Sunday, June 28, 2015

The great northern resurfacing

Hello again my many Weblog-readers. It's been a bit of a haze, but I'm now settled-ish in Toronto. There were just a few small practical matters to sort out immediately - dozens of international-move-related bureaucratic details (a work still in progress, thus my near-unusable US phone), plus the thing that happens when you move from a furnished apartment to an unfurnished one (a halfhearted look at nearby furniture stores that sell slabs of wood for thousands of dollars, followed by the inevitable trip to IKEA). Still awaiting the furniture itself (the couch, bed, etc. may be in stackable boxes, but this was beyond what a streetcar could handle) as well as all our other belongings, but there was a silver-lining moment when I realized that a suitcase we'd brought that I thought contained only paperwork and my wedding dress actually had, in addition to this, a second pair of jeans. The height of luxe! Also very luxurious: the Canadian Tire air mattress (thank you, commenter Alison for the suggestion!), and the IKEA pillow and throw that have made it almost comfortable. And wireless - a new addition that, along with the folding chairs from yesterday, has made this all slightly less like camping.

Like Borat at an American supermarket, I have no idea how to buy groceries. Milk is incredibly expensive, or it comes in a giant plastic bag. There's apparently a YouTube video explaining how that works. Which I did not know when at the store. Garlic scapes, however, are ridiculously cheap, so I now have a ton of them. The options seem to be a) the expensive yuppie supermarket close by, b) the dream-come-true Chinatown supermarket close-ish by that may or may not stock Western-style groceries, and c) the farmers' market and giant indoor affiliated market, both of which are wonderful but out of the way. I have a lot of romantic notions about European-style browse-shopping (with a fabric shopping cart, which currently tops my wanty list), but can already foresee not having time for that, and having to accept that the supermarket with $17 (Canadian but still) moderate-sized pieces of cheese can't be avoided entirely.

The restaurant situation, however, is so excellent as to make me think maybe cooking isn't worth the bother. For the price of a thimble-full of Canadian milk or a shred of Canadian parmesan cheese (I exaggerate; it's not Princeton prices but would still add up eventually), you can have a two-meal-sized portion of any East Asian cuisine you choose. (I exaggerate once more. I'm sure there are parts of the region not represented. Maybe.) So far there has been Korean food, Vietnamese food, and a regional Chinese cuisine (Yunnan) that I don't believe I'd ever had before. Restaurants and grocery stores of the sort I used to drive for hours (or it felt like hours) to get to are now more or less right downstairs. Japanese food... is around, but seems not as common here, for obvious immigrant-population reasons, but there is a Japanese grocery store, which is more than I can say for the many miles around where I used to live. That will probably come in handy once there's more than a saucepan and a stack of disposable plates to work with. And coffee shops! So many, so far all excellent. And there are Portuguese (?) custard tarts that taste just like French flan, which segues into another observation: there's no easy place to go running. So be it! Oh, and the meal I've taken to calling "street sausages," but that's probably called something more appetizing. The veggie dog with hot peppers, BBQ sauce, onions, and mustard is just so fantastic, and so cheap, and basically everywhere.

As for more profound cultural observations, or just things that don't relate to the practicalities of getting through the first few days of a move... I want to say that Canadians are less preppy than Americans, but I'm comparing the center of Toronto with Princeton, NJ, so who knows. There are definitely some Canada-specific fashion subcultures that remind me of the goth and raver looks popular at my high school, but kind of different and worn by adults. Wearing all black, in the not-quite-goth sense, is a thing here in a way that it isn't in New York, where it's supposedly what one does. Men's fashions are more noticeably Canadian than women's - there isn't that same thing (again, at least in the parts of Toronto I've seen) of dressing as macho/unfashionable as possible. The typical men's business suit is sort of fitted, I guess, and there isn't that same gender divide of women caring and men ostentatiously not caring. As you can see, my profound cultural observations are all about clothes. I am very, very sleepy. Apart from a man almost running me over at an intersection, but putting down his car window to offer up a "sorry," it seems... different yet almost exactly the same as the parts of North America I'm used to. And absolutely nothing like Montreal, which had been my reference point for Canada.

I gather that a lot has happened in the world in the past few days, and will now catch up on that, for personal-interest and professional reasons alike. Please, reader(s), bear with me as I try to resync with the news cycle.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

End of an era

Goodbye, outskirts-of-Princeton. Goodbye, preppiness, ticks, and excellent gourmet ice cream. Goodbye friends who haven't already (long since) moved away, and goodbye adorable fluffy wildlife, including the tiny bird that was (for a few brief, terrifying minutes) sharing our apartment. Goodbye, America-narrowly-defined. And yes: Goodbye, car. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Chic Canadian minimalism

Greetings from Day # who even knows at this point of moving to Canada. A variety of steps are involved, considering that a) it's another country, and b) the move involves flying with a dog. There's also the slight possibility we'll arrive two weeks before our mattress does, and the question of where to buy an air mattress in Toronto is surprisingly un-Googleable.

But the main thing has been just sorting through all our... stuff. What sort of stuff? Every sort of stuff that we own for no obvious purpose, and clearly shouldn't move. For several uninteresting reasons, we brought over a ton the last time we moved, by which I mean, the usual sorting-through of knick-knacks, papers, and stained t-shirts happened, but not sufficiently. And then there was the brief blip of living in (what seems to me to be) an enormous apartment. The last week or so has been spent figuring out where or how to recycle or donate, whom to give or sell, all manner of stuff. (Word to the wise: Staples of all places will take your broken blender, whereas a long-since-unused microwave needs to go on a special day to the county dump.)

It's not so much that we were keeping things for sentimental purposes (well, some) as that the huge apartment meant not having to make a decision about anything either way. Not sure what to do with whichever thing? The study! The study was always the answer, and thus not especially useful for... study. It discreetly kept the broken hair iron, the broken blender, the broken cellphone, and so much more. But the rest of the apartment always looked reasonable.

In any case, there's no The Study where we're moving to, which is probably for the best. As someone who defies the laws of human nature by feeling calmer in a busy city and more comfortable in a small apartment, I'm happy with this development. As for the one really unwieldy bit of stuff - the car - that I'd thought I'd be sad to part with, but as the day of carlessness approaches, I'm actually quite OK with it. The lower danger of stuff-accumulation is just a side benefit.

Cue the discussion, I suppose, of KonMari, of snobbish minimalism, and of the fact that too much stuff is (if that's even still a thing) a first-world problem. It means some combination of that you have/once had disposable income, or people with disposable income who care enough about you to give you gifts. Except in the age of cheap crap and credit cards, it doesn't necessarily mean anything of the kind. I mean, always a little bit. To be swimming in a sea of broken appliances and old newspapers, you probably once had working appliances and that day's newspaper. But if you are (ahem) a woman with oh so many pairs of shoes, of which most turn out to be unwearably worn-out ballet flats, loafers, and others that wouldn't be repairable even if shoe repair were a thing where you lived, you sort of do and don't actually own a lot of shoes.

Too-much-stuff seems like such a non-problem, and yet even if it's objectively not the biggest thing you've ever had to deal with, it's daunting. There was this sort of streamlining, out-with-the-old satisfaction getting me through the first few rounds of this, but you can only Google 'how to dispose of...' so many times before you start thinking those people whose only kitchen implements are a knife and a saucepan have the right idea.

What I'm saying, I suppose, is that there's a paring-down that isn't quite at the level of throwing out everything that doesn't "spark joy," but that does involve tossing some things that aren't necessarily garbage.

But still there is guilt. There is frozen mango that's going in the trash, as well as more nearly-full spice containers than I care to discuss. (I'm sure I had a reason for buying marjoram however many years ago, but I now couldn't even begin to guess what it tastes like.) After a truly vile pantry use-up lunch yesterday, a "soup" of sorts that may have ended up wasting more fresh ingredients than properly using up pantry ones, I've come to terms with the fact that moving to another country means the time does eventually come to stop agonizing and start just throwing things out.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A de-gendered reading of unearned confidence

Sometimes I've thought that I should, as a writer, do more with the fact that I have a PhD. Like, in a 'look what I've got!!!' sense. It's not unknowable that I have one, but it's not really front and center, either. While the training and experience I got from doing a French and French Studies doctorate has influenced my writing, thinking, etc., the title itself seems... irrelevant? Pompous? Like something that would be (and has been) held against me by certain readers who assume a humanities is some kind of extravagant finishing school that you (or your parents) pay for, and not a full-time job? But there have totally been times when I've thought, a male writer would be wielding that PhD for all it's worth, getting his authority respected, rounding up expertise, not down. 

Well, let's set aside the gendered reading, because all of a sudden there is a writer wielding a PhD in just the manner I'd never have the audacity to, and that writer is... a woman named Wednesday Martin. She's been going around claiming her PhD (which she discreetly fails to mention is in comparative literature) makes her a "social researcher with a background in anthropology." These claims were key to her whole positioning - as in, she's not yet another finance-dude's wife, writing a back-stabbing memoir about the other moms. She's a career-woman! Almost an anthropologist! Except... maybe not quite an anthropologist

There's no shame (ahem) in having a literature PhD and and then writing about things other than your subject area. Nor is there shame (ahem, ahem, ahem) in being a humanities-oriented person married to a math-oriented one, even if that almost certainly means you're the lower earner in your household.

And not all writing needs to meet social-science standards. If someone wants to write a book about why she thinks it's a terrible thing that Upper East Side women work out all the time (note: definitely not what I'm writing a book about), I guess I'm OK with their not having actually measured a statistically significant sample of the population in question with calipers. Indeed, sometimes the quasi-necessity of including statistics in an otherwise personal or subjective essay ends up ruining the flow and turning something never meant as an Argument into an unconvincing, biased polemic. 

As for whether there's shame in presenting your mean-spirited musings about your neighbors as ethnographic findings and invoking your doctorate in an unrelated field in the process, could be. Part of me admires her lean-in-ishness, but part of me is also sort of horrified.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Thoughts on femininity from news cycles past

Going away for two, but what ended up being more like three, weeks set me behind in the various controversies. Catching up, kind of, but also trying to write-and-move, so it's not the very first priority. In case anyone was wondering where I stand on the issue of the day: Yes, it's brave of Caitlyn Jenner to come out. Yes, she looks great. Yes, it's unfortunate that this is demanded of her. True, few trans women (or, indeed, cis women) have access to her resources in the beautification department. No, she should't be blamed for using said resources. Yes, she's a both a trailblazer and a self-promoting celebrity. No, there are no new angles on this.

Except... all of this does kind of connect to something I'd wanted to write about earlier, regarding Sarah Maslin Nir's two-part series on the horrible conditions behind the scenes at NY nail salons. Atrocious, illegal wages, combined with dangerous working conditions, with some racism in the mix. Amazing reporting (and the translations - brilliant!), but plenty upsetting to read. The series is, happily, making an impact beyond simply causing the well-manicured to experience a twinge of guilt for a week or so, until their polish chips and they've by that point moved on to some other issue.

When a similar (if less persuasive) piece about nail salons appeared in the British press, I'd responded here, wondering, among other things, why these stories must always lead people to conclude that the problem is beautification, or conventional femininity, and not specific health concerns or labor violations.

This came up again in Leonard Lopate's interview with Monona Rossol, who came on to explain that all personal-care products are toxic. Nail polish especially. If you're buying the ones free of specific toxic chemicals, you're actually exposing yourself to even more dangerous untested chemicals. How dangerous, if you're using it at home, near an open window, every week or so? More dangerous than it would be to not use it, which is a non-zero amount, and is nail polish really necessary? Dan Savage has this line about how, when it comes to sex, people often view zero risk as the only acceptable amount, whereas these same people are just fine with skiing, driving, etc. Well, so too with beauty. Conventional femininity is simply unacceptable, and is therefore an inconceivable reason to go to any kind of risk - any kind of trouble, even. Even if salon workers in no way enter into it.

Anyway, where this relates to Caitlyn Jenner is that I'd long thought that progressives kind of got it when transwomen (or gender-non-conforming boys/men) embraced conventional femininity, but were squicked out when cis* girls/women did so, because what possible reason could there be for this apart from submission to the patriarchy/the beauty industry. Not so! It's apparently a problem (see: the entire internet) that Jenner's preferred version of womanhood for a magazine cover is different from how an avant-garde poet might look while grocery shopping at Zabars. What amount of conventional femininity would have been acceptable? Eyeliner? But a woman not in eyeliner is still a woman, so why expose yourself to toxic eyeliner chemicals and fund the rapacious eyeliner companies, when you could have just left your eyes unlined and still be every bit as female? Would it have been better if Jenner had presented looking just as she had prior to her transition, but come out with a bold statement about how what matters is that she identifies as a woman, and there's no set requirement for what a woman must look like?

But back to Lopate. Rossol included this digression about her own nails, which (the radio listener will have to trust) go unpainted. She then remarked, "You've got time to write books if you don't fix your nails!" And... if you do paint your nails, you don't?

Which, in turn, brings me to Lauren Maas's excellent Into The Gloss post about female artists and makeup. It's very much in keeping with the Susan Sontag shopped at Sephora news from a while back. It seems that it's possible to produce Great Work and not to present as masculine. Who knew?

Now, I'll provide the necessary caveat about how, if women didn't have to primp, we'd have more time for other things. That's not so far off. But this seems more relevant when it comes to things like dieting (which requires an every-waking-moment weight-think) than things like painting your nails.

*Necessary update!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


-I'm writing a book! Living the bloggy dream! The official announcement is on Publishers Marketplace, which I don't have access to, but my name plus "perils of privilege" in a search will get you to it. It's about the idea of privilege. It's going to be fantastic.

-My husband and I are moving to Canada! Toronto, specifically. Sometime this summer, still sorting that out. Happy about this because, among other reasons, a) I will never, ever, ever need to drive (although I did my first-ever drive through a car wash today, and that was quite fun), and b) there will be a dog run and a Japanese kitchenware and grocery store within walking distance. (The only thing that will prevent me from doing too much shopping in the clothing stores that will suddenly be right there, and not in some mall I can't figure out how to park at, is their proximity to the kitchenware utopia. Priorities...) And, yes, a ton of cultural institutions, pastry shops, restaurants (although I can already see just returning again and again to my favorite). And the St. Lawrence Market, which is some sort of cheese-shop dream come true. Cold winters, yes, but Chicago was manageable.