Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cuddle (shudder) puddle

If there was ever a headline I didn't expect, it was "The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School." The very thought, the very image, Stuyvesant kids in a web of sexual adventure... "nausea" doesn't quite cover it.

I was always under the impression that New York Magazine didn't give a crap about the plebian schools, of which Stuyvesant, by virtue of being technically public, is one. Coke at Collegiate? Braless at Brearley? Spanking at Spence? Sure. But the sex lives of nerdy teens whose parents aren't paying private-school tuition? What gives?

The set described, of course, is the group of might-as-well-be-private-school kids, white kids who hang out on the Upper West Side and have professional, open-minded,
mostly-non-immigrant parents. Kids who are in public school because their parents are too liberal and bohemian to believe in private school, not because they couldn't afford it. But as the author, Alex Morris, admits, the sexually-adventurous clique profiled in the article is just one crowd, and is not necessarily representative of anything larger. Morris writes that "Alair and her friends... are known as the 'bi clique.'" One "bi clique" doesn't a trend of bisexuality make. The author does not, however, mention the demographic difference between these kids and the rest of Stuyvesant. And yet, finally, a piece about teens that's not a scare story, kids who don't fit into any particular category of cool or dorky, rebellious or innocent, but simply go about their lives and try to figure out ways to improve upon their parents' world. Refreshing, if biased and unscientific.

The obvious question--why is this the article to launch the newly-redesigned NY Mag website, the cover of paper copies city and nationwide? Sure, bisexual teen girls sell magazines, and the fact that most of these particular girl-girl kissers will soon be at elite colleges adds a little prestige to the story. But there's no story. Nothing happened, nothing significant has changed, or, if it has, the article doesn't make that clear. Here's one possibility. It seems as though Morris might, just might, be a former Stuy kid:

Ten years ago in the halls of Stuyvesant you might have found a few goth girls kissing goth girls, kids on the fringes defiantly bucking the system. Now you find a group of vaguely progressive but generally mainstream kids for whom same-sex intimacy is standard operating procedure.

This sounds about right. When I was at the school (late 90's-early 00's) there was a mix, the really greasy-looking, super-alternative try-everything types and the vintage-loving, relatively conventional-looking pseudo-hippies for whom bisexuality was sort of assumed, and who blended in fine with more mainstream popular types. But, correct interpretation or not, how else would someone happen to know who was kissing whom in the halls of Stuyvesant at any given time?

Or perhaps the author is not, in fact, a Stuyvesantian:

"They had to be pretty serious students to even get into Stuyvesant, which accepts only about 3 percent of its applicants."

Serious students? It's a test, middle-school grades, what your teachers thought of you in junior high, all this is irrelevant. Thank god. And really, who cares about Stuy kids' (shudder) sexuality? Gotta get the facts right where it matters.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sea sickness on the six

In a certain ginormous French novel which I have never quite finished (but have I come close!), a young man who goes by "Marcel" experiences la deception--disappointment--time and time again. It's when you think something or someone will be really extraordinary and then... no. This is about how the latest (but my first) BHL shenanigans have left me. American Vertigo is quite awful. I had a thorough bashing planned for this weekend, but I could not get myself to finish it in time, letting Garrison Keillor do his thing, making a few, but thankfully not all, of the points I was hoping to make. Once I finish this book (one not-too-crowded subway ride to go) a full review will appear.

In high school, I wrote a short story called "American Excess," set at a Thanksgiving celebration in New York, at which the grandmother had hired a French housekeeper named Mireille (how precient!). Despite being visibly overweight, Mireille receives endless compliments for her slim physique from the American guests she's serving, who so firmly believe in the French paradox that they literally cannot see that the French woman before them is, in fact, fat. Why am I mentioning this, other than to show that I was, in this one small way, before my time? Because, much like the guests at this fictional Thanksgiving dinner, BHL sees what he wants to see. Halls of fame sprout up by the roadside? Clearly America is in crisis. Malls and cars getting bigger? Metaphorical obesity, of course, a disease, a sickness, bound to ruin the U.S. Any reason why halls of fame and malls will be the end of us? None needed, of course--aren't the Louvre and the Raspail organic market so much more charming? So, no reason given, the name "Hegel" dropped just often enough to remind the reader that, say, this man (BHL) says he's a philospher, and just enough short-sentence-long paragraphs (no content-related reason, just to be obnoxious) to induce sea sickness on the six.

Say that three times fast.

"Sea sickness on the six."

I dare you.

Why I am never leaving the apartment again

Katherine and I just got dinner at a restaurant in Park Slope. Things were most lovely until the two men seated near us... well, until we began to pick up on their conversation. It was about jdate. Seems they partake. Profiles. Ages on profiles. People met through the site. An "intellectual" dating service, "The Right Stuff." They were in the 70-ish range. Benefit of the doubt given--perhaps they were widowers. Then some reference to "staying over." Um... Then one said to the other, "You do better with two women at the same time." That was it. I couldn't contain myself. I made a series of snide, hilarious remarks to Katherine which shall not be repeated here, and which I at first hoped to be making at a low pitch, but eventually I just didn't care. Not that these men were listening--they soon switched over to the topic of medicines they take. I have a hunch I know what one of them was. I know it's wrong and ageist, but vulgar talk one gets used to from 19-year-olds is a bit more nauseating from the well-past-AARP set. Two women? The Internet and Viagra have created monsters.


Reminiscent of the time we saw Ghost World, Katherine and I were somewhat underwhelmed by the latest of Scarlett Johannssen's cinematic wonders: Match Point.

Unlike the very similar Closer, which at least livened up an otherwise dull-serious "grown-up" drama of Americans and Brits in London with "natalie portman g-string" and "clive owen shirtless" (hello, new Google-searching readers), Match Point provided a mere few seconds of "jonathan rhys meyers boxer-briefs" and a whole lot of "scarlett johanssen seven jeans." If a movie's going to be shallow and with gorgeous actors, why not a bit more boxer-brief time with our charming protagonist? I'm just saying.

As everyone always points out, with Woody Allen movies, the "porn" is of the real-estate variety--those views! those spaces! Even the examples of where one lives when down-and-out are, of course, drool-worthy, which fits quite well with the complete implausibility of either the Jonathan Rhys Meyers character ("Chris") or the Scarlett Johannssen character ("Nola") having been brought up poor. The difference between rich and poor is defined in this film as the difference between having a car and driver and taking taxis. While this does, in fact, divide the super-rich and the merely well-off in NYC and possibly in London as well, the idea that someone would fear losing the lifestyle to which he'd grown accustomed, when all it would mean is a switch back to cabs and to a charming flat rather than a charming flat with a better view and one driver rather than many... but maybe this is the point. Chris chooses real estate over sex. He'd rather a view of London than of Nola's really quite extraordinary body. As beautiful as the actors are in this film, I also couldn't help but notice an agnes b. store in the background, or the fact that Nola's day job was at the boutique Paul and Joe (site has music). Or, as has been pointed out elsewhere but I cannot remember where, the fact that both of the main female characters wear Seven jeans. It's nihilism through materialism, but without the humor that could--in theory, given Allen's alleged involvement--make it palatable.

To be fair, two things about the movie qualify as funny:

Early on in the film, Nola is approached by Chris, who asks her if anyone's ever told her that she has "sensual lips." This amused me tremendously, so after the movie I asked Katherine at least twice if anyone had ever told her she has sensual lips. A silly line, all the sillier because we have not yet been introduced to Nola the character, so basically it's an announcement that Scarlett Johanssen has sensual lips. Which is sort of like saying Jonathan Rhys Meyers should have spent more of the movie in boxer-briefs: indisputable.

The second thing I got a kick out of was that the "Woody Allen" character, far from being absent as A.O. Scott claims, was there in full force and, hint hint, full lips. The neurotic, the loser with absurdly bad luck, the only character whose physical movements at all resemble slapstick, is Nola. By putting a beautiful man in the role of golddigger and a beautiful woman in the role of nebbish, Allen has, at least in a very limited way, shaken things up.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Stealth charges

Recently Frank Bruni had a piece in the Dining section about "stealth charges" at New York City restaurants. As I don't eat in real restaurants terribly often, I didn't think I'd have much to say on the matter. "Tap" versus "bottled" is pretty standard, and while it has the sad effect of making even a splurge-ready diner feel cheap, it is a situation where you have a choice. And choosing tap suggests a certain degree of sanity and down-to-earth tendencies, and so may well make a diner seem more reasonable in the eyes of the waiter. Surcharges for certain items on a fixed-price menu, the addition of extra courses, overpriced vegetable dishes--I don't think any of this is new, nor do I think it's unique to classy sorts of places. Ever had a Chinese restaurant's lunch special? Inevitably one dish is a bit more than the rest. And finally if a restaurant's wine is too expensive, fewer people will order wine. That is the definition of "too expensive" in a capitalist economy. All of these "stealth" methods strike me as quite reasonable from both the restaurants' and the consumers' perspective. Charge what you can for different things, and give diners as much choice as possible as to what they eat and pay for.

There is one technique, however, which is ridiculous and which, as someone who must simply radiate NYC restaurant-and-bar naivete (note to self: stop wearing middle-American university sweatshirts), I end up subject to a whole lot: the phenomenon of, "the menu says one thing, but the real price is whatever I say it is." It defies all logic, the waiter or bartender is clearly in the wrong, and yet at many places, the following sort of interaction is apparently acceptable:

A couple months ago, I was at the local Prospect Heights hipster-bar, where there was a sign that beer was something like $3 during happy hour. My friend and I went in and ordered beer. The one I ordered, I learned only once it had already been poured, was actually over twice as expensive. There was no way I'd have known this, no signs indicating anything other than $3 pints, and there was plenty of reason to believe that I or anyone else living in the area might have, say, not ordered that particular beer had we known. The reason given by the bartender, who admitted that there was no way I'd have known this? The keg was really expensive. Oh well.

Then recently at a French cafe on the Upper East Side, the same thing happened. A dessert listed as $5 on the menu was over $10 on the bill. When confronted, the waiter denied that the item was $5. Then another waiter, overhearing the problem, offered by way of explanation that, yes, the dessert was listed as $5 on the menu, but the larger amount is what it really is, it just hasn't been changed on the menus yet. Again, wouldn't have ordered it had we known. As my dining companion pointed out (not sure if this is something he'd want credit for, so no name given), the waiter could have told us that the "real" price was $1 million. What was stopping him?

Dining out or going to a bar is a social activity. What stops most people from being rude to an inept waiter or leaving a crummy tip isn't humanitarianism but a desire not to look like an ass in front of one's dining companions. Restaurants and bars have picked up on this. By demanding a price noticeably higher than the one listed, establishments turn the customer wishing to pay the list amount plus tax and tip into a miser, into one of those lame people who makes a fuss. Enough people fear being 'that guy' that restaurants and bars could presumably pull something like this for every, say, five people (so as not to make it too obvious) and let their earnings increase trememdously.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Thursday, January 26, 2006

No soup for you

Some racist-types in France--in Dreyfus's ancestral region, as it happens--have decided to distribute "pork soup" to the poor. Caring for one's own is good and all, but the whole "we belong and you don't" angle is, well, off-putting. Sort of like a dish described alternately as "pork chowder" and "community soup." From the EJP:

Every Wednesday for the past six weeks the southern regionalist group Soulidarieta (solidarity) has been distributing the foodstuff at locations close to soup kitchens.

Soulidarieta is ideologically linked to the extreme right movement Identity Bloc. While serving soup the militants are also giving-out leaflets with the words: “ours before the others!”.

Last Saturday, a second nationalist group “Alsace Solidarity” launched a similar initiative in Strasbourg, giving out a pork chowder they call “community soup”.

“We put pork in the soup because we live in France, a country where pork has always had a major place in the citizens’ food,” says a leaflet distributed by Soulidarieta.

While the intent of the pork soup is clearly both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish (not to mention anti-vegetarian), it's also unclear how many French foods, even with less offensive-sounding names, would be both halal and kosher. Little or not-so-little bits of shellfish or pork (everything from broth to shortening) find their way into most dishes. Even many traditional French cheeses are not kosher, depending on the rennet used. And if the dishware isn't kosher, then it doesn't matter if the dish in question is 300% vegan, still not kosher.

So there are two issues at stake: that the soup is not technically kosher or halal, and that the choice of dish was meant to offend. Which brings up the question of how many French Jews (I don't know enough about halal to discuss that angle) are semi-kosher, say, avoiding pork and shellfish but eating in restaurants, or eating everything but meat when dining out. Varying degrees of kashrut, such that many more Jews steer clear of pork and shellfish than have homes that a rebbe would agree to eat in, make it so that "pork soup" affects Jews specifically, as a people, rather than just the Jewish religion as followed by strict adherents. Again, I don't know the specifics of halal well enough to say whether this also holds for Islam.

My suggestion? Given that this trend began in Nice, it only seems fitting to let them eat salade nicoise.

"Pretty much as I predicted, except that the silly party won"*

Andrew Sullivan, on the Hamas victory:

Here's the nightmare we foreign policy neocons haven't fully come to grips with. What if a country democratically elects a terror-sponsoring leadership? We already know that democracies, like Britain or Holland or France, spawn Islamofascists among their citizenry. Now, in the Palestinian territories, we have an aggressively terrorist democratically-elected regime. And the margin is a landslide. We can hope that eventually citizens demand accountability from their leaders and will nudge them toward the civilizing aspects of democratic goverrnment: building roads, running schools, delivering services. But what if even this is all done within a theocratic-terrorist paradigm? Democracy is not itself a panacea. It never was. What happened yesterday represents one critical pillar beneath the Bush foreign policy crumbling into dust.

Good question re: neoconnery, but one it doesn't take a mind like Sullivan's to pose. Despite my decided non-wonk-like tendencies, I'd be awfully curious to know what'll happen next. But guess what--no one knows. It's a dilemma, a paradox, a, err, shitty thing when terrorists win by neocon-approved means. (Of course don't neocons who praise "democracy" in the Middle East mean "but with America making sure nothing goes way, way off"? That's what they say, anyway.) Some neoconnish voices say a Hamas victory is just fine. Anyone taking it at face value would not.

The NYT article on the Palestinian elections mentions that Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, only much later in the piece is it mentioned that, gee, the US and the EU also consider Hamas a terrorist organization.(This has now been edited--if only I had the skills for those cached pages...any geeky boys, or girls, whatever, want to help here?) At what point is it uncontroversial enough to refer to it as such that even the NYT calls it one--when Hamas itself takes on the title?

My take on the Hamas victory is as follows: The Israelis and the Palestinians do not get along. The world is obsessed with this fact. A Hamas-led government will be given as the reason for whichever direction things now shift, violence-wise. Put me in as guessing temporarily more violent, then a period of calm, then some more violence, just because it had been a while, so the time had come.

*Apologies to Monty Python.

A livejournalesque post (complete with evasive second-person)

I’m a huge fan of “I used to like you.” For those not familiar with the concept, it’s when you confess a crush retroactively. The genius of “I used to like you” is, of course, its ambiguity. Does it imply a “…but not anymore,” or is it a cowardly confession of current interest? It is, in either case, a way to reveal a crush while making it perfectly clear you are no longer pursuing this individual (whom you never were, in any visible way, pursuing). By the time of the “used to like you” announcement, even if any interest remains, it’s subsided to the point where the previously distance-only object has become just another human being, from whom no possible response could be that interesting. Everybody wins, a net gain in flattery without any significant concerns of rejection.

“I used to like you” is ideal for the following situations: the person does not share your sexual preferences, religion, rung on the ladder of attractiveness, or, for people plugged into that sort of thing, social status. Or, better yet, all of the above. You would never have approached the object of desire in the first place; this was part of what made the crush so much fun. There was no danger of anything happening, while there was plenty of danger that, had the interest been reciprocated, you’d have lost interest entirely.

Stuyvesant High School is home to one of the great—if not the great—traditions in the “I used to like you” genre. At the end of your senior year, you and many of your classmates put up “crush lists,” lists of everyone you liked during high school, right there in the lobby for all to see. Teachers make cameos on these lists but, thankfully, do not put up their own. It’s a chance to find out which of your classmates are the most desirable—a revelation to no one by that point, as Stuyvesant’s conventionally-attractive population is notoriously minute. But more importantly, it’s when you learn something which will matter into adulthood: What do all these people you like have in common? Or, what’s your type?

I did not reflect upon my own list, other than that it was very long, very embarrassing, and very heterosexual (my preferences; the boys on the list were another story). A girl I barely knew, a junior, glanced at my list and informed me that I had “a geek fetish.” Yes, at the dorkiest school in the city if not country if not world, I preferred the geeks of the bunch. To defend myself, I should note that Stuyvesant had a large, silent population of still-geekier geeks, the kids who ran home right after school, too inept socially to join debate or science olympiad, on whom it would be very, very difficult to form a crush. In my defense, my crush list included only one of them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The real "Metropolitan Diary"

For a taste of New York, look no further than the "user ratings and reviews" of bagel places on the website "MenuPages." The consensus seems to be that bagel places have good bagels but lousy service. For a food item that rarely reaches the dollar mark, this seems fair. If the kvetching about NYC bagels is any indication, then "Diaspora Judaism," "Woody Allen Judaism" or whatever we're calling it these days is alive and well and, most likely, no longer specific to actual Jews.

A sampling of the results:

Midtown Ess-a-bagel

Their bagels are awesome but their bad service make it not worth it to eat there. There is a guy with mustache and glasses who never takes the right order. If you go back and ask him to give me the right one, he gets angry. I used to eat there every Sunday before he started working there. After three bad service in a role, I never go there anymore. It's just not worth it to ruin your Sunday brunch experience by having to deal with a service person who needs anger management.

UES Pick-a-bagel

While the bagels here are pretty good, the service is subpar. The counter worker asked me to repeat my order about 6 times (all I ordered were 2 bagels) and the cashier was worse. She also made me repeat my order more than twice and then gave me an attitude. She was rude and incompetent and to top it all off the bagels were very overpriced.

72nd St. Bagel (UWS)

I've been a customer for many months, and have always tolerated subpar service, as the bagels are great. However, last weekend, after my order was messed up twice (not a big deal on a lazy Saturday morning...), the gentleman serving me began to basically throw a fit after I pointed out his error the second time. Sorry, but the bagels are not good enough to compensate for this level of customer mistreatment!

Nussbaum and Wu (Morningside Heights)

The food isn't bad and not too pricey, but the service is not good. One time I waited at the counter over 15 minutes to get a pre-made sandwich when there were 3 workers standing around and there were no other customers in line in front of me. When I asked the guys "Where's my sandwich," they started to trash-talk about me to each other in a different language...they didn't realize I understood their language. Big mistake.

"Big mistake," eh? One wonders what happened next. (One can't help but imagine when Frank Costanza enters the Korean-run nail salon to defend Elaine from remarks she herself cannot understand, only to reunite with a long-lost love.) Can the multilingual bagel slicers in question still walk, or has this been taken care of?

Monday, January 23, 2006

The simplest thing

William Saletan writes: "I know many women who decided, in the face of unintended pregnancy, that abortion was less bad than the alternatives. But I've never met a woman who wouldn't rather have avoided the pregnancy in the first place."

From this he infers that abortion is murder. Something is very wrong with this jump. There are reasons to want the number of abortions to be low rather than high that have nothing whatsoever to do with believing that "the simplest thing" is that "[i]t's bad to kill a fetus." It's also bad to have a potentially expensive and painful medical procedure, to have weeks or months of unwanted pregnancy. Let's say you don't floss your teeth often enough and then discover you have a cavity. You can go to the dentist and have this fixed, you won't be happy about it, you'll regret your carelessness, but you will not be tortured by this incident for the rest of your life.

To those who are pro-choice, the "simplest thing" is that abortion is not murder, that nobody is "killed" by the procedure. Abortion is an undesireable outcome, and even pro-choice activists are right to advocate better sex education and access to birth control, so that this outcome can be avoided wherever possible.

Saletan concludes, "What we need is an explicit pro-choice war on the abortion rate, coupled with a political message that anyone who stands in the way, yammering about chastity or a 'culture of life,' is not just anti-choice, but pro-abortion." I agree with him that preventing abortion is a worthy goal of the pro-choice and pro-life alike, and that if pro-lifers believe abortion is murder (that's their take, I've heard), then they should look for strategies that will keep rates down, not just paths that otherwise fit a social-conservative agenda but in fact keep the abortion rate up.

But Saletan's suggestion for a "pro-choice war on the abortion rate" is not so much pro-choice as pro-life but with birth control as an acceptable option. It's a middle-ground, but it's still on the pro-life end of things. If you believe that abortion is when you "kill" another human being, and you believe that this--and nothing else--is the reason the rate needs to be kept down, then it's simple: you're pro-life, even if you believe that there are certain situations where abortion may be legal.

Three and three

I've never been big into these "memes," but here's one I think could be fun. Pick three careers, entirely unrelated to anything you do now, have done in the past, or are likely to do in the future, that you think you'd be remarkably well-suited to, and three which you think would be especially (humorously, preferably) disastrous. Here goes:

1) "Rental sister" for reclusive Japanese post-adolescents: The job is to coax dorky boys out of their rooms. I spent four years at Stuyvesant and four at the University of Chicago. I think this would be quite easy for me.

2) Iditarod leader/head sledder/whatever: I like big fluffy dogs.

3) IDF pilot: Perfect vision, pro-Israeli sentiment, Jewish ancestry, and basic knowledge of Hebrew. What else would I need?

And now, the nega-three:

1) Party promoter: It's hard to picture that anyone so good about updating a blog could possibly be cool enough to promote parties. While surprisingly enough I've hosted and co-hosted some good ones, anything on a larger scale is out of the question.

2) Miner: My biggest fear is of being trapped. And a combination of reading the news and reading Germinal doesn't exactly make the profession sound any more appealing.

3) Engineer: The worst part of high school was not the commute, not the geekiness of the boys (see above), but the physics labs which required some kind of adjustment of wires in ways I could never figure out, had it not been for my patient and far more capable than myself lab partner. (Thanks, Lloyd!) Anything along these lines, but at a higher level, would be bad news.

I pass this on to anyone who's up for it.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Banana Republic jeans meet Diaspora Judaism

Just got back from the local bar, with my roommates. For whatever reason, a formerly $7 martini is now $9. While this may be a sign that the neighborhood is, as rumored, up and coming (hear that, stubborn Manhattanites? We're cool too, we, too, overpay for drinks.), it was, frankly, an unwelcome surprise, and the fact that one bartender said $8 and the other countered $9 made things all the more confusing. And yes, a man randomly walked up to us and asked us if we wanted to buy "Banana Republic jeans." One of my roommates suggested that this was code for drugs. I pointed out that I have two pairs of honest-to-goodness Banana Republic jeans I do not have any use for, that my mother also had no interest in (thus their reason for being here in the first place) and suggested that perhaps this man had, conveniently, raided our home and taken the offending items out onto the streets and, it seemed, bars of Brooklyn. We did not offer to buy, and so heard nothing more on the subject.

The main conclusion we came to, however, was that bars should offer peanuts. (Especially bars in not-super-trendy parts of Brooklyn that charge $9 for a martini, but I digress.) So, along these lines, I (no, actually Katherine) found the smoked almonds I got at a store on Atlantic Avenue (where, I would guess, my politics might not have been so popular) a while ago, so now it's sort of the old-fashioned bar experience, but in two courses rather than one, and a good deal more gourmet/ethnic.

For what it's worth, I'm currently trying to write about a thousand different things, all at the same time. Unfortunately, legalist and cheapskate that I am, my version of speed is a diet Coke I got free at Duane Reade from one of those caps on a previous bottle of diet Coke that meant the next 20oz bottle would be free, still in the refrigerator after what must have been at least a week. Hmm, intellectual aspirations and cheapness... do I detect some "Diaspora Judaism?" Yes I do, yes you do, but some things just are what they are, and fighting them isn't worth the bother.

Shtetl mentality

Matthew Yglesias asks, "what's [Israel] got to do with me?" Matt points out that his family's background is in Eastern Europe, not in the Middle East. He agrees with me that "Israel and religion, not neurosis and cured meat, will be what hold the Jewish people together," but disagrees that this is something to be happy about. A fair point, but one which misses various other, more compelling ones:

Matt may feel himself to have Eastern European heritage, and the existence of such things as Yiddish; my grandfather's old, very old, passport; hearty, bland Jewish cooking; and the fact that I am very, very pale confirm that many Jews do, in fact, have such heritage. However, it's likely that Matt's Ashkenazi ancestors, aside from the more recent ones, both considered themselves, and were considered by their non-Jewish neighbors, a foreign, "Oriental" people quite distinct from Slavs and so forth.

When you ask an American Jew what his family "is," you will get the following sort of answer: "I'm part German, part Russian, and part Polish." As per Matt. But ask a German, a Russian, or a Pole (now, perhaps, but certainly in past decades) what claim this individual has on such an identity, and unless the individual happens to be a Freud or an Einstein, the answer would be, think again. The point is, even though many Jews' most recent heritage is geographically in Eastern Europe, we as Ashkenazi Jews are fooling ourselves if we believe our forebearers had anything other than an extreme outsider--foreign, even--status while in that part of the world. This is not to say there was no mixing, that cultures never blended, but if your ancestors were (as were mine) in the Pale of Settlement, chances are they were in something that more resembles parts of Israel (or, um, Brooklyn) than anything you'd find in non-Jewish Eastern Europe. While I support the right of Jews today, as well as others, to live equally and peacefully in whichever country they'd prefer, it makes no sense to project back into history and claim that this was the way it was way back when.

Which brings me to the obvious: There's a reason that Matt and I and (insert your favorite American Jew here) are not currently in Eastern Europe. It didn't work out so well there. Pogroms and the Holocaust, for a start. It is unfair and upsetting and "letting the Nazis win" and so on to allow the anti-Semitic view that certain residents of Eastern Europe "count" as Eastern European while others do not. And it wouldn't be enough to say that anti-Semites didn't consider one's ancestors to be Russian or Polish or whatever, if that had been how they thought of themselves, but it cut both ways. Matt claims to feel ties to non-Jewish (i.e. current, post-Holocaust) Eastern Europe, yet these ties are a bit harder for me to understand than just a general sense that, yes, my ancestors did live in a climate such as whatever with trees such as whatever. Because, when it comes down to it, that's what it means that my ancestors (none of whom were, far as I know, "court Jews" or even close) were "Eastern European."

The question comes down to this: which matters more, geographic or national heritage? While the modern state of Israel is, well, modern, it is, due to some pretty basic and well-known historical reasons, where the European Jewish community--at least the part of it most interested in Jewish continuity--now resides. Yes, Israel is in many ways a "made-up" thing--it's creating a falafel-eating, Hebrew-speaking group out of people whose immediate heritage involved neither chickpeas nor reading from right to left. But there are some good reasons for a contemporary Jew's sentimental pangs to be nostalgia for this recent extension of their own people's history, rather than to a geographic area where their most recent ancestors happened to live.

So while it is in a sense understandable to identify with Ashkenazi culture and heritage, identifying as "Eastern European" requires more uplifting revisionism than I care to try out. It makes American Jews feel better about ourselves to believe that we are Russian-American or Polish-American, because it gives us a pre-American nationality, gives us a proper sense of having come from somewhere. While the modern state of Israel is not many Americans' pre-American nationality, the Jewish nation, albeit the pre-state Jewish nation, is.

I've got more where this came from, but this post is way too long as it is.

The end of delicatessens

From NYC to Paris, the great delicatessens of yesteryear are, one by one, going to that still-larger delicatessen in the sky.

As someone who's preferred Jewish cuisine is more along the lines of a falafel stand than a foot-high pastrami sandwich (sometimes politics and taste do coincide), the Closing of the American Delicatessen (in America and abroad) does not strike me as a tragedy. If Andrew Sullivan can find support for his politics in "South Park," then allow me to find the same in this: the end of "Diaspora Judaism," of cultural-but-nothing-else Jewry, is upon us. Outside Israel, the only people who care about being Jewish care because they are religious. Those who feel vague pangs of nostalgia whenever they pass a place that sells matzo ball soup will disappear as any sort of tangible group in the next generation, if not the next five minutes. Israel and religion, not neurosis and cured meat, will be what hold the Jewish people together. And this is a good thing.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Chicago: Where "Commentary" Excites the Undergrads

"The format is roughly similar to the magazine Commentary, but without the requisite Judaism or exclusive neo-conservatism," ["Midway Review" editor Rita] Koganzon said, referring to the monthly journal of the American Jewish Committee, which, although ostensibly political, also includes personal reflections and discourses on music and books.

Which means the niche of neoconservative UChicago undergraduate publication remains unfilled. I was almost the co-founder of a semi-serious neoconservative paper at Chicago, but the project never took off, in part due to the usual inertia, in part due to my ever-decreasing levels of neoconservatism. But, one wonders, if the "Midway Review" is "nonpartisan" yet based on "Commentary," why was the new publication not called "Dysentary"?

The case against cool

My cousin Caroline writes about how anti-Semitism is now considered "cool." I disagree that the success of "Paradise Now" at the Golden Globes is any indication of this (since when do award shows determine or reflect "cool," and couldn't a movie possibly have been chosen for something other than its politics?), and while this does not strike me as news--from Parisian non-Arab keffiyeh-wearers to campus pro-Palestinian activist groups in the U.S., the Palestinian side of the Middle East controversy is typically considered the cool one. Pro-Israeli activists are often seen as whiny dorks, and all the attempts to make Judaism seem "cool," to put a hipster spin on Judaism just make things worse. Because nothing is less cool than trying too hard.*

The height of cool is, of course, irony. And Andrew Sullivan has written a totally sincere ode to ironic, hipster (he calls it "post-PC") humor, the Sarah Silvermans and "South Parks" of the world. The Sullivan reader who writes in that "post-PC" humor is nihilistic is mostly correct. It can't be embraced by anyone for political reasons, because anyone with sincere concerns, left or right or gay-libertarian-right-center, is a loser. While a comedian like, say, Margaret Cho, can simultaneously be hilarious and hold certain political positions, the new set would never do such a thing, because that would be lame. It's unfair to judge comedy's funniness by whether or not it promotes agreeable politics, just as it's not right to attribute the success of a movie about suicide bombers to an affirmation of suicide terrorism. Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman both have some good jokes. But the problem with "post-PC" comedy is that it has--and this is where nihilism comes in--made a fool of anyone who cares about the world. By "problem" I mean problem for Sullivan, who sees this comedy as somehow indicative of his own politics coming into fashion. I find plenty of comedy both horribly offensive and hilarious ("Annie Hall," much of "Seinfeld"), so for me this isn't especially problematic.

Which puts "cool" into two camps: the humor-cool, who shun politics, and the humorless set, who in all seriousness attach themselves to anti-dorky causes. The former is morally acceptable, as it's equal-opportunity negativity and is not meant to be read as political commentary, while the latter is really quite awful.

While this may not make me a "classic liberal" like modernity-loving Andrew Sullivan, it might make me a classic child of the 1990s: I think PC has its merits, and I am nostalgic for a time when one could be liberal and pro-democracy/pro-Israel without much fuss or confusion. I happen to prefer comedy which preserves a bit of political correctness, albeit in a subtle form, and think--outside the realm of comedy--that the message of tolerance sent by even dippy-sounding jargon is often overlooked and surprisingly valuable. (How often are today's conservatives out-and-out racists or homophobes? And who to thank for this if not the forces of PC?) If Gore had won, perhaps fighting terrorism and supporting Israel would still be respectable, and cool kids on U.S. college campuses would not be so politically aligned with the Paris Metro's most hip.

But mainly, I believe it's really dangerous and idiotic to let what's cool (or, for that matter, what one finds aesthetically pleasing; the two are connected) influence one's politics. This is not to say holding political views means denying taste and preference that conflict with these views. Thus Francophilic Zionism. It is, in fact, nearly as creepy to let one's politics dictate one's taste as vice versa. OK, not as creepy, but still quite idiotic, leading to everything from sweaters with the American flag knit into them to hemp backpacks covered in political buttons to the dreaded Birkenstocks. (Where far-right and far-left meet: bad fashion sense. Yes or no? Discuss.)

*Nothing, that is, except blogging on a Saturday night. But hey, sometimes-co-blogger Molly and I are going to be partying on any minute now. We might even get cupcakes.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The return of the Chicagoan mega-church

Via Arts and Letters Daily I found this New York Magazine piece about everyone's favorite French public intellectual, "BHL." Must have somehow missed this article when I read the Vera Wang profile, but this is what happens when one reads magazines online, rather than in the bathroom, as Nature intended. In any case, Bernard-Henri Lévy's Toqueville Deux is not news to longtime readers of this blog. So he goes around America and, in an insightful and French way, makes some sort of assessment of the situation.

Because he is French and important, BHL can get away with having the following printed: "I had a great fuck with America." Because he means this on politico-philosophical levels you just wouldn't understand. It's an allegory, a metaphor, and an explication de texte all rolled into one. A critique so subtle and yet so blunt as to simultaneously shock and fly over the heads of puritanical, slow-witted American readers.

The full quote:

So is his goal with American Vertigo to become BHL in America, a branded public intellectual? “No comment,” he says, punching my shoulder lightly. “What I would like is if I could participate in the ideological intellectual debate here and contribute in a slight way.”

Still, he’s not going to move here. This is, after all, a man with many mistresses, and this country is just one of them. But, in the end, what did he like best about the U.S.?

“Everything, my dear. I will tell you. Sometimes in your private life you have a mistress you love, love being with. You spend time to time in a grand hotel, with good room service, great champagne, and you separate—and when you are really in love with her, you inevitably think, Could I wake up with her, near her every morning? And then you try it. This is exactly what I did in America. America was a great mistress. I had a great fuck with America. It was like a weekend in the Hotel du Cap.”

As with the Wang piece, I believe I get the references, but once again, something is off. BHL's basically putting a French-cliche (mistresses, fancy-sounding hotels) spin on that boring old phrase, "love-hate relationship." (Did the reporter or BHL himself first propose the America-as-mistress comparison?) But I have to admit I really want to read this book, to find out more than I ever knew about mega-churches in the greater Chicago area, and to see, finally, what this BHL is all about.


Now that I've outed myself as an over-shoulder subway reader, here goes:

A woman standing next to me today on the train, wearing the exact same Brooklyn Industries coat that I was (which is hardly worth mentioning, as so is half of Park Slope), was reading one of the free dailies. The headline was something like, "Enough Brangefetus* Mania Already!" And sure enough, there was an accompanying picture of Angelina Jolie, carrying some preexisting, non-Pitt-related, faux-hawk-sporting child whose name escapes me.

While the Brangefetus may well be over-hyped, those who don't care to read about it don't have to. A young man sitting near us looked quite content with his Talmud, and I'm almost certain the offspring of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie never make an appearance there. Clearly the appeal of the anti-Brangefetamania article comes from the fact that this mania continues, and will continue, at least until the Brangeadolescent goes through its awkward stage.

*For the record, in the category of celebrity unborn children, I much prefer the name "Federletus," referring of course to the mini-Spears. "Brangefetus" sounds like a disease, most likely fungal.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Chapin: Behind the Iron Curtain

Fellow rocket scientist Kei brings a welcome Chicagoan (well, Keipopnational) perspective to both New York Magazine in general and the Vera Wang piece in particular.

Kei notes the incessant name-dropping so typical of New York, but also of every other publication at all associated with NYC. My favorite part of her post:

"Chapin" could be one of those obscure European cities that was once under Soviet rule for all I know, but I figured from context that it is a crusty rich private school in NYC somewhere. Google confirms: it is a "private K-12 school for girls on the upper east side of Manhattan."

God I wish I could have seen this when I was terrorized (ok, terrified) by Chapin girls at interschool dances. They were all a foot taller and a whole lot blonder than the Spence folk, and going to Spence but having friends at Chapin meant you were the real deal, that you met people summering somewhere important, as opposed to just in class (how plebian! even though "in class" meant "at Gwyneth's illustrious alma mater").

The thing to know about New York is, no one really gets what's going on with these articles. I get the references, but something definitely seems off. I think people not from NYC are, in a way, the ideal audience. If you have experienced these scenes and their ridiculousness,if you have met people who think $200 for a sweater is ridiculously cheap, then there's no mystique. Yet as Kei's post reveals, the whole thing makes no sense to those from outside this very small, closed (dare I say provincial?) environment. It surely makes no sense to even many people in NYC, including very wealthy people who just happen to live in Tribeca or, gasp, Brooklyn Heights, and thus have their own set of schools and concerns, and probably also couldn't place Chapin without some solid context-reading and Google-searching. New York posed a question not long ago of whether it's "OK" to send your child to public school. Answer: it depends. A point is being made, but what's the point? New York the city (as opposed to merely the magazine) is about having tons of cash and showing it off? It's a point, but it's not a very interesting one. I'm not advocating socialist glossies (well, that could be fun) but just articles about things more original than bridal-gown designers who like Abercrombie. If this is the aristocracy, why would anyone with any sort of brains want in?

As Kei's analysis also concludes, the strangest thing about the Vera Wang article in particular is the supporting evidence for what a down-to-earth person Wang allegedly is. Everything she does, from shopping around the world to spending ten times what's necessary for a sweater, is offered as evidence that she's "one of us." I suppose the best explanation is that this is meant to flatter readers, to imply that they as a demographic aren't quite where, say, Paris Hilton is, but are still doing OK for themselves, or at least well enough to mystify the rest of the country. Defining "normal" as upper-middle-class-with-certain-pretentions...I mean, a contingent of well-off New Yorkers does think this way, does think going to Chapin or wherever is "normal" and anything else somewhat unfortunate, but there aren't enough such people to sell this magazine. I suspect that many copies of New York reside on the bathroom floors of shared Brooklyn apartments, or similar. Just a guess.

"No unthinkably long noodle for me, I had a tohax for breakfast and I'm watching my carbs"

How could anyone argue with a cuisine that includes "one unthinkably long noodle"? I really should be asleep, but then I found this article (and accompanying multimedia extravaganza) about Central Asian restaurants in Rego Park, Queens. While I have been to Rego Park, I've never had a noodle such as the one photographed by the Times, and I feel I've missed out.

One thing led to another and a Google search for "Uighur" was inevitable. The search led to this page on Uighur food. In her NYT article, Julia Moskin writes, of Bukharian Jewish cuisine, "It is all a long way from bagels and lox." That may be, but the Uighurs, who are apparently Muslim, have (if this randomly-found Western Illinois University webpage is to be believed) a food called "Tohax (Baked bread.)" Sounds exotic, right? Guess again. I'll have mine with lox, no cream cheese, thank you very much.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

One stone, a whole flock of birds

Katherine has singlehandedly saved, if not my life, then at least my next week or so. She found this book for me, L'oeil de Tel-Aviv by Steve Eytan, which is great for the following reasons:

1) In French, but not super-difficult French, and so can be read with ease by my subway-sleepy self.

2) About Israeli history, thus completing the Francophilic Zionism requirement.

3) Because of 1) and 2), is in fact so interesting that it made a long, long line at the post office seem almost reasonable. I'm not that far into it (the book; the post office line is thankfully over and done with) yet, but apparently (assuming this is primarily non-fiction; I'll ask Oprah) there was some Israeli boy named "Yossele" (Yossi, presumably, but not of "and Jagger" fame) who was abducted by his ultra-orthodox grandmother and who made a whole tour of such charming places as France, Switzerland, and (pre-hipster) Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before being returned to Israel. Sounds like my morning. Except not really, but it does sound like a kind of great vacation, at least compared with what Elian Gonzalez went through.

A disturbing trend

I've long since gotten over the odd, not-exact-quote searches that lead people to this blog, but I've noticed a pattern:

tampons christians

shomer negiah vibrator

Not one after the next, but over a couple days. Um, what's going on? Is there some reason the, ahem, internal lives of pious women must lead people to WWPD? But, in the name of service journalism, I'd hazard a guess of "yes" for query #1 and "no, especially not on Shabbos," for #2.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Spreading the gospel

This evening I introduced three more people (roommates and honorary roommates) to the wonder that is Yossi and Jagger. My roommate Anna has a big screen and projector in her room, which meant not just Yossi and Jagger but Yossi and Jagger on the big screen. Gosh. The beautiful scenes were more beautiful, the sad ones more sad... So, so much better than Brokeback.


We, the Concerned Alumni of Chicago, are most concerned. About what? About too much of this and not enough of this**. While it's true that "fun" has been admitted to our alma mater for some years now, the trend can--and will!--be reversed.

*Please do not hold this against me in the event that I am one day a public figure. I meant nothing by it, I promise.

**Not to belittle the suffering of Japanese shut-ins, but a few years of never having to leave the apartment (assuming wireless), with meals of dumplings and rice arriving at the door, service compris, with the occasional run to go get a bento box, seems not bad at all. Walking, eh.

"It's always about product"

So I'm kind of fascinated by this New York Magazine piece on Vera Wang. I can't quite picture how famous the designer is in general--I've passed her Madison Ave. storefront more days of my life than not--but regardless, she's an upscale designer of often-gorgeous wedding gowns who does not want to be put into a bridal box.

The article more or less confirms any suspicions one may have had about the need for connections and money to succeed in the fashion world. Early in the story, there's a quote from (Vogue editor) Anna Wintour about what a great designer Wang is; later on, is is revealed that the two are close friends, and that Wintour used to date Wang's brother. And then, the inevitable:

Wang has always been an Upper East Side girl, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman. She went to Chapin and then, when her dreams of becoming an Olympic figure skater didn’t work out, to Sarah Lawrence, where she studied art history (with stints at Columbia and the Sorbonne). She spent summers working at Yves Saint Laurent on Madison, where she was already a familiar face from shopping trips with her mother.

Fair enough. And then, despite her father's demands that she go to "Yale Law" rather than design school (had she been admitted to either? or is this irrelevant?), she is conveniently whisked off to work at Vogue.

Then, a quote about motherhood that would make David Brooks cringe, and that, frankly, is disturbing even to non-reactionary ears: "Her daughter has come home, but Wang doesn’t notice. 'Are the girls here?' Wang asks her housekeeper. They are, is the answer. 'Okay,' Wang says, and she’s off."

And, a soundbyte on married life: "'So I married my husband. There are days I’m not happy I did it, but there are days I’m thrilled—I mean, he has always understood my nature, which is that it’s always about product.'"

But then, my favorite:

For all her Upper East Side fashion-world credentials, Wang has never been much of a socialite. Her love has always been her work. Her best friend is Lisa Jackson, an interior decorator who lives just a few doors down on Park ... “We have literally shopped around the world together,” Jackson says. There was the time in Paris when they got into such a frenzy at Lacoste that they stopped bothering with the dressing room. “That was over T-shirts!” Jackson says.

Doesn't "shopping around the world" with a friend from Park Avenue count as "socialite" activity? What's disturbing is that, in the New York Magazine universe, this shopping anecdote is meant to show how down-to-earth Wang is. Jet-setting shopping sprees as opposed to what, exactly? Oh well.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lost weekend

As anyone who knows me off-blog is well aware, my favorite thing to do is walk around semi-aimlessly. Living in NYC, there's really never any need to visit another city for a change of scenery. Leaving behind charming/cutesy/obnoxiously boutiquey Court Street, where I had a spectacular almond brioche and cappuccino, I decided that rather than walking back to my apartment, where various productive things awaited me, I'd pick a random direction and go with it. The fact that it's in the 20s didn't faze me as much as maybe it should have, but oh well.

It didn't take long before I was in a totally unfamiliar city. I grew up in Manhattan, have a decent knowledge of many parts of Brooklyn, but had never taken exactly these turns before. First came some empty streets with government buildings, including the old Board of Education. At this point I saw signs for the Brooklyn Bridge, which I considered following with the end goal of finding this DUMBO everyone's been talking about, but realized I had no idea what to do re: trains back once I found it, nor did I have any sense whether walking back would take a half hour, an hour, or a week.

So I turned onto the Fulton Mall, which is a great deal like the main shopping street in Antwerp, or in another small-ish European city. Downtown Brooklyn, despite Brooklyn's hugeness, does have Manhattan for competition, after all. So despite a Macy's and a Lower Broadway-like array of sneaker stores, the shopping felt very practical, very "my son needs new shoes for school," rather than, "omigod I have to have the latest jeans." For what it's worth.

At this point I realized that I was vaguely near a street my friends had led me to for the first time the previous weekend, DeKalb Avenue. It had seemed like an interesting mix of over-the-top yuppification, near-Chicago-levels of dinginess, and pretty, pretty, park-facing brownstones, so with the help of a Fulton Mall directory sign, I made it to DeKalb. Initially I had no sense of which direction or how far to walk on it, but a combination of intuition and that tall building (clock tower?) over by Atlantic Avenue led me along.

DeKalb was less exciting than I remembered it, perhaps because it was way too cold for wandering around, so I decided to head home. But where would that be? My usually remarkable sense of direction, completely shot. So I walked a bit in one direction, then another, and then finally decided that the only way not to get completely lost was to head to the Atlantic Avenue shopping complex, home of Target. Once inside, I restrained myself and bought only paper towels, though a shiny red kettle and a set of martini glasses were awfully tempting.

The Brooklyn Target is a such a beacon of diversity, it's hard to know what to do other than give the place a standing ovation (in time for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, no less). Every race, every degree of each religion's religiousity, every age, every (well, not quite every) income level, the place makes shopping at one of those evil, gigantic stores seem like the ultimate PC experience, especially compared with the Court Street shops and cafes, where silly white yuppie-types, graduates of private colleges, no doubt, sip cappuccinos, eat Francophilic pastries, and read about the history of Zionism...

Bigger blogs than this

It's likely you've arrived from Gothamist or Jewlicious. Well, hello then!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dreyfus in Chicago

"What does the nose job have to do with the Dreyfus Affair or Kant's theories of beauty?" (scroll down)

I want to know! Going to this talk, for me, would be like seeing an obscure indie band would be for a cool person. But I no longer live in Chicago, so I may just have to track down Professor Sander Gilman--who, it seems, either teaches or taught at Chicago--and ask.

Dreyfus's nose, from the photographs I've seen, was unremarkable, but was made to look enormous in caricatures- doing this to a nose even today makes the point, apparently, that the person being caricatured is Jewish, whether or not he happens to have a large nose. Periodically, a not-large-nosed Jew will get drawn this way, a minor anti-anti-Semitism movement will emerge, and the world will soon forget about it and move on. But the Dreyfus Affair was really a watershed moment in big-nose-caricature history, so perhaps that's the connection. Perhaps not, but I sure hope to find out.

According to the June 1998 University of Chicago Magazine article on Gilman, the other group pioneering plastic surgery, aside from the (Dreyfus-Affair-fearing? did they even care? I now realize I have no idea) German Jews, back in the late 19th century was the Japanese:

[Gilman] describes how in 1894 Berlin surgeon Jacques Joseph developed the first face-altering procedures, primarily in response to German Jews who wanted to reduce the size of their noses to avoid being stereotyped as cold and mercantilist. At about the same time, Gilman notes, some people in Japan began to undergo eyelid surgery, as they increasingly viewed single eyelids as dull and lacking life compared to those of Westerners.

Which I suppose would make Jewish nose-enlargement procedures sort of like Japanese hair-straightening. Discuss.

Wish fulfillment

Recently, Katherine and I were discussing whether the complexity of dream plotline indicates anything about the dreamer's overall intelligence. I argued that it doesn't. Then this morning, I woke up right smack dab in the middle of a dream in which I was at Sephora, and I found the eyeliner that, in real life, I'd been unable to track down the previous week. Just as the alarm sounded, I was staring directly at the perfect silver pencil. My immediate thought was, damn! I don't really have the eyeliner, it was just a dream! My next thought: gosh, I'm an idiot.

So today during lunch, I went to Sephora and, after a thorough-ish search, found what I'd been looking for.

If you will it, it's no fairytale.

Party pooper

I've received no fewer than a trillion emails informing me of a "10 for 10" party for NYC-based Chicago alums. I'm all for pro-Chicago school spirit, for pride in one's alma mater, assuming it happens to be UChicago, but the purpose of this particular event--to get Chicago back into the US News & World Report top ten list, is kind of disturbing.

Obviously it is, on a certain level, in the interest of anyone who graduated from Chicago, whether they liked the place or not, for the school to be in the top ten. That way, neighbors will not nod blankly when future U of Cers tell them where they plan to attend college, and maybe, one day, people at Chicago would even wear "University of Chicago" sweatshirts while walking around campus. (I wear mine around hipster Brooklyn, I do my part.) It's disingenuous for any Chicago graduate with even a bit of ambition to deny caring at all about these rankings. Personal satisfaction at having mastered everything from the state of nature to astrophysics can only go so far.

At the same time, Chicago folk aren't really supposed to care about these rankings, or at least to admit to caring. But more importantly, Chicago could be yet another elite university just a bit below the top three, with everything almost as good as those schools but nothing special, a place to go when the harder to get into places reject you. It could, but that would be lame, and that's not what Chicago's about. Can we as Chicago grads please, please get over the idea that we need to "win" specifically as a mainstream university? Of course, Chicago's liberal arts undergraduate program prepares students for the same things as those at other top schools--no pre-professional majors, but not quite great-books-and-nothing-else, either. But the school's attitude--you come to get more information crammed into your head than you thought possible, you become obsessed with whatever you're studying, you leave a whole lot more impressive both to yourself and to others than you were when you entered--that's the point. It's boot camp for people with pretentions, a love of learning, or both. It's a way of making damn sure college is not a four-year vacation.

UChicago has a facebook group for people who turned down Ivies in favor of Chicago, and while it is a bit of an annoying idea for such a thing to exist (considered signing up, as it's technically true, but went instead with, "Why have sex when you could be learning Hebrew," a much more Chicago-attitude-specific facebook group), it's less irritating than caring about the top-ten list, because pointing out that Chicago has something no other place does, that people will from time to time pick Chicago knowing full well that it does not have the name recognition of some other schools, is better than trying to bring Chicago "up" to the level of places it doesn't really resemble and, for the sake of a student body with different needs and desires, ought not resemble.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Qu'est-ce que vous pensez?


Nearly 58 percent of French voters in an online poll said they consider Ariel Sharon a war criminal. Out of 369,439 who voted between Saturday and Tuesday afternoon in the poll conducted by the Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper, 57.9 percent consider Sharon a “war criminal,” while 42.1 percent see him as “the De Gaulle of Israel.”

I haven't seen the poll, just this news brief about it, but what I'm wondering is, where are the French voters who couldn't even name Israel's leader, who think Israel is an island off the coast of Australia, who, in other words, defy the stereotype of the French being at once preoccupied with the Middle East and--unlike those idiot Americans--super-knowledgeable about the world around them. I find it hard to believe that all French citizens, even all French voters (or by "voters" is it just meant, "those who voted in this poll"?), have an opinion about Ariel Sharon. Some, I would imagine, couldn't quite place De Gaulle, either. Because if only, say, 10% of French voters--therefore a smaller percentage of people living in France in general--care either way, the startling nearly-58% figure of who consider Sharon a war criminal becomes a bit less significant.

When I get around to it, I will have to read (and blog about?) this, this, and pretty much all of this.

Kinda-sorta-unrelated, but before I forget: please leave comments as to which Israeli CD I should buy next--it needs to be from a (group with a) singer who enunciates, and with lyrics in the liner notes. And, preferably, be available somewhere in NYC, preferably at Holyland Market on St. Marks--I'm not a fan of ordering things online, and want one of those diet Cokes in a bottle.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Today I learned many things:

1) Hasids can (or, at least, do) wear Doc Martens.

2) I do not get the least bit nervous when it is announced that there is "an investigation at Borough Hall." (But what, exactly, was going on? The alternate route I improvised took forever...)

3) I can eat an entire falafel platter--with hummus, tahini, tabouli, Israeli salad, and zatar pita--in about three seconds.

4) My apartment is out of toilet paper, hand soap, and vodka.

5) Japanese green tea from Oren's on 71st is surprisingly terrible. But purchasing this meant a stamp on the card, and only 11 beverages later, I will get a free mocha, at which point I will brag to everyone at work about my free mocha, at which point I will, if farcical history repeats itself unchanged, spill some of said mocha on an unfortunate part of a pale pink shirt.

Just in time for my morning commute...

More posts on subway smut, from Amy and Will at Crescat. I'd have to disagree with Will that over-shoulder reading should be eliminated. Any time I have forgotten to take something to read, or do not physically have space to take out whatever I've brought, or am only taking the train for a couple stops--not long enough to get anywhere in my own book, but long enough for a few sample paragraphs--I glance. I don't begrudge others glances of whatever it is I'm reading, but from what I can tell interest there is beyond limited. I also do not think the passage from Ada Will pulls up counts as "racy" in the over-shoulder sense I was referring to. I don't care to repeat exactly what was said in the passage from Thugs I encountered, but there was nothing in it that would require any understanding of literature. The vocab was limited to words that junior high kids are really, really excited to finally understand. As for Amy's sex vs. drugs, which is worse on the train, question... Not long ago I saw a man on the train roll a joint really openly, as though he were handrolling a cigarette in a Parisian cafe. The moments he was not focused on this activity, he was leering at a young-ish woman with her mother (?) sitting near him. Not so much leering as staring non-stop, which, as a woman who's taken plenty of public transportation, I can assure you is creepier. So sometimes, you get two for the price of one.

With that, to the subway.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The first one's free

Tonight, I showed Katherine how "sitemeter" works.

"And then he..." --"Next stop is Borough Hall" --Damn [UPDATED]

Today I took three trains home from work. Read the Amos Oz book on the first two. But for the third ride, I wanted to make sure not to miss my stop, and so went with iPod-no-book. But little did I know, I would engage in some literary activity all the same. Over the shoulder of a woman sitting near where I was standing, I was able to read a good few paragraphs of Thugs and the Women Who Love Them. Definitely more stop-missing material there than in what I'd been reading.

It's kind of shocking how many respectable-looking adult women read text-only pornography on their commutes. I don't mean romance novels with the occasional, "And then he pressed her busom up against his bare chest and sighed." I mean extremely literal, explicit act-by-act accounts of who did what to whom, with, in this particular case, the possibility of the girl being underage and the certain lack of condom. The sorts of situations Ross Douthat and Leon Kass might imagine would interest men but not women.


Amber Taylor has responded, pointing out that the book I mention falls into a "black women's literature" category, while a more or less equivalent genre written by and geared towards white women exists as well. My sense from subway over-shoulder-reading (no, you really don't want to be in my car on days I've forgotten a book) is that, while equally trashy "white" books are certainly popular (the glamorous-urban-girl sketch on the cover is of someone white, rather than black), the "pornography" is less sexual and more material. The fantasy is not getting a thug into one's bed but rather getting Manolos, Prada, and so on into one's closet. I have no idea if this is a nation-wide phenomenon or a NYC one, but that does seem to be the breakdown.

Oh, and while I failed to mention this when I first put up this post, I've blogged about the "urban fiction" phenomenon before.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Leopoldette and Loebella

First, there was the alumna accused of arson. Now, a female security guard accused of attempted murder. Ladies, ladies, please.

What would Katherine do?

This is wild! Katherine just "came out" to me as a blogger, and has given me permission to out her as such to the vast WWPD readership. This has, once and for all, confirmed the Stuyvesantian blogospheric hegemony.

Unknown but not unknowable

Jeremy Reff has a post up on Crescat about a study seeking to determine just who falls into the race:unknown category on college applications. He writes that "the study's suggestion that my decision to report my race as 'Other' was motivated out of self-interest (or some desire to hide my possible selection of 'white') strikes me as incorrect, if not borderline offensive." True enough. I always assumed putting "other" or "prefer not to respond" effectively meant classifying one's self as "white." So it's odd that schools would think to count anyone not going out of their way to say, "white," as "of color." Ideally, those applicants wishing for whatever reason to opt out of affirmative action would simply be counted as "generic non-underrepresented," and thus would not benefit from affirmative action as "people of color," but would also not have their identities prodded any further.

Collecting all possible information sounds appealing from a scientific perspective, but intentional ignorance has its place. Those "unknowns" did not wish to provide certain voluntary information, and ought to be left alone. Even if it could be found out through other means what the "unknown" students "really" are, if they wish to be considered unknown, that should be that.

One can agree that affirmative action is necessary, agree that there are certain instances where the benefits outweigh the creepiness of collecting racial data, and still wish for such data to come from applicants, etc., on a voluntary basis. Even if schools are required to produce hard numbers, they need not require individual applicants to check a box. Voluntarily offered racial information is one thing; digging and digging until the "truth" finally appears is another. Even individuals who make a point to never, ever provide racial information on application-type forms, even before this study, sometimes find that someone else kindly took the time to fill the box in for them. (I have discovered, at various instances, that I am "officially" white and Jewish according to various entities at Chicago, though I never mark this information down on forms.) While it no longer exists, U.S. colleges at one point had a "Jewish" category, if a less formal, less self-identified, and more sinister one, so maybe I should rejoice that while my grandparents' generation didn't get to be white, I do. Er, yay? That would just be bizarre.

You don't have to be multiracial to be genuinely confused by the boxes. Even though to my knowledge my entire ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish, a category typically thought of as falling under "white," I can think of situations when I have felt very white (on the CTA, in my Stuyvesant homeroom) as well as ones when I have felt very much "of color" (Chicago's Lincoln Park, rural Missouri, the private school scene in NYC in the early-mid 1990s). And given that the Jewish national center is in Asia, not Europe (as is the case for Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, and other "ethnic" hyphen-claiming groups), it seems odd that Jews are considered white while South Americans of equal pallor are considered Latino. Not that it would somehow change where Jewish applicants stand in the affirmative-action framework if they got lumped into the "Asian" category, but my point is simply that there's no objective truth to someone such as myself being considered white. I don't ask to be considered "of color," nor do I wish to deny others the option of self-identification. I simply want to have my "race" officially stamped as few places as possible, and to be lumped in with whichever "unknown so might as well count as white or Asian" category schools may come up with.

The study's authors urge the following:

To capture a more accurate picture of their entering classes, campus leaders should also collect information on students’ race/ethnicity postenrollment, when presumably students would not fear any repercussions for their self-identification.

Ugh, no. This is information that should only be collected when it absolutely must be amassed, to right historical wrongs, to preserve the American meritocracy, and so forth. To have special officers sent out to pester students about their race, during college, ideally a time when young adults are busy transcending and exploring beyond their backgrounds, is really awful. It's sneaky and upsetting that schools would go to such lengths to prevent students from opting out of "voluntary" racial self-identification.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

What will happen when I put down the "Vogue"

This looks like something I should read.

Tangentially related: It occurred to me recently that, despite all this "Francophilic Zionism," my French-interests and Israel-interests have never totally overlapped. French literature and clothing appeal to me, while I prefer Israeli language and culture (and in "culture" I'm including heartthrob actors). While studying in Paris, there was a bit of overlap, whenever I would have falafel for dinner and a crepe for dessert, but this was mainly due to the thrill of not having to eat UChicago's dining hall food. It's not so much that I prefer French to Israeli clothes and books, or the way Hebrew sounds to the way French does (the latter seems so familiar at this point that I can't really say). It might be that I prefer Israeli to French actors. Mainly, though, this is about ignorance. But I'm on the case.

So for all my interest in Israel, aside from Operation Shylock, I couldn't think off-hand of any novels I'd read set there, at least not that I'd read recently, nor could I think of any books I'd read by Israeli writers. Op-eds, articles, essays, that sort of thing, but no fiction. With this in mind, I got Amos Oz's My Michael. Why Amos Oz? Because he was the subject of many of our first-year-Hebrew class test essays at Chicago, and because I'd already read a page or so of one of his books over someone's shoulder in the subway. Once I finish this book, I'm going to give it a try in Hebrew. Which will be slow-going, for sure, but it beats endlessly listening to the Ivri Lider album as a way to learn/remember the language.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dangling men

My cousin Caroline writes, in the "Jerusalem Post": "As we watch and worry as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dangles between life and death, one thing is absolutely clear. Sharon's massive cerebral hemorrhage on Wednesday night spelled the end of his political career."

In discussing Sharon's current state of being, Caroline uses terminology reminiscent of that used during Yasser Arafat's last days. When normal people go, they kick buckets and such. They become ill and then pass on, or die suddenly. But if you're a Middle Eastern leader, if the future of the world depends on whether or not you make it, you hover. You dangle. You inhabit a liminal space of the sort read about by so many UChicago undergrads during Core social science classes.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Get well, Sharon!

The man with what has to be the most difficult job in the world is not doing well. I don't claim to know anything more than the next Haaretz reader about Israeli politics (even if this blog is on a blogroll labelled "Israel Blogs"), but Sharon seemed Giuliani-like and impressive during the Gaza pullout, and his continued existence, unlike that of Arafat, would (possibly? hopefully?) move things in the right direction. I wish him well.

Looks, online and off

For every woman with any sort of online presence, from movie stars on down to the lowliest bloggers, there is at least one place on the internet where her appearance, real or imagined, is being discussed, as Amber Taylor confirms. I have heard that even so much as giving an anonymous blog a "female" voice is enough to inspire a romantic attachment from one's readership. While I agree with Taylor that men's obsession with the physical attributes of female writers on the internet is lame, I do not share her (tangentially related--see her post) desire to "urge appreciation for a wider range of body types."

Advocating a more all-accepting beauty ideal is futile--if weight mattered less, something else would matter more. Until we begin to judge souls alone, we will judge appearances in one way or another. And weight is, when you think about it, a relatively innocuous standard by which physical beauty can be judged--race and height are far more stubborn, and race is, obviously, a much creepier way to determine who's attractive. Back in the good old days, when fashion models and actresses were a bit fleshier, they were also quite a bit more racially homogeneous. Was that beauty ideal somehow more "healthy"? Better to have women hate themselves for their weight than for their race.

Rather than well-meaning but misguided calls for an expansion of just who's considered beautiful (only to leave a tiny minority of the truly, undeniably unattractive) why not just remember that a lot of things go into attraction? Even attraction based entirely on looks is rarely about how much the object of desire's looks match what society has deemed desirable.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Arugula Famine of 2006

Tonight, Katherine and I went to a place in Park Slope very much like UChicago's Pub, with football on the tv screens, many beers on tap, a good ol' boy atmosphere, and an old-style wooden bar. And then, a manly-type, hearty-looking dude came up to the bar, and ordered... an arugula salad. The bartender/waitress informed the gentleman that they were out of arugula salad. A disappointment, perhaps, but it seems he ordered something else.

Arugula happens to be one of my favorite foods. Sadly it is a symbol of all that is yuppie and unnecessary and pretentious, yet it is so, so much better than spinach, basil, watercress, broccoli rabe, or any of the other tasty yet inferior greens with which it might be confused. It goes with every possible cheese, can be cooked or raw, is much better in Paris or from a Greenmarket than from a supermarket (thus adding to its pretentious allure) but is never anything but fabulous, unless purchased at the dreaded Hyde Park Food Co-op, where even basics like eggs and apples go terribly wrong.

Yesterday, at Citarella, I looked for arugula but didn't see any. Romaine, artichokes, basil, and other decent items costing far more than they should, yes, but no arugula. Why not? What happened to NYC's arugula supply? Clearly, something is up.

Eat, primp, and party

Vegetarian Vietnamese noodle soup. What I should have ordered. Next time.

A sign near-ish my office. Just as there are $75 virgins, there are, it seems, $1 lips, chins, and eyebrows.

Very "Lost in Translation," no?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Rice paper!

I just cooked the best dish ever, with no recipe, no guiding idea of what ethnic cuisine it was supposed to be, inspired only by the fact that I had bok choy, tofu, and ginger left to cook, and a whole package of Vietnamese rice paper just waiting to be explored. I stir-fried the bok choy, ginger, and tofu with sesame oil, hot sauce, and soy sauce, then wrapped the result in briefly-soaked rice paper. Rice paper may well be my favorite food, but I was a bit concerned that without a refreshing mint-basil-beef-lettuce-fish sauce-crushed peanuts-type filling, the whole thing would be a disaster. Far from it. No pictures, though, because despite being most delicious, it didn't look as elegant as it sounds. However, I am now determined to throw a Whatever-Wrapped-In-Rice-Paper Party, on the off-chance my friends share my obsession with the stuff. Oh, what the hell, if they don't, they will soon.

In other culinary news, the Syrian (?) store on Atlantic Avenue where I go when Sahadi's isn't open, or when I want some of that small-business charm, had this gigantic bottle of olive oil on display. The label: "$75 virgin." So that's what they're going for these days.

Dreyfus in the blogosphere

It's not every day long-dead Alfred Dreyfus causes a blogospheric kerfuffle, or, for that matter, that I am able to combine two of my three interests (those being Dreyfus, blogging, and fluffy dachshunds) into one post. But here it is.

David Gelertner, last mentioned here at WWPD for his circular pro-Bible-in-schools argument, is at it again. This time, blogs, along with the rest of technology, are blamed for keeping students from knowing about the Dreyfus Affair. Clearly computer-use and Dreyfus-knowledge are mutually exclusive. Clearly.

Gelertner writes:

In the early 1970s, many good students took a year--long college--level ("Advanced Placement") survey course in modern European history, and another in American history. Since then, modern educational techniques have worked an outright miracle. Today most incoming college students don't seem to know any history at all. (Except what they've learned by themselves, or their parents have taught them.) The high school history textbooks favored by public schools here in southern Connecticut are pathetic. Their left--wing bias is blatant; the authors don't even try to hide it. Maybe they don't even see it. Recently, a graduate student at a major research university told me that she knew doctoral candidates in humanities departments who had never heard of (for example) Devil's Island and the Dreyfus Affair. They will soon be turned loose on the world as aspiring young scholars.

AP history courses still exist, and Gelertner never says otherwise, yet implies that this is no longer the case. Weird. Furthermore, with each year that passes after any major historical event, fewer students will know about it. It's not that students are getting dumber each year, but that those who knew exact dates of, say, different WWI battles did not know those of the French Revolution, and so on. Gelertner remembers the good old days, even if such days never existed, because that's the good conservative thing to do. Why, remember, way back when, how third-graders would walk to school for 50 miles in the snow, barefoot of course, while reciting Zola's "J'accuse"?

That said, I have to take issue with Matthew Yglesias's claim that the Dreyfus Affair is a minor historical event that even educated people need not know about, that the Affair is "[i]mportant in French history and in Jewish history, but not of earth-shattering global importance."

I happen to believe that the Dreyfus Affair is important to know about, and my interest in the Affair comes not from some random, personal interest in nice-looking French Jewish military men, or even nice-looking Jewish military men in general, but instead from the sense that the Affair was far more important than it's typically made out to be, overshadowed as it was by two world wars. Fascism, Zionism, separation of church and state, "human rights" under attack, all sorts of ideas and movements whose importance has only increased came about during the Affair. To say that Zionism and facism's underpinnings are only important for French or Jewish history is incorrect; what began as mere 19th century French Jewish history turned into something of much broader significance. (Which is precisely what makes 19th century French Jewish history so interesting.) So while the name "Devil's Island" need not ring a bell, and while Proust need not be read in middle schools across the nation, the Affair itself is worth understanding.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Aftermath of my trip to Chinatown

While "Chinese stirfry" may not result from drenching broccoli, tofu, ginger, garlic, and bok choi in three parts soy sauce, one part sesame oil, something tasty and vaguely edible does, in fact, result.

Rice cake-noodle-type things that are supposed to be soaked for several days but are instead boiled for maybe 20 minutes are a bit odd, but also kind of edible.

Canadian beer that's supposed to taste like Belgian ale does not go with the above-mentioned foods, but again, all of the above can be consumed, and even enjoyed, during the course of one meal, and do no irreparable damage to the consumer.

"Visite du Quartier Juif de Brooklyn. Ressourcez-vous!"

It's the New Year, which meant... nothing entirely new, I suppose, but bits of newness all the same. Went with the usual suspects and then some to a party in an office overlooking Times Square, but when this, despite the views (pictures forthcoming) got too cubicle-ish, a few of us left for the year-round excitement of the East Village. In Midtown, on our way to the train, we encountered first a Mitzvah Tank, and then--get this--a francophone Mitzvah Tank! So of course I had to stop and have a long-ish chat in French with a Parisian Chabad guy, who took me into some kind of "dreidel house" where a bunch of young Chabad types were mingling, then to the back, to introduce me to someone who appeared to be the French rebbe, with whom I also spoke some of zee French. I happened to be wearing a long-ish skirt, but I think it was clear I was not a part of the fold. I did, however, get French Chabad in NY's business card, which led me first to their main site and then to this, a must-see for anyone living in Brooklyn professing an interest in French Jews.