Monday, January 30, 2012

Delving "Into the Gloss"

I am Frenchwoman, oui? So I do not believe in wearing makeup. I am natural, effortless and comment dit-on insouciante? I do not wear hair extensions or blowdry my hair like a crude and vulgar American. Instead, I use [insert twelve different skin creams, at a total value of 4,000 euros] every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. I believe in wearing the timeless, euh, classiques, comme par exemple the many Hermès bags my grandmother and various publicists provided me with free of charge. I am very natural. Christophe von Kartoffeln van Kaas has been doing my highlights since I was a little girl, and c'était quoi la question? facials, yes, I go to Vivienne de la Mer, but only if I have the time, I am so low-maintenance, I can't be bothered! The best for beauty is to go to my family's estate near (but not too near) St. Tropez, and to have the sun and sand in the hair. We French girls [we will ignore that I'm 42] don't try too hard like you princessy, nouveau-riche, Jersey Shore's Snooky every last one of you American hags.

(I have such a love-hate relationship with this feature. Alas.)


These days, we as a society are more accommodating than ever about a diverse array of dietary restrictions. Get a group together, and there will be peanut allergies; lactose intolerance; gluten insensitivity as well as full-on celiac; vegetarianism for ethical reasons; veganism for environmental reasons; kosher-as-in-wouldn’t-eat-a-pork-chop, kosher-as-in-won’t-eat-off-those-plates; etc. These will, by and large, of course depending the milieu, be accepted, either as legitimate reasons for someone to reject food that's been offered, or even as an impetus to provide alternative options.

This development is, or ought to be, viewed as a mark of progress. Paradoxically, however, this new and welcome acceptance of food-rejection-with-cause has, I believe, led to an ever-growing intolerance for pickiness without cause. For everything on the spectrum from ‘I don’t like it’ to ‘any perceptible smell of it makes me gag.’*

Part of this comes from the fact that picky eaters have a reputation for trying to get out of eating foods they dislike, or – a separate but related issue – think are too fattening, by feigning a medical or ethical objection. This would be the mushroom-non-appreciator who feigns a mushroom allergy, the “vegan” prepping for bikini season, or the gluten-shunner who does not actually become ill from eating bread, but who read somewhere that gluten isn't a "pure" food, and who aspires to greater Gwynethness. The term we’re looking for is “crying wolf.” It's a problem both because it leads hosts/chefs/wait-staff to worry unnecessarily about possibly deadly contamination, and because it has the end result of making it so that real sufferers are not taken seriously, are served that to which they’re violently allergic, and then they die, and it was the picky eaters’ fault.

So, a couple things. One, there are plenty of ethical picky eaters out there, who wouldn't pretend to suffer from anything greater than finickiness. Two, as much as faking is, as we’ve established, unethical, it’s nevertheless understandable, given how unacceptable it is for a grown adult to simply not like certain foods. Sometimes the lie is intended to spare the cook's feelings. With legitimate ingredient-shunning, the would-be-diner is so sorry that he can’t have what’s on offer, agrees that it looks delicious, and if it were not for forces greater than his own whim, he too would happily tuck in. With pickiness, even if the picky eater can acknowledge that the mushrooms look well-prepared, he by definition thinks the food in front of him is vile if it is heavy on that ingredient. For obvious reasons, it’s not socially-acceptable to say that you think the food in front of you looks vile.

Here, it's necessary to separate out situations where you are a guest in a fairly intimate setting. If you're a guest, and there's no buffet-type situation to hide behind, all food you're presented with typically must be eaten at least in part unless it means breaking with serious ethical adherences or breaking out in hives. Being a dinner guest is, in a sense, reverting to the proverbial childhood dinner table, except that throwing a tantrum is not an option. Happily, for most adults, this type of setting is, food-wise, a welcome opportunity to try foods one might not be accustomed to preparing at home. These settings do, however, present a problem for the kind of picky eater who really will gag if presented with certain foods. If it's really that bad, you then must say that you simply don't like X. And it helps to be consistent - if you eat your friend A's mushroom risotto, you can't be fussy next week about B's mushroom casserole. You must accept being socially unacceptable, seeming ungrateful, seeming to have insulted your host, and having failed to become a mature adult.

But I think it's important to separate out the issue of politeness from that of indifferent omnivorousness. These days, allow me to hypothesize, it's verging on unacceptable to have food preferences that are for no good reason. Join a CSA, and get a box of whatever a farm happens to have on hand! The menu tonight will be "chef's choice"! At the supermarket, don't let something so crude as your preferences guide you. Think about nutrition, local/sustainable. It's not just 'eat your vegetables.' It's 'eat these particular vegetables.' Indeed, what finally motivated me to write up this particular blog-destined set of observations were Britta's recent comments about eating peas without actually liking peas, and not even in situations in which turning down peas might potentially offend. I have in my mind real-life examples along the same lines.

It's my sense - and I haven't fully thought this through - that merely having food preferences, even if one is capable of setting them aside as necessary in social settings - is out. I see this as being connected to other areas of growing sensitivities about genuine problems. I'm thinking specifically of a recent NPR story about Asperger's and how great it is for those who get a diagnosis to explain that they're not just being rude/boring, that they in fact are not rude or boring, they're merely exhibiting signs of something unfortunate and beyond their control. Where, one wonders, does this leave the merely-but-severely rude-and-boring? As our tolerance of diagnosed strange behavior goes up, what then comes of our tolerance of the rest? Do we consider it all to be not-yet-diagnosed, or do we say that some people are just obnoxious and generally bad company? And so continue my not-quite-formulated thoughts on the matter.

*Requisite personal note: my own pickiness manifests itself mostly as a severe aversion to artificial butter, as on popcorn – not really an issue at dinner parties, and I’ve never so much as been tempted to feign an allergy. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why high fashion is about pleasing straight men

Recently, I speculated about the relationship between, on the one hand, the ubiquity of ever-younger, ever-thinner high-fashion runway models, and, on the other, the male gaze.  The runway waif is not what most men would consider ideal, but most men probably do want (or feel they ought to want) women thinner and younger than are readily available to them. The waif is thus chosen not as a type with a great sex appeal to men, but rather as an exaggerated version of what insecure women feel they ought to look more like, for Society, but also, in more banal terms, for men.

In other words, even if we can readily agree that high fashion is not about pleasing men, it does not exist in an entirely unrelated sphere. The image of the preadolescent gamine isn't a straightforward reflection of What Men Want, or, for that matter, of what women want to look like, but more like a distorted one. It's not, as popularly understood, that the high-fashion build is something that women or gay men happen to prefer. It's about selling clothes, perfumes, a brand, and the typical female consumer probably does think she'd be more attractive if younger and thinner.

But we are meant to understand that fashion (and no, Victoria's Secret, despite the runway format, doesn't count) is about women trying to impress other women, or, in more homophobic than misogynistic interpretations, about women adhering to the oppressive standards set for them by some cabal of gay men. Straight men, meanwhile, are more than happy to explain, at every opportunity, that they don't care if women wear high heels or makeup. In fact, enlightened beings that they are, they're concerned for the women who spend unnecessary time and money on their appearances, who go around uncomfortable. They will tell us that they prefer a natural-looking woman (a 22-year-old bikini model) to an overly done-up one (a 45-year-old with whom they'd actually have a shot at getting a date).

They will ignore that, in telling us this, they're missing the broader picture, which is that women need not make all or any such choices according to what will please men. There are a good number of women out there who are for whatever reason (monogamously coupled, single but not looking, lesbian) not particularly trying to attract any men sexually; of the subset of women who are, there's no reason to think they care what you, random dude on the Internet, would go for.

My earlier thoughts on this topic were that high fashion serves as a break of sorts from the male gaze. That it's liberating, kind of, to wear your nails blue, your hair pink, your heels chunky (and for those not big on fashion, these things may sound "alternative," and certainly didn't originate on the runways, but they all make their way there), because it looks cool, heck, because you saw it on a fashion blog, but not because it will increase your appeal to the opposite sex. I thought that Leandra Medine made a good, if poorly-executed, point.

But there are those pesky caveats. "Man-repelling" clothes are never actually about repelling men. They're about partially obscuring conventional "natural" beauty under an unconventional artificial exterior, as Medine herself admits. "Ugly" looks are about the contrast - the more out-there the clothes, the less out-there the features of the woman wearing them. For most women, a short enough skirt is more than adequate. But it's the rare woman who can have a line out her door while in sweats, or, for that matter, avant-garde high fashion. The miniskirt, the carefully-applied makeup, the perfectly-done hair, these signal, in this framework, that one is not in possession of traits that, alas, are destined to allure.

So is it no-win? Dress to please men, and you're dressing to please men. Dress not to please men, and you're really just distinguishing yourself from the kind of women who require a looks-boost from their artifice, announcing that you're so good-looking that you can get away with pink eyeliner and frizz. A bind indeed. The obvious answer would be to simply not phrase things in terms of the male gaze, but surely that's too straightforward.

Emily Yoffe on Rescue Culture

A must-read. I'm amazed it applies to cat and guinea pig adoption as well. It makes me wonder if most New Yorkers are qualified to "own" the mice that invariably appear in NY apartments, and that seem perfectly capable of keeping on keeping on, even without setting out special feed bowls, providing fresh water, or taking them out for three walks daily.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why you should buy those lattes

Every so often, the NYT discovers that the sky is blue, the earth is round, and if you spend $3 on coffee every day, 3x365 amounts to a bigger number than the multiplication-challenged would have thought. Small purchases add up. Motoko Rich is the latest to bring this fact to our attention:

According to a new survey, half of all American workers buy coffee regularly during work hours, spending more than $20 a week on java, or about $1,000 a year. (Workers 18 to 34 years old spend about twice as much, on average, as workers over 45.) Two-thirds of workers buy lunch instead of bringing something from home, and spend an average of $37 a week. That translates into nearly $2,000 a year — the price of a new piece of furniture or a vacation.
This is no longer an issue in my own life, as I live where there are no stores at all, and the biking necessary to make it to a coffee shop means that I can buy as many $4 mochas as I want and that's still at most a mocha a month. But, readers who live where the coffee shop tempts, you have my permission, no, encouragement to go forth. Ask yourselves:

-Is coffee harmful? I know we-as-a-society are in the mindset of telling smokers how much they'd save if they quit, but this is meant to be a way to convince them to quit for health reasons, not because they've been rendered destitute, or because we think they'd actually prefer whatever it was they could buy with the money they've saved to the cigarettes they're now not buying. But this approach can't just be lifted up and applied to safe and possibly even beneficial forms of consumption. With coffee, the presumed alternative is making coffee at home, not giving it up altogether.

-Is coffee wasteful? It's wasteful to drink coffee in the same way that it's wasteful to own more than the necessary clothes and shoes, to live in a larger-than-necessary home, drive a larger-than-necessary (or, in some cases, any) car, to own 99% of our electronics. It is wasteful to wear any makeup or jewelry, as one can perfectly well stay warm and decent without. It is wasteful to put herbs on food, when the stuff's edible and nutritious without the added garnish/flavor. By all means, make coffee at home, or get the "to stay" cup, or use a thermos. But, worst-case-scenario, a paper cup every workday is, as sins go, not one to hold up as the pinnacle of Western decadence. And no, it is not a uniquely 21st-century-American thing to consume more than is absolutely necessary to survive. That sometimes-tasty sludge known as Turkish coffee? It wasn't invented at the Hummus Place on St. Marks.

-Are coffee shops evil establishments we wish to use our collective power as consumers to put out of business? Opinion's no doubt divided on Starbucks, and those of us who've worked as in barista-worked at the charming independents know how not-charming that can be. But are these really the kind of businesses we feel compelled to shut down? Don't they provide more good than bad? Conviviality? Atmosphere? Change of scenery for the beleaguered 15th-year grad student? Yes, restaurants can claim that food, unlike coffee, is a necessity. But if it's a choice between spending $4 on a home-cooked meal and $3 on coffee, or $30 at the restaurant and 40 cents on coffee at home...

-Would you really prefer the $2,000 purchase to the many $3 ones? It's hard to picture that a $2,000 piece of furniture would be a goal a nomadic 20-something latte consumer is going to hold out for. And vacations... are nice and everything, but less romantic if you have a job that requires travel (air travel especially, ugh), and often end up sucking up massive amounts of money so quickly that you end up learning more than you needed to about urban Italian supermarkets, after getting massively ripped off on dinner upon arriving late and famished the first night. Or so I've heard. With the coffee, you know what you're getting, and the small increase in happiness over that many days (small happinesses add up!) could well be greater than what a vacation or an expensive dining room table might provide. The better question is, do you or do you not have those $2,000 to spare, but even then, eliminating something else (walking down streets with Sephoras on them, for example) can mean keeping the cappuccino if it means that much to you. And why shouldn't it?

-Do you really want to be this smug? For the love of all that's compostable, congratulations to those who make a big batch of lentils every Sunday night and eat that all week, who save money and livestock in the process, and who are invariably incapable of making anything in the precious slow-cooker without leaving comments about it online in a patronizing tone. Some of us do not share your infinite tolerance for monotony and/or legumes.

Baking woes

Got butter at Wegman's rather than Whole Foods. Land o Lakes rather than 365. Took it out of the wrapper and was inundated with that horrible fake-butter smell that was a sudden reminder of precisely what it was about butter I always found so nauseating as a child. An only slightly less intense version of the artificial butter that goes on popcorn, that's pumped into Penn Station, and that has the proven capacity to make me gag. As an adult, though, I've cooked/baked with (salted, Whole Foods store brand) butter all the time, and not found it to be a problem. It occurred to me that the one difference, other than the brand, was that this one was unsalted. But could salt impact the smell of something? That didn't seem likely, so I checked the sell-by date. Definitely still good. How could some butter smell so much more intensely like butter than other butter?

Then I noticed the ingredients. "Natural flavor" turns out to be a second ingredient in what I would have assumed was a one-ingredient food. I looked up what this meant, and to the best of my knowledge, it's the kind of thing that's unnerving to food purists, and that wouldn't necessarily bother me in, say, a candy bar, but a) with baking, you kind of want to know what you're working with, and b) I have this odd, visceral reaction to that particular smell, one that certainly does not encourage me to include it in more work-intensive pastry. At this point, the butter was already rolled out and partially folded into the dough for chocolate croissants. Or would have been, if the dough itself had formed properly.

After much discussion (and Googling) of whether, once cooked, the smell would disappear, I made the executive decision that if I could still smell it after chilling the dough in the freezer, I'd accept that loss of one egg, one cup flour, 1/2 cup sugar. And so it went.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Word-association: Princeton

Popped collars. Tanned, blond, long-limbed young women, and young men with III or IV after their names. Lacrosse. Binge-drinking good-ol'-boys. When I moved here in September, to accompany my husband who's doing a postdoc euphemistically near the university, I'd imagined there'd be a preppy presence on the campus. I even remember that the university's... reputation had something to do with why, at my Ivy-obsessed but not-very-white-bread high school, HYP as good as didn't include the "P." I don't think terribly many kids applied, and of those who went, at least two were legacies. 

Granted, the only bit of the campus I spend time at is the library, but if there's any demographic with a sizable presence, it's studious-nerdy-seeming young black women. After that, studious-nerdy-seeming young white women. After that, dandy-ish male grad students. So I'm wondering, is this just who spends time at the library? Are there all kinds of decadent WASPy happenings, hidden from view? Do the notorious eating clubs connect by tunnel to classroom buildings, dining halls, gyms, and emerging from the underground campus is discouraged? The what-you'd-expects are not at the library, or the coffee shop, or on Nassau Street, so either Princeton has changed (in, might I say, the right direction); its real essence is hidden from view; or I wear special Lacoste-obscuring goggles when I leave the house. 

Choice, feminism

Cynthia "Miranda" Nixon chose to be gay. Good for her? Not so simple!

The principle controversy here is that if homosexuality is or can be a choice, that's ammunition for homophobes. Why all the fuss about same-sex marriage, opponents will say, if the gay-identified could simply choose to fall in love with members of the opposite sex? But! In the interest of letting consenting-adults figure things out for themselves, why not fight for the right to be gay and not oppressed, however one arrived at that self-identification? And so on.

The Nixon quote has launched a discussion about sexual orientation (that you can readily find using the search engine of your choice), but it might be just as well-suited to one of female sexuality (which is what you'll find here).

It's difficult, I think we can agree, to picture terribly many men claiming they chose to be gay. This is in part because homophobia is arguably more virulent as directed against gay men and boys than lesbians. (And how perceived-homosexuality is dealt with. A girl who likes softball versus a guy who likes musical theater, regardless of their orientations.) This relates, of course, to the alleged female ambiguity in this area - to the popularly-held and utterly absurd belief that all women are bisexual.

The idea that all women could go either way can't be separated from the idea that men, but not women, are visual creatures. If Woman can find herself sexually attracted to a man once she learns that he's rich/powerful/Newt Gingrich, it's not a great leap to suggest that Woman could, with enough feminist notions, enough had-it-with-men, enough we-could-totally-go-shoe-shopping-together, who knows, become the romantic partner of another woman. And this is perhaps what it means for Cynthia Nixon to consider herself not a bisexual woman currently involved with a woman, but a person with this magical capacity to find a person of either sex attractive, because it's the person, not the gender, that counts.

These traits that seem to make women the darlings of progressive values - straight-identified women aren't limiting themselves to only "hot" partners! Women aren't limiting themselves by sexual orientation! - add up to something else entirely. It's about denying the basic fact of female sexuality, which is that it's a subset of human sexuality. Humans tend to find some other humans, but not all others, sexually desirable. This is true of the experience of women who are straight, gay, or bisexual. It's not that other factors - kindness, sense of humor, status - don't matter. It's not that clever pick-up techniques never persuade. It's that women, like men, divide the world into the potentially-sexually-appealing, and the not-ever-gonna-happen. It's that women, like men, will notice "hot" in its more salient manifestations. It's not that female sexuality is male sexuality, it's not "I'm a Samantha!" (SATC reference acceptable given news item inspiring post) or that women are, on average, as interested as men are in images of context-free nudity. It's that the two are not as different as all that.

OK, the counterargument: Sure, it's liberating, in a sense, that women feel less constrained than men do to find "hot" that which society deems "hot." Of course it's a good thing for women with same-sex attraction that they're not victims of a societal force quite as pernicious as the one aimed at men attracted to men. But it's not terribly liberating that female desire - homosexual or heterosexual - is popularly understood to basically not exist. It sounds all of it so lefty and pomo, yet we're as good as back with Caitlin Flanagan, learning that adolescent girls desire boyfriends, husbands, and merely put up with "hook-ups" as a (misguided! poor dears) route to that end.

So, my three readers, pardon the repetition, but this is exactly why you get so many straight women making the seemingly insensitive/clueless assertion that they are gay men trapped inside female bodies. A claim that would seem to make light of the oppression faced by gay men and boys, but that's at once offensive and about a couple legitimate things. One, there's no way to describe lust-for-man except in terms of that which gay men experience, because women are presumed incapable of fantasies that don't end in bourgeois homemaking, and two, straight women, much like gay men, are stigmatized for this attraction. Men, in our society, are not to be denigrated in that way, to be treated as objects.

I suppose that, by now, if this were a Feministe thread and not a WWPD post, I'd be accused of hijacking the discourse, stealing the virtual microphone from someone doubly marginalized (female and gay) and making it about, if not precisely myself because I'm ancient, married, etc., but about myself insofar as I'm a straight woman who was once a girl who got through many a boring high school class by "choosing" to have crushes on boys in my line of vision. So be it, but I'm confident enough in WWPD's relative powerlessness when it comes to discourse-shifting that this is a risk I'll take.

The forest and the trees

I haven't had a haircut since August. In theory, twice-yearly haircuts should mean it's fine for me to spend a lot each time. In practice, it means that places that I remember as being in the $60-70 range will be in the $80-90 one the next time around, a problem when it's set in my mind that a good haircut costs $50, which it hasn't in NY for ages. (Getting a haircut here... no thanks for so many reasons, not least of which that anything that costs $X in upscale parts of Manhattan costs $2X on Nassau St. and is half as good.) It's certainly important for me to look glamorous, living in the woods, cuddling with a poodle, and every few weeks or so chatting with highly-focused academics. Self-deprecation (life-deprecation?) aside, $90 strikes me as too much for a trim I don't really need and maybe some bangs. So, DIY. It worked out OK the last time, and is Francophilic-beauty-blogger-approved, so why not?

But I had to decide what I was going for. Would it be:

-Charlotte Gainsbourg? Pros: her schnozziness and my own are more alike than not. Wispy bangs are less of a risk. Cons: if she got Gainsbourg's nose, she got Birkin's hair, and I'm not sure mine's WASPy enough for "wispy."

-Alix, aka The Cherry Blossom Girl? Pros: I know that hair texture personally, 'cause it's mine as well. Cons: those are some thick bangs.

-Rooney Mara's partially-grown-out Dragon-ness? Pros: perfection, not to mention a good photograph to use as a guide for how to part before cutting. Useful to see the look on near-black hair and near-white skin. Cons: possibly more useful as a makeup guide. Gorgeous lipstick, and an inspiration to figure out what to do with that Sephora-brand "smokey eye" kit - that is, to figure out how to put on eye shadow - if there ever was one.

I do not include other possible sources of inspiration along the lines of Natalie Portman or Olivia Wilde, because, as lovely as the above-examples are, there's a level of shall we say looks-capital that so transcends that one can never tell if it's the hairstyle that one is aspiring to or the rest.

The result is some combination of the above-mentioned examples. It will, I realize having slept on it, require styling. But the same is true for any salon-acquired version. Between this and the DIY pains-au-chocolat, I think I've figured out life in the woods after all.


Off-topic, but perhaps not worthy of a whole post of its own: Dan, Dan, Dan, you missed the boat with this letter. You got distracted by mentions of trans identity and polyamory, as if these were relevant to the situation at hand (as if a man is somehow less dumped when the dumper's biological sex and gender identity don't match up?) when a statement like "'I can't prioritize one person above anybody else'" is about as clear as, and only slightly less clichéd than, "It's not you, it's me." It's a variant of "I'm not ready for a relationship." The letter-writer seems hurt, but also seems to get what happened. Savage, meanwhile, will have us know that it is indeed theoretically possible to be this variety of polyamorous. Forest, Dan! Trees!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Your pearls are showing

In recent days, weeks, I'd noticed references to "pearl-clutching," and hadn't thought much of it. Slate's Torie Bosch, however, is on the case - turns out these references are very much a thing in the feminist blogosphere. Bosch's reference to how "Feministe used the phrase in a blog post about privilege and oppression" got me thinking. What is "pearl-clutching" if not a gender-specific variant of "your privilege is showing"? The clutcher-of-pearls is white, WASPy, conservatively-inclined, stuffy of morals, of-another-time, and, of course, female. It harkens back to notions of women as protectors of home and hearth, pious in eras when the men have grown cynical, fearful of taverns and fermented beverages and the fun the menfolk might have when out on their own. To hurl a "pearl-clutching" accusation is thus both feminist (the pearl-clutcher is fainting at the thought of women having filthy encounters with men or, horrors, other women) and anti-feminist (what if not the sexist norms in whichever part of society has led our pearl-clutcher to be so repressed?)

As with YPIS accusations, the person doing the hurling is not typically lacking the form of privilege in question. To stay with the metaphor, if the (female) hurler doesn't wear pearls, it's not because she didn't inherit a string or two from Gran. It's that she also benefitted from the privilege of attending a liberal-arts college, where she learned that "ladylike" dress is for strivers (i.e. those who enter the professions to escape a lower-middle-class future) and Republicans.

The symbolically-clutched theoretical pearls bring to mind another, more literal jewelry-based topic that came up here a while back: the workplace stigmatization of the woman with the (large, presumed-real-diamond) engagement ring. See also the tsk-tsking of women who alter their appearances (through surgery, makeup, hair extensions and implements) to look more conventionally attractive. These are all essentially, in many respects, the same idea.

There are many layers to dig through here. On the one hand, do we really want to claim that any choice a woman (who may well identify as anti-feminist) makes is by definition feminist, and by definition to be supported by feminists? Is a woman who chooses to insist that women submit to men acting in a way that feminists should support, insofar as she's female and expressing an opinion? It's better, from a feminist perspective, than a situation in which all women submit to men and don't even get to express opinions. Meanwhile, is the pearl-clutcher (or the carat-sporter, or fake-tan-and-weave-preferrer) really the epitome of unchecked privilege? Or is even thinking in these terms the more relevant sign of privilege - that is, is the person who knows to "check" her privilege the person who's so chock-full of every kind of capital, who has the down-time necessary to participate for hours in these truly epic-length threads, actually in a position of greater power?

Unfortunately - or, more accurately, fortunately - dissertation lunch-break is over, and it's time to make more coffee and get back to it. If, by the end of this comment, you don't find that you've swung several notches to the right, or begun favoring some kind of mandatory, Internet-free national service for all young people aged 15-45, I'm impressed.


Yet again, the question of very young (think too young for middle school) fashion models is phrased in Think of the Children terms. Guardian writer Viv Groskrop at least offers, as an afterthought, a look at what it means for adult, female consumers that a model has to look 12 and if she also is 12 so be it.

Tucked away at the very end of the piece is, I think, the real story:

How young, then, is too young for fashion? And what's too old? "Sixteen is a good age to start," says [modeling agency director Carole] White. "Seventeen is the perfect age for a model, because most girls feel comfortable in themselves by then; 18 is good too, though, because then all their schooling is out of the way. If a girl started at 20, she would find it difficult to get work. Her agent would probably lie about her age and say she was a year or two younger."
As a 28-year-old full-time student with plenty of student friends my own age or older, I'm tempted to address the bit about all plausible "schooling" being finished by 18. But I will instead highlight the bit about what happens should "a girl" begin modeling at the decrepit age of 20. I will, at the risk of repeating myself, note that the very language of the industry assumes a grown woman couldn't model clothes. I mean, 20 is old for a "girl."

No doubt, the telling-it-like-it-is response would be something about how, for men, for the usual evo-psych reasons, a woman is past it as soon as she's no longer a girl. But it's not clear how this would relate to the preferred looks in images very clearly directed at women, not men. Even if men prefer 15-year-olds (and I'm not saying they do), they wouldn't be the same 15-year-olds.

It would seem, then, that having ever-younger models is a way to draw as many consumers as possible into the insecurity tent, to make even college juniors feel inadequate, and how else to address that inadequacy than by buying crap?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The week, it ended

-Parchment-paper fish (cod fillet, in this case, with lemon, garlic, olive oil, dried thyme, salt, pepper) really is better. Whole fish is probably better still, but I cling to some shortcuts.

-Obedience class for dogs probably falls into the category of, humanity did just fine without it (if your dog isn't aggressive, and is affectionate with you, and knows the basic commands...), but it can't hurt. But a line must be drawn, and that will probably be at the extra $10 the trainer suggests we spend each week on some kind of "adolescent-dog" meet-up. The whole point of the class was to socialize our dog. That plus what occurs without special planning (today, she met a Westie, and might have met two supermodel Golden Retrievers, if their owner hadn't turned away; there are owners of a Yorkie who sometimes want it to meet Bisou, sometimes just need to go about their business) seems as though it ought to be enough, but if she doesn't get enough socialization, it seems, disaster might ensue. The slight problem is that she was super friendly to the trainer, and has taken to kissing the one friend of ours who'd initially, and for no real reason, frightened her. The techniques are quite useful, especially the tip about needing to "run" a dog, because walks are as good as useless as exercise to prevent naughtiness later. But I'm having trouble believing that our dog is as neurotic as all that.

"I'm like a mix of Alvy Singer and Alex Portnoy, with some George Costanza thrown in."

-But Bisou does still need walking, and that Irin Carmon - Caitlin Flanagan interview was pretty amazing. (Amber, if you haven't listened already...) It brings up so many questions. For one, why did Flanagan think "Irina" was there to represent The Youth, and not as a prolific, Harvard-educated journalist there to discuss Flanagan's recently-published book about today's young girls? Why should we care if Carmon - who does not seem to be at all of the demographic social conservatives claim was destroyed by the sexual revolution - had a high school sweetheart? "Creepy condescension" indeed.

But on a more practical level, how on earth could Carmon, 28, be expected to scour her own life story for meaningful information about Girls Today? Flanagan's idée fixe - well, aside from early-adolescent fellatio - is the great danger of Internet infiltrating the haven that is the adolescent girl's bedroom. If you're 28 now, if you had any Internet in your bedroom as a youth, it might have sounded something like this. Speaking on behalf of first-world 28-year-olds, I don't even remember if there was an Internet connection in my bedroom - a computer, yes, but if there had been Internet, I wouldn't have had any idea what to do with it.

I know that we're supposed to say, of Flanagan generally and this installment in particular, that she hits a nerve. I mean, maybe? If I'm going to rate controversial books about female adolescence that I've never read, I'm putting Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua's far, far above this, both because at least that was something new ("the hook-up culture," in 2012, really?), and because as someone who was too nerdy at 15 or whatever for either the sweethearts Flanagan advocates or the hook-up culture she denounces, with what Chua describes, I can on some level relate.

-Princeton has a Trader Joe's, but this is not something the shuttle route yet acknowledges, so it was only because we had a car for the obedience class that, after dropping of Bisou, we were able to investigate. This was not a store I'd been all that impressed by in NY. Everyone would always rave about it, and I saw the advantages, as a grad student, when it came to wine, but for the rest? If I wanted a store brand, why not 365, plus produce, at Whole Foods? Then we got the chips and salsa from "Trader José." The store now suddenly makes sense. It's everything you would want to buy at a normal supermarket, minus the excess. It takes a realist approach, doesn't fool around. Much smaller than Wegman's, so less selection, but also less time at the store. As 90% of this shuttle's ridership, I'm thinking of lobbying for an extra stop.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Excessive humility

Flavia has a great post up about the phenomenon of (academic, in this case) high-achievers, already well-established in their professions, who cling to a self-deprecating grad-student persona. This isn't something I've much experienced, being very much still at the stage at which a self-deprecating grad-student persona is the only appropriate one, but it sure rings true, and has its equivalents at the earlier stages as well.

As for how it comes about, I think it's a few things. One is that the path from 'yay, I got into grad school, they pay me to read books!' to any kind of permanent job is not only long, but also filled with a great deal of internal competition, such that you've never reached the rung where you know that you may not be the Star, but you'll do OK, until you're, at the very earliest, 35. In academia, the competition isn't over whether you'll be a big shot, but over whether you'll ultimately qualify to get any permanent job of the sort that your years of training ostensibly lead to. It's like if anyone who went to law school and got a paid job as a lawyer, anywhere in the country, however prestigious, felt as though they'd won the lottery. If you've spent that many years feeling professionally insecure, giving it up would be difficult.

Another is that there's another way many successful academics approach self-presentation, which is to act, from the first day of grad school on, if not from the first day of high school on, as though it's part of some divine plan for them to one day have HY&P battling it out to see which one gets to appoint him Most Distinguishest Professor Evar. That "him" isn't a gender-neutral "him," as in a grammatical choice intended to indicate "him or her." But if you don't get too many women acting this way, it's not as if most men do, either. But enough do that it might actually pay not to come across as arrogant, entitled, etc., and self-deprecation is shorthand for humility.

One more, though, which might be the big'un, and which someone alludes to in Flavia's comments. In our society, the youthful prodigy is a celebrated figure. Imagine, how did X accomplish so much, and so young? (This made me, a 28-year-old who's never even aspired to be a fashion designer, question my life accomplishments.) So it sounds much more impressive if you aw-shucks got invited somewhere to give a talk, to think, they invited a mere speck like you, new at all this, still fresh from the assembly line, than if they invited you because you're a full-fledged member of the profession in question, and this is what the profession entails. Giving off an aura of youth - which is something different from actually lying about one's age - is a way to make even relatively minor accomplishments seem immense, accomplishments that would indeed be immense if the person accomplishing them was 12, notable at 24, nothing surprising at 46.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Tracy Jordan of gay men UPDATED

Defying what one would expect, going by stereotype, from a gay men who works in the fashion industry, Simon Doonan took a break from telling us that gay men only eat salad, to express his horror at women with large breasts, those fatty protrusions that ruin the line of clothes:

The larger boob became the norm around the turn of the century, and it shows no signs of deflating. Radical rack augmentation is now ubiquitous, and to hell with the consequences. So what if you knock yourself unconscious while running to catch the bus? So what if you can’t fit into any trendy clothes because your waist is a zero but your bazongas are the size and weight of cantaloupes? It’s worth it to be the focus of male attention. Right?
Hold up a moment. Women with large breasts, Doonan admits, can't fit into trendy clothes. Or, for that matter, classic/classy ones. Large breasts, even medium breasts, are, as it stands, unfashionable. Shouldn't this be enough indication that female well-endowed-ness is not in fashion?

But Doonan isn't content with the boyish build dominating the runway. He - a gay man - would much prefer it if straight men got aroused by what he finds chic. Find that offensive? Oh, you square. Don't you get that it's tongue-in-cheek? (Or as one Slate commenter puts it, "tong-in-cheek.") It's clever! Why? Because Doonan's British, Fashion, and Fabulous! Never mind that there are episodes of "Two and a Half Men" that reach more sophisticated levels of humor, that include wittier turns of phrase. Doonan strikes me as a good argument for scrapping the entire subset of humor known as "tongue-in-cheek," given how often this phrase is invoked to explain why we shouldn't be offended by something that's ultimately more unfunny than it is offensive.

If all of this would seem about as relevant as if a lesbian were to offer up praise to men with small penises (although the analogy would require lesbians to be prominent in a media-and-entertainment industry that celebrated the poorly-endowed man, making well-endowed men feel grotesque, but anyway), let us not forget that Doonan is merely - as the Friend to Women that all gay men inherently must be - voicing his opposition to the pressures on today's Woman to get her boobs did. Don't be offended, wimmins of bustiness. He's with us in our fight against the patriarchy!

The equation of large breasts with fake breasts -  one Doonan takes for granted - comes from a fairly obvious source: the breasts under consideration are - unspoken rule - those of thin women. No doubt there are bra-purchasers headed for the triple-Es who got that way naturally, but - and this is the unstated if not entirely unreasonable assumption - these women are overweight, over 22, and thus not about to meet the standards of either high fashion or lowest-common-denominator that-which-men-find-hot.

The piece - which is probably more offensive to gay men than it is to large-breasted women - ends up eliciting yet a new level of misogyny. Rather than standing up for their right to like what they like, regardless of what a man who's not even attracted to any women thinks they ought to, straight men start weighing in on how large breasts, in their opinion, do not stand the test of time, and it's important to choose a wife on the basis of what will or won't sag. (Have these people not been to a beach? Everything on everybody eventually sags.) Then there are of course the kind of men who think that to be sophisticated and upper-class, they must express a preference for brunettes over blondes, flat-chested over curvaceous. A few women pipe in to mention that it's wildly obnoxious to discuss whether various naturally-occurring physical features are or are not in this season. But they, we must remember, are humorless females, unable to see that Simon Doonan is in fact medically incapable of removing his tongue from his delightfully British cheek.


OK, so two updates. One is that I think the way to banish the "tongue-in-cheek" defense for that which is gratuitously offensive and not even funny (even to people who like "South Park" and other genuinely funny but not-PC entities, etc., etc.) is to replace "tongue-in-cheek" with "head-up-ass." As in, "You're obviously missing that this column calling black people lazy, Jewish people cheap, was intended to be head-up-ass."

The other is that in the comments below, David Schraub points us to a lovely Kate Harding post, inspired by a Jessica Valenti tweet, that reveals that I was not alone in approaching the piece wondering how it would fly, so to speak, if women went about declaring small male anatomy the height of chic. But I still think the relevant comparison would be if there were an industry thought to be 'run by lesbians,' where lesbians - that is, women unaffected by the anatomy in question - were indeed well-represented, that sought to glorify modest endowment, and not in the name of making everyone feel OK about themselves, but rather of making the well-endowed feel crude and déclassé, as if they weren't merely formed like that, but had stuffed a large, phallic vegetable down their pants.

"Whenever a non-Jew uses the word 'goyim' to describe Jewish attitudes to Gentiles, look out."

A thousand years ago, for a publication that may or may not still exist, I wrote up something about the Walt-Mearsheimer book. You know, the one whose admirers insist that anyone who thinks the work is anti-Semitic clearly never read it. Every last thread, W-M's critics are accused of having devoted insufficient attention to this fine entry into their collective oeuvre. Well, I did read it, and that was the conclusion I came to, from the book itself, as in the actual text contained within. Not from a sense that anything accused of anti-Semitism is automatically guilty. No, from the unequivocally anti-Semitic, classically anti-Semitic, book I sat down and read. I mean, the thing's not Ulysses. It does not include an early scene involving a madeleine, and meander from there.

For reasons I no longer remember, it took more time than expected for this to go to print, and my article received exactly one comment on the site itself: "Wow, this review is on the cutting edge of 10 months ago." Insightful dude was, it turns out, not as clever as all that. It turns out that Walt and Mearsheimer's "lobby" argument hasn't gone anywhere, and has in fact infiltrated the discourse about Jews in America. It only gets more relevant with time.

In Tablet, Adam Kirsch explains:

[I]f The Israel Lobby has not changed American politics, it has had an insidious effect on the way people talk and think about Israel, and about the whole question of Jewish power. The first time I had this suspicion was when reading, of all things, a biography of H.G. Wells. In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, published in the U.K. in 2010, Michael Sherborne describes how Wells’ contempt for Nazism went along with a dislike for Judaism and Zionism, which he voiced in deliberately offensive terms even as Nazi persecution of Jews reached its peak. “To take on simultaneously the Nazis … and the Jewish lobby may have been foolhardy,” Sherborne writes apropos of Wells in 1938.
The proper academic term for this is "yowza."

Kirsch also might have mentioned that Dan Savage - an otherwise progressive and brilliant sort who seems to have bought hook, line, and sinker the notion that the tiny Jewish minority has quite the grasp on American politics. Granted, Savage uses this as an example of how he wishes things went for America's LGBT minority, but I'm not sure what that changes.

The way the W-M book (that I surely didn't read, because I found it to be incredibly, nauseatingly, anti-Semitic) is written, it alternates between saying 'we of course aren't saying X,' and... saying X. It's sort of as if the expression, 'I'm not an anti-Semite, but' were expanded into book-length form. That's how they get around the accusation. The miracle for them is that most people just kind of nod along to that. But not Kirsch:
Walt and Mearsheimer, of course, fill their book with denials that they are talking about a secret syndicate: “The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy,” they write in the introduction. But the book itself, with its lists of Jewish organizations and journalists, and its tone of moral outrage, works to give exactly this impression.
This thing I'm writing here, it isn't a blog post, per se.

But this is where Kirsch really, really gets at the problem. This is his main argument, and what's worth taking away:
One of the central premises of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that it takes unusual courage to oppose the Jews, since they use their power to ruthlessly suppress dissent in both the political world and the media.
This! This is what has become socially acceptable in recent years. Anything negative one says about Jews is OK, no, heroic, because after all, it only serves to cancel out their stranglehold. Never mind that not all Jews support the Republican approach when it comes to Israel policy. Never mind that most Jews don't even vote Republican. Never mind that, by this calculus, Jews who go on having the left-leaning politics Jews have always had are in fact heroically sticking it to The Jews. Once this notion is accepted, it becomes impervious to reason.

Here's where the debate after the book went astray. People - W-M's defenders, but also, to some extent, their critics - have acted as though the book's controversial angle was that it dared question the sacred friendship between the U.S. and Israel, thus ruffling feathers, thus shattering a taboo. When in fact, if that had been the point of the book, it's not a book we'd have heard of, unless we were political science majors. Contrary to how they present it, it wouldn't have been the biggest deal in the world to question U.S. Israel policy, if done in a way that didn't seek to explain current policy in terms of basically a massive claw. Maybe a few fringe types still would have cried anti-Semitism, but otherwise? There'd have been a vigorous but level-headed debate in seminar rooms and journals among the Dry Topics Analysis contingent, and a good deal of support among the various Jews - including plenty of, ahem, Zionists - who wonder whether American aid as it currently exists is the best thing for American, but also for Israel, for American Jewry. No, the reason we know about the book is the Jewish-conspiracy angle. But the authors successfully managed to spin their controversy into a 'not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism' story. When, ugh, that's both true and quite beside the point.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Murky pre-modernity

January 31 is my self-imposed deadline for this chapter. This chapter, alas, is the one where I cover material that has nothing nothing nothing to do with my alleged areas of expertise. Specifically, it's the one where I cover such matters as: what the Bible says about intermarriage; what medieval Jews and Christians said about intermarriage; what happened, just prior to the French Revolution, when Catholics and Protestants married, which they apparently did, even though there was no civil marriage, because Christian-Christian was less problematic than Christian-Jewish. I'm feeling a mix of in over my head (of course the day Wikipedia's on strike is the day I need to learn about the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215) and the usual regret that whatever it is I happen to be researching at the moment isn't my area. Why don't I study the Middle Ages? What did it mean that marriages that were not theoretically possible were also banned? It's all so exciting!

But the further I get from that chunk of history bounded by the Revolution and the Dreyfus Affair, the more unwieldy things get. I have enough experience with this sort of thing that I can figure when a secondary source is or is not legit, but I have very little sense of the historiography. So, while I can immediately tell where an author of a work about 19th C French Jews stands, with the rest, the internal disputes will - and this I think I'm just going to have to accept, if I keep to the deadlines - elude me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

OK, one more genre: The "Bad" Jew, Redux

It's like Philip Roth, Woody Allen*, that entire generation, that entire outlook, never happened, and it's still provocative - still fresh - for a Jew to be "bad." It's as if there are still secular Jewish parents who care about intermarriage, and that you finish your gefilte fish. Last month, a Facebook friend posted something intended to be edgy about how don't tell his ancestors but he was putting up a Christmas tree with his non-Jewish wife. I wanted to be like, dude, you're fifty years too late, but restrained myself. Mostly because I don't make a habit of leaving potentially inflammatory wall comments, let alone for acquaintances I haven't talked to in years. But also because this attitude is at once incredibly dated and so-very-now.

We are seeing a revival - and, I hope, a last hurrah - of the "unapologetically paranoid, guilt-ridden, self-loathing Diaspora kvetch." A touch of nostalgia for a time when "Jew" meant Ashkenazi, male, and with an overbearing mothah. ("Howwwwahd, somebody's at the doaaahhh.") It feels stale, yes, but motifs are persistent.

The mystery, it would seem, is in how the "bad" Jew can persist, when it's not as if anyone's secular Jewish parents care if they stray in this or that capacity from traditions the parents probably never even observed. We need to remember that if multigeneration secular Jews are not interested in being "bad," there are always going to be the newly-secular children of observant Jews - and lots of them, what with the observance-babies connection. Another source would be our friends the former-Soviet Jews. Thanks to them, we have a new cohort of Ashkenazis prepared to talk about the intersection of the immigrant and Jewish experience. We have, that is, Gary Shteyngart.

And because we're living in a women-are-like-so moment, and because it's probably easier for men than women to defect from orthodoxy, do not expect to hear much about secular Ashkenazi Jewish women's particular concerns. (Didn't you know? We're all either nagging our Jewish husbands or complaining to Mary Richards about our perpetual singledom while engaging in futile battles with our inherently Jewish weight problems.) So by all means, expect more and more NY-centric fiction (sorry, Amber) by neurotic male protagonists preoccupied with blond or East Asian women; the Holocaust; and their own inability to fix things around the house.

A note, for the sake of clarity: This kind of "bad" Jew is something else entirely from the kind of Jew whose Jewish identity compels him or her (remember l'Affaire Benedikt!) to become a serious critic of Israel, or an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian cause. (On the distinction, presented in different terms than I'm using here, see Marc Tracy on Matt Gross as versus Philip Weiss.) These are not the "ASHamed Jews" of The Finkler Question. No, the "bad" Jew is proudly non-observant, proudly unaware of what's going on in the Middle East, and thus incapable of being a supporter or harsh critic of Israel. The "bad" Jew doesn't simply marry out (as many of us secular Jews do, because there isn't much compelling a non-believer outside of Israel not to do so), but inscribes his (always his) marriage to a non-Jewish woman (the "bad" Jew is heterosexual, the revival of a "type" that came about before LGBT issues were on the mainstream agenda) into a pre-set narrative.

*Trivia of the day: the Mariel Hemingway character in Manhattan was based on an affair Woody Allen had with a Stuyvesant student. Shteyngart's alma mater! Seinfeld's fling with a Nightingale girl, fair enough, but geez!

Two new genres for 2012, two examples for each

-Defending the Glamorous:

We saw this with the pains a former prof of James Franco took to insist upon the movie star-scholar's academic serious. But we saw it again when Nicholas Kristof stood up for known underdogs like George Clooney (!) and Angelina Jolie (!!!), the latter of whom Kristof confesses, in an aw-shucks-intellectual-version moment, he did not recognize.

-Offending the Target Audience:

It's a safe bet that Matt Gross (see the post below, and his response - ! - in the comments) knew his article about Jerusalem would tick off religious Jews, Zionists. He may have guessed that in simply agreeing to fly to Israel as a travel writer and not a Rachel Corrie, he would win the ire of some on the left. (And he did!) But he also managed to offend the kind of left-of-center Jews who do get involved in learning about and criticizing the treatment of the Palestinians, the growing power of the not-so-progressive ultra-Orthodox, other "iffy" aspects of Israel. Gross's problem seems to come not from the genuine problems (myriad and well-reported) with Israel, but from a sense that the place is kinda Jewy, and that which is Jewy induces a cringe. Thus even his ostensible fan base - the readers who praise every Roger Cohen intervention - did not give him his hero's welcome after all.

Then there's Alex Gallo Brown in Salon, who, along with his girlfriend, grew tired of being hipsters with "privilege" and left Portland of all places to become volunteer organic farmers in the South-loosely-defined. (New Mexico?) All they wanted was to see the country, get out of their parochial "blue state" environment, and make the world a better place! Yet pretentious turns of phrase, a remarkable lack of self-awareness, a bizarre grievance against "blue-state" women who do grocery shopping, all of it hits the wrong note, and wins them all kinds of YPIS-hurling enemies among Salon readers and, inevitably, Gawker. The angry horde is of course made up of those very much like the writer (that is, in favor of owning privilege, and demolishing regionalist parochialism in its snootier forms), and not Mexican farm workers or poor Southerners. But oh, they're angry.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do."

Last night, midway through my one and only drink of the evening, a gin martini from which I am recovering today, I got into a discussion with a couple friends about the state of liberal Zionism. It was two against one (and despite my contrarian tendencies, I was with the majority) that any self-identification as any kind of Zionist these days means you've announced yourself to be a Newt-loving, universal-health-care-fearing, DADT-repeal-opposing, sweater-vest-wearing, you get the idea. 

My own thinking is, while there are indeed more and less liberal subsets of organized American Zionism, the liberal end of things (J Street comes to mind), especially among younger adults, tends to be more focused on differentiating itself from the AIPAC end of things than on emphasizing why Zionism comes out of left-type ideas, postcolonial-ish, even. Israel, though flawed, is the home of the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. This is kind of important, I'd think, for the message. But liberal Zionism these days is always defensive, about how Zionism isn't necessarily incompatible with being left-of center, about disavowing any connection to a Republican party that, especially lately, is laying on the this-is-a-Christian-country rhetoric rather thick. 

Group shot from last night's First Annual Meeting of the Liberal Zionists, Mid-Atlantic Division.

NYT travel writer Matt Gross appears to have what is both a complex and incredibly common approach to his Jewish identity, and indeed cannot discuss his recent trip to Jerusalem without prefacing it with some "Now ve may perhaps to begin, yes?"-style self-analysis:
As a traveler, I am not a particularly choosy person. I will go pretty much anywhere, anytime. Wander on horseback into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan? Why not? Spend the night in a sketchy Burmese border town? Sure! Eat my way through Bridgeport, Conn.? Loved it. Once, I even spent four consecutive Sunday nights in Geneva — in midwinter — an ordeal to which no rational adventurer would willingly submit. 
In fact, of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one — besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous) — that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel. 
This surprised friends and mildly annoyed my parents, who had visited quite happily. As a Jew, especially one who travels constantly, I was expected at least to have the Jewish state on my radar, if not to be planning a pilgrimage in the very near future. Tel Aviv, they’d say, has wonderful food! 
But to me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden. For decades I’d tried to put as much distance between myself and Judaism as possible, and the idea that I was supposed to feel some connection to my ostensible homeland seemed ridiculous. Give me Montenegro, Chiapas, Iran even. But Israel was like Christmas: something I’d never do.
Readers, resist the (inevitable) urge to psychoanalyze. To bring up terms like "Portnoy's Complaint" or "Jewish self-hatred" or "oy the neurosis." Take note, if you're up for a digression, of this prime piece of evidence for Jewishness-as-non-celebration-of-Christmas. Gross is so ambivalent about his Jewish identity that he, a travel writer for the NYT who can go anywhere and wants to go anywhere, a Jew who's not merely secular but deeply so, refuses Christmas. Those new to questions of Jewish identity, if you can make sense of the stance of this author, you move straight to the advanced class.

But mostly, don't be thrown off by the fact that Gross presents his uneasiness about Israel as something that separates him not only from his parents, but also his own friends - it's very much a thing for American Jews critical-to-the-point-of-skeptical of Israel to present themselves as utterly alone in this regard. That this self-presentation is so common certainly gives the illusion that there's this large and influential group of secular American Jews who are rah-rah Israel, who make life uncomfortable for the lone dissenters. But where is this majority? There's... me, there's David Schraub, and we have some British fellow travelers. The "iffy burden" contingent, meanwhile, is made up of virtually every secular American Jew under, what age shall we give here, 60?

Like a good Birthright participant, albeit not on that program, Gross, we'll be relieved to know, learns that Israel is a real place, with real-life people, who do things like drink beer and listen to music. He even has a "here, we're the WASPs"-type revelation: " Here I was, being seen not as a Jew or as a non-Jew, an American or a tourist, but as a mensch: a good and honorable man."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Adam Gopnik Petstoregate

It is now done to mention, even in your standard here-are-cute-dog-photos Internet posting, that a dog has been rescued. As Rescue Culture goes, this doesn't strike me as a problem. All things equal, by all means, people should adopt. I think it's important to remember that all things aren't always equal, and that not every dog purchased is in fact - as is often asserted - a pound dog killed. But something like semi-gratuitously sticking a dog's rescue origins into conversation? It gets the word out that this option exists and is something to be proud of, without explicitly insulting those who, for whatever reason, purchased a dog. (It did stand out that WWPD's New Yorker Writer of the Week Adam Gopnik, in his sweeping New Yorker essay about dog ownership, mentioned his daughter picking theirs out at a pet store. He says he didn't know that this issue at the time, and if a writer who basically epitomizes Our Kind of People yuppie coastal elites didn't know, maybe the answer is to educate and not after-the-fact judge.)

But I do think it's interesting, worth pointing out, that this - "s/he's a rescue" is now something people tell you, unsolicited. It's of course an option, as it's always been, to be indifferent to the socially acceptable and unacceptable. But if you do opt to care, let it be known that if you acquired your dog in a way that didn't involve saving it from horrible circumstances, you will be asked to account for your process.

Insensitive Knick-Knack Week

Your Tucson coverage continues. It's a safe bet that any of the well-shot dramatic landscape photos were taken by one of two astrophysicists. Close-ups of poodles, cacti, these I can take some credit for.

In honor of Insensitive Knick-Knack Week, I will return to the earrings-and-racial-insensitivity topic. Because I sure do like them, I hope it's not somehow offensive for me to go around wearing these. (Cheapness Studies note: at the store where I got them in Tucson, they went for about $20 less than indicated here.)

For the link-averse, they are a pair of lab-created (that is, faux) white-opal drop earrings, set in silver not-quite-filigree, but kind of like that. They are this fabulous mix of space-age, iridescent, and geometric, yet, even with all that going on, non-clunky. They are also made-in-the-USA-by-Native-Americans, which is either Good or Bad for the community in question - good because it's supporting them economically, bad because it's the appropriation (see more posts than I could possibly link to here) of their styles by pale outsiders. Styles that come from peoples displaced so that my peoples could, in turn, displace on over from whichever pogroms. (Banality of the day: the history of oppression is complicated.)

While this particular pair of earrings does not look (to me, at least) distinctly Southwestern or Native-artisan enough to be identifiable as such, if they did, they'd be on-trend. Various forms of "cowboys-and-Indians"-inspired fashions have been so-very-now for a while. Thus Tavi's "Twin Peaks" motif, thus all the designer-collab Pendleton... and thus the (mildly NSFW) "Navajo panties" scandal, wherein trendy chain stores sell undergarments and less racy attire as well, using the Navajo name, without, needless to say, Navajo approval. My earrings are evidently genuine Navajo-produced. Less problematic than a "Navajo" thong made in China, but not entirely OK.

But it's iffy when it is and isn't OK to take fashion inspiration from groups other than your own. I don't want to usurp anyone else's traditional dress, but on a certain level, everything is appropriation. Even dressing generically "American." If I wear pearl studs, and not for a need-to-look conservative occasion, I feel a bit silly, because my family wouldn't have been, still wouldn't be, accepted in a Lilly Pulitzer world. (And it would sure piss off Simon Doonan.) Anything preppy will come across as social-climbing, in a Ralph Lauren-né-Lifshitz kind of way. And it's similar with "heritage" fashions. And of course, any hip-hop-inspired anything, on someone as pale as I am, presents obvious awkwardness.

But problems arise if I dress "Jewish." I have the ethnicity for Hasidic garb, but not the piety. Dressing "Israeli," when I've only ever lived in New York, Chicago, Paris, and Princeton, and have not served in the IDF, doesn't sit right. And even if I went for the look derogatorily labelled as "JAP," this would not be authentic, because that's more of a suburbs-of-NY aesthetic, and is not something I actually grew up with. I am not from Ugg-North Face-French manicure country, not that there's anything wrong with that. The only authentic option is for me to wear a lot of black, or to wear whatever the street-fashion blogs dictate, because that's "very New York."

The answer, however, might be less complicated than I'm making it out to be. If you're conceiving of your personal style, it's best to do so in terms that have nothing to do with ethnicity, because head-to-toe of any culture or subculture's look, even your own, will, at best, look costumey. There's no not borrowing. Just stay away from symbols that you know evoke specific racist histories, and, if alerted to the fact that something you're wearing does, send it to the landfill, or better yet, donate it to the relevant museum with exhibits on intolerance of the group in question.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where every teacher is above average

Teaching (as in, elementary-though-high-school), like any other profession, has pros and cons. Summers off! Low pay. A chance to shape the minds of the next generation! Grading. Not having to sit in a stuffy office all day! Not getting paid to surf the Internet like your friends with office jobs. And so on.

But the aspect of being a teacher of younger kids that strikes me as the most frustrating is the (understandable!) vilification of the Mediocre Teacher. Not merely the teacher who's a child molester, a drug dealer, or otherwise unfit to work with children. Not even the teacher who comes in late and unprepared. The teacher who fails to inspire, who just... teaches, but does not create that magical, Dead Poets Society spark. The teacher who's mocked a bit during the semester, then promptly forgotten. (I'm thinking of a high school science teacher I had who'd been assigned to a branch of science she knew nothing about, who lectured and graded just fine, but who answered every question that went at all beyond the material telling you she'd check after class, and I think we're still waiting.) Often, what "bad" means isn't spelled out, but it's clear enough that what's meant isn't restricted to situations in which children are in any kind of danger.

With the possible exception of open-heart surgeons, in no other profession is someone who does the job just OK viewed as not merely mediocre, but evil. Think of the children! (Thus why this phenomenon doesn't really impact college profs/adjuncts/TAs. In some situations, too much interest in teaching is stigmatized, but in none is so-so teaching viewed as a near-criminal offense.) No one wants to be bad at what they do, and everyone should strive to do the best they can in their field. But the idea of being in a field in which the stakes are so high, in which if you fail to be among the best, you are the very definition of a social problem, where the reward for being one of the good ones is not much financially, the stigma attached to being not that great immense... not so appealing.

Because of teachers' unions, it's generally assumed that teachers are if anything excessively accounted for as workers, and that the right thing to do is to overshoot the mark in the opposite direction, and to think of them not as human beings with jobs, but as out-of-the-goodness-of-their-heart born nurturers (is this gendered, you ask? you bet!) who, if they really cared, would always give 110%. If poor performance doesn't - as it does in other fields, including all but tenured higher-ed teaching - mean risking getting fired, it ought to at least mean being the recipient of a unanimous, indignant tsk-tsk from society.

Everyone wants all kids to have the best teachers, but teaching is, like any other profession, going to have a range of performance. Fire the worst 5% of teachers, waiters, or accountants, and there will be a new worst 5%. As the graduate of a public high school (and Stuyvesant may be special in other ways, but teachers were placed there, we were led to believe, according to seniority, not how likely Robin Williams was to play them in the biopic), I'm sympathetic to the idea of making it easier to fire the truly inept.

And I don't know enough about this issue to begin to guess what could improve teaching - more pay? less job security? new pedagogical approaches? - only that whatever reforms take place, there will still be some teachers worse than other teachers, and unless at the end of every school-year, the lowest-performing half get the boot, but even then, there will always be some classes taught by teachers who are not, by definition, better than average. And I'm not sure the think-of-the-children approach to the mediocre-teacher question is making the profession more appealing to more potential entrants. Given that one obvious way to up the average teacher performance would be to make the field more competitive to enter, that's worth taking into account.

Hidden gems

In the Gawker comments, of all places, is perhaps the best retort to an anti-Semite... ever? Huh!

Backstory: it's in a thread responding to a post about swastika earrings that aren't technically swastika earrings but that sure look like swastika earrings, that are being sold in the traditionally-Polish-now-spillover-from-neighboring-Williamsburg-hipster Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.

So. First we have: "That's an ancient Indian symbol, you dummies. The swastika looks similar to that unfortunately. History and the world does not revolve around Jews, sorry."

The retort: "I suspect that your inner life does, however."

Flawless. The "however" is necessary to make it clear that there is agreement that not everything revolves around Jews. That no one was making this claim. Yes, the "backwards swastika" has significance in various cultures, with zilch to do with Germans, Jews, or the 1930s. But in Brooklyn, which is not some randomly-selected spot on the globe, which is not some part of Asia where Modern Ashkenazi Jewish history is remote, but rather a place with a significant Jewish presence and history including but not limited to Holocaust survivors, something that looks like a slightly off swastika poses a problem.

It's awkward being a member of a group that has a long history of being thought to be at the center of everything. While Jews themselves are not especially interesting (not more or less so than anyone else), the Jews have been all kinds of significant, even in settings where actual Jews were few, far between, and powerless. It's bound to give some Jews a sense - unearned, but understandable - of being born into something important and special and chosen if you will. It's bound to be off-putting to others (the majority, I'd bet, and this is where I fall), who find that in being disproportionately interested in Jewish matters, in the same way that gay people are disproportionately interested in gay matters, Jamaicans in Jamaican matters, etc., we are viewed as not merely parochial, but some twisted kind of parochial that's about wanting to be at the center of the universe. And then the only way to refute this becomes to claim that one has no particular interest in things Jewish, or to apologize for having such an interest. Jews are blamed for the fact that others have long been disproportionately interested in them. Jews are held responsible for somehow canceling out that interest by being less interested in their own story than any other subset of humanity might be. And when Jews falter, when Jews reveal themselves to have parochial concerns, they are interpreted as being narcissistic beyond reason.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Venerable magazine reveals: women are like so

I'm not sure if Simon Rich's recent "Shouts and Murmurs" is offensive to women who work in fashion, but if you remove "who work in fashion," it strikes me as a reasonable - the reasonable - interpretation. Oh, yes, of course, it's in fact witty commentary on the kind of men who think they are more important than everyone else, who inevitably find themselves with women in the fluffy-and-low-paid-yet-respectable-and-readily-ditchable-upon-marriage professions. It's not meant to be demeaning to those women, or to women generally, but as a gently self-deprecating (this "Simon" being a dude, and New Yorker writer) jab at the kind of men who see themselves as Big Deals. It's skewering that attitude, not celebrating it, and only a humorless feminist - only an intellectual-lightweight woman, oxymoron alert! - would miss that level of nuance. The essay is a riff on God's creation of the universe, but God has this pest of a girlfriend who demands attention, and is into stuff like clothes and bitching about other women. But God has important work to do! A dynamic that might strike you as familiar from life, or perhaps from "I Love Lucy."

Read the delightful romp of an essay alongside the same issue's (subscribers-only) fiction, and you may find yourself wondering how the New Yorker came to devote its January 9th issue to the pressing issue of Men's Rights. John Lanchester's story about a banker (the protagonist Is The One Percent, it's so timely!) with a wife who's spoiled, parasitic, lazy, vindictive, entitled... you get the idea. He's expecting a huge bonus, she's expecting him to get this huge bonus, he doesn't because 'in these economic times' it's not happening, etc. Ah, but the story is in fact a searing critique of capitalism! Capitalism gets critiqued, whereas Woman isn't so much critiqued as dismissed outright. A frivolous, unpleasant nothing. The wife craves the finer things in life, and who complains that her husband doesn't get how hard it is to order around servants all day. Ah, but you want fiction to challenge, this is a story, and it's missing the point if you read it with an eye for the PC! To which I'd respond, if the New Yorker copied and pasted a long-ish rant from a misogynistic blogger, tightened up the language, and ran that, calling it fiction, would we give that the "art" out?

This could be the segue to other thoughts on feminism. On how the shift towards referring to "spouses" when what's really meant is "wives" both does and doesn't help matters. On how the feminist issue for upper-middle-class give-or-take sorts these days is less that women are kept from reaching great heights and more that women are spared, for better or worse, the sense that doing so is the only option.

But I will let you ponder this yourselves, and will instead add something entirely unrelated, tied to the above only in that this is also from stuff I read travelling to and from Tucson. Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Manor, which turned out to be such busman's-holiday in terms of the ol' diss., as well as too short to fill the amount of flight time I needed it for, includes a reference to a Jewish child in late-nineteenth-century Poland owning - get this - a pony.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Class evasion

Amber links to an interview with comedian Louis C.K. (of whose work, disclaimer time, I'm a fan), and points us specifically to his opinion of Hahvahd:

If you go to Harvard undergrad, you’re a spoiled brat, and you probably got in through some legacy, and you’re not even getting that good of an education, most Harvard people, but Harvard grad school is where serious professionals get their degrees and licenses.
The context here is that Louis C.K.'s parents met while grad students of some kind or another at Harvard, and - and this is what comes right before the passage Amber cites - this fact has been brought up to delegitimize his claims to a working-class persona. He's being intentionally imprecise, I suspect, with the identity of Harvard undergrads - who are of course not all legacies, and of course the legacies are often enough multigeneration school-nerds who benefitted from an extra leg up - because he's trying to prove that he's no child of privilege.

That interview's easily the finest (written) example I've ever encountered of the kind of picking and choosing that I've heard since high school from those who grew up some form or other of definitively-not-underprivileged. Even rich kids have biographical details that make them sound ordinary, just as even working-class kids have biographical details that give the opposite impression. There's generally an overall answer, albeit one that can be evaded by highlighting the details that cut against the greater truth. C.K. worked crap jobs as a youth, for pocket money his parents weren't giving him? Who among us did not? The relevant class signifier is, did his parents work at the KFC too? Lots of upper-middle-class parents who did not grow up that way themselves live in utter fear of having bratty kids, and - whether through explicitly keeping allowances low, or subtler forms of persuasion - make it so that their offspring feel obliged to work well before college-graduation-age. Lots of parents with cultural-educational capital lack equivalent economic capital, which sounds as if it may have been the case with C.K. This does not, I'd think, amount to blue-collar authenticity, but a relative lack of capital in either direction can be spun as such.

(I'm thinking also of how New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, in a recent interview with Leonard Lopate, responded to Lopate's remarks about how his own family never went to nice restaurants because they didn't have any money by admitting that he - Gopnik - went to some, on special occasions, but that he also didn't grow up with much money because his parents were academics, as if they were adjuncts in the hinterlands. Two parents who were both McGill professors - this isn't the same as two parents who were both hedge-fund managers, but... yeah.)

And this seems to be a common factor in revisionist histories of socioeconomic upbringings: mentioning that one's own parents were born poor or working-class. While this can, as I've said, have an impact on how their kids, in turn, are raised, if you're the child of parents who've socio-economically reached whichever point, you yourself do not get to somehow atavistically claim their childhood experiences. Your parents may get to claim self-made-ness, but even they don't get to claim underdog status past a certain (admittedly hard-to-pin-down) point. They probably don't, and their offspring definitely don't.

Where arugula and terrorist-hunters collide

Why does Mexican food, more than any other, inspire online reviews for each and every establishment that center on the place's inauthenticity? As if "authentic" or not matters more than if whatever it is tastes good? This comes up with every cuisine, but for some reason, inauthentic Mexican food is a crime against humanity, whereas inauthentic Thai food, sure, it's inauthentic, but you can just add some more hot sauce and stop worrying about it.

I'd always figured, in NY, that you're so far from Mexico that the ingredients themselves will never be right, and because of a vast uninitiated consumer base (recent arrivals from the upper Midwest, from parts of the world further still from Mexico) there's less demand for exact replicas of what's in Mexico, and while there are of course Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in New York, there's not really a New York Mexican "authentic" fusion, as with Tex-Mex, Californian Mexican, etc. The complaints (I was, after all, reading stuff in English, not Spanish) seemed to be coming not mostly from those of Mexican heritage, but rather from those dealing with the culture shock that comes with moving from a part of the U.S. where there's good produce year-round to the mealy-tomato-and-yay-a-local-turnip Northeast. The real deal, I accepted, meant heading southwest.

But after doing my usual I'm-going-to-be-somewhere-for-two-days-and-might-as-well-be-prepared half-hour or so of Chowhound-and-such research... I learned that Tucson "Mexican food capital of the U.S." Arizona is filled almost exclusively with inauthentic Mexican restaurants, bland, overpriced, and aimed at "gringos."

Part of the issue, it seems, is that there are different Mexican regional cuisines, and if you're familiar with one, another (especially if it's a cuisine that involves heaps of melted cheese, which seems as though it must come from the neighbors to their north, and which indeed seems to come from a part of Mexico likely to be extra culturally influenced by the U.S.) will come across as inauthentic, even if it is in fact identical to what one would get in the region whose cuisine it's meant to be. And, food intended to mimic what's served at a restaurant in Mexico is not going to taste like Mom's home cooking, nor is it intended to.

And, there's clearly no answer, because what's recommended as the alternative to inauthentic by one self-proclaimed expert is, the next will insist, a tourist trap. I mean, everyone on Chowhound or Yelp could eat in rural Mexico, in someone's home, eat the food that family's been eating since forever, and deem it "Taco Bell meets Chipotle."

Well. Whatever this was, I enjoyed it, and can't vouch for its authenticity. Jo and I disagreed about where it stood relative to the gold standard, but it's also true that, as it happened, he'd ordered wrong. I, meanwhile, will just have to accept that I can't recreate this at home, and am unlikely to find it on Nassau Street.

The waitress seemed to think this would be too much food for one person. 

Wrong she was.

Oh, and this was unexpected: the best croissants I've ever had in this country. Also, alas, the most expensive (think over $3 for a pastry sold at a market, not a brick-and-mortar café) but you won't regret it. I know, one doesn't go to Arizona for croissants, but maybe one should reconsider?

And there was, of course, non-food-related excitement as well, with my husband and others who either research what he does or are married to that world. Mt. Lemmon and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (see photos below) were both pretty spectacular. So many cacti! And owls! A whole village of prairie dogs! Such landscape! Snow so near the desert! Both of these excursions presented an opportunity to wear my new boots and newish sunglasses in settings that actually demanded them. (My boots are covered in dust from the desert. How's that for authenticity?)

And I even ended up with a couple souvenirs - arugula seeds from a poodle-filled farmers' market in what I later learned is the posh part of town, supermarket (but superior to what I can get around here, I suspect) white corn tortillas, and opal earrings allegedly made by Native Americans and definitively the Shiny I'd long been trying to track down. Because we are fools, we didn't buy the thrift-store hat that said "U.S. Immigration."

Spouse of astrophysicist emerges from Mars-like landscape.

Stripes in both directions. Alternative explanation: I stayed put in NJ, but opted for a backdrop like those great-great-grandparents of mine, who left behind some amazing altered photos from the Old Country.

Hi! We're desert poodles.

Tucson struck me as a city of extremes. There's some unwritten rule that one must be either incredibly fit and biking up a mountain I found a bit steep as a passenger in a car, or obese at the level that the Daily Mail would do a story on your difficulties getting out of the house. Politically, going by bumper stickers and the like, it seems split between neo-hippies and "terrorist hunters." (Also: something along the lines of "Criminals Choose Unarmed Victims.") Signs tell you where you can't bring in a gun, providing a ready opportunity for visitors hailing from New York and Western Europe to reveal how out-of-touch they are with Real America. I'd been to Real, and have spent ample time in - and indeed grew up in - Fake, but had never seen that-which-is-Blue and that-which-is-Red so thoroughly intermingled. I've also never been to Austin, which I'd imagine might be similar.

Yuppie amenities - an espresso bar and, across the way, a food co-op, coexist with the presumption that one is armed.

I wanted to go into what I thought might be a Western-wear store. Then we saw this in the window.

This was an odd time to visit Tucson, though, given that it was exactly a year since the notorious shooting attack on Giffords and others. We ended up inadvertently catching part of a sermon about it, here. I suppose, given my own background, I'll never understand gun culture. I'll do what I can to atone for other parts of my parochialism, but this I'm OK with clinging to.

Anyway, now I'm back, one unimpressive DIY attempt at huevos rancheros behind me, one hefty (but well-earned) check to the poodle-sitter to mail, and one chapter whose self-imposed deadline is January 31st.