Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"Occasional"

Pamela Druckerman, the woman behind the book (books!) telling Americans how to have well-behaved, vegetable-eating French children, has written a guide to taking the kids to Paris. It contains amazing advice, everything from "where to find a potty" to "Paris is not a den of anti-Semitism or adultery." (But what to do when the potty contains lewd and anti-Semitic graffiti? Apart from hope that your child can't - yet - read French.) There's advice on how to get food for picky eaters, which... isn't that Druckerman's thing, that children need not be picky eaters? And then she suggests McDonald's?

She doesn't let up entirely, though: "Croissants and pain au chocolat are of course on offer too, though these tend to be occasional treats for French children." What what what? If you're in Paris for a week (or, ahem, a semester), damn straight you're eating croissants every morning. That's your "occasional" right there - that you don't actually live in France. Find some other road to cultural immersion that doesn't involve pastry deprivation.

Or you could go the more ascetic route, as one father advises: "One thing that proved helpful was buying a fresh baguette in the morning when we left the hotel and breaking off pieces of it for them through the day. They were quite happy with that and a bottle of water."

"Slimming secrets"

Gwyneth Paltrow. Did you know that she smokes one cigarette a week? Why yes you did, but she was worried you may have forgotten about her charming quirk, or her self-control humblebrag, or whatever that tidbit is supposed to convey.

Whichever contingent of celeb-watchers concern-trolls Paltrow's health might want to focus more on her "cleansing." But more to the point, as impacts people other than this mysterious-yet-ubiquitous famous person: why is Gwyneth Paltrow giving diet advice? "Actress and lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow shares her slimming secrets." How can one have "slimming secrets" if one has never, in one's well-documented life thus far, been fat?

But this seems to be Paltrow's niche: advising already-thin women (who are not celebrities, and whose careers in no way require this) how to lose weight. What's surprising, in this latest installment, is that the pretense of 'health' seems just about abandoned. "A detox is a great place to start before a diet," she writes (or 'writes,' whatever), and while she has found a doctor to spout this nonsense, it's clear enough where the priorities lie.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

30 imminent

Turning 30 is supposed to be this thing for women. So I'd better report, because it's a'coming.

That my own impending 30-ness so precisely coincides with the moment one needs to submit preliminary materials for the dissertation means that I'm far more worried about having not made sufficient revisions in time (surely some of the more substantial ones are advice for getting it published eventually, or this is my impression, or OMG I'm never going to graduate, gah! and no, I didn't just leave a party early out of generalized deadline anxiety, what are you talking about?!) than I am about not being sufficiently nubile to attract lewd texts from politicians. Will it be done on time? Will some not-final version somehow go out to my entire committee? This, then, is where my most immediate anxieties lie.

But a post about dissertation lights at the end of dissertation tunnels is less compelling than one about beauty, gender, and age, so that's the one you're getting. But I take requests - if you want a dissertation-formatting rant, by all means, I could have one ready in no time.

*****

Discussions of female beauty and aging tend to assume a woman who was a pretty little girl, who peaked in womanly beauty at 19. Not only that, but we assume a woman who, at her peak, had men lining up to sleep with, date, and marry her. And... it's not that such women don't exist, but they're in the minority.

A few years spent spectacularly gorgeous is not the universal experience of youth. Most of us probably experience something between Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" alter ego and universally-admired-ingenue appearance. In the cultural imagination, The Young Woman has her pick. In life-as-lived, young women most certainly get rejected, dumped, compared unfavorably with their own peers. In whichever fantasy world of straight middle-aged men that is our entertainment industry, young women are beautiful and passive objects of desire. Which is, as young women know, as not-as-young women may recall, not quite the full young-and-female experience.

Point being, the great tragedy of turning 30 is mitigated for those of us who were not turning absolutely every last head at 16. Gray hair, wrinkles, a slower metabolism, there are plenty of vanity-concerns left even for those of us who were never professionally ravishing. But this is just not about to enter my top-10 list of concerns, whereas perhaps it would if I had once been a young Brigitte Bardot.

The women-and-aging conversation also goes awry when rather than saying that we all get older and the best we can do is take care of ourselves/work with what we've got, we get into these discussions of how 30 is young, with its implied, ugh, but 40 is old, or 40 is young but 50 is ancient, etc. If we just keep trying to push back the age at which women cease to be "hot," we're overstating the extent to which sexual attractiveness is about age, while at the same time denying the extent to which age does impact how one is perceived. Although beauty enters into it less than we think.

If you're hit on the most at 13, it's not because 13-year-olds are, for some evo-psych reason, the most attractive. It's because street-attention is about vulnerability, and 13-year-olds are easier to unnerve. If you have the most dating options at 20, is this because your face is unlined at that age, or because you're in college? And how, if women are supposed to be only attractive until 25, does it come to pass that the age at which it's easiest to meet a spouse is often closer to 30? Could it be that life is less about what we look like in a bathing suit than we might think?

So I'm not going to greet 30 with a declaration that I don't look 30. I'm 29 (but barely) and I venture that I could pass for 30. (Also, I suspect, 29 or 31.) I'm not going to promise an entire lack of vanity, either - sunscreen and exercise seem a bit more... interesting than they once did. (There is kale in the refrigerator, along with the best of intentions.) I will go on watching old sitcoms at the gym, comforting myself with the knowledge that I was born after they aired. I look better than I did at 8, or 14, and am likely to do so for quite some time. Which will, I suppose, have to do.

"Styles style" and autobiographical projection

While Miss Self-Important's definition of "styles style" covers much of the lifestyle-journalism genre, I'm going to offer up a second definition, to cover the rest. Mine is as follows: A writer has had a certain experience, or found something to be true. But because an essay just observing something isn't journalism, the author is compelled to pretend that whichever thing feels true to them actually is true for people generally.

On some level, though, the author gets that this isn't the case. So the author compromises and insists that whichever thing is true, but only of those of a certain class/in certain regions. This will seem less obviously false than claiming whichever thing is true of absolutely everybody in the country-or-world, but may amount to, the author found some friends who've had the same experience. As if, if you give a disclaimer about how you're only talking about the privileged, problem solved, and it somehow doesn't matter that what you're describing isn't necessarily representative of any caste. Or there may be - oh, there will definitely be - a survey cited that doesn't exactly prove the point, but that provides the heft of the quantitative. Autobiographical projection? What are we calling this, then?

Example: Frank Bruni on personal trainers. Everybody has one. Except not everybody. Except kinda-sorta everybody. There are - Science! - more personal trainers than there used to be, but still not enough for it to be plausible that a significant number of Americans are being personally trained.

But one most gets the sense that Bruni's talking about Bruni and not a broader cultural phenomenon from this sentence: "Many food lovers I know intersperse their trainer-monitored calisthenics with lavish meals at the latest restaurant: one lunge forward, one waddle back." Bruni has written extensively about the impact being the NYT restaurant critic - his former job - had on his weight. But getting fat from "lavish meals at the latest restaurant" is something beyond first-world problems. It's... major-publication-restaurant-reviewer problems. (Yes, there's probably some hyper-elite dining out at glam places nightly, but if they're not in the food industry, they're more likely to just be picking at their food.)

The problem, as I see it, isn't that Bruni has written about his experiences with personal training. It's that he's expected to pretend that these experiences are shared more widely than he could possibly demonstrate.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Part III: the pilgrimage

The big food event, the one planned in advance and everything, was a visit to Chez Panisse. Well, the café of the place, both because even that is quite a splurge (aka the usual prices at nothing-special Princeton restaurants, thus explaining the exquisite turn in my cooking - pain au chocolat, agedashi tofu, thin-crust pizza... - since moving here), and because the café seemed to involve a menu with options, while the restaurant did not. It seemed the right, festive way to mark two 30th birthdays.

I'll save the descriptions of Berkeley (including the "gourmet ghetto" - am I alone in cringing at that name?) for the neighborhoods post. But the Waters phenomenon is really at the root of the food movement, and thus of interest to anyone who's been following it. I'd been to Chez Panisse while visiting the area with my family as a kid, that time also, I think, at the café, so while technically I could check that box (and thus fail whichever Charles Murray quiz), I can't say I remembered much about the actual experience. Only that at this one restaurant, every vegetable, even the ones I didn't normally like (which, given my age at the time, was probably most vegetables; I grew up before that Francophile parenting book explained how to make your kids like zucchini), was delicious.

But back to 2013. The place really has a culture, which I suppose makes sense for a restaurant that's such an institution. They offer seltzer as a (filtered! snazzy!) tap-water option, which is fabulous. The servers replace "you're welcome" or "no problem" with "of course," which I - of course - began overanalyzing in my head after hearing it for maybe the second of many times. "Of course" suggests that of course someone is always bringing you food; why would it be remarked upon that someone is doing so on this occasion? Which, particularly to someone who generally eats in and doesn't have, like, a staff, is kind of hilarious. If you overanalyze it. Which you should not.

There's a lot less of the farm-to-table pretentiousness than a) I would have expected or b) than one finds in the imitation. Not every ingredient has its provenance mentioned, and there isn't the whole farmhouse-chic thing, with waitstaff in plaid shirts, etc. No complaints!

And there's an added 17% service charge, which is apparently controversial, but which really shouldn't be. This system is probably good for the servers, or maybe not because an environment like this (rich-hippie) seems like it would inspire a lot of tips in the well-over-20% range. The check leaves space for an additional tip, which, eh. Some customers apparently tip twice without meaning to - which I could well see happening after a bit of wine - and then complain about it online once they sober up. But even if you see it, it's as if one is stingy or unsatisfied with the service if one just leaves the included tip. It somehow increases, rather than removes, the awkwardness around tipping from the customer end, and leads to the quasi-requisite calculation/estimation of at least 3%. I'd say the place should just up that fee to an altogether appropriate 20% - or better yet, incorporate proper pay into the prices - and be done with it, but when's the last time I ran a restaurant?

In any case, the point is the food. Which was very good, but no Tacolicious.

The best analogy for Chez Panisse would be... when you go to a modern-art museum, and there's a painting that's just a solid-colored rectangle, and you, the philistine, are all, why do we care? or you the not-complete-philistine are like, I've seen better rectangle paintings, and then someone less sitcom-addled than yourself (maybe the writer of the wall text, maybe your art-history professor) will explain that the significance is that this hadn't been done before. So this might not be the best-executed rectangle, and it may not hold up against today's rectangles, but it gets credit for bringing us the rectangle concept.

With the Alice Waters phenomenon, if you imagine that farm-to-table, high-quality-ingredients-in-simple-presentation had not yet been invented, then yes, a plate of ricotta ravioli with cherry tomatoes and basil is indeed awe-inspiring, as is a mesclun salad with baked goat cheese (which according to Wikipedia, Alice Waters invented!), and it's not impossible that I ordered not so adventurously but I don't eat at places like this often enough not to get what sounds most appealing to me, but I digress... Both were great, while my husband's meal seemed to be more the sort of thing where simple ingredients don't suffice. A pile of fresh corn kernels is possibly not that exciting. The nectarine "galette" (a kind of pie) was good in the way that fruit tarts made with good fruit are good, and they had the good sense to include a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Was it $10 good? No more or less than a restaurant dessert ever is, which is why I rarely order dessert in restaurants. The bar - is it better than a bowl of Haagen Dazs at home? - is unlikely to be met.

Anyway, once that sort of cooking has been invented, once this is also how everyone with access to/interested in farmers' markets cooks at home, the experience is maybe less a revelation than a reminder that Chez Panisse has access to better ingredients than a New Jersey home cook (armed with an old copy of Waters's pasta cookbook) ever will. As a man Alice Waters has indirectly taught to fish, I may not need her further assistance.

Just like your three-year-old could - as goes the cliché - paint that Pollock, you can leave Chez Panisse (the café part, at least) confident in the knowledge that you've cooked equally delicious meals yourself. So the value of eating at Chez Panisse isn't - judging by this one experience, but if someone wants a proper restaurant review and will fly me out there to eat at the place a few more times just to be sure, I accept - that you'll get the absolute best meal of your life. It's that you're getting the original.

A peace sign made of garlic. Of course.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On Weiner and centaurs

The hip thing to do, in response to Weiner's infinite capacity to embarrass himself, is to adopt the stance that WWPD's most loyal commenter, Petey, does to all things, and be all jaded-like. Whereas the mainstream media, or tourists horrified by Times Square and not because of the commercialism, or those in strict religious sects, or who even knows... whereas the pearl-clutching contingent is oh so scandalized by Weiner's antics, where you want to be on this issue is, you've seen it all, or at least heard of it all, and Weiner's totally G-rated by your standards. Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage both point us to Amanda Hess's Slate piece about, well, ostensibly about how in this day and age, everyone has stuff they wouldn't want revealed publicly, but also about how very dull and everyday Weiner's sexual interests appear to be. Seems he has a fetish for women's feet. "High heels! Can you believe this freak?," Hess asks sarcastically.

So there are two issues here. I'll start with the second. In this age of the Savage Lovecast, with the centaur fetishists and poly triads looking to incorporate a tail (without an animal attached, rest assured) into their lovemaking, in this age of Google, no matter what goes on or doesn't in our own lives, we who have not been living under a rock are aware that everything's out there. So a married man who carries out imaginary affairs on social media or via text with young but of-age women, this is not shocking from a proclivities perspective. People are into stranger things than that. (Even Dear Prudence brought us the incestuous male twins, and will no doubt arrive in centaur country soon enough.)

While a blasé attitude is called for when it comes to what goes on in people's minds, or (and fine, opinions differ) on their computers in a not-so-interactive sense (i.e. porn, as vs. offering a real, identifiable other human being an apartment), it's really not a given that every middle-aged man is doing what Weiner was. If some couples have arrangements where this is acceptable, fair enough, but I suppose I'm square enough (or, as Sullivan might say, female enough) that I wouldn't take for granted that this specific thing is completely typical behavior. On the centaur-to-missionary-position spectrum, yes, this is unremarkable. But not on the behaviors-one-must-put-up-with-in-a-partner one.

The first and more basic issue, then, is the question of private moments revealed. I'm not sure how relevant that is to a case of exhibitionism, of a man who on some level (erotic, power-games, some combination) enjoys risking scandal. This isn't as if someone was secretly recording his goings-on, or as if the NSA was like, hey, look what's on this guy's computer! Sexy photos of women in high heels! A family man has had thoughts about women other than his wife! What was notable was the indiscretion. He could have been sending really chaste but romantic messages to tons of women about how pretty he finds them, and it would have been similarly remarkable behavior for a married politician.

Nor is this a case of youthful stupidity catching up with someone. If you send an explicit photo (or consent to having one taken) when you're too young to have thought about the consequences, that kind of does - at least for those experiencing adolescence in the smartphone age - put you in the same boat as so many others your age, and not really indicate exhibitionism or even bad judgment. (Is there any other kind of judgment at that age?) I mean, it's not that Weiner wasn't caught, but that risking getting caught - or getting caught and then succeeding all the same - is his game

In any case, it would seem that the issue with Weiner and perversion isn't that we're such a uptight society that we can't imagine a married middle-aged man would fantasize about sex with some random 22-year-old woman. This is assumed to the point of beyond-cliché. It's that this little discretion, paired with so much ambition, suggests a perverse desire to be... not above the law, exactly, but to be someone to whom the rules of bare-minimum image-maintenance don't apply.

Part II: Canadian tacos

There will also be a Part III. Till then...

Yes, there were tacos. If you're hooked on New York's Dos Toros, which was inspired by Bay Area taquerias, how could you not want to see the original. The question was: where?

As I've mentioned before, inspired by a trip to Tucson, discussions of Mexican food have a way of becoming authenticity-offs, with any place named on a forum being bland and overpriced food for white people, unlike whichever other place... which, in turn, someone else declares the very epitome of bland and overpriced food for white people. There's always real Mexican food somewhere else in the U.S. (in a different region, if you're in the Northeast; in a different city or neighborhood in the Southwest), but it's never the place being discussed.

It's like which-bands-are-cool, except for some reason the elusive entity is a national cuisine, and the answer would seemingly be to go to a place where everyone else is Mexican - no equivalent answer for indie bands. But the people having the Mexican-food discussion don't want to do that - they want to have been the first white people to have been to whichever establishment, and to then sneer at the later arrivals. They want the place to be discovered, so that they can complain about it.

This phenomenon exists alongside the more straightforward one of people who are in fact Mexican (or of any other background) thinking food that claims to be their cuisine but differs from what they grew up with has been made all wrong. It also, of course, suggests that even for people not of whichever background, authenticity equals tastiness. Which it does not.

Anyway, having read online, from NJ, about how every single taco place in the Mission is the real deal/a tourist trap, the absolute best/the absolute worst, I ended up going with the one everyone seemed to like, whose greatest crime seemed to be charging extra for guacamole. La Taqueria involved a wait but not a round-the-block line, which was a huge point in its favor. A very good meal - different from Dos Toros, but about as good.

The genuine article?

Then we ended up - without any advance knowledge of the place - at Tacolicious, in the Marina, or Lululemon District, which we saw a couple times because the bus went there. Tacolicious is apparently the Murray Hill of taco places, and I should apparently be ashamed of myself. According to someone on Chowhound, "Their food is overpriced and overrated and about as authentic as any Canadian taco." Inauthentic is an odd charge, though, as there's no pretense of strict authenticity. Much of the menu is fairly straightforwardly Mexican-inspired, and what isn't is very much California Mexican, which is, I'd think, a cuisine in its own right.

Putting lime on a Canadian fried-cod taco.

But there's no denying these were not merely fusion tacos but yuppified oned. They were also tremendously delicious - yuppified, but not haute-ified. Not bland and cream-sauce-filled as all cuisines get past a certain price point. Just yuppie ingredients (I had a local-cod taco that tasted like really great fish-and-chips fish) in otherwise ordinary-but-fresh tortillas. And the best guacamole I, at least, had ever eaten. Is $4 a taco (and a taco means two tortillas) excessive? By taco standards, yes. And it costs more than lunch prepared/consumed at home probably would. But by lunch-on-a-rare-vacation standards, or even just high-quality-ingredients-lunch-standards, not really. (Depends how many tacos you need, but with all those free chips, one might well be enough... not that I don't regret not getting all the fish tacos.) This was by such a long shot the best meal of the trip, a statement that will be all the more dramatic when you get to Part III.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Waiting in line with Carrie Brownstein, and other vacation adventures

So this ended up being a bit of a food tour of San Francisco. This fact may be not unrelated to the time spent prior to the trip - lots of not getting out of the house-and-dog-walking-surroundings in NJ, lots of running. This left me in shape enough to walk up ridiculous hills, and prepared to find just about any restaurant meal the best I'd ever eaten. Lunch on the plane had been a bag of pretzels. (Newark's finest.) I was ready!

Below is Part I of an overview. While overall my impression was whoa vacation big city OMG OMG fantastic, in the interest of providing information to the information-seekers out there, I will try to make this post less about my immense gratitude for having gotten out of the house, and more about the pros and cons of various establishments, with the disclaimer that I went to each of these just once. This means erring on the side of seeming more blasé about all this than I really was.

Sightglass Coffee: Am I suggestible? Yes. Gorgeous space. Similar experience to Rojo's in Lambertville or Colombe in New York. A big barn with above-average hipster coffee. Worth it more for the space, but good coffee all the same.

Ino Sushi: We were staying in Japantown, because that's where there was a centrally-located, reasonably-priced hotel, but reading up on the area, it seemed like maybe it's better not to go to a random place. As in, Japanese restaurants popular with the online food-obsessed community are mostly in other neighborhoods. Searching around, I ended up finding what I thought would be the San Francisco version of the place in Princeton that has - not sure how it's possible, but there it is - better sushi than I'd ever had in New York. A place with only sushi and lots of rules, evoking for customers that soup "Seinfeld."

And... while there were rules, including a complicated one regarding minimums, the food itself was ordinary. A tuna sashimi entree arrived and seemed like some kind of joke, for someone who might imagine that $19 worth of raw fish would be an ounce of the stuff. (Why does such an experience happen when traveling? I remember once ordering what turned out to be the world's most expensive cube of feta in DC.) And all the pieces of sushi were minute - a brave stand against American jumbo-fication of all foods, or a ripoff that few will dare call out because who (in a city like San Francisco, at least) wants to be that American?

But that seemed to be the place's gimmick - dealing with naive Americans for whom sushi is an exotic new arrival, and not something that's been readily available since, what, the 1980s, and long since made it to small towns far from the coasts. When the server/proprietor came over to me and explained what I could and couldn't put soy sauce on, the tone of the encounter was more patronizing than helpful. And while the tininess of the portions gave the impression of quality, the taste of the fish, not so much.

Mifune - commenter Aaron's recommendation - which we also ate at was probably the better deal, although I may have ordered wrong. (Long and uninteresting story involving two different kinds of fried tofu.)

Ferry Building Farmers Market: The main takeaway there was that people who live in California and can afford nice vegetables (a stop by a Safeway confirmed that this isn't all of California) are exactly as lucky as one might imagine. I looked at the array and thought of the Union Square Greenmarket, and how it's as good as it can be for not being located in a magical land of tomatoes, strawberries, arugula, etc., all of which look like they come from professional food photography.

But this was also an introduction to the lines. Blue Bottle Coffee, which also has outposts in New York, tempted me away from my no-food-I-can-get-at-home ("home" loosely defined) rule with the promise of a caramelized waffle. Soon enough, after my husband had already waited for a pastry at a different stall and returned, it became clear that this was not a line like any I'd ever encountered, except for airport security or Shakespeare in the Park. It brought to mind nothing more than the "Portlandia" brunch sketch. And then I glanced behind me on this line and saw none other than Carrie Brownstein, in line like the rest of us. (So pretty! So chic! So the reason I'm now going to buy dark-red lipstick.) She, however, gave up. I waited because I'm an idiot. The coffee was good, as was the waffle, but neither would seem worth that kind of a line. I also had a $3 wedge of local cheese, because vacation, and because I basically hadn't eaten dinner, so cheese and a waffle seemed reasonable.

I will now continue to ignore chronology and stick to the question of these lines. The next one, easily longer, was for Tartine Bakery. It had sounded good, and in an apparently (this was later confirmed) interesting neighborhood, so an impressively hilly bus ride later, we found ourselves on line on an otherwise residential block for the next... 45 minutes? It wasn't clear if this was the line for takeout or to sit, or indeed what was on the other end.

When my husband and I discussed the situation - definitely more amused than annoyed, discussing what leads to these far-beyond-what-one-ever-sees-in-NYC lines (the superior weather? the greater commitment to hipsters-make-your-food cuisine?) - we gave one of the two young women in front of us on the line an opportunity first to tell us some helpful things about how the place works (you can get your food to stay, but are not guaranteed seating), then to kind of generally roll her eyes at our rustic ignorance of how it goes in civilization. The lines, we learned, are how it goes in San Francisco. But it's OK because this bakery really is, she explained, that good. Better croissants than Paris, this woman assured us, and she, she made it clear, has been to Paris. I didn't get into the fact that I'm ABD in where to get the best croissants in Paris and elsewhere (Tucson being the Stateside winner thus far, and I say this having extensively croissant-toured New York), but had to agree that these smelled amazing.

The thing with spending a year waiting for a pastry after 10am when you've been up with jet-lag since 6:30 is that once you do reach the front of the line, you're seriously considering whole layer cakes. So there may have been some over-ordering, some subsequent schlepping of the remaining third croissant around San Francisco. But the pain au chocolat was quite good, as well as enormous. It was also oddly similar to (although a better version of) the ones I've made from scratch, which was a kind of vindication. The coffee (Four Barrel?) was fine. Did the line make the food taste better, or just make us order more? Unclear.

Later the same day, though, came the true line extravaganza, this for Bi Rite's ice cream shop. There were four different lines - one for soft serve, it seemed, but an additional three (technically three legs of one line) for the rest. This establishment doesn't get put in bold, because I never tasted the stuff. A long weekend away is only ever so line-compatible.

But just to conclude the main point here, which would be the lines. I've said before that I think faux-scarcity works as a marketing technique, which, well, it does. But does it actually make the food taste better? Once you reach the end of the line, do you just feel obligated to tell your friends that this is the best food of this kind you've ever eaten? Does the line end up making you more cynical, or is that my East Coast-ness talking?

But there was so much more food! Part II to follow.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

One with nature

Why do we run? (Cue the soft music.) We run to be one with nature, to reach some kind of meditative state. We can really focus when we run, and it's while running that we come up with our greatest ideas. Running inspires us to care for our bodies. It's a way to transcend the quotidian, to escape the rush of modern life, it's... and so forth.

While we tolerate the idea that running might reverse obesity-related ailments or help someone quit smoking, we draw a line between running, this noble enterprise, and working out. Working out, then, is about lookin' hot. Running, many seem to think, exists on some other plane. Like yoga, except not like yoga, because there's no spiritual justification. There's just this idea that running isn't like the other day-to-day ways people stay in shape. It's fine to spend a lot on running-related this-and-that - on races or even clothes. But - cue Bobos in Paradise - it has to be functional. It can't be about whether or not your butt looks good in those leggings. (Which reminds me - going by the reviews, poor Lululemon does not appear to have fixed its pants situation. My cheapness resistance to their siren call remains intact.)

And, no. Running, like all exercise undertaken by adults who are not professional athletes, is nearly always (by which I mean, always) at least somewhat about vanity. It's impossible to be indifferent to its (often ridiculously subtle) transformative power. I mean, how could you be indifferent? One way one looks more... airbrushed or something than the other way. Who among us is like, meh, that means nothing to me?

It's rarely just vanity, though, as there are, for women at least, many more straightforward ways to be increase conventional attractiveness. (Lipstick, eyeliner, eating less pasta.) Of course there are other reasons to exercise. Procrastination (a socially-acceptable reason to watch a half-hour of bad television). Anxiety-diminishment. "Health," I suppose, but I think the current science on this is that it's enough to just walk around a bit.

And by "vanity" I don't necessarily mean losing weight - different people have different... vanities, and I can vouch for running never leading to weight loss in some people. But if you think vanity doesn't enter into why you run at all, ask yourself this: if you saw no difference whatsoever between your physique with or without running, would you keep at it?

An analogy: for those who say they drink alcohol only for the taste (and there are supposedly people who say this), if an alcohol-free product were invented that tasted identical to wine, some kind of mutant grape juice, would they drink it?

Some of us run not because it suits introversion or introspection, or anything so profound, but because it's the only exercise we can stick with, or (on a good day) enjoy, and - more to the point - are coordinated enough to do.

*****

So I'm very much in favor of frankness when it comes to the relationship between exercise and vanity. But I don't seem to be able to get behind the idea that one must look good while exercising. Into The Gloss offers up a guide to gym beauty, which... is this even something to attempt? Maybe for people who don't turn beet-red from exercise, and whose hair doesn't frizz from sweat. It's not that no one ever looks good while working out. It's that few among us are Italian soccer players.

But no matter. A personal trainer advises moisturizer (for the gym?) as well as illuminator (!) and mascara (!!!). It's not that makeup before the gym would necessarily take too long, or that it's somehow trying too hard (esp. given that makeup worn at the gym can well be the result of having not bothered to remove makeup worn earlier in the day). It's not that it violates some kind of rule about being hardcore, or that it's wrong to admit that one is working out for a frivolous or selfish reason. It's that makeup would, I'd think, promptly pour off your face if you're working out enough to actually be accomplishing anything.

Anyway, we learn that black is the only flattering color for leggings (true), and that only supermodels should wear shorts (bizarre). Not actually all that bizarre, though, when one remembers that the trainer interviewed is the "face" of a company that makes leggings. (And shorts, though - so much for that conspiracy.)

Also that the goal is looking good for some guy named Roger, who we have no reason to believe is an Italian soccer player jogging by the sea.

*****

In further beauty-and-nature news, women are being encouraged to let body hair be during August, in solidarity with women who suffer from PCOS, a condition that causes hairiness. Women with and without this condition are going to participate. Which seems... as a Guardian commenter says, like it would do the very opposite of making women with significant amounts of facial and body hair more comfortable. Most women who leave be are going to be not all that hairy, meaning that the few who are will stand out.

And this comes back to the natural-beauty issue. The presumption of artifice allows those who go in for whichever beautification ritual to imagine that all are quite possibly doing the same. The likely result of large-scale abandonment of artifice isn't a utopia of everyone being thought beautiful in their own way. It's that the same traits will be valued, but only those who come by them 'naturally' will reap the benefits.

It's a tricky issue, though, because there's also proliferation of 'necessary' primping which we'd probably like to avoid. Acceptance of artifice shouldn't have to mean an enthusiastic embrace of a world in which cosmetic surgery is the default. And there's no obvious place to draw the line (except there kind of is: surgery). It just continues to see odd to me that we're meant to believe the abandonment of artifice would be an unqualified good for those who most rely on it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Which women?

I'd like to write an article (or so I thought) about a phenomenon I've observed: women grow up to think the right thing - and feminist thing - is to be able to support themselves as adults. (Which women, though? But I digress.) Men, meanwhile, or at least the male equivalents of these women, grow up thinking they'll be supporting a family.

So what happens is, women (of this group? what are its boundaries, beyond my anecdotal evidence?) do indeed find work that allows for them to pay their own bills... but no more. And with a kind of between-the-lines implicit thinking that to be self-supporting is to be able to pay one's bills in one's 20s. (Roommates, ramen, happy-hour; health insurance nice but optional.) Men, meanwhile, will at least aim for a salary that supports a spouse and a couple kids. Or they'll flounder a bit, but they won't think of settling down before at least starting on that path.

In the abstract, this would just seem to help explain salary disparities. But in practice, it explains why there are so many men and women why marry and then it turns out her career is the more dispensable. And a feminist insistence that the work a woman does is just as important will only go so far, when something comes up that requires/encourages one person to stay home/scale back, and the couple is forced to look at who can actually support the family.

That, then, has been floating around in my head for some time. But I'm reluctant to pitch this article because at this point, there's nothing there. Can I, at this juncture, prove any of this? Absolutely not. Could I interview peers and see how they were raised? Yes - the call-up-some-friends school of journalism. I'm not aware of any academic study dealing with this exact question, so I couldn't go the well-respected report-on-findings route.

Now, one might say, if I were a man, or more lean-in-ish, I'd pitch anyway and then come up with something. One might also say - and this is what Anna North has said at Salon - that enough's enough with this entire genre, which she calls "women's stories":

Let me clarify: I am not tired of stories about women’s lives, stories that tell me something real about how a particular woman thinks or works or loves. But I am tired of “women’s stories,” stories that are supposed to be about a problem that afflicts “women.” 
These stories, in mainstream American media, tend to fall into certain categories. There are the ones about when women should get married. There are the ones about how women balance work and their children, told with no discussion of these women’s race or class, and with a strange disregard for the possibility that said children might also have fathers. And then there are the ones about hookup culture.
And... a bunch of things.

First, I think it's relevant that, when I wrote a post about the pressure "women" (and I'll admit that I did not write with a specific class or race in mind; the response I got suggested I was highlighting a major issue for Muslim women, which I hadn't anticipated) get to marry at a specific age (although that age, I allowed, will vary by subculture): not too young, not too old, and there's this almost-nonexistent window of opportunity between the two. I was arguing against the idea that there's one age at which a woman must marry - or indeed, that a woman must marry at all. And the reaction I got included a good bit of fury at how once again, this publication was telling women when to get married. Which was, let me repeat, the exact opposite of what I was doing. I was examining the pressure on women. But it didn't matter. I'd written a piece in that genre, so it could apparently be assumed that it was a piece encouraging anxiety and telling women what to do. Readers felt as if they'd read it a million times before, so it didn't really matter that they had not. Point being, readers now see "women's stories" and have effectively read them before reading them. Which probably does support North's point.

But there's a difference between a deeply-researched feature article and a blog post, one that readers tend to miss (and have no reason to think about), but that's important for understanding what it is that one is reading (and angrily commenting on). Something whipped up in a few days or less, something that's the germ of an idea, is simply not going to have the same precision regarding which segment of society we're talking about. If you're just starting to think about something, you don't know. And there's a place for the beginning of an idea. The problem is that beginning-of-idea posts are presented as indistinguishable from result-of-months-of-research articles.

Also relevant: these different forms of writing pay differently, so to the people criticizing every last bit of published writing online for not including interviews that span the nation's geographic and socioeconomic limits, well... you see where I'm going with this. And a lot of criticisms of Journalism Today seem to miss this. It's not that journalists aren't interested in the world beyond Greenpoint or Prospect Heights. It's that getting paid $70 an article to report from Syria starts to look like not the best deal.

But for longer articles that have been researched... then indeed, it does get old, having to read about all the women, when one is clearly just reading about the author and a few of her friends, who are not representative of anything other than, at the very most, their own subculture. Once something beyond a vague hypothesis is entering into it, you do need to have parameters regarding which people whichever issue does or doesn't apply to. Meaning... that this post, which I'd begun as a tepid defense of "women's stories," ends up basically agreeing with North. She makes a good point.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In search of even-bluer America

I'm going on vacation! To San Francisco! For a few days! In a few days! While readers of WWPD might think I'm just another jet-setting grad student, it's been a long time since I've gone anywhere other than the nearby cities and towns, incredibly long if you don't count going away for a specific work or family reason (such as, for example, an imaginary Belgian in-law getting married).

So! Those of you whose experience of San Francisco goes beyond my own - I was there as a kid and have only the faintest recollection (apologies to my parents, who paid for and dealt with a kid - me - on what may have even been two such trips) - what's not to be missed? Also: what's not to be missed, burrito division. Food generally.

If this is at all relevant, I'll be staying in Japantown, partly because it's cheaper than going to Japan, and partly because that's where it's possible to be not too far from everything yet stay in a nice (from the sound of it) hotel. Also partly because the place one is supposed to stay - Union Square - seemed from Google Maps to be notable mostly for department stores, and not that there's anything wrong with department stores, but eh. (The Japanese mall, however...)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Of grad school and imaginary French boyfriends

Behold, the following letter to Philip Galanes's advice column:

I am a graduate student in a competitive field. A fellow graduate student in my department posts constantly on Facebook about her worldwide travels, her French boyfriend, her flat in Copenhagen, her performances with the New York City Ballet and her modeling career. She has persuaded several hundreds of Facebook friends that these fictions are her real life, but we, her fellow graduate students, are increasingly annoyed by her blatant lies. We also worry for her that, as the years pass, she has yet to produce a single chapter of her dissertation. What do we do?
The obvious missing piece: how is the letter-writer so sure these are lies? Some grad students - if not as many as imagined - have family money, and all the Scandinavian real estate that might bring. Others really are models or ballet dancers. Life really is just that unfair (says this short and flexibility-challenged grad student).

And why exactly wouldn't some woman in grad school in the States (presumably) have a French boyfriend? Is that really so far outside the realm of possibility? Clearly this woman's mistake was in not making her imaginary significant-other Belgian. That, I've found, people seem to believe. Quite a ruse I've got going.

The only thing I can think of is, this letter-writer's classmate is posting from her (basement, inevitably) office, things like, 'Living it up here in Denmark with my made-up French boyfriend Pierre,' when you see her right there, eating some leftover quinoa salad or whatever out of the Tupperware she schlepped from home.

But I'm leaning towards these not being lies, and the letter-writer just being somewhat naive. Misrepresentation is probably (by which I mean definitely) the norm on Facebook, so much so that if you're viewing the myriad too-good-to-be-true postings with a certain amount of cynicism/skepticism, I'm not sure when it would even occur to you to fact-check the postings. That is, I could imagine wondering if the postings of a total stranger were made up, but those of someone you know in real life? Why would someone be living out an entirely made-up existence on social media and hanging onto their real-life circles in contacts?

The people who invent lives are indeed fascinating, but what inspired this post was something peculiar to the dynamic the letter expresses, something Galanes - a lawyer-turned-advice-columnist - seems to kind of get, but kind of not. The question here is actually quite unrelated to the lying: What's it to the letter-writer and their fellow graduate students how their classmate's dissertation's coming along? Writes Galanes:
We all feel jealous occasionally, but when we’re steamed by the fake accomplishments of others, it’s time to take a deep breath. If your colleague is not really a model/ballerina (with a killer apartment in Copenhagen) — and not writing her dissertation, to boot — she poses no threat to you. So, why does her wowing a few Facebook friends bother you so much? Won’t there simply be one competitor fewer in your self-described “competitive field” when job interviews roll around?
This is all sensible. Too sensible. It's the right answer, but it misses something about the culture of grad school, which is that the most competitive students are, paradoxically, the ones most bothered by the flakiness of their classmates. One would imagine that someone dead-set on an academic position (what I'd assume the end goal is here, given what the talk of dissertation chapters suggests about the sort of field it is) would be if anything relieved if the applicant pool shrinks. Yet that's often not the case.

Most of this, I think, is the 'treason' thing - this sense that we're all in it together, and that someone who's abandoned ship has, uh, abandoned ship.

But part of it is also the fear that someone who doesn't participate in the grad-student culture of panic - who doesn't seem all that frightened of professors or sufficiently monastic or who even knows - might secretly be doing plenty of work, and good work at that, and might swoop in at the last minute and steal what was rightfully that of those who were more grad-student-ish in their ways, who kept up with the office politics (as much as a grad student ever can), who seemed especially plugged-in, or who wore blazers, or who in one way or another projected dedication. (Meanwhile, the seemingly-blasé may just be exhibiting defense mechanisms, and may care a ton.)

Grad school in the humanities - which is so what that letter's about - involves a great deal of solitary work, so often enough, no one has any idea how strong any other student's work is. Students' only sense of how 'competitive' someone else in the program is will often come from an impression of who seems to take the whole thing most seriously. So the 'competitive' people, according to the grad students, will not always match up with the ones who have actually turned in chapters, published, that sort of thing. There will just be the people assumed to be serious, and then it will feel like a tremendous injustice when they're not the ones who get a job, or who win whichever internal competition. Not just to the serious students themselves, but to all students, whose sense of justice will have been violated.

And I say all of this as someone who's been, at various points in time, all across this spectrum. All of this is incredibly subjective - there's not necessarily a consensus about who's 'serious', but as much as there is one, it can vary across the ten trillion years of a humanities graduate program. Most grad students will probably, at one point or another, across the myriad internal competitions, usurp something from someone more 'serious', or feel kind of 'serious' yet wronged.

So back to the advice column. The letter-writer, I suspect, fears that this no doubt charming classmate will somehow manage to take all the jobs. More, I suspect, than they fear that said classmate will leave the field. I also wouldn't be shocked if the only one feeling so 'concerned' here is the letter-writer, and that the letter-writer is speaking on behalf of all the grad students, because that's just something grad students often do, the other grad students being, as a rule, too apathetic to protest.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s."

That's the line that jumped out at me in the latest college-coeds-doin'-it exposé. Why that line, despite so many so much racier ones?

-I wonder how these very same women (and we're going to assume, for the sake of convenience, that a real phenomenon is being described, even if it bears little overlap with our own experience of a not-so-different college not-so-long before) will feel if The Husband doesn't magically appear at The Age, and if they instead meet him at 42, or not at all.

-I wonder, of the women who do marry at The Age, but no earlier because Career, how many will readily abandon said career (or scale back substantially, never to recover) upon marriage or kids.

In other words, the window-of-opportunity problem I keep yammering on about. Prior to The Age, women (elite women? elite-women-broadly-defined?) are given this oh-so-feminist message about pursuing independence, ambition, dreams, not being held back by any man, and not wanting any casual thing with a dude to turn into anything more serious. But the old-timey expectations - marriage-panic and all that - haven't disappeared. They've merely shifted down a few years, and gotten that much more panicky.

There are two contradictory - and equally misguided - conclusions we might draw. One would be that everything is going so well for these women until The Age, and that the problem is that they're ever settling down. The other is that these women are foolish not to snag husbands while still young and nubile - the Princeton Mom argument. The former insists that a woman's true self wants a career and not a relationship; the latter, that women only ever really want relationships, and are somehow suckered into thinking otherwise by feminism.

The reality: most women and most men want both a career and a family. Men are assumed to want both of these things; more to the point, they're not assumed to have rejected one when they acquire the other. As long as this seems, to women, to be either-or, the balance of power is not so favorable. Thus, perhaps, the asymmetry of sexual pleasure, the culture of sexual violence, the sad (apparent) fact of hook-ups not being the utopia of gender-neutral sexual adventure one might imagine.

So in a way, younger women's belief (reinforced by advice from those around them) that they need to stay independent of relationships if they're going to have careers actually sets up the later sense that, once they do get married, whichever burgeoning career there was is as good as done.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Part II of the previous post

There's this incredible scene from an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show that completely addresses all of this. The episode begins with Mr. Grant, Mary's bosses, discreetly sussing out if she'd be interested in his job upon his promotion. She blows it, fails to "lean in," as it were. Back home, she discusses this with her friends Rhoda and Phyllis. Rhoda, also single and with a career, and Phyllis, a housewife, disagree (sort of) about what Mary should do, but not in the manner you'd expect. Phyllis insists that Mary go after the promotion, and that she do so for all womankind. She offers up a very 2013 - and startlingly non-Phyllis-like in its reasonableness - feminist manifesto. Rhoda, however, has a different take. She advises Mary to find a rich and good-looking husband, to marry him, to have his baby, and then to blame him when she doesn't have a successful career.

To capture Rhoda's tone here, though, you kind of need to have seen the show, because "sarcasm" doesn't begin to cover it. Earlier in the episode, when Phyllis insists there's no job a man is more suited to than a woman, Rhoda responds - with impeccable timing - that there is such a job: "female impersonator."

And then, sigh, Mary goes back into work, decides she does want the job, but by then Mr. Grant has already given it to Murray. Mary asks if this was because she'd said she didn't want it, he says no. She asks if it's because she's a woman. He says yes. As text, you might think, whoa, Mr. Grant, such a 1970s throwback sexist! But as performed, you can perfectly well see that he wanted to offer Mary the job, but that her socialization as a woman prevented her from taking it while it was still there for the taking. So it is, in a sense, because she's a woman that she doesn't get the job.

Expect more such profundity from WWPD now that workouts are Hulu-compatible.

The stay-at-home-mom's confession: she works.

When Flavia recently posted a letter from one of her readers, about running into a bunch of 40ish stay-at-home moms at an Ivy League college reunion, I expressed some skepticism about whether these women really didn't work for pay, or whether perhaps they did (from home?), but the letter-writer was rounding down whatever it was these women did to "housewife." Flavia assured me that the letter-writer wasn't making assumptions, so in this particular case, case closed.

That said, I do think I was justified in bringing up the possibility, because there's a huge amount of blurriness between what constitutes "stay-at-home" and what's just being the member of the couple with the less high-powered career. Which brings us to Ashley Nelson's article in The Nation, "Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Mom." The key to the piece lies in a small but important detail: Nelson wasn't a stay-at-home mom, but a freelance writer:

[...] I left my job, figuring I could freelance while the baby napped.

Rookie mistake.

I hired a sitter, but for a time my work took a back seat to life. We moved and, two years later, moved again so my husband could take a job overseas. A second daughter arrived. Then, shortly after, I found myself in a situation I never predicted: sitting across from a divorce lawyer who didn’t even bother writing down my annual freelance income. I had published well and often, but my compensation was less robust. It would barely have covered a month of her costs.
So. Was Nelson working? Was her primary identity "mom"? She goes back and forth on this within the course of this short paragraph. If she "published well and often," and I mean actually did do this, it sure sounds like she had (has! she's in The Nation!) a job. I mean, according to the NYU career office, "freelance writer" is a job. Also according to some but not all freelance writers. It's complicated. But let's say she were not a woman, but a man. Or not a man, but single. (I've heard tell that some freelance writers are unmarried women.) Was her income not enough to live on, or was it simply laughable in comparison to the overall budget of the family she happened to be a part of?

Nelson explains that this isn't just her story, but that of other women as well:
[E]very mother I know who scaled back or quit work to care for children feels a similar anxiety about what the decision has cost her. Like myself, most never felt they were relinquishing their “work selves” completely, just momentarily turning down the tap. Many do some work, but it feels supplemental and underpaid. The climb back into full-time employment seems monumental.
In other words, neither Nelson nor the women she's discussing were ever really housewives/SAHMs/what-have-you. They did work, but weren't properly compensated.

And thus the problem: couples have this bizarre tendency to want to live together, especially when there are kids. This means that even if staying put at a job and not moving anywhere for any man serves as insurance against possible future divorce, it also can, to a degree, kind of preempt the marriage-and-family to begin with. A nuclear family can function as a unit, or (especially if there are no kids) as two autonomous individuals for whom a divorce would be upsetting in the way it is when one has a falling-out with an old friend, or breaks up with a college sweetheart. The perfect household, where divorce would have no financial impact on either partner, yet where the couple managed to live as if a family, and one not so front-and-center aware at all times of the precariousness of all marriages, is hard to picture. The lucky few who have this seem especially keen on writing about it, which confuses matters, I suspect.

Ideally, none of the household-and-childcare who-does-what would be gendered, beyond the pregnancy-and-shortly-thereafter aspects of it. The reality, though, seems to be a lot of women who do work, but who have opted for a lower-paid version of their chosen profession, but one that allows for more geographic and/or childcare flexibility. Had this couple lasted, there might have been time enough for a "see-saw marriage." It might not have always been such a gendered worst-case-scenario.

This gets at something I couldn't quite pin down in my response (responses) to the (ever-more-compelling) conversation at Flavia's, and elsewhere as well, one that led me to various posts from a couple of years ago as well. The women having this conversation (posts, comments) are, it seems, women who studied the humanities. Many are now tenured professors. The conversation is about Important Careers, but tilts to being specifically about careers in academia, specifically non-STEM academia.

The issue with this, as it relates to the topic at hand (women's feminist duty to be ambitious), is that once one has opted for the humanities, without simultaneously opting for something more marketable (the double-major in air-conditioner repair), one has already quite severely risked opting out. One finds a small and probably ever-shrinking subset of humanities-types in high-powered positions that use those skills. Tenured professors, big-deal editors, and so forth. It exists, but a girl (as in, pre-college) whose main priority is financial independence is taking a big risk if she goes down that path. And that's new, really, because there was always law school. Now there isn't always law school.

So. While a woman who reaches the point of having a tenure-track position and then opts out has opted out, can the same be said of a woman who leaves after X years of adjuncting, or upon learning the odds? Because if by "elite women" we mean (among others) women with humanities PhDs or near-PhDs, well, a lot of the time, this leads straight to a career that's never more than a dream, for a man or a woman (although everyone's always wondering about the perma-adjuncting vs. TT gender breakdown), and while employment-outside-the-home is still likely, it won't necessarily be elite employment, a career.

And! Then there's the question of whether the mere fact of women's growing majority in a given field will in and of itself end up making that field more precarious, whether it will end up encouraging society to think the work in question is nonsense (while nevertheless still demanding the work in question). College students are still being taught, but why by adjuncts? Is it maybe because women are viewed as pushovers, secondary-job-havers, and that $500 per semester could purchase an awfully nice pin? Are freelance rates at all impacted by a sense that (for certain publications, at least) this is work done by housewives?

I could go on, but I have other humanitiesish tasks to contend with.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Okara

The NYT Magazine just ran a profile of the most authentic guy ever. The most ruggedly masculine individual ever to walk this earth. A man who has lived out at least two of the big gendered-male (not that women don't share them) fantasies: member of Soundgarden and friggin' Nirvana, and elite warrior. It's a deeply personal, decades-spanning profile of an individual, and it doesn't once mention romantic partners. This absence reads not as a discreet way of hinting at that which, in this day and age, could just be stated (and there are at any rate commenters who know his girlfriend - one who knows her, then one who one-ups that one by announcing a friendship with said girlfriend, and yes, all of these people are cooler than you), but as, this is simply too authentic of a story for something so frivolous to come up. (I will hazard a guess: this guy can fix all known appliances.)

So here are two stories of my own failure at authenticity:

-My favorite Japanese delicacy has long been yuba, or tofu skin. I would buy it frozen at Sunrise Mart, but was never anywhere else I looked. It supposedly exists dried, in Asian markets, but no luck. Then I searched and found: yuba can be made at home, from truly basic ingredients, namely dried soybeans and water. And cheesecloth, but that's probably a good thing to have around regardless. End result: yuba at home is very much possible, as well as a tremendous waste of much of a weekend. That is, it's kind of a good project for a weekend of work-from-home - once the thing is set up, you have to skim off the yuba every 15 minutes or so. But then something will happen like, you'll want to go outside, but there's this yuba-in-progress. Or you'll want to prepare other food, but you can't, because the kitchen (and all your kitchen-energy) has been taken up by yuba-production. And then there's yuba! And it's delicious! But so not worth it.

And that's not even getting into the byproduct of yuba-making, something called "okara," a guilt-inducing substance if there ever was one. It's the technically-edible, vegan-and-quinoa-sounding pulp of juiced (milked?) soybeans. If you're the sort of person who'd make yuba from scratch, you're surely hippie enough to think of ways to use this okara. Me, I read a bit about it , considered the value of my time and the likelihood that I would turn this dry mush intended for livestock or fertilizer, into something appetizing, and into the garbage it went. I'd rather not waste food, but I'm not convinced I'd have been able to turn whatever that was into food. I threw out the okara. All of it. Not the cheesecloth. Ultimately, alas, some of the soy milk, given my wariness of consuming something called "milk" that had, at that point, been reheated that many times. But all of the okara, except for that which still clings to the not-yet-laundered cheesecloth. If I were more hardcore, the NYT Magazine would be writing a profile of my okara.

-The heat has brought the rustic activity of "jogging" indoors. To the gym treadmill. It turns out that if I can set the speed manually, I can run a mile in well under 10 minutes, some of it under nine, all while listening to (watching, sort of, on my phone) 1970s sitcoms. As vs. risking skin cancer and Lyme disease (not to mention being jumped on by excessively friendly off-leash golden retrievers with no owner in sight - where's the exposé on that known menace?) on leisurely 11-minute-mile (or so I estimate) jaunts through the woods.

Less time spent getting more exercise, plus television, plus air conditioning, seems like a winning combination, although it will be even better once they get the new treadmills that apparently allow you to project what you're watching onto a larger screen on the machine itself.

This is, though, I am aware, sacrilege. Running means communing with nature, connecting with some spiritual somethingorother. It's secular sin enough to run with headphones. And I'm not even listening to classical music or something minimalist and zone-out-conducive. I'm listening to, I don't know, a public-radio podcast about the superiority of small-town life, and getting all riled up. Or I'm listening to Dan Savage, Marc Maron. The BBC Women's Hour. Absolutely whatever. That's already violating the rule that one must pretend to be running for some reason other than a) anxiety-relief, b) leg-toning, or c) procrastination. That, and it's so pretty here, making me a terrible person for not finding that enough, for needing to hear a real-life Costanza droning on about how other comedians are more successful than he is. But running at the gym, when the woods are right there, feels wrong. Like, throwing out okara wrong. But it's possible that authenticity is, as the kids said when I was still a kid, overrated.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

"Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn't."

Kirstie Clements is the latest fashion-industry honcho to have a public sad about the fact that models are emaciated minors. More on that in a moment.

First, as I've said on many occasions, I believe the 'think of the models' line of thought misses the big picture when it comes to women and weight. Think of the models as underage/unpaid/exploited workers, yes, absolutely. And thinking of their plight and that of ordinary women is anything but mutually exclusive - perhaps everyone stands to benefit if the ideal look isn't 12 and starving. (More on that, too, in a moment.)

But at least when a model tries to remain artificially slim, or worries tremendously about aging, this is because of her career. "Not every model has an eating disorder, but I would suggest that every model is not eating as much as she would like to," writes Clements. Replace "model" with "woman," and what changes? There are so, so many women who would never in a million years be models, often if for no other reason than they're decades past the cutoff age and far shorter than 5'10", obsessing about their food intake, simply because they feel they must, that this is what it is to be a woman. Not because there's any kind of prize for them at the end of it. My sense is that the intense focus on the models themselves comes from this being a more, well, photogenic problem. A normal-looking 38-year-old (or 88-year-old) woman struggling to maintain 130 when she'd be healthier at 150 just doesn't say Fashion, or something. The daintily young-and-tragic are, it seems, the ones even very concerned readers prefer to hear about.


Anyway, Clements's article is part exposé (of what everyone already knew - models may be naturally thin, but not naturally that thin), part damage-control. She doesn't want to accept the blame for the skinny-model problem. She seems to have it in for Anna Wintour, although that bit of the piece feels quite gratuitous and tacked-on. 

One is clearly supposed to read the article as a somber revelation about a serious issue, maybe even the stirrings before a revolution of sorts. But I just can't seem to do so.

For me, the trouble began with this bit: "When I first began dealing with models in the late 1980s we were generally drawing from a pool of local girls, who were naturally willowy and slim, had glowing skin, shiny hair and loads of energy."

I mean, maybe? If this is simply to contrast how it once was with the rise of heroin chic, perhaps. There are more women naturally built like supermodel-era Cindy Crawford than like Anonymous Slavic Waif #302. But a) not everyone with an eating disorder looks all that emaciated, and b) any time you have people getting paid to be "willowy and slim," you can expect artifice contributing to that cause. "Glowing skin" might well mean tanning beds, and good products can make hair shine. Just because the model look is relatively attainable doesn't mean that those who have it (again, all the more so if it's their job) aren't going to dangerous lengths to achieve it. I mean, having lived through the 1990s, I guarantee that the supposedly 'healthy' supermodels in media images contributed to making women and girls plenty insecure about their appearances.

Also, "girls"? Why should models of clothing for adults be "girls"?

And here, though, Clements really lost me: "It cannot be denied that visually, clothes fall better on a slimmer frame, but there is slim, and then there is scary skinny."

Sure it can. Here's how: visually, clothes fall better on a frame the clothing is cut to fit. If designers recognized breasts and hips the way the seem capable of recognizing limbs, we'd be getting somewhere. (An E-cup bra isn't going to "fall" so well on an A-cup woman.) That, or we're looking at a circular argument about thinness being more attractive. I mean, it's been defined as more attractive, so those who are thinner are, at this moment in time, at an advantage. But it's not some kind of essential fact. 

And Clements continues along those lines, as if it's objectively true that chic only works for a certain build:
As a Vogue editor I was of the opinion that we didn't necessarily need to feature size 14-plus models in every issue. It is a fashion magazine; we are showcasing the clothes. I am of the belief that an intelligent reader understands that a model is chosen because she carries clothes well. Some fashion suits a curvier girl, some doesn't. I see no problem with presenting a healthy, toned, Australian size 10 [UK 8-10].
This is already sending us down the wrong road. Once "fashion" and "showcasing the clothes" requires the non-having of curves, that rules out not merely the overweight (who - to be clear - should not be ruled out in the first place), but also the vast majority of thin women. How is it possible to read this without thinking that "healthy" and "toned" are just euphemisms for straight-up-and-down? Is a non-vanity-sizing size 6 (what I take this to mean, in US terms) on a very tall woman the epitome of "healthy" or "toned," or is it more like the extreme edge of that, as in, a few women will be those things at that size, but a lot would be healthier and more toned if a good bit wider?

As long as a typical female build is defined as ruinous to clothes, as long as models must be incredibly tall and a dress size commonly worn by thin women nearly a foot shorter than they are, what changes? Well, what changes is, the "ideal" goes up by about five pounds, two years, with everyone all the more convinced that there's something edgy and exciting about those younger and slimmer than what the mags allow. With everyone all the more convinced that it's desirable to look like a skeletal preadolescent.

Which is, after all, what's driving this. Many women want to look younger and thinner, so even if few women really want to look like starving children, a starving child (in expensive clothes; preferably without the daughter from "All in the Family" asking for donations) brings out whichever insecurities, and thus the credit cards.

Clements apparently doesn't object to the notion that models should remain a very specific and mostly unattainable size, only that the size is as small as it is:
A model who puts on a few kilos can't get into a sample size on a casting and gets reprimanded by her agency. She begins to diet, loses the weight, and is praised by all for how good she looks. But instead of staying at that weight, and trying to maintain it through a sensible diet and exercise, she thinks losing more will make her even more desirable. And no one tells her to stop.
To me, this sounds like utter nonsense. If the desired weight was below the girl/woman's natural set point, there's nothing "sensible" she can do to maintain it. As every adolescent girl on a diet in the history of adolescent girls on diets knows, once you split what you eat from what you feel like eating (plus more vegetables than you might prefer, because health), anything goes. I'm not sure how easy it is to diet down to some artificial point, and then maintain that weight, rather than yoyo-ing all over the place, even if kale and green juices are involved, and caffeine and nicotine avoided. Indeed, one reason some grown women choose not to diet is... vanity. If you're comfortable at a certain weight, struggling to weigh just a bit less may well backfire and cause you to weigh however much more.

And in any case, is it really that much better to idolize the 5'10" and 110 lbs than the 5'10" and 105? It may make it a little bit more likely that the models themselves are in good health (although plenty maintain that size via dangerous artifice), but does it make that much of a difference for ordinary women, who will look nothing like these women (girls) regardless?

In a perverse sense, knowing that the "ideal" is so ridiculously not-gonna-happen, knowing that there are maybe three dozen good reasons why we're not it, before we even get to questions like whether or not we are, in ordinary situations, easy on the eyes, is something of a relief. It's all been Photoshopped, the models are like seven years old, and they're not even allowed pasta. It all just feels so irrelevant.

It's difficult to come away from the piece without wondering if Clements's main objection to the current width of models isn't that maintaining it actually makes them bad models - lacking the energy and other physical attributes (hair-shininess, good skin) needed for the job. That, or I'm far too cynical where this particular issue is concerned.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

A weekend in Milan

Miss Self-Important (see what I did there?), others interested in Styles journalism, you may want to bookmark this one.

It has, oh, everything. (I now see Gawker is already on the case, but it's too easy of a target for them.) We've got:

-An Upper East Sider who thinks going downtown is like visiting Milan, which I sure know is how I felt commuting from the UES to high school at the edge of Tribeca. A Northern Italian vacation every day. (Actually, the gym teacher who almost failed me second term senior year had a last name that's also that of a different Northern Italian city, so, perhaps.)

-Another UESer, on dining out downtown: "'You can go out to dinner and you don’t have to be dressed.'” Indeed, it's so bohemian that one can go to restaurants in the nude.

-Another UESer, on why she had to make that pioneering trek:

For Suzanne Cochran and her husband, Robert, a founder of the Build America Mutual Assurance Company, it was a downtown soiree some years ago that persuaded them to buy a pied-à-terre in TriBeCa. “We were at a friend’s party,” Ms. Cochran recalled. “She is a very downtown girl, and it was all my favorite kind of people: artists — cool, hip people. And we were the only ones who lived on the Upper East Side.”
-A whole bunch of uptown residents buying what they call a "pied-à-terre" downtown, troubling both because they think downtown is another city (or country?) and because their little hubs in the Village or whatever are massively out-of-reach to those trying to live in that area full-time. (Beware the pitchfork-wielding NYU grad students.)

-A weird sort of reinforcement of the ridiculous belief many downtown still share, that they're somehow not a bunch of stuffy finance types and trustafarians, even though that's what "downtown" has been for a good long while now, with the exception of the NYU profs in subsidized housing and the rent-controlled stragglers. But the mere existence of an even-stuffier set, for whom south of 59th Street is an adventure, makes them scrappy by default. And there's nothing a "downtown" finance type living in an amenity-filled building-and-area seems to enjoy more than being told he's actually a gentrifying hipster. According to a real-estate developer, downtown “'is much more diverse, it isn’t all fund managers, but artists, literary people, then some Wall Street sprinkled in.'” I kind of think dude's got the proportions wrong. But intentionally so - this is, it seems, what sells.

-There's a cheeky (correct use of British English?) reference to the One Percent.

-There's this bit:
“You are seeing people ask themselves: Do I have an affair, get a divorce or get a downtown apartment?” said Michele Kleier, the president and chairwoman of Kleier Residential, a brokerage with a large uptown clientele. “It has become a very sexy thing to do, especially for those people living a sedate Park Avenue lifestyle.”
-All the more so, this:
Ms. Kleier recently represented two Upper East Side families who are warehousing downtown apartments for their children. One couple bought two two-bedroom apartments for their high school-age children in Battery Park City; the other bought a three-bedroom for their son at 150 Charles Street in the West Village, which won’t be completed until 2015. Asking prices there are averaging nearly $4,000 a square foot. “By that time he will be in college, so he can live there if he’s in New York or they can rent it out,” Ms. Kleier said.
No, readers, you weren't "warehoused" a lower Manhattan apartment. It's fine, me neither. Despite that massive life obstacle, we shall march on.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Why you Kant tweet crotch-shots

Via Facebook - but I'm not saying whose Facebook page, so as not to overshare, an article about an article about how oversharing might be unethical. Anita Allen, a philosopher, argues that Anthony Weiner broke an ethical obligation to himself by sending out crotch shots, because Kant would say so, or something. I have yet to read the whole paper (three looming deadlines; first email sent in French in a while and I'm rusty), but from the Brainiac piece and the abstract, it looks like Allen's focus is really the obligation to protect one's self from the fallout from sensitive private info reaching the public.

Which... may well be an interesting philosophical question, but would seem to ignore the more obvious problem with overshare, which is that almost by definition, it implicates others. Sometimes in the straightforward sense of, others are discussed without their permission/while too young to give permission. But this argument might even be made when it comes to Weiner's whatever-that-was. Weiner didn't merely reveal his own poor judgment. He also - one might argue, and I'm not sure if I'd argue this - violated his wife's privacy. Married/romantically-partnered couples are assumed to have some kind of sexual relationship, so it was in a sense their sex life on display, no matter how horrifying this may have been (no doubt was) for Weiner's wife.

That, though, might be a stretch. There's enough overshare out there that plainly violates the privacy of one or more other people that even if we classify the Weiner overshare (sorry!) as purely a violation of Weiner's own privacy, overshare as a whole doesn't come away looking so great.

From the article abstract, it seems as though Allen takes for granted that we see it as ethically problematic to tell others' secrets. Whereas... we probably should, but the ubiquity of overshare that isn't just about the sharer suggests this isn't taken all that seriously.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Drink

School's out, or something, but everyone has thoughts on drinking these days.

-Rita defends Cristina Nehring's "defense of drunks," which is also kind of a defense of social drinking, which I wasn't aware needed defending (maybe in Utah, but elsewhere?). I see where Rita's going with this, but I'm not sure it makes sense to place smoking (tobacco) and drinking in the same category. Is anyone really making the argument that we-as-a-society would be better off without alcohol? I mean, and being taken seriously while doing so? Or claiming that someone who enjoys wine with dinner should really switch to taking a psychotropic drug with who knows how many side effects, ones that for all we know include making it so that children you may have ten years down the line will emerge not as children but as miniature llamas?

That, and these drugs exist not only to turn Darias into Quinns, Constanzas into Seinfelds. They also address severe mental illness, in a way that, it would seem, the forms of self-medication that look chic in an old movie or a Sartorialist post do not. Any denunciation of "pills" must contend with the evidence that these drugs have saved/vastly improved however many lives.

And! Society (with the law slowly following along) does seem to be moving towards a greater acceptance of recreational (that is, non-medical) pot use. So maybe this is less about our rejection of a glorious Golden Age, and more about society weighing the cost vs. benefit of cigarettes in particular. I mean, take Dan Savage, harbinger of The New Morality if anyone is. Then check out where he stands on these issues. (Or I'll save you the trouble. He's anti-tobacco and anti-meth, but quite enthusiastically pro use-not-abuse of just about everything else.)

And finally, is it accurate to talk about how we-as-a-society have made this shift? Isn't it possible that we-as-a-society continue to socialize-and-indulge till a certain age, and then such things as 'pregnancy' and 'being kinda old' turn many into versions of Rob Lowe's health-crazed character from "Parks and Rec"? So it feels like society has changed, but it's just that we're ancient? Which brings us to...

-Tracy Moore declares 28 the age at which the mature hangover appears. Which, yes. Last year I experienced the one-martini hangover. This year I may have moved onto the one-beer hangover. While I didn't have the absolute most decadent college experience ever (UChicago and all that), this is nevertheless... new.

-OK, so there's one non-Mormon-or-Muslim opponent of social drinking, and that would be Emily "Prudence" Yoffe. A letter-writer, a woman, drinks 2-3 glasses of wine over many hours, with dinner. We don't know a) this woman's size, b) this woman's age wrt 28, or c) how she's defining a "glass." Is a "glass" a barrel? A thimble? (Oh, the thimble-of-wine hangover. Is that what awaits once I'm 30?)

Assuming by "glass" she means "glass," and she's not then driving or operating heavy machinery, or pregnant, then it kind of does take a doctor to say how much this matters for her personally. As someone who's not a doctor, let alone this woman's doctor, and as someone who eats 1,000x the recommended portion size of pasta a day, I don't feel in a position to be all, 'that's more than I drink, therefore alcoholism!' It sounds like a lot to me, if it's really every single day, but so what if it does?

As for her concerned fiancé, well, she has a choice. Either she uses him as a catalyst for a certain life-stage reduction in drinking, or maybe these are yet another pair of incompatible-yet-engaged individuals, and were it not for the incompatible-yet-mysteriously-engaged, there would be no advice columns. (Advice columns - I may well consume 2-3 of those a day.)

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The universal and particular in pantry organization

If you're new to cooking, or newish to cooking in your own household, recipes may seem like a blur. Each one calls for X ingredients. You go out and buy those, you make the dish, and then you eat. Then you clean up. Division of labor as applicable.

What you may not consider is that it's a rare recipe that won't leave you with extras. Not as in leftovers. As in, a huge amount of sumac, or pumpkin pie spice, or who even knows, and then what? Did your frugality (because really, that's why you're cooking and not eating out) extend to figuring out what to do with all that zatar? Just because a dog will happily eat all the bonito flakes doesn't make that a sensible use of a huge container of the stuff.


All of this ends up in the pantry. Everyone should have a well-stocked pantry! But what does that even mean? What about the profound non-overlap of what's needed for even seemingly similar cuisines?

My own cooking is maybe 75% pseudo-Italian (that is, pasta, vegetables, olive oil, and mostly Italian cheeses, but not adhering to much traditional this-shape-goes-with-that-sauce), and another 25% whichever other cuisine I've decided to become obsessed with for the moment. Sometimes that cuisine is also Italian. Thus the semolina flour in the cabinet. Thus the successful addition of homemade pizza to the rotation. Thus the thankfully-never-purchased-but-seriously-considered pasta-maker.

But there have been others - Thai, French, Mexican, Chinese, to name a few. And my inability to recreate restaurant magic is quite something. And it's not about certain cuisines being 'exotic' - I'm an American Jew, and my attempts at American, Jewish (Ashkenazi, Israeli), and American-Jewish cuisine have been not so impressive, either. Bagels? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

I'd always thought Japanese food was going to be a must-have-outside sort of situation. I'd tried and failed to make sushi a number of times over the years, including for a dinner party (for which I'd also prepared chicken and tofu in vaguely-Asian marinade, much to the relief of my guests). I'd bought dry soba noodles, only to find that as appealing as these are out, I'm never sitting at home, thinking, gee, I could really go for some pasta that doesn't go with cheese. 

But then... "Cooking With Dog" and the rice cooker. Teaching at NYU bringing me back into contact with Sunrise Mart. All this, along with some kind of sense of a mission: I was going to make agedashi tofu at home, dashi stock and everything, and that's that. (The amazing sushi place in town doesn't seem as interested in the equally-compelling deep-fried-everything aspect of Japanese cooking.) Miso soup. Miso eggplant. Sushi - well, hand rolls. 

As one might imagine, this has meant something of a pantry overhaul. Wasabi powder! Potato starch! Kombu! Roasted sesame seeds! The obstacle here is less cost (the average item was maybe $2 - this is not truffles-and-saffron territory) than space and organization. There's just this heap of little packets of this or that. All of which will go to waste if I don't remain as captivated by this cuisine for the next three to four years.

Which means - what else could it mean? - that I will need to simply face facts. I can have two, maybe three, cuisines going at a time, without wasting all kinds of materials. With all due respect to other cuisines, it's looking like Chez WWPD is going to be an Italian/Japanese restaurant for the foreseeable future.

Monday, July 01, 2013

So Betch

Oh, the New York Times, always the last with trend stories. Except when they're not. Like Jezebel's Katie J.M. Baker, I'd never heard of Betches Love This until seeing the NYT profile of the same. Also like Baker, I wondered if this was all in the proud tradition of things-being-about-Jews-without-spelling-this-out (see also; if these ever go online in a legal capacity, I'll start watching and responding); also like Baker,  I had to ultimately conclude that this is a category that overlaps with "JAP," but is its own thing. Perusing the site, I kept thinking of very much Gentile examples (some very "old-money") of women who fit the bill.

The site is more or less the exact opposite of the one where the (adult) children of the One Percent self-flagellate behind placards. Or is it? More on that in a moment.

Who is a "betch"? She's basically an anti-intellectual (those who don't read the news don't suffer, as I do, from the fate of finding that 30% of white men between the ages of 20 and 50, including 100% of those who are trying to help you fix your computer, look like this Snowden) rich young woman from the suburbs, who may have been one of the out-of-state, higher-paying "coastals" (a possibly anti-Semitism-tinged term, but not necessarily) at flagship state schools in the Midwest. (A sentence I wrote before even seeing this post.) Sororities and Uggs enter into it, as does some kind of borderline eating disorder. I don't think there necessarily was an all-encompassing term for this know-it-when-you-see-it phenomenon, so the various commentators calling the site "anthropological" are onto something.

The problem with the site, or its genius, is that it can't seem to decide if it's a dark, secretly Marxist satire of the "betch," or if it's a gently self-mocking but ultimately sincere expression of that which it's describing. I'm leaning towards "genius" - it has a built-in audience of the women who identify (and who participate in forums and threads, offering one another sincere advice on "betchiness", or snarking at one another for being posers or poor or I don't even know) as well as of the women (and men?) who find it all kind of horrifying.

Because - here, Caryatis, is the cultural-capital question - there's this other set of women from more or less the same demographic who are raised specifically not to be princesses. Some kind of internalized "JAP"-o-phobia, passed down across the generations. Yet they - we - are maybe not so different after all. (Do "betches" read "Into The Gloss"?)

I looked at the list, and much of it applies to women who'd see themselves as much higher-brow or more mature than the described category. Alternate explanation: I'm lower-brow and less mature than I might fancy myself. Iced coffee? (I tend to prefer D.I.Y. cold-brew or made-by-a-hipster over Starbucks, but same thing, really.) Sushi? (And other Japanese food! Sushi-and-only-sushi is so passé. But ugh, yes.) Neon? (Nike Frees? I never.) Equestrian chic? And argh, I don't even get an out for having married someone from a different country.

I'd be disqualified from betchiness, it seems, if for no other reason than that going out to dinner at an upscale restaurant with a large group of expensively-dressed girlfriends doesn't sound like the absolute best possible way to spend an evening. (Why? Because that was all-girls middle school. I experienced a lifetime of "sorority" in the Greek sense between the ages of 10 and 13, which was enough.) And fine, for financial reasons as well.

The best thing about the site - also, needless to say, its worst - is its lack of sensitivity. Sometimes this unquestionably veers off into wildly offensive. Other times, though, there's a frankness, a telling-it-like-it-is, not often found elsewhere.