Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Anti-Wanty List

Nothing like moving to make you wonder what you were thinking, buying two subtly different shades of nail polish, printing PDFs (even 4-to-a-page, double-spaced) of books, or just generally accumulating stuff above and beyond what's needed to get through one laundry cycle. Normally, like Kei, I have a mental list going of things I want but don't need, including but not limited to clothes inspired by fashion blogs, mothers at the private school near where I taught, NYU's own very fashionable student body, etc. Now, no. I walk by frou-frou boutiques and I think, who are these people who want more clothing than they already have? I used to think, how fun for them that they can afford it.

Part of the problem is that after spending half the year away, I have double of many items. And stuff like Advil, why throw it out? Another complicating factor: the apartment we're leaving, though a studio, has a whopping six closets, meaning I had very little incentive to ponder how attached I really am to various clothes left over from high school until boxing things up. Yet another: it's summer now, meaning I have a tough time remembering that things like boots and winter coats are something other than bulky items that take up space.

Anyway, lessons learned:

-If you threw it out/donated it, would you buy another of its kind after the move? There went the pink Gap Kids polos that seemed like a good idea at the time but that I'm entirely certain I won't miss, even if I am moving to a town where they'd be appropriate. There, too, went a few pairs of pants I'm not sure I could ever close but at any rate sure can't close now. The platform mary janes I thought looked kind of cool in an Israeli way but basically look like bad 1990s revival, same. However! Everything I own that resembles/could be used as business attire could well come in handy, and I'm choosing not to dwell on the likelihood that my interview suit from age 21 will look out-of-style and where to begin on fit today. I'm not going to chuck that just because these days my uniform is green "skinny" cargos, white or gray tank top, silver clogs, end of story. Along the same lines, I was a fool to throw out my lucite makeup-holder-thingy during an earlier move - my loss and that of the environment were the Container Store's gain, because I've vowed not to have eyeliner rolling around the medicine cabinets again.

-Pick a couple favorite spices/cuisines and be done with it. Cleaning up the kitchen thus far has been this trip down memory lane: I wonder what that vinegar's like! Maybe I'll add fish sauce to my stirfry! Of course I'll get through that nutmeg! When I could basically have owned sherry or wine vinegar, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and cinnamon, and been done with it. (Cumin's nice and all, and I do use it, but there are let's just say leftovers.)

-Is it stained/torn to the point of unwearability? This seems obvious, but I always think, hey, it's something to run/sleep/write in. Thing is, it's not necessary to keep dozens of t-shirts for that purpose. Or, it's possible to own far too much clothing even without being someone who shops all that much.

-Are "important papers" important? Or, the ones that were important in 2005 may be less so in 2011, so you can't just throw everything in a box every time you move and figure that once you've arrived, you'll go through it. You won't.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Coastal elites

-The epic hurricane that was to destroy Battery Park City was apparently not a hurricane here at all, but some rain, and everything's just fine. Was this a case of better safe than sorry, or just a chance to give my parents a sense of what life would have been like had I boomeranged (with husband in tow, like in a sitcom) on home? Was it a chance for commentators to hurl all kinds of misdirected class rage at a neighborhood whose residents are a whole lot less "moneyed" than in, oh, tons of other neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and who, certainly after 9/11 (and residents who weren't here for it nevertheless see Ground Zero daily) are not the aloof, nothing-can-touch-me UMC? There are only so many neighborhoods in Manhattan that two grad students sharing a (spacious! dishwasher-having!) studio can afford (if only at recession prices, and with the "help" of the world's most comically inept broker), so while this still makes me personally a whole lot less well-to-do than everyone else in the area, that should tell you something about the place generally. And.. I like that the best the Guardian could come up with to illustrate the posh was a couple of undeniably down-to-earth-looking people who do, alas, have what looks to be a spectacular well-groomed Bichon.

I mean, fine, if people had been all OMG let's shed a tear over the tragedy of condo renters-and-owners who are indeed richer and whiter than the average across the five boroughs having to "flee" to stay with friends and family (or, in some much-publicized instances, to stay in super-luxe hotels), then this could have been torn apart. But did anyone think this? This was far from the major/only part of Zone A covered in the press, even if WWPD coverage tilts heavily to where P resides. What this was, for BPC residents, was a significant inconvenience, potentially life-threatening to those who require emergency care, a short-term economic upset for lower Manhattan and beyond, and now, PR for the city that will make it look like we can't handle a teensy bit of rain. Even best-case-scenario leaving-your-apt-with-the-thought-that-everything-in-it-might-be-destroyed kinda sucks. As First World Problems go, this was among the more problematic. Anyway, I tend to be in the "better safe than sorry" camp, even though on some level I figured this was not going to be much of anything.

-Things sure do sound interesting up in Euphemistic Boston. Has anyone ever up and taught a freshman class on Really Small Questions? I'm so up to the task.

-My husband's choice to pursue rocket science in Euphemistic New Jersey means that I will need - for real this time - to learn how to drive a car. This is, like, on, as in happening in under a week. (Bye Uniqlo, bye Dos Toros, bye Chelsea Thai; bye and good riddance Ceci Cela, which completely changed its croissant recipe and now after over a decade of arguably-best-in-the-city serves something truly vile.) I'm of course scrambling to find ways to avoid needing to drive - I'll ride my bike everywhere! This will be a chance to try those online groceries I've heard so much about! I'll be finishing my dissertation and never going outside anyway! - but it's inevitable. I know that there are people who like driving, but by this I assume they mean adventure, the open road, etc., not someone who's a nervous wreck after twice failing the Red Hook driving test finally, after hundreds of thousands of lessons, driving to a just-beyond-walking-distance supermarket. I've at any rate vowed not to approach this challenge by taking NJ Transit to the PATH to the Fairway and back every time we need food.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A is for Awesome

My neighborhood is about to become a giant lake or, more accurately, part of the Hudson River, so Jo and I evacuated to my parents' apartment, which could well also flood, but which is outside Zone A. We are (were?) supposed to pack, scrub-the-place-so-as-to-get-the-deposit-back, and move in under a week. It could be worse, and I'm grateful it's not, but nah, it's not so fun.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When in doubt, YPIS

-Frank Bruni has called out foodie types for their "elitism." This fact alone will probably have many nodding along to his column, but the content itself makes no sense:

When [for-the-masses celebrity chef Paula] Deen fries a chicken, many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all. Her strips of bacon, skirting pancakes, represent heedless gluttony. Chang’s dominoes of pork belly, swaddled in an Asian bun, signify high art.
Is this snobbery? Or is it perhaps the fact that there is no obesity crisis among the customer base of expensive Manhattan restaurants. Whether this is because even wealthy New Yorkers are not dining out every night (and are in all likelihood eating all other meals at home, using Greenmarket ingredients), or because they're so rich that they think nothing of picking at their food and tossing the rest, sneering at the bourgeois convention that at an expensive restaurant one must finish one's plate, the fact of the matter is, they're a skinny bunch. Bruni might as well be saying that because many Americans are obese, the French, if they're going to point this out, need to cut back on Camembert, that to do otherwise would be hypocritical.

-From the beauty blog I love to hate, hate to love, for a change, a PhD student profile. One who uses no makeup whatsoever, and whose beauty routine consists of bathing. A female grad student, to be clear, and one not averse to wearing a pretty floral dress. Continuing the love-hate theme, this latest post makes the useful point that if many women gave up on complicated and expensive processes of de- and rehydrating their skin with products and just used soap, the same balance would be achieved, and probably with less exposure to chemicals than using glob after glob of products marketed as "natural." (OK, this woman doesn't use soap, but soap-free "gentle cleansing wash," because she is, after all, a woman.) It's brave, in a way, for someone whose blog is about finding the perfect products to spread onto one's skin to offer up the idea that glob-less works, too.

So that's the love. The non-love ("hate" seems a bit extreme) is that this version of "low-maintenance," while of course available to all, is something not so many women can get away with while still looking conventionally attractive. Most women have to choose. For women with any hair texture other than fine, straight, and summered-in-Martha's-Vineyard, using whatever shampoo's lying around means not caring how your hair looks. "Normal" hair is still defined by shampoo companies as what this woman happens to have, which is how she gets to have a no-fuss approach and still look nice. And because she's blond, too, she's able to avoid hair-salon primping altogether and still look 'done.' "I’m out in the sun a lot doing research on boats, so my hair just gets naturally lighter." She's also, conveniently enough, thin, pretty, and occupied with a kind of research that keeps her fit. (Kind of the opposite of reading 19th C newspapers in Paris on the way to and from croissants.)

Given how much "maintenance" women do is about looking how this one does naturally, it hardly seems a ringing endorsement of self-acceptance that this particular woman keeps things simple. But I wouldn't exactly say that anyone's privilege is showing - I get the sense that the PhD student in question found it amusing that a beauty blogger wanted to interview her on her "routine," and don't get the impression at all that she's judging those who do such things as schlep home giant and not-so-cheap containers of the only shampoo and conditioner that work for their hair, on account of they're about to move to a place that might not sell it, only to come home and look up something called "soap.com" where the product is not only available for delivery but also cheaper. Ahem.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Other's Others

There is now a summer camp specifically for Jews of color. As a Jew who went to a WASPy tennis camp where I had less skin pigmentation going on than most of the blonds, I suppose this camp would not have been for me. Whether it's a good idea for anyone is another story.

The way Steven Philp presents it, American Jews of color are in fact more oppressed than Americans of color in general. Oppressed by other Jews, that is. He appears to agree with the camp director that, as she puts it, "'we as a community are not great at dealing with the Other [...] We had centuries of persecution making us wary. We have a tendency to be more suspicious than welcoming.'"

This seems... dubious. While it's surprising in America to meet a black or Asian Jew, just like it was surprising the other day when I heard an Asian-looking woman get an Asian-language response back from the ex-football-player-looking blond guy sitting next to her, do we really think Jews are especially intolerant of those of color? I've spent enough time with relatives of another generation to know that Jews are fully capable of being racist, but do we really think Jews are especially racist? What about the Civil Rights Movement? What about the congregations with lesbian rabbis, where many of the kids are the full-rainbow offspring of intermarriages? It's certainly isolating to be of a different race than those around you, but are things worse for a black kid adopted into a white Jewish family than one adopted into a white Catholic/Protestant/Mormon one, assuming a homogeneous community?

And! What about the fact that when Jews exclude on the basis of genealogy - something not all Jews do! - they tend to be equal-opportunity about it? (What with the fact that the traditional divide between Jew and Gentile long predates modern ideas about "black and white.") If you're a Jew for whom intermarriage is OMG the worst, even if there's a conversion to Judaism, it's if anything a tiny bit less tragic if the non-Jewish spouse is another minority than if a snub-nosed blonde is involved.

Also confusing in the Moment piece is the notion that the Jewish traditions of many American Jews are very much in the "latkes and gefilte fish" vein. I get that Ashkenazi cultural hegemony is an issue in Israel and in the Jewish world more broadly, but if you're an American Jew and one of your parents is Ashkenazi, the other a convert to Judaism bringing the "color," or if you're the of-color adopted child of two Ashkenazi American Jews, you don't magically have the culture of one of the somewhat darker-skinned Jewries, the Mediterranean ones with inevitably far superior cuisines. Your Jewish culture is Ashkenazi-American culture.

But the real problem is this: The well-meaning refrain is always that there's no such thing as 'looking Jewish,' and that anyone who says otherwise is a) anti-Semitic, or b) denying the existence or authenticity of Jews of color. Meanwhile, most American Jews are Ashkenazi. This is why, we might want to recognize, American Jewish culture has been as Philp not-so-neutrally puts it "dominated by" Jews of that culture. This isn't the same - as Philp seems to think - as a high percentage of Jews being "white," as though this were some undifferentiated category and we might as well be Swedish. I mean, yes, the bulk of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews would be "white" by the standards of all Americans who are not white supremacists, insofar as anyone (Arabs, really dark-complexioned Greeks, etc., included) for whom that's the closest-to-accurate box counts as such.

But Ashkenazi is, like Swedish, particular, distinct, and we tend to look kinda-sorta identifiable. (Thus how, even though my family's from Russia/Romania/etc., what I look sure isn't Slavic, although from the Pale of Settlement I inherited an extra bit of pale.) This is not a tragedy. Yes, some Ashkenazi Jews are blond, but I don't see how it's disrespectful to the authenticity of their Ashkenazi-ness or their Jewishness, to admit that that's not what Ashkenazi Jews tend to look like. It's not only that it's not anti-Semitic to say that there is, in America, an ethnic look that's typically Jewish. I'd go so far as to say that it's anti-Semitic to claim that that's anti-Semitic, as though there's something shameful about being pale and non-snub-nosed (not the same as hook-nosed, which would be an anti-Semitic description; sorry, this is a complicated issue), with dark, poufy hair. I mean, the fact that it's considered offensive to refer at all to Ashkenazi physicality might hint at the fact that this physical appearance has in the past and continues to this day to constitute something other than privilege. It just might.

(And... someone always, always, always has to complain that nothing was mentioned about the Palestinians. This is not about Israelis or even Zionists! These are a bunch of lefty Jews in California, who probably are on the case already. And this is already a story whose message is that Jews are especially racist, sorry it doesn't make that point from every possible angle. Good grief.)

It girls, it pizzas

-Like the idea, for its cheapness potential, but the dresses are exactly how not to shop the kids' section. It's a fine line between Alexa Chung-Peter Pan collar-land and dressing like an actual child. And if you're shopping kids' to save money, not just to make the point that you can squeeze into baby onesies, those prices are a bit steep.

-Hipsters-make-your-food, the pizza-in-Bushwick edition. This was, by the way, the purveyor of the $10-plus personal pie that made such an impression, although that was at their Madison Square Park, uh, pop-up or temporary stand or whatever. The plain pie was less, I think, if not by much, but this one promised to be a green garlic extravaganza, back when that was in season, and ended up having a few shreds of the stuff. Maybe the problem is that once you learn how to make pizza yourself, anything you get out tastes maybe a bit better from having been in a better oven, but also worse because they need to make a profit and the quality, however high, suffers. So... no, I won't be going to Bushwick for the real deal, even though part of me is totally convinced. (Not having any cuttlefish, though, not after that "South Park" episode.)

-What IDF training (and that's so how this worked) is good for: escaping the clutches of a sadistic German.

-I want to watch and/or participate in all of Kei's proposed documentaries.

-Whereas I don't especially want to see heavily stylized photos of Kurt and Courtney's daughter's emerging womanhood or whatever. It seems strange to discuss the lucky lot in life of someone whose father committed suicide when she was a young child, and whose mother... But what to make of the fact that we are now, coincidentally enough in the midst of a 1990s and Nirvana revival, supposed to welcome Frances Bean Cobain as the new Face of Fashion? She is now poised to have one of those "careers" that involve being fabulous and getting photographed looking pleasantly debauched in designer clothes. FBC's achievement thus far is apparently that she has professional photographers capture her in such unusual late-teens activities as looking sullen and smoking cigarettes, the twist being that her face is so very much that of her iconic parents, and letting the photos "leak" all over the Internet. (Meanwhile, the rest of teendom is now trying to avoid being photographed looking sullen and smoking cigarettes, because those photos will be all over the Internet.) This seems a much more blunt approach to self-promotion than the usual child-of-rocker exploits, namely having a modeling/it-girl career that a cynic will understand was behind-the-scenes arranged by publicists, and that would not exist without the famous name. I don't know. I guess on some level, as someone who wore plaid flannel shirts in fourth grade because of Nirvana, baby-doll dresses in fifth/sixth because of Hole, I'd have preferred a Saffy-style result.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fauxbivalence for job-hunters

Wish I'd seen this Historiann post before posting below. To summarize: A woman who "works for a non-profit that helps African women and children suffering from the effects of the conflict diamond trade" frowns upon interviewees who show up with diamond engagement rings. Other employers also look askance at such rings when interviewing candidates. Historiann, responding to the Huffington Post item, remains unconvinced that women who wear massive diamond engagement rings should be considered a protected class, classifies this as a First World Problem and then some, and notes that rings can (typically, although in this hot weather...) be removed. Others point out that men who buy said rings get off scott-free. A few different issues come up, and are somewhat conflated: the ethics of diamonds, the advisability of walking around with something that at the very least looks like an expensive gift from a man, and the right of women to reveal their relationship/marital status without fearing discrimination.

This specific case, however, is an easy one. It is, as one of Historiann's commenters and others note, like showing up for an interview with PETA in a fur coat. Even if the coat is fake or vintage, you might want to opt for cotton. And it doesn't even have to be that specific - unless you're applying for a very high-up position, or to work in a dabbler field, in which your employer will consider it a plus that you're totally OK with making $10k a year because your trust fund will cover the rest and then some, you probably do want to strike a balance between neatness/formality and modesty. Like maybe the Chanel handbag stays at home. And if you're looking for minimum-wage work, you might consider at least turning an especially big ring around.

But when it comes to employers that are neither supermarkets nor anti-blood-diamond non-profits, it seems nuts that a ring, however shine-ormous, would be held against someone in an interview. I mean, who knows the full story behind it? Maybe it's fake (and thus inoffensive for labor and expensive-gift reasons). Maybe it was an heirloom (same). Maybe the other fiancée/spouse is also woman (as in, now that same-sex marriage is not only a social fact across the country, but legal in several states as well as countries, including one bordering our own, ring=/=heterosexual privilege, and it would be a whole new level of ridiculous if we started to get hetero employers rejecting married gay applicants for "flaunting" their heteronormativity). Maybe some men/women for whatever reason want to give their girlfriends enormous engagement rings, people who can't necessarily comfortably afford said rings, and the women who receive them, moved by the sentimentality of the gesture (even if they'd have been happy with something much simpler or nothing at all) opt to accept and wear it, and to save their OMG-do-you-know-where-this-came-from outrage for iPhones or clothes from Zara.

Or maybe the woman wearing it wanted desperately for her dude to buy it for her, and when he did was thrilled, because she didn't know she was supposed to hem and haw about what it all means. As is often the case, I'm fully on board with Flavia's contribution to the discussion - knowing that you're supposed to seem ambivalent about the trappings of heteronormative femininity is itself a form of privilege. And this isn't some patronizing point along the lines of, 'those poor souls who never took a Gender Studies class don't know about feminism.' Some women from all walks of life are genuinely uncomfortable with gendered expectations. But it's only in this one subset of society that women who are totally comfortable with conventional femininity for themselves think they need to claim otherwise.

It's not inconceivable that, within certain contexts, a conventional-wrt-mainstream-society woman would be marginalized. It's like the call Dan Savage recently fielded from a woman whose friends are all more sexually adventurous (more complicated than that, but trying to keep things in the PG-R range) than she is, who bully her about being clearly in denial because she claims to be happy in her monogamous relationship with a dude. If you're marginalized in a situation from which you can't easily escape, it's of little comfort that in society at large, you'd get along just dandy. (This may have applications re: the question of whether it's possible to be discriminated against for not having enough of a tan. The subcultures that are big on fauxbivalence tend also to roll their eyes at artificially-dark skin.)

And... yes, it's an equality issue. Fine, in this one case, the ring-haver was rejected out of feminist principles and working conditions and all these great progressive ideals. (Tangent: is it the feminist way not to hire someone who wears a burqa or headscarf, because after all these can be removed and one can still be a Muslim without wearing one? A variant of this. Oh, and I now see, a counterargument that surfaced in the original thread.) But think about how this would normally go, under what circumstances The Shiny would be held against a woman in an interview. Isn't it far more likely that the ring-then-no-hire would be about an employer thinking that this woman has or is going to have babies and quit to become a SAHM (or stay and be a lousy worker) shortly after getting hired?

If the assumption is, big ring means rich man, engagement-ring-only means life stage at which kids are soon to happen, these women will be in more or less the same situation as the college kid home for the summer, looking for work, who comes across as UMC, who puts as his comfortable-sounding home address on applications, and who, it's suspected or known, will be gone again come the fall. And... just as that kid seeks a job to gain financial independence, not to put food on the table, the Suspected Wife of Man with Good Job perhaps only needs the job insofar as she needs not to depend financially on her husband.

When it comes to college students, it's maybe not worth losing sleep over, but with women, this is, last I checked, a pretty fundamental feminist issue. I don't remember reading in the Feminist Handbook that women have the right to earn a living, except if they're married to men who earn enough to support a family, in which case they should save the jobs for those who really need them and take up a hobby instead. I do remember reading in that handbook that the dynamics in a marriage are generally more equitable if both spouses work outside the home, and that marriages sometimes end in divorce, an upsetting outcome made all the more so if the wife hasn't worked in 20 years.

Shiny objections

-The Letters response to Roger Cohen's latest can be summed up, respectively, as: reasonable, reasonable, pro-Israel and not going to convince the unconvinced, and huh? Re: the last one, where exactly did Roger Cohen encourage "conflation of criticism of Israel, or Zionism, with anti-Semitism"? I thought the thing with the academic boycotts was that even many people far from rah-rah Israel find that a poor approach. People like... Roger Cohen!

-Controversy! A self-proclaimed "half hippie" is also a cosmetic-surgery enthusiast. I'm not even an ounce hippie, but I'm not buying this:

Surgery and cosmetic procedures are such an individual decision, and I would never judge anybody for doing anything. I mean I grew up with a Jewish mother who was always, ‘Look at me now, should I do it?!’ And I thought, ‘Blech, I’ll never do anything.’ You hear so many young people saying, ‘No way, never,’ about something, and I’m like, ‘Honey, just wait.’
Not sure what her mother's Jewishness matters - isn't aging something women of all backgrounds, if especially white women, fuss about? I thought the stereotype with Jewish mothers was that they encourage you to eat?

But in terms of just-you-wait, it's the kind of thing that sounds reasonable - YPIS, oh young people with firm and line-free skin - but is not. It's quite possible to know your values (and squeamishness) well enough that you know you would never sign up for unnecessary and expensive (as in, could go to charity, yes, but could also cover a fab vacation) medical procedures in the name of vanity. Aside from supermodels, most of us late-20-somethings (and indeed most nubile 15-year-olds) already have features a cosmetic surgeon would be happy to address. If you're already not going in for whichever applies in your case (breast implants, liposuction, nose job, or indeed Botox - because past college, there's often a line or two already), you kind of do have a sense of how you'll react when you're 45 and look it. And there's the fact that, while a nose job can definitively change the shape of a nose, anti-aging procedures only succeed in making a woman of a certain age look like a woman of that very same age with disposable income.

-The women of Jezebel, however, can't be accused of not knowing their values. The general consensus among the commenters is that one should only accept an engagement ring from a man who's done extensive research on the ethics of each part of said ring, who's also taken into account his girlfriend's preferred (and preferably obscure) stone, who has taken the time to comb through Etsy and drive to a bunch of estate sales, only to come up with the perfect ring that conveniently enough cost only $10. Extra points, however, go to the fiancés who go out to a shed and weld a modest yet delightful little number.

I suppose it's not so insane, if there really are otherwise sensible women demanding massive rocks or else, to try to change that norm by addressing women rather than men. But I can't quite figure out the logic behind this scenario, in which women expect to be proposed to, with a ring their (male) fiancés have paid for, yet to have micromanaged the ring purchase at a level well above and beyond that of anything they'd buy for themselves. I'm also amazed at how coordinated families and fiancés are when it comes to heirlooms - I can't be the only one who learned of the existence of an heirloom after already having a ring. (I am, however, also wearing my late grandmother's ultra-shiny wedding band, which - ah, living next to Wall Street - cost almost as much as a new ring to resize.) With purchases generally, I do wish more would make the point that if you care about the ethics of your shopping choices, you're better off buying less than shopping like crazy but turning each purchase into a where-did-it-come-from research project.

-OK, so name-change, though a decision I'm happy with for myself, is indeed a massive bureaucratic hassle. Everything on those checklists not related to driving I've been dealing with the past couple weeks. In the process, I was reminded that the university is not sure if a grad student on fellowship is a student or an employee - whichever one I told any of the dozen or so folks I've dealt with in the quest to make the name they have match up with the one Social Security does, the other was inevitably correct. Only at the end of this adventure did I speak with someone who gave me the winning answer: you have to just assume you're both, and do everything separately as a student and an employee. Made sense in retrospect, but I'd been dazzled by the idea - supported by the claims of two different employees (student workers?) I dealt with - that changing my name in one office would automatically, if I was patient, change it in the whole system.

This experience led me to wonder what, precisely, is meant when women say they're going to continue to use their last names professionally. If you've changed your name at Social Security, presumably you have with HR as well. Isn't it confusing if your boss/clients/whatever know you by a name that's not the one on your paychecks? This question is more than theoretical, because I'm keeping maiden-as-middle for the wild off-chance that I at some point publish a paper (sent a draft to a prof just today, so anything's possible), and for my Facebook/Google identity, but did not think it necessary to go the extra bureaucratic mile required to make that official.

Local news

I want to read about why my apartment just shook, not whether Strauss-Kahn will go free.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Join the club"

In a thread in which compromise seemed impossible, I (thank you, thank you very much) made it happen: it's been decided that we're going to retain the expression "Jewish self-hatred" to refer to that multifaceted phenomenon, but abandon its use as a term to describe (or, worse, be hurled at) individual Jews. Point being, there are many ways in which Jewish self-hatred expresses itself (from the classics - name-change, nose-change - to the "cringe," to the claim some "I'm-the-exception" Jews will make that they and they alone stand apart from those materialistic/warmongering/disgusting masses known as "the Jews"), so to scrap the term altogether makes it impossible to explain those phenomena. But in individual cases, the accusation is pointless-bordering-on-offensive, because it reads as being about telling someone their behavior fails to match up, in Jewiness, with their name or physical appearance. Given that a key part of anti-Semitism is not letting Jews define Jewish identity for themselves, it's a bit much to claim to be fighting anti-Semitism by telling those who don't identify strongly (or in one's preferred ways) as Jews that they're traitors to their true selves.

Also - and this can't be emphasized enough - telling someone he's a self-hating Jew will if anything encourage someone who already thinks he's telling-it-like-it-is to The Jews, all of whom (save him) lack the courage to tell it like it is about (typically) Israel. Case in point. Roger Cohen would obviously like nothing more than to hear from other Jews that he's a self-hating Jew. And given that he writes an opinion column for the New York Times, and allows comments, he's no doubt been called every name under the sun, so it's far from inconceivable that Cohen is, "to self-styled 'real Jews,' not Jewish enough, or even — join the club — a self-hating Jew."

Meanwhile, the actual irritating thing about Cohen's writing on Israel isn't that OMG horror of horrors someone named Cohen is a traitor to Our Kind and has dared to say that the Israeli government does some crappy things. It's that when Cohen writes about Israel, it's always in this cringe-inducing - yes! cringe-inducing - way, where it's obvious beyond doubt that all the man wants, all he wants commenters to affirm (and many always do), is that he's not like those other Jews, that he stands bravely alone and dares tell truths no other Jews will.

It's irritating, because if there are a handful of old-timer sorts who hurl "self-hating Jew" at anyone who thinks being a Jew means something other than 110% support of Israel, there are precisely a trillion zillion younger and more plugged-in Jews - Israeli and Diaspora - who also see Israel as fallible and speak up about it. Recognizing this would, alas, mean that Cohen is - wait for it - just like many other Jews after all, which isn't what he wants to hear.

Given the chunks of his own biography we get from his columns, especially this latest one, it's not all that surprising that Cohen would be on some level have been deeply impacted by the "whisper" (aka "cringing") phenomenon he denounces but apparently grew up with. Thus, even though I'm totally fine with someone named Cohen being a pro-Palestinian activist, becoming Pope for all I care, I do see the temptation to call Roger Cohen a self-hating Jew, simply because one gets the knock-you-over-the-head sense, from his writing, that what he hopes to achieve in criticizing Israel is some kind of official recognition that he's an exception. Some kind of "You're a Good Jew!" plaque. But as tempting as it is, I won't, because R.C. will interpret that as proof that The Jews can't handle his refusal to think the settlements were/are a fabulous idea. There's nothing to be gained from telling Roger Cohen that maybe he suffers from Jewish self-hatred and should have that checked out. There is, however, something to be gained from recognizing that this is a phenomenon, and knowing it when you see it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


-"When I tossed my self-tanners and reverted to the bluish complexion of my Scottish ancestors, I was free. It was the same liberation I imagine curly-haired women have when they finally reject the straightening iron."

Meh. Try having ancestry that gives you must-wear-sunscreen-constantly pallor and unmanageable hair.

Re: the former, given that any darker than golden and you may find yourself subject to a good bit of racism in the States, the idea that accepting white skin constitutes "liberation" is a bit YPIS. I get that some women and some subcultures go in for tanning, but the idea that if someone doesn't, they're majorly penalized, seems a stretch. I wouldn't mind if I'd gotten the darker-skinned genes from my father's side of the family, not the pale-and-skin-cancer-prone ones from my mother's, but this is less an aesthetic issue and more because there's no such thing as a non-gross sunscreen, and who wants to see a dermatologist?

As for the latter, it's kind of a plus - in this hair-extension era, those of us who've been hearing from hairdressers and more for our entire lives that our naturally-wavy hair's too thick and too voluminous can now think of ourselves as having, for free and with no extra effort, that extra under-layer fine-haired women get at the salon.

-In more hipsters-make-your-food news, are pop-up restaurants the ultimate HMYF phenomenon?

Says Felix Salmon: "Projects like [some pop-up restaurant] feel more like a membership, with overtones of philanthropy. Customers are asked to pay for food and service, but they're also asked to cover many of the business's start-up costs — sometimes literally."

HMYF is always about the diner feeling like the check is actually some kind of charitable donation. Helping young artists! Supporting local agriculture! The diner should if anything feel kinda guilty that the server is serving him food, that the kitchen has made him food, like this was all a really big favor. Mere civility and a decent tip on the part of the diner would be offensive.

And: "[T]he semiotics of pop-up restaurants all scream, This is a great deal. Haphazard service, cheap chairs, liquor-license issues: Diners see these things and think they must be getting a bargain price."

This has been the hot new thing in how expensive clothes are sold since WWPD diligently reported on the matter in 2005. Set a casual atmosphere, and all the angst that normally accompanies treating one's self vanishes, even if the prices remain the same. While it would be a stretch to call Scoop or Intermix hipster, there's something hipsterish about this phenomenon. (Think the trustafarian in haute rags). The vibe has to be such that all diners who could possibly afford it are made to feel too old and square for the experience.

And: "Pop-ups are manufactured scarcity, a perfect draw for New Yorkers' constant desire to find the new new thing."

If that's not HMYF, what is?

-How flattering! Also! While I actually like the fact that my commenters challenge or disagree with me 90% of the time (but could do without the 2% who comment as an outlet for crankiness and a chance to yell, "WRONG"), and find the (food and fashion) blogs where every comment thanks the blogger for being awesome and calls him a genius, a little straightforward I-like-what-you-write-on-the-Internet-for-free-on-breaks-between-organizing-footnotes-on-what-is-at-least-a-solid-rough-draft-of-an-academic-article-to-be-submitted-somewhere-soon is always appreciated.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fashion at the speed of light

-What what? So Zara's not hand-stitched by well-compensated Spanish artisans? My mind is blown. But at least the pants I just got at Uniqlo (inspired, no doubt, by a pair that have already gone from discounted to ebay-only, themselves perhaps inspired by a still-more-haute variety) were lovingly crafted under the finest working conditions in Japan.

-While I'll admit to wanting much of this, in particular the backpack, wallet, and miniskirt, I fail to see what's space-age about some of the items. A $720 "gel-filled clutch"? Where would you put the protractor?

-Whatever your insecurities, here, feel bad about yourself.

-That didn't work? Try the story about the model too beautiful to model.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Eternal youth

-For a change, a Parisian woman complains about how skinny women are in New York. And, alas, makes about as much sense as anyone could who begins a post by musing, "Have you ever had lunch with a New Yorker? Really, it’s not far from an episode of Sex and the City." To be fair, she means New Yorkers working in the fashion industry. Maybe she's right? Anyway, someone needs to tell her that portions are not huge in NY. Certainly not in fashion-y Manhattan spots she no doubt goes to, and that she's now blaming for weight gain that (prepare to shed a tear) has prevented her from fitting into her skinny jeans. Thing is, Europeans have been told for their entire lives that in America, the portions are immense, so when they come to Soho and get a plate with one local-sustainable arugula sprout curled up at the center, and that's it, they react by announcing that they've been forced to down a plate of chili fries by the Great American Conspiracy. Cold, hard evidence in the form of portions that would not sustain an especially inactive elderly socialite is nothing in the face of what Europeans just know.

But it's so much fun to blame weight gain on 'merica! Mireille Giuliano built a second career on that concept. Maybe it's the bagels! Or maybe a dumbed-down version of Michael Pollan - Mark Bittman will suffice?

So maybe this isn’t something I can speak abut as I don’t know anything about that, but one thing’s for sure, the laws are totally different about things like what growth hormones you can feed beef and chicken to make them grow faster. I don’t know how all this affects our weight, but I don’t see how it could help but get into the milk, eggs and meat. It’s crazy. I was talking with Emily, my Australian friend who just got here to NYC and she also gained 10 pounds just like that (It’s known as the little house warming gift in NYC – Hello! Welcome! Here’s 10 pounds!). Plus here, not only did were we getting fatter – the fat seemed softer. Yeurk.
Yeah, totally! Doré must've put on a few not because metabolisms slow down as we age, but from all these weird chemicals in American food, specifically engineered to make otherwise flawless foreign women fat. Remember Edina Monsoon in "Fat," the AbFab episode in which she insists that her heft is "much more likely to be an allergy to something. A build-up of toxins or a hormone imbalance" than the result of her overeating and lack of exercise? I guess the fashion-person way is to find some absurd yet so-very-now reason for looking sub-optimal in a pair of tight jeans. Man, I wish Edina were real, and had a blog.

-Dorm life is all too fresh in my mind. The one I lived in most recently in Paris was no-frills to say the least. That the (shared) bathroom was ostensibly cleaned a few times a week didn't mean there wasn't that smeared on the walls, or that running water would come forth from the bathroom sink. The communal showers were not for those with an aversion to mold. The walls between the rooms were made out of tissue-paper or something, such that when my neighbor came by to complain that he could hear me talking at 5 in the evening on a Sunday, he kind of had a point. All told, this was maybe not the best situation to move into at 27, but it allowed me to get a lot of research done in Paris, and perhaps the stress of that living situation helped close friendships form among many of us.

The stress of proximity and a standard of living well below that which most have prior to and following their university experiences is, however, zilch compared with that of sharing a bedroom - as in, one room, one door - with a stranger, something rather different also, it should be noted, from what most post-college roommate situations look like. We hear alllll the time about the fancy and schmancy amenities offered to today's spoiled undergrad, yet as soon as this discussion arises, it's always all about how there simply isn't the room-aka-money to give every entering student a tiny cell of his own. This is no doubt more true of some schools than others (plenty of UChicago dorms I can think of could be subdivided for privacy), but the reason the two-per-room set-up persists is that we-as-a-society think it's at worst an acceptable way to save space, at best a fundamental part of the college experience. It shouldn't be - it's too much to ask kids to spend their first year of college being some unenlightened roommate's 24/7 "learning experience." This is not your first time hearing it here, but Flavia has a great post on the matter, so I'm sending you her way.

-I've been de-ombréd, in the form of a haircut. Apparently bleaching the ends of my hair twice, then putting a pink dye over that, then attempting various methods (dandruff shampoo, dish soap, more bleach) to get it out brought the ends to a state for which no conditioner was deep enough. The past few days, and even on my way to the salon, I saw all these girls (nah, not so many women) with ombré perfection, and did feel some regret. But I now look much more professional, which is important for editing down an article attempt at home in my pajamas.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Food and beverage

-It's so tough to find good help these days. But actually, kind of? Service is indeed... I'm not sure I'd say bad, when a more precise term would be odd, at NYC restaurants-loosely-defined. The branch of the food movement I will refer to as Hipsters Make Your Food is all about a dynamic between server and served that used to be (as recently as 2008!) restricted to coffee bars. The taco place to which I swear undying devotion comes with its own complicated set of rules customers must obey, including the word "chillax." (Did I mention that hipsters make great food?) All of this is of a piece with paying more for "farm-to-table" ingredients, and having to tell yourself that it would be unethical for a small individual pizza from a stand not to cost ~$10. Oh, and with the food-truck phenomenon, one that's well and good for ice cream or if you're taking food back to an office where you make a salary so high that you don't notice when takeout costs the same as a meal in a restaurant, but otherwise... Under the HMYF regime, the diner must be neck-deep in liberal guilt, and must believe that the dining establishment is actually a kind of social-justice enterprise. The diner must understand that the server is not merely a version of himself too rebellious to work an office job, but someone with a deep commitment to compostable cutlery. My sense (from salivating over restaurant reviews when it's almost time for lunch) is that HMYF extends to restaurant-restaurants as well, but as I tend to eat at lower-end HMYF establishments, so my knowledge here is limited. But if service really is worse across the board, this would be my explanation.

-Jessica Grose, who not long ago attempted to frame her pre-wedding diet-and-exercise routine as feminist empowerment, now wants us to believe a $500 dress she bought (to be distinguished from her $400 blouse) is evidence that she's a professional, not a socialite. Gar! Can't she just admit to having some conventional desires, and, as the kids say, own it?

-My husband got me the water bottle I'd been talking about since forever, one with a filter attached, convenient for parks, etc., where the water taste isn't so hot. At the library, however, the fountain water is now specially filtered, making my water filtered twice above and beyond whatever's done to tap water normally. This is some fine-tasting water. And I own it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The end of Jewish self-hatred?

This, in response to Philologos at the Forward, as well as (and via) David Schraub.

-After reading Sander Gilman, I'm confident in saying that Jews who make a habit of presenting themselves as exceptions, who use their identity as insiders-within-Jewry (if not as Jews, per se, since they may have converted, etc.) to bash "the Jews" all the while promoting themselves, that such individuals are what's meant by "self-hating," and that no new term is needed. The term is always a bit imprecise, as it's not that the self is hated, but that some externally-applied identity is viewed as inaccurately describing one's complex and nuanced whole person. It's anti-Semitism coming from those who feel themselves to be exceptions. Thus the current manifestation - Jews who one after the next think they're the very first to dare criticize Israel, who get some great pleasure from believing that "the Jews" will come after them. It's not about these individuals being depressed, having low self-esteem, etc. This is why Philologos's claim - "Far from being self-hating Jews, they are self-loving Jews of the I’m-not-one-of-you variety" - doesn't quite add up. It's not that self-hating Jews hate themselves, it's that they hate that-with-which-they're-identified, and that they see themselves as special.

-The problem with discussing Jewish self-hatred always comes down to that imprecise terminology: if someone who's not religiously or culturally tied to Judaism wants out, isn't it kind of letting anti-Semites win to say that this person is inherently Jewish? Jewishness is only quasi-visible, so it's not quite like someone black announcing that they no longer so identify. Insisting that someone whose Jewish identity many others don't even know about, but who would have been Jewish enough for Hitler, ought to act in certain ways in order to stick it to Hitler is... kinda-sorta giving in, if not to Hitler, than to an essentialized idea of Jewishness that the Nazis sure embraced. This doesn't really cover the "as-a-Jew" phenomenon David has coined, that is, those who play up their Jewish identity in order to show just how different they are from the "the Jews" Jews. But whenever someone's accused of Jewish self-hatred for not making their Jewish identity a sufficiently large part of their life, this is what comes to mind.

-There's no more Jewish self-hatred in 21st-century America? Huh? This is Philologos's claim, and I'm not remotely convinced. Anti-Semitism may not be the most massive problem ever in America today, but there are clear disadvantages to being linked to a group stereotyped as greedy, ugly, warmongering... When the nose job stops being a thing, when what Jewish women do to the color/texture of their hair (discussed in euphemistic terms - "ethnicity" - here) ceases to be an issue, then we'll talk.

It's just that men are visual creatures

First off, let me be clear: what I'm judging is not the happiness of - or anything else about - this particular couple, about whom we can of course know little, aside from that they decided to put their story out there for all in a NYT wedding announcement-with-background. What I'm looking at is the fact that a narrative like this gets featured, that it qualifies as meet-cute.

Summary: the woman - now bride - was not attracted to the man - now groom. On multiple occasions, she made her lack of interest known, including - and this is a bit above and beyond - moving her seat away from his on a flight because sitting next to him for that long would be ick. But he kept asking her out, again and again and again and a few more times too, and eventually she got past the ick, realized (maybe?) that this was the path of least resistance to marriage pre-35, or that a woman has no right to expect more from a man than calling her quickly after getting her number.

Normally, a story like this gets torn apart from a feminist angle because when men - especially "nice guys" - persist ala romantic comedy protagonists, it's creepy. Which it is - in cases where the woman doesn't come around in the end, which are I'd suspect the vast majority of cases, being asked out many times by the same dude is irritating at best. And not even all that flattering - women get that men with this approach tend to be directing it at many women at a time. Although it's precisely when they're only directing it at one woman that the creepy sets in.

But what's also interesting here, from a feminist angle, is that this is the story of a woman who not only did not experience lust at first sight, which for people who meet past the age of 14 isn't so odd, but who looked at the guy she has decided to marry when first meeting him, when once again meeting him, etc., and felt like steering clear. It's not merely that she did not tell her friends she needed to get him to her place, and quick. It's that he did not meet her possible-romantic-interest standards. It's not that this woman isn't a visual person, this guy just didn't do it for her. "'We all have our thoughts and our dreams,'" is her explanation for why she initially didn't succumb to the man's charms. Other men, theoretical or real, it's unclear, were more what she was after. And how nice of her to point that out to NYT readers!

So. Could we imagine a man marrying a woman he'd moved away from on a flight? It's unlikely enough, but unlikelier still: Could we imagine this being a meet-cute story a couple would wish to share? That the now-husband first saw the now-wife and thought, nah, doesn't do it for me, no thanks?

Ah, but in this case, she did it for him, which is why he persisted prior to actually knowing her, and even once he knew she didn't reciprocate, because what's a little problem like that? "She declined his many invitations that week, but [dude] didn’t give up. 'She was an enigma, but below that shiny, pristine surface, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by what I found[.]'" An "enigma"? How enigmatic - swap the genders, and the woman would find her friends breaking it to her that he's just not that interested. But see, she had the potential to be interested, if only because women can be assumed not to know what they really want. "As [woman] changed seats for the remainder of the flight, [man] wondered how he’d get her phone number." Gar! But it's OK, it's just that he saw something he liked, and went after it: "'I saw a woman whose beautiful exterior only hinted at the fascinating, eclectic, independent, fiercely intelligent and actually very funny woman underneath,' he said." Of course, how the "underneath" was apparent when all he'd been allowed was a look at the exterior is... look, she met whichever physical requirements he had in a mate.

In terms of this particular couple, fair enough. They both got what they wanted in a spouse, presumably, thus the marriage, thus the announcing. What bothers me is that this is presented by a newspaper - one progressive enough to feature many gay couples - as romance. As in, look, how lovely, she was able to look past the exterior and get to appreciate this man for who he is inside. How sensible and adult, getting past pickiness and superficiality. Meanwhile, the possibility that a man might have to look past an exterior that doesn't do it for him is... no one ever thinks of suggesting this. Sure, men are expected to marry for reasons other than just a woman's looks, but no one would ask that a man go from ick to promising lifetime sexual fidelity.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Shopping list


On a related note, the latest episode of "Louie" is everything you need to know about renting an apartment in New York.

On an unrelated note, there's scandal, scandal everywhere about some very beautiful-in-a-grown-up-kind-of-way 10-year-old French model. Google the relevant words and you'll find this, but linking inevitably directs to not-especially-artistic shots of said model without her shirt on, and I, for one, can live without that. Like I've said about these scandals before, the issue is not - no matter how many times Jezebel or whichever other site tells us it should be - Think of the Children. (Somehow I doubt that even in France, pedophiles are buying let alone created by French Vogue.) It's always fundamentally Think of the Grown Women, who will never measure up if an ideal is defined as preadolescent. Turning back the ideal age for a model to that which precedes not only hips and cellulite, but also acne and angst, is probably an efficient way of marketing anti-aging goo to ever-younger women. (High school juniors, you're looking a bit rough around the edges). It's also a good way of turning otherwise interested women off fashion. I'd take a Belgian water-tower house over something I'm supposed to want to buy because a Fanning sister modeled it any day. Yes, watch me vote with my theoretical dollars (or euros as the case may be).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Feminist traitor here

When I got married recently, at the now-oh-so-young-sounding age of 27, I opted to change my name. My husband expressed no opinion either way, and my mother as well as some friends, as well as one especially opinionated bank employee, objected. It sounds like something very much not done in academia, yet in my (ambitious, I promise) cohort, there's one changed name and one soon-to-change. In other words, no one made me do it, nor was I under overwhelming pressure not to do so.

It's true enough that for women who consider themselves feminists - and I consider myself one - there's no way to explain why you went this route without coming across as defensive at best, hypocritical at worst. But the same is true of everything to do with weddings and marriage - every attempt at a run-down of how a decision (getting legally married to a man, wearing a white dress, wearing an engagement ring, having a big party) was made comes across as, the woman is clearly dealing with two conflicted selves, the Good Feminist and the Closet Bridezilla, and clearly the latter self won out.

For just this reason, my approach thus far has been to not care what others think about it, and thus not to offer explanations. I know my reasons. But in the interest of providing Flavia with another data point, and now that this decision's behind me (so no one thinks I'm putting my name up for bloggy debate), let's all know my reasons:

I wanted to. That was the main reason. So the reasons below are more like why I didn't not want to.

Career-stage, of course, matters, and ancient as I may be, I'm still a student. Whether or not I end up in academia - and that's still the plan - many people I will meet in the course of my career will not even know which name I started out with. As for my other life as a blogger, I generally just go by my first name anyway. If tragedy of tragedies, not knowing my original last name keeps some Googlers away from my Chicago Maroon archives, so be it, but I will use maiden-as-middle for all subsequent writing in which my last name is necessary. But my first name's uncommon enough that I'm still easy enough to track down, but my Facebook and Google+ (is this going to stick?) identities include both names. (Oh, and my name is Google-unique in any of the permutations.) Like Flavia said, women who've "changed" their names kind of end up with this these days by default, even if the court procedure to get the maiden-as-middle officially tagged on (thanks a bunch, New York, for allowing only hyphenation) is too much of a hassle. I suspect this is true even for women who opt to keep their names, that they'll end up getting this lineup of names and having to correct people, the way a straightforward name-swap used to be assumed. At any rate, if your great fear is invisibility, Facebook will take care of that and then some. Friends from middle school won't lose track of you.

Like I said, I consider myself a feminist. And I do see how, given that feminism is largely about rejecting the notion that the most important point in a woman's life - but not a man's - is marriage, anything that reinforces the idea that marriage is a bigger deal for the wife than it is for the husband is - as we say in such discussions - problematic. I also get that saying that there's no problem as long as each woman has a choice isn't sufficient, because the same could be said of dieting unnecessarily or getting loads of cosmetic surgery "for yourself," when even if no law orders this, women often do so because they don't think they have the option of not doing so. For these reasons, I wouldn't claim that it's as feminist to change your name as to keep it. As for whether I lose sleep over this, I suppose I've lost more metaphorical sleep over being a Zionist but not living in Israel. As inconsistencies in my life go, this is a minor one. If you want to get me on the defensive, ask me how I could find Herzl so convincing, yet be typing this in New York.

On that note, my main qualms about name-change were unrelated to feminism. I think if my maiden name had been really identifiably Jewish, I might have felt some political need to hang onto it. But... not so much, Ellis Island took care of that, leaving something vaguely German-sounding in place of the much-cooler Muczadski (among so many possible spellings). Meanwhile, my new name is... actually kind of awesome for someone who studies 19th C French literature, especially when paired with "Madame." This is, I realize, a Francophilic-Zionistic aside of relevance to probably no one else, ever.

But to return to the more general-interest feminist angle, changing my name didn't feel terribly inconsistent to me. Feminism in my own life means earning money and having a career. It means my husband and I both do chores. It means - and this one I'll accept is a bit outside the typical feminist list - having chosen a spouse in part on the basis of looks, and not apologizing for that. It also means not spending excessive amounts of time or energy (and this is of course subjective) fussing about my own looks, in particular not engaging in weight-think. Oh, and birth control was a good invention. These are the first-world, day-to-day feminist issues that I've come to see as important. My new last name has yet to cause me to get one taco rather than two if it's two I want (and it's two I want). By the end of the week, the relevant bureaucracy should be in order, meaning that come the fall, when I'm on fellowship again, neither the paycheck nor the work-itself aspects will be affected. And, again, I suspect it's not going to destroy my career in French that I now have a French last name.

What feminism hasn't meant, for me, is wheel-reinvention. In other words, I do not lose sleep over the fact that I do not defy gender norms in all areas. I recognize that it's convenient to say the least to identify as the gender you were born. I don't think that my relationship with my husband is something so complex and unique and snowflake-ish that the word "marriage" fails to describe it. I'm lucky that the kind of relationship I wanted is the one society wanted me to have. So the fact that wife-takes-husband's-name is how it generally goes was not in and of itself a reason, for me, to be suspicious of it.

One angle that's often forgotten is that if you keep your name, you're probably keeping your father's name, not your mother's, and any children you have will probably have your husband's name, not yours. My thinking here was, I'm not sticking it to the patriarchy all that much if I keep my father's name and give Theoretical Future Offspring (and poodles count) my husband's. Hyphenation, unless we-as-a-society figure out a new way, just seems like deferring the question to the next generation, often enough with a nicely hyphenated name being swapped for a husband's in due time. (Here, I've got some anecdata.) Part of why younger women may be more likely to change their names is the question of how feminist or not it will feel to have nobly rejected sharing a name with your new family. The younger you are, however professionally ambitious you are, the more likely kids are on the horizon. It's not necessarily about being a future SAHM or a professionally-unanchored ingenue marrying a much-older financier.

Then, setting aside the question of theoretical babies, there's the fact that, in an age of individual spousal choice, there's something to be said with picking a name that represents independence, a part of your life you made for yourself. (I bet there are some men who wish it were more socially acceptable to announce that kind of break with their childhoods.) This continues to be true even if - Marie, I'm getting to your comment - the marriage ends. It's still a record of a part of your life you chose.

And on that cheery note, there's something to be said for behaving in symbolic ways that make a statement about your confidence in your marriage's capacity to withstand the test of time. If you think marriage means, yay, now I don't need to work, now I can get super out-of-shape and stop all pre-existing grooming routines, then yes, you are screwing yourself over until the covenant-marriage types get their way. Now, I certainly don't think keeping your name is announcing that you're not confident in your marriage's future. It doesn't cut both ways. But I suspect that for me, as for other women whose marriages were preceded by a significant premarital monogamy-and-cohabitation stage with the now-husband-then-boyfriend, a name-change is a way of marking a difference between two things that don't really feel that different.

Every Body

The basic principle of advertising aimed at women is to juxtapose a thin and beautiful young woman with whichever product, implication being that if you buy the product, you look like the picture Extrapolating from this, cynic that I am, I'm now inclined not to purchase anything mentioned here or here. I mean, we're of course all one Crest White Strip away from looking like the hot assistant Cerie on "30 Rock." In all seriousness, though, I get using women like this in entertainment and ads aimed at men, as well as in ads geared at women. But is there some non-commercial, service-journalism benefit to knowing which mascara a woman along these lines prefers? (And yes, I get that these things are all linked, and that a cabal of marketing and PR sorts are behind everything along these lines, ad or "content.") Do we have any reason to think the naturally beautiful are better at selecting artifice?

On the other end of the spectrum, maybe, is "My Body Gallery," a site that's being linked to from just about everywhere lately. The gist of it is, you put in your height and weight, as well as (if you so choose) stuff about dress size and which fruit most resembles your figure, and bam, you get a whole bunch of photos of women - often in their underwear - whose build resembles your own. If it were a fashion/style site - and I wish it were - it would come awfully close to Britta's ideal of a source of visual information about how different looks work on different builds. I already know what a woman with my build looks like in whichever state of undress, and would be more interested in seeing how the "skinny cargo" trend would work on me, without having to go allll the way to Uniqlo to try them on.

But instead, the site's aimed, if not inadvertently at the same audience as goes for "lad mags" that fall short of anything explicit, at women with body-image issues, women who think that any weight over X means fat, and who benefit from seeing that maybe if you're 5'10", 140 is actually slim. I suspect that the effect of the site is more to reassure tall women that wearing whichever dress size, being whichever weight, is compatible with being tiny width-wise. Meanwhile, short women already know that "tiny" numbers (dress size, weight) don't add up to Supermodel. In any case, a site like this, but that actually showed clothes, could be all kinds of useful.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"There are no houses for rent in Tuscany"

Can I just say that I love the H-France housing emails? I'm not looking for housing in France, but I read them anyway. It's always this tragicomic mix of people who own Provençal villas and sprawling Parisian abodes looking to rent those out at hotel or at the very least Tribeca-apartment rates and then, on the "seeking housing" side, a bunch of grad students ISO apartments in central Paris that cost the same as the places they currently live in Real America. Does this ever work out for anyone?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Your cultural capital is showing

Everyone who grew up lower-middle-class and ended up at a posh high school or college has stories of feeling out-of-place because they didn't know about arugula, because they had to work in the summers, etc. This is what "privilege" is generally in reference to, when everyone discussed comes from the West, from a background where at the very least they had enough to eat, but where within those limitations there's a wide, wide range of capital, cultural and economic, and this guy Bourdieu will tell you all about it.

There's also, however, the question of specific privilege - of the kinds of advantage that kick in only if your parents are in a field that's tough to break into and you yourself want to break into it. (See: the various Jagger offspring.) After being directed to Timothy Burke's don't-go that isn't really a don't-go, I got stuck at item two:

"For first-generation college students or students who have little familiarity with the hidden codes and assumptions of an elite liberal-arts institution, making it all transparent is absolutely critical."

(Not stuck-stuck, and I will probably have to post again re: interdisciplinarity.)

If your parents are not professors, if your parents are not professors in the field you wish to enter, you don't know anything. While being the daughter of a gastroenterologist has its benefits, and while my parents and some grandparents attended college, I can't say I grew up knowing the difference between funded and un-funded humanities PhD programs. Nor did I learn, from this, about how one gets tenure. Virtually everything I knew about applying to grad school came from having watched college classmates go through the process, from having asked college professors for advice. That's how I knew, for example, "[t]hat you don’t need to do a terminal MA first in one program as preparation for doctoral study." This is not some kind of ambient class-based thing, like knowing what Andover is or having a favorite painting at the Met.

And I screwed much of it up. I applied in what turns out was the wrong field (although thankfully the relevant dept. channeled me into the right one). I made appointments to meet important profs as I was still applying, something I learned only years later (via prof and grad student blogs, as it happens) is a major faux pas. I initially thought that I was going to grad school to write about French Jewish passivity during the Dreyfus Affair... only to learn that not only had this been written about a ton, but the (not-so-recent) book in which this argument was most famously made has been torn apart by every serious scholar in the field ever since. The obvious as well as the not-so-obvious have been pointed out to me over these past few years, or I've discovered them on my own. Cultural capital no doubt made it easier for me to figure these things out, and economic capital helped insofar as I did not have to pay for my parents' lives, just my own. But the idea that there's a class of college student really, really ready for academia is only true insofar as some college students are the children of academics.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how Burke's advice differs from Pannapacker's. While Pannapacker tells you not to go unless you're independently wealthy, Burke as good as says grad school's too risky if you're not the child of one but preferably two successful scholars in your academic area:

A student who loves literary criticism with a transforming passion but who has no idea how tenure works, where money comes from in a university, how scholars actually publish, what the big picture of disciplinarity is like, which famous literary critic is actually a notorious asshole, and so on, is heading for trouble at the exits if they decide to go to graduate school.
Yikes. By that standard, nearly all advanced graduate students are in big trouble, and the few that aren't have been spending so much time researching the inner workings of academia that they might want to give their own research another look.

The question of how to make academia more accessible to those of all backgrounds is really two separate ones, one of which is about social mobility, the other of which is about making sure that the field is open even to those who were not discussing the obscure author who will ultimately be their dissertation topic around the dinner table growing up. Of course, if academia's as doomed as all that, the real question is how to find employment for the children of Comp Lit profs.


From Prudie:

I have a female friend who I've known since we were kids. My wife has always been uneasy over this friendship but generally tolerated it. That is, until recently when she discovered that this friend and I had a one-night stand a couple of years ago while my wife and I were dating. (Emphasis mine.) Since she discovered this, she's been badgering me to stop seeing my friend. I can honestly say this happened only once and it will never, ever happen again. We have no romantic feelings for each other. Who's in the right here?
Am I way off here, or is this question not really at all a subset of the my-partner's-too-jealous-for-me-to-have-friends-of-the-opposite-sex questions advice columnists get by the bucket-full? Questions where the answer is obviously to remind all that the world is made up of two sexes, at least; that even the not-so-social will be networking with men and women alike; and that unmerited jealousy is the gateway to all kinds of still-creepier behaviors?

Nor is this even in the open-relationship, "monogamish" realm. This is not something where, after a couple decades and the loss of lust of one spouse, the other ventured elsewhere with less than full disclosure. This is not something of ultimately no consequence being revealed long after the fact, long since the relevant third party has ceased to be anyone's friend/neighbor/nanny/co-worker. It's most definitely not about a spouse who's jealous of something utterly ridiculous, like solo activities, movie stars, the occasional head-turn when Brad or Angelina walks by, or the fact that prior to meeting each other, there were - and unless the couple got together at 16, there were - other people?

This is about a couple that's been married for about five minutes - we know this because they were dating "a couple of years ago." And the dating-vs.-married distinction... makes sense in some 1950s universe where people "court" many prospectives at a time, and only engagement (or only marriage) implies exclusivity. And I know that Prudie tends to advocate for a return to that world, for an end to serial-monogamy, cohabitation, pseudo-marriage, etc. But in the world that does exist, in a milieu a man writing into a Slate advice columnist might come from, when this man was "dating" his now-wife, if there's a presumption of monogamy in their marriage, there was one then as well. Maybe not in the first week or so, but in all likelihood nearly all their "dating" days were committed enough that involvement with others would have been considered cheating. (If there were some kind of premarital free pass, how would anyone ever get a sense of whether or not a potential spouse is likely to cheat or, more to the point, is enthusiastic enough not to have to? Isn't that kind of the point of beginning monogamy before any rings are exchanged?)

In other words, this guy cheated on his now-wife with another woman, and that same woman is someone he now wants the wife to be OK with him hanging out with. This isn't even about whether it's fair to have friends of the opposite sex who are also exes, murkier territory where the only possible answer is, if a couple's fine with it, it's fine, but if advice-columnists are being summoned, presumably one is and one isn't and thus the problem.

We're also meant to believe that the wife's unease about this particular female friend exists somehow independently of her having maybe picked up on the fact that something was there between this woman and her husband, because technically she only just learned this. That she's just a jealous person who can't tolerate her husband hanging onto a childhood friend, simply because that childhood friend (so innocent a time, childhood!) is female.

I think Prudie got this one all wrong. As I read it, the letter-writer was asking for Prudie's permission to label his wife jealous and irrational, to divorce her, and to take up with someone else, quite possibly (but not definitely) the girl-next-door.

Friday, August 05, 2011

For its own sake

Part I

Well this collection of "grad-student" responses to Pannapacker was a lot weaker than I'd have hoped, and not just because Slate didn't opt to feature Miss Self-Important and my posts and our comments. We have instead:

-One letter from an assistant prof who kinda-sorta effortlessly ended up with that job, and who finds it endlessly humorous (there are several mentions of laughter) that anyone considering grad school might be concerned about the job market. Yes, how hilarious for those who enter knowing what a PhD is supposed to be for and then don't get a job. I mean, this letter is kind of about class - the writer is, I suppose, making a point about underdog status when mentioning having not known the word "doctorate," and maybe laughing at the children of privilege who know perfectly well what a doctorate is, yet don't get one or if they do, don't make anything of it. Maybe? Is this too generous a reading? In any case, the message is, this one person woke up one day with this awesome position, so what's the problem?

-One letter from someone ABD but already an assistant prof (some "grad student response," Slate), who thinks that it's morally questionable, or something, to abandon a sinking ship. Oh, here's the mushiness MSI described (and, I now see, confirmation): "[G]raduate study was like getting fitted with a second nervous system—I feel that much more acutely alive and responsive to the world." I'll unpack this in soon...

-One letter that is, I think, about how it's useful to have a PhD if you want to teach at a private secondary school, by someone who has two MAs, and who seems to confuse private-school teaching with community service.

-Finally! A letter from a current PhD student, a "single mother of two young children" who's all about learning for learning's sake, and isn't afraid of romanticizing the humanities. Hmm.

-Last but not least, a letter that actually makes some good points - about how grad school can compare favorably with other options - by the grad-student blogger Flavia pointed us to.

All told, it's not surprising that Pannapacker's response is basically to say that he has not budged from his original position. Not surprising, that is, because no one Slate has chosen to ask has thought to as Pannapacker what he meant by "graduate school." And because Slate couldn't bother to stick with responses from people who haven't already won the game. So once again, some in the comments think it always means a decade's worth of tuition/debt. Once again, we're stuck in a mushy realm of whether or not Pannapacker is offending the delicate sensibilities of grad students who are too sensitive to have their life choices questioned. Which is really not where I, for one, would like the discussion to go. (I'm thinking of writing up my own guide to this genre, which will be titled, "How not to tell young people not to go to graduate school," because otherwise this will just be post after post of the same, each time one of these things appears.)

Part II, ideas below still in progress...

All of this is bringing me back to Paul Gowder's excellent point at MSI's: "Opportunity to think about interesting stuff =/= opportunity to get paid to think about interesting stuff, even if only in the form of grad school stipends." MSI herself (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to see the difference between being funded or not as relatively minor, because time's invested either way. But I think there's a massive difference, in practical as well as symbolic terms, between "airy ideals" and "airy ideals" plus an income, even if abandoning those ideals may have meant a higher income. I'd think this even if there were no difference come job-market time between the chances of funded students and those neck-deep in debt. It's like what I've been saying since forever about unpaid internships - setting aside the ways that unpaid time-consuming undertaken by adults end up disproportionately benefiting the rich and well-connected, there's the fact that whether you need it to feed your family, to buy your own beer, or not at all, it means something specific to be given money in exchange for your work. It means both that what you're doing is about more than your own self-betterment (even if you learn and mature, perhaps even enjoy yourself, on the job), and that you have been assessed as an adult (even if you're technically 12 and babysitting) and someone has decided that your time is a good investment.

This is why it doesn't much interest me how delightful a learning experience is 'for its own sake' if it comes at a life stage when all full-time, productive endeavors (with such exceptions as: philanthropy by billionaires, stay-at-home parenting, and graduate programs that lead with near-certainty to high-paid employment/go with having a high-paid job in the summers during) come with a paycheck. What I don't want to see happen, but what I fear is happening, is for grad school to become (or return to?) a path celebrated by its followers for its self-improvement potential, as so great in and of itself that nothing practical about it should matter. I mean, it's fine if it is for some, and if those students fund the rest. But those of us in it for a professional credential - even if we also had better enjoy it regardless of what the job market looks like on the other end - should not get too excited about eschewing material needs in favor of 'enriching' experiences. I don't want doctoral programs to become yet another arena in which it's considered crude or beside the point to fuss about rent and food money - something only sustained by rent and food money coming from somewhere else, namely parents or, in the case of older students, a wealthy spouse. Even paths not chosen for the money need to come with some. If we lose sight of such things as the need for compensation during, and (if to a lesser extent, because virtually no job guarantees security 5-8 years down the line) serious consideration of employment possibilities after, if we veer too far into grad school's worth as a mind-expander, we get problems. Different ones than if we veer too far the other way and only look at pay during and placement after, but problems all the same.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Why are we here?

First off, this seems relevant. Now for the rest...

Miss Self-Important still thinks grad school in the humanities or social sciences is a questionable life decision. (More on the topic here, both in response to an earlier post here.) As I mentioned in graphomaniacal comments on her blog - comments so endless that Blogger was all, we're not even going to post these, although thanks to MSI, they've been retrieved - I disagree rather strongly with her categorization of my anti-anti-grad-school stance. Speaking just for myself (although I'm not quite convinced my commenters would disagree with me on this), I don't think it's especially noble, a calling, an exercise in self-exploration, a brave anti-materialist stand against the workaday world, etc., to go to grad school. I don't see it as a question of passion vs. sucking it up and facing the grunt work inherent in working for others. I don't see it as selling out to leave or never enter academia in favor of more lucrative work possibilities. I don't see it as choosing the touchy-feely over the practical.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if MSI has heard these notions elsewhere, because yes, they're out there. Indeed, if I belabor the point, it's because I've long argued against this popular conception of grad school, one that only ends in misery - when the college senior who was fated to be an Esteemed Professor doesn't get into grad school, or when the still-more-confident grad-student version of the same can't land a permanent position but isn't willing to consider any other line of work. Grad students with these romantic notions are precisely the ones who are least blasé about job prospects after graduation.

Rather, my argument was and is that for many if not most college seniors/recent grads with good offers from good programs, grad school is the practical alternative. The go-don't-go debate ought to be straightforward enough: it's subjective. It depends what offers you have from grad schools, and what options you have otherwise, and whether - to the best of your knowledge prior to teaching college students, if not prior to teaching at all - you think you want to be a professor. It depends on your mindset - whether your job while filling out apps is Starbucks or a professional track in which you'd have a future. But all these variables make for a pretty weak polemic, which is why these articles, needing to take a firm (and contrarian) stand, warn away anyone interested.

The problem with the uh-oh-grad-school genre is that it conflates, conflates, conflates. Top programs with bottom-rung, funded and debt-producing, MA and PhD. These articles/posts also tend to conflate the question of whether it's a bad idea for the prospective grad student to go that route, and whether it's a bad idea for grad school as it currently exists to continue without extensive reform. They tend to address an audience (conservatives, contrarians, and burnt-out academics) already convinced that academia's in shambles, so precision's not given much weight. But precision would be fabulous.

The complicated question is the big-picture one, about the state of grad-school-as-it-currently-exists. There are the issues we know about, namely: 1) more grad students than tenure-track positions, perma-adjuncting replacing traditional faculties, 2) the imminent kaput-ness of the humanities in general and certain subjects (ahem, as we say in French) in particular, and 3) the expectation of infinite geographic mobility, which is just a subset of 4) the expectation that everyone is "head of household" i.e. a 1950s husband aka (if female, which often enough these days humanities grad students are) single and childless until at least 35. There are also the broader, more philosophical questions about the enterprise, such as MSI's, about whether the "life of the mind" ought to be equated with academia, that one of her commenters brings up - should a PhD even be necessary to teach? - and questions of political homogeneity.

Then there are the problems that haven't already been the subject of a thousand much-forwarded higher-ed articles, but that do impact both individual grad students and the university. These are really the behind-the-scenes version of those listed above, problems that impact even those who most belong in grad school. Specifically, there's the issue of transparency. It's possible to have items 1-4 drilled into you and still not know just how dire your own situation is or is not. If you're the universally-acknowledged best in your field at Yale, you can kinda-sorta relax, but there's a lot of... for lack of a better term, upper-middle ground, basically everyone who has funding, is in a good program, has every reason to believe they're in good standing, but is not top student at Yale. Those of us in that situation can guess but fundamentally have no idea whether we're in professional programs aimed at tenure-track jobs, or whether we're simply being paid to do something interesting for 5-6 years. We don't know until we know.

Moving beyond the question of the sad little grad students themselves, there's the issue of, what's the institution for? In programs that don't demand much teaching, in fields without much research-assistance needed, it's unlikely that students are being exploited for their labor. But if schools are paying (low-to-lowish) salaries to students who for the most part aren't going on to be profs, many of whom have entered at one and the same time claiming (and meaning!) that their plan is to be a prof and thinking of that outcome as something like winning the lottery, what's the point?

Part of the confusion, I think, comes from the extent to which the programs themselves are ambiguous about their missions. Is the point of grad school a) to let trust-fund kids or older folks who don't need an income dabble; b) to provide a paid-if-not-much haven for "that-guy" recent college grads who want to devote themselves to Big Questions and not get out of bed before noon, who think job-jobs are too stifling but who do not have an artistic talent to cultivate instead; or c) to train the next generation of profs, plus, via spillover, a handful of professionals in associated fields in and out of academia?

My sense of this, as someone who knows a good number of grad students in various fields, at various universities, is that fields and individual programs evolve, and that some that were once for dabblers and torn-blazer-aficionados have in recent years begun presenting themselves as professional-training environments. Or vice versa. And I don't think - although I've been pretty lucky in this regard - that profs themselves are necessarily sure who their students are, or what they're there for, whether they're in finishing school or training to be the next generation of academics. Maybe in the windowless room where the cabal that runs The American University meets, there's some clarity about what grad school is, but it can sometimes seem as if no one's entirely sure. All of this creates an atmosphere of confusion, in which there's a fine line between what's "driven" and what's entitled/unrealistic when it comes to professional aspirations at the other end.

One way to reform this would be to create somewhat more explicit tracks, according to different reasons for being in grad school in the first place, then allowing individuals to switch track if need be. Dabblers should know who they are (which I fear sounds pejorative, which isn't how I mean it - maybe a better word would be learning-for-learning's-sake-but-deeper-than-adult-ed? but is there a one-word description of that?) and should fund the professional-training end of things, either in MA programs or doctoral ones for which they pay (that is, until the time may come when they have professional aspirations their departments support). Big-Questions sorts who are not independently wealthy need either to take out loans for an MA and get it out of their system, or to join the pre-prof grad-school track, which does mean accepting that academia is not an escape from networking, showering, or office politics. Finally, those who could plausibly - and want to - become profs, and who are ostensibly on a pre-professional, funded track, should not be conflated with dabblers or Big-Questioners. They should not be expected to have money saved up for a program that's ostensibly paying them, nor should they be expected to be martyrs to the "life of the mind," to suffer for something that's neither charity nor art. To work hard, yes, but with pay and health insurance.

Ultimately, this would probably still leave some discrepancy between the number of even professional-track students and tenure-track jobs, but not to the extent that this exists today between all-grad-school-as-one and those slots. It wouldn't solve the two-body problem. It wouldn't silence those who think research in the humanities is some kind of oxymoron. But it would make it a bit more straightforward what grad school is for.

Much of this is, I think, already in place, but so unstated that people (like at least one Pannapacker's commenter) whose package was in all likelihood intended either for someone who has too much money to care about a stipend, or who wants so much to be A Scholar that they'll take what they can get, nevertheless think of themselves as on a pre-professional track, because after all, they're grad students, and isn't "grad school" the topic at hand?