Monday, January 31, 2011

Budgets high and low

Expensive jeans are eternal. Whether you wore the wrong brand in the '80s and had to sit at a different cafeteria table (or is this just in movies?) or you bought into the premium-denim craze of 2004 or so, there are perhaps a few moments in between waves of this, when denim marketers can't think of a reason to convince teens or adults that $30 for casual pants is inadequate, but generally speaking, they come up with something.

Jeans, you see, really do have to cost $600. Yes, yes, to each his own, if this gives you pleasure and you have the money, fine. But I almost think the $175,000 closet makes more sense. Below, from an interview with the purveyor of said denim:

"If you’re buying high-end jeans, you’re paying for the fit, fabric, and finish."

So, too, if you're choosing among the selection at the Gap. Add in thrift, Levis, and Uniqlo (although the dye on those last ones sure did bleed), and a New Yorker has more fit, fabric, and finish options that she knows what to do with. One is arguably better off not knowing that the entire selection exists at give or take $600.

"For my handmade jeans I source from a really small, family-owned Italian denim mill."

Of course. A time-honored way to get Americans to drop cash on something ridiculous is to explain that an old European man who takes pride in his craftsmanship hand-stitched whatever it is.

"They only have 30 looms and they specialize in selvedge and pure indigo dyes. Basically, it’s the old way of doing things."

Is there such a thing as artisanal Italian denim? Is this really something Italians were doing way back when? Was this the catalyst for the decline of the Roman Empire?

"An inexpensive jean can wear out in six months, whereas I’ve been wearing some of my handmade jeans for a good eight years now."

Assuming you own more than one pair of pants, and that by "jeans" one does not mean "jeggings" which, being closer to tights on the leg-covering spectrum, would, I assume, fall apart, your jeans, whether $60 or $600, will last forever. You won't wear them forever, because your weight will fluctuate, and because they'll start to look dated. But a theoretical individual indifferent to styles, who wears jeans in a size that weight fluctuations don't impact, could, in theory, wear his jeans forever. However, such an individual is probably just the sort of man who'd own only one pair in the first place, and whose pants, even if $600, would indeed wear out.


On the other end of the spectrum, we have a Peter Singerish suggestion that the reader "Live Like a Grad Student … Forever." Sounds delightful! But it's for charity. Commenters point out that the author, a prof at Oxford, doesn't have the same job stability/social benefit concerns as us 'mericans, who kind of have to (or ought to) save our money, and not give the lot to charity, in case we or our loved ones need some of that fancy schmancy health care. One commenter points out that it's really about asceticism, not where the money goes, which I think gets at the truth. I'm sure part of Toby Ord's decision to give so much away comes from concern for the poor, but there is an undeniable smugness factor: "The things that are most important to me cost very little: such as spending time with my wife and friends, reading books, and listening to music." How nice for him to be immune to material pleasures such as $600 jeans, $175,000 closets, or, heck, discounted Petit Bateau marinières. Some like only books, others only stuff, but as an appreciator of books and stuff alike, I say, good for him, but it's not a sacrifice if stuff does nothing for you in the first place. (Of course, if a grad-student budget is permitted, Ord too can spend 23 euros on a striped sweatshirt.) That, and in certain milieus, such as the one he's perhaps already in, it confers status to be visibly indifferent to stuff. "It's not that it gives me a warm glow, but it does give me a certain peace with myself and a sense of purpose." Fine. One might say, who cares if he's smug if he helps the poor, to which I'd respond, if he turns off others from donating in more moderate amounts, that's itself an issue. 

The other question I always have with this kind of argument, aside from the debate I don't have any great knowledge of regarding whether the type of donation advocated is what's really best for the developing world, is what ramifications a large-scale embrace of this kind of lifestyle would have. If every upper-middle class family donated in this way, not only would all kinds of first-world-ish businesses collapse, but there wouldn't be much motivation for the even marginally more materialistic to go into upper-middle class professions in the first place. Ord goes into work because, presumably, he finds his work fulfilling. What about everyone else, the vast majority who go in largely so that they can pay for necessities and desires? The first world would stop being so first-world, and the bottomless pit of wealth to be donated to those in need would dry up. It seems a better argument would be that those who can should give more, not that those who don't need to live like grad students should play at that lifestyle.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Literary Paris

I decided to take a break from a dissertation-filled weekend and walk the apparently long and freezing walk to the Marais. I'd just been working on the Hannah Arendt portion - not an in-depth Arendtian anything, but a discussion of the role of Arendt in the popular-loosely (or is it narrowly?) -defined understanding of nineteenth century French Jewish history. More or less, the notion that French Jews were self-hating assimilators. On my break from this, as I'm passing by all the soldes, who should I see in a shop window but... If they get Herzl shirts - not inconceivable given the neighborhood - my post-Petit-Bateau self-imposed t-shirt-buying hiatus will be broken.

To each her own

Is it wrong that I see nothing wrong with a woman who has the money and wants a full replica of the "Sex and the City" movie shoe closet getting one? (Via.) What does it even mean or matter that "'It was a gift from her husband'" - they're a married couple, she also apparently earns a lot, and some home improvements benefit one spouse and not the other - it's not as though married men don't also spend on shrine-rooms for their massive flat-screen TVs. This husband, however, is opting for a "Mr. Big" closet. To each his own.

While obviously the angle is supposed to be, Lawng Island materialism gone outta control, the pernicious influence of SATC on the culture, this to me seems like more of an organization fantasy than a shoe one or even a SATC one. This woman isn't scampering around Manhattan in a row with three girlfriends, looking to swoop up random men. She's a neat freak in the suburbs who happens to own a lot of stuff: "'Sunglasses have their own drawers with specially sized compartments, and even the vanity was designed to accommodate specific hair dryers, curling irons and flat irons,'" the set decorator explains. It's not not prissy, princessy, whatever - there are no doubt closet designers with no "Carrie" connection - but it strikes me as more of a grown-up version of the girl with the well-arranged binder and nail polish collection than an example of lust for stuff. It is an organization fantasy, thus the need for a fantasy method of organization. Not a fantasy I share, but one that shouldn't be lumped in with the overall evilness of SATC's influence - I don't care either way regarding single 40-year-old women being promiscuous, but what gets to me is the insistence on stilettos, the assumption that women in NY wear such shoes, and the friggin' walking in a row on crowded sidewalks.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Keeping busy

Of course, around 3am, Herzl enters my dissertation. Past a certain hour, writing about Zionism or the Dreyfus Affair makes a person feel like a crackpot, but I promise there's a reason for Theodor being there, other than my historical crush on the man.

In reluctant defense of (reading the book of) Amy Chua

PG and I have, like everyone else, been having a debate about Amy Chua's book. Since neither of us has read it (in its entirety, at least), I was beginning to think we'd discussed it from almost every possible other angle, and thus reached a dead end.

Not so! Yesterday I listened to the Slate Audio Book Club on Chua (which, incidentally, I recommend to even those considering reading the book - it's not as if there are "spoilers" at this point - but which made me more curious to read the book), and judging by the response of some intelligent people who apparently read it cover to cover... PG and I were both right. One of the participants said the coverage misses the third half (UPDATE not half, part - thanks for noticing this to my own mother, yes I catch the irony given the topic of this post) of the book, and they all agreed that the buzz =/= what's actually in the book. Points for PG. However, one (possibly the same) participant also pointed out that the way she can tell that the people holding forth on the book haven't read it is that they actually leave out some of the more outrageous things in it (the relationship with the permissive Jewish relatives, esp mother-in-law, apparently). Rather than making just them more sympathetic to Chua, reading the whole darn thing made the participants unsympathetic in new ways as well. And it doesn't appear that consuming the this-is-not-a-parenting-guide disclaimer, or the entire "narrative arc" culminating in an I-was-wrong, makes a reader not take away from the book that they should maybe question their own lax parenting style. (One participant mentions making her son practice the drums longer, and taking a more active role in her son's - another son's? - swimming lessons.) But at least someone at Slate thinks the book was a success as a memoir (they all agree it's a memoir), so PG, you win this round. If I were pre-enlightenment Amy Chua's daughter, I'd be punished accordingly for taking second place.

What I thought was most compelling in the podcast, that hasn't come up much in the discussion overall, was the question of what it means for someone who's essentially a mainstream, high-achieving, well-connected, elite American to adopt what is essentially an immigrant attitude to parenting. In other words, that this isn't a memoir about immigrant parenting or elite parenting, but about the unusual choice of elite parents (or one elite mother, if only for a time) to create an artificial sense for their children that the world will end if they don't get all A's. This interests me on a personal level both as someone raised in a family that's perpetuated some "immigrant" ways (though nothing as out-there as the WSJ excerpt) well beyond any actual immigrant generation, and as someone who for entirely particular reasons rarely experiences a moment of bourgeois everything-will-be-OK. (Yes, I opted for humanities grad school, but when I started, it was with plans B, C, and D in the back of my mind, never anything about how I could take some time off to find myself if it didn't work out.)

On a general level, though, what matters is the question of regression to the mean, something I alluded to in my first post on this, but that seemed more central after hearing the Slate folks discuss. One of the participants phrased it as, Chua didn't need to go the immigrant-parent route, because her children already had all the privileges that come with being the children of two Yale law profs/public intellectuals, in a milieu of immense intellectual and not insubstantial material advantage. But that's not how it works! Privilege of this nature does not guarantee one's children will be successful, only that if they're not, this is highly embarrassing for everyone involved - the parents who believe in meritocracy who must now confront that their children are not so great after all, and the children who've been schooled in how unjust of a society we're living in, who know they have it good, and who've still failed to make anything of themselves. If Chua hadn't cracked the metaphorical whip (or literal? why I do need to read the thing...) maybe her daughters would be trying to find creative ways not to let on how successful their parents were, so as not to attract unfavorable comparisons.

The draw of the book, then, is precisely the fact that even the most successful "Western" parents can't rely on good schools and their general educatedness if they want their children doing at least as well as they did. That it is the end of the world, in its way, if generation after generation slides in the US News and World Report ranking of its alma mater. Chua's originality is in finding a way to address this that isn't coming out and saying, damned if my kid doesn't go to Harvard. No, it's about having a work ethic, about things that are only fun when you've worked at them, about honoring immigrant forbearers or Asian traditions or who knows. Whatever it is, it's not crass, it's not about brand names. She's offering an alternative to the multiple-intelligences, well-roundedness excuses parents give (and provide themselves) for their kids' academic mediocrity, a respectable way to subtly make sure your children don't go to their safety schools. She's telling them not necessarily that it's possible to make every child an academic success, but that it's OK to care not only if one's child is happy, but if the family's place in a certain elite is secure for one more generation.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The perils of a liberal-arts education

Zack Rosen's "In Defense of the Gay White Male" was painful to read. It was a prime example of how 'your privilege is showing' ruins conversations. Stop! Apologizing! Stop apologizing for not apologizing while at the same time apologizing! It's well and good to recognize the struggles of others, but on and on and on about how wonderful it was to attend a conference where those of one's own group were bashed from the left, how moving the speech was of the least abashed basher. "I am frequently called out for, at best, my excess of privilege and, at worst, the ways that people like me have disenfranchised the rest of the queer community through our existence and our actions." Lord knows these accusations will continue if you continue having this discussion. (Such as: "Oh my God, a white dude made other people's identity issues ALL ABOUT HIM? Alert the media, I'm shocked. Snark over, here's the deal; this article REEKS of privilege.") The moment a writer reveals himself to be vulnerable to a 'your privilege is showing,' the more gleefully the writer will be taken down with just that expression. Much as I think it's great as a matter of principle for the white guy with the mansion in Chelsea (the default white gay male experience, right? sarcasm...) to recognize the challenges faced by the kids of color hanging out on the western stretches of Christopher Street, I wanted to just tell this author to make friends with the gay-libertarians-who'd-be-conservative-but-for-the-fact-that-they-like-dudes set. I believe the appropriate expression here is, life is too short.

If Rosen is set, however, on gazing into the navel of privilege, here's another way he might look at it: the gay white masculine-appearing male is in some ways less privileged on account of the expectation of privilege. Here's this person who looks like he has it easy, who can experience privilege in certain situations (hailing a cab, at a job interview, integrating into the gay community, etc.), but whose struggles are not recognized because they are virtually invisible. The more privileged he would be otherwise, the greater he falls when it gets revealed that he's attracted to men, the more of a threat he is to the straight white masculine-appearing males who make it a political cause to defend their place in the hierarchy. (The whole 'we thought he was one of us' - same as what made assimilated Jews so threatening to anti-Semites back in the day.) I once had this conversation with a guy who looked and I must say acted like the ultimate douche, maligning marginalized groups, Jews and women among them, if I remember correctly. I made some comment about how, what did he know about being marginalized, and he mentioned being, and I quote, "a fag." Did this revelation make him any less of a douche? Not exactly (and nor was it terribly surprising, given that most of the other men at the party were gay male friends or acquaintances), but I would bet that he's faced more difficulties from being a member of a group that it, after all, remains legal to oppress than I have for the marginalized aspects of my own identity. The new bit of info, although again, not mind-blowing, absolutely changed the dynamics of the conversation. My point, Rosen, if you're reading this, is that the mismatch between assumed privilege and real privilege of white gay cisgender men is stark indeed, and that this could always be your angle.

(Note: typo and link fixed.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Citation citation citation

-Flan solves all of life's problems, in particular the question of what to have for dinner. (Cheap, bland, and calorically dense, the ramen of Paris.) Fortunately there's some excellent flan to be had very near the dorm, which means that all previous remarks regarding bread, cheese, pasta, or steak may be disregarded. (Yes, I also eat fruits and vegetables, and will not develop scurvy.) Over the summer I didn't really appreciate the flan - something about an hour on an unairconditioned July metro trip back to an unairconditioned attic apartment didn't make me want custard tarts. The love affair is back on.

-My neighbor just returned to the dorm with a bag from the Beacon's Closet of Paris, thus reminding me that such a thing exists, takes part in the soldes, is located near the Petit Bateau with the deeply discounted tank tops. If NY is more distracting in this regard than Chicago (well, Hyde Park), Paris is the absolute epicenter of this kind of distraction. But it can also be motivation - finish X dissertation tasks, and I'm allowed to at least go look at some of this.

-Speaking of that dissertation, a question for historians: A problem I keep running into is, I'll be looking for some bit of info, and find just the sentence or paragraph where in 1970, 1990, whatever, a historian answered that question... but provided no footnote, sources, etc. This is sometimes because a book is from a time before historians were so rigorous about that, or from a genre not quite in line with academic history. Other times, though, it's just because the way even excellent histories are written, some sentences are the implicit summary of many many many things the author has read, and if you have enough examples throughout, you trust that the author isn't just making stuff up, and that he is just trying not to bog down the reader by reproducing his entire notebooks. (I try to cite everything that might in any way relate to any thought anyone else had, ever, but then again I'm writing a dissertation, which is its own animal.) What does one do when encountering such sentences? Cite with an "according to" X historian, without getting into the fact that you have no idea how X knows the info? Email the author and just ask? (This is already my plan for a different situation - an author who explicitly mentions that one text is an example of others of its kind - 99.99% of readers of this particular book, already not the general reading public, would not care what the other texts of its kind are. But I sure do!) I'm inclined to do the latter, at least when the author is still alive, still a professor, but is this done? What is the etiquette on this?

What was I worried about?

Clearly a full kitchen is not needed for the meal I had in mind. 

Miss Pickies, Waity Katies

There are two competing and seemingly contradictory explanations for the contemporary spinster. ("Spinster" because those discussing the unmarried woman of a certain age tend not to portray this situation in a positive light, to put it mildly, even when they themselves are part of the demographic.) In one - call it the Lori Gottlieb model - the spinster is single because she turned down the men she might have married when she was younger, and the options have dwindled since. Had she just given boyfriends 1-10 a chance, she wouldn't be all sad and lonesome when #11 never materializes. In the other - the Emily Yoffe or Dear Prudence one - the spinster gave the boyfriend a chance, all right, but too much of a chance, eschewing opportunities to date other men in favor of a commitment that is not in fact marriage.

In other words, Yoffe's spinster should have been dating around, while Gottieb's wasted the best years of her life doing just that. Yet somehow, the two theoretical spinsters end up in the same place. What gives?

One would expect these two outlooks to be consistent. They at least come from the same general view of male-female relations, namely that women need more from men than vice versa. Both Gottlieb and Yoffe argue that women should care less about how interested they are in the men they're with, and more about whether these men will marry them. Both are asking that women, while still young enough to "get" men they're attracted to (disclaimer, yes, I'm aware that women of all ages have options, although not so much so that options don't dwindle... except in Paris, where a woman of 80 can, I suppose, get catcalls and have torrid affairs and shop at the market at 11 on a weekday morning and... I digress), should forget about attraction and put social convention - or, as Gottlieb or Yoffe would put it, what will make them happy when they're 40 - first. Kind of depressing, when you consider that as it stands, it's not socially acceptable for women to pursue men, or to pick among their options on the basis of physical attraction.

My immediate thought was that this is a window-of-opportunity issue - they're just addressing different age groups. Young women are running after Jordan Catalano when they should be settling for Brian Krakow. Window-of-opportunity women, however, obviously failed to settle for their Brians, and are now cohabiting with Jordans, who, though pretty, don't offer much else.

Or maybe it's not an age thing, but that the boyfriends Yoffe's women (sorry, can't keep typing "spinster") move in with are not the same boyfriends as Gottlieb's rejected. Yoffe's live-in boyfriends are cads, bad boys, which is why they won't commit, while Gottlieb's paunchy accountants made it only a few dates until Miss Picky decided she could do better, choosing life on the edge as the girlfriend of some guy Hugh Grant would play in the movie over a sure thing as Mrs. Paunchy Accountant.

This I find not so plausible. In Prudie's scenario, where the woman finds that the long-term boyfriend she thought was a Brian 2.0 learns that he is in fact a Jordan, I (to borrow a phrase that seems apt) can't help but wonder: how did Angela come to live with Jordan to begin with? Or on real-life terms, who are these boyfriends, and what fabulous, Berlusconiesque alternatives do we - or they - assume they have to the conventional, of-their-social-milieu woman they've been voluntarily, monogamously, cohabiting with? (Prudie, to be clear, is not making a socially-conservative argument about how libertinism regarding premarital relations and birth control has worked for the educated classes but failed the lower-middle, but is in fact addressing "strong, independent, successful, accomplished women who are desperately waiting for their boyfriends to pop the question.") The great big battle-of-the-sexes difference between what he wants and what she wants is at most that he'd only worry about this at 30, once everyone else was marrying, while she's getting antsy at 29, largely because people have been asking her since she had her second date with the guy if they've set a date. The man - or woman, for that matter - who's "not that into" a partner will neither marry nor pseudo-marry that person.

And, in the milieu Prudie's ostensibly addressing, in my at-least-milieu-specific-but-I-will-admit-completely-anecdotal evidence, marriages are virtually always preceded by pre-engagement cohabitation, and these "indefinite" cohabitations virtually always culminate in marriage, even if on an individual level, the man-must-propose rule keeps some women wondering for approximately five minutes, during which time they, I suppose, pen letters to Dear Prudence. I mean, I'm sure there are some 35-year-old women whose same-age boyfriends of a decade imagine that Jessica Alba awaits and throw away an otherwise perfect relationship, but this is hardly the epidemic Prudie suggests. As always with advice columns, only the people with problems are writing in, and one suspects the problems that fit a notion the columnist is already fixated on stand a better chance of getting picked.

With the just-settle/Gottlieb argument, meanwhile, I'm always suspicious of whether 'he was too nice' was really the reason dude never got a second chance. Might it be that single women who think along these lines are doing a bit of revisionist history of their romantic experiences? That what's remembered years after the fact as 'nice' was that he seemed too interested in having a girlfriend or wife in general, as opposed to in you, the particular woman he was on a date with? That he seemed not merely paunchy and accountant-ish enough to make you confident in his continued devotion, but rather a possessive boyfriend-turned-stalker in the making, and you rightfully stepped back? (Brian always kind of had that quality - or consider the Jason Segel character on "Undeclared" - but it's a quality that's indescribably worse when not sanitized for a teen drama, even an "edgy" one.)

To wrap this up in some fashion... if in this day and age, there's no particular singles crisis for well-educated women, the idea that structural forces are keeping women who wish to be married from getting to that point becomes untenable.

Beef: it's what's for lunch

There are, it turns out, not one but two amazing-looking butcher shops on the street in question. But I opted for the one I'd already had my eye on. It was interesting in there, with some veganism-inducing intact poultry-heads. (There they skip the guillotine?) I knew I had to go for it.

I knew precisely what I wanted - a steak small enough to fit in a pan, uncomplicated enough that I wouldn't need to use the method I do at home for not-the-finest-cut but otherwise good quality steaks: sear in a pan, finish in the oven. I knew the vocabulary for getting what I was looking for, but not what to point to - everything on display looked like some kind of roast to feed one's large and festive French family. (Or, in the case of the guy in this dorm who dresses up and makes 12-course meals for himself and a few friends every night, thus why the steak experiment has to be at lunch, one's large and festive French group of college friends.) What about just, well, steak?

Before I had gotten into the saucepan/oven situation, i.e. the fact that the device I use to heat water for coffee and pasta will have to do, I said steak, not too big, and the butcher knew what I meant, cutting off 4 euros worth of something that looked to have once been part of an especially delicious cow, in a configuration that I think will fit in the saucepan just fine. The price-quantity ratio seemed about right, supporting the idea that I'd gotten my point across.

I of course still managed to make a faux pas - whereas the other (elderly, retired, reminding me that I really need to wake up earlier, not that I wouldn't join the French elderly, complete with scraggily bichon, if this were an option) customers exchanged banter with the butcher, with me, once what I was ordering was sorted out, he announced the price. I'd seen everyone else lining up to pay at a register, but normally the price is only announced like that when you're being asked to pay up immediately. So, I may have annoyed the butcher by having reached for my wallet prematurely. How much of a problem this is depends upon how annoyed he was, and how good the steak turns out to be, whether this has to become a regular thing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


There is, just around the corner from the dorm, some kind of prize-winning, delicious-looking butcher shop, into whose window I stared longingly for some time yesterday. Should I get a steak or lamb chops or something? Complicating factors include: I only have a small saucepan; I have no way of making this into a meal (although that, plus bread, salad, cheese...); and the hall-mates I eat with when not being a dissertation-hermit are all vegetarians, so this is not a very convivial thing to bring to dinner, nor would I ask any of them to borrow a pan. Is the answer just to buy a pan? To eat out once bread-and-pasta overload strikes, paying more but getting inspiration for what to serve with steak from a real Parisian chef, and maybe even getting some fries out of it?

Quote of the day

Majoring in literature or art history rather than economics or biology, never mind hotel management or marketing, suggests a certain privileged indifference to material concerns (even when this rests on actual indifference instead of piles of money). And if you’ve gone into serious debt by attending college, afterward you’ll have noted that it’s the do-gooding NGO or the progressive magazine that expects you to take an unpaid internship, and the publishing house or academic department that offers you a pittance.
From n+1, via Arts & Letters Daily.

Agreed, but not sure I'd have kept that last bit in parentheses. Anecdotal evidence time here for a change, but when I think of those who went into higher-paid professions versus humanities grad school, there's some social-mobility-via-biology-major, but frequently enough, bankers are children of bankers, lawyers children of doctors, grad students children of academics. Do the impractical-sounding majors attract socialites? At the undergrad level, some, sure, but there's also reproduction of a high-cultural-capital, low-economic-capital caste to consider. There are so so many grad students whose parents are not only professors, but professors in the same field - one encounters this phenomenon far more often than 'I never have to work a day in my life, so I figured I'd get a PhD in French.'

Monday, January 24, 2011

How I stopped worrying and accepted that I'm just here to write my dissertation

-After briefly considering looking chic in the dorm, so as to awe whichever French young men or women were coming out of the bathroom as I was entering, or vice versa, with my stylishness, I have reverted to Old Navy lounge pants and a baggy NYU tee shirt that's either mine or my boyfriend's, I'm not sure. ("Boyfriend apparel," not so much.) I'm this close to dressing like that outside the dorm as well.

-After convincing myself that I would eat the wide range of foods available in Frahnce and not just make pasta every night, I have come around to the hot-plate-over-an-open-dorm-garbage set-up and am having pasta (almost) every night.

-After getting all excited that one can buy excellent wine here for a few euros a bottle, I was so going to have a glass with dinner every night. (Frasier would approve!) The bottle I bought the second day I arrived is still mostly full, and I just keep reaching for the seltzer, some Ashkenazi atavism asserting itself, no doubt.

Judging a book by its coverage UPDATED

This afternoon, cheapness demanded that I return a 25-euro water-heater to Monoprix, then go a few blocks out of my way to Carrefour, where store-brand seltzer is cheaper than Badoit, the best option at Franprix. Accompanying me on this journey was none other than Amy Chua* - her interview on the Leonard Lopate show, that is. And, having heard her speak for herself, I must say I'm... a whole lot less sympathetic than I was after reading the WSJ excerpt. (Before proceeding, I should ask PG, does Chua claim this interview was also unfairly edited?)

Anyway. In the interview, Chua refers to her book - her own book - as both "complex" and "funny." These are not claims one is allowed to make about one's own writing. One can say a book was intended as humorous. Not that it is funny, but that some readers just don't get it. She also said it's about how her then-13-year-old daughter taught her "humility." Hmm.

Yes, the message comes across that didn't in the WSJ, that the book is a memoir and not a parenting guide, and that she learns at the end... not exactly that the "Chinese" method is wrong (and indeed, she quite vehemently defends the most outrageous WSJ-excerpted examples in the interview), but that it's not perfect. The nuance, lesson-learned angle feels artificial, externally or editorially imposed, and not consistent with what Chua really believes, which is perhaps (if the book in its entirety is what Chua said it is in this interview, and no I'm not having it shipped to me in France to find out) why the WSJ chose to ignore that bit. She seems to want it both ways - to admonish the parents of "Western" brats, while claiming to have written a book that does no such thing.

It gets more confusing. After she'd explained that "Chinese" means "immigrant," Lopate mentions that he lived for a long time in NY's Chinatown - a Chinese and immigrant neighborhood, if the name wasn't enough of a giveaway - and that the "Western" plagues of teen pregnancy and drug abuse were plenty common. At which point, more clarification: the "immigrants" she refers to are those who come to the US as graduate students or skilled workers. Well, in that case. Of course such individuals would be high-achieving themselves, and produce above-average achieving offspring. (I'm tempted to suggest to my boyfriend's mother that she write a parenting memoir about how to produce an astrophysicist, the Flemish way. With recipes, for sure, because good food is part of it, and because that would probably sell more books.)

But if this story continues to fascinate me, it's not because of the parenting angle, but because of the questions it poses about the control an author should have over a book's reception, particularly if that book is a memoir. If this interview I just listened to made me less sympathetic, less sympathetic to what? The book? Chua-as-a-person? The phenomenon, I suppose...

With books generally, does an author have the right (right as in reasonable expectation, not First Amendment) to expect all who judge to have read the thing? As a rule, yes - thus the whole thing about not judging books by their covers - but does this change if the author has publicized it like crazy, published an excerpt as an article, taken high-profile interviews, and otherwise made sure that those who haven't read the book have plenty of material to work with? Hype may sell books, but taken to a certain level, it absolves would-be readers of the responsibility for having consumed any one particular text of the many claiming to represent the phenomenon.

And, more specifically, do memoirists have the right to ask that their fans take what they say as truth, but that their detractors not judge them as people for what is, after all, only a sliver - and an externally-edited one at that - of their true selves? Believing it's "real," the true account of a real human being, is fine and well when the response is favorable, but feels mean-spirited if unfavorable. How dare anyone - readers of the excerpt, the book, or any other installment of this multimedia extravaganza - judge Chua as a person? This phenomenon is especially true of the online overshare, but in an age when comments sections can overflow with what are ostensibly responses to a memoir, the line is blurry.

*I realize that everything anyone writes about Chua as of a week ago is "the last thing" they have to say on something that's already "so yesterday." But the discussion continues, who are we kidding? Not over till it's over.


I think there's a new First World Problem come out of this: Life is so tough, my Style-Section-ready upper-middle-class Ivy-league-seal-of-approval lifestyle book is so popular that people won't stop talking about it and buying copies.

Hair, heir, get it?

In the past, only women were perceived to have a marital sell-by date. But thanks to a convergence of social and economic trends, some men feel the same pressures.
“The clock ticks for both men and women,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, said one contributing factor is the increasing economic independence of women. Mr. Kimmel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, cited a 1930s study by Willard Waller that evaluated how women and men assessed each other’s sexual marketability based on criteria including physical appearance, social skills and financial stability. A woman of that era valued a man’s earning capacity above good looks and other traits.

But now, Mr. Kimmel said, “women are able to provide for a family, so they are more able to focus as well on physical features.”
Of course, the woman-looks-nice, man-makes-a-living set-up does not describe the entirety of Then. Less-well-off women also worked, wealthier men also didn't need to. Marriages were arranged. There were dowries. And before it was expected or even acceptable for marriages to be based on love, presumably male and female appearance alike were not so important for picking a spouse - a lover, sure, but not a spouse. Female fertility has always mattered, female Gisele Bundchenness not so. But it's interesting to consider that in the recent past, for structural reasons, women cared less than they do today, not about male appearance (heterosexual women with eyesight are by definition looking at men), but about finding good-looking boyfriends or husbands.

And it would have been great if we could hear about this without a ridiculous hook, one that will prevent many from actually reading the rest of this article. The hook? Prince William is balding! Maybe that's why he finally proposed to Waity Katie, speculates Tatiana Boncompagni, in what might have otherwise been a setting-the-bar-higher Style section piece.

Ugh. The same was speculated when the engagement was announced. The same was the basis for an episode of "Seinfeld" - Elaine's dating a guy who's shaved his head for swimming or something, sees a photo of him with hair, asks for the hair back, he tried to grow it back and learns he's balding, and so rather prematurely proposes to Elaine. So it's been done, but also, Prince William is just about the worst example to use for which qualities a woman looks for in a man. It doesn't matter how he looks, if he bathes, what he behaves like, perhaps not even that he's so rich. He's going to be king of England! Not something very many men have going for them.

Mostly, though, the problem with the hook is that, while it's progress if women now have the confidence to date and marry men they're physically attracted to, the way to celebrate that isn't to say, yippie, now women can reject the bald, the short, the objectively non-Brad-Pittish, the men their girlfriends find insufficiently hott. This is certainly part of how men behave - choosing women whose good looks mean status, as opposed to the ones they are attracted to physically. But it's dumb when men do that, and nothing for women to emulate. Whereas it's far from dumb to choose romantic partners in part on the basis of which people you look at and think, that person looks like someone I'd like to romantically partner with.

To address the counterargument from last time I brought this up: yes, objective and subjective good looks overlap. George Costanza's unlikely to beat George Clooney in the categories of what women think they should like or what women genuinely want. And the more liberated women feel to pick on the basis of looks, the less we'll be hearing about how "distinguished" older men hold up better than their female equivalents. But subjective means choosing on the basis of which "shallow" factors actually matter to you. Care about abs but not height? Benjamin Millepied's for you. (Well, except that he's taken.) And so on.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jewish assimilation in France

I'd made it nearly a week without buying non-essential items (if we're including mascara as essential - given that it was to replace one that is too old and needs to be thrown out, yes, we are). Then I realized it is not only the sales, but the second round of discounts, and that if I'm going to buy anything in this dreaded currency before I leave here at the end of June, now is the time. That, and the very shoes I'd wanted to find back home, since seeing them on a woman in Battery Park City of all places, were right there in the window of a store that happened to be right next to the place I bought the boots I so adored my last time studying in Paris.

Because stores here note the prices in the window, I didn't even have to go in to realize they were within my if-I'm-going-to-buy-shoes-in-Paris price range. However, convinced I could get a better deal elsewhere, I kept an eye out for something along those lines in the next few hours of wandering, trying to get the OMG-Paris-shoes out of my system. (Over the summer I'd somehow resisted, ending up only with cheap walking-around sneakers, slippers because I hadn't brought any, and rain boots for the same reason.)

All wandered out, and schlepping around some Monoprix dishes and a few very reduced items from a children's-but-not-really t-shirt store that shall not be named, I wound up back at the original establishment. The shoes were, I could now definitively say, my favorite in my price range in the entire 6th Arrondissement. (The shoe-shopping urge is indeed out of my system after this expedition. And did I ever see a lot of bored-looking boyfriends and husbands. My current interest in looking at shoes equals theirs.)

So I went in and asked for my size. The woman at the store told me they had only the size below, but that this would be fine because the shoes are Italian, and their feet, she explained, are bigger than ours. I must have somehow forgotten that I was in France, and although she used "nous," was thinking, why would Italians be thought to have bigger feet than Americans? I then realized the bizarre truth, which is that despite having seen me, despite having heard me speak, this woman thought I was... French. A true, delicate-footed Frenchwoman.

This is not, however, why I bought the shoes. The vanity relevant to this story is that they make me taller. They fill a particular gap in my footwear collection - comfortable shoes with a heel, whereas otherwise I have a pair of boots and another of sandals that accomplish this most daunting of tasks. I can now be a giant of 5'5" year-round.

Tossed salads and scrambled eggs

I don't know why I'm so closely following the Kelsey Grammer breakup story. But the whole thing fascinates me to no end. Not the personal details of the stars' lives, although it's striking if unsurprising how much the young new fiancé resembles the dumped wife, but what's being acted out publicly.

First, you have an actor famous for starring in the sitcom that was meant for people who claim not to own a television. It was always supposed to be kind of intellectual to watch "Frasier," like you're actually reading a book or going to an opera, because Niles was so refined, Frasier so haughty, and there was always wine, and the mood was so high-brow, even though the show was no more cognitively challenging than "Friends," arguably less so than some episodes of "Two and a Half Men." We were supposed to identify with Frasier, not his aw-shucks father, who'd planted his ratty chair and purebred pooch right there in the center of the room.

A high school English teacher of mine once tried to teach our class about, well, class, using the father on "Frasier," and his own family, which was "Frasier"-esque, as an example. I remember years-long chunks of this teacher's life, but not what we read in the class. It was in discussions of this teacher that I learned the expression "captive audience."

Because Grammer was "Frasier," he is assumed to be a man of great dignity. Not that Frasier had such dignity, but it's seen as classier to have been on a show portraying a Harvard-educated professional (he's not a doctor, but he played one...) than an out-of-work soap actor ("How you doin'?").

So then there's the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," repeating "Frasier" as farce. The RHOBH is also a show about the classy, the fancy, and the schmancy. At the center of the drama is none other than Grammer's real-life wife Camille. Viewers know her as Grammer's estranged wife by the time the show airs, which makes her my-husband's-a-big-shot act all the more painful to watch.

The trick with all these authentic-housewife shows is that the women themselves believe they, their houses, their leisure activities, are representing high culture, while the viewers get to see a rich-people version of "The Jerry Springer Show." So it's kind of like "Frasier," in that we're in the presence of a buffoonish cast playing at "elite." But while "Frasier" flatters the viewer into thinking he, too, is a sophisticate, the housewife shows flatter the viewer by showing him that for all their wealth, the cast members are indeed far less sophisticated than most. (Thus the fun of watching a self-awareness-challenged Real Housewife of NY sing a song about how "money can't buy you class.")

All told, then, we have this totally trashy narrative - old rich dude dumps spend-spend-spend wife #3 for 29-year-old flight attendant, proposes to her while still married, there are kids? oh well - under this strange banner of, these are our country's, uh, coastal elites. They are sophisticated. Following this story, you're as good as keeping track of Swann and Odette.

So I have to hand it to that high school teacher. There is, after all, a lesson about class to be learned from studying Frasier.

Frahnce World Problems

There are at least - at least! - three fabulous food markets very near the dorm. The one I visited today turns out to be the best of the bunch, although the food itself may be identical. The difference: between the dorm and the market is the best bakery ever. Normally in Paris, croissants are actually worse than in NY, because NY bakeries seem to think they have to use real butter to be "French," whereas Parisian ones come by their Frenchness naturally and can use pretty much anything that holds together the flour. At this bakery, not the case. I ate the thing - pain au chocolat, not croissant - on the street, in a pilling men's Uniqlo coat, Levi's jeans from the land where this is not a status symbol, and L.L. Bean loafers, getting crumbs all over myself. Because it's not as if I know anybody here. (If you happened to be passing by, Clementine, it wasn't me!) The cherry clafoutis looked so good, too, that I got one of those as well.

Oh, the problem? So much of the food at the market requires a kitchen to prepare. An oven, at least. There isn't one here, just hot-plates, which are located on a counter above the (open) garbage where everyone on the floor throws out their trash.

I know there's a young person's Paris, with Williamsburg/Wicker Park equivalents, fusion cuisines, and whatnot. And I will explore this as well. But I seem to get enough joy out of just buying groceries that it's not as if I have to do much else.

So I have decided that my new goal in life is to be an elderly Parisian woman. They seem to have it made, and to go around on their own well into their 100s. I'd get one of those bags-on-wheels as a walker/tote-bag combo, and would be able to bring all the groceries I want back to some sprawling 7th Arrondissement apartment. There does seem to be a dearth of elderly Parisian men, but the women still have it, and presumably enjoy themselves with young Parisian men if they see fit. (One woman I saw of about 80 had such perfectly-applied shimmery eyeshadow that I really felt ashamed - I have perfect vision, not so many wrinkles, and while I've tried to figure out eyeshadow many times, it's been in vain.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

21st Century French Jews

Just signed myself up for an evening with "nombreux intellectuels spécialistes de la pensée juive," one I learned about, where else, through Facebook. The list of featured guests on the invite seems about right - academics, at least one psychiatrist - but I'm kind of thinking it's a Chabad event? Prepare for a Francophilic Zionistic report.

In 2011, women remain cows

Is it BS to tell women to marry young? Depends. Anna North at Jezebel pulls this quote from an interview with Mark Regnerus, who has some thoughts about cow purchasing and free milk, ancient territory here at WWPD: "My advice is if you find somebody who you love and who loves you, make it work, whatever it takes!" North is not convinced, the Jezebellians are appalled, but as far as I'm concerned, it makes sense, insofar as there is a window of opportunity during which women are neither too young to settle down nor in not-getting-any-younger territory. Yes, that window should be extended - in both directions. Which includes making it so that 20-year-old women in happy relationships should be able to feel they've found their life partners, knowing in the back of their minds that their options will be more limited later on. It is not as easy to find a man - not that all women want to find a man, or that they should, or that it should be first priority, etc., etc. - at 40 as it is at 20. It isn't as easy to find friends, either, when one is out of school, so it's not just about female nubility. But 40-year-old men have greater romantic options. Feminists - and I speak as a feminist, if not for feminists generally - can wish it otherwise, but it is what it is.

Of course, the man one has "found" at 20 will have to be willing to stay with a woman who's not going to be 20 forever for there to be any point to this. Unless the idea is to procreate and then let the man run off with whomever, in which case yes, settling down young at least lets you have kids, but under what conditions? This, in turn, is the flaw of the pro-early-marriage argument. Is it easier to "keep" a man found at 20 than to find one at 30 or 40, as I feel like a commenter here once countered when I argued this before? Maybe, maybe not, depending what "keep" entails. Divorce is legal, adultery happens, as do marriages worse than so-so, and committing to a not-so-committed man at the peak of one's conventional attractiveness is a worse bet than starting something on more solid ground later on.

Where Regnerus, in turn, goes wrong is in pointing out that these days, men don't need to buy a woman a ring in order to get sex from her. Which is true, but which leaves out the fact that women do not want rings from many men they sleep with. Sex is not a pleasure women provide for men, but one sought out by all but the asexual; pursued in earnest by all but the most restrained. Pretty young women realize that 20 may be the only age when they can go at it with beautiful 20-something, when they have their best shot with many dashing older men as well (many of whom will seem sleazy to women their own age), and think, now is the moment.

"But I still think you have better odds of succeeding, especially if you're attractive, if you don't give in, if you make him work hard, get to know you, make commitments -- all that stuff that seems pretty basic."
Youth and beauty in a woman mean the power to get a commitment (although, obvs, the not-so-good-looking marry, too), but also the power to have sexual adventures that aren't available to the less attractive, and that won't be so readily available later in life. With the Pill plus condoms, this is fairly low-risk activity, physically, but still more risky for women than men. At the same time, sexual activity doesn't necessarily even mean intercourse. My vague recollection of what the young people did way back when is that more casual relationships often did not include the full repertoire. (What "base" does Regnerus think can be reached before a woman has "put out"?)

If you tell good-looking coeds that the guy they're having casual sex with probably won't commit, they will be unmoved. (Young women who have hook-ups but then tell a researcher that this isn't meaningful enough, that they want more, are, uh, following a social script? If women sleep with men they're attracted to without the promise of a commitment, it's because they want sex with a hot guy more than they want a commitment.) If you tell them that they may be having fun now - and Regnerus kinda-sorta admits that women have sex for reasons other than in exchange for hoped-for commitment, falling short of acknowledging female lust - but that the free-milk offering of women generally makes it harder to get men generally to commit, and that this will be a problem when a young woman is not so young and/or finds a man from whom she wants a commitment, this will be marginally more convincing. But not all that convincing, because of the serious relationships that do exist, how did they begin? Wedding announcements don't include anecdotes about how delightful the sex was within hours after they met, but that's not to say this wasn't how things proceeded.

Which brings us to... "Men who have sex early in a relationship feel little impulse to make strong commitments." The logic here confuses me. Of all sexual encounters among those who don't yet know each other well, a few of the partners are men who want more, a few women who want more, many men who just want sex, many women who just want sex. So yes, a relationship that begins with sex is likely not to become a marriage, whereas one that begins with formal introductions through family members or a matchmaker, in a society with arranged marriage, is far more likely to go that route. Meanwhile, a relationship that begins with a string of three dates without so much as a peck on the cheek? Are we to assume marriage ensues, or that there's no fourth date because the two weren't so into each other? I'm sure there are numbers on this, less sure that they'd account for marriages occurring because a woman metaphorically crossed her legs, as versus because that's just how things go for men and women in a society or subset thereof. If man and woman alike are of a free-and-easy subset, if nothing's happened, that doesn't bode well, I would think, for a long-term anything. Meanwhile, it strikes me that the way to get men or women to commit is to have a society in which neit

Off the topic of this post, but still striking:

"In American colleges, 57 percent of students are women and 43 percent are men. That's a radical reversal of where we were 30 or 40 years ago. Presuming that people are attracted to people who are like them educationally, it means looking for secure relationships becomes challenging because the sex ratio is so imbalanced."

In the Golden Age, when women didn't go to college, and instead scrubbed floors and changed diapers, or if wealthy supervised these activities, men still found a way to marry their social equivalents. Give it a moment, women will do the same.

Settling in

My goals for the week that I have met were to get bureaucratically settled in (this is, after all, France); to locate the people I might already know in the dorm and maybe meet some new ones as well so as not to become a crazy dorm-room dissertation hermit; to get the not-so-mini fridge I'd stored, then kind of lost track of until some gooey cheese in a bag on my desk reminded me this was urgent, up the many stairs from a storage room; and to work on my dissertation.

Still to be done:

-Get groceries, now that I can shop for more than a meal at a time.

-Meet with profs here and email profs elsewhere.

-Try the dining hall, to see if French cafeteria food is as good as Jo claims Belgian was. (The dining hall is in any rate closed "en raison des mouvements sociaux," which is also presumably why there are police guarding the entry to the building.)

-Get on some kind of reasonable sleep pattern. (Falling asleep definitively at 6am, only to be woken up by construction on the wall right outside my room not long after, only to eventually wake up past noon, is not sustainable, even if I did get some work done in the middle of the night.) Libraries, food markets, other human beings keep schedules.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Why the sales don't tempt me

I keep showing up in Paris in time for the soldes, the semi-annual affordable-Parisian-clothing bonanza. This time I will not partake, because...

-For reasons that are too boring to go into but that do not prove me as stupid as it sounds, I paid three times what I was supposed to for the pre-visa application (not the visa application).

-Flight, computer, same credit card bill.

-Bought dish detergent at Monoprix. Left dish detergent at Monoprix. 5 euros down the drain, and not literally, as intended.

-The shiny new water heater can't be plugged in at the same time as the computer, or this will blow the fuse. Fuse fixed, water heater (20 or 30 euros) kaput.

-Good thing I just bought coffee filters, coffee, and tea.

-Seems I'll be having coffee out from now on. Although at a euro a coffee, so be it.

-The whole free-room-in-Paris thing happened kind of last minute, and I'm still paying rent in NY.

Part of me is like, when else will you be in your 20s and in Paris during the soldes? Then I think of how 20% off Repetto's uglier flats is not so great, actually, and of how much more interested I am in using my free time to just walk around, spending whatever money is left over after the above on the occasional steak frites and on some kind of yet-to-be-determined hair refurbishing, something Parisian and fabulous, where I enter the salon Liz Lemon and exit looking like Catherine Deneuve.

Alice Waters is right

I give (my fellow) American Francophiles a hard time. So often, a love of Frahnce manifests itself not only as a pretentious pronunciation of the country name, but also as a belief that food in France has magical properties. The intensity of the taste of the vegetables makes them so satisfying that you will lose weight and look like a younger and more natural Carla Bruni just by eating a salad.

After waking up at 4:30 and not getting back to sleep, I figured I might as well explore the local markets, which are supposed to open at 7. I just walked to one nearby, then on my way got distracted by another. Just... wow. It's winter, but the produce - some but not all local - just glows. The fish, cheese, meat, it all looks spectacular and, from what I've tasted of it, looks don't deceive. Compare this to the Tribeca Whole Foods, as yuppie a supermarket serving as yuppie-and-up a neighborhood as they come. Not a food desert by any means. And yet, nothing there is all that appetizing, not enough is as fresh as it should be, and the selection is grim. I would go with the most ambitious of cooking intentions, and end up making the kinds of meals I would from the Hyde Park Co-op - cooking without the help of good ingredients. If even Franprix, the grocery chain, can effortlessly outdo the best NY has to offer, what hope is there?

There is, I suppose, the Greenmarket. Which is great, if crowded and expensive, for the three months local food is in season, useless the rest of the year, no matter how many times food writers try to get us enthusiastic about root vegetables. (Buy a lovingly-grown turnip, by all means, but you'll still be getting the rest from a supermarket.)

So I'm on board, at least food-wise, with Frahnce. French Paradox-wise, not so much. Somehow I doubt that if I do lose weight here, it will have anything to do with the magic of the food. It will more likely be because the stench of drunken vomit creeps ever closer from the dorm bathroom area (and I am now going to sign up for the library earlier than planned, simply because I suspect there will be cleaner bathrooms there), or because I have yet to retrieve my mini-fridge from storage (any strong-upper-bodied Parisians reading this?), and so only eat bits at a time. I'm doing my best to avoid resembling a thin Parisian, though, having already, before it was even light out, had a breakfast flan.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Faux pas

-Realized, hours after the fact, that the "broken" hall light I tried to turn on meant that I'd shut the light in all the showers, the shower light being next to the one I was looking for. Hoping no one was in a shower, although I think (hope?) there's a way to turn it back on from inside. It might not be a terrible idea for those to be labeled.

-In either language! Although I completely forgot how to say "alarm clock." For what it's worth, Monoprix, at least the one I went to, doesn't have any.

-Went to Monoprix with exactly one tote bag. Knowing the Monoprix reusable totes to fall apart, and that I needed bags for garbage (so as not to mimic my predecessor here), I ended up with a whole bunch of plastic ones. This is not done, I suppose, given the dirty looks I got with the bags, looks I hadn't got when I was just a regular American.

-A regular American, that is, eating a croissant (beurre!) while walking down the street around 2pm. In my defense, I was trying to sleep when the flight attendants served breakfast, and in NY, this would have meant I was getting an early start.

-While eating said croissant, looked longingly through the window of a signless minimalist boutique, whose internal signage, however, reminded me of the soldes. Then I went and spent 92 euros on... where to begin? Water heater, hairdryer, cutlery, dish detergent, shampoo... All reasonably priced, all necessary for a not uncomfortable winter-to-summer in a Paris dorm room. Which got me thinking of Prudie's advice to the would-be Shakespeare Studies grad student - that it's better to enter a high-paying field and vacation abroad. When one of the plastic bags' handles started to tear, Paris started to seem a little less special.

Dorm life at 27

Impressions of the living situation thus far:


The girl who lived in the room before me left her decorations. And her food trash. And her makeup-remover pads. And another kind of pad.

There is no wireless.

There are communal - coed! - restrooms down the hall. I have yet to examine the shower situation.

Dishwasher? Ha! I'd adjust to the lack of luxury much more readily if not moving from a lower Manhattan recession-special condo rental. I've gone from too nice for the likes of a grad student to, well, an undergrad dorm. The room is possibly a step up from my previous NY apartment.

Dorm bed. But this is so obvious it hardly counts as a "con," right?

Exiting the building means being handed the same pro-Palestinian flyer I took the first time (research!) but would rather not have 100 copies of. Finally, the activist has come to recognize me, and knows I already have one.


In the center of Paris. Slightly more charming than Battery Park City.

No roommate.

The room has a sink. A big sink. If I were just a bit smaller, a bath.

So my computer's attached to a wire. There are worse things.

There is a kitchen down the hall. Not a very inviting one, and realistically I'll be eating bread and cheese in my room, but at least if I get carried away at a market, I could potentially make a 12-course meal.

It's temporary. There is more Battery Park City, then following Jo to his seemingly more glamorous postdoc housing, to look forward to.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Amy Chua Amy Chua Amy Chua UPDATED

The NYT is on the case. Judith Warner, Room for Debate, Motherlode, Fashion & Style. This woman, who will teach you how to raise show poodles, is everywhere. This is her moment! How kind of her to agree, "between what she called a '24/7' effort to 'clarify some misunderstandings,'" to give a phone interview to the Times. As though that wasn't a key part of said effort. Anyway.

I have not, I confess, combed through all of this. Doing so - comments included! - will be my reward for getting through a substantial to-do list after arriving in Paris. But I did appreciate this, from Warner: "simply by marrying a Jew, and not a Chinese man, she [Amy Chua, remember her?] worries that she is 'letting down 4,000 years of civilization.'"

Given how much emphasis many American Jews place on intermarriage as a Jewish issue, as though Jews are the only ones whose culture is worth honoring, and as though any non-Jewish partner is by definition a hearty Protestant Nebraskan or a New England WASP, or at any rate, an unhyphenated American, because really, isn't the world divided between Jews and the whites who inspire Ralph Lauren?, it's amusing to be presented with the other side of a scenario that we all know exists: minority-minority intermarriage.


How is an American Jewish mother that much more "Western" than an Asian-American one? I had more thoughts on this before a heck of a trip, and so will maybe muse on this later, but didn't intend to take the post down, just to update.

Friday, January 14, 2011

With my schnoz pressed against the window

Whoa. There's apparently "an annual conference for young, affluent Jews," later described as "a refuge of sorts for well-connected American Jews." So there are meetings!

I'd never heard of, let alone been invited to, Reboot. (I'm young, American, and Jewish. Wonder what's missing?) Which is a shame, really, because I'd love to "discuss [my] ethnic and religious identity, in between spa treatments." Now I just discuss Jewish identity in my dissertation and on this blog. No spa treatments, and I'm not entirely sure what spa treatments are (mud? steam? Dead Sea salts?), but I wouldn't be opposed. I'll have my nails done a sheer peach pink, some ombré tips for the ends of my hair, and we can debate whether the response to Arendt's take on assimilation has or has not overshot the mark.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Similes and metaphors

My ineptitude at shopping for groceries means that today, my lunch may be matzo brei, a meal easily composed of matzo, however stale, assuming you have access to warm water (to soften the matzo), oil, and a frying pan. But before I dig into that particular innocent-Christian-child entree, I want to return to something from the comments to the post below.

Commenter Sigivald brings our attention to a National Review article of sorts, a series of quotes from the last decade meant to defend dear Sarah and to disprove the librul coastal media elite notion that "The use of the term 'blood libel' in non-Jewish contexts is out of bounds."

Color me unconvinced. First, while I'm glad to see someone went to the trouble to look this up (I was so going to, but got distracted by my real work, to which the question of blood libel is tangential, the question of Palin irrelevant, and then there were some "House" reruns...), a handful of (mis)uses since 2000 is not enough to show that the term has taken a new meaning in our language. Then there's the fact that three of the 12 instances cited involve someone explicitly comparing something else to a blood libel. This, while perhaps hyperbolic depending on the context, is still an example of using the term in reference to Jews. Andrew Sullivan and Frank Rich were, it appears, saying the treatment of gays is like the treatment, way back when, of Jews. (The Madoff-related quote also refers to a comparison.) Meanwhile, some of the others may have been using blood libel as a metaphor for something else - that is, while knowing what the expression means, not spelling it out with a "this is like that." Just because it wasn't specified that a comparison was being made doesn't mean there wasn't one. The issue at hand might not be Jews, but, as with more explicit comparisons, we're not looking at a new definition of "blood libel."

Such cases are more ambiguous - how do we know, without "like," if something's being compared to blood libel, which the author agrees has a specific meaning, or whether something that falls outside the definition of the term has now been declared to "count"? We don't, but we can make guesses either way, given the wording, the speaker, etc. So perhaps, on rare occasions, "blood libel" has been used to refer to something altogether unrelated to Jews. Where does that leave us?

There are two issues here. One is whether it's offensive to Jews to compare any other false accusation to blood libel. The other is whether the term "blood libel" now has an everyday definition of "false accusation of murder or something else icky."

As for the first, I don't see why it would be inherently offensive to compare other scenarios to blood libel. Godwin's Law does not apply to all that relates to Jews. (We're allowed to compare the current left-right divide in the US to the Dreyfus Affair, right?) That's not to say that certain comparisons aren't insensitive or idiotic (hi, Sarah!). It might not be the comparison of choice if you're already understood to be Bad for the Jews, unless you wish to perpetuate that image between the lines. But it is not in and of itself anti-Semitic or even inaccurate to say that some thing that isn't a blood libel (a rumor about blacks or gays, for example) is like a blood libel.

As for the second? If the metaphorical use of "blood libel" were sufficiently pervasive, we might see the term gain a whole new definition, such that anything that could be reasonably compared to blood libel in the traditional sense of the term now counts as "blood libel" in contemporary usage. But I'm not at all convinced this has happened, and it seems like a real stretch on the part of the Palin-can-do-no-wrong brigade to say that it has.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making it political

There has been a call not to politicize the Arizona tragedy, not to turn it into a platform about one's pet causes. A fair complaint if what's happening is politicians saying, a vote for me proves you care. Not so much if someone - politician or otherwise - truly believes a particular social ill led to the tragedy taking place, and feels a moral obligation to speak out to prevent further such tragedies. If you really do think the problem is the Tea Party and Sarah Palin's Real-America rhetoric, what then? Or if you think it's mental illness? Pot? Communism? Guns?*

There's no way to react apolitically, either to the tragedy itself or to others' reactions to it. One might argue, for example, that David Brooks's concerned essay on mental-health issues is no more than an attempt by a conservative to shift attention away from the probability that this particular lunatic was a right-wing lunatic, and that his lunacy may be less important than his specific and straightforwardly categorized political motivations. Or one might read the op-ed sympathetically and say that Brooks, like all decent individuals, wants to save lives, and believes this is the best way to do it. The problem is that people come to their politics, their causes, their opinions, because they believe their stances to be the ones most beneficial to society. Unless we have good reason to think in a particular case, a stance has been taken for personal gain, what of it? It's perfectly legitimate to point out the flaws in various reactions - curbing free speech has consequences, as has the War on Drugs, etc. But this is at the level of discussing policy. To say that individuals shouldn't react to tragedies by stating what larger force they think was the catalyst cuts off discussion prematurely, and is itself a way of supporting a cause, 'making it political,' suggesting that an opinion that ties a tragedy to anything specific is so dangerous of an opinion that it must be repressed long before the legislation stage.

That, and it's almost bizarre not to draw in larger issues, and to do no more than mourn neutrally in these situations. There's plenty of tragedy in our own lives, among our own loved ones, not to mention among those we don't know except through statistics. The times when all you can do is wish the family well, or pray for them if that's your approach, are, unfortunately, plentiful. If we care more in high-profile, politically-charged cases than in the ones buried in newspapers, it's because they represent tragedies on a larger scale, and because we who are not the loved ones of the victims have the emotional distance necessary to look at a tragedy as evidence of a broader issue. Pretending that we don't, that we're so overcome with the horribleness that we can't connect it to anything greater, is, for all but the most sensitive, disingenuous.

*My own stance, for what it's worth, is quite firmly in that last category. While I'm obviously not keen on anti-Semitism, an ideology which may have played a role here and which creeps me out personally, and which I think I can do more about given my knowledge and skill set, which is part of why you hear about it more on this blog, guns strike me as the bigger issue.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I needed some flip-flops, to avoid getting French fungus (truffles?) in the communal showers in the undergraduate dorm where I'll be living. I didn't dare look at the bathrooms when a classmate showed me around the dorm over the summer, so I'm not sure yet how communal. There's a slight chance I'll be showering in a big room with a whole bunch of French 18-year-old girls, which is probably someone's fantasy, but not mine.

As difficult to find and perhaps expensive as flip-flops would be in Paris, tracking down a pair on lower Broadway was no simple task, either. Duane Reade had socks and pedicure materials but no flip-flops. David Z wanted nearly $60 for its various options, making the $30 Ricky's was asking seem almost reasonable. But I marched on, braving the dreaded American Eagle Outfitters in vain, because it seemed like a place a flip-flop-wearing teen might shop. The answer, obvious in retrospect: Old Navy. $3.50 and made, no doubt, of the finest materials, by the most fairly-compensated workers.

And it's a good thing, too, because after the flip-flops, I got a new laptop. This, because scotch tape and various French and American Genius Bars can only do so much. Thing is, I hate, hate, hate spending money. Extra for ethernet capability - this, when I'm headed to the land of no wireless. (OK, in theory there's wireless in France, but not in my room or at the library.) But so far I'm liking a computer that doesn't give my wrists electric shocks, and whose screen works without Onslow-like DIY repairs.

Expect my look to remain permanently stuck in 2010, because I am never buying I don't need for basic survival anything again, ever, ever, ever. No Microsoft Word, no 'oh, I've never seen that book about French Jews before, maybe I won't bother checking it's at the library, here are some euros.' Certainly no A.P.C. outlet store. My days as a moderate tightwad are done.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Lesser of two evils?

This, and everyone's saying what a foolish idea it is to enter a PhD program?

Certain definitions in the surveys seem open to abuse. A person is employed after nine months, for instance, if he or she is working on Feb. 15. This is the most competitive category — it counts for about one-seventh of the U.S. News ranking — and in the upper echelons, it’s not unusual to see claims of 99 percent and, in a handful of cases, 100 percent employment rates at nine months.

A number of law schools hire their own graduates, some in hourly temp jobs that, as it turns out, coincide with the magical date. Last year, for instance, Georgetown Law sent an e-mail to alums who were “still seeking employment.” It announced three newly created jobs in admissions, paying $20 an hour. The jobs just happened to start on Feb. 1 and lasted six weeks.
While there are no doubt some who reach the end of 7 or 17 years of a doctoral program shocked that Amherst hasn't offered them tenure, I tend to think grad students know what they're getting into. And for those who only realize the odds after a couple years, they're just left where they'd have been two years before. In other words, I don't think anyone leaves a PhD program - with or without the degree - with the same feeling of having been conned as, apparently, happens with law school. There's no rage - none that I've seen, at least - at having been misled. Why, then, are there so many more OMG don't do a PhD articles relative to watch-out-for-law-school ones? Is it just that, given what I study, I only get forwarded the PhD ones?

"They said they were sending over an Asian woman"

Amy Chua's article about "Chinese" parenting - aka immigrant parenting, aka Jewish parenting, aka none of that wishy-washy multiple-intelligences, I-just-want-you-to-be-happy nonsense - is the buzz of the day. (Miss Self-Important, among others, beat me to it. But I had to go out for a sugar brioche before finishing this post. I'm a fourth-generation American, I have my priorities.) 

Mostly, the novelty of the piece is that we're accustomed to this cliché being torn apart - as MSI notes, we can anticipate a not-all-Chinese-are-the-same reaction. And here's a real Asian-American perpetuating the stereotype! To Chua's credit, she explains that by "Chinese" she means a certain parenting style by no means exclusive to Chinese or even Asian parents.

But even if we accept that there are different parenting styles in different cultures, there are a few confusing elements in the piece. One is that Chua speaks as though she raised her children the Chinese way, yet mentions a "Western" husband. Is part of Chinese parenting treating the non-Chinese parent like a child, thus ignoring his wishes in terms of how to raise the kids? Another, which Isabel Archer points out, is that "Chinese parents," according to Chua, do not permit their children to act in school plays. Why would this, of all endeavors, be deemed a waste of time? Jewish parents - or, really, "Jewish parents," - classically tell their kids not to be on sports teams. While this is counterproductive in a world of "holistic" college admissions, it's at least consistent with the notion of academic success before all else, whereas further exposure to literature and memorization couldn't hurt. I suspect, however, that the theater thing is particular to the author. Finally, there's this: "Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, 'Hey fatty—lose some weight.'" One might react to this in the Jezebel manner, in horror, but Chua's point is that Chinese parents don't care about self-esteem. Fair enough, but it's legitimate to ask why it matters if the A student - male or female - is overweight. The girl's not allowed to date anyway, and is not on her way to becoming an actress. Is it that heft is a sign of Westernness, of assimilation, of having cut class to go to McDonalds?  

My authoritah here comes from a) my own upbringing, which had elements of "Western" and "Chinese" traditions, and b) my having gone to a high school - the high school - where the successful children of "Chinese parents" end up. On the one hand, the fact that there were (and are, but I was class of 2001 and speak anecdotally) so many Asian and Asian-American students at Stuyvesant in the first place meant the parents were doing something right. On the other, at a school so heavily Asian and Jewish, the B-and-below students were Asian and Jewish. The potheads, or the kids whose smoking may not have extended beyond tobacco but who at any rate cut class to hang around outside: also the offspring of "Chinese parents." The slackers, as well as the just mediocre, were the product of families that would, if Chua is to be believed, accept nothing less than an A. It could be that even the "worst" of these kids ended up better off than the average NYC students. But the article left the impression that your child, too, can be permanently obedient, permanently valedictorian. As MSI puts it, "The real question is, how did Amy Chua get her children to obey?"

Point being, the "Chinese" method makes for a lot of good little 10-year-olds, but guarantees little once mainstream culture becomes readily accessible. Where Portnoy went nuts with the "shiksas," consider a "Chinese-parented" classmate of mine who apparently arrived at math camp only to discover that the dorm had a TV and to park herself in front of that long-forbidden fruit. This is, in other words, a parenting style that only works in a very particular situation. If everyone's "Chinese," someone has to be the B- student. Meanwhile, even if the obedient behavior sticks and the kid gets into a good college, a given family can only stay "Chinese" for so many generations. 

Meanwhile, in the towns and villages of America and beyond, just as some kids randomly turn out to be gay, others randomly turn out to be incredible students. Not children of neglect, but not children raised to excel at all costs, whose success isn't tied to obedience. In cities and suburbs, well-connected parents manage to pass their careers down to the next generation, keeping out the "Chinese." Parents can only do so much. 

This isn't to say they shouldn't try, and I do think that in America, too much emphasis is placed on the 'A' as the result of innate intelligence and thus not worth working for. Chua has a point here: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." Some children do want to work - remember Saffy and Edina? - but this strikes me as true as a rule.

My question, then, is about what results Chua promises, and to what end. Non-bratty children? That much seems doable. Children capable of supporting themselves as adults? B-students, too, manage just fine. Superstar geniuses? Unlikely. But is the point social mobility? Probably not, because unless they're actually struggling immigrants (less likely to read articles like this one), or single mothers prior to women entering the professions (not likely to exist in the US in 2011), the parents who'd parent in this way would have already reached professional heights themselves. So is it just about not letting one's own children regress to the mean? If so, I see how there'd be an audience, but it hardly seems a cause we as a society should support - why not let the mediocre children of the high-achieving fall behind and leave spots for the high-achieving children of the mediocre? The only way it kind of makes sense is from an international-competition angle. American parents, man up! Because "Western" is really "American" - Western Europeans are not, to my knowledge, exposed to the culture of holistic self-esteem.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cross-dressing for conservatives

Another day, another article about how things aren't made how they used to be. To give Christina Binkley's piece credit, she has a new angle: women should dress like men. (Via.) And it's one I can kind of get behind, if only because, as Binkley notes, "If comfort were the top criterion for selling womenswear, Jimmy Choo would be out of business." The notion that clothing must be uncomfortable for it to be formal or feminine is, as I've held forth about before, both irritating and, in careers other than corporate law and acting-in-ballerina-movies, largely avoidable. And I fully support women shopping for clothes in places other than the women's department.

But Binkley isn't waging a war on stilettos or skinny jeans. Her complaint is with the poor quality of womenswear. Here I'm less sympathetic - why, exactly, should we care if our clothes are well-made, unless we happen to get pleasure out of owning beautiful things? (That, and the item of clothing I own that's pilled the most dramatically is a coat from Uniqlo's first +J collection, which is praised in the article as an exception to the fast-fashion rule. From the menswear side, even.)

"Logos don't guarantee fine craftsmanship." True, and the people - men and women alike - who justify designer purchases on the basis of quality are often enough just making excuses. But if some get more joy out of logos than craftsmanship, what are we going to say, that these women are too materialistic? Isn't all of this materialism, quite literally? As for comfort, this can be achieved without "quality." Don't buy stuff that's too small. Choose ballet flats boots, or loafers over heels. Dresses!

Binkley makes the case that "tailoring should matter" as follows: "Women are always looking for clothes that will lift their bottoms and smooth their bulges. That's exactly the kind of magic that tailoring works."

No. Perhaps it's not great for the environment, but it's otherwise a good thing that women are more interested in experimentation with dress, with trends (and with grown women, we're talking trends-as-fun, not wear-the-right-jeans-or-you'll-be-shunned-at-recess), than with not looking fat.

New semester's resolutions

So I will be spending the spring semester in Frahnce. After complications and obstacles that could make for a more substantive blog post but won't, it is actually happening. So, I will list my goals for the spring, academic and Paris-specific.

-Two dissertation chapters. Well, maybe three - what's now Introduction might be more like a short introduction and a Chapter 1. That plus a non-introductory chapter.
-Finish primary research. Including the non-Paris part. One of the most important subjects of my dissertation came from the south of France, where I've never been. If the relevant docs are not on Gallica by now (fingers crossed), I will make that trip.
-Send emails more quickly. Especially in French, especially to professors.
-Meet the professors I hope to meet, aka the three other people in the world who work on the same thing as I do.
-Think of things to eat that aren't pasta. (Less a nutritional concern than an I'll-be-living-in-a-dorm-yes-a-dorm-with-a-communal-kitchen-at-best problem.)
-Restrain myself at Petit Bateau.
-Practice somewhat less restraint when it comes to shoes (with 20-euro shiny ballet flats everywhere, a red patent pair can totally happen), books, perhaps one haircut (and dye? maybe? this, this is what I want, but another option is to buy some bleach at Ricky's and dye the tips myself.)
-Not use 'but it's Paris' as an excuse not to go running. At the very least, bring running sneakers.
-Not be too much of a hermit - arriving in the middle of the school year, and already being at the dissertation-writing stage, will make this more complicated, but knowing some people already in Paris should make it less so.
-Go to (more) French-Jewish communal events. Read their publications. Get more plugged into what's going on with contemporary French Jewry.

Green jackets overanalyzed

"Doesn’t it look sort of Freaks and Geeks? The jacket I mean?" Yes. Yes, it does. It wasn't worn on an extra, but on Lindsay Weir. It was the iconic garment of the show. Tavi already embraced it. Every store since then, if not before, has been carrying those army-inspired jackets. This trend no doubt influenced my own green-jacket purchase in August. The 90s-sitcom long-floral-dress look has made it to the NYT. It's not that it's been done - everything has been done, fashion is all retro revivals, etc. - but that it is a trend, at this moment, and has been for some time.

I think it's great that "What I Wore" is more of an instructor's manual on how to wear trends than an innovator - my own tendency to wear the same pair of corduroys and Weir-esque-maybe-if-you-squint men's winter coat every day without proper fashion-blog inspiration suggests there is a demand for such instruction. Inspiration, imitation, these are indeed the goals. But please please, if you're going to have a style blog, know your references! Maybe not avant-garde DIY shows in Bushwick, maybe not which '60s designers or rockers inspired the '90s trend in question, doesn't have to be graduate-level textile research, but do not pretend that putting a big green army jacket over a floral dress in the '90s manner is your idea.

Or maybe I'm just bitter, because in my own work, the moment I see something similar has been done, I must immediately cite it and present what I've done as having been inspired by something I often enough figured out independently, but too late.

Tangential thoughts re: "Freaks and Geeks": as spot-on as that show was, and as surprising as it is, in retrospect, that Apatow's best was a show with a female lead, I'm not sure it got much right about high school girls. Specifically, the female characters on the show virtually never care how they look. (Unless I'm forgetting an episode? There's the time Lindsay puts on a dress - wow! - to go to a party where she can flirt with Neal's college-kid older brother. But otherwise?) It's not just a lack of vanity, weight-obsession, contending-with-puberty, acne-concerns, etc. There's also none of the awkward experimentation we get with, for example, Angela Chase in "My So-Called Life," dyeing her hair bright red, not to look pretty, not to look punk, but because she's at that age. That the girls don't primp is, in a sense, what makes the show feel so realistic, because most depictions of teenage girls portray them as doing so almost continuously, influenced, no doubt, both by sexist cliché and by the fact that entertainment comes out of milieus where looks are especially valued.

But it also keeps the show in the realm of male fantasy. Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly are a kind of male fantasy of low-maintenance, the girl with pretty hair and a good body, but who spends no time whatsoever in front of a mirror, who wouldn't dream of wanting to go to the mall. (Sam's cheerleader first-girlfriend expresses interest in shopping, which is part of the catalyst for him dumping her for being boring.) Female beauty, when it's mentioned at all, is in the sense of cheerleaders, who are naturally pretty (as when one of them tells Bill, geekiest of the geeks, that this is how she's always looked), as versus badass tomboys on the one hand, virginal Christians on the other. Which is, I think, why this show, of all shows, has inspired a fashion trend in the age of "effortless," of model-off-duty fashion, of the outfit that comes together not because it's well-styled, not because it cost a lot or was made by a special designer, but because the wearer is young, beautiful, and has no need to be vain.