Sunday, March 31, 2013


The Jezebel ring-threads I find so fascinating now have a companion piece: the comments on a personal essay about one woman's journey from expensive Bergdorf's wedding dress to a somewhat cheaper Bergdorf's wedding dress. The essay itself is... as good as an essay on that topic is going to be.

The comments, however, are spectacular. Wouldn't you know it but NYT comment-leavers and their spouses/mothers/whatever got married in "a simple white drees [sic] that back then probably was a hundred bucks," "a $75 dress I'd found on the clearance rack," "a lovely regular length white dress (a hand-me-down given to me by another friend)," "a very inexpensive, non-wedding dress I got from an amazing little shop in Antwerp, Belgium," "a $35 vintage 40s black dress," "a very simple, white, almost 'peasant' number with flared sleeves and a scooped neck," "a beautiful used wedding dress at Value World for about $10," and however many more.

And it's very much like the ring competitions, except that here, the woman is actually deciding for herself what she wants to wear. The oneupmanship over who has the cheapest and most ethical and most original engagement ring are a big harder to take because many (most?) of these rings were selected for the woman in question. It becomes this pseudo-feminist competition over whose fiancé/husband is the most sensitive to his fiancée/wife's progressive, independent spirit. Unless there was a gender-neutral or gender-reversed proposal and both spouses got a ring. Then there can still potentially be sanctimony (as well as ignorance re: the provenance of gems that are not diamonds), but there's at least consistency.

The dress version is, for those reason and others (namely my subjective assessment of such matters), less off-putting. I mean, this is a dress you wear once (twice if you celebrate with family in two different locales, or this was my approach), and there is a huge markup on bridal-looking white dresses that are officially wedding dresses - one that's readily avoided either by just buying that kind of dress at a normal (even high-end) store, or by going with other formalwear. Or a potato sack. As wary as I am of fauxbivalence, the Cheapness Studies angle might cancel it out. 

"How could anybody not like you?" - Helen Seinfeld

At the intersection of parental overshare and the window-of-opportunity problem: the Princeton University mom who wrote a letter to a Princeton publication about her Princeton sons' eligibility, or something, and caused the internet to explode, or at any rate the website with her letter on it to crash. Then New York Magazine interviewed her. The internet exploded some more. I'm not sure if I've read the entire letter, because as I said, the original is unavailable, but as it was apparently quite short, it could be that the NYMag excerpt is the thing in its entirety. In any case, as a self-proclaimed expert in related areas, and a resident of the town of Princeton but not for reasons related to that university, my very important thoughts on this are below.

First, some defending-the-indefensible:

-According to the official WWPD definition, embarrassing parent-writing is not parental overshare if the child is an adult. It's always awkward to write about living family members, but if they're old enough to give consent, or to write their own tirade without fearing being grounded/getting cut off/worse, it's not quite the same. Nevertheless, the first example I ever gave of the phenomenon, before delving into its nuances, involved a mother writing about her 19-year-old son. And if the "child" is an adult as in over 18, but a financially dependent young college student...

In this case, we don't actually learn anything much about this woman's own two sons. Only that she thinks highly of them, in that very specific way the mothers of sons often do:

I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians. My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone. My younger son is a junior and the universe of women he can marry is limitless.
Are we all now cringing on behalf of these two golden boys? Yes. But the only controversial thing we've learned about them is that their mother is quite something, which is actually something about her. And parents are under no ethical obligation not to be ridiculous, lest that ridiculousness be off-putting to would-be dates, employers, etc. While the letter could be read as an attempt to get her younger son a girlfriend, I'm not sure anyone interpreted it as evidence that he needed this help.

-The Princeton mom made a bunch of outrageous assumptions, but assuming that women will one day want to marry men wasn't one of them. Yet one response I've seen to this letter has been that not everyone is straight. Which... fair enough, but most people are indeed heterosexual. Full legal and social acceptance of LGBT individuals will not bring about a time in which the bulk of men don't want to marry women, the bulk of women don't want to marry men. (Even if we call it something other than "marry" in that progressive utopia.) Along the same lines, it is harder to meet someone once you're out of school, and women's romantic options do decrease with age relative to those of men.

-The answer to a what-year-is-this? demand that female college freshmen husband-hunt so as to avoid being single, haggard 22-year-olds is not to say that college is too young to find a spouse. As came up here recently, to marry at a 'sensible' age, and after getting to know your future spouse a sensible amount, you need to have gotten together with that person while still too young to have possibly been thinking about marriage. (Or you can meet at the 'right' age and marry 'too late' - thus why these categories themselves are the problem.) That's where the window-of-opportunity issue occurs - women of 22 are told that it would be insane for them to look for husbands... but come 25, and it's a disaster they haven't already found The One. It's certainly reactionary to shift the window-of-opportunity down in age to freshman year of college, but the answer isn't to keep the window as elusive but place it at 29.

Now, I join the chorus:

-That a man has gone to a top-three Ivy most certainly does not mean his romantic options are "limitless." Some men do think this, which makes it all the more fun for the women who get to disabuse them of that notion.

-"Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated." The first, kinda-sorta, but the second two, not so much. That may have once been the case, but no more. Fancy-college (what Princeton Mom is using as a proxy for intelligence) is now a gender-neutral class signifier, and there's not much socioeconomic intermingling. A cashier at Wawa might be stunning, but a Princeton undergrad dude isn't going to even notice that (or, at least, isn't going to bring her home for Thanksgiving), because that's how it goes in class-less America.

-Do 18-year-old women have the most romantic options? On paper, it seems like they might, but in reality? If we're talking marriage, very young women probably don't have as many options as women further into their 20s, because the bulk of the romantic interest they attract (or seek out!) tends to be of a more casual variety. (Older men interested in very young women tend to have that interest in part because they're trying to avoid settling down.)

-Straight women who are college seniors do indeed have fewer options at college, unless they're prepared to date freshman, which, as a rule, they're not. And at colleges on the whole, it can be difficult to meet people who aren't fellow undergraduates. But! In this particular case! Hello! There are so many slightly-older single men in Princeton, most with a Princeton affiliation, who will happily date 21-22-year-old Princeton women. Graduate students! Postdocs! I find it hilarious that there's a man shortage down the road, given the profound woman shortage in this neck of the woods.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Back in the day, a certain cult-of-personality English teacher (not, I believe, in the sinister sense) at my high school, in a class dedicated largely to the purported genius of one male classmate, told my mother that I was "demure." I've gotten feedback like this over the years, if rarely phrased so... memorably. While a reserved-in-a-gender-normative-sense personality (perhaps not evident on-blog, or perhaps, who knows) might increase my allure in the realm of coffee-shop pick-up artists, it's not such a boon professionally. I have a whopping to-do list of editors and such to follow up with, writers I'd like to get coffee with in person to find out more about the profession what with everyone around me being an academic, but there is The Demure. It creeps up, this Demure, and makes me think that rather than pestering very important people who are, we can safely say, not sitting by their phones waiting for my email, I will... go for a run. Go grocery-shopping. Spend a week longer than absolutely necessary on a dissertation chapter. I'll be somehow productive, I'll stay off the streets, as it were, but I won't be heedlessly ambitious.

I really do think this is less about fearing rejection (internal grad-school funding competitions taught the win-some lose-some life lesson, if I hadn't learned it already) than a really ingrained sense that if a magazine editor contacts me out of the blue wanting me to write for it, or a literary agent expresses interest, and I reply enthusiastically and never hear back, I should do nothing. Not nothing - there's a friggin' dissertation in the works, people! But nothing in that particular situation.

Things like this do happen to me every so often, always in clusters, and, in anticipation of being told that my writing and ideas are in fact the very weakest to have ever emerged from a human brain (and writing for any place with lots of readers, there will always be commenters prepared to assure me of that), I opt not to bother those other than my three readers here at WWPD with my blather. And these are situations where someone who's a big deal definitively does like my writing and, presumably, topic-selection. What of all the decision-makers who don't even know who I am? Well, I'm not flooding their inboxes, to put it mildly.

I'd thought this was just me, or just me being appropriate. (If whichever entity desperately wanted me published, it would have happened. Which does sound "The Rules"-ish as I type it...) Then, on a Slate DoubleX discussion of... Lean In (which, Flavia, I do plan to read, but so do all other members of the local public library, and I'm demurely waiting my turn)? That survey of women's representation in major magazines?, it emerged that there's a huge gender disparity in who pitches articles, and in how persistent writers are in getting published. Women will pitch, hear 'no thanks,' and never pitch again. Men will pitch, hear 'no way,' and ask to be made editor.

I exaggerate slightly. But on this podcast or somewhere similar, it also came out that men will expect job-jobs when equivalently-credentialed women will shoot for - you guessed it - an internship. So it's not exactly that women aren't pursuing that career, or putting themselves out there. They're just doing it in a way that isn't quite so entitled. And "entitled" is apparently what you need if you don't want a fate of jogging, grocery-shopping, and slow-motion Chapter-Seven writing.

All of this seems the bleeding obvious, Gender Studies 101, but it hasn't been, for me, as I've been living it.

So! I think I know what I must change, and it's not turning a half-hour jogging routine into an hour-long one. I have not addressed whether aggressive women are then penalized in the workforce. They say it's true, but in my experience, it sure beats passivity.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On "Josh" and "Seth"

I will admit that I first read this reference to TV writers as "white dudes with names like Josh or Seth" as a bit Jews-control-the-media. But then I thought about it and wasn't sure. Is Seth a Jewish name in this context? Maybe yes, maybe no. (I have no Jewdar, as Seth Adam Meyers is apparently not Jewish.) While half of all Jewish men of my generation are named Josh (I exaggerate, but slightly), it's just a common name all-around. Right?

But if not "Jewish," what are those names meant to indicate? "White," maybe, but since that's already in there, it would be redundant. But these things are complicated. If I can't say offhand whether "Seth" and "Josh" mean "Jewish" to most Americans, how on earth do I know if this Jezebel writer (whose name only tells me "female") is or is not someone who'd even know that these names would read that way to many people, that this would fit into a really fundamental anti-Semitic accusation. And not just some accusation one reads about in history textbooks - I've seen this criticism recently regarding the writing staff of "Girls" - that the show is not merely white but Jewish apparently does the opposite of mitigate the problem for some observers. Hmm.

Back to Jezebel. A reply to a comment calling this post anti-Semitic is both helpful-ish and itself possibly offensive: "This tells me that you have never been in the US of A ever. Josh and Seth are pretty stereotypical White non-Jewish frat boy names these days, just like Zack." The second sentence, helpful. (Old-Testament first names are confusing! If you're Jewish and you mostly know other Jews, or know mainly Catholics, these sound to you like Jewish names. And then you start wondering whether all the British Davids and Rachels could possibly be Jewish, and you realize, ah, Protestants!) The first, purest anti-Semitic assholery - a provincial American Jew from whichever Jewish coastal/suburban enclave is just as American as a provincial Methodist from Kansas. Ugh that this needs to be pointed out.

Your friends, your politics

The anti-same-sex-marriage-from-the-left arguments keep on popping up (along with passionate arguments about whether it is sheep-like or a nice gesture to replace one's profile picture with an equal sign, but these I don't find so interesting) on the ol' newsfeed. This, most recently. And somehow, reading this latest installment, it occurred to me what this reminded me of: anti-Zionism from within the Jewish community.

In both cases, what happens is, communities do - should! - determine for themselves what it is they want. LGBT rights shouldn't mean marriage just because straight people think that's how it goes, nor should pro-Jewish mean pro-Israel just because non-Jews not too educated on the issue assume The Jews everywhere want what's best for Likud. Internal debates are important.

But! Those who argue internally and only internally can lose sight of the broader debates about the issues that pertain to their community. With Israel, if you're only ever arguing with fellow Jews to your political right on this topic, you can miss the extent to which 'plight of the Palestinians' is, from certain non-Jewish quarters, code for anti-Semitism; unrelated to sorting out the actual problems facing any actual Palestinians, and; I should add, entirely compatible with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bigotry. Similarly, if you're only ever discussing same-sex marriage in friendly environments where nobody doubts the humanity of gays and lesbians, perhaps only in spaces where everyone is him/herself gay or lesbian, you may naturally minimize the significance of hatred to the broader debate on this issue.

So what happens, in extreme cases, is the famous extreme-left meets extreme-right. While I am far from the first to mention that phenomenon, I haven't seen this particular explanation for how it comes about anywhere else.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"My muffin-top is all that, whole grain, low fat" - Jenna Maroney

Ron Rosenbaum has written a contrarian defense of fat-the-ingredient. (Via Mark Bittman, who so could have torn this apart, but must have better things to do.) The only problem is, Rosenbaum's straw-man is non-existent or, at best, long-gone. These days, there is no war on fat. There's a war on sugar. There's a war on "carbs." There's a war on processed food, including trans-fats. There's shaming of fat people. But there's no war on "split-shank beef marrow." Hardly!

Rosenbaum speaks of "another world of fatty foods, a world beyond bacon and barbecue—not the froufrou fatty foods of foodies either, but basic, earthy, luxuriant fatty foods like roast goose, split-shank beef marrow and clotted cream," as if it's 1992 and everyone who was anyone sought out 'gourmet.' What he mentions as the honest middle-ground are the "foodie" favorites. Has Rosenbaum missed farm-to-fork? Local-seasonal? Michael Pollan? Is he not as up-to-date as I am on Leonard Lopate's "Food Fridays," and if so, who's walking his hyperactive dog? (Thanks to Bisou, I am beyond up-to-date on podcasts.)

Or perhaps he's conflating today's food-movement with an earlier yuppie approach to food, albeit one it diametrically opposes:

Eating fatty foods has become the culinary version of "Breaking Bad": a dangerous walk on the wild side for the otherwise timid consumers of tasteless butter substitutes and Lean Cuisine. Soon the fear-of-food crowd will leave us with nothing but watery prison gruel (whole grain, of course) and the nine daily servings of kale, collards, spinach and other pesticide-laced and e-coli-menaced greens and fruits on the agribusiness-promoted "food pyramid."
The kale people and the margarine people, so not the same! The kale people are telling you to add lots of real-food fat to the kale!

Except when they're notJane Brody and others do continue to preach the gospel of lite, because old habits die hard. Rosenbaum's addressing something that hasn't entirely disappeared. There certainly was an anti-fat-the-ingredient time, and it wasn't that long ago. I was raised in those Tasti-D-Liteful years, when sugar might be added to salad dressings in lieu of too much oil, and some of that still lingers. I went off diet Coke (and onto SodaStream seltzer - plain water, in time) ages ago, and add plenty of butter or olive oil to my food. I wouldn't think of alternatives to ice cream. But I still buy skim milk, because that's the taste I'm used to. Because that's what I buy. I only ever think about this when baking, and it will occur to me that cannelés probably won't work with skim. However, given how often cannelés have happened (that would be once), I'm not too worried about it.

News and commentary

I know I should follow the Supreme Court news from the newspaper. And I am. These are exciting times!

But the Facebook response is so compelling. Friends who've replaced their profile photo* with equal signs of different colors. Some, I think, post one, then switch the color. Some of these profile-switches get more likes than others. Is this about how gay-friendly their friends are? Or how many friends they have, how much their friends like them? Or how late in the day they got around to doing this? Time zones? Is Facebook advocacy inauthentic if not backed up by in-the-trenches support, or better than nothing? What does it all mean?

More substantively, a friend of several friends, a person with I suppose not so strict privacy settings, has produced an epic tirade attacking same-sex marriage and straight allies... from the left. And not just the usual critique from the left, that marriage is a limiting, religiously-tinged institution for boring straight people. This person seems to think straight support for same-sex marriage is some kind of conspiracy to deny AIDS patients medical care, and that to be an ally, you need to fight capitalism. 38 people, last I checked, like this. (So much for the gay, married, and capitalist.) I was on the cusp of considering posting something myself - against my general rule of not getting involved with solving-contentious-issues-on-Facebook - until I realized that the thread didn't originate with anyone I know or even know of, and thus that settings were such that this thread was, for me, read-only. For the best!

I've seen no evidence of anyone on my list (which does have some political diversity, what with my own political meanderings over the years, and what with UChicago) opposing same-sex marriage from the right. I remember a NYT story recently about the existence of young anti-SSM activists, but there are NYT stories about people who eat only farmers'-market food year-round and other ideological micro-minorities. Is my newsfeed devoid of opposition because it's become socially acceptable for conservatives/Republicans to support gay marriage, so whichever percentage opposed it for party-line reasons (as opposed to religious reasons, why-has-sexuality-been-split-from-reproduction reasons, or simple bigotry) now get to either support it or not care either way? Yes, fine, an unrepresentative sample if there ever was one, but it's uplifting all the same.

*My profile picture is my dog in profile, but I am, for the record, in favor of marriage equality. I asked Bisou (note to self: dissertate from a library or coffee shop, not home), and she's on board, although she remains miffed that the boy-dog she chases around the dog run definitively prefers being chased - and caught - by another of his kind. In this way, poodle female adolescence resembles the human variety.

Bad kids

I hadn't written anything about Steubenville thus far because I felt I had nothing to add. Rape is terrible and deserves to be punished. You do not need WWPD to tell you this. Institutions don't like making a fuss and allow terrible things to happen. Indeed, indeed, but my anecdotal evidence in that regard is sufficiently different from the Steubenville case that I had nothing to add on that account. I was prepared to find this upsetting, to discuss it privately, and not to respond to it on here unless I thought I had something to contribute, some way to better explain what happened and how things like it might be prevented. The big issues - victim-blaming, football culture, and more - have already been addressed elsewhere.

Then something occurred to me listening to a report about the case, where someone was calling in to say that whoever gave or sold these children alcohol needed to be held responsible. While there may be nothing to it, which could be why I haven't seen it addressed elsewhere, here goes:

Under the most ordinary of circumstances, teenage behavior in America is criminalized or deemed illicit. Teenagers (20-year-olds) who have a beer at a party, just the one, regardless of their car access or lack thereof, are bad kids. In my life, to my knowledge, I've met exactly two people who waited to drink until they were 21 (others, of course, didn't drink before or after). That's a whole lot of bad (nerdy) kids! And teenagers (anyone not yet married) who have entirely consensual sex with a significant other are engaging in premarital sex and are thus not being abstinent, and are thus bad kids, if not criminals like the underage drinkers. How strongly these taboos are felt depends on which region, but if they made it to the godless cities where I spent my youth, they're out there.

In some other parts of the West, too much drinking is bad, sexual assault is bad, but there's no sense that one can cross over from pure to impure simply by acting like everyone else your age. But for teens in the States, as I remember it, this leads to an atmosphere at parties and such where it feels like simply hanging out is being bad, breaking rules or laws, being a Youth, a criminal. Even the good kids feel they're being bad. Much that happens, if were to emerge on social media (which, I shall repeat for the zillionth time, happily did not exist in my own youth), would be devastating. A good kid with a drink in his hand! A photo of a party where a whole group of kids are acting silly - does that mean they're drunk? A reference to contraception announcing not responsibility but sexual activity! Things that having nothing to do with blacking out drunk, let alone with rape.

Once there's a sense among teenagers that a normal weekend is a weekend of illicit activity, lines can blur. Kids baseline feel like criminals, baseline feel like their behavior, if it reached authority figures, would damn them for life. If kids are at the top of some hierarchy (football or other), their being able to drink without punishment will already place them above the law. But the "law" threshold is so low that, while I don't believe there's genuine confusion over the difference between a beer at a party and sexual assault, there's a sense in which the mindset of 'I'm being bad' may contribute to how kids who do genuinely bad things justify their behavior to themselves in the moment.

None of this, I should note, is a policy prescription. For all I know, lowering the drinking age would so increase the number of fatal traffic accidents as to render all of this almost irrelevant.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Too brilliant to bathe, home edition

Emily Shire, weighing in on the gender-and-messiness debate:
And just think about how messy men are portrayed in popular culture. An unkempt space is a sign of a man’s strong work ethic, as he’s too busy dealing with “real” problems to bother tidying up. It’s endearing when President Obama mentions how his Washington, D.C., apartment as a junior senator was piled with pizza boxes. At worst, messy men have a lovable, “absent-minded professor” quality.

On the other hand, messiness in women usually denotes a life in disarray. In the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, an opening scene of pajama-ed Renée Zellweger going through a fridge that is mostly empty—save for a few expired items—establishes how pathetic her professional and personal life are. Think of the countless romantic comedies that cut to a shot of a woman’s bedroom strewn with clothes and a half-eaten pint of ice cream to connote depression after a breakup.
I've already infuriated the internet with my thoughts on gender disparities as they relate to personal appearance. But I hadn't thought about how this relates to household maintenance. Probably because I'm one of those people who cares about cleanliness but not neatness. But as Shire explains it, it's effectively the same - men can be too brilliant to clean, but women cannot.

As with too brilliant to bathe, this probably does mean that men who don't clean because they're depressed are more easily overlooked, so this isn't all a great boon for men, either. But on the whole, this is clearly better for men than women. I'd be more inclined to say here than re: looks that the answer is less caring-about-it all around, but I suppose it depends how much squalor we're talking about.

Great moments in fashion cluelessness

"I think she is a great reference for young professional women." So says the Sartorialist, and just below is a photo of the woman in question. Chic? Sure. Young? I suppose so. Woman? The certainty with which we can affirm this is the giveaway regarding where this outfit - which kind of works on the woman in question, in the context of her work environment - might not constitute "professional."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

$90 yoga pants revisited

In a recent post on materialism, I gave Lululemon yoga pants as an example of a desired but not that desired purchase. I would like to be able to readily afford said pants, but can't. But the pants themselves, eh. If they were my dream item, I'd have bought them and scrimped in other areas over the course of however many months. They're not, and I haven't. But knowing that perfect workout (lounge) wear exists, and that I'm not in a position to upgrade, reminds me of my, ahem, life choices (grad school, the light, the end of the tunnel...), and thus makes said pants more special than they'd be if I were in the $90-no-big-deal income bracket.

Well. Shortly after that post, not merely Lululemon, but the very pants I was referring to (actually more like $98) became the center of a scandal. Not only were the black yoga pants recalled for being too sheer (inspiring an internet-wide laughing fit), but the stores are apparently so inept at PR that they're asking customers to bend over and show just how sheer the pants are if they want to return them. There are evidently still more problems with the pants (pilling, dye-bleeding), such that we who own inferior workout (lounge) pants get to be all smug.

In any case, scandal and personal-finance concerns aside, I also realized that the pants I was quasi-coveting would be no good for another reason entirely: they flare at the bottom, and I live in tick country. If I'm going to run in the woods (or justify the purchase of loungewear with that twice-weekly occurrence), I need to wear something in the leggings/running tights family. Which are never incredibly flattering, and thus not worth spending much on.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Close proximity to livestock"

Today I finally made it to the nearby Cherry Grove Farm, which is the only sort of farm in the area of much interest in this produce-barren season: one centered around cheese! And it was one of those 'that was there all this time?' moments. There were baby goats. There were adult goats, cows, pigs. Chickens and cats just meandering around. (Drive carefully!) Calves so adorable that if I were ever seeking out veal in the first place, I might have to stop. (Chickens, not so adorable. Pigs neither. This is not an ethical treatise on animal consumption, but a beauty contest. I win no award for eating very little meat, on account of I'm not often up for it. Cheese, however...)

There was some very literal farm-to-mouth happening, when all of a sudden, at the farm store, there was this cheese tasting it would have been impolite not to participate in. I'd tried cheese from this farm before (thus, in part, the reason for visiting the place), but on-site was something else. I ended up opting for the Herdsman variety, which I will melt over everything. That and a dozen eggs, although I had just bought a dozen at the supermarket, because the proximity of chickens demanded it. These are special eggs, and thus will be soft-boiled and not turned into brownies. Big plans, big plans. 

Chicken, office.

Baby goats, not unlike fully-grown miniature poodles.

When you travel internationally, they ask you on the customs form on the flight back if you've been in "close proximity to livestock." It appears that I have, but this was domestic, so the government's not interested.

Friday, March 22, 2013

"Young and impulsive"

Caryatis pointed me to this (relatively tame) Savage Love letter, from a 28-year-old man with a 28-year-old husband he'd been with since they were 24. I had known Savage to make arguments like this, and had tried to dig one up to link to here, but the trouble with podcasts is searching them, and I hadn't found any in his searchable oeuvre. Anyway:

These two men, apart from being 28, have a messed-up and possibly unfixable marriage. Sad, but seemingly unrelated to their age, which is unremarkable. As in, not worth remarking on, since as per the document Savage links to, the median age for a man to marry is 28. As Caryatis notes, we don't learn when this couple got married. For all we know, they married after five minutes at age 24. But "together" from 24 and married at 28 does not mean married at 24 and together since 17. To marry at a so-called reasonable age, after a so-called reasonable amount of time, you need to have met your spouse while too young to marry. Nevertheless, Savage takes the opportunity to launch into a speech about the "young and impulsive" who enter marriages all but doomed to fail:

According to the Pew Research Center, early marriage correlates strongly with divorce. The younger a couple is when they marry, the likelier they are to divorce. There are often other factors at play, of course, and there are plenty of people out there who got married in their teens or twenties and are still with their first spouses.
Well. It's good to know that on rare occasions, people who get married in their twenties do not divorce. Their twenties! You know the NYT Weddings pages, that sea of highly-educated 27-29.5-year-old brides? Some of those couples just might make it.

I mean, gah! How is this meant to work for women, this rule by which one cannot marry or even begin dating one's future spouse until age 30? Fertility isn't everything, but it isn't nothing, either. I'm not aware of a study saying that it's better to marry at 32 than 28, but I do remember hearing somewhere (intentional understatement - this is all one hears about) that IVF is best avoided if possible.

If Savage were talking only about gay male couples, fair enough, although same-sex marriage is kind of new to start imposing window-of-opportunity restrictions on it as well. (And are gay male college sweethearts who start thinking about marriage at 25 rightly considered "impulsive"?) But he's not. He's saying that 30 is the age at which anyone, male or female, straight or LGBT, can start even thinking about settling down without that being foolish.

Goes around, comes around

Maybe these things are cyclical, because this doesn't feel entirely new, but it seems we've rediscovered that middle school is awful. A parent writes (anonymously) to the NYT parenting/mothering blog that her daughter is in seventh grade and doesn't want to go to school. Should she transfer? We're told much about the school and her academics, not why she doesn't want to go, which would probably give us the answer. Bullying? Transfer. Seventh grade is unpleasant? Stay put - it'll be over soon enough. 

Also cyclical: the re-re-rediscovery that diamond engagement rings, rather than being an essential fact of human sexuality, are - gasp - a cultural construction. Rohin Dhar at Business Insider has penned the latest exposé, although in 2007, Meghan O'Rourke brought us to about the same place. Dhar begins with what I'm going to read as hyperbole: "American males enter adulthood through a peculiar rite of passage - they spend most of their savings on a shiny piece of rock." Jewelry aside, is marriage how men these days enter adulthood? And are they really rendered so destitute by ring-purchases? His point -- "Diamonds are not actually scarce, make a terrible investment, and are purely valuable as a status symbol." -- is a mix of true and eh. Is anyone buying a diamond ring - or a pair of pants, or anything other than a stock or similar -- as an investment?  

As a rule, I like the idea of telling people that things they think they must buy are actually optional. And there probably are men out there who need to hear that the world won't end if they don't go broke buying a ring. But these revelations always come up short. Yes, marketing is a thing; companies want us to buy their products; companies mark up prices to turn a profit; and if we knew where just about anything we owned/ate came from, we'd be horrified. This isn't diamond rings. This is capitalism. This is why we don't all go around in potato sacks. (Diamonds are probably worse than sneakers, are definitely worse than quinoa, but might not be worse than other gemstones. It's possible to win at unconventional and fail at ethical.) 

And, allow me to repeat myself, but these revelations inevitably inspire comment threads of individuals explaining how non-sheep-like they were or will be in their own formation of government-stamped heterosexual unions made official when the man offers the woman a precious metal band with a gemstone in it. 

Meanwhile, marketing isn't everything. The human interest in adornment isn't unique to capitalist societies. Nor the human interest in symbols. The value of a diamond (or diamond-looking) ring isn't necessarily status, at least not in the way Dhar suggests. Some couples want wedding jewelry that looks like what it is. And we live in the society we do, shaped by forces, marketing and more, that preceded us - a diamond or diamond-looking ring of a certain shape says "nuptial." The stone doesn't have to be any particular size or authenticity for that to be the case. 

Personally - fine, on this topic, why not the personal - I'm not interested in jewelry, can maybe get it together to wear earrings, but mostly not even that. (Shiny ballet flats, yes. Sparkly nail polish, yes. Jewelry, never saw the point.) The only jewelry I wear, 99% of the time, is the symbolic variety, so yes, I like that it looks like what it is. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"On paper" UPDATED

Sometimes we all make assumptions. For instance, I'd assume an American Jewish woman of a certain generation would be familiar with what the "Jewish American Princess" stereotype consists of. As I have been informed that not all readers of my blog are American Jewish women around my mother's age (that my blog is read by more than just my mother), I will link to the Wikipedia entry on the phenomenon, which is incomplete but gives some sense. What it doesn't get into is the sexual aspect of the "JAP" cliché. The "JAP," according to tradition, wants a husband desperately for money and status, but is frigid and uptight. She's preoccupied with what she looks like, but her husband needs to be a hard-working pushover, and Jewish, and that's about it. 

Which is why I'm completely flummoxed by (JTL, avert your eyes) this recent Dear Prudence exchange:
Dear Prudence, 
I am a 31-year-old American Jewish woman who has been studying veterinary medicine and working in London for the past several years. I am ready to start a family. I recently ended a casual relationship with a man I desperately loved, but who wasn’t ready to commit. Enter David, a tall, blue-eyed Jewish doctor I would be proud to introduce to my family (the antithesis of the dark, hipster man I still think about). David is sweet and kind and everything I could ask for, on paper. We are a couple of months in and he wants to meet my mom, but I'm scared my family will love him so much I will be pressured into marrying him. Here’s my problem: He's bald. When we have sex it just sometimes feels like I'm banging an infant or grandpa and I get weirded out. I have never imagined being with a bald man for the rest of my life. I'd also like him to work out more than he does—I’m a workout junkie. All superficial things, but isn't passion and attraction an essential ingredient to a happy relationship? How do I improve a man without demoralizing his ego? How do I get past the baldness without resorting to asking him to wear a hat?

—Self-professed JAP

Dear Self,

I despise the Jewish American Princess stereotype, but in your case, you deserve the crown and scepter. Out of nowhere, just as you feel your egg timer ticking, comes a tall, kind, blue-eyed Jewish doctor who’s crazy about you. I’m ready to plotz! But you want to kick him out of bed because of a weak follicular showing. Surely you know that one day, no matter how much you can bench press, your breasts will deflate. I sincerely hope that your husband—if you find one—won’t complain that he feels as if he’s having sex with his grandmother. [....]
OK, so. Several issues here. One being that baldness and/or paunch are kind of the name of the game if you're a heterosexual woman over the age of 16 and not a supermodel. Heck, even if you are a supermodel. And even if your dude is currently musclebound and with a full head of hair, look around at men of various ages and it will become clear that what's common at 20 is less so at 50. So I wouldn't think to anchor male beauty to either of these. As Yoffe notes, aging happens to us all, and in predictable enough ways. That said, men don't seem to have a problem anchoring female beauty to qualities more often found in the young, even when assessing women they perfectly well know to be middle-aged. A further that-said: there's a case for being attracted to your partner initially, and then taking what comes aging-wise later on. Blather blather blather, but allow me to get to the point:

How does Yoffe, given her professed familiarity with the stereotype (and she's from the generation most plagued by it, I suppose), not see that it is in no way "jappy" to care what a man you're intimately involved with looks like? The "JAP" is utterly uninterested in intimacy or sexual pleasure. It is the precise opposite of the "JAP" stereotype to meet a nice Jewish doctor and think not, OMG when am I getting the ring, but, does he do it for me physically? And life being unfair, part of sexual attraction for the non-blind is, do you like looking at this person while you're having sex with them? Does this add to or detract from the experience? Obviously, not all women will consider baldness and paunch detractions - just as there are gay men who prefer the bear look, there are probably that many more straight women who simply associate that look with masculinity and would be suspicious of a never-aging Keanu Reeves type. (Poor Keanu, must be tough for him to get a date.) But the letter-writer, for whatever reason, is not one of those women. She spells out that she does not like looking at this guy while they are having sex.

These are, then, two separate questions: a) is she being a "JAP"? and b) is she being reasonable? Re: the first, it's an obvious no, this is exactly what a "JAP" does not do. If she cared what he looked like to her friends, if there were a status angle, maybe, but if this is about their most private moments together, nope, definitely not. Re: the second, it's less straightforward. It kind of hinges on whether "I am ready to start a family" refers to her desire to do so, in which case it might be time to reconsider an aversion to what heterosexual men in a 31-year-old woman's dating pool tend to look like, or whether this is something she feels she must say, but the occasional fling with a Keanu would be more to her liking. And I'd kind of guess the latter - the 'too-picky' single woman is often enough a woman who doesn't want domesticity but feels somehow obliged to pretend that she does.


So the consensus in the comments (which are, btw, impossible to read what with the scrolling, and mostly about the other letters) seems to be that a Jewish doctor with a British accent is the prize of the millenium. There are female commenters prepared to run off with him sight unseen. And it's readily agreed that this woman is a "JAP," because apparently "JAP" just means a single Jewish woman not aware that her kind ("JAPs" or Jewish women generally?) is so repugnant to men that she must take what she can get. The consensus is that a woman who expresses preferences for what the man she's sleeping with looks like is being superficial, that these preferences are something to be embarrassed about.

The only reasonable points around were that a) the guy deserves to be with someone who finds him attractive (although the reasonableness was mitigated by the accompanying assertion that this guy - sight unseen, remember! we have not heard him speak, observed his manner... - would have a million women lined up to marry him), and b) she might want to hold off introducing this man to her family.

Mostly, though, it's the usual man-shortage nonsense directed at single women generally and single Jewish women in particular. All of which leads me to revise my initial take - this woman should move on. Better for everyone involved.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


When I've written about parental overshare, my focus has been on published articles and memoirs written by the parents themselves. It's only there that you get the mix of writerly ambition and irreproachability. A parent cares, and has his kid's best interests at heart. So if he's written a memoir about his kid's most private moments, this is not the airing of dirty laundry. It's an act of courage. And so on. I've made this argument enough times (since 2008! this post gets a "persistent motifs" tag) that I'm not going to repeat it any further.

What I haven't looked at so much (some, but not much) is the question of articles written about real-life children, articles that name names, but where the author is a journalist not related to the subject. My feeling is, was, that these are a different animal. We don't assume the journalist has the same intimate knowledge of the child's worst moments, nor that the journalist is trying to show off her own parenting skills. No preexisting trust has been violated, and if, years down the line, the kid resents the journalist, this does not also destroy the kid's relationship with his parents. There's something really specific, as I see it, about what happens when the "journalist" is the parent.

But it's still bad form to forever lock a child's identity with information in an article the child can't have possibly consented to, and if there's any way to use pseudonyms and leave photos of the child out of it, why not? This came up recently, when a NYT story on a transgender six-year-old inspired controversy enough to get the paper's public and national editors involved. And... the case for making the child super-identifiable wasn't so strong. That this kid's story had appeared elsewhere doesn't mean the paper doesn't get to make its own decision whether or not to further publicize, or to what degree. According to the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, "parental approval, along with the child’s own willingness, should rule the day." I've emphasized, because the child in question here is for goodness sake six years old. What, in the world at large, can a child that young consent to? What can a child that young possibly have thought through in terms of repercussions of an article in the New York Times? How is this even a question? Six!

Sullivan adds that she "can envision other situations in which parents advocating for a child in this way – those with autism or Down syndrome, for example – would not raise these kinds of questions." The difference there, though, depending on the severity of the autism or Down syndrome, is not just one of stigma (although arguably there's stigma there as well). It's also that a child who could never conceivably read an article about herself in a newspaper is arguably different from one of average intelligence who will one day Google herself.

But re: stigma, precisely because being transgender is stigmatized, this is the sort of thing individuals should get to reveal about themselves in due time, and not have revealed for them to a national/global audience. (Shall we also shed the stigma around rape by providing names of individual victims without their consent?) And with six-year-olds, there's the distinct possibility that they will not identify as transgender as adolescents or adults, and are in fact showing early signs of being gay, or not showing signs of anything in particular. This doesn't mean families and communities shouldn't allow a child to cross-dress, or otherwise be open to the possibility that the kid will be transgender. They should do all of that. But it does mean that an article in the NYT about "a Transgender 6-Year-Old" (from the headline of the post about the controversy) raises extra flags. As would, I suppose, an article about a heterosexual, cisgender six-year-old.

Anyway, in the NYT comments of all places, I found a link to this excellent post by Zeynep Tufekci in response to the controversy. Seems she and I (and a whole bunch of NYT commenters - perhaps a tide has turned?) agree.

Holistic's winners and losers

Miss Self-Important has a post up on affirmative action and holistic admissions. WWPD readers may be familiar with my apparently bizarre stance - in favor of or at the very least neutral to affirmative action, but not in favor of holistic college admissions. I don't think racism is over. I do, however, think there's something ridiculous about telling 17-year-old applicants that they do or don't get into a school on the basis of what they're like as a person. What I've said about this in the past is that it's then unnecessarily devastating to kids when they don't get in somewhere. It's not that you flaked out on too many math homeworks to get into Yale. It's that Yale examined your deepest soul and found it wanting.

But what I hadn't considered was what this process does to those who do get in. MSI nails it:

[T]he opacity of admissions is actually an asset for the most selective schools, a kind of metaphorical analog to the statistical reality. [....] It's because we Harvard students are all so amazing that you can't ever prove that you deserved to dwell among us. No one deserves such favor; it is a pure act of divine sovereign grace to be admitted.
Rather than taking pride in the achievements that got them in, those admitted to top colleges are basically asked to believe they were selected as individuals and are simply better people than the other high-GPA, high-SAT applicants, better in an unquantifiable way. Not more/better leadership positions, sportiveness. No, just plain better. What does this mean for the egos of the meritocratic elite? Can't be good.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Emerged adulthood

Lena Dunham's New Yorker essay about how puppies are nice was what finally permitted me to articulate what it is about Dunham's persona that grates. And no, it wasn't that I too think puppies are nice, and yet the New Yorker didn't ask meeee to write about it. Nor even that her face is there looking at you every time you open the magazine's app, for reasons I don't entirely understand. (She made a video explaining it? and one must be alerted to its existence every week?) Nor is it that she comes from privilege* (she is, as we all know, next in line for the British throne), nor that she doesn't resemble a "Friends"-era Jennifer Aniston.

No, it's something much more simple than that. It's that the Dunham persona is a child. A child in whom we must celebrate any glimmer of adult competence. The essay ends with Dunham saying, of her new dog, "He is mine, and I am old enough to have him," adding of herself, her boyfriend, and her sister, "We are all adults here." And this seems consistent with the tone of other Dunham alter egos elsewhere in her oeuvre. The reason for the Marnie character.

Now. Dunham is 26 years old, nearly 27 (thank you, internet, for such trivia). That is not emerging adulthood. That is emerged adulthood. It's adulthood even for those who aren't as well-established in their careers as Dunham famously is. Why should we be surprised that a grown woman has a boyfriend, or is able to care for a dog? Why, more generally, should we be surprised that Dunham isn't a child anymore, any more than we're surprised when anyone else comes of age and then some? 

It's because of an aw-shucks persona of sorts, this idea that Dunham and the alter egos are such messes, such eternal bratty children, that we should be impressed when they reveal themselves capable of tying their shoes. And this is grating for several reasons. We who are about her age have felt like adults for a good long while. Moreover, we suspect that Dunham has as well. We suspect that the self-presentation as an overgrown (age! not a body-snark!) petulant teen is calculated, with two aims: first, to make Dunham seem like a child prodigy ala Tavi Gevinson (who was legitimately famous at, what, twelve?), and second, to tap into cultural anxieties about adult children living in the proverbial basement. 

Re: the first, this is a bit like scrappiness oneupmanship - all achievements are more impressive if done by someone from a poor background, or if done by a child. If Dunham is a pseudo-child, and we're impressed that she tied her own shoes, we need to be positively awed that she's on HBO and in the New Yorker. The hype about Dunham being so young to be that successful needs to last as long as possible. Re: the second, the possibility that you or your adult child (depending your age) will never quite make it to self-sufficient adulthood is really the concern of the moment. Dunham embodies that, all the while having her act together far more than most definitive adults decades into adulthood. So some of the eye-rolls the Dunham phenomenon inspires might not be resentment over her being successful at a young age (or the expected gender/privilege/looks angle), but rather annoyance over her persona's reliance on eternal youth. 

*Dunham is not helping matters, referring to her Tribeca-loft upbringing as follows: "We didn’t have a proper home. We lived in what was essentially one big room, on Broadway." 

"[O]pportunities to work for free"

Matthew Yglesias has been defending unpaid internships with a lesser-evil argument: they're better than pricey grad school. Specifically, Columbia's journalism grad program, which doesn't come cheap.

I know a bit about about NYU's journalism grad program, which doubtless also doesn't come cheap (although there are scholarships, as there probably are at Columbia), because my own program overlaps with theirs. (French Studies, in its various permutations.) And... journalism grad students also do unpaid internships. Quite possibly the for-course-credit kind.

And this is how it tends to work. Unpaid internships don't replace the need for extra education. Finding them in the first place - getting an in, figuring out which are legit, even knowing to look for them - often requires that you be a student. Maybe in an ideal world (more on that in a moment) an apprenticeship system would make it easier to go less-credentialed, but that's not what happens.

But would this be such an ideal world? School is not work, and paying to go to school is different in several ways from paying to go to work. (Which is what working for free means, all the more so if "free" is happening in a city like New York. Grad school with a stipend that allows you to break even at best might count as "free.")

1) If you pay to work, you're paying to increase a company's profits. Your work, then, however much it may incidentally benefit you (the much-vaunted learning experience), is selected according to what the company needs. Whereas if you pay to go to school, a) the company you're paying is (FWIW) a non-profit, and b) the work you're doing has been chosen according to how much it will benefit you.

2) Degrees are transferrable in a way that work experience is not. That's one reason work needs to pay - because all you take from a given stint might well be the pay. Once you have "MA" affixed to your name, this... may count against you at the Starbucks you're applying to work at, may be in a not-so-lucrative subject area, etc., etc., but it's there. Whereas a line on your resume might mean absolutely nothing more than that you filled your time. I say "filled your time" and not "were employed" because my understanding of this is that time spent unpaid-interning is not necessarily (not usually?) considered time spent employed.

3) If work doesn't always pay, if that isn't just what work is, who's to say when it does pay? After how many weeks, months, years of a position does it begin to offer a paycheck? After how many weeks, months, years in an industry can a "worker" start demanding compensation? Not to get all "Girls" on you, but it's clear enough where this can lead. You can work somewhere for free for ages, but if you're starting from zero pay, negotiating up to even minimum wage can seem a lost cause. It becomes that a worker who demands pay is entitled. It becomes something above-and-beyond to expect from one's employer. (And who's likely not to want to make a fuss? Women. Also those of both sexes not raised to expect to triumph professionally.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Again with the lattes

You who are young and broke, did you know that buying coffee out every day costs more than not doing so? For what is, I estimate, the ten billionth time, the NYT is passing along this useful information.

Having already, in the linked WWPD post, listed my objections to this advice (coming, let me reiterate, from the standpoint of, I'm not commuting and I live in the woods, and thus am not defending a personal daily-coffee-out habit), I won't repeat the whole thing. 

This, though, is worth repeating: the first step, frugality-wise, should always be to cut that which you wouldn't miss. The money you spend on things (or upgrades) you don't notice. What that is will vary from person to person, and maybe it'll be coffee (or switching from lattes to drip), but chances are, if you're getting coffee out, this is something you actively enjoy. If that's where you cut (as opposed to, for example, realizing that there's no particular reason to buy t-shirts from J.Crew rather than Old Navy), you'll feel you're depriving yourself. 

Your to-read list for the day

-Flavia's post on some not-useful new-pope commentary.

-Stephen Metcalf on the brand that is Brooklyn.

-Robert Huber on race in Philadelphia, and responses from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Conor Friedersdorf.

-Lisa Miller's NYMag story on feminist housewives.

-Dina Kraft on how women's desire to be thin is greater than whatever it is that divides Jew and Muslim. Although I don't think that's what one was supposed to take away from the piece.

"Cursed with a plague"

At the risk of revealing that in the year 2013, I have finally discovered the internet, this will be a post about Yelp. 

Yelp reviews as a genre have a lot to admire, but my favorite have to be the ones where someone wanted something very specific, and headed straight for an establishment that plainly does not have the thing in question. The best example of this phenomenon, alas from life, not Yelp, might be when, at a thoroughly decorated Thai restaurant in Heidelberg, Germany, some people came in asking if the place sold schnitzel. Confusing it, seemingly, with a nearby beer-centric restaurant.

Not all cluelessness counts. It needs to be a case where it's obvious a place is/has one thing, and yet the customer demand should somehow trump all, to the point of actually transforming an establishment. And ideally the mistaken individual(s) will be locals - it needs to be entitlement at best, obliviousness at worst, and not culture shock. (It's not hilarious if someone just in from a country that doesn't have the chain - if such places still exist - assumes Starbucks serves hamburgers, or, along the same lines, if someone from a place where the only coffee bars are Starbucks orders a "grande" at a different one while on vacation.) Nor can it be culture clash (class-inflected) within a community - someone used to fast food expecting fries at an upscale restaurant whose emphasis is foams. It needs to be abundantly clear that the mistake was the customer's, and that the customer does not see this.

My all-time favorite on Yelp comes a filtered (which is often key) one-star review of Masa, one of those restaurants in Midtown-broadly-speaking that notoriously cost some freakish amount, but even if you hadn't known this, even if Masa is one of those thousand-dollar meals served in a shabby setting (never been, but I kind of doubt it), menus tend to be helpful in that regard: "My girlfriend was starving and we saw it was a sushi place but didn't look at the prices before we were seated." As someone who has, on occasion, and only in the presence of loved ones, gotten cranky when hungry, I can't even begin to imagine. What completes the story is that the couple then go on to eat dinner at Masa, evidently the most expensive restaurant in all of New York City. As much as it's never advisable, from a Cheapness Studies sense, to go for any sushi when "starving," this individuals somehow set out for a couple of California rolls and ended up, what, a thousand dollars lighter?

Another, not filtered, of a Williamsburg coffee shop I've peeked into and am now desperate to actually try:
I didn't think it was possible to find a more pretentious, smugly elitist coffee shop than Blue Bottle, which is 3 blocks away. Yet somehow in Williamsburg we are cursed with a plague of affectation, and it descends upon Toby's Estate with vengeance equal to that with which it claimed its brother on Wythe. 
First off, I like the idea that one is "cursed with a plague," and that plague is independent coffee shops. Let it be known that I would welcome such a plague. Note the "we" - this is someone who lives in Williamsburg. It continues:
I came here for a quick cup of coffee after missing the ferry, hoping for a quick pick-me-up before waking back to the pier. I disclosed my desire for speed to the lady at the counter and she assured me they could deliver.
It can't just be that I worked in a coffee shop that I find the idea of someone asking a counterperson at a coffee shop to make their drink quickly some mix of rude and hilarious. There were X people ahead of you in line, and their drinks need to be made first. What makes your time more valuable than theirs? (Where's the Bitter Barista when you need him?) 

Lo and behold, the hip coffee shop in Williamsburg proved not to be a coffee cart, a Dunkin Donuts, or a vending machine:
Five minutes later I was still waiting at the counter while a bearded betattooed hipster traded stories absentmindedly with another hipster about (I kid you not) their most sublime "coffee experiences." Telling this man, who clearly possessed no concept of time, that I was in a hurry was like talking to Mr. Bean in "Love Actually." I pleaded with him that I would take whatever had dropped through my miserable individual filter [...]
Ah! The pour-over method. Always a good thing to check for if you're expecting a quick cup of regular coffee. Pour-over, for the uninitiated, means it would be quicker and cheaper to get an espresso, maybe even an espresso-and-foam concoction. But this individual, who a) lives in Williamsburg, and b) has done so long enough to have encountered Blue Bottle is initiated. This is the very definition of what not to order if you're in a hurry.

And it goes on - dude (or dudette - although various clues suggest this individual is male) misses his second consecutive ferry. But the coffee itself was not bad after all.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Middle school and the neurosis of narcissism

As I sit waiting for commenter Caryatis's mystery "suggestion about" my "writing style" (about which I'm of course extra-self-conscious as the dissertation deadline looms), I will risk inflicting it, in all its passive-voiced, parenthetical-filled, insufficiently-concise-unless-I've-read-it-over-and-if-it's-on-WWPD-chances-are-I-have-not glory (along with whichever mystery quality everyone but me is aware of but that all until Caryatis, including professional editors, have been too polite to point out, gah!!!) on you, my constructively-critical readers. If you wish to put this post into a word doc and return it to me with track changes, by all means. (Consider me 15% serious.)

Self-consciousness is really the right state of mind to be in for this post, which is about middle school.

So. The book of the moment is Emily Bazelon's much-publicized one on bullying. (Will I read it? Will I get around to seeing if anyone wants me to review it? Or - realistically - will I be too focused on wrapping up The Thing, by which I mean a certain bloated research project which, if I de-bloat it, could theoretically culminate in an advanced degree.*)

Bullying, of course, has been topic du jour since Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better Project. What began as a sudden awareness that the rate at which LGBT kids are bullied (at school and online, but also at home and at church) surely relates to the rate of suicide and self-destructive behavior in that population has, it seemed, morphed into a more general sense that the cruelty of childhood is not something we should just accept.

And it used to be more than just accepted. Some of what we now view as bullying would, in the past, have been seen as character-building. We might have pitied home-schooled kids precisely for not having gotten made fun of by their peers, an experience that thickens the skin and prepares one for adulthood. But today, that view seems out of date. We must not only remember that there's nothing wrong with being gender-non-conforming, but also that the annoying kid perhaps has a disorder of some kind. The idea that one's quirks should be lessened via socialization... persists, but has become controversial.

I'm 29, and so the last of the pre-enlightened generation. Though born smack in the middle of the milieu that now does this, I was not helicopter-parented. I took the public bus alone starting at 10, the subway at 14. I hung around with friends after school in the pre-smartphone era, thank goodness. My cohort's first unsupervised parties, first romantic entanglements, remain - by contemporary standards - virtually undocumented. And - and this I'm not so nostalgic about - we were horrible to one another. Not in high school - either we were already too old, or I went to a weird high school - but middle school was the worst. The worst!

In conjunction with Bazelon's book, Slate, where she's an editor, is posting first-hand accounts of having been a bully. Thus far, all three have been accounts of middle-school cruelty. Middle school, especially for girls (?), is awful. Awful everywhere, not just in Manhattan, where it might be its own unique brand of awful. But is it awful because of bullying? Bazelon asks in her NYT op-ed that we not call all nasty behavior among kids bullying. And... thinking back to my own experience at that age, I remember immense nastiness, but not bullying. I remember what was effectively a class-wide low-grade eating disorder (and there's a "Seinfeld" reference about how this is the result of bullying among girls, as vs. wedgies for boys), but then again, this was the Upper East Side - those who didn't make it out are probably still removing the doughy part of their bagels and filling the shell with low-carb salad. I think that was just an initiation into a certain kind of adulthood. This was, after all, the same school Gwyneth no-carbs Paltrow went to.

In the spirit of delving into the dark ages, I tried my best to remember those years, and failed to recall any bullying - of or by me, of or by anyone else. I spent those years in or dramatically excluded from then re-included in a clique of the sort that, if I passed such girls on the street today, I'd feel vaguely intimidated. (Think that commercial - possibly for car insurance? - where a pudgy middle-aged dude is followed around by "the popular girls from the local middle school," who shame him into eating less.) I was middle-schoolishly narcissistic and felt it was all about whether everyone liked me, not realizing that everyone else was wondering the same thing.

These years weren't entirely awful. I made closer - well, perhaps not closer, but more intense - female friendships than I've had since. There were no boys at the school, and we were at any rate too young to be dating, so nearly all drama (yes, some girls like girls) centered on female friendships. And it was fun to kind of discover the world with peers, in a way you really can't once you're older and not as easily surprised. It was fun to finally emerge from the confines of my family and whichever parents'-friends'-kids were my 'friends' and actually make friends of my own, ones whose values might not be exactly the ones I was being raised with. But it was, for the most part, a miserable few years, with cruelty the norm. If it had been bullying, perhaps it might have been addressed. But it was just some combination of that age and a peculiar subculture. The school might have taught self-acceptance, for all I know (my memory of this time being thankfully largely repressed) they tried.

Did the nastiness build character? I'm not sure. I suppose I learned, in those years, about caring whether I was cool, and what I looked like... only to care exponentially less from high school on. My sense is that those who don't go through this at 12 or so end up facing it later in life, sometimes well into adulthood. I know it's supposed to be better to be a dork as a kid, and cool as an adult, but I think there's something to be said for not caring if you're hip, not worrying about being spectacularly good-looking, when you're 25, 45...

And much of the cruelty of middle school is simply a first glimpse at life's unfairnesses. Once you reach the age of making your own friends and not just playing with whomever, you're confronted with evidence that some people are better-looking and more likable than others, that some people you like won't reciprocate. But it's not just rejection. It's at this age that you first learn that people you don't especially like or give much thought to probably don't much like or think about you, either. This, when you first learn it, can be jarring.

Even if it isn't expressed particularly cruelly, dislike or apathy, when it's a new experience, stings in a way it never will moving forward. Not getting invited to a sleepover can, in the moment, feel like a tragedy. This makes middle-school students seem like horrible, neurotic people with no sense of proportion,** but if you look at as a developmental stage, you don't condemn the individual. And people do, as a rule, grow out of this. With age, certainly with Facebook, you realize that people are hanging out without you, that this doesn't mean these people hate you but rather that they give as little thought to you as you do to them unless prompted. You realize that the world does not end if you're not the most beautiful and most popular - that no one's attractive to everyone and liked by all. You will still have dates, friends. Maybe it's helpful to experience blunt rejection as a kid in order to be more easygoing later in life?

I am, you will notice, leaving this post with the essential unresolved: can/should middle school be non-horrible? I tend to think efforts in this area should be made, but am not sure a) that it's possible, and b) that a certain amount of pain - but not past whichever threshold - does indeed build character.

*Note that this post has two levels - the reliving of middle-school neurosis, and the current almost-done-isn't-done dissertation panic. I may not care (enough, alas) what I look like, but I sure do care what Chapter Seven does.

**This is one very important reason why I'm against parental overshare. Kids, till a certain age, lack perspective, and that's normal, but it's difficult to see that when reading an essay, and readers will come to associate that particular individual with vapid, selfish, massively neurotic behavior.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A good mind to write a letter

The comments left on ancient blog posts here tend to be on the furious end of the spectrum. What inspires someone to leave a comment on a post from ages ago? Are they hoping someone will use the same search terms they did and join the snail's-pace 'conversation'? Regardless, I bring this up because today was the best one yet: a trollish commenter accuses me of - drumroll please - having never been to New York.

Food court imminent?

Mark Bittman wants (link!) an indoor food market to go where the Fulton Fish Market once was. Not that this would much benefit me at this point, but I'm all for it. Remember how I was just recently raving about one of these in suburban Philadelphia? It's not exactly that NY doesn't have one - between Bittman and the commenters, we're reminded of the Essex Street Market, Chelsea Market, Eataly, and Arthur Ave. in the Bronx. But nothing spectacular. If there were a giant indoor market with high-quality produce and hipsters-make-your-food deliciousness, I'd be there in no time. So, this has the WWPD seal of approval. With certain caveats:

-What would the market sell? Would the whole local-only ethos be sustained (as with the highly-regulated Greenmarkets) or would the "market" concept get diluted? Bittman's vague on this. But the local thing really is what makes a New York City market different from one elsewhere, so you get New Yorkers assuming markets elsewhere sell locally-produced food. Not so! You know those markets in Paris that lead tourists to think the French know what good food is? They sell some local food, but barely. Are there enough local farms and artisanally-minded new-Brooklyn liberal-arts grads to fill some giant space in lower Manhattan? Or would this be supermarket produce, artfully arranged? In which case, why not advocate for policy that would improve the overall quality of city supermarkets?

-And yes, it matters not just that there is a food market, but also what it sells. The Reading Terminal Market is indeed big, but the food itself, from what I experienced, wasn't so hot. I had one of the worst slices of pizza of my life, and walked by tub after tub of various Amish gelatinous desserts, which for all I know are delicious, but yes, I'm skeptical. (Nothing personal against the Amish - my own ethnic cuisine produces similarly appetizing tubs, about which I'm equally enthusiastic.) It seems a stretch to claim, as Bittman does, that that market is the "grandest" in the region.

-Everything New York and food-related ends up swarmed with individuals not there to buy groceries. Photographers - smartphone and mega-camera alike - take up much of the prime real estate in Greenmarket stalls, and those who wish to actually, like, purchase ingredients have to wait their turn. Tourists love visiting food markets - Chelsea Market and Eataly especially - but the scale of NY, along with the number of tourists it gets, makes it such that between you and that bunch of chard are fifty enthusiastic European visitors, because it's some obscure Christian holiday and they all have the week off.

And I don't at all fault tourists for wanting to visit food markets. It's fun! And cheap! My point is that crowds of non-shoppers need to be taken into account. Either they don't buy anything, or what they want are prepared foods, which New Yorkers don't really need an indoor market to purchase. (See: takeout.) So it might also be worth looking into ways of selling high-quality food that are maybe not so photogenic. A shiny new waterfront market in what's already not a residential area (and such a short walk from the immensely popular tourist destination that is Ground Zero!) risks being a place to photograph food, and not purchase it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Scattered thoughts on a rainy day

-More foot-in-mouth racial insensitivity from "Into The Gloss." Yes, I'm the Phoebe who commented.

-The memo about not dressing white models-and-actresses in ethnic drag either hasn't gotten through, or is in fact the inspiration for this styling choice. It does tend to draw publicity to the offender. Free advertising?

-Do you somehow not come from privilege if your parents did not, but you did? Installment number who knows.

-If you find yourself with an heirloom mink coat, the only ethical thing to do (say NYT commenters) is to have it turned into a nest for orphan animals. At first I thought this must be a joke, but commenters there vouch for this being a real thing.

-Somewhere in this world is an internet commenter who thinks I'm "fantastic." What do you know? This is of course not a comment to something I'd written, but we take what we can get.

How pastiness came to Palestine

Can philosophy - as opposed to blogging, or Facebook status updates - fix the Middle East? Philosopher Joseph Levine's op-ed gives it a go, taking various dubious premises, submitting them to calm, logical analysis, and coming up with an answer that's pretty much obvious: "There is an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state." Well, yes. No one who thinks seriously about this issue hasn't grappled with it. Why would it be anti-Semitic to point it out? Sheesh.

What's to be done about that conflict, though, isn't remotely obvious. If you believe Israel-as-a-Jewish-state and Israel-as-a-democracy are both important (or that a one-state solution would be nice on paper but disastrous for everyone involved), it's impossible to end the conversation with a declaration that "Jewish" and "democratic" are in conflict, so. It's fine if Levine doesn't believe the "Jewish" angle has any moral justification, but it would be nice if he saw why others do and then argued against that.

Before I proceed, the usual disclaimer: this post is not a call for rants on the general topic of Israel. So, no tangents promoting a one-state solution or a Greater Israel, no knee-jerk recitation of a speech you've prepared for whenever anything having to do with the region comes up.

So, Levine's op-ed. So far, so reasonable:

The key to the interpretation is found in the crucial four words that are often tacked on to the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” — namely, “… as a Jewish state.” As I understand it, the principle that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state has three parts: first, that Jews, as a collective, constitute a people in the sense that they possess a right to self-determination; second, that a people’s right to self-determination entails the right to erect a state of their own, a state that is their particular people’s state; and finally, that for the Jewish people the geographical area of the former Mandatory Palestine, their ancestral homeland, is the proper place for them to exercise this right to self-determination.
Levine says he will focus on the second - whether self-determination means a right to a state - but pauses for a moment on the first:
However, I do think that it’s worth noting the historical irony in insisting that it is anti-Semitic to deny that Jews constitute a people. The 18th and 19th centuries were the period of Jewish “emancipation” in Western Europe, when the ghetto walls were torn down and Jews were granted the full rights of citizenship in the states within which they resided. The anti-Semitic forces in those days, those opposing emancipation, were associated not with denying Jewish peoplehood but with emphatically insisting on it!
I'm not sure if this reveals ignorance of or indifference to the history of modern, pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism, but I read it, reread it, and couldn't make sense of it. (A commenter, whose take isn't quite the same as mine, points out something similar.) Opponents of emancipation in 1790, 1820, weren't "anti-Semitic," exactly, as there wasn't "anti-Semitism" until the late nineteenth century. Were they anti-Jewish? Yes, typically, but so were those who favored emancipation, who (please do read my exciting dissertation) wanted Jews to intermarry so as to rid France (apologies for not covering all of Europe) of the dreaded Jewish diseases and general ickiness.

Then, however, when anti-Semitism-proper did arise, anti-Semites were awfully set on the idea that Jews were a people, and not just any people, but foreigners from Palestine. Jews had long heard that they'd be accepted if only they assimilated. Then, all of a sudden (and in France, it was quite sudden! 1880-ish) the message became that they would be all the more hated if they did assimilate, and that the least objectionable Jews were the ones who didn't try to integrate into mainstream (or, worse, elite) society. If this is baffling to those of us studying this shift from here in 2013, imagine how it was to experience it.

While French Jews did not by and large respond to this turn of events with rah-rah Zionism, there was a certain amount of, 'well, whatever we do, we'll be hated, so we may as well stop trying to deny our distinctiveness.' Across Europe, Jews who very much had embraced emancipation began to find that they were being defined as a people, and a people from Palestine. Once you're constantly hearing that you are foreign, and from Palestine, an "Oriental," not a European, maybe this impacts how you see yourself? Maybe you'd prefer to be just French, but in the face of anti-Semitism, solidarity with other Jews seems like the only ethical option? Zionism didn't come from Jews spontaneously deciding that they were a people. It didn't entirely come from anti-Semitism (and obviously this blogging does not get into pre-Herzl Zionism or non-Zionist Jewish nationalism or the pre-Zionist Jewish presence in Palestine, on account of this is not a Jewish-studies textbook but a blog post) but that sure played a role.

And... once a certain threshold of Jews embraced Zionism, once Zionism got itself a state, then yes, the anti-Semitic contingent, which had been asking pasty European Jews to go back to Palestine, began faulting Jews for having done just that. To say that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is not to say that it all is. Why should that be so complicated? It does get murky, because sometimes entirely valid and much-needed criticisms are inspired by not-so-savory agendas. But it's pointless to say that because the plight of the Palestinians is a pet cause of many anti-Semites, the plight in question doesn't exist or need to be addressed. However, I do not have the exact borders for the ideal solution to this crisis at the ready, so in the interest of not pretending to solve the crisis from the comfort of WWPD, allow me to proceed...

What's problematic (anti-Semitic? eh) is to willfully ignore - if you know it - the whole go-back-to-Palestine part of modern Jewish history. To willfully ignore how sincerely Western European Jews wanted to be and indeed were French, German, etc., and how this came to feel difficult if not impossible even before the Holocaust. It's not anti-Semitic to look at the situation that currently exists and think, gee, it is weird that a so-called democracy defines itself religiously. I know this history, identify as a Zionist, and think this all the time. The problem comes when people fail to see the connection between modern Western anti-Semitism and Zionism, or when they view it as 'the Holocaust makes Jews think they can get away with anything.' Late-19th-century anti-Semitism was fundamentally about telling European Jews that they weren't European. If one loses track of this, one does indeed begin to wonder what all these European Jews - white folk! (ah, but not to their contemporaries) - were doing in the Middle East of all places, if not gratuitously colonizing.

And this is how it came to pass that modern, pasty Jews (not, of course, that modern-day Israeli Jews are all that pasty) came to believe their effectively had to be a Jewish state in Palestine of all non-pasty places.

Does this mean everything the current Israeli government does is admirable? No. Does it mean "Jewish" trumps "democratic"? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that "Jewish" isn't random chauvinism to be brushed aside effortlessly. It needs to be, if nothing else, addressed.

Almost done, I promise, but had to address this as well:
This fundamental point exposes the fallacy behind the common analogy, drawn by defenders of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, between Israel’s right to be Jewish and France’s right to be French. The appropriate analogy would instead be between France’s right to be French (in the civic sense) and Israel’s right to be Israeli.
I'm sure it would be news to France's citizens and residents of North African, Jewish, or other 'immigrant' origin that France only feels itself to have a right to exist as a civically French state, but that everyone of every background is, on the ground, equally welcome. France doesn't need to be all 'we're a French state for French people, and yes we mean ethnically' because France is so confident in its ethnic-Frenchness. Not in the fact that all French citizens are ethnically French - in fact, plenty are not. In the fact that "French" is both a nationality and an ethnicity. Yes, it's contested, but I believe the word 'hegemony' might fit in here somewhere. What is French history, what is a French house of worship, what is a French holiday, what is French hair, what is a French food, etc. A French France is such an on-the-ground established fact that France has the luxury of saying it's just a nation, not an ethnicity, while in practice being both. Israel... does not have this luxury.

Now, maybe no state should, and there's your answer. But not really, because as long as others do, the justification for one Jewish state - however reduced in size - exists.