Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Privileged, owned and disowned

No one wants to admit they come from privilege, if for no reason other than it makes whatever you have achieved in your life seem relatively unimpressive. Case in point: Samantha Henig's take on being a not-massively-rich student at Trinity - the Manhattan prep school, not the preppy Connecticut college:

For my junior year of high school, my father took a one-year fellowship in Manhattan, and my mom and I tagged along. Included in his package: a subsidized apartment for us in a doorman building at 64th and Third (which I learned within my first week did not qualify as the Upper East Side) and money to help my family send me to private school for the first time in my life. I chose Trinity on the Upper West Side because it seemed the furthest from what I had known. I was coming from a packed and diverse high school of 3,200 students, more than half of whom were black and Hispanic. At Trinity, there were 100 kids per grade, and most of them were white and very, very rich. [....]

[...] I couldn’t come close to affording the clothes and restaurants my Trinity peers took for granted. (And unlike [fictional scholarship student] Anna, whose only non-Langdon friend is a banker who’s also living the glamorous life, I still had my public-school friends back home to keep me honest.)

Obviously we are not privy to the whole story, but from the information given... if your father is not only present in your life, but has a fellowship prestigious enough to bring him perks that include a posh Manhattan apartment and private-school tuition for you, you come from privilege. Not the same kind of privilege that permits Gossip-Girl-level excesses, but privilege all the same.

If you're going to use your own socioeconomic background to make some broader point about how the world works, you have to own up to what that background was, not relative to the world's three richest people, but relative to, I don't know, some slightly larger set. It's not that the subtle differences between Manhattan prep-school's upper and upper middle classes, the ones that feel massive to insiders only, should not be explored for all they're worth (although I'm not signing up for that task). But if that's what you're describing, and you're telling it from the 'lowly' upper-middle end of that spectrum, you sort of have to be clear that you know you didn't grow up poor, or even, in all likelihood, middle-class.

And then the idea that public-school friends are some kind of magical force keeping one attuned to what really matters in life just strikes me as unlikely. Is teenage materialism so fundamentally different if it's kids with $900 designer handbags sniffing at those with $80 North Face backpacks than it is if the North Face kids feel superior to those whose backpacks are off-brands? Clearly the former makes for better television - 'rich' being best indicated by Big Shiny Things, but as far as I'm concerned, the difference ends there.

Anyway, part of me feels for Henig, because I too grew up poor-relative-to-some-really-rich-Manhattan-prep-school-classmates, and I understand the temptation to present this sort of upbringing as one from which it's still possible to emerge self-made. But I tend to think it's not.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I'd thought the worst time to catch a cold was right before taking a transatlantic flight. (See: mid-August.) But no, the worst time to catch a cold is when your apartment does not (yet?) have TV or Internet. This makes the much-needed distractions impossible, and doesn't make ordering in soup any easier, either. While I attempted to romanticize the situation, thinking of myself as a languid 19th-century malade, I was unable to convince myself that the situation was (oh, is) anything other than pathetic. Although I have made it to campus, where there not only is Internet, but are also instructions everywhere on how to cough:

What I'd like are instructions on how to teach a foreign language with a voice that kind of comes and goes, but that might be too department-specific.

That's it for whining for now. Back to usual programming sometime soon.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On reading the newspaper the old-fashioned way

While I'm not one of those anti-advertising fanatics, I will say that I found it slightly disturbing that the NYT Styles cover story on Coco Chanel's legacy sits right next to a massive back-page ad for Chanel No. 5 perfume, featuring the actress playing Chanel in some new movie. Then, when you read further (which you would, too, if Verizon hadn't hooked up your Internet), you'll find the rest of the article falls on a page with an ad for the movie itself. These ads did kind of take something away from the article's message, which was that Chanel just sort of is in the culture, that the power of the name is not something of which we need to be reminded.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Affair, remembered

Adam Gopnik's summary of the Dreyfus Affair is pretty spot-on, and I of course agreed when in the podcast version of his New Yorker piece he referred to Sarah Palin's real-America comments as "anti-Dreyfusard". Still, a couple things:

-"Drumont’s book [La France Juive, 1886] was above all an anti-immigrant manifesto." Not really. It was above all a rant against Jews. Its historical and political significance owed little to innovation - as far back as the 1840s, anti-Jewish ranters offered the French reading public that same fusion of religious, economic, and Jews-are-whiny-and-all-powerful Jew-hatred - and much to timing. It was only once masses of Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived, and various other external factors entered the picture, that anti-Judaism in France became the political movement "anti-Semitism." I get that everyone wants to say that the situation of Muslims in France today is just like that of 19th C Jews, but the similarities are not infinite, and Drumont really did hate Jews. If there's ever been a book that's unambiguously about hating Jews, that's the one. Plus, if Drumont's main concern was immigration, why was he going around spreading anti-Semitism in Algeria, where much of the Jewish population had been there prior not only to the French but also to the Arabs?

-"Charles Maurass, who had succeeded Édouard Drumont as the leading authoritarian anti-Semite in France", was in fact Charles Maurras, unfortunately, as the former would have been better. Also unfortunate: the similarity of his name to that of Maurice Barres, another famed anti-Semite of the time, making it officially impossible to tell the two men apart, except that one wrote Les Deracines and the other did not.

-Proust was not Jewish, at least not unambiguously so, to be listed as such alongside Herzl and Leon Blum. If you're going to label him a Jew, you need to qualify this with something about how he was actually a Catholic whose mother's family was Jewish, which, unless you're going by strict Jewish law, doesn't make him a Jew. He did not identify as one.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quote of the day

“In 1935, Sartre turned 30 and discovered that he was nothing but a provincial philosophy teacher with no significant publications. His feelings of frustration led to a veritable crisis of boredom and depression, culminating in hallucinations of being persecuted by lobsters.”

-Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, 1994, page 229

Friday, September 18, 2009

Group running and regression

Ever since moving to lower Manhattan, I've had this idea that I should ask if I could perhaps rejoin the Stuyvesant girls' track team.

Let me explain.

My 'new' running path is the same one the team uses most of the time, or did when I was on it and there's no reason it would have changed. The path is right there, but I can't motivate myself to go more than once a week. The only time in my life when I ran regularly was when the strict-and-scary track captains made me do so. All that I would ask would be permission to follow their orders. I don't know how my pace would compare, and would at any rate have an iPod. I would not join the team for stretching in the school lobby, let alone compete at track meets. My participation would entirely consist of a 17-year-old senior yelling, 'run four miles, now! and do the same tomorrow!' and me obeying. Could they help an out-of-shape alum out?

Apparently running in a group has its advantages. But I don't especially want to run alongside anyone else, nor am I interested in improved 'performance', just frequency. I could, I suppose, just summon the memory of the captains from my own time, although I think honest-to-goodness yelling is in order.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And yet, I leave the apartment

Because I wasn't already paranoid enough... Amber voices my thoughts exactly. Just about every news story I've read about the Yale murder (too many for my own sanity) makes a point, or so it seems, of mentioning the grad-student victim's size. Tiny. Given the tough spot small men and large women are in, it's understandable that nobody pities the small woman, but Amber's point about physical vulnerability holds.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The theme of today is Everybody Hates the Jews

I spent nearly the whole day immersed (and immersing others) in French-Jewish history, first the nineteenth century, then the early twentieth. One common running theme of all discussions was that when it comes to Modern European Jewish history, not everything is anti-Semitism. Or, even if everything is anti-Semitism, everything is still capable of simultaneously being about something other than Jew-hatred, such that it is possible to look at things other than just how much Everybody Hates the Jews.

Then, coming home with my groceries and mega-backpack (shlepping, dare I say), I noticed a tiny slip of paper near my building that read "Kill Jews." There's good news! To think how just a few hours before, I was offering the class my interpretation of the 1898 Dreyfus-era cries of "A bas les Juifs." It's always easier to gauge significance in hindsight.

I feel as though something like this should be reported... but to whom? It wasn't directed at me personally - I don't know for sure, but I suspect I am not the only Jew living in Battery Park City, although I might be the only one with a poster of Herzl and three heads of Golda Meir (long story). It seems hate-crime-ish, but was not graffiti, and in all likelihood will be long since in the gutter at the time of my posting this.

Anyway, I am now particularly grateful, I suppose, for the security procedure I went through earlier this afternoon to get into a Jewish-history center downtown. Guess they know what they're doing!

Monday, September 14, 2009

More complaints

-What exactly is going on with the 'newly renovated' Bobst bathrooms? Is there some reason for the flooding? Is the beginning of the year really the best time to shut down half the bathrooms? Hmm?

-Campus is semi-shut-down because, according to a police officer I asked, Obama is having lunch in a restaurant. Alrighty then. We all need to eat.

-After learning about the Obama-Thompson-Street conundrum, an older woman grabbed my arm and asked me, "Sweetie, do you go here?" Being accosted on the street is always unnerving, and if I had the advantage of relative youth, she had that of Julia Child-esque proportions. I suddenly regretted my backpack and otherwise undergraddish appearance - would she have stopped a me in a suit in this manner? Have all my attempts at being more chic this semester added up to looking more like a style-conscious freshman than is typically the case? But I said yes, because even an ancient fourth-year grad student 'goes to' a university, and because yes, I do know where one can buy NYU clothes if one so chooses, which seemed to be what this woman wanted to know.

Love fashion, Fashion Week not so much

My grievances against Fashion Week are as follows:

-The Models: They're normally everywhere, but now they pop up even more than usual, doing such things as daintily kicking aside one's shopping basket at Whole Foods when they want to get through the line you're on, because they obviously have to get somewhere and saying 'excuse me', even in Estonian, is not an option.

-The Shoes: If models do plenty to make the rest of us look bad (and no, it's not 'all airbrushing', as those fortunate enough not to live amongst these creatures can reassure themselves), the sudden presence en masse of women - not only models - in contraptions like these who can actually walk faster than us civilians do in flats is mighty dispiriting. Not as much so as a certain Belgian tennis player already, at 26 (yes, my age), having an adorable child and being once again the best in the world or whatever that win meant, but still.

-The Incompatibility of Fashion's Night Out with Graduate School: Apparently last Thursday night was all-around fabulosity in lower Manhattan. I now live in lower Manhattan, but all I saw of any of this was some inappropriate footwear on the subway near Prince Street. I was somewhat curious to see what all the fuss was about, even though I knew that if any of it required spending money, which presumably all of it did, I wouldn't partake, but there was no time, no time at all, in which to find out. Fashion should work around our schedules!

I think this about covers it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Major achievements in athletics

Now that I have a dishwasher and convenient means of doing laundry, I have all this extra energy I don't know what to do with. That, and I have new running sneakers, and now live near a jogging path, so near that I have no excuse for letting the sneakers collect dust.

But! I see no viable way of incorporating running into an otherwise productive existence. I look back to high school, when 3PM track practice left me done for the day at 5, and do not find an answer there. My day does not, cannot, end at 3. Going much later means jogging in the dark, and while in this area I'd bet that this is safe, given how absorbed I get in podcasts during runs, night-running is not for me.

Which leaves the mornings. There are the sort of people who wake up a couple hours earlier than necessary to fit in workouts, smoothie-and-egg-white-omelette-consumption, novel-writing... but if I can make the time to shovel down a bit of cereal and to get my eyeliner on symmetrically, that's a productive start to the day.

I'd like to switch camps, but fear logistics, more than the not-insignificant enjoyment of sleep, get in the way. First off, there's breakfast. I know from experience that I can't run pre-food-and-coffee, nor can I do so right after. What becomes of the hour-long waiting period between breakfast and athletics? Then there's the inevitable switch this will entail to morning-showering. And, assuming winter or some modicum of vanity, morning-hair-drying. There goes the day!

Clearly, people do this, this running-in-the-morning thing I keep threatening to do but as yet now accomplish exactly once a week, on the weekend. How? Do they just get less done, or are they low-maintenance (on account of their hotness deriving from toned legs and not eyeliner) and thus the sort who need only add a three-minute shower plus the time of the run to their morning routines? Am I just particularly addicted to food and caffeine, with other runners able to breath in the fresh West Side Highway air alone for sustenance? (Given the emaciated, decaffeinated look of many of my fellow runners, I'm thinking this might be it.)

So is there a way to both run regularly and do other things? Advice much appreciated.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

'Silence!' she screamed

It's all well and good to give the undergrads a tour of the library along with an explanation of its rules. But when doing so, it might make sense not to shout an in-depth explanation of these rules in the middle of the day, in a quiet and student-full part of the library, where certain frugal graduate students trying to spend less at the bookstore have books out on two-hour reserve - whole books meant to be consumed and critically analyzed in two hours - and would like nothing more than to be left in peace. Or if you're going to do so, at least pretend to acknowledge to collective glare the students you've interrupted are tossing in your direction.

In other, less hater-ish news, I'm tempted to give kale another try after reading this (possibly ripped off, according to commenters) recipe. I'm assuming that if all the regular salad greens at the Tribeca Whole Foods look pathetic, that's probably the case city-wide, and I'll have to expand my horizons. And with enough olive oil and ricotta salata, my horizons are, I'd imagine, infinite.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Cheapness debated, elsewhere

Cheapness is still being studied. As is French, which explains the lack of posting here, there, and everywhere.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Beer for girls

As I was perusing that dangerous spot at Whole Foods, past the kale, where cheese, beer, and huge chunks of dark chocolate meet, and where I'd already succumbed to the temptation of the $9.99 'for Whole Foods' Camembert, a tall, glamorous woman came up to me and said she noticed I was looking at the beers, which at that point I was, and then asked if I was interested in trying an Alsatian beer she was giving tastes of. I don't know whether it was that the offer came at the end of an exhausting few weeks of apartment-hunting, or that the beer samples were being offered alongside cheese samples, but this time, 'no' didn't seem an option.

She poured me a thimble of beer small enough that even my ultra-sensitive Jewish alcohol-tolerance didn't register it, but large enough that I could tell that whatever it was was quite good, as was the Parmesan chunk offered with it, as is, no doubt, traditionally done in Alsace. The drink, alas, didn't much taste like beer, which decided me against it before I learned that the price would have done so regardless.

As I was sipping, she told me how this beer is made the same way as Champagne (?), doesn't really taste like beer (true enough), and is thus a favorite of "girls" who don't like beer. I found it odd that the beer marketer would opt for this particular argument, given that she'd approached me on account of I was already looking at beer. Or maybe she thought I was considering buying the beer for some Big Manly Male, and that perhaps I myself would like a $20-plus six-pack of my own, to sip daintily while he watches the game? Or maybe (OK, clearly) this was just her line - the fact that the brand representative launched into the very same speech when handing a thimble to a different woman supports this hypothesis. Because I had too many bags with me to extract the iPod and listen to podcast #10,000 interviewing Frank Bruni about how Europe wonderful Europe cured his eating neuroses, I spent the entire walk back overanalyzing the gendered-beer incident with the hopes of getting a blog post out of it. But it was nevertheless jarring to be at the epicenter of politically-correct grocery shopping and to hear such a dated notion presented as unchallenged fact.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

In which I buy Cascade before groceries

Got one! Well, am renting one, technically, as the apartment is a rental. After a three-week-long and overly complicated (for reasons only tangentially related to my fixation on a certain appliance) apartment search, I'm far too exhausted/preoccupied with more pressing matters such as upping the rate at which orals books get read to actually cook anything that would produce dirty dishes, let alone to figure out which box contains the dishes, but just knowing the appliance is there is enough.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

French women don't get fat, except when they do

-This dress is fantastic. Tavi, the fashion-prodigy, actually responded to my comment asking where it's from, but alas, Topshop Unique seems no longer to have it.

-So early on, Rita has hit upon one of grad school's most salient features: the four-to-a-page print-out. These are the rule even at schools with free printing - computer lab at-a-time page limits are enforced not so much by the staff as by the well-meaning undergrads trying to print just one page, who have to wait while you, the ancient and disheveled grad student, get your hard-copy of the entire scanned contents of the French National Library. Not that I know anything about this.

-Barefoot running: the new raw-pork sausage? In an age of Purell and helicopter parents, it's still worth remembering that some of our society's hygienic advances really are improvements.

-Someone writing in the NYT actually admits, granted via anecdote, that French women are thin not because of a mysterious paradox that involves market-going and a healthy appreciation of delicious food and wine, but rather for the same depressing reason thin women everywhere in the West are so: because society demands it.

Before PG or someone similarly contrarian points this out: obviously the existence of eating disorders in France doesn't necessarily take much away the theory that overall, the French have a better attitude towards food than we do. But for some reason we forget that even if the French are less likely to super-size it - which is changing/has changed - there is also arguably much more pressure on pudgy French women to be thin than there is on American women of the same size, akin to the pressure on Japanese women to have straight hair or on Nordic women to be strapping blondes. 'Natural' factors might dispose a French woman not to get as large as her American counterpart, but 'unnatural' ones - not necessarily anything as extreme as an eating disorder - could well be what take her from not-fat to the super-thin one famously sees in Paris. (Also, weighing yourself in kilos might mean less day-to-day anxiety, but it also means there's no telling yourself, as no doubt nearly all American women have, that a change is due to factors that have nothing to do with weight gained. In that sense, kilos don't lie, and could thus potentially cause more concern.)