Thursday, June 28, 2012

A sensitive subject

When I read about the German court that ruled against circumcision for religious reasons (i.e. as practiced by Muslims and Jews), I confess that my thoughts immediately, involuntarily, embarrassingly, went to that scene from Europa Europa, where the Jewish boy hiding out and trying to pass as a Hitler Youth is confronted with the anatomical alteration that would immediately give him away. It was probably in that context that I first learned about circumcision.

Because I suspect I'm not alone in having been raised in such a way as to be let's say startled when I see something in the news about the German state restricting the behavior of Jews and other religious/ethnic minorities, I want to be very clear that Germany banning circumcision of minors is in no way 'history repeating itself.' (In the words of Basil Fawlty, incapable of taking his own advice, "Don't mention the war!" A tenet I realize I violated in the paragraph above, but in the interest of explaining how not to look at this issue.) There are plenty of reasons to oppose chopping off part of a child's genitalia that have nothing to do with anti-Other discrimination. If Germany really thinks male circumcision is harmful, then this shift is about protecting Jewish and Muslim boys. Germany should not feel compelled, on account of that-which-shall-not-be-mentioned, to allow Jews and other ethnic/religious minorities to continue traditions that it deems child abuse.

This issue brings to mind the French "ostentatious religious symbols" ban. The point of the measures is not to exclude everyone of a certain ethnicity, but to force assimilation to the country's values. That said, as with the headscarf law, these interventions can't always be taken at face value. While we don't interpret the headscarf law to mean that France is gearing up for anti-Muslim genocide, we do wonder if the French tradition of anti-Muslim (esp. anti-North African) xenophobia, rooted in French colonialism, doesn't enter into this, alongside genuine concerns about sexism and the veil. Laws like these do exclude, but they do so on the basis of behavior. Which is still bad, from an "Anglo-Saxon" (U.S. and U.K.) multiculturalist perspective, but it could be worse. 

Still, if there's reason to suspect that a "concern" for minorities is, in part, a pretext for go-back-where-you-came-from, let's-stay-homogeneous, you should be allowed to point this out. It should be possible to have a conversation about where the enthusiasm for banning religious circumcision is coming from, without accusing everyone with this stance of malice (some people genuinely think it's child abuse), and without accusing whichever contingent is acting for less-than-savory reasons of being a Nazi.

Anyway, the issue is compelling, and not just because we get to read about Putzke the penologist in an article about male genitalia. It's compelling because it's incredibly complicated.

It shouldn't be all that difficult even for, for example, American Jews, doubly used to the idea of male circumcision, to see that if you think about it in the abstract, the practice sounds bizarre. And any argument along the lines of, 'but this is how our religion has always done things' is, on its own, unconvincing. This argument basically invites a list of the harmful things done in the name of religion, things the state absolutely has the right to outlaw, such as honor killings, and most obviously female "circumcision," which in fact causes harm.

The complicating detail with male circumcision is that, as odd as it is if you stop and think about it, as weird as it must sound if you grew up unfamiliar with the concept, it's unclear that the act constitutes harm. It has some benefits, most obviously the STD-related findings. We vaccinate young girls (and boys) against HPV, as backup in case abstinence/barrier methods fail/are not used, not in lieu of encouraging safer sex. Depending where you live, I suppose the choice your parents made (whichever it was) might make you more or less appealing to sexual partners, although this is the sort of thing I suspect neither makes nor breaks any relationships other than the ones that begin under the absolute sleaziest, swapping-of-photographs circumstances. Claims that uncircumcised men will never get a date in America, or that circumcised men will never enjoy sex are self-evident nonsense.

The "harm" the German court referred to - that "the child's body would be 'permanently and irreparably changed', and that this alteration went 'against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong'" - doesn't quite make sense. An irreversible change, yes. Not definitively a change for the worse, but if you believe any choice parents make that's permanent is a problem, then this would be a problem. It's certainly "harm" if you think of it as, imagine if parents abducted their 20-year-old son and had this done to him against his will. How much of that aspect carries over when it comes to those much younger is debatable.

Meanwhile, and this is what I really can't fathom, how does being circumcised determine your religion as an adult? It expands your options, right? Makes it less of a problem if you do want to join up with one of the ones that require this. I've never heard of a foreskin requirement for atheism or Christianity. Is a baby who's been baptized not allowed to change its mind later on? There are plenty of kids and adults whose parents did whichever ceremony, often to please the grandparents, and the kid's hardly even aware of it, perhaps entirely unaware. (In the U.S., of course, being circumcised, even if you're Jewish, doesn't mean you had a bris.)

As you may have gathered, I'm something of an agnostic on this issue. I see the arguments for OMG-it's-barbaric, and for OMG-Germany-is-calling-Muslims-and-Jews-barbaric. All I know is that this practice should be banned, and that if I ever have a son, you're not going to know either way.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


To the critics of Anne-Marie Slaughter's very-long-but-who-am-I-to-talk* manifesto: she's not claiming to tell the story of struggling or ordinary women. You can't criticize her for neglecting to address the well-being of poor/middle-class women, because she did address it, with her claim that if life is made easier for the Anne-Marie Slaughter's of the nation, the benefits would trickle down to all women. What you can do is question that hypothesis. You can - I shall - speculate that Slaughter wanted to tell the story of her situation and others like it, but felt that it would be irresponsible/in bad taste not to connect this to a broader, social-justice one. Critics I've read seem to kind of get this, kind of not.

*I listened to some of the WBUR interview with Slaughter, and a common theme with the callers was that they were busy working moms who had not, alas, had time to read the article. Normally in such cases, one wonders why the person's calling in, but here, given the subject at hand, it did seem unfortunate that to read about the impossibility of having it all, and respond in a timely fashion, in a way that shows you caught every nuance of Slaughter's multifaceted point, you'd need more leisure time than the target audience might have.

The tasting menu

Only buy what you really want, even if it's more expensive, and spend less. Only eat what you really enjoy, and lose weight. These suggestions appear every so often, and are appealing for the obvious reasons. Who among us wouldn't want to buy a $1,000 wheel of Parmesan and end up with the body and bank account of Gisele?

Carl Richards asks us to spend more on goods (bikes, or "maybe a watch, clothes, a new car or even a house") and, in doing so, to spend less on junk: "It’s tempting to tell ourselves this little story about being frugal as we buy garbage from WalMart instead of the quality stuff that we want. Stuff that lasts. Stuff that we can own for a long time."

We at WWPD have seen this argument, and shot it down, before. In terms of Richards's specific claim, it's by no means a given that "we," whoever we are, want "quality." "We" also want what's pretty, what's been advertised to us, and not because "we" are necessarily shallow, but because "we" do not research our every purchase. (Cars, yes. Bikes, maybe. Shirts, no.) We may take better care of things we really like, and save money that way, but the idea that there's this thing called Quality and its pursuit is a noble one makes no sense.

"Quality," whatever it is, isn't durability. Think $400 cream-colored silk blouses. $900 stilettos. They may look better and be made with finer materials than their cheapo equivalents, but the slightest damage and they're gone. "Investing" in clothes is a mistake, because sizes fluctuate, styles change. Keep this in mind when you consider the cost-per-wear of $200 jeans.

Also a mistake: confusing "quality" with "that which one receives in exchange for a higher price." Maybe you're getting something better, or maybe you're paying for a logo, a shop's high rent and clever displays. I have yet to notice any quality difference (durability or design) between the Made in China of Uniqlo and that of far pricier J.Crew.

Much as we might want to be the smug person with only a few high-end items, and not wallowing in a sea of 'it was on sale,' paying more, even if you have reason to believe the higher-end item is better, remains a dangerous proposition. 'It was an investment' is - as Richards himself has written elsewhere! - what people tell themselves when they buy expensive things that they don't need. It only matters that a pair of shoes will last for years, will go with everything, if this is your actual plan for these shoes. If you have 300 pairs all of which can be justified the same way, the excuse itself falls flat.

People who imagine they'll buy this one expensive thing and then be done with shopping forever are, we might imagine, fooling themselves. (And where to begin with 'I'll pass it down to my grandchildren'? The idea that by buying yourself something luxe, you're actually - nobly! - saving your progeny the trouble of buying their own luxury watches is, needless to say, the concept of certain insufferable watch ads.) If we separate out environmental and financial concerns, remember that one super-expensive handbag will cost more than if you buy every single H&M one that strikes your fancy for your entire life. The boring answer to how to spend less? Buy just one handbag, and buy it cheap.


Quality-over-quantity might, however, make sense when it comes to food. Every variety of the Frenchwoman or Mediterranean diet follows this principle: you'd be happier eating a small amount of Excellent than a bucket-full of Lite. Peter Kaminsky offers us not cost-per-wear, but "flavor per calorie." It has a certain ring to it.

Kaminsky, for all his originality, leaves us with women's-magazine clichés: snack on roasted almonds (Kei - didn't you once write something about this?), and eat a square of dark chocolate after meals. Wouldn't you rather a small amount of high-quality cacao than a giant saran-wrapped deli brownie? Oh, you'd prefer the brownie? The trough full of bland?

Flavor-per-calorie assumes that you get pleasure from "umami," that sort of thing, and that the foods you like are ones that go for $30/lb at the gourmet shop. Because this isn't exactly just about flavor. It isn't about anchovies. It's about salt-packed anchovies from an Italian market"Otherwise," writes David Tanis, "for better quality oil-packed anchovies, opt for the pricier ones from Catalonia or the southern French coast — they are generally superior." Of course. If that's you, if that's your outlook on food, then this might work for you, although it's probably how you're eating already.

Still, even if we like intense flavors and the story behind interesting ingredients, we eat not only for flavor, but also to feel full, not-hungry, satiated, etc. A treat to let yourself know you're not depriving yourself might work in the realm of Sephora (or, as I suggest above, might not), but will it do the same at the supermarket?

While my concern since moving to the woods (although this may change, what with the car) has more been eating enough than eating too much, I suppose I subscribe to a food philosophy along these lines when it comes to spending - I'll get a quarter pound of a cheese I really like (Humboldt Fog's conspiracy to bankrupt me...), rather than a pound of one that costs a quarter the amount - but without the pasta to go with, I have not eaten. I'm not sure how this would help a dieter, who'd be left hungry, and trying to come up with what they could eat that would be filling but not fattening. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Yoga for dogs

For Kei. Dogs and their strange couch-napping positions. How can this be comfortable?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Privilege: the official* WWPD definition

Flavia has a post up about "professional privilege," and because I coined the acronym YPIS, another blogger, Withywindle, lured me to the thread. The topic of the post - how to blog as a tenured prof used to taking an underdog stance - I can't exactly speak to, what with being a grad student. Although I might add that I once did refer to the complaint of a prof who almost had tenure at one amazing school and ended up instead with tenure at another as a Second After Sartre problem. I suppose I could address just how privileged I should feel to be in a good grad program, but that's not where I'm going with this. Instead, let's focus on something that came up in the thread, namely which biographical facts can be referred to as "privilege." 

What "privilege" connotes:

"Privilege," to my mind, and evidently to the dictionary's mind, refers to something other than luck. It referred to something still more particular in the French Revolution, and has yet another meaning as it's used today, which is both the meaning that interests me most here, and the one that's toughest to pin down.

On a more basic level, if you refer to someone as "privileged," you're using a euphemism for "rich." Without any context, if I told you that X was "privileged," this would be your assumption. You wouldn't think that X was white, straight, male, good-looking, and a janitor. "Privilege," though, hints at something holistic, in a way that "rich" does not. It suggests cultural capital, other intangible advantages. It's meant to suggest that someone has never had to face any obstacles, and that anything "achieved" by someone with this quality doesn't count as an achievement. Someone rich can be impressive. Someone "privileged" cannot. Unlike "comfortable," a euphemism that diminishes the wealth involved, or "affluent," which I think is just there for word variation, "privileged" rounds up. 

Furthermore, "privileged" implies not merely wealth/advantage, but a certain attitude towards that wealth/advantage. Someone "privileged" is probably also "entitled," "spoiled," and "out-of-touch." "Privileged" can be an accusation, in a way that "rich" cannot. It's meant to sting more if you make someone aware of their "privilege" than if you make someone aware of their wealth or advantages, precisely because "privilege," for whatever reason, has come to imply wealth and advantages of which someone is unaware, or that someone takes for granted.

This is what I'm referring to when I say that "privilege" is a loaded term, to be used with great care.

What "privilege" is not:

I have trouble with the use of "privilege" to describe the lot of someone who came from nothing and made it big. Sure, such an individual has wealth/advantages, and might exhibit cluelessness re: why others are struggling. But if you've personally experienced have-not-ness, you can't possibly exist in a rarified sphere of not knowing what that's like. Conversely, I'm also not such a fan of using "privilege" to describe adults from relatively privileged backgrounds who've regressed to the mean. The former example isn't aloof, the latter isn't rich or powerful.

I'm also not wild about using "privilege" to describe, well, privilege, as in telling someone who's privileged that they are in fact privileged. It will be interpreted as an accusation (even if it's a fair accusation - some people are, after all, wealthy and entitled), and will receive either a defensive or self-flagellating response.

Next, we need to distinguish between the absence of obstacles and privilege. Think the difference between being a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied man and having the last name "Kennedy." See also the Tavi Gevinson YPIS kerfuffle. For some, the default life is one of glamor, power, whatever. But just because you weren't abducted by warlords at age 10 doesn't mean your successes are meaningless.

A commenter at Flavia's, going by "i," describes a kind of self-directed YPIS, which sounds awfully close to "impostor syndrome":

I guess I think that in our commendable desire to acknowledge the aspects of our success that are not directly attributable to personal merit, we sometimes exclude merit and hard work altogether. [...] I think women in particular do this too often, and need to stop.
[...] I find it frankly weird to talk about having a boost on the job market from, say, the name on one's PhD diploma as some kind of unfair priviledge. What, pray tell, would be the point of working and fighting to get into an elite school if it didn't come with all sorts of perks: working with well-known faculty, good funding, great visiting speakers, and an advantage on the job market? Are you really suggesting that it is somehow unfair to reap the results of labour combined with luck?
Privilege unacknowledged is annoying. But so too is privilege exaggerated. Whether the impetus for the exaggeration is excessive modesty or the desire to be reassured that of course you earned it, it's best avoided.

Also, we should separate out unearned advantage from indirectly earned advantage. This comes from Flavia's thread - as Flavia notes, having "Harvard" on your CV gives you a leg up relative to others who are just as qualified, whether or not "Harvard" got onto your CV via your own merits. Flavia argues that "Harvard" amounts to privilege, even for those who, pre-Harvard, led a scrappy existence. I argue, on the other hand, that if "Harvard" was earned, so too are any advantages it confers. Which made me think of a less ambiguous example: networking. If you're hired via who you know, this is less fair than if you were being judged solely on your skills (the proven ability to interact socially with colleagues being, presumably, just one of them), but there's a huge difference between benefitting from profession contacts and having your parents put in a good word. The rich get richer, but there's a difference between the self-made-rich getting richer and the born-rich doing the same.

Privilege - see, I get to the point eventually - is unearned advantage. It's advantage stemming from who you are, not what you've done. Certain categories point us to what it might be - wealth, but also gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical appearance, able-bodiedness, etc. But it's also things like place of origin, family connections, or happening to wish to enter the same difficult-to-break-into career in which your parents are incredibly famous. So it's not necessarily systematic, unless we're using "systematic" to mean something like, if your father's a rock star, you can probably be a model no matter what you look like.

*I mean, official-ish. Between final revisions on a chapter before sending it to my committee, learning how to drive in traffic only mildly less traumatizing than Canal Street where I last attempted this, and having a dog that got up rather early this morning, I can't promise anything all that sharp here this week.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An only modestly outrageous proposal UPDATED

WWPD's legislative branch proposes the following: a law that would restrict what parents can write online or publish about their own children. (See Item 2 of this post for links.) Not as outrageous as it sounds. Hear me out, and try your best (ahem, PG) to set aside that this law would never ever ever happen:

As it stands, speech is not entirely free, and is restricted if it causes undue harm. We already have a category called "libel." And a parent's criticisms of a child, offered not to the child, not in private commiseration with fellow parents, but to the broader reading public, really should count as such.

We already restrict a great deal of what can be said online or in print about young kids. The very young themselves are not, in principle, allowed unfettered access to the Internet, and tend not to publish books or articles, even if no law prevents them from doing so. Their teachers will (or should) be fired if they go online to rant about Jimmy, a student in their seventh-grade English class, and how he was raised by wolves. These kinds of speech are not, I believe, protected.

But when the parents are the authors, it's different. Why?

For one thing, we assume that we're reading an essay not about Jimmy and his C average, but about the trials and travails of parenting a child who's not Yale-bound. We think that there's a value in parents sharing their experiences, and that there's no way for this to be done authentically without referring back to those specific experiences with specific, readily-identifiable children. We believe that it's brave for Jimmy's dad to have told his story, as if the story were purely his to tell. We think Jimmy's dad is doing this great service, one only he could provide. And we assume goodwill. He loves Jimmy, after all. Plus, Jimmy reflects on him. What's his incentive to paint Jimmy in a negative light?

Children, who are in a position of near-powerlessness regardless, are in a particularly great one with respect to their own parents. Let's say your father writes an essay for the Washington Post about what a dimwit you are, but using a tone intended to make him come across as a really wonderful parent who's done everything. What's your recourse? You're not guaranteed to grow up to be someone with a platform on that scale, and at any rate it'll be years until you've grown up, period. And these people provide the roof over your head and so much more. Parents are meant to be a buffer between their children and the wide world of people who do not love them unconditionally, who don't think they're brilliant and beautiful, even if they're not. By putting their children's lives on display, in particular their moments of weakness, they're failing their kids. Ironic, considering that we're meant to believe the parents with an exceptionally strong interest in "parenting" are the ones producing this genre.

We assume that adults have thick enough skin that they might be publicly mentioned in some unflattering way without being utterly shattered by the experience. But the bar is far lower when it comes to children, who can feel shamed and humiliated so much more easily, especially by their own parents. Your kid did something embarrassing? In the fiefdom of WWPD, you'd have to keep it to yourself.


Yet another reason parents shouldn't be allowed to write about their kids: Parents can (and often do) look at everything their kids do online, including messages they send and imagine to be private. So we have to assume that parents know not only embarrassing things about their kids that their kids know they know ('remember the time I had to come pick you up from school because your menstrual cramps were so bad?'), but also things the kids have every good reason to think are secret. A father might know that his son was rejected by a girl, because he's reading the kid's texts. He might think, 'Aha, a wonderful opportunity to share what it's like to parent a child going through his first romantic rejection.' And because we (for some reason) accept that it's OK both for him to be following his kids' texts in the first place, and to write articles about his 'parenting,' we see no reason why he can't 'write what he knows' in this situation.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Second After Sartre

The WWPD take on Anne-Marie Slaughter's already-picked-apart Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." In three parts. Scroll to the third if digression's not your thing.

1) Second-after-Sartre

If your complaint is that you had to curtail your ambitions, and what this leaves you with is, "I teach a full course load [at Princeton]; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book," and if your decision just happens to allow you to hold onto tenure, then what you've got is a Second-to-Sartre problem, as when Simone de Beauvoir based a feminist theory around her experiences as (poorly-treated lover of and, more to the point) second fiddle to the better-known Existentialist, and more specifically, in reference to some philosophy exam on which he placed first, she second, but it was unfair for sexism reasons the details of which I've since forgotten. A SAS problem is not a first-world problem, an UMC-white-person problem, a college-educated-woman problem. It's the incredibly narrow subset of feminist concerns specific to female geniuses and hyper-achievers.

If we fault feminism for conflating the concerns of relatively wealthy, often white women with those of all womankind, we must also question attempts to project Second After Sartre onto women who are simply upper-middle-class. Even if limiting the discussion to straight, married women with advanced degrees and "choices," those for whom the fallback is anything approaching tenure at an Ivy and the life of a public intellectual are few and far between. Think glorified secretarial jobs in the town where the main bread-earner (husband) has a job. Think freelance-writing, or selling crafts on the Internet. Think 'more time for yoga and volunteering.' I say this not to disparage these pursuits, but rather to illustrate what the options are, realistically, for a woman who doesn't need to apply at Walmart, but whose husband's career comes first, and someone has to keep track of those kids.

I understand that there's less zing in pointing out that Slaughter's out-of-touch with an upper-middle-class demographic than in noting that she doesn't deal with the concerns of the mom who's a cashier at Walmart (which she admits!), but this does seem a key detail. And it's not a 'privilege' issue, because this isn't about unearned status, or haves vs. have-nots. Just that the difference between Slaughter's story and that of 'ordinary' female professionals couldn't be greater.

Slaughter explains that "genuine superwomen" "cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure." If that's the case, why is she pitching her altogether exceptional story at "highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place"? Why must the hook, the lede, be her life, if it doesn't illustrate the point she's trying to make, and if anything detracts from it? Is it because "Atlantic cover story about women" suggests a confessional approach?

We as a society should care if the absolute most brilliant and hard-working women are held back, even if that leaves them with fulfilling careers and, of course, material comforts. But should this be feminism's first priority? Slaughter appears to think so: "Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women." There are a few problems with this approach, most obviously that women publishing treatises about work-life balance in the Atlantic are biased in favor of a solution that begins at the top and trickles down.

2) Leave the kids alone!

After many of my female (and some male) Facebook friends had long since shared this, after I thought I knew what the gist might be, my mother asked me if I'd seen the thing, and noticed how the author talks about her son. I had to check it out, and, indeed:
But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. 
Parents! Do not do this! Not even if you're a woman who didn't take her husband's name, and thus your children are slightly less readily identifiable! (Of course, if you provide your husband's full name, as Slaughter does, there's not much mystery.) Your adolescent-and-younger children can't consent to this kind of thing (living under your roof and all that), even if you've asked, but almost definitely don't want their lowest points or mediocrity used as fodder for their parents' high-profile think pieces. (And yes, I have my mother's permission to credit her to pointing me to this. Also, she, unlike Slaughter's son, is not 14, nor am I embarrassing her.) Find some other way to illustrate your points.

3) The substance of the article

This is what I read: Women are held back not so much by discrimination against women as by discrimination against a more flexible, low-key, dare-I-say-Continental approach to work. Women, even hyper-achieving geniuses, feel primarily responsible for the children's well-being; men, even super-evolved, 50%-or-more-of-the-household-tasks ones, do not. Women feel selfish putting work first. "To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish." While this might give the impression (and does, to so many employers) that men/fathers make better employees than women/mothers, in fact we'd all be better-off with a gentler work environment. The 70-hour workweek to which the serious professional must aspire is, in practice, a whole lot of wasted time. All achievements great and small could, in principle, be compatible with going to your kids' recitals.

And I find some of it convincing, some not.

If we took as a given that women want different things than men, that women not merely give birth (and experience pregnancy as well as possible physical and psychological repercussions) but wish to spend more time with their kids, this quite simply would leave mothers, all things equal, with fewer hours in the week, and make mothers less appealing as employees in many fields than men, fathers or not, or women without children, and this would be totally fair

My own sense, however, is that of the parents with this desire, at least at this point in time, more are mothers than are fathers, but it's not absolute, not (necessarily) innate. A more just approach would be to say that parents who are the primary caregiver should expect less, career-wise, than their childless or not-primary-caregiver equivalents.

As much as it's appealing to think that the time a mother spends nurturing/bonding with her kids is time a male coworker of hers is off skiing, Facebooking, or observing obscure Jewish holidays, the perhaps disappointing fact is that there are some people who work constantly, efficiently and constantly, who effectively put their lives on hold either forever or until reaching a point in their career at which the future is more or less guaranteed. And that's who gets the most done. There are also some who aren't that talented, or are slow workers, and who end up at the same place as others who work better but less and do have lives outside the office. An employer might unfairly conflate having no life outside work with being incredibly productive, but even if that were addressed, this would still leave the reality of those few workers who accomplish the most precisely because the only balance in their lives is devotion to all the myriad responsibilities of their job.

Although 'no outside life' isn't entirely accurate. It's OK to have an outside life if it consists of a spouse whose entire job is to support you and your career. Something above and beyond 'being supportive.' If somewhere along the line, you landed someone who makes sure you never need to bother yourself with petty things like going to the supermarket, you're able to work as much as the non-partnered hyper-achiever who will at least need to pick up frozen pizzas every so often. While men and women alike can and do go the monastic frozen-pizza route, a man is far more likely than a woman to have that kind of spouse. 

But not all that likely, in this day and age. Women don't want to do that, and men, at the end of the day, don't want that done for them. More relevant is that assumptions persist even in the absence of that type of marriage. When a man mentions he has a wife, this makes him sound mature, responsible, able to commit. Few will think, 'uh oh, that means he has a life outside work.' Some will think, even if they won't articulate this, 'oh good, that means someone's picking up his dry-cleaning so he can stay past 7.' Meanwhile a woman who mentions a husband is implying, unless she specifies otherwise or her boss happens to be a really evolved, feminist sort, that hers is not the main career in her household, and that any minute now she might leave to have kids, never to return. 

The one bit of the piece I thought was relatable, and quite powerful, despite referring to the 0.001% in terms of achievement and ambition, was this: "Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children."

Friday, June 22, 2012

I will remember you

The reverse of this problem used to plague me, and still does to some extent, although the years have killed off some of the brain cells in question, or Facebook eliminated the subconscious need to do this: I used to remember the faces and names of everyone I met, and where I knew them from. Were you in my Hebrew school class in fourth grade? Hippie summer camp? Had we once briefly spoken at our 3,000-student high school? Whoever you are, I'd remember you like it was yesterday.

While it can be frustrating not to remember names (ahem, teaching large non-lecture classes - why my high school physics teacher called us by number, not name), in social (and, if you're not a grad student, I hear, professional) situations, it can often pay to seem aloof. That you've remembered a face and a name will be taken to mean that you've been thinking of this person since fourth grade, that they made a really profound impression, that you have in fact been waiting by the proverbial phone since the fourth grade for (fictitious) Lacey Zimmerman to come back into your life.

Lacey's forgotten you, we can imagine, because you're unimportant to her. Therefore that you've remembered her must indicate that you have disproportionate interest, that she made quite the impression. But having exceptional names-and-faces memory, at least on a conscious level, doesn't mean this, because you're remembering everybody's face and name, including - indeed, primarily - people you hadn't thought about in years, until there they are on the subway across from you. (Now, alas, if I see and remember Lacey, it's because Mark Zuckerberg wants me to know what she was up to last weekend. If she isn't on that site, she'll at most look vaguely familiar.)

So what does it all mean? If you remember names, is it because you on some level imagine that in every last situation, you're the peon to the other person's Pretty Big Deal? Is it that on a subconscious level, even when you're interacting with people definitively below you in whichever official or unofficial hierarchy, you conceive of yourself as an underdog? Or, to put a more positive spin on the same interpretation, is it that you think everybody is important? Is it just... good memory? The same trait that makes it possible to pass the kind of exams that ask for heaps of rote memorization? Whatever the case, if we're going to cover the plight of [yes MSI, forgot the rest of that sentence, thanks!] those who forget, I'd like that of those who remember all too well covered equally.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Odd jobs

Like any sensible humanities grad student, I keep track of Plans B through Z. In doing so, I came across what could well be the worst job imaginable, or best, depending your sexual orientation and outside sources of income: unpaid intern at a women's modeling agency.

Meanwhile, "Paid Summer Internship in Wine PR" was obviously intentionally listed to lure away despairing Baudelaire-dissertation-writers. Replace "Wine" with "Cheese," and I'd be more tempted. Although wine and cheese both seem like things that would hardly need PR.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some such thing as used

A car dealer, into his cellphone, unselfconscious and in earshot of potential customers, in reference to another (potential) customer: "I think we can squeeze another sixteen hundred out of him." Then he of course turned around to tell us what great value we'd get on whichever model. This was exciting, actually, as I'd never witnessed this cultural icon in action. The rest of the dealers were disappointingly down-to-earth about the whole thing. Might have had something to do with us having found the time to do this the same day the weather found the time to be Las Vegas in summer, with humidity.

I fear, in this process, that I don't merely suggest but radiate my-family-never-had-a-car, I-thought-a-"sedan"-was-some-kind-of-van-until-six-months-ago. Thankfully I married someone not from the center of a big city with great public transportation. I have friends in my situation who learned to drive and purchased cars completely on their own; while I was already in awe already, now doubly so. But there is a sense in which looking for closet-sized apartments in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with brokers, prepares a person for this sort of thing. (What's the car equivalent of an exposed-brick wall? As in, something of no consequence either way, that's listed as a selling point that might distinguish one it'll-do option from another?) It felt familiar, this dance. 

Whatever the case, after reading up on what to ask about, and just generally getting into the mode of double-checking everything, I had trouble snapping out of it as needed. At the spacious women's restroom of a dealership, I expected a dealer to be there energetically explaining the pros and cons of each vacant stall ('this one has an unexplained pile of toilet paper on the floor, but that one doesn't flush as smoothly as the 2011 model'). At the supermarket after this most exhausting of days, I looked with such care at peach after peach, all of which looked just fine, and none of which went for thousands of dollars. And don't even get me started on the shopping cart itself, which I'm pretty sure needs to be checked by an impartial mechanic.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The things to worry about roundup

-The question of "fast fashion" is in the news again, thanks to a new and much-publicized book by Elizabeth Cline. To some of us, it might come as surprise that there's anything new to say about this issue, about how we the entitled (female, American) consumers screw over labor and the environment with our insatiable lust for whatever is $5.99 at H&M. Wasn't this book already written? Having for a while now been a voice of gratuitous contrarianism on this issue, I'd assumed that the system of ever-cheaper, ever-trendier clothing was under a great deal of criticism, that we were already supposed to feel bad about "Made in Bangladesh." But until we're all hand-stitching our own clothes from worn-out farmers-market tote bags, until we get the message, we can probably expect more exposés along these lines.

-What to do when knockoff Hermès bags are made by the same workers who make the real deal? Perhaps not be one of those people who insists they only care about "quality," and then goes and buys an expensive, name-brand handbag named after Serge Gainsbourg's muse.

-Do you check your email? Use the Internet to watch videos? You might be depressed. Phrased otherwise: some people are and others are not depressed, and everyone checks their email and watches videos; those who never leave the house probably do more of both. Given that by the standards of Important New Research, all of us currently have the symptoms of every disease ever mentioned on "House," not to mention that if you ever felt awkward in a social situation, OMG Aspergers, we are all depressed. Or: no wonder we're all depressed, given that we are all at immediate risk of Mediterranean Sleeping Sickness and amyloidosis. (Imagine the "Seinfeld" plotline where George has a "white discoloration," in the age of WebMD.)

-Another subset of hypochondria: that which is on behalf of one's pet, who of course cannot announce that she feels ill and in what capacity. Every possible thing that goes on with a dog that does not appear in a Beneful commercial (shown on Internet video source Hulu, alas) is possibly devastating. Or: every so often, dogs throw up, and if you find yourself tearing up about this, you might be depressed. If, while online to check your dog's symptoms, you also check your email, or watch a video of some impossibly cool foodies preparing lunch, you might need to Google your own symptoms as well.

-Best answer yet to NYMag's question, "What makes someone a New Yorker?," from Frank DeCaro: "The inability to resist telling complete strangers where to eat." Guilty as charged - thus the hordes I insist on pointing to Dos Toros, Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, and now Pad Thai in Highland Park.

-Touché, estranged son of Woody Allen, touché. 

Nanny Fine, not a "JAP"

The "JAP" is back. On the show "Girls," one of the characters evidently fits the bill. Emily Shire situates the David Mamet's daughter character within the history of the "JAP" in American culture. One bit jumped out:

Perhaps the television character most commonly associated with the JAP stereotype was Fran Drescher as Fran Fine on the 1990s show “The Nanny.” Her nasal whine, love of shopping, and general lack of decorum drove the plots and jokes of the series.
If Nanny Fine was a "JAP," then I've been misunderstanding the term. She's a working-class woman amidst British and WASP elites. She's, well, working. Not a daddy's girl - her father remains off-screen, and isn't her source of income. Plus, she's not exactly frigid. Granted, Fran Fine's cultural identity is distinct, and she's not going to be heralded any time soon in that 'did you know X is Jewish' category in which we might place, I don't know, Lauren Bacall, or any of the more recent ice-queen ingenues revealed to have rabbis in their lineage. She's unabashedly ethnically and culturally Jewish. But a "JAP"?

"The Nanny" as a show is incredibly not offensive to Jews, both because it offers us a rare Jewish female character who's presented as the height of sex appeal (the other: Lisa Cuddy on "House"), and because of the class dynamics. The world of the show has no place for rich Jews or, for that matter, working-class Gentiles, Niles the butler excepted. Jews on the Upper East Side are scrappy underdogs, a set-up that doesn't quite mirror reality (there are of course low-income Jews, but they're more likely to be living in a huge Hasidic family than working as nannies in Manhattan, and in reality, many of Mr. Sheffield's neighbors would have been Jewish), but that ends up being what allows the show not to give us a "JAP."

So if Nanny Fine of Flushing was a "JAP," in Shire's estimation, which Jewish female characters were not? The problem is that the "JAP" is not merely a stereotype of a kind of Jewish woman, but our only way of conceiving of an American Jewish woman in literature or onscreen. A history of representations of the "JAP" is a history of representations of American Jewish women, so much so that it's easy to lump in even the occasional not-princessy examples, as Shire does with Miss Fine. 

Shire's conclusion leaves something to be desired:
Even with many of the stereotypes intact, JAP characters can be emotionally layered and compelling to watch — a fact evidenced by Shoshanna Shapiro and her peers. The Jewish American Princess may be with us for a while, but that doesn’t mean she has to stay the same. We’ve just got to let her evolve.
I mean, kind of? Better a nuanced and interesting "JAP" than a cut-out figure. But as long as "JAP" is synonymous with "representation of American Jewish woman," the underlying concern remains.

And, because I love online-newspaper comments, this, from someone who comments using his Facebook account to comment, because god forbid people not be able to trace this gem back to the source:
The stereotype is around because it's true. Anyone involved in a Jewish community has had the misfortune of meeting these types of women. Let's face the truth - the JAP stereotype wasn't concocted in some smoky Hollywood boardroom. These women actually exist. Let's focus on discouraging this kind of behavior in our communities instead.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Takes all kinds? UPDATED

Long post, main point in bold:

This is going to be my third - and last - attempt at a post about the question of the wives of gay men who, for religious reasons, choose to marry opposite-sex partners, in reference to a blog post by a man named Josh Weed who, along with his wife Lolly, is in this situation. Is my post going to be about this couple? Yes and no. As I mentioned numerous times in the previous two attempts (which are both down, so you may take my word for it, seek out cached WWPD, whatever), whenever people spill about their personal lives on the Internet, specifically whenever they do so and solicit comments (there are over 3,000 currently on the post in question), they kind of relinquish the right to go about their business without strangers judging - not harassing, but judging - said business. Kind of.

However, the only possible way to read an overshare post* is as an example of a situation, and not as a full and complete assessment of the lives discussed. We might judge, but we're not really judging these people, so much as a situation they've described, which has so many nuances - perhaps key details - that aren't available to us. Because we're not judging them, precisely, it can't hurt to point that out, right?

Furthermore, as much as it would seem that people who put their lives on display, that a man who announces that he can't be attracted to women but marry a woman he did, that a woman who writes, "In a moment of honest reflection, I realized that Josh was everything that I wanted in a husband. (All except for the huge fact that he was gay.)," that such individuals are requesting commentary, they probably are not. They aren't (far as I know) public figures, aren't accustomed to having their business that on display, and, if the history of responses to overshares is any guide, could well take it very personally if any of the comments are anything other than, 'wow, what fine life choices you've made!' Actually, in this case, we don't even have to speculate on their feelings about being judged:
Also, generally, please feel free to use the comment section to discuss this matter if you wish. However, remember that this is our lives you are talking about. Please feel free to say what you need to say, but we would ask that you be respectful of our decisions and the decisions of others if you decide to comment.
What complicates matters further - and what came up in a conversation I had about the general outlines of this bloggy kerfuffle with a friend off-blog, so credit is due where no link is possible - is whether or not a 'this is just my story' really is just that. Rhetorical question not intended to derail: was the Tiger Mom's story a memoir and thus not to be taken as a parenting guide? Sometimes personal histories are meant as didactic, sometimes not. So here, the question was, is this about whether a gay man could, in theory, marry a straight and not-asexual woman? Or are these people telling their story as a model for others? My sense from the post was that it was the latter, but I never spelled out why that's how I read it, nor did I highlight the passage where the guy writing it basically says this. So, for your perusal:
Why have you decided to share this information?

We have several reasons for opening up about this part of our lives. First and foremost, my clinical work as a therapist is taking me in the direction of helping clients who struggle to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs. I have decided to be open with these clients about my own homosexuality, and in doing so have opened the door to people finding out about this in ways I can't control. Therefore, we thought it would be wise to be the ones who told those we love about this part of our lives. Posting on the blog was the simplest way to make sure that happened as it would be impossible to sit all of the people we have known and loved in our lives down and share this personally.

The second reason is that the issue of homosexuality is not very well understood. We wanted to add our voice and experience to the dialogue taking place about this very sensitive issue.

Thirdly, I (Josh) feel the desire to be more open regarding this part of my identity. I have found that sharing this part of me allows my relationships with others to be more authentic. It has deepened my friendships and enhanced my interactions, and it has also helped me to feel more accepted by others as it allows others the opportunity to choose to accept me for who I really am.
The third reason is the only 'this is just my story' reason, and it's given last. The first two make it abundantly clear that this life choice is one this couple is attempting to advise to others. We learn from item one that this is a man who is providing therapy to men in his exact situation, and from item two that he's weighing in politically. If you believe that same-sex marriage is a civil right, or that it's what society needs in terms of stability, if you think therapy that urges gay men to marry women is dangerous both to those men and to the women they wed, you object to Weed's agenda, even if you don't object to his personal choices.

Forget the specifics of which issues are at stake. Is it ethical to use your private life as an example for others, indeed vast swaths of others outside your friends-and-family, and then to turn around and explain that your feelings will be hurt if others criticize your decisions? It's a sneaky move, because it puts your opponents in a bind. Rules of civility would seem to prevent arguing these points on the very terms in which they've been presented.  The temptation is to "discuss this matter" in a way that isn't "respectful of [their] decisions," even if you respect their decisions as individuals, if you do not, as a rule, respect decisions along these lines.

And personally, as I believe I made abundantly clear in a post I now somewhat wish I hadn't taken down, but down it shall remain so I'll continue, while I completely respect the choice of a gay man to decide that his socially-conservatism or religion means more to him than would a stable same-sex marriage or serious relationship, while I have no doubt as to the fact that friction is friction, that babies have been born to parents with same-sex attraction since time immemorial, and thus that it's entirely possible for a gay man to be husband-and-father in the "traditional" sense, I'm not convinced it's OK for such a man to marry a woman who is not in an equivalent situation herself.

There are - as I mentioned in that earlier post - certain risks, possibly physical but more-than-likely emotional, a woman takes in marrying a man for whom being with a woman, any woman, as opposed to a man, is a constant struggle. (If you think this struggle is anything like what any orientation-matching monogamous couple might face in terms of the vast world of other people, then perhaps you don't believe in sexual orientation, or that it is negligible in terms of finding a spouse. If you think this, I'm almost certain I can't convince you otherwise.) The fact that milieus in which gay men think to marry women also tend to be ones that encourage reproduction and/or discourage contraception doesn't help. If we think cheating and divorce are to be discouraged, we want to discourage unions that, while not doomed to go either route, certainly have an edge.

But even if such a relationship "succeeds," as in till death do us part and no infidelity, this still involves a man depriving a woman of the opportunity to be with someone she does it for. I don't only mean physically. While, in a typical marriage, the spouses might doubt that they do it for each other, in a marriage along these lines, that one doesn't do it for the other is known from day one.

What with the internal dynamics of marriages being unknowable, we might say that of course certain women will agree to this set-up, will even seek it out. But here, going by the facts we're given, this was not a case of a woman wanting marriage and kids without intimacy. What this didactic autobiographical snippet tells us is that it's not only acceptable but admirable for a gay man to marry a woman who wants the usual things out of marriage.

While we might say that if a man can repress his same-sex desire, surely a woman can repress hers to be desired, and while this probably does explain how some such marriages work, there are a couple reasons why, paradoxically, the wife in this scenario is in a worse spot than the man who genuinely prefers not acting on very real same-sex urges to acting on them. Most obviously, a woman in this situation likes men, and perfectly well might have ended up with one who desired her, and still followed the rules of whichever belief system they adhered toBy having a relationship with her, the gay man in this scenario - leaving Josh Weed in particular out of this - denies the woman the opportunity to meet and fall for men who aren't gay. And some women - especially naive and inexperienced ones - aren't able to grasp what it means to marry one's gay best friend. After all, a straight woman can be attracted to a gay man, and a gay man, insofar as he's a man, can provide the social and biological functions of husband and father, respectively. But even those who can, on paper, explain why this would pose a problem are in an awkward spot once they've already fallen in love with that person.

While indeed, nobody's perfect, and while it's certainly much less bad if, as Josh Weed evidently did, a man in this situation is honest from the get-go about his limitations, these are some immense limitations. Sufficiently immense that any kind of blanket advice along these lines to gay men, even ones who (at least at this point in time) believe themselves capable of marrying a woman and not straying/leaving, strikes me as borderline unethical. Unfair to the men for obvious reasons: while it's possible for a gay man to prefer his faith/values to his sexual orientation, this probably works out for only a tiny percentage of such individuals, the rest of whom, if they make it out alive, find another church - or none at all - and move on with their lives. So telling men that they can be gay, Mormon (or equivalent) and married to a woman is... problematic in basically the same way as any "conversion" case would be, except marginally more honest about the permanence of sexual orientation. But it's also unfair to the women who get roped into this, and for less obvious, but potentially at least as compelling, reasons.

*Announcing that you're gay is of course not overshare. Announcing that you're a gay man married to a straight woman might be, depending on how it's done, which is to say, depending on whether it's presented as an invitation to discuss how that works. I think, in life, if you suspect a couple has an arrangement along these lines, if you know or suspect a man to be gay and lo and behold, his wife, you'd simply assume these are friends who love each other, or that he's bisexual, or that he sets off gaydars but is straight, or that what they've arranged makes sense to them but is unknowable to you, and that would be that. Announcing that you're a gay man married to a straight woman, and that the two of you "have an extremely healthy and robust sex life," and going on to explain how that works, this most definitely counts, even if we aren't getting a play-by-play. This is already far more information than one has if a blogger reveals himself to have a sexual orientation, a partner, which are basic biographical facts, not a window into the bedroom.


Read this account from a Mormon woman whose ex-husband is gay. The coverage of the Weed post has virtually all been about whether it's OK for gay men to deny their true selves, as if by marrying, these men were not also including another party in their, for lack of a better term, mishegoss. 

The myth of the "elite" diet

One reads a great deal about how these days, "we" (as in, the author and those like the author, in the author's estimation) care where our food comes from. How well-educated, high-income or high-cultural-capital Americans are living off kale and turnips, while "they" down fast-food, processed meats, etc. See for example Elizabeth Cline, in a story about "fast fashion" I may respond to some other time:

Over the past decade, image-­conscious American consumers have adopted two contradictory impulses. When buying food, they will pay a premium for the sustainable and artisanal, and they are careful to always recycle the glass jugs that their farmers’-market milk is sold in. It is fashionable to eat this way—even as a whole category of actual fashion is treated as disposable, with no thought given to craftsmanship or provenance.
While it's certainly true that something "artisanal" will cost more than its styrofoam-packed equivalent, my anecdotal - but like heaps of anecdata - sense is that a) very few people, even in the class purportedly doing so, are eating this way, and b) even those who are are doing so for a tiny % of their food consumption, a few garlic scapes picked up at the farmers market, and it ends there.

I mean, there are some differences - such as, voluntarily stay-at-home parents probably do home-cook more meals, and it takes a certain household income to have that set-up - but my point isn't that everyone across the nation eats identically. Rather, it's that there's now this myth that the "elite" is eating in this farm-to-table manner, something above and beyond home-cooked, and that this is who the "elite" is thinner, healthier, whatever. That the secret is local/seasonal produce. When this is not something anyone but hippies was attempting until approximately five minutes ago. Basically, I suspect that what was true when I was a kid - wealthier people eating fancier-seeming but often nutritionally equivalent foods as everyone else, but in smaller portions because of the far greater pressure to be thin - is, in my experience, still the case.

And I love a good farmers market, wish there were more of them, wish this were a viable way to shop for food and not a Thursday-afternoon procrastination. But the impracticality of shopping at these - which, even if held at convenient times, are cash-only and time on top of trips to the supermarket - combined with the fact that even in spring and summer, even Whole Foods isn't selling more than a couple local fruits and vegetables, should be enough to tell us that exceedingly little of what's consumed even by the class in question meets such qualifications. Growing your own food, unless this is really a big part of your life, probably means that you can garnish some dishes with herbs from your garden, or toss in the odd home-grown tomato. While gardening probably correlates with better food habits overall, I seriously doubt that the actual food consumed from the backyard is making a significant nutritional difference in many lives.

But back to the trove of anecdotal evidence. By all accounts I ought to know a great many people who eat in this manner, given that at this point most everyone I know is a grad student or postdoc, some professors, given that I did that recent-college-grad-in-Brooklyn thing. And yet, virtually no one I know does this. Not no one at all, but close. I can think of two people who stick with frozen pizzas, many more who eat along those lines.

The only possible counterargument I can come up with is that the people I know tend not to have kids, and that maybe this manner of eating is something that arrives when you realize that your baby will thrive only on a kale-rich diet. But it seems just as likely that having kids would make it that much harder to find the time to make separate grocery trips for locally-grown vegetables.

Anyone with data, anec- or otherwise, by all means.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Main Street, NJ

A friend who visited me recently described Nassau Street and thereabouts in Princeton as what she imagined the East Coast would be like before moving to the region. Which struck me as a perfect description: the lacrosse shop, the Ralph Lauren, the understated upscaleness, the small-scale pseudo-Europeanness, it's got hints of New England and Old South, as well as various blue-state cultural leanings, as well as an Ivy League university across the street. It is very East Coast-as-someone-from-elsewhere-might-picture-it.

It's also designed to make you, however square you are, feel as though you're this huge counter-culture rebel even if it's for wanting something like a Gap rather than a Lilly Pulitzer. Nassau Street is proudly edge-less, and will not have you edgy. It will taunt you with 50% off racks of shorts out on the sidewalk that, yes, say "Princeton," but they're not that bad, are they?

What I hadn't quite known, until today, was how Nassau Street evolves once you continue on that street, as it becomes Lincoln Highway. I'd been on a small bit of this (up to Kingston) by bike, and had heard that if you went far enough in that direction, there would be a huge Asian supermarket, but managed to get exhausted on the bike long before any Asian supermarket. This time, we went by car, all the way to Highland Park. A Thai restaurant, Pad Thai, that Chowhound recommended - and that turned out to be amazing - was on that-which-Nassau-becomes, so we decided, on the way there, to take the easy-but-slow route.

And the street... morphs into so many other main streets. First there's a long stretch very much like Devon in Chicago, with food from all over the world (Afghanistan, Jamaica...) in the kind of nondescript strip malls that promise great "ethnic" food, and that deliver, in my experience, about as often as their urban equivalents, but that are at any rate probably a cut above spending $50 for bland on Nassau. Also: a very 1950s looking - and not "retro," just old - roller rink,. Then, right before Rutgers, the immigrant culinary lineup becomes a neighborhood that ought to be shown to anyone who doubts that food deserts exist - a grocery called something like "Meat Mart" specialized in, it seemed, meats and cigarettes. Then there's part of Rutgers, then Highland Park, which is like Ditmas Park or some other upbeat but not hipsterish part of Brooklyn. So close! Have I mentioned the Thai food?

Along with Thai food, an Orthodox Jewish community. A store promises modest attire for the preadolescent.

This juxtaposition, from earlier in the day, during the tentative beginnings of a serious search for a car. The combination in store when we cease to bike everywhere. My thoughts after the uphill bike ride to the car-sharing car: bring it on.

And back in the town of princes. The Whole Foods checkout is actively trying not to tempt customers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"We have pocket guides for fish; finally, there’s one for humans."

It's almost as if Mark Bittman were reading WWPD. (He did once respond to something I wrote at Culture11, so it's not entirely implausible.) PG, take note: Bittman calls foodies to task for caring about where their food comes from and what its impact is on the environment, but not paying attention to the labor issues, thus suggesting... that foodies do not, thus far, care terribly much about workers' conditions.

Overall, I of course approve in this move away from the fetishization of farm-to-table, but I must nitpick:

-If "foodies" care about what Bittman correctly notes they care about, how did that come to pass? I'd think he himself is somewhat responsible, as one of the leaders of the food movement. Rather than 'fessing up to having contributed to misdirected priorities, he chastises his own converted flock, and links to the Portlandia chicken sketch. Sure, he uses "we," but in that way an op-ed writer does, where it's clear the writer himself isn't part of that first-person plural. There's no indication that he influenced the "provenance of your heirloom tomato" slant.

-"That tip you debate increasing to 20 percent might be the difference in making the rent." From the full article, it's clear that Bittman wants to see changes in how much food workers are paid (but not, alas, a move to paying all workers, servers included, minimum wage), but this sentence gives the impression that he wants labor to be just one more consideration made at the level of the individual consumer happy for a chance to pay more in exchange for smug. The consumer who, as I keep pointing out, has limited info at best, in terms of where a bunch of asparagus came from, but also in terms of which establishments pay their workers at least minimum wage. (See: the proliferation of tip jars.) "I have tipped 20% for years. after reading this article, i will go to 25-30%," someone comments.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It's Parochial Tuesday at WWPD

-The NYT had the good sense not to open up for comments its article about how The Jews are demographically inundating New York.

-Sweden had the bad sense to let one of its citizens hold forth on The Jews on Twitter using the @Sweden handle. Or did it? The "rant" (claims Slate) doesn't seem anti-Semitic at all. It's a Swedish woman who doesn't know any Jews (but is named Abrahamsson!), wondering if Jews are a race or religion, and asking why Jews are hated. That's 100% naive, well-meaning Gentile. This woman thinks you can't tell a Swede from a Jew, god bless her. Someone, send her American Pastoral.

-Yossi and Jagger, in happier times.

The least true assertion ever

"'Often, American women look for practicality in a bag whereas les Francaises understand it is more about the image and the completion of a look,'" says a woman trying to peddle impractical (but pretty!) luxury handbags to Americans.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I love that the woman profiled in that article about how French women are in fact capable of getting fat, or at least of worrying that they might, is named "Bignon."

While we're on the interminable topic, because this is on the well-trodden WWPD beat, or because a trip through the artificial-butter-scented food court that is Penn Station served as a reminder of why Americans are, why aren't the French (or Parisians, or Europeans) fat? In a word: qualms. Or lack thereof. They have qualms about eating the "wrong" foods at the "wrong" times (explain me this, Europeans: a chocolate croissant can be breakfast, but a large-ish chocolate-chip cookie that's nutritionally identical cannot? and is eating lunch at 11:45 or 2:30 such a disaster?), but not so many qualms about shaming the overweight, or the consumption of food in manners conducive to weight gain.

We Americans more inclined to dance around others' weight and eating habits. If someone's 500 pounds from eating that much kale and quinoa, we can point to health at any size, to the possibility, however remote, that it's mostly muscle. If it's from Cheetos, then saying anything means you're an elitist (says the liberal) or a nanny and a nag (says the Ron Swanson conservative).

This dance, in extreme cases, is dangerous, but in just-overweight ones is probably for the best. A culture that strictly penalizes five-pound weight gain on a still-thin person, where you risk being fat-shamed even if you're underweight but picked an unflattering style of dress that day, can get oppressive oppressive and is not necessarily conducive to health. Fewer obese people, but more nutty, neurotic dieters struggling to stay below a healthy weight, often resorting to not-so-healthy measures.

Is fat-shaming the price we're willing to pay for a slimmer populace? Probably not, and shouldn't be, but alas, that is much of what makes certain Parisiennes look the way they do. I get that this isn't as aesthetically pleasing a reason as, 'they eat all their food from local-seasonal farmers markets' or, 'they smoke magical cigarettes that don't merely keep off five or ten pounds but make the difference between need-crane-to-emerge-from-home and runway model, keep your skin smooth, and actually make you live longer, into a ripe old age into which you'll carry on multiple affairs with married Socialist politicians.' Those scenarios appeal to us 'mericans, but rampant and largely preemptive fat-shaming is much closer to the truth. The French/Parisians/Europeans/ferners-who-are-of-course-a-monolith are not effortlessly thin. They just don't have the luxury of being anything but.

Thus why, as Susan Dominus points out, a country of skinny people might well be on the market for diet advice, even if the suggested plan involves voluntarily subjecting one's self to airplane food at home, in France. (Can these women please send me the Camembert and baguettes they no longer have use for?)

But the policing not of weight itself, but of eating that diverges from a rigid schedule, is a relatively nonjudgemental way of making obesity less likely, one that might even catch on in the U.S. Although how nutritionally-arbitrary-yet-effective "food rules" might work in a heterogeneous society remains to be seen. It's hard to artificially create a society in which the mid-morning snack is unheard-of. It's not just that we're committed to our "right" to eat the garbage of our choosing, without legal interference or informal commentary (concern-trolling!), but also that you basically need to have been raised believing that certain times are not food times, that desserts are not breakfast foods.

And this isn't the same as the American thing, where your parents might have said, for example, no ice cream for breakfast. It's a much deeper system, one that feels natural, not punitive, to those who grew up with it. They don't feel they're denying themselves a slice of chocolate cake at 10:30 in the morning, and they appreciate the piece they have at the accepted, later hour because cake is an only-at-certain-times thing. Can qualms be acquired? Maybe somewhat, but despite ample exposure to the qualms approach, I remain convinced that absolutely every cake or pastry can - in a sensible portion, assuming this isn't what you do every day - be the morning meal.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Life at the zoo

Adorable baby deer? Evidence of deer plague? Alive, but not energetic. Didn't get too close.

A well-camouflaged rabbit. 

The biped doing her thing,

taking note of an especially tasty-looking squirrel in mid-air.

Friday, June 08, 2012

"Sheltered, privileged, spoiled"

YPISfest of the day at Jezebel is about Stuyvesant. Someone thinks that because the median household income at Stuyvesant is higher than that of other city schools, and because some of the students had enough spare, not-down-in-the-coal-mines time to protest their new, sexist-in-wording-and-enforcement dress code, OMG THEIR PRIVILEGE. When:

-One of the big failings of YPIS is the insistence on conflating a life stage at which it's normal not to have major adult responsibilities and "privilege." Kids in high school or college who are partly or entirely financially dependent on their parents are not "brats," but kids. Privileged not to be stitching together H&M clothes in Bangladesh, but that's not what's meant when this variant of YPIS is hurled. This comes up especially with grad students, who are virtually required to consider undergrads "privileged," and to dwell on how their Mommy and Daddy pay for everything. When it's like, probably about as much parent-money goes to these undergrads as did to today's grad students when they/we were undergrads. If we're nobly paying our own way now, it's because we're old, not because we're scrappier than Kids These Days. (If the only grad students with this complaint were those who paid their own way through public colleges, and who are now T.A.s at private universities, that might change things, but that's not how it goes.)

-That a kid is protesting this dress code isn't evidence that this is the kid's "biggest problem in the world," let alone that he's "sheltered, privileged, [and] spoiled." I'm not sure where the idea was born that anyone who complains about something relatively-no-big-deal doesn't also have big-deal issues to worry about, but it's nonsense. If anything, YPIS if you think that only the wealthy, only people without tragedy in their lives, have the luxury of caring about small-potatoes issues, and that the great They are only ever thinking about Serious Socioeconomic Concerns. I mean, are we to believe that only the children of white professionals are upset when their crush rejects them before prom?

-Now the petty/repetitive: Yes, on average, Stuyvesant kids are wealthier than at other public schools. Also so much less wealthy than kids at private schools, of which there are so many in New York. The money some parents spent on pre-exam tutors is peanuts in comparison with what private schools cost. (Last I checked, $750 vs. $40,000 x 4.) It is privilege to go to Stuyvesant, but there are privileged kids in New York, and they're typically not going to a public school at all, however "prestigious." This bothers me not because I wish to prove my own scrappiness - prior to Stuyvesant, I went to one of those private schools, and I was precisely one of those kids whose presence at the school contributed to its not-a-real-NYC-public-school-ness, thus not scrappy - but because accounts of the place, esp. when it comes to the dress-code controversy, are getting the place, and the dynamics, all wrong. That a student body generally focused on obeying authority - and not on pushing boundaries, not on thinking themselves above the law - is fighting back on this is actually quite impressive. These are not, in other words, a bunch of entitled kids, which is what every reference to "elite" or "privileged" implies, inadvertently or, in this case, intentionally.

Crimes of fashion

Even though I'm not a lawyer, even though my "work" clothes are dissertation sweats, for some reason, I keep coming across the question (see the comments) of what female lawyers can and can't wear. This seems to be a subject of endless fascination for many in that profession. The limits seem both strict and contradictory: women must wear flat shoes, or must not. Suit jackets are de rigueur, or too masculine if paired with pants. And the great question of 'what to wear in front of a judge,' my goodness. One would think the 'judge' was there for the express purpose of judging not whichever case, but whether a dark red nail polish is or is not an acceptable choice for a lawyer to wear in court. (For the record, I could not care less what colors are permitted in this situation, so please, let's not make this a thread that.)

What does interest me, however, is what the appeal is of this genre. Is it simply that it's hard to sort out what the rules are, which produces anxiety, and this is not unlike forums springing up to address nervous  grad school applicants? Is this a Quinn-and-the-Fashion-Club thing, as in, are people getting sadistic joy out of pointing out the fashion crimes of their peers, all the more so when the "crimes" are things like wearing black instead of navy, or navy instead of black? Is it genuine fun for fashion-oriented women to figure out how to look chic while still obeying what some post about this somewhere referred to as the Talmudic rules of dress for female lawyers, the way some girls with a uniform will do everything possible to dress it up/down? Is there some kind of perverse thing going on, such that women who've entered a high-powered, still-gendered-male profession enjoy following the evidently quite sexist rules when it comes to the superficial? On this, enlighten me. But again, on the specifics of "business casual" versus "business formal," I already know more than I care to.

Wax nostalgic

A Styles masterpiece, in keeping with the theme of the post below: a story about how girls - young ones! pre-high-school! - are now getting expensive salon beauty procedures just to look good for summer camp. Summer camp! The height of childhood innocence! S'mores and swimming in the lake! Now you need to get waxed for this? Civilization has ended!

The other, perhaps concurrent intended response is, a hairdryer or razor, fine, but in These Economic Times, when grown women must D.I.Y. their own maintenance, hundreds of dollars spent at the salon girls too young to even have their own babysitting money feels, well, unfair.

We're meant to be horrified, in other words, in two diametrically opposed directions. To think of the 11-year-olds being prodded at as both spoiled and child-abused, to envy their access to superior depilatory techniques and to compare favorably our own relatively rustic childhoods, when kids were kids, y'know?

Contrarian mumblings:

-Legs get hairy, get shaved. But the bikini area! Does this mean that girls now need to look like porn stars to fit in at camp?

Obviously not. I take "outer bikini area" to mean what's still technically a part of the leg, exposed when one wears even a relatively modest, one-piece swimsuit. And some people are really hairy there, which I'd imagine they might be self-conscious about if they're 11. Puberty hits girls younger and younger, so this is probably an issue for many; the desire to have this hair removed wouldn't be about wanting to seem older, I'd think. Body hair does not always conveniently show up at the age at which getting rid of it is generally deemed appropriate. There's nothing sexual-as-in-the-having-of-sex about the hairiness or the demand, on the girl's part, to have it removed. Sometimes a girl starts needing a bra at 11, this we accept (although if she were fitted for a $300 La Perla, there could be a Styles article about it). Some girls, some women, never need/want waxing, some never need/want a bra; technically no one need-needs either. But the horror the story is meant to provoke comes largely from that word: bikini.

-Isn't it tragic that girls at summer camp would worry about how their hair looks after swimming?

If you take a step back, you see that we're only supposed to be shocked about the permanent-hair-straightening treatments because the girls getting them, we might assume, are white. It's old news that many black girls arrive at summer camp - and wherever else - with chemically-straightened hair. White girls, on the other hand, are expected to be low-maintenance about their hair, at least during Innocent Childhood, certainly during Carefree Summer. White girls are expected to offer clueless remarks to black girls about how much of a waste of time it is to fuss with your hair, at camp. So high-maintenance, sheesh. When it's like, easy for you to say, if you have wash-and-go straight or straight-ish or Botticelli-ringlet-ish hair yourself.

The girls profiled in this article, as is not spelled out but abundantly obvious to those of us from the same community, are white and Jewish, and Jewish girls at Jewish summer camp have long been dealing with our quasi-political frizz. While keratin straightening, specifically, may be problematic for reasons entirely separate from the pride-in-frizz-or-lack-thereof of likely-Jewish adolescents, there are not-as-toxic ways of de-poufing hair, and it's neither new nor strange that girls at summer camp would have this concern. It's unfortunate that not all natural hair textures are celebrated equally, but the answer is not as straightforward as compelling the conformist 11-year-old (which is to say, the 11-year-old) to go around artifice-free. Especially when her mother does not, and thus wouldn't even know how to instruct her to style that natural hair texture except to straighten it. Which brings us to...

-Sure, adult women have their insecurities. But do we really want to be telling young girls that they're bodies aren't just fine the way they are?

Embracing the natural look - whatever that means - is something that for most of us comes, if it ever does, with time, with exposure to communities where whichever forms of artifice are considered gauche. (Only to learn that, in these milieus, the aspects of artifice that are enjoyable and not tied to a desire to conform are also, often, condemned as frivolous, but I digress.)

If we're thinking about 11-year-olds and their beautification requests in terms of preserving innocence, we're thinking about it wrong. By the time a girl demands the means/permission to address hairy legs or frizz, that particular innocence - which, again, we need to remember is something entirely different from sexual/romantic innocence - is long since kaput. If a girl, once self-conscious, is told to embrace what's naturally hers... by a mother who's waxed and coiffed, in a community where frizz and hairiness as good as don't exist, you can see how that girl would feel something other than pride in her ethnic-ness, hairiness, whatever. If this mother refuses to support her daughter's decision, this will be 2% noble protest against those standards, 98% making the daughter feel powerless, infantilized, miserable.

-If there's anything to protest here, it would be: a) cases where the impetus for follicular artifice - as opposed to merely the money facilitating it - comes from the parents/mother; or b) the fact that back in the day, girls taught one another how to deal with unwanted/unruly hair, and bringing parental supervision and adult-level funds into this might take away a different sort of childhood innocence, the one that's about Becoming A Woman. Maybe the mothers of girls are under a particular responsibility in terms of halting the proliferation of "necessary" beautification procedures. But this would need to change via their own choices first.