1967: "The Jewish people, self-confident and domineering." 1973: "The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Jews and the Why-Bother Question

Dahlia Lithwick's piece about which Christmas movies Jewish parents should allow their children to see offers a better description than I could of what Judaism-as-not-Christianity looks like. I both get it and can see how ridiculous it would look to those who don't. Of all the things parents have to keep from children, they're going to get worked up about Santa? A favorite time-to-embarrass-Phoebe anecdote in my family is of the time when I sat on Santa's knee at a Christmas party for doctors and their children. I guiltily confessed to Santa that I was Jewish. "Santa," a doctor colleague of my father's, told me that he was Jewish too.

The comments to Lithwick's article reveal just how baffling the Jewish response to Christmas is to non-Jews:

"I always laugh when I see this kind of thing...if your faith is so weak that your kids will announce 'screw this, I want to be Christian' after watching a tv show, then maybe you need to rethink things."

As though this were about faith in Judaism, as opposed to Judaism-as-non-observance-of-December-25th.

"Do people of non-Irish ancestry agonize over whether or not to drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day?"


Do all non-Irish people - or even any subset thereof - define their non-Irishness entirely by the non-observance of St. Patrick's Day? 

I don't know how Lithwick is raising her children religiously, whether they're observant Jews or able-to-identify-a-babka types. But it doesn't matter, in a sense, because what we're getting a glimpse of with this article is how crucial the non-celebration of Christmas is to many American Jews' understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Her article would make no less sense if we were to find out that her children have never so much as heard of Yom Kippur.

All of which leads to the question: why bother? Why, if your Judaism is zilch, if you're not offering your children anything positive in the way of a Jewish identity, would you care to protect your children from Christianity, even the watered-down version thereof that is a commercialized American Christmas? 

This is, as it happens, a question slightly older than the children of Slate writers, or than the writers themselves. The nineteenth century French Jews I can't seem to leave be were, often enough, Jewish only by virtue of not being Christians. Yes, recent scholarship has shown that many French Jews maintained positive Jewish identities, if not through religious practice, than by forming organizations to help Jews abroad, etc. But not all. There were plenty of Jews whose Judaism consisted, for the most part, of non-Christianity. Why, then, did they continue to see themselves as Jews?

Two (main) reasons: Loyalty to one's family - distant and immediate - was itself a value. To be a proper French bourgeois meant being true to one's roots more than it meant having any particular stance on Mary's son. That, and the Jews who altogether abandoned Judaism, who took why-bother to its logical conclusion, found that they were still considered Jews. This may not have been much of a barrier to Jews who truly believed in Catholicism, but it would have reminded those interested in converting for social reasons that everyone knew who they really were, and that they'd be less conspicuous if they didn't go to church.

Switch back for a moment to today. Let's say little Christopher Goldberg gets to watch Santa movies and to have a tree. This will if anything make it more obvious that he's a Jew - in the place of those who'd ask why CG's family made such a fuss around Christmastime if they went that route, there'd be another crowd asking why CG's parents didn't have enough self-respect to do Chanukah instead, and reminding them that, come on, who are the Goldbergs fooling, anyway? 

(It now might become clear why secular Jews strive for positive identities, for example everyone's favorite, Zionism. I'm thinking now of Theodor Herzl. How, just before he went all Zionist on us, he suggested that Jews get baptized en masse. How it then occurred to him that even this wouldn't solve the "Jewish question," because a baptized Jew was still viewed as a Jew.)

Of course, 19th C France  - let alone Vienna - and the contemporary US are not the same. The level of integration is not comparable, nor is the "racial" landscape. If in 1840s Paris everyone was hyperaware that Alphonse So-and-So was of Jewish origin, things are not the same today in the States. The only people interested in the one Jewish grandparent of public figures are white supremacists and (some) Jews - Americans are by and large willing to accept heaps of Jewish "blood" in generic white folk. 

So if the fears that keep Jewish parents today from letting their children "do" Christmas center less than ever before around a sense that they'll be thought Jewish regardless, they perhaps center more than ever before on one that their families will be sell-outs. We're looking, it seems, at something both specific to Jews and more universal. Jewish parents use Christmas to teach their children the lesson that they do not need to do what everyone else is doing. It's an opportunity for a "because I said so" moment. For a "this is how we do things in our family" moment. For a "not as long as you're under my roof" moment. An extension of the lesson Christmas-observing parents teach their children by not buying them the $400 video-game consoles they've been asking for. In theory, even enthusiastic Christmas-observers would respect this choice as an example of modern-day yuppie parents rejecting indulgent parenting. But that's not how it plays out.

Final note: This comment to Lithwick's article is tremendous:

"Perhaps they [your children] will feel less confined to their Jewish heritage if they are allowed to explore outside of it."

Because clearly what Lithwick's looking to do is find ways for her children to feel less confined to being Jewish.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"What's your 2:30 feeling like?" UPDATED

-Who wants to hear about my bizarre headache? So bizarre that I'm something of a medical marvel - a med student was summoned to the health center just to have a look at me. You'd think there'd have been something to see, but because this wasn't an episode of "House," no such luck. (My head, that is, did not plop off and onto the examining table of its own volition, only to get screwed back into place in time for an upbeat ending 50 minutes in.) The medicine that works (brilliantly, I might add) for this headache will apparently cause my stomach to explode violently ala "The Meaning of Life" (or, will cause stomach bleeds) if I consume so much as a drop of wine. Happy holidays, indeed.

-Capes: so-very-now. But so-very-good-of-an-idea? Tried on the one pictured here, didn't buy it because it was $80 or something and I wasn't in a useless-$80-purchase mood, then when that mood struck months later, Uniqlo no longer had capes. Tried on another (this, but navy with plaid lining) at the Housing Works bonanza - $75, thrift-but-unworn, visibly so-not-worth-it. Then of course friggin' American Apparel, which has planted itself right smack in the middle of window-shopping-NYU-student territory, puts this in the window. I'm considering consider it, if that makes sense. Is it warm or impractical? Elegant or exactly-how-many-latkes-are-you-hiding-under-there? Worth trying on, or so obviously overpriced that I should put blinders on when passing any of the store's convenient locations?

-In other shopping news, I just did some online purchasing (ooh!) from Frahnce (oh la la!). The item in question was an article which could only be read if I paid up. And I mean only - the secular and Jewish libraries I tried to find it at in Paris were not forthcoming. It was a whopping five euros and well worth it.

UPDATE: Because the four or so windows I have open about Judaism and Christianity aren't enough (this is the dissertation-writing method in which I write all five - ? - chapters simultaneously, depending which notes work for which), I've also been debating Withywindle on such questions as whether there is such a thing as "cultural Judaism" and the optimal role of pretentiousness in discussions of theology. To borrow, as somehow seems appropriate, from John Cleese, "I could be arguing in my spare time."

Monday, December 06, 2010

"Metropolitan" marvels

Yes, it is hil-arious that some people do work in coffee shops. Some people, ahem, do work and don't (just) check Facebook, do get paychecks for the work they do, but don't have offices, or have offices that they share with 100 other grad students and those grad students' own students. Some people's apartments contain such things as couches and beds, not to mention televisions and different shades of nail polish. Different skirts bought in different thrift shops over the years that could be tried on with different pairs of ballet flats. Old New Yorkers and Vogues begging for another glance. Some of us can resist the temptation most of the time, but will occasionally need a chance of pace.

The library, you ask? The NYU one, unless it's summer, is continuously packed - taking the train to a library where I'll have to spend 45 minutes just  looking for a seat isn't a great option. The neighborhood one, meanwhile, makes no claims of being anything other than a day-care center. The wheels on the bus, they have a way of going round and round, round and round. I like that it's a casual enough place that I can bring coffee without fear of getting yelled at (no BNF, the BPC NYPL), but lullabies and dissertations - unless it's your own child that needs to get to sleep - don't mix. I still tend to choose that over the nearest coffee shop - both because that coffee shop is too dark for reading books in, and because $3.25 for an iced coffee is a bit steep for a non-foam-containing caffeinated beverage. But sometimes, coffee shops win out.

Anyway, shout-out to Aaron Tugendhaft - knowing someone mentioned in the article kept me reading till the end, which is about right for a section that serves as a local paper within a national one. And there's apparently such a thing as a "freelance astrophysicist." Intriguing!

There'd better be some such thing as a freelance French Studiesist, the way things are going. I should consider myself lucky that I even have work to do in coffee shops. (Actually, I do consider myself lucky, not just for the ability to pay rent, but I get to write about French Jews. It's awesome.) Aside from my entirely subjective reaction - but I study French, I don't want French departments to disappear - some thoughts.

Note the picture accompanying the article. Who takes French? Women. If there was ever a subject boys were turned off to, French would be it. French is pretty much the subject that plays to female students' strengths, is out-of-reach for many male students, and that can be cited as an example of how anything women dominate is probably frivolous, anyway - where there's French, there are fashion poodles. Without any admissions-tweaking by gender, schools can eliminate foreign languages, French especially, and even things out. I can't imagine that's played no role in this.

Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to discuss the heights of achievement possible with an undergrad degree in French under one's belt: my friend and former "Situer Sartre" classmate Lauren Shockey, who's now a food writer for the Village Voice. Since she's having the most fabulous career of anyone I went to college with, I'm going to have to count this as a victory for French.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Raising awareness

To the Dear Prudence commenters whose response to a non-Christian having the religious aspects of Christmas shoved in his face at the office is "If my Muslim friend wished me a happy Ramadan or whatever my repsonse would be 'you too' and I'll forget about it" or "I am not Jewish but if I worked in an office where there was copious amounts of reference to any Jewish holiday, I would not be bothered," consider this: views like yours are the reason for political correctness, for sensitivity training, for Multicultural Studies departments at universities. You know that tedious expression, "raising awareness"? It exists because some people are just that stunningly unaware of why these kinds of comparisons don't hold.

Prudie herself encouraged these responses, urging the office worker to "get in the mood of the season and be merry." Ugh. I mean, if you're a non-Christian, and the existence of Christmas is the most upsetting thing in your life, count yourself lucky, or perhaps seek professional attention for your rather warped thought processes. But does it really need to be spelled out that being a minority is not always delightful? If you've weighed the pros and cons, and decided it's better than up and moving to a place where you'd be in the majority (although in this weather, the Tayelet beckons...), you deal. But you don't have to like it.

Anyway. I'm not sure how bothered by Christmas 'non-Christians' are on the whole, and how much this is just an issue for Jews. For many of us, Judaism is defined by the non-celebration of Christmas. It's how many Jewish children learn that they're "different," and that difference doesn't end along with elementary school. For others (ahem, Prudie), showing how wonderful they think Christmas is, even if it's not their own holiday, is a way of putting themselves on the side of the 'good' Jews - a less controversial way of doing so than ostentatiously criticizing Israel whenever anyone learns you're Jewish (without doing anything constructive to fix the mess over there, one I'm sure as hell not getting into in this post. Sorry, kids!), but one that also gets the point across that one doesn't have dual loyalties. Are other subsets of non-Christians this involved with that most salient of Christian holidays? Neither-Christian-nor-Jewish readers, enlighten me.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Comments a mess

If you've got a good one and it's not posting, you can email it to me and I'll put it online. WWPD's a small enough operation for that sort of thing. Commenting this way might blow the cover of the anonymi, at least as far as I'm concerned, but I promise to attribute comments to the pseudonym of your choice.

The window of opportunity

Other than the fact that criticizing the Pill is a fast-track way for a contrarian to rile up feminists, I fail to see the point of this "exposé" on hormonal contraceptives. Are the oh-so-sophisticated, Pill-popping ladies really unaware of the drop in female fertility that comes with aging? Unaware maybe it's not a bad idea to go off the Pill a while before trying to get pregnant, to get a sense of one's baseline fertility? Is it supposed to come as a shock to women that the Pill prevents them getting pregnant during their fertile years? Isn't that kind of the point?

To address the NYMag piece's main point - women miss the chance to have babies because the Pill lets this happen... On a more general level, is any life led with such an eye towards potential future regrets? As in, however much a 33-year-old woman who finds out her fertility peaked early might think she wishes she'd been knocked up at 17, what of the 17-year-old she once was, who lived, no less rationally, in complete and utter fear of getting pregnant? Who, when she finally opted to sleep with her boyfriend, insisted they use every known method of contraception all at once? Are we to take the views of the woman at 33 as her true feelings, the ones of the girl at 17 as some kind of childish illusion? Failing to take consequences into account may be a flaw of the young, but revisionist histories of one's youth and the reasons decisions were made in the first place are just as screwed up. This is just a variant of the discussion around "settling" - women who find themselves single at 40 may wonder what they were thinking, dumping that perfectly good boyfriend at 25. If, at 25, they failed to consider how they'd feel at 40, they are also, at 40, selectively ignoring negative aspects of that earlier relationship.

The unfortunate fact of female sexuality in our society is that too-young is very quickly followed by too-old - to conceive, or even to attract many men in the first place. 'You're not allowed to date, young lady' (from conservatives) or 'You're too young to settle down' (from liberals) segues almost instantaneously into 'What, no boyfriend?' The elusive window-of-opportunity - not the Pill, not the tendency of 20-somethings in crappy relationships to end those relationships - is the problem.

Solutions? Since the biological clock is unlikely to budge, it's clear we have to look, at least in part, at the younger end of the spectrum. As it stands, all long-term romantic commitments begun prior to age 30 are viewed as having rushed into things. Without reverting to a system where women are stigmatized for not having settled down by 21, we could shift to one in which 23-year-old couples wouldn't be treated like experimenting middle-schoolers. I wouldn't suggest encouraging those who wouldn't do so otherwise to marry or similar at 20. I would suggest removing the stigma that says that to be well-educated and impressive and so on, you have to find 'that special someone' at 29-and-a-half, marry at 31, and reproduce before (horrors!) 35. I'd instead encourage the happy couples 18-25 that exist anyway not to end their relationships simply because 'there's so much more to experience.' I mean, if you're in a relationship at any age and you feel there's so much more to experience, that's not a great sign about the relationship. But if all is well, the social pressure to explore other options isn't terribly beneficial.

If this change occurred, while there'd still be plenty of women trying to have kids for the first time at 40, there'd be more having their first child with their husband of several years, whom they'd dated several years prior to that, at 25. A certain number of women who'd resented having gone the 'explore other options' route unnecessarily would have reproduced. This is, at any rate, the only way I could think of to address the 'crisis' of coastal-elite female fertility that is about increasing women's freedom, rather than the reverse.

Staple-alignment sadists

Isabel Archer defends content-based grading. Her response summoned in me an avalanche of memories of the ridiculous things teachers demanded, and of the general sense that absolutely nothing is under your control that can accompany much of childhood. I'm torn between fundamentally agreeing that busy-work for busy-work's sake is wrong, and thinking that, at least in the K-8 context, "it builds character" kind of is enough of a justification for certain demands. My (messy) point-by-point-ish response below.

2. Re: staple-alignment. I remember the math teacher - calculus, even! 12th grade! - who needed homework folded in a special way, to the point that former students of this teacher living in NY recognize current ones on the subway on account of they're working on these assignments. These kind of requests bring out the libertarian impulses in students, but their usefulness shouldn't be discounted. There are a number of factors to look at, including the age of the students, the amount of time the request takes away from content-work, etc. Demanding that students in a language class hand in typed rather than handwritten assignments might seem arbitrary, and will indeed take extra time for students without their own computers and printers, but is a way of assuring the work is legible, and of answering once and for all whether the intentionally ambiguous smudge over a vowel is or is not the right accent mark. Demanding that students in any class hand in work on time - a request that requires giving higher grades to those who manage this - encourages students to learn the material, but will, alas, end up allotting higher grades to "good" students than to those good at the subject but indifferent or opposed to following rules.

1 and 3. But I'm not sure how much it matters whether these extra requirements are designed to teach Life Skills, or whether they are, as students invariably interpret them, evidence that the teacher is an uptight lunatic.* Whatever the reason behind these rules, they serve to mimic the grown-up world, in which bosses make seemingly arbitrary demands (if not the exact same ones as do schoolteachers, although I think it bears mentioning that super-intellectually-stimulating, "elite" workplaces care less about messy handwriting than do lower-level, lower-skilled jobs), in which even getting a job requires that one show capabilities other than raw talent (ability to "work in a team" and so forth). While I don't think parents should make the home an environment of arbitrary demands - I fail, for instance, to understand why children have to make their beds, what this is supposed to accomplish other than to show who's boss - I do think the difference with school (and, I suppose, an argument against homeschooling) is that it's meant to prepare children for dealing with a world in which most people they will have to deal with neither love them nor give them much thought.

5. Re: touchy-feely US education vs. the rest of the world. This comes back to the distinction I made between competence and attitude. The latter is subjective-to-unmeasurable, the former the bare minimum for letting talent reveal itself. While I don't doubt that "soft" factors - personality, etc. - are more highly valued in US classrooms than in ones in countries where students take linear algebra in utero and so forth, I'd also assume that the kind of incompetence the new method will be forgiving of - handing stuff in late, coming late to class, etc. - wouldn't even be options in many other countries. Students might be graded only on content, but it would be implied that they'd be on top of their work. I can't imagine, in a system where students are judged only on content, that a kid who had the potential to test well but was really stressed the day of the test and so showed up 15 minutes late would meet with leniency.

4. Which brings us back to where the change these schools are making goes wrong - it's one thing to crack down on overemphasis on insufficiently sharpened pencils, but another entirely to say late work is fine so long as the kid in question is inherently intelligent. It's one thing to stop grading on organization alone, but another to say that any assessment that even indirectly takes organizational skills into account fails to select for the true, underneath-it-all geniuses.

*The teachers I remember as having abused their power, as having obviously been in it for the captive audience, are the ones who used class time to hold forth on their personal life or political opinions, the teachers who sought to be the favorite by altogether ignoring the content they were ostensibly there to teach. Meanwhile, I tend to think students overestimate their teachers' sadism, particularly when it comes to the assigning of grades. A good teacher will explain, if it isn't obvious, or even if it ought to be, why the assignment needs to be typed, why an assignment only got a C. But even one who doesn't do this is unlikely to get some perverse thrill out of making students suffer. It can, however, be difficult to assess just what does and doesn't need explaining. Staple alignment is extreme, but should a teacher have to explain why a student needs to paperclip, staple, or otherwise affix all the pages of a single assignment to one another before turning it in? In elementary school perhaps, but in high school? College?

(Wrote this late last night, posted it now, have corrected for some typos. More probably remain.)