Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shades of Napoleon

The emperor wanted one out of every three marriages involving Jews to be an intermarriage. That way, he thought, Jews would soon enough disappear from France. Another plus ça change moment, brought to you by WWPD.

"A doctorate in English that probably took you 10 years to earn is something you will need to hide like a prison term while you pay off about $40,000 to $100,000 in loans."

The latest don't-go-to-grad-school entry, from William Pannapacker (via Jacob Levy), claims to be about reforming higher ed, not convincing undergrads that grad school is a mistake, but is nevertheless a straightforward-enough addition to that genre (as well as a good source of links to the rest of the genre in recent years, including more by Pannapacker). And much of this latest one makes sense. Stats about placement should be a much more transparent element of the process. And it should be more openly acknowledged that not every grad student - not even every well-funded one in a top program - can, will, or should end up a prof (unless they radically reduce the size of departments). Job-market guidance needs to be informed by this, by the fact that many students will and by all accounts should take a library/research/secondary-ed/administration/etc. job in a town where they want to be, perhaps where they have a spouse and kids, rather than move across the country or abroad to be an adjunct, and should consider uprooting their families only for a permanent position. So items 3, 4, and 5, yes, yes, and (1,000x) yes.

Item 2 seems reasonable enough, but ignores the fact that only academics themselves care about the job description and rank of undergrads' instructors. The eternal fallacy of employees imagining that those they serve both know and care about the inner workings of the organization. Sure, "[p]rospective undergraduates and their parents should be able to choose institutions on the basis of who is actually doing the teaching," but even if they were able to do so, they'd still want to go to the most name-brand school and/or the one offering the best aid package. If this ended up factoring into rankings, great, but what would be the impetus for that shift? "If parents come to know how their children are being shortchanged — at such great expense — they might support reforms aimed at reallocating resources toward teaching." Yet aside from profs and grad students, oh and maybe some conservative critics of academia who've run out of on-campus orgasm workshops to complain about, no one cares who's teaching undergraduates. Certainly not undergraduates themselves - and speaking as a former undergraduate, most of my best college instructors were of the 12th-year-grad-student-adjunct variety. (It's not that kids, as one Slate commenter claims, aren't there to learn - it's that college students who are there at least in part for that reason - and no shame in also wanting to be employable later in life - don't necessarily find that someone with 20-plus years as Expert can teach better than someone well-prepared and engaging but less-established.) And not the parents, either, who, unless massively wealthy, are just concerned that their kid makes a choice they can afford, has a decent time, and will get a job at the other end.

Item 1... makes sense insofar as it wouldn't hurt for there to be more centralization if that meant more transparency, but I had to check that I'd read right when I got to the part about the outcome for humanities grad students being "an unconscionable waste of talent (comparable to allowing 90 percent of neurosurgeons to work as bartenders)." I'm all about the Humanities Anti-Defamation League, but no, being able to make sense of Proust is not the same as the ability to do brain surgery. Nor, as far as I'm concerned, is the ability to do complex math problems brain surgery, if the math is not in any way applied, and I think the humanities are mocked in ways that other equally-impractical but more gendered-masculine pursuits are not. But brain surgery? No. But I guess Pannapacker has a history of overdramatizing the issue - in an earlier such piece he himself links to, he explains, "You can't assume any partnership will withstand the strains of entry into the academic life." Gosh, how foolish of any of us grad students to get married!

It's Item 6 - the classic 'don't go to grad school, you talented, fresh-faced youth' - I find least persuasive. At a time when it's tough out there for even those with practical-sounding lines of work to earn a living, should a college senior who majored in Comp Lit, who was never going to make it as an engineering major in the first place, who has a five-year offer of funding and health insurance and will have to teach a couple of the years, yes, but may well turn out to like teaching, something worth figuring out, after all, if you're going to be a prof, and who's also going to be paid, if not much, enough, to read books and write papers on a topic of his choice, should this senior turn that down in favor of the "real world"? And if so, do tell, which industry that would be happy to have him has he rejected in pursuit of the frivolous life of the mind?

Grad school probably is a worse bet than, say, inventing Facebook, but how does it compare with being one of 800 applicants for an admin assistant position that if you even get it in all likelihood pays not much more than what grad school does, with far less flexibility in terms of work hours, and with required purchase of business attire? I mean, my goodness, Emily Yoffe's article, and then her interview on NPR... It seems the way to get employed after a gap is to take people out for coffee or a meal all the time and pay - not just for yourself, so as not to be a burden - but the whole bill. This, apparently, constitutes "networking." How is it sustainable? Depressing, at any rate. And law school, fine, is a good choice if a top-10 school wants you and you want to be a lawyer, but otherwise? Between those two requirements - the ability to get in and the interest in/ability to thrive at a big law firm (because if we're talking a law job that pays $30k...) - that no doubt leaves many who have respectable offers from doctoral programs, but who wouldn't be well-advised to go the law-school route. Journalism, publishing, need I say more?

Point being, if by "grad school in the humanities," what's meant is a multiyear contract with a livable wage and health insurance, not to mention the added bonus of an interesting new peer group to hang out with (plus maybe even a future spouse), Pannapacker never makes clear what the preferable alternative is to that. Such programs exist, and sometimes those in them effectively could not be employed more effectively without redoing all previous life choices, inclinations, and talents, i.e. without rewriting their life stories and becoming engineers.

Of course, these articles never specify - Pannapacker mentions 10 years to degree plus massive debt, but does not say anything about the difference between that situation and programs much shorter and better-funded. The equivalent genre re: law school generally distinguishes between the few who should go and the majority who go but should not. Pannapacker says that you should only go if you're independently wealthy or the child of an Ivy League president, which suggests he doesn't think any programs are worth the bother... but describes a worst-case-scenario admission package.

No one's entirely clear what's being discussed. So you get people commenting about MA and PhD programs, about how it's better to get a doctorate in the sciences because at least those programs are funded (!), about how some "funded" program barely covered the tuition (!!), ignoring that funding ideally also covers tuition. If once, just once, one of these articles would spell out a) which routes are being discussed, and b) what alternatives are out there, in the job market that actually exists, not merely for The Young Person, but for the sort of people who are considering becoming fully-funded humanities grad students. If the answer is that it's dumb to major in anything impractical in the first place, so be it, but then that needs to be stated, and the change would need to occur well before a college senior is comparing his offer from Yale with one from Starbucks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On a lighter note

OK, so NYT's commenter base includes even bigger anti-Semites than we may have imagined. As this is not normally the case, I can only assume the story got a link from some anti-Semitic website, because the thread is out of control, as are the "recommends" the most offensive remarks are accumulating. So, without further ado:


Jerry: "To American Jews; Make up your mind. Are you Americans or Israelites?"

Mark L.: "Nice to know that some people are so affluent that they can afford to obsess about a tiny country halfway around the world. While many Americans are struggling day to day to put a roof over their heads or get something to eat for their children, we're about to make it much worse by defaulting on our nation's debt."

Paul: "Simply put....America for Americans or MOVE........The Jewish / Israeli attitudes and loyalties are destroying us with all there spies and propaganda !"

And so many more, but as I'm not Zola, but rather a grad student in need of sleep, you can read the rest yourself or take my word for it. Mark L. especially, WTF? This district's not friggin' West End Avenue. But... right, I'd forgotten, to be Jewish is to be loaded.

The paper itself is partly to blame for giving the mistaken impression a) that Israel itself gives a crap who wins this microscopic outer-borough election, b) that the Jewish voters in that district put Israel first (and a close read of the article indicates: no, they do not), and c) that even if they did, this would have some perceptible influence on America's Israel policy. This is a straightforward case of politicians pandering. To report on a near-non-issue in this manner, then open up the comments, is just incredibly irresponsible.

America first

We know about Anthony Weiner's empty seat because we know far too much about what was going on in his pants, not because his former district is in fact the recognized and objective center of the universe. But of course the fact that a district with an especially high percentage of especially not-so-assimilated (whether b/c elderly or Orthodox) is one in which Israel policy is a key election issue is now taken to mean (well done as always, NYT commenters) that good ol' 'merican politics are being controlled by Jewish puppeteers. (Because, when I visit my grandmother - who's Canadian, we can leave her out of this - in Midwood, surely the signs in Hebrew letters mean Israel's the 51st state. Or maybe those in Russian mean the commies are taking over?) "It's unbelievable to me that Israel comes first to these constituents. We live in the United States & you're loyalty should be to America first." You're loyalty had better be to English and not Hebrew, or else who knows the grammatical errors that might ensue! "America FIRST and ONLY!" writes another.

And the winner:

Geez, heavens forbid that U.S. elections and policies were ever about their own communities and what's best for American citizens. But it's always about how to marginalize and humiliate Palestinians further by groveling to the whims of Israel - a state clearly on the wrong side of history. As a bonus, it's somehow anti-Semitic to point out that Israel and influential American Jews have control over U.S. foreign policy even though it's fairly evident that they do.
Geez indeed. How dare voters choosing a representative of their bit of Brooklyn or Queens think of parochial concerns, concerns particular to themselves, and not what's best for the whole of (Real) America? It can't possibly be that these voters - who, insofar as they are voters, are American citizens, not somehow individuals in America outrageously permitted to vote in elections for who shall govern the real American citizens - think that it's best for America as a whole, but also the bit of America that they comprise, same as all Americans comprise bits not ideologically representative of the country as a whole, to vote, in all likelihood in part, on the basis of a candidate's Israel policy. Yuck, yuck, yuck, and I say this as someone who's in favor of trusting Obama to bring peace to the region.

It takes two

To Europeans wary of "multiculturalism," I'd like to ask the following question: What would you do if your daughter brought home a guy of Moroccan origin, but multigeneration whichever country you're in. Maybe he's not a practicing Muslim, but maybe some of his relatives are. Do you say, 'Fantastic, they do want to assimilate'? Do you think, eh, you get what you get, but such a shame the grandchildren probably won't be blond? Or do you freak, because he's clearly about to abduct your daughter and take her back to his "home" Morocco, where she will be kept sequestered with all his other wives?

In case this needs spelling out, I ask because so much of the discussion, especially on the right, is about the willingness of ethnic non-Europeans themselves to assimilate, so little about the on-the-ground levels of deep acceptance. I'm not talking about civil equality or access to social services, but the extent to which "foreign" is used to describe those whose parents, even, were born nearby, "Muslim" those who weren't even blond as kids.

Goals for the day:

-Not waste too much time thinking about melanin-challenged psychopaths and their possible impact on global politics.

-Finish a draft of the article that was so close just before I left for Belgium.

-Buy the flapper-inspired dress I've been admiring (and trying on, and wavering, because it, unlike everything else in the store, is full-price) at H&M.

-Eat some but not all of the beautiful tomatoes I got at the market.

-Not despair at the mist-rain late-fall weather. When I'm back in NY in the heat, I'll wish I'd appreciated this.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Natural Nordic beauty indeed: UPDATED

"In his early 20s, he travelled to the U.S. to have plastic surgery on his nose, chin and forehead."

Allow me to contradict myself and to point out that dude, in the "before," had one heck of a schnoz. Forgive me, Dan Savage, I so see where you're coming from.


Apropos of nothing (although boy did they have a good lead-in if they'd opted for it!), the Well blog announces that one in three who want a nose job are mentally ill, with body dysmorphic disorder. I was struck by the fact that this is coming from a study done in Belgium. My first thought, when noticing that, was to be surprised that anyone's even getting nose jobs there. Not that everyone in Belgium has a Grace Kelly nose, but it's a procedure I thought went along with trying to look less "ethnic." (See: Jackson, Michael.) If the nose-job-seekers in Belgium are for the most part ethnically Belgian, which I suspect, however large or small their noses (and there's the full range), it's unlikely they're going in for this for that particular pragmatic-if-unfortunate reason. Somehow I doubt that of the many NY women of a certain age who've quite visibly had that procedure, 1 in 3 would get that diagnosis.

Keep us out of it

If I had to provide a succinct definition of anti-Semitism, I'd define it as conceiving/writing/speaking of "the Jews" rather than "Jews." As using "the Jews" to make a point about an issue in which Jews play at most a negligible role.

Traditionally one refers to the situations (the majority, obviously) in which Jews-as-symbols come out poorly as anti-Semitism, the ones where "the Jews" are looked upon as a force of good as philo-Semitism, but, as Adam Kirsch correctly notes, same difference. I do see where Micha is coming from, that "it's better to be loved than hated," but disagree with him on the "even for the wrong reasons" part. While philo-Semitism's easier to take than anti-, I'd rather hear a Palestinian's legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy or even of the existence of the Jewish state, than get an earful from a Northern European lunatic who feels some kind of solidarity with "the Jews" in his self-styled medieval crusade against Muslims in his own country. In other words, I'd classify any use of "the Jews" to serve political purposes unrelated or near-unrelated to Jews - and a Norwegian Christian's beef with Muslims counts, if anything does - in the same way.

This is why, even if the Norway killer was in a pro-Jew mood at the time of his manifesto-writing (which he was and wasn't, depending whether he was swinging more 'Make Blond Babies' or 'Down With Islam' at a given moment - 1,500 pages is space enough for all kinds of contradictory views), we may still classify him as anti-Semitic. He's an ethnic-Norwegian Norwegian (and here we must all pause to congratulate him for having been born with blond hair, obviously a sign that he's owed a leadership position) worked up about the presence of Muslims in the West. This is leaving aside the admittedly also-relevant question of whether his obsession with Muslim minorities is out-of-proportion to their influence/unity, and whether perhaps he and those from whom he gets his inspiration intentionally underestimate the desire of minorities in the West to assimilate, because to them quite frankly anyone who looks foreign just is foreign, whatever their behavior. If the killer is worked-up about "the Muslims," it's a heck of a stretch to say that Jews, of whom Norway has few, enter into it.

This brings up a couple issues. One is that it's also anti-Semitic, by my definition, to interpret the killer's actions or even ideology through a "the Jews" lens. Thus the excitement of some white-supremacists (seems they don't all just get along) in denouncing the killer as a Zionist. It's problematic to claim that the killer was acting on behalf of "the Jews," as it would be to suggest that the real victims here are Jews, although I can't say I've seen anyone suggesting the latter. Jews, however, get a pass, insofar is not anti-Semitic for someone who is Jewish to consider the Jewish angle of a situation in which Jews play only a minor role; if that approach were such a problem, every last ethnic press would have to be shut down, because that's kind of how it works. Every minority group gets the equivalent pass. However, given the extent to which Jews in particular are constantly finding our importance in various matters inflated, we're probably best-off not digging for a Jewish angle unless one has already presented itself. But at the same time, ideally Jews take the lead in determining what is or is not relevant to Jews, so if a Jewish newspaper or blog wants to hone in on the Jewish angle of whichever issue, so be it. Anyway, in this particular case, the extent to which "the Jews" had already been dragged into it made it tough for (some) Jews (named Phoebe) not to do what we could to set the record straight.

Another issue here is that it can be difficult to refute "the-Jews" discourse, because frequently, the topic at hand, whatever it is, will relate, albeit in a minor and tangential way, to Jews. Failing to acknowledge the role of Jews in whichever is then framed as giving Jews special treatment. More specifically, with any conflict anywhere in which either or both parties' motivation can be in whatever obscure way related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we're expected to take the time to consider how Israel's policies contributed to whichever far-off mess. If we point out that Israel had near-zilch to do with the conflict at hand, we're accused of ignoring the flaws of that country.

Furthermore, what happens often enough (see, along with the example above, French Algeria) is, all this "the-Jews" ideology actually contributes to giving Jews a central role in some conflict that otherwise had little to do with them. Once a distant conflict is cast in this way, real-life Jews end up getting involved, and, as with all engagement, they will act in ways one might legitimately criticize. The catch: if Jews had just said, look, we'll stay out of this, fight amongst yourselves, but we'll stay home with our latkes/Sephardic delicacies, there'd have been complaints about our failure to participate. And so on.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"On the streets, aside from tourists, one will see far less non-European faces than in the average European city."

After witnessing some minor but still surprising daylight street violence in Flanders (involving at least one Walloon and a very dramatically removed leather jacket - almost as though the fight had been conceived by a former "West Side Story" director - and one less-dramatically torn-apart red t-shirt), I've been following the tragic news of more serious violence in Norway. Mostly I'm just - like everyone else - upset and unnerved. What happened on the island especially is incomprehensible, and not even in a how-could-this-happen-in-such-a-peaceful-country kind of way. I'm trying to make some sense of, if not the senseless, some tangentially-related concerns.

The coverage has portrayed the killer as far-right, which is also how he himself seems to identify, but I'm confused about what that means in Europe these days. Like no doubt many other readers, I clicked on the link (NYT's in this case) to the now-notorious articulate-crazy-person manifesto, and while I did not read the whole thing (there being enough sane-person monographs in a similar layout my work requires me to go through), I saw more of a general insanity than the neo-Nazi stance I'd been told to expect. The insanity was to some extent more from the choice of genre (manifesto rather than angry online-newspaper comments) than the content, some of which is, as Ross Douthat correctly points out, fairly mainstream, and is at any rate gauged primarily by the tragedy that followed its production.

So. I searched the document for stuff about Jews, expecting the worst. Yet this racist white-supremacist murderer is apparently not even a little bit anti-Jewish. Maybe even... pro-, especially when he's holding forth on the plight of Jews from Arab lands. (With friends like these...) And he was a Freemason? As a student of 19th C French history, this confused me especially - aren't right-wing Euro nutjobs supposed to hate Freemasons, or is that so two centuries ago?

His more extreme views are as abhorrent as one would imagine, but they're not quite what I imagined they'd be when the coverage first broke and made so much of the guy being A Blond. Not just a white guy - this much might be pointed out to silence the must-have-been-al-Qaeda speculation - but blond, as though that had some great relevance to what was going on, and wasn't just a likely-enough detail given that the massacres occurred in Norway. Blond and crusading for a Christian Western Europe. I mean, when I see white-supremacist (neo-Nazi?) sorts in Heidelberg - and they do seem to be out and about, especially by the river, with special t-shirts and everything - I do tend to get this visceral sense of fear, not just on behalf of humanity or in solidarity with the city's Muslim population, but kind of like, damn, I'd better start walking faster.

Anyway, apparently racists of a different bent are making a thing of the murderer being a Zionist (whatever that means in this context), because clearly when a blond Norwegian who's racist against brown Norwegians goes and kills a bunch of other Norwegians, this is the fault of the Jews. (Google his name plus "Zionist" - not going to link to those websites.) If we're to give this situation that isn't really about Jews at all a Jewish slant (something I wish non-Jews wouldn't feel the need to do, but now that they have...), it's presumably that Jews can rest assured that at least some segment of the Euro-extreme-right isn't out to get us, which cuts against all we would expect, while we instead now have to contend with this as a presumed ally.

So I take it "opposition to multiculturalism" is now something along the lines of "criticism of Israel," insofar as some who take that stance have genuine concerns, while others use it as coded language to express bigotry, the former against Muslims, the latter Jews. For the obvious personal reasons, I've given more thought to bigotry coming from the European left, but there's no doubt more mobilization these days from the right against Muslims than from the left against Jews. There is also the unavoidable fact that there's violence in the name of Islam committed against the West in a way that there never was in the name of Judaism, but that does not of course prevent the vast peaceful majority of European Muslims from being unjustly marginalized. Pardon the banalities, but it can't hurt to point this out.

Finally, another issue this brings up is the extent to which there's a fantasy of Europe - shared by some Europeans as well as far too many Americans, sometimes dressed up as anti-Zionism, if more often these days as anti-Islamism, sometimes hiding behind legitimate criticisms of "made in China," but often just spoken outright - as a place where authenticity and terroir and all that fun stuff is not just in the food, drink, and crafts produced, but in the "purity" of the populations. In mainstream travel writing aimed at Americans, Americans who no doubt "celebrate diversity" at home, it's not especially taboo to state that a place is worth visiting because it hasn't be tainted by foreigners. Not "foreigners" as in "tourists," but as in people whose skin tone or kebab-production marks them as not being a direct descendent of Franks or Gauls. Americans go to Paris to see Catherine Deneuve clones in perfectly-tied scarves, not 19-year-old guys of Algerian descent whose dress evokes inner-city-America. Scandinavia especially, I think, gets the 'go because it's so clean' treatment. Meanwhile, at the very same time, the very same Americans who are likely to be reading travel articles about Europe in the first place will tell you that Europe's just so much more tolerant than the States. Point being, there's a level to all of this that isn't as complicated as the nuances of burqa debates and Danish cartoons might suggest.

Anyway, if you're not of a the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket political bent, I suggest you follow up the post above with slideshows of gay marriage in NY, as a reminder that the news is, on occasion, uplifting.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The other black hair

The world of officially-recognized Western beauty tends to come in two forms: blond-and-white-because-isn't-that-what-everyone-likes? on the one hand, oh-right-we're-supposed-to-be-including-black-people on the other. Once the requisite number of of-color sorts are accounted for (and that number, often enough, is "one"), the rest of the "beauty" slots get filled by the Dutch and Danish. It's all - sorry - very black and white.

This was also true, when I was growing up, with Barbies and such, so my mother, I vaguely remember, got me a "Hispanic" doll, which was indeed the closest thing. This came up again when looking for the little bride and groom to go on top of my wedding cake. While obviously, the little people did not have to look just like us, it was a bit ridiculous that they came in two varieties: black man marrying black woman, and white man with dark hair marrying white woman with blond. As I had not even begun the Great Ombré Experiment of the summer of 2011 at the time, I kind of wanted a brunette. And, at this one cake-supplies shop in Chelsea, I did locate one, even if the "bride" looked a whole lot like a young Elizabeth Taylor, while the bride, alas, did not.

The message, from girlhood on, is the same: If you're not dark enough to be "of color," you have to try for "white" beauty, a look that can be pulled off "naturally" by some women from some parts of the world, but that requires a great deal of artifice for the rest. To look "done" is to have blond hair and a tiny nose.

(This is not even getting into the awkwardness of being of a race - or size - included in mainstream fashion spreads only when there are protests. This has been written about elsewhere, no doubt needs more attention still, but is not the subject of this post, not because it strikes me as less important - hardly! - but because it's outside my own area of expertise. So if the readers are still arriving from that one Livejournal, no need to remind me of the extent to which "white privilege" extends even to the darkest-haired white brunettes.)

What does this mean, this classification of darker but still socially-constructed-as-white women? It means, for one thing, that countless Western women of Jewish, but also Italian, Arab, Greek, etc. heritage end up conceiving of themselves as second-rate in the looks department, not different enough to demand acceptance as women-of-color, but automatic failures in a societal beauty competition that rewards ethnic features women of the darker white backgrounds tend not to come by naturally. It certainly helps to leave fashion mags behind, and to enter the real world in which men (and of course some women) are attracted to women of all different complexions. This is of little help when you're 12, somewhat more when you're 22.

But let's say you're long past - or have blissfully never had to contend with - the neurotic aspects of this. Let's say you've fully embraced your not-that-white-but-still-white appearance. The remaining problem is that fashion-and-beauty inspiration for women who are somewhere in between on the coloring spectrum is slight. If this sounds ridiculous, remember that part of the issue with the need for diversity in modeling is that women want to know what will look good on them, and diversity helps with that. If I want to know what looks good on me - well, on someone who looks like a 5'10" and stunning version of my 16-year-old self - I'm expected to look at Latvian and Estonian runway models because, hey, I'm white, their presence in mags means I'm represented.

Anyway, that has not worked for me. Where I do find inspiration is in two places: fashion-and-style blogs by or about women who happen to be of my own ethnicity give or take, along with ones by women of East Asian ancestry. Thank you, Internet! Oh, and a couple of French bloguettes who for reasons I'll leave it to Gobineau to analyze happen to have almost my exact coloring (unlike Gwyneth, however Jewish she may be this week) and who, if they spent a little less time shilling for Chanel and the like, I'd be even more enthusiastic about. All I really need to see to get a sense of how to style myself is, dark hair plus pale skin, and that's where I tend to find it, but I'm open to suggestions.

What got me fixated on ombré, I think, is that it's a look that works best on people who look best with very dark hair. It's not about becoming A Blonde or A Redhead (or even, in my failed attempt at getting the ends pink, a... Pinkhead?), because it's abundantly clear what your natural hair color is, as most of your hair remains that color. I don't want to overly politicize something as admittedly unimportant as my choice to make the ends of my hair light enough to dye funny colors, hours (maybe an hour total?) that could have been spent fighting the patriarchy, but I do think there's a way in which this particular look screws with racialized beauty norms. It's having hair that's blond without in any way trying to convince anyone that you're a natural blonde. The criticism the look often gets is that it looks like you had had a proper dye job a long while back, but now your roots are showing. How apt!

Life choices indeed

So I just got yet another French-grad-student list email about whether one of us would like to be the babysitter of I'm not exactly sure whose baby, and if so, could we please send along our CV. I always find these a touch depressing - unlike the tutoring emails, which at least make reference to our alleged marketable skills (but which all too often demand "native speakers"), this is basically saying, sure, you're pushing 30 and have been in school since forever, sure, you've long since had an MA, but you're probably looking for the same work as are 12-year-olds. While I think it's most reasonable to work extra if you can find the time and if your fellowship doesn't get cut off if you do so, even if the work isn't specifically related to academia, there's something not so encouraging about the fact that these emails come from a list specifically intended for our dept. I mean, why stop at babysitting jobs? Some grad students work retail on the side, maybe we want to know if Uniqlo's hiring?

Shortly after that, I got another list email about a teaching postdoc that requires that you pay a fee to even apply. The above anecdote is just to give a sense of my mindset upon opening that second email. My question, for any humanities-types who may be reading this is, is that normal? I know it was for grad school apps, and that's also a paid student-teaching sort of thing, but is there a point at which the fees stop? I have yet to go through all the materials about everything I plan to apply for, so if anyone wants to warn me ahead of time that I should be budgeting for job applications, that would be much appreciated.

"Now if he can only convince my wife."

The highlight of the Heidelberg week is "market day," the twice-weekly partially-farmers' (there are also pineapples and lemons) set-up of stands in the main square. The rhythm of the week is set by these days, days when seemingly more-than-adequate piles of euros disappear because the tomatoes and peaches and such will look so good. (I recently saw some lovely garlic at one stand, deemed it too expensive, and ended up paying over a euro for one also-delightful but still bulb of garlic at another.) My favorite stand is the Austrian one, with the pretzels and mmm, Austrian cheese. Oh, and the beautiful tomato stand, with the only vegetable-stand worker who doesn't grimace at foreigners, and who, quite the contrary, tossed in some free tomatoes of the more expensive variety. (First one's always free, if we're going to be cynical...) Other than that, I've decided to take a mini-break from my dissertation to attempt a maybe-one-day-publishable academic article based on part of said dissertation. Much copying and pasting is involved. So until I have more compelling things to write about, I won't promise to stop the 24/7 Dan Savage coverage. (It did occur to me that, given the extent to which my work is about shifting definitions of the married couple, this is busman's-holiday-ish, so, thus tagged.)

So. Nick Troester on Savage has made me both more sympathetic to Savage's argument, and more sympathetic to the part of me that considers Savage a great prophet of our age. I agree that it's important to remember that Savage is not so much envisioning a world in which romantic life goes to the circus as assuming that monogamy will remain the norm, and looking for ways to reduce the misery that can cause for some people in some situations. And when this is the message Savage sticks to, I think he makes a good point. He's right that someone who learns that their spouse never ever ever can or wants to have sex again might do well to discreetly but honestly look elsewhere. He's right that extramarital affairs shouldn't destroy families if at all possible. And he's right that monogamy doesn't mean ceasing to detect that a Brad Pitt clone just got on the subway. Given the extent to which a) there is an expectation of fidelity even in extreme circumstances, b) people assume infidelity should lead to divorce, even if practically speaking it doesn't always, and c) people embrace the seemingly romantic but in fact highly creepy notion that once in a relationship, one must cease to have the capacity for physical attraction to other people (because, good grief, what happens if/when the relationship ends?), Savage is fighting the good fight, without even much challenging monogamy as an ideal.

Where Savage is wrong, though, is in his message - reiterated in the post Nick links to - that "monogamy is hard." Hard compared with exactly what arrangement? Certainly not more difficult than attempting to find a continuous stream of different partners when single, 45, and not fabulously wealthy. And negotiated non-monogamy, however valid in certain "marginal" cases, sounds incredibly complicated. The problem here, as I may have mentioned in Miss Self-Important's comments, is that Savage has, in recent months, started to begin his answers from the standpoint of assuming a couple won't be monogamous, both that monogamy is the more complicated route in most cases, and that an urge to "see other people" isn't just a desire to leave a relationship - an assumption he makes even when no kids are involved. (I should be citing specific podcasts, I suppose, but for the time being, this has been my overall impression.) The typical situation is no longer a spouse whose sex drive's kaput, but rather a couple in which - and this gets back to MSI's remarks - one person wants something specific that his partner for whatever reason can't or won't provide.

That, and Savage has yet to really grapple with the impact "monogamish" has on women. It's nice and all that Savage has located some individual women who don't see his stance as particularly rough for women, but this is a bit like arguing against affirmative action and claiming your view is Good for the Blacks because look, here are two black people who agree with you. Problem is, in the world of actual heterosexual couples, there are plenty of men who like the idea of non-monogamy for themselves, but not for their girlfriend/wife. This, as I mentioned before, is partly just chauvinistic double-standards and male entitlement, but partly the not entirely false assumption that (b/c of nature or nurture) women are less likely to have sex without emotional involvement. There may well be plenty of women who'd want something on the side, but who've been socialized not to see that as an option. Savage no doubt opposes that kind of socialization, but if he's discussing the world that actually exists, monogamish-for-heteros won't be so equitable.

Note this letter from a man from Boca Raton - quite possibly the guy who gave Jerry the astronaut pen, then demanded it back - to the NYT Magazine in response to the Oppenheimer piece: "Bravo to Dan Savage for his forthright thesis exposing the meshugas that is monogamy. Now if he can only convince my wife." Badumbumching!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Things that are not my dissertation

-Ombré, the eternal work-in-progress, has reached a new phase: rebleached ends, followed by one of the deep-conditioning masques (the "-que" is key; the stuff itself smells worse than the bleach, like burnt rubber, and this without heating it). Not sure yet if the ends are lighter than before, or just de-oranged, but either way works.

-What unites all Heidelbergers is ice cream. As I was having my daily cone, I noticed a woman on the other side of the bridge doing the same. The difference was that she was also wearing a burqa. She lifted her niqab (Wikipedia says this specifies just the face-veil) and... I did wonder whether "cup" might have been more practical than "cone," but she seemed to have it figured out. The ice cream really is a uniter, though, what with Islam's stance on alcohol and (some) Jews' inability to consume the stuff in large quantities. (Why are the tiny beers in Cologne, but rarely here?)

-This is my seventh consecutive month (minus a month) of communal-kitchen living. The German-guesthouse version sure beats the Paris-dorm one, but readers in whom my even mentioning these Euro locales inspires wanderlust, unless you have roommates, think of your kitchens, yes, even studio-apt kitchenettes, think of how you can go to the kitchen without getting dressed properly, how you can be sure the container of salt will be somewhere on the counter and not in another person's bedroom. How you do not need to negotiate for burner or counter space. How, when time comes to clean up when you're done, someone else hasn't just started cooking, thus leaving you with a choice between cleaning up your mess and theirs (and, once again without a splatter-guard, I know whichever mess is 99% mine and have to go with this option) or leave it be. Think, if applicable, of your dishwasher. Or even just of your drying rack - here, there are communal dishes, but you have to dry them and put them away immediately, in case someone else needs them urgently or, more likely, to avoid them getting splattered on. As romantic (or something) as daily ice cream sounds, remember that at a euro a (generous) cone-full, this is merely the most efficient and cost-effective way to reach my daily caloric requirement, one a kitchen intended for "snacks and small meals" can't quite meet.

Self-hatred as proud advocacy

I've been following Dan Savage (what else is new) and June Thomas's back-and-forth (more here) about whether it is or is not OK to make fun of Marcus Bachmann for his Big Gay Al-ish ways, considering that he's apparently involved with "pray the gay away" "therapy," while his wife is more than apparently involved with trying to become U.S. president on an anti-gay platform. (Why, with ex-gay sorts, is it always Big Gay Al and never, say, Rufus Wainwright? Is this some kind of amalgam of gay inner self and what a closeted man would imagine "straight" looks like? A question, perhaps, for another time.)

The whole thing started when Savage began one of his podcasts making fun of Bachmann's voice. And... it was an odd thing. Odd, for starters, because the more Savage mocked, the less stereotypically gay each subsequent replaying of Bachmann's voice sounded. Compared with the very memorable ex-gay who visited UChicago, this was just a somewhat high-pitched voice, the sound quality too poor to say if there was even the lisp Savage claimed to be hearing. I got what it was that Savage wanted the audience to hear - and I fully buy the underlying principle, namely that the hetero men who make a big ol' fuss about The Gays are rather likely to be closeted themselves, and I'm familiar enough with Savage's oeuvre to know he'll really want to have called this one - but wasn't much hearing it in this case.

Odd, too, because Savage had just gotten through saying that 'gay voice' is a scientific fact, and yet there he is, radically modifying his own voice - he, an out gay man - in order to imitate what "gay" sounds like. This would be like if, after saying (and I do think this) that "Ashkenazi" is an ethnicity, and that Jews in a country where most are Ashkenazi will be to some extent recognizable, something altogether uncontroversial if we're talking about any other ethnicity... and then put on a big fake nose, dyed my hair an even darker shade of darkest brown, painted my face even whiter than it already is, and declared that I was pretending to be a Jew.

Basically, I sensed a touch of internalized homophobia - and once more, when Savage goes out of his way to point out that his own sense of fashion, unlike Marcus Bachmann's, is hopeless in that classically masculine way. However noble the intent, Savage was obviously getting a kick out of being more macho than a possibly-closeted homophobe. And I think that, more than a sense that we should be nice to either Bachmann, was what was making me cringe.

To continue the analogy, imperfect as analogies always are, this would be like if I held forth on how poufy-haired, specifically-nosed, etc. some anti-Semite with alleged Jewish roots was. It would be on the one hand a juicy oh-the-irony, and a chance to show that self-hatred somehow only ever manages to highlight stereotypical characteristics. But on the other, it would be a (re-)introduction to these stereotypes to a new audience, and an announcement that it's OK not only to admit that groups may have identifiable traits (which is not in and of itself so terrible, and if spun right, can lead to acceptance), but also that these are traits it's fun to mock.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Parc Slope

-These sure look familiar. I'm assuming the fact that I have the cheaper (but still not cheap!) version means I don't have the original, although I got mine a while back, so maybe this is an example of that alleged phenomenon, high fashion borrowing from the masses?

-Oh, to be able to grow garlic. This lifestyle of living in tiny rooms to better serve Academia is not conducive to that particular goal.

-Big surprise: the #1 article "recommended for me" at the NYT is one tailor-made for one of the tags on this ol' blog: Jewish Babies. Not sure what to make of Israel-as-IVFsville. On the one hand, I share the quoted feminist's concerns about the physical repercussions of that much IVF, and have my own feminist qualms about what it means to encourage baby-making, given who, for social and biological reasons, bears the brunt of this demand. Oh, and the social conservative/Dan Savage in me wonders if it's so fantastic for the state to encourage the formation of single-parent homes. (Supporting existing ones is another matter.) On the other, if the beneficiaries really are as "Jewish and Arab, straight and gay, secular and religious" as the article claims, then we can at least rule out the idea that this is exclusionist political natalism. So as icky as political natalism is under the best of circumstances, this is... the best of circumstances. Those who want a kid are helped, there's less Octomom potential because of the subsidies, and, even if this is all on some level about Jewish Babies, it appears that most everyone's happy. So... consider me undecided on this one.

-This was recently posted to one of the seemingly infinite social networking sites (OK, one of the three) I'm on these days: "has anyone else ever noticed that people with children feel much more free to invade your personal space than people without?" S/he who is the origin of the quote may identify him/herself, or not. I was going to respond there, but it had become a massive thread going all over the place, and I came too late to the party. So, here instead. Yes, I have noticed this. It first bears a mention that kid-complaints are virtually never about children themselves, virtually always about parent behavior, which is why it's always bizarre to me that they're cast as being about whether or not one finds babies cute. It next bears a mention that I've never been all that worked up about lax parenting/over-indulged kids, or else how would I have lasted four years in-and-around Park Slope? I tend to think, not having kids, that I don't know how difficult it is to care for them, so, not my business.

But I must respond here, because OMG was this ever the situation in Paris. It's true for the most part on public transportation, where someone can be eight months pregnant or 80 years old and whatever, but anyone who gets on with a kid under 10 is immediately owed two seats, one for himself, one for the kid. But it's also true in parks. I would sometimes need to Skype from such places, some of which do indeed have the alleged free weefee. In this one park, the park closest to the dorm that actually had this service, Skyping involved first walking through a soccer-ball zone, my head (and laptop) popular targets for this multi-ball extravaganza. Small French children, a lot stronger kickers than one might imagine! But I had to get through in order to avoid what was ostensibly the kids' part of the park, the one with what I've just described, as well as a playground/play area/whatever. I would then go up some stairs to the drunks/rebellious youths/quiet readers section, and park myself a) wherever there was a signal, and b) wherever I'd be least offensive to readers/bothered by drunks.

So. This strategy worked, for the most part, except for the odd soccer ball migrating from the lower level, and for the games of tag or "le tag" that would sometimes involve a huge gaggle of gamins darting in front of as well as behind the bench I was sitting on. But when it totally, utterly failed was when parents would decide to bring their tots intentionally to the upper level, to play a game of 'whee, jump off the ledge,' the ledge being the edge of some plantings, a couple/few feet above the ground, not like jumping out a window. At the end of said ledge, smack in the middle of where "whee" was meant to culminate, was the only bench it made sense for me to sit on. One father, in particular, found this adorable, more adorable still when she gravitated to my bench, extra-adorable when the fruit of his loins confused my laptop for a toy and began grabbing at that. And I was all, hello, I'm a grad student, this is the most expensive thing I own, and I live in such close quarters that I have to communicate with folks back home from public parks. In my head. I probably just shot a glance intended to say that, but, in a city where friendly smiles are less expected even than in NY, no message was conveyed, I suspect. Meanwhile the toddler herself was, in fact, adorable. The father friggin' out-Park-Sloped Park Slope.

Anyway, this is kind of a thing in Paris, where children are normally so well-behaved, dressed impeccably, etc., leading visitors to wonder if children back home are as uncontrollable as alleged. But, possible misanthropic wifi-seekers, the park is where they're allowed to run free.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The memoirist's lament

Here at WWPD, I've often mentioned that writers need to hold off telling all about their own kids. Even if the kids are not named, and even if the author does not have the same last name as said kids. So I of course turned immediately to Dani Shapiro's essay on being a memoir-writer as well as the parent of an at least reasonably intelligent 12-year-old boy. No doubt a rich source of material on this front.

The piece is mostly about the ickiness of having already written R-rated accounts of one's younger days,"with no thought that some day I might have a child." On this, I sympathize with Shapiro. The think-of-the-children-ness that permeates women's lives from the moment they conceive a child on has a way of extending to thinking of children not-yet-conceived, of relationships that don't yet exist. A woman's entire life prior to having kids should not be conducted with thoughts of what would be best for entities not yet around - and that may never come into being - in mind.*

Shapiro does, however, mention the issue of writing about her child, which is the question that interests me more. And her answer, while a good deal better than much of the 'and you wouldn't believe what was in his nightstand drawer!' genre has to offer, is not altogether satisfactory:

Every memoirist makes her own set of rules to write and to live by, and in these 12 years, the strictest rule to which I have adhered has been this: Before I have written anything about my son, I have asked myself whether I could imagine him turning to me some day, and saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about me. But of course the boy I know today has not yet grown into the man he will someday become. Right now, he likes the fact that he sometimes appears in my work. He has read my most recent memoir, “Devotion,” though in truth I think he’s skimmed it for his own name. He thinks it’s cool when I mention him in an interview. (He would enjoy being written about in this essay, though I have no intention of showing it to him.) But he may not always feel this way, and so I can’t possibly know; all I can do is try to protect his privacy while not censoring myself to the point of muteness.
And what, exactly, is wrong with "muteness" on topics where she'd even have to think to ask herself what her son might think? It is really not for her to know what would or would not be problematic. If, for example, I were to learn that one of my parents had written a racy memoir, that's not a book I'd read, but I can't imagine caring, now or at 12. But if I, the theoretical 12-year-old, were to find an article in which the racy-memoir-writing parent had speculated that I needed to be kept away from said memoir, because it would obviously fascinate me to no end, that probably would tick me off. And I could well see not wanting it broadcast via the NYT website that I liked NPR. (If anyone's making it known that I sometimes chuckle to "Wait Wait...," that'll be me.)

It's strange that Shapiro remarks that she wouldn't show her son this very essay. The boy is 12, literate, and could well stumble upon it in the highly accessible in both senses NYT book review section. If she really does think that's likely to set forth a series of events culminating in his knowing all and being horrified, she might have considered that when writing now, even if she ought not to have worried about not-yet-conceived children when writing the memoir in question.

Shapiro does not consider, in other words, that not writing at all about her son is also an option. The reason she gives is that what she does is art: "[A]s a writer, my inner life is my only instrument," she explains, which strikes me as a bizarre defense of writing in ways that ruin the relationships you have with your adult family members, let alone screwing things up for your kids. Remember "fiction"? That genre in which an author's "inner life" is spun in such a way as to only inadvertently offend? Unless the idea is that memoir is less writing, more performance-art-by-word-processor. I have no idea.

Perhaps my own take on this issue is skewed by the fact that I have a higher bar for what I'll consider discussing here than "blogger" without "political" as a modifier implies. I'm in my 20s, I've lived in Park Slope, I'm female, I write in the first person... and yet, not much in the overshare department. Shapiro, meanwhile, writes that prior to having a kid, "the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game." This is not something I've ever felt for so much as a moment. Anything I would not want announced to such individuals, let alone anything personal about them, stays out.

While I'm sure a great deal of this is a personality difference between Shapiro and myself, some of it is also the way blogging as a medium works, namely that long before you have any other audience, "parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends" - that's your readership right there. Whereas if you're a professional, established memoirist, you'll have other readers as well from the get-go. Whatever possible upside there'd be from revealing aspects of yourself you wouldn't want that audience to know, or details about those folks that they might have preferred you leave out, this is outweighed, not only, as it might be for some memoirists, by a desire not to hurt, but also by the fact that the readers who don't know your life, who'd perhaps be prepared, thanks to your clever writing skills, to take your side, simply don't exist, or if they do, the response to a controversial post will still be 99% from those in your life. That, and much that would not be terribly controversial to a general readership would within the context of a family, in which case make that 100% family-response, all remaining readers having skipped over that post. (That, and a blogger with a day job is also aware of employers' abilities to use the Internet, while someone making a living writing memoirs is hardly going to be penalized for having revealed too much.)

There's a fine line between Art and Broigus, and for those of us without external validation that what we're doing is the former, whining on the Internet is just whining on the Internet, and is awfully close to calling up that uncle and giving him an unsolicited piece of your mind. Once, however, one is producing literature, it probably sort of is necessary to write on, even if one's family will be shocked, shocked, shocked, which they likely will be whether or not one calls the resulting text "fiction." But still. All the more reason, if you have a large readership, think of the children. Your own, that is, and leave them out.

*But also, in this instance, what old-enough-to-read-real-books kid wants to read about his own parents' sex lives, prior to, with, or subsequent to each other? All she'd have to do is tell him that her memoir contains information about his own mother that he doesn't want to know. And, given that the normal human way is to not want to think about one's parents as having been involved in anything racy, even that to which we owe our own existence, the son will happily skip reading that book. Even if that means never learning about which drugs she did or didn't take, something children might more reasonably be curious about. A 12-year-old boy may well want to read about sex, but not if his mother is the protagonist.

If anything, I think Shapiro's concerns are less about Motherhood vs. Art and more the worries that come from an excess of thinking about one's self - a plus, perhaps, in a memoirist, but it's useful to remember that one is not the protagonist in anyone else's life but one's own, and that certainly by 12, one's parents are not the central sources of interest in one's existence. And once one has reached the stage of adolescence during which being seen with one's parents is embarrassing, one is well past the point of imagining one's parents are or always were saints. Meanwhile, no adult worthy of the name could care less about their parents' private lives, unless, say, the parent is so debauched as to need to move in with his children for that reason. Thus Dan Savage's sound advice to the occasional (grown-up) callers who are all OMG when they find out something about their parents that's none of their business. If, as an adult, Shapiro's son becomes curious about her oeuvre, or say he's writing up his own memoirs, and he's confident that he can read the memoir as Art, or suspend a bit of disbelief, and not get skeeved out, then that's for him to decide.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Privilege: denied

Hey! I just got hurled a YPIS! (Here's the full thread, responding to my recent post on how hard it is to own five yachts.)

To the YPISers and would-be YPISers who might be reading this, I do wonder when, precisely, privilege was denied. So let me explain "the hair comment" that seems to be giving folks so much trouble. Obviously, in the States especially, if you're not black, that's a form of privilege. However, if you're of an ethnicity that plays down its "ethnic" appearance - rhino-what? eyelids, huh? - then you, too, are marginalized, even if you're not as marginalized. But there are totally, totally hair politics when it comes to even white/"white"/not getting into that discussion b/c on my way out the door Ashkenazi Jews.

A strategic attempt at losing (male, but also female) readers

If you happen to have very dark hair, and to get notions about dyeing the tips a funny (neon, pastel...) color, beware: the very orangey-ness it will have taken so long to bleach out in the first place will return, once the "pink" that was too orangey to start with begins to fade. (I made it fade, dammit, using the Internet-suggested dish-soap and dandruff-shampoo methods). The tips of my hair are now what I believe is called a "brassy" blond, yellow-orange, marginally less clown-hair-like with each shampoo, but not what I started out with at all. So, if you've been inspired to ombré, and somewhere in the process, you inadvertently get your hair a color you find acceptable, choose that point to stop, even if it means the blond-but-not-a-blond look rather than something more exciting. You might end up with something fabulous like this, which is not so different from what I had before the failed attempt at pink. Oh, and I now covet that haircut, which is a good thing too, as I believe I'm due for getting a few inches chopped off soon (see above).

My sense, as a graduate of a renowned beauty school, is that if I'd like to keep the length (aka avoid going to a hair salon, because what an expensive pain in the neck that is) what has to happen is, I'd have to re-bleach the ends. But the thought of going back to the hair-stuff store in Heidelberg, where the product I'd need is kept behind the counter, thus necessitating a mix of the German I learned to buy coffee and apricots and the pointing-method (it having been established that the woman who works there does not speak English), is too daunting. Ich moechte the bleach, yes, the strong one. Aka, Ricky's it is, unless the orange goes away on its own before that time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Take 3

I am stunned, stunned, by how reasonable and intelligent commenters here have been, even though I ventured into that discussion. Perhaps because everyone is coming at the issue from roughly the same place - a belief that Israel has the right to exist, that there also needs to be a Palestinian state - everyone, myself included, seems willing to change their mind on specifics when presented with new arguments.

Myself, I'm not entirely sure where I stand on all the specifics right now, after a series of mini-shifts, but shifts all the same, in my position. But I might also add that I initially posted about this in a way that intentionally somewhat overshot the mark on the confidence I have in my conclusions on the matter. Not so much to provoke-as-shock as to jolt us out of our usual ways of thinking about the issue and thus reframe the discussion.

That discussion, typically, is, as we might all remember, about whether it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, whether this or that criticism of Israel does or does not count as such. We have all heard variants of this enough times, so I will not rehash how it generally goes down. My point, though, is how it generally does not go down: the identity of the person doing the criticizing is virtually always ignored, such that someone living in Jerusalem and some douche on his couch in London who's read three blog posts on the topic and is now highly informed are on equal footing.

When, however else you're looking at it, whether you're a David or a Britta, the fact is, if you are a Palestinian, you did not get to shuffle through a binder of trendy causes and pick your own. Sure, you get to decide how much of the blame you want to place on Israel vs. your own leadership or that of neighboring states, and whether you're going to blanket-condemn all Jews, just Israelis, or just the Israeli leadership. You get to take a stance on violence. But you don't opt in or out of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, those who are not Palestinians do have that option, so we can, in some cases, read significance into their choice to opt in. Whereas this can never be done wrt Palestinians themselves. And a good bit of what can make some "criticism of Israel" anti-Semitic is precisely that disproportionate level of interest.

Now, the counterargument I'd anticipate here is, if Palestinians' complaints are legitimate, this is Truth, and the more voices backing them up, the better. The problem is - as is the case for the Israeli side as well, and to any side in any conflict - Palestinians' complaints are a mix of legitimate outrage and rhetorical (and indeed behavioral) excess. The role of the outside advocate is to provide calm(er) support. Anti-Semites, however, are coming at the conflict already feeling as though they personally have been exploited by The Jews, and it is this, not anything that's going on at any checkpoints, that fuels their rage.

Our priorities, I think, should be a) finding a solution to the conflict itself (which, granted, will not come from WWPD), and b) figuring out how to deal with the continued existence of anti-Semitism-proper, which is to say, of Jew-hatred based not on a real-life Jewish-state enemy, but on an idea of and obsession with The Jew (and here, WWPD might be of service). My sense, then, is and was that one possible way to make it socially acceptable to call out anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism - to, for example, Google someone who's posting online about the plight of the Palestinians and see whether that really is their concern, or, say, to do a close reading of The Israel Lobby, one that will, I promise, reveal that Jews, and not just American Israel policy, are the authors' concern - is to remove the stigma of actually being a Palestinian who's angry at Israel, and shift that stigma onto the anti-Semites among the Palestinians' allies. To do this is to suspend a bit of disbelief, to turn a blind eye, etc., when, to use Micha's example, blood libel is invoked. It's not, I'll concede, necessarily to declare that these are not anti-Semitic behaviors, whatever their root cause. I mean, who knows. It could be that my thought experiment here would be a more productive way of dealing with (b) than with (a).

Genre coining time: Fauxbivalence, or the apathetic bride

Of all the unique-snowflakiness that accompanies the contemporary discussion of marriage - will a wedding be punk-themed or country-modern? do I want my dress to say "romantic" or "sexy"? - there's one manifestation of that tendency I find most irritating of all, and that's a genre I will call "fauxbivalence," with the caveat that the term sounds a bit like a claim that someone isn't really bisexual, so until I think of a better term, it's pronounced "bih". What it is, rather, is excessive hand-wringing - 99.9999% of the time on the part of the woman in a hetero relationship - about the institution of marriage. While this is sometimes about it being unfair that gays can't marry, it's rarely that, and increasingly less so as those restrictions wane. More often, it's couched in terms of a semi-articulated feminism, a vague sense that, as noble and natural as it is to want to be paired off with one other person, of the/a sex you're attracted to, the whole thing becomes tacky and pathetic, really, when the person wanting this is a woman, her partner a man.

And I get it - female sexuality is often assumed to be entirely about "relationships," more specifically about an end goal of marriage-and-kids, which can be annoying for girls and women who want something else. And once a woman does want to settle down with a particular man, she doesn't want her whole existence up till that point retroactively defined as having been all about getting there. And it's tempting, especially if your crowd are not ring-squealing-sorts, to play down enthusiasm for recent or upcoming nuptials, and play up the extent to which a marriage is about bureaucratic convenience.

But seriously, ladies, once you're at the point that you've been with the same guy for a long time, living together and everything, there is no wheel for you to reinvent. It is likely that if things are going well, making things official will make your lives easier, and will be a development pleasing to both parties. It's much easier to say "husband" than to go into a long story about how many years you've been together. It's shorthand that people recognize, which is why - along with the bureaucratic reasons - there's so much emphasis on the need for same-sex marriage.

But noooo. If it's me who's in that situation, it's different. I'm not like all those bride-y women. I'm well-educated! I'd never even consider a French manicure! I'm uncomfortable with "marriage," even if I'm fully comfortable with everything marriage normally entails. But you see, I operate on this totally different level, even though what I want, boringly enough, is a serious commitment, recognized by others, to a member of the opposite sex. Note: I am paraphrasing the genre, and fully own and see no reason to apologize for my own unoriginality in this regard.

In a recent contribution to this genre (via Patrick Appel at the Daily Dish) perhaps intended to ride the provocative coattails of Savage-via-Oppenheimer, Nona Willis Aronowitz, a 20-something woman, declares that she wishes she had not gotten married, even though things are great with her husband. What what? A young woman (from a super-progressive family, it seems) who has not dreamed since childhood of her princess wedding? I know, I'm also stunned to learn such a woman might exist. She must be a very eccentric person.

My first thought was, Aronowitz seems to mistake a wedding for a marriage. No one forces anyone to have the massive, traditional wedding, to be, as it were, that bride. (OK, some parents kind of do, but anyway.) If you're not up for that - and I was not - you can go another route. But elopement, City Hall, casual parties for friends (that I should really get to organizing, but this whole being in Germany thing...), irony if you're a hipster - these are about not taking the party seriously. Whether you go on "Say Yes to the Dress" or show up in Vegas in cutoffs, you leave married all the same.

Aronowitz insists, though, that her marriage is different, not just her blasé approach to its aesthetic trappings. It's a similar case as Dana Stevens (I think) made in a recent Slate Culture Gabfest - she's married, but uncomfortable with the terminology and institution. I'm telling you, this is a genre, almost to the point where you have to pick a camp - either you needed to be "princess for a day" or you were totally reluctant about tying the knot.

Anyway, I read Aronowitz's essay, and am not seeing what makes her marriage unlike anyone else's. In what way did she and her husband reinvent this particular wheel? One man, one woman, cohabitation, presumption of monogamy, presumption of duration, declarations of love. Not two friends marrying for health insurance. She has "no idea if we’ll make it forever," but legal (no-fault, esp.) divorce, and the inability to ever fully know the mind of another person, does anyone?

Ah, but with her it's different: "According to the black-and-white, 'til-death-do-us-part' rules of marriage, that’s just not acceptable." Where are these rules? Are we in France, prior to my imaginary friend Alfred Naquet's valiant and ultimately successful 19th C efforts at reinstating legal divorce? Are we all living in tight-knit religious-fundamentalist communities? There's already a marriage designed for people not sure if they want to be together forever, and it's called "marriage." I will join Dan Savage and other such social conservatives in saying that that's a poor attitude to have going into it, and that every reasonable effort should be made to stay together, especially if there are kids involved, but things happen. The institution of marriage as it exists is awfully close to the civil union Aronowitz says she'd prefer, far closer than many would like.

Aronowitz's official story is that she lacked all the usual 20-something-in-long-term-relationship thoughts about marriage being maybe not such a bad idea, and just went through with it to get her dude health insurance. As Appel suggests, she "makes the case for decoupling health insurance from employment rather than for heterosexual civil unions[.]" But I disagree with Appel insofar as it doesn't really seem like Aronowitz married for just one pragmatic reason. Her relationship is not in any definable way unlike a marriage. As much as marriage is too stifling for her and all that, she does kind of get why it's a better set-up for long-term couples such as hers, noting, "in bureaucratic situations, invoking 'husband' rather than 'boyfriend' or 'domestic partner' is highly effective." You don't say.

This bit, however, is probably the closest Aronowitz gets to explaining how her marriage differs from Marriage as we know it: "My coworkers from the suburbs had been hard-pressed to find anything to talk to me about, but now they were fawning all over me. Buried in their generic 'congratulations!' were little epiphanies—they’d finally found a way to relate to me."

Remember that it's Phoebe from WWPD here, head of the Cityfolk Anti-Defamation League, last person to be expected to come to the cultural defense of "Real America." But this... just... It's not as though there are on the one hand suburban automatons who think that marriage is important and exciting, and on the other interesting, original snowflakes who live in Brooklyn-or-equivalent who've reinvented the human-relational wheel. The reason your unironic colleagues who did not like or even know that band before they got big are excited is because this whole pairing-off thing is a universal experience. Beneath the layers of North Face or Beacon's Closet, Ann Taylor or American Apparel, once at home on the couch, their lives and yours are just the same. You don't get to declare the institution too bourgeois and boring for you if you've done nothing particular to make yours different, and if you're satisfied with an arrangement just like everyone else's.

Aronowitz says that when she tells her marriage story, "the marrieds get a little nervous," which I suppose would be flattering for someone who chooses to identify as too ironic or I'm not quite sure what for such a bourgeois institution. But I suspect she's confusing eye-rolling for something more profound. These "marrieds" probably think, here's someone who is, like ten zillion other people, married to an appropriate-enough partner of the opposite sex, after a dating courtship typical of those of her milieu and generation. Married people already knew, without Aronowitz spelling it out, that marriages sometimes end in divorce. The reason one doesn't hear this kind of thing - an early-marriage prediction of its possible demise - more often is that it's depressing to speculate on the end of a currently-good relationship. But it's depressing even if the relationship's not a marriage. If the author and her guy had been together for years and she was saying maybe it would work out, maybe not, that too would have induced a good cringe. All that a "married" is likely to take from this is that Aronowitz is less enthusiastic about her husband than they are, something that in no way threatens one's own marriage (quite the contrary, it might induce smugness). My own reaction, as a "married," was to hope the husband's OK with both his wife's lack of enthusiasm for their union, and her choice to share that with the Internet.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nobody puts baby artichokes in a corner

Is this, or is this not, a parody of yuppie food writing? We have:

-Allusions to ample time spent at Italy's food markets.
-Where the author may have been willing to "pay a little extra."
-A reference to the culinary inferiority of 'merica.
-"The Italian way with artichokes is worth emulating." Replace "artichokes" with any other noun.
-An assumption that the reader has "locavore leanings" that will need to be addressed.
-The references to how a dish can be made "quite effortlessly at home." One step even "takes no time" whatsoever. How convenient! Why, then, since an artichoke dish can be prepared in zero minutes, would anyone get fast food?
-Paging Ramona: the dish is to be prepared "perhaps with a cool glass of pinot grigio for encouragement."
-Readers are urged to pair this already pricey ingredient with "an antipasto with slices of prosciutto and fresh mozzarella," or fresh fish. Or - in a nod to the high-cultural-capital-but-broke contingent, with spaghetti.

So I vote "parody." I am nevertheless lusting after the artichokes pictured.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Take 2

I remain unconvinced that "race" or "racism" is the best lens through which to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it plays out among the parties themselves. I think it's a very useful lens for understanding why certain third parties get involved, but the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, no.

But let's say for the sake of argument a convincing case could be made that some Palestinians have absorbed and reformulated traditional anti-Semitism, and that some Israelis would totally love the Palestinians, if only they were Slavs and not Arabs. Let's assume that racism is a valid lens. What's gained by opting for that lens, and what's lost?

As I see it, to use this lens is to, however inadvertently, a) essentialize the parties and their hatred for each other; b) give support to racist third-parties on both sides, who find it easier to openly hate Arabs if they can call them "anti-Semites," easier to hate Jews if they can call Israel a "racist" state; c) alienate otherwise liberal sorts among Jews and Arabs worldwide, who would be far more sympathetic to the "opposing"-such-as-it-is-for-relative-outsiders side, and far more (constructively) critical of their own, if they weren't under the impression that they were defending themselves, as it were, from Racism; and d) weaken the meaning of the term "racism," making it tougher to apply where it desperately needs applying, namely to fully outside observers who use a conflict they don't really care about as a pretext for being big ol' racists domestically, and whose voices we could simply ignore (it's not like we can de-racist racists) if we properly identified them. If we choose to speak of the conflict in timeless terms, such as that classic, "enmity," or words like "conflict," all of that's avoided.

What, then, is the benefit?

Newfangled whosawhatsis

What is Google+? A friend from college sent me (unsolicited, but I don't mind) an invite at just the right procrastinatory moment, so I said fine, my identity can be linked with my Picasa account, which I'd assumed was already the case. Now I have a list of acquaintances (an official category now!), former students, profs, and poodle-search-related contacts that's the stuff of a bizarre dream. I also have a whopping six mutually-acknowledged contacts, making me less popular than on Facebook or Twitter. It's only been a few hours, but still. And, I don't get how it works, having myself, in turn, accidentally invited a friend (hi, Grace!) who now that I think of it probably doesn't even want to be on this, thinking she already was. Harrumph, I believe, is the word.

"Professor [...] toured shopping centres in Europe and Israel, taking candid photographs of people with interesting noses."

Friggin' dissertation, always getting in the way of important things, like responding properly to an article about the "14 types of noses" and what they mean. Instead, I'm going to write up my response to Bourget's Cosmopolis, an 1892 novel about, roughly, the 14 types of noses and what they mean.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Provinces

Point taken re: the bizarreness of the sentence in question (not that country is the most American of genres, but it's certainly not fringe, even if fringe is part of the aesthetic), but what does it mean to accuse the New York Times of "New York provincialism"? It's a national as well as a local paper, with a perspective that, the further you get from hard news, tilts ... probably towards some living room in the West 70s. If you're really that worked-up about New York's cultural hegemony, perhaps try getting your culture news from a paper that doesn't have "New York" in the name.

The Palestinian cause vs. the Palestinians' cause

I realize that to even dip a toe into this territory-so-to-speak is to invite the following thread in the comments below: 'All criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitism! The Occupation should be the #1 global concern. No, no, the Palestinians are in the wrong! Walt and Mearsheimer are big racists! No they're not, you didn't read the book! Did too! Not as closely as I did!' So I do ask that, should I be so honored to have commenters at all, they discuss the specific point of this post, and not use this as an opportunity to provide their at-the-ready generic rant about the Middle East. I'm trying to look at this differently, so bear with me.

In sum: I do not think even the Palestinians most radical about their cause are anti-Semitic. I don't think the Palestinian beef with Israel has anything to do with anti-Semitism. Unlike perhaps most of my fellow Zionists, and unlike Christopher Hitchens, I do not gasp in horror when Palestinians adopt the symbolism or vocabulary of sinister, old-school, Western anti-Semitism, or if they condemn Jews and not just Israel/Israelis. This is because I don't think the Palestinians' beef with Israel is fundamentally about anti-Semitism. The beef is about control of land, not about anything more nefarious or complicated, and the land issue is complicated enough. By the same token, I don't think the Israeli side of the conflict is about anti-Arab or anti-"brown" racism. The Palestinians could be ethnically Swedish, and they'd still be this group of people in competition for the same land. It's poor form and ultimately counterproductive (if, in the immediate moment, seemingly effective) when those on either side express themselves in "racial" language, but we shouldn't assume that they're doing so because they're either side engaging in a "race" conflict. What they're doing is trying to win allies on the outside among the anti-Jewish and anti-Arab, respectively.

It's both good and bad for the Palestinians that their enemies happen to be Jews. Good, because this wins them a whole lot of allies they wouldn't have if their enemies were whomever. It was a blow for anti-Semites that, after the Holocaust, one was asked to see Jews as victims and not conspiratorial, all-powerful oppressors. While (some, among the still-living) Jews bounced back, it was no longer socially acceptable, once the Holocaust was in the public eye, to fixate on Jewish "money," Jewish "overrepresentation," and so on, certainly not without coded language. So of course anti-Semites - who contrary to popular opinion did not cease to exist in 1945, or 'learn their lesson' - jumped at the chance to embrace the cause of some undeniable underdogs whose crap fate, all will agree, owes at least something to some Jews. And it even comes with a fashion-forward scarf! Bad, of course, because it's precisely these allies who've confused matters for liberal-minded sorts, Jews especially, giving the mistaken impression that there's something inherently anti-Semitic about being in a conflict in which your enemies happen to be Jews. Along the same lines, if claiming to be 'of the West' wins Israel some support among the Arab- and Muslim-phobic in the West... This I will need to expand upon in its own post, so sit tight.

To lower everyone's blood pressure for a moment, think of it like this. Imagine that two neighbors, one who happens to be Jewish, one who doesn't, get into an argument over... any number of ridiculous things people argue about that have nothing to do with their ethnic-religious origins. Someone's dog ripped up someone else's flower bed, whatever. We wouldn't say that the Jew's antagonist in this conflict is an anti-Semite. Sometimes Jews, like everyone else, get into disputes, and those disputing with them have whatever beef anyone has with anyone. However, if a bunch of strangers to both formed a committee to support the Jew's antagonist, while ignoring similar and worse conflicts in the town between non-Jews, we might wonder about the committee members. Now, if the Jew's antagonist, picking up on his likely source of support, throws a 'dirty Jew' in there, that's foul play and all, but that doesn't mean the original conflict was about anti-Semitism. It was about the flower bed.

Pro-Israel Diaspora Jews, along with centrist/independent-minded sorts in the West, as well as virtually everyone I agree with on other things having to do with this issue, all these folks need to stop thinking of the Palestinians' beef with Israel as being about anti-Semitism. The Palestinians didn't randomly pick the Jews as a scapegoat. They have a dispute with the Jewish state. This doesn't mean we should cease to condemn suicide bombings or, for that matter, the strategic-yet-idiotic appropriation of Protocols and similar. It's entirely compatible with telling it like it is when it comes to the Westerners who've picked the Palestinian cause of all the world's causes precisely because it allows them to bash Jews. For what I can only wish was the last time, it's easy enough to figure out which Western supporters of the Palestinians do and don't fall into this category by hearing what they have to say about Jews on topics unrelated to the I-P conflict. If the "advocacy" is really about anti-Semitism, 99% of the time there's some beef the person has with Jews at home/Jews in theory that accompanies and likely predates any attention paid to the Middle East. All it means, but this is significant, is that we not look at Palestinian terrorism as of a piece with pogroms, etc.

Ombré manqué

So, contrary to all my preconceptions re: ombré, the effect looked much better in the fade-to-blond state (after the second attempt, with the punkier bleach) than with the semi (I hope no more than semi)-permanent "Pastel Pink" on the tips. I imagined a cotton-candy effect, but failed to account for the fact that I had not bleached the tips to white. Thus, pink-ish orange. In theory, this will fade to what it was before - not to my natural color, of course, but to just the bleach. After shampooing the tips of my hair many, many times, and washing the tips with normal soap as well, a dent appears to have been made. Luckily the beauty industry has invented such a thing as a rubberband for hair.

In other news, whoever scanned the 500-page fin-de-siècle novel (Cosmopolis by Paul Bourget) I'm so close to having finished at a slant should have maybe lined things up a bit better, esp. for those of us reading the thing on our computer screens. It's already tough enough to figure out why which decadent aristocrat is dueling with which other (What Would Dan Savage Say about the semi-tolerance of adultery, "semi-" in very much the same sense as this pink hair dye?), and why they've picked which others as their witnesses, and what the significance of race is in the novel. The novel is thus far at most 10% about anything directly relevant to my topic, but the remaining 90% is tangentially relevant, so this isn't a scan-for-key-words situation, but a read-entire-novel-closely-while-taking-notes one. The slant, not helpful. But granted, it's nice that obscure-ish literature is available for free on the Internet.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In search of lost schnitzel

After having cooked dinner every night since getting to Heidelberg, in a kitchen enough better than the Paris dorm situation to make multi-dish meals possible, but a communal kitchen it's necessary to fight for burners in all the same, I was about ready to eat out for the sake of not having to deal with the pan, the one my husband and I both have a go at cleaning, but on which the char doesn't budge, and you can't soak it because someone else will need it, or at least the sink/counter space, and no, no dishwasher. I was hungry enough that I figured, how bad could #42 of the 255 restaurants in Heidelberg be? Well, precisely as bad as a bad sauce on overcooked frozen vegetables - and very randomly-selected vegetables, plus a whole lot of bean sprouts, yes, in Germany - could be. I mean, I've never been to Thailand, and the ideal to which I was comparing this was Chelsea Thai, where food comes on trays and where "quality" is not one of the draws, but where the food ranges from very good to the kind of thing you dream about when out of town. Or the Snail in Hyde Park, or even the decent-ish place not far from the dorm in Paris. So it wasn't an authenticity issue, or being accustomed to the more haute Thai food the West has to offer. This was just, well, bad.

As I was pushing the food around and trying to make the best of it, in walked a group of very authentic-looking retiree-sorts, of the German variety. My husband told me that they'd just asked the hostess where they could find schnitzel. I shot him a look that said, isn't that joke a bit obvious/xenophobic? Or possibly articulated that reaction as well. But he insisted that this was really happening, and I turned around and heard the hostess say "schnitzel," while pointing the group in the direction of a nearby beer garden.

The moral of the story is, my husband is not a xenophobe, and those folks had the right idea.

Glossiest post ever

-I'm kind of fascinated by Into The Gloss, a site about how fashion-types (behind-the-scenes, not models, although the two categories have increasingly merged with the "street-style" blogs that claim to be about "real women" but actually cover the fashion-editor beat, the only difference being that the editors can be a bit older and a bit shorter than the models) choose their beauty products. "Choose" being the key word, because no one profiled has to do anything so crass as buy expensive creams and lotions. They get sent samples because they are just that fabulous. Part of me just straightforwardly likes the site, for its pink-hair and ombré inspiration, and for its unapologetic devotion to getting dolled up for the fun of it. (Nobody's sending me beauty products, even though Technorati recently claimed WWPD's more popular than friggin' Sea of Shoes, but DIY ombré is well within the grad-student budget.) The other, more sensible part of me wonders what, precisely, would happen to the skin of all these women if, instead of using 50 different products that can only be bought at Danish pharmacies or whatever, they switched to, say, Irish Spring, then if any genuine dermatological problem arose, got the relevant strong stuff from a genuine dermatologist. My guess is, nothing at all.

-Speaking of Western European pharmacy beauty products, how did Gwyneth Paltrow become Enemy #1 for the YPIS set? Yes, she's clearly benefitted from nepotism, but she's not, like, Peaches Geldof, or one of the many minor British royals who, though unfortunate-looking, are young and female and thus treated in the (tabloid British) press as romantic leads. Paltrow has both (from what I understand) gone above and beyond her parents in terms of entertainment-industry success, and has built herself as a brand. Not that we need to be congratulating her for these not exactly world-saving achievements, but how did she come to represent idle-heiress-dom? I mean, yes, she comes across as clueless, but she must have some clue about how non-fahbulous even well-off normal people's lives are, or she wouldn't be so committed to making her own more fabulous still.


Friday, July 08, 2011

In which I gather material for a riveting ex-pat novel

For reasons too fascinating to get into here, I just had to pay at a bakery with a 50-euro bill. Heading over there, I was, of course, concerned. It's one thing when someone in a Parisian store or café gives me a hard time, because I'd at least know which coins they preferred, and be able to gauge, on a pain scale of 1 to 10, how tragic it would be for them to break a 20. German for Reading, plus Flemish by Osmosis, mean that I might understand what the other person says, but responding's another matter.

So I'm delighted to report that I was able to get the Bretzel I wanted, a sub-euro purchase that's the bagel equivalent of Heidelberg and, with Austrian cheese (and, today, spicy mustard! Jo, take note), the basis of my lunch most days here, with the bill in question. No dirty looks, no German sentence that I might have guessed meant, 'got anything smaller'? As Britta suspected, the change thing is not a thing in these parts.

The only problem was that I'm apparently so incomprehensible in German that, after having summoned all the relevant politeness and soft-pretzel words I could come up with, my order was repeated back to me as "Latte Macchiato." How the baker/cashier got that from what I said, I'll never know, but I suspect it had something to do with my having been profiled, for any number of reasons, some more flattering than others, as more "Latte Macchiato" than "Bretzel."