Saturday, April 28, 2012

How Bisou fills her days

"The Squirrel and Rabbit Show"

Disembodied poodle-head. How is this comfortable?

"Who does your hair?"

"I really appreciate that they use organic ingredients."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Dressing on the side UPDATED

Ever since I've known of them, I've found fashion-and-style blogs a far superior way to follow that universe than reading fashion mags. I grew up with those, of course, but now whenever I see one, I can't imagine why someone - even someone interested in fashion - would willingly subject herself to it.* What if you want the pretty photos of stylish clothes, the news about this season's new nail colors, etc., and don't object to the photos being of slimmer-than-average, prettier-than-average women with way-above-average clothing budgets (as is almost inevitably the case with street- and personal-style blogs), but also don't want to have to sort through page after page of diet-advice-for-the-already-thin to get there?

Depending which mag it is, who it's target audience is, you'll hear either about ways to spend $40,000 getting detoxed and whatever the newest version is of Botoxed at a spa outside St. Tropez, or something about how contrary to what the name implies, Caesar salad has a lot of calories. Whether high-end or middle-brow, I find all of this detracts from the fantasy/the real-life styling inspiration. I just want the shiny!

Which is why I was disappointed to see fashion site Refinery29 have a post called "9 Healthy Ways To Lose Those Last Few Pounds": 
We’re all about healthy self image here at R29, and we consider ourselves to be pretty satisfied with our bodies overall, but even the healthiest among us will admit to having trouble spots we wish were just a little more trim (hello love handles!). [Bold in the original.] The problem is, if you are already pretty in shape to begin with, it can be so tough to lose those last few pounds — they don’t call it a plateau for nothing.
So, several things. First is that this advice is being offered up more tentatively than it would be in a fashion mag, where it's assumed the reader is a masochist looking to get from 100 lbs. to 95 in time for bikini season. Readers are drawn to sites like Refinery29 precisely because it's not a women's mag. It's not the Economist, but what it is is a women's mag minus the annoying bits. Thus all the emphasis on "healthy" - this is "healthy" dieting advice for women with "healthy" self-esteem, who, despite being "healthy," dwell on things like "trouble spots." While Refinery29 readers would no doubt push the five-pounds-magically-gone-without-sacrifice-or-crankiness button (as would nearly all women, and nearly all men over 25), the whole point of sites like this - have I repeated this enough? driven the point home? - is that there's a subset of women not 'triggered' or traumatized by seeing pretty, thin young women in nice clothes, who enjoy fashion, but don't want the associated non-fashion articles.

Next is the preposterousness of the phenomenon that is advice-on-losing-five-pounds. Unless you're two feet tall, or stand to win a million-dollar bikini-modeling gig, chances are, if you 'need' to lose five pounds, you in fact don't need to lose weight at all. It will almost certainly be less healthy - mentally if not also physically - for you to diet than for you to keep on doing whatever it is you're doing. If you think you should exercise more or eat more green vegetables, by all means, but health-improvement changes that might or might not incidentally lead to weight loss isn't a 'last five pounds' diet. (If you find that your 'health-promotion' activities are all things that might lead to weight loss, and you skip things like sunscreen, bike helmets, flossing, etc. that promote health but don't keep off pounds, perhaps you are on a diet after all. Something to contemplate.)

Then there's the question of whether there is any "healthy" way for a woman to remove five perfectly healthy pounds from her body, and to dip to a weight five pounds below equilibrium, and to maintain that artificially forever and ever. There are certainly less healthy ways of doing so, so well done, Refinery29, on not suggesting meth, or lettuce/diet Coke/cigarettes. The advice we get instead consists of things like "have a scoop of protein powder mixed with some water about two hours before your meal to help manage your appetite" and "Say No To Wheat With Every Meal." Oh, and "an ultrasound device that promises to make you one pants size smaller with just one hour-long treatment." Advice, in other words, ranging from things that make sense for people who actually need to lose weight to Nutty Diet Tips 101. 

C'mon, Refinery29. You can do so much better.

*Yes, Rufus, I know: "Men reading fashion magazines/ Oh what a world it seems we live in/ Straight men/ Oh what a world." But this is a post about the industry's primary-by-a-long-shot audience.


Poor Gwyneth! It appears she's carb-intolerant. It's, like, medical.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's better to be Natalia Vodianova than fat

I'm glad to have helped Elizabeth Nolan Brown theorize about why the concept of "natural beauty" is a load of bunk. The deal with natural beauty is, it's meant to sound like this noble concept - it lets you avoid toxic chemicals and fight the patriarchy! - but it's actually fairly creepy. It's about shaming those who get pleasure from self-expression through appearance-manipulation, a spectrum that ranges from spray-tans to neon mohawks. It is also, at its essence, about making sure that women with dyed hair, thinness brought about by dieting, high heels, etc. don't sneakily trick men into reproducing with them, and god forbid producing offspring without the desired traits.

The story Elizabeth responds to is about an 18-year-old British girl who won a contest for her natural beauty. Says the winner: "Women should not have to feel that they have to wear make up. I hope people will look at me and think they don’t need to wear lots of make up." Yes, this is exactly what women will think when they see a clear-skinned, rosy-cheeked 18-year-old.

But this above-average UK teen has been majorly outclassed on the looks-privilege-gaffe front. Natalia Vodianova, the startlingly beautiful Russian model, a woman who exists for the express purpose of reminding us that some high-fashion models aren't merely skeletal and vacant-looking but are in fact better-looking than the rest of us and even though they're 30 they look like a girl who peaked at 14 did at 14, which is why they're paid the big bucks, the very same Natalia Vodianova explains that we could all look the way she does, if only we didn't eat so much, oink oink. And so, we are meant to believe, the former fruit-peddler launched a hundred thousand eating disorders.

Meanwhile, as far as I'm concerned, Vodianova is inspiration for us normal women not to go on a diet for vanity reasons (to be distinguished from: doctor's orders, or an attempt to avoid being subject to anti-heavy-person discrimination). I look at a picture of Vodianova and think, the fact that she's thinner than I am is absolutely the least of it. If I were as thin as Vodianova, I'd still be much shorter, and would be a gaunt and cranky version of myself, not a Slavic supermodel. Far from being depressed by this knowledge, it frees me up to not worry about it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gratuitous poodle photos

A new puppy is an event to be amply documented. So I wasn't thrilled when my camera broke. Now, however, my husband has one of those camera-phone devices, so the ample documentation continues.

Scarves and stripes

-Fashion-advice columnist Hadley Freeman explains that contrary to what you might expect, she doesn't care about shoes, and that this is because she doesn't/can't walk in heels. This seems a bit like announcing that because George Clooney doesn't do anything for you, you don't care about men's looks, and would be unmoved by, for example, Keanu Reeves walking into your coffee shop.

If I found a pair of Louboutins in my closet, the first thing I'd do is look into how one goes about selling stuff on Ebay. If I can't walk in six-inch stilettos, it's because I don't like how they look, and have never tried. And yet, I like shoes very much. Shiny ballet flats and pastel oxfords, metallic clogs, motorcycle boots, certain thicker-heeled iridescent sandals...

Why is it assumed - by Freeman, by everyone - that women who like shoes like either $600 Manolos or, as of the past few years, the $1,000 red-soled stripper-inspired variety? Presumably for the same reason as a professed interest in clothing/personal style/fashion is interpreted as coveting a Chanel quilted purse, or $400 jeans, or - more ridiculously - as a desire to please men. An interest in the material is conflated with materialism in the brand-conscious, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses sense. Shouldn't be, but is.

-Prepare to have your illusions shattered: "Ninety-five percent of clothing sold in France is foreign made; the other 5 percent consists largely of luxury brands." Turns out the crap you spent your hard-earned library-book-shelving money on while on study-abroad was not, in fact, hand-stitched in ateliers by artisans with three-hour five-course lunch breaks. All those scarves and stripes were made in the same factories that produce our vanity-sized Old Navy.

-This week had better be the last of the Napoleon chapter. Enough's enough. All that prevents me from falling asleep at the library is that the bookshelver here has a bit of a talking-to-himself problem. Not a paranoid one, but like he's in conversation with what's on his headphones, or talking along, or who knows.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Over the weekend

-Saw the notorious, inescapable first episode of "Girls." It's definitely funny, as well as refreshing to have a self-deprecating, underdog female character who's a) the star, and b) not played by a glossy size-four actress. As for the "privilege" angle, I thought the episode actually got at something quite interesting. On the one hand, we're meant to roll our eyes at the protagonist, Hannah, to consider her spoiled and entitled, and to remember that she's white, straight, able-bodied, the only child of an intact marriage, a college graduate, etc. On the other, it tells us something about our times that a college graduate might have been going to work at an office - and not even a very glamorous one - for a whole year without receiving a paycheck. Is Hannah a brat for even taking an unpaid internship, post-college, without side jobs (or - and one might imagine otherwise from the buzz around the show - a trust fund), and expecting her lower-end-of-upper-middle-class parents (profs somewhere outside NYC) to foot the bill? Or is this simply what's replaced entry-level work in many fields, and a recent college grad can think she's doing everything right, only to confront parents who never got the memo that dependency reaches up to 30 these days? By all means, criticize the fact that we're being subjected to yet another show about a group of friends, in their 20s, in New York, and of the Caucasian persuasion. But the show at least says something about that milieu, and isn't merely set there because that's the natural place to set a TV show (think "Rules of Engagement").

-These lemon bars are amazing. I used the same size tin the recipe suggests, but halved it, and completely lost track of the various cooking times, probably undercooking the base and overcooking the whole thing once assembled. Whatever it was, it worked out great. I look forward to celebrating a no-cavity trip to the dentist with a couple more.

-Philadelphia is the city closest to where I live, except not near at all if you don't have a car. But there are such things as car-sharing programs and spouses who know how to drive, so I've now been twice since the move. What I wish I could recommend, but would strongly advise against, is the Reading Terminal Market. I pictured something along the lines of Chelsea Market or a Montreal food market, minus the fashion-folk and Frenchness, respectively. Instead, it was a wide range of cuisines, each represented by a tub of grease or muck. "Chicken basil" at a Thai place was a tub of red oil. "Eclair" at an Amish stand was some kind of gelatinous pudding. The best bet seemed to be pizza, but this turned out to be the very worst pizza ever: cheese tasted freezer-burnt, sauce tasted how vomit smells. A few rungs below amusement-park pizza, yet $3.25 a plain slice and part of an Italian festival being held in the market. Oh well.

Then we walked through an area that looked very much like the less-appealing bits of Fulton Street in Manhattan (or, I suppose, in Brooklyn), which slowly morphed into a posh-generic shopping district, and culminated in a square that sometimes has a farmers' market but this wasn't one of those times. We ended up in a West Village-ish area, with a West Village-ish name. I had an iced coffee in a hipster coffee shop and an avocado-mango salad at what might have been a gay bar with a menu. Just as we were starting to get situated, just as I was at the point of appreciating the city for itself and not comparing it to familiar neighborhoods in my overrepresented hometown (although, to be fair, this is my blog, and not a TV show, for now at least), it was time to return to the poodle. More for another time.

Now the women of the household are both ombré. And, in this photo, very nearly asleep.

-So I finished the process of re-ombréing the tips of my hair, this time with the stronger Manic Panic bleach. The first attempt had produced bright yellow tips, and no real fade effect. The second appears to have worked. Ombré may be so last season, or so three years ago, but it remains the coward's ideal radical change-of-style: it can be removed with one haircut, or tucked into a bun. Whichever damage there is to one's hair texture or professional appearance is easily hidden or reversed. It's the only semi-permanent hair-dye experience available to those with very dark hair. It's not going anywhere.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A post that would be called "grass is greener" if today's date didn't give the wrong impression

Among my peers who started out in Teach for America or similar, law school is this immensely appealing road to higher pay and not so many rowdy 8th-graders. Those who dabbled in this and that as recent college grads will, one after the next, end up in those post-bac pre-med classes, much to the chagrin of those of us whose parents inevitably hear that so-and-so's kid is doing one of those post-bacs, and, you know, never too late... Lawyers and law students fight over jobs for which a JD isn't necessary, wallow in debt, dream of academia. Grad students and academics fantasize (we do! I swear!) about pairing walking sneakers and pantyhose and commuting into an office job. Office workers are all, of course, delighted with their lot in life. I know people fleeing to as well as from MFA programs. A friend of a friend evidently didn't make as much of a go of it as anticipated with pastry grad school.

What I'm saying is, for every peer I know who's been on a direct and exhilarating trajectory since college, there are maybe five hopping around from productive pursuit to productive pursuit, not lost in the sense of rising at 4pm in the proverbial parental basement, but stuck with something of a wandering eye when it comes to careers. It can't help that whichever path you're on, your friends and family will be emailing you dozens of articles about why your choice was a foolish one.

On that note, there's another article telling grad students that they've made a terrible life choice. Early on in the piece that, if you're a grad student or prospective, someone has probably already sent your way, Katy Waldman assures us, or her bosses at Slate, that even though this is her frame for the story, she's not really considering grad school. "In real life, of course, I have a job that I like and a professional future I’m pursuing avidly." Waldman's essay, inspired by an online forum about grad-school admissions I'd never heard of but that's evidently a big deal, is a quasi-personal essay, and not merely a general think piece with a Slate-y personal hook. It's about self-reassurance. Waldman, a journalist, is telling herself that her Plan B, namely grad school, isn't so great, after all.

I know this impulse well, perhaps because it seems she and I have mirror-image Plans A and B, and I do this periodically regarding career paths similar to hers. What if, I sometimes wonder, what if I hadn't had that stubborn aversion to unpaid internships, and used a few of those as a launching pad for seriously pursuing a career in journalism? What about air-conditioner repair? Cue the scene where George Constanza is sitting on the floor of Jerry's living room, having quit and been fired from the very same real-estate job, wondering whether he might have a career as a talk-show host, jockey, or projectionist. "Probably a union thing." Cue Elaine sniffing her pen, at her office job, asking herself, "Is it too late to go to law school?" Immortalized on "Seinfeld," and as old as time.

As is almost requisite in don't-go-to-grad-school articles, there's not much specificity in terms of what's meant by "grad school." MA, PhD, something else entirely? Which discipline? Funded or unfunded? Entered into with career plans in mind, or as a way for socialites to bide their time? But the imprecision kind of works, because Waldman admits that when she thinks about grad school, it's not about a particular field or program, but grad school as a way of life. Waldman is then shocked to learn that grad school is not an intellectual summer camp, but rather a step in the lives of many ambitious young adults, with all the cutthroat competitiveness that entails. Wharton, alas, is not a drum circle, nor is a slot at NYU Law offered to anyone who kind of identified with "Felicity." Or something?

I'm not entirely sure I follow Waldman's premise, which is that there was, in genuine historical fact, a Golden Age, during which grad school really was an escape from it all, when Harvard and Stanford or whatever had open admissions, and could be a permanent life choice in its own right, a lifelong alternative to regular employment. "Going to graduate school," Waldman informs us, "is no longer a way of opting out of the endless search for a better job, the best job, any job. It’s become an element of—a strategy to be deployed in—that search." This Golden Age, as best I can tell, was not 1990 or 1970, or indeed any period of time, but rather a conception of grad school, a fantasy of grad school, Waldman herself occasionally finds persuasive.

Waldman, it seems, confuses her own personal disillusionment with the idea of grad school with a real-life shift in the function of post-college education.
As the obsessive chronicle of yeses and noes reveals, the process of finding a masters or doctorate program carries with it a sense of desperation—one actually reminiscent of the job search. In this rat race, the ivory tower morphs from a reassuring backup plan into a source of social and existential terror via its mysterious admissions policies.
Why "actually"? Why are we surprised that prestigious grad programs would be difficult to get into, or that this would be a source of stress for applicants? How is this specific to These Tough Economic Times?

As I prepare to enter my seventh-and-final year of Dreyfus Affair Studies, contemplating what is even for graduates of top programs a bleak job market, I'm a ready audience for what-were-you-thinking pieces as you'll get. But this one doesn't have me convinced.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blonde brunettes

What do many brunettes considered to be great beauties have in common? They're naturally blond, or have gone from light brown to near-black. Consider Olivia WildeLeigh Lezark. Rooney Mara. Jennifer Lawrence. What does it all mean?

-Because it's expected that women will go for hair shades lighter than whatever nature gave them, in order to look conventionally prettier/sexier, a woman who goes darker is making a statement: 'I'm alternative,' perhaps, or 'I don't care what people/men think of me,' or 'I'm something of an intellectual, and don't sleep with just anyone.' Or: 'I'm so pretty, nothing I do can detract from this, sorry guys.' It's the opposite of what a woman who bleaches/highlights her naturally dark hair is indicating. It's the opposite of a miniskirt or pushup bra.

-Conventional beauty standards are - and I realize I'm the first to remark on this - racially biased. Women who come from the blonder countries, or whose features have something in common with those common to those countries (see: Halle Berry), are considered more attractive, at least by the powers-that-be. Hair color itself is only a part of what 'blonde' is about. It's also blue eyes, a tiny nose, etc. (Not that no blondes ever have giant schnozzes, no brunettes blue eyes, etc.) Yet the brunette 'type' - its myriad significations - remains a draw for some, remains a quality of some fictional characters. A blonde with dark hair is a brunette without those inconvenient traits: 'ethnic' facial features, a curvy build. Thus the casting agent looking for a 'brunette' is inclined to cast a blonde.

-The ubiquity of the blonde brunette poses a problem for women with naturally dark hair, when we look for style/beauty inspiration from the usual sources. It's also a bit dispiriting, in a Photoshop kind of way, that the celebrities we're meant to view as our representatives look not only better than we do, as we'd expect, but also different. A Greek, Sicilian, or Armenian woman simply does not look like a Swedish woman who's gone goth- or librarian-chic.

-None of this, of course, is intended as a condemnation of blond women who dye their hair darker. From what I understand, having blond hair basically amplifies the often creepy reaction women, esp. young ones, get from strangers. That, and I'm enthusiastically in favor of self-expression-through-self-presentation, especially of the non-permanent, non-surgical varieties. No one should, as an individual, have to justify choices to go blonder or darker, curlier or straighter, etc. My point is merely that a societal expectation that a pretty brunette is a blonde with dyed-brown hair a) exists, and b) isn't so great for we the naturally dark.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Times like these

-Seems I live in one of "the 20 best small towns in America." Hmm.

-In all seriousness, it sucks that Bar Refaeli was groped by a security guard at the airport. In response to her idiotic tweet about it, an inclination to grope Bar Refaeli is hardly indicative of lesbianism. Maybe of having a pulse.

-I landed on style blog Stop It Right Now in search of inspiration for this summer's ombré 2.0, but ended up also finding a pretty flawless guide to shopping sensibly.

-If one is female, under 30, native to New York, and a former Brooklyn-inhabiting recent college grad, is one obligated to care about "Girls"? I already, if fleetingly, cared about the show about Manhattan girls' school, and the one about hanging around with physics and astrophysics postdocs. Enough's enough. That the show will probably ring true is, as far as I'm concerned, a possible point against it.

-Is it really now standard to tip a dollar per drink at coffee bars?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Breaking news

-French children don't get fat.

-American brides wish they weren't as fat, go to tragicomic lengths to lose weight.

-Natalie Portman, still good-looking.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Women, eggs

-Sometimes, without knowing precisely what goes on at one, I'll announce my desire to run off to a spa. It sounds pleasant, right? Maybe they'd, like, paint my nails?

"You have to stay a minimum of six days, you don’t eat too much—you eat 600 calories a day—you do some baths and some treatments all day long. You do yoga, and all day long they do blood tests, and they put some oxygen in your blood…"

If you thought people who voluntarily signed up for surgical procedures in the name of vanity had a screw loose, consider that there are still others getting medical treatments for the heck of it, and not even emerging a cup size larger or schozz size smaller. I'm now officially spa-phobic.

-I'm not sure where Dan Savage came up with the idea that the typical 22-year-old woman wants to hear that her male partner's fantasy is: "'I want to sprinkle rose petals on the bed and light a thousand tea candles in the apartment.'" He might be thinking of what an especially immature high school freshman would claim to want from her crush.

-Nicholas Kristof takes on the food industry, specifically the Egg Industrial Complex, bringing food concerns up to the level of child prostitution and other genuine concerns. Pollan, Bittman, consider your turf invaded.

Eggs, of all things, strike me as the best example of where governmental regulation, and not consumer activism/boycotts/fussiness would be needed. Sure, you can make sure to only buy "cage-free" eggs. But who knows if that means anything significant, and more to the point, a great deal of the "egg" we consume is in the form of products (baked goods, etc.) in which egg is an ingredient. All but the most thorough vegans, all but those with severe egg allergies, are sometimes eating food from the outside with bits of egg of unknown provenance. Even those who raise their own chickens in their Brooklyn backyards, or who proudly announce that they are willing to pay $6 for a dozen of the most reputable eggs, have no idea where many of the eggs they consume come from.

Inasmuch as Kristof is asking the government to step in, I'm with him. But the way he frames his op-ed, trying to make individual consumers feel guilty about eating eggs for breakfast, without suggesting an ethically- and nutritionally-viable alternative, is a problem for several reasons. It demonizes the person in the family who does the grocery shopping (and draw the obvious gender conclusions). It suggests that the solution is to be found in making grocery-shopping a research project, and not in making sure that the truly objectionable isn't in stores to begin with. It encourages people to feel they've done their part in making the world a better place by purchasing something that cost a bit more but had the right thing stamped on it. I get that we need consumers to care enough to advocate for the government to step in, but this is a different kind of caring than the one that elicits - just take a look at the comments - smug personal accounts of buying the right eggs for one's family.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Things that are on the Internet

-Two very different takes on male-female friendship, to be read side by side.

-Food. A serious or frivolous topic, depending whether it's being taken on by a man or a woman. (If the man happens to be a "right-leaning economist," where to begin?) Frank Bruni just kind of goes along with it.

-John Derbyshire crossed the line. And it wasn't even by expressing a sexual interest in 15-year-olds.

-Dan Savage asks us to remember that the War on Women is also a War on Men, what with contraception and abortion being issues that imply the active participation of both sexes, and what with the branch of social conservatism (where extreme-left and extreme-right meet) that has it in for pornography.

-What with the persistent motif of parents airing their kids' dirty laundry, how did I forget to include the now-notorious "Vogue mom" who put her seven-year-old daughter on a diet, then wrote an article and now a book about it? Perhaps because this can be filed under things that are not on the Internet - Vogue likes to keep its articles for subscribers only, such that you need a 600-page book of ads for designer clothes next to your toilet if you're ever going to hear the mom's side in full, and I don't have this. I mean, I'm sure the full text could be found, but this topic is, as they say, so last season. But yeah, that's pretty bad, arguably worse than the myriad women, hiding behind maiden names, telling us that they've kinda-sorta come around to the fact that their otherwise functional sons are dull and dimwitted.

-I understand enough about Facebook to get that there are settings such that you can make certain content visible only to some people. I get how this works on Google+, and think this might have actually been the point of Google+, but don't use Google+. My own approach to Facebook is to put zilch on it that's more private than what's on WWPD - saves me the trouble of figuring out Facebook's ever-changing privacy settings, plus I'm sufficiently ancient as to only feel comfortable having genuinely private conversations in person or over the phone. I never feel tempted to spill online, so it doesn't quite constitute self-censorship.

I will, however, limit what I'm reading there. If I'm getting too many updates about someone's band, or if someone embraces a political cause, religious fervor, or intensive weight-loss regimin and uses Facebook to provide minute-by-minute updates, I'll hide those updates. Occasionally, and only in the case of people I'm not currently living near or in school with, and typically in the case of people I don't remember having met, I'll remove. (Sorry, sorority sister from Birthright whose identity I remembered after pressing delete, on the absolutely microscopic off-chance you noticed the loss of one of your 4,000 friends, it was nothing personal.)

But the whole thing where you let in your inner circle on this, your slightly broader circle on that, and have some whole category of people you are so kind you must friend, who would be so devastated if you didn't add them, so you add them even though you dislike them, but god forbid they should see whatever incredibly exciting things the people you actually like are let in on, this I've never attempted. But I feel as though this is something one ought to do, to give off the impression of having an incredibly exciting hidden life. Of course, because you can't readily know who's hiding info and who (eep) just isn't putting much on there in the first place, perhaps the mystique thing is covered after all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A contrarian food-movement takedown

There's a new book out I'm intrigued by, even though what I know of it is that the NYT reviewer, Dwight Garner, hated it. Tyler Cowen, "a right-leaning economist and a contrarian foodie," prefers cheap, "ethnic" foods to either farmers' markets or haute cuisine, which does not, admittedly, make him unusual. (Stand-out line from the review: "I suspect Thucydides preferred the little joint on a side street to the place with the fountains where the waiters peeled customers’ grapes.") At the intersection of expressing a preference for honest, no-frills grub (see: the iconic Hoagie Haven, the bad-yet-good pizza-by-the-slice places in NY) and an adventurer's preference for off-the-beaten-path establishments lies the food philosophy of virtually every American male with a food philosophy. It's very Anthony Bourdain, very much a denial of vanity - the opposite of a salad with dressing on the side.

But it's an approach that makes sense. Very expensive food, almost no matter the cuisine, always tastes about the same, always has that glossy, cream-sauce quality. If you're more interested in the taste of food than in the dining experience, you probably do want to avoid tourist traps, high-end establishments, and fast-food chains, which are indeed three different worlds. If the result - amazing Vietnamese food tucked away in a strip mall, say - rings pretentious, or reads as "reverse snobbery," so be it. It's not, as Garner charges, incoherent.

(I must out-contrarian this discussion by noting that no-frills-ness can itself be a marketing tactic aimed at persuading customers that a place has really amazing food. This can be the case in "ethnic" places, but is really perfected in the establishments I refer to as hipsters-make-your-food. There, shabby decor and rude service are paired with prices that are not so much high as high for what's being served - the $10 slice of pizza, the $25 take on an Egg McMuffin. Because taste is subjective, because I am suggestible, food really does taste better in low-key surroundings.)

Garner's real problem with the book is that "Mr. Cowen comes perilously close to suggesting that we shouldn’t care about where and how our food is grown." If that's the case, depending how we're defining "we," I'm on Team Cowen, although I suspect Cowen would disagree with what I'm about to write. My own sense is, "we" as in consumers, grocery-shoppers, should absolutely not be charged with turning grocery shopping into a research project.

Yes, consumers should make informed choices when choosing between the produce aisles and the factory-processed-desserts section. But this ought to be at the nutritional level of vegetables vs. Twinkies, not an analysis of what it means that these tomatoes come from Mexico... while these others are from Canada... and it's unclear which were grown closer by... pr how much energy greenhouses use... or whether life better for a tomato-farmer in Mexico or Canada... or if we should even be eating tomatoes in November... etc. Such matters - and here, I shall out myself as a contrarian foodie but definitively not a right-wing economist - might be dealt with by the government, via subsidies or whatever behind-the-scenes decisions are made that determine what is or is not at the supermarket, and at what price.

But it is sacrilege, at this point, to say that you don't think individual consumers should ponder the ethics of their out-of-season asparagus. It is socially unacceptable, in certain circles, not to nod along enthusiastically to mentions of "local" or "organic." Contrarian sympathizers force the food movement to advocate for paths that really make sense, not to merely repeat conventional wisdom or adhere to trends. More useful to the Pollan cause, I'd think, than a book about how Michael Pollan is swell. 

Day trips

An establishment claims that it "bakes the best bagels in the Lawrenceville, NJ area." I found this on one of my attempts at finding interesting things to do within biking distance of home, "interesting" and "within biking distance" loosely defined. There is not a single bagel shop in Princeton, the closest town-with-stuff-in-it to Lawrenceville, so this seems to be an intra-Lawrenceville competition, not to mention subjective. "We look forward to exceeding your expectations." Which they no doubt will.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Eating, reading

-Consider this Social Qs dilemma:

When picking up takeout food at a restaurant, and being presented with the credit card bill, I leave the tip field blank, on the theory that no service was provided. Am I correct, or should I consider a minimal offering?
Jon, Montclair, N.J. 
You are correct, but why not consider a teensy tip anyway? Restaurant folk work hard for the money, as Donna Summer crooned. True, no one’s ferried your plate back and forth to the kitchen, or whisked away your crumbs. Still, someone had to package your food and get it ready in time. So maybe a buck or two is in order, if you like the joint and feel like being sweet.
This is a new one. Isn't the reason you tip in a restaurant not that restaurant work is hard (it is, but so are thousands of other jobs that don't get tips; the adage about how everyone ought to work in food service so as not to be bratty as a patron refers to people who had it easy their whole lives, not to retail or factory workers on a night out), but that restaurant workers get paid below minimum wage, with the expectation of tips, making it so that bad service, unless criminally so, gets 15%? If the person packaging your food is not in that category, why tip that individual (or, for all we know, the owner of the restaurant - why do we even think the tip goes to the food-packager?) and not your cashier at the supermarket, or the factory staff behind your frozen dinner?

If Jon has a guilty conscience and money to spare, so be it, I'm sure whoever receives the $2 won't complain. But the issue more seems to be that this is an ambiguous norm. I'm frequently in groups in which I'm the only American, and am constantly getting asked about how one is supposed to tip. And I'm forced to explain that I, a native of both this country and this region, have no idea. Restaurants between 15% and 20%, drinks at a bar get a dollar each, unless it's one of those $20-cocktail establishments, where evidently you're meant to tip as you would at a restaurant, but I don't know what actually goes on. I don't know why the fish shop in Chelsea Market has a tip jar, or what's supposed to justify tip jars in coffee places without seating, or in places whose "decor" consists primarily of signs admonishing you to bus your own table.

But the takeout tip seems especially odd. Isn't tipping in a restaurant part of the theater of a night out, a tradition that's as much about an exchange of funds between customer and server as a show being put on for the other patrons? Isn't that what allowed for the new trend of people tipping a dollar or more bills in coffee shops, places where the staff are paid at least minimum wage, and where the drinks themselves are priced such that these are nearly 100% tips on each beverage? Tipping on delivery, especially in places where someone likely biked through horrendous traffic if not weather to get you your food, and where there's an expectation of tips, makes perfect sense. But I'd always assumed that the tip option at pick-up was because there's just one receipt form restaurants use, whether for takeout or restaurant service, and they have no particular incentive to remove the option. Whatever the case, I'll just add this to the list of reasons I prefer to cook at home.

-Yet another entry into the genre of parents (mothers) airing their kids' (sons') dirty laundry on the Internet. My own guess here is that the kid isn't reading because his reading is something observed and celebrated by his mother. Both of those elements make reading undesirable. The latter, obviously, because many (most?) kids don't want to do as they're told; if mom was anti-reading, this kid would probably be further along in the Rougon-Macquart cycle than I am. The former because the very point of reading-as-escapism is escapism. If mom is breathing down the kid's neck, reading over his shoulder, experiencing every sentence alongside him, even if her goal isn't to censor his literary consumption, his own imagination is less fraught. Or maybe the kid is simply growing up in the age of the Daily Mail Online, or maybe he likes staring at a wall.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Burying the lede

There's a new Rufus Wainwright music video, for "Out of the Game." In it, three Rufuses make out at a library, with one another. Now, I've spent a lot of time in libraries in my day, and never did I see so much as one Rufus just passing by, let alone three Rufuses getting it on. Anyway, the Daily Mail Online thinks the story here is that the video also includes a moment of Helena Bonham Carter in a bustier.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Marketable skills

Recently, at a beyond-academia event aimed at preemptively-despairing grad students who very much still want to be profs, I learned that one alternative possibility for a humanities PhD is: unpaid intern. Fair enough, I suppose, that if you're changing careers - which is what it means to go any route other than the academic job market - you'd need to start at the bottom. But the bottom used to be paid. Nothing wrong with administrative work at a for-profit business, if it's compensated. Our program is compensated. I didn't get the sense that there was much enthusiasm among the advanced-degree-holders present for taking an unpaid internship at 30-give-or-take, which, to her credit, the woman making this suggestion preemptively acknowledged.

Anyway, while I've had a fairly set Plan A (and B, C...) for some time now, I agreed with the general principle that it never hurts to see what's out there. So I figured out, after however many years, how to access my college's alumni career services network. Once properly logged in, I put in "French" as a search term,  what with that being one of my theoretically marketable skills. Among the first entries to appear: "Fry Cook."

On this week's titillating Dear Prudence

Yet another reason why college room-sharing is a terrible idea. Prudie's advice - "Just think of this as one of those 'out of classroom' learning experiences admissions officers are always touting." - doesn't really add up, because under what other circumstances later in life might this happen and not constitute massively inappropriate - criminal, even - behavior? Yes, it's a life lesson to pretend not to hear what's going on behind closed doors (including, as Prudie notes came up in an earlier column, behind bathroom doors), but a within a room is a different story. Even aside from anything explicitly intimate, it's natural as well as socially expected to have an on-off switch when it comes to what's public and what's private. How is it supposed to be a good thing to transcend that impulse/expectation?

"A dishpan and piece of scotchbrite"

Regular readers know that two of my favorite things are dishwashers and online-newspaper comments. So what better than a combination of the two! The NYT Real Estate section ran an article about how "Manhattanites" (cue the offended Queens residents) who used to rent and are now buying apartments, according to some real estate broker, consider having a dishwasher "'an inalienable right, not a privilege.'" The P word! Their privilege is showing.

The ostensible point of the article is that as the market has shifted more in buyers' favor, that which they used to put up with, they no longer have to: the dishwasher as barometer for changes in the real estate market. But the commenters, much to my delight, are not having it. It is most definitely about dishwashers:

"Dishwasher? I'm 60 yrs old and haven't ever lived in a house with anything but a dishpan and piece of scotchbrite."


Non-dishwasher-use seems to bring out a certain pride. Or rather, two quite different versions. One is pride in being too important to cook. Too emancipated for that, if female, or too waited-on/non-domestic if male, but regardless, too much of a big deal to have ended up in the kitchen with counter-and-sink-fulls of dirty implements for which you yourself are responsible. Non-dishwasher-use suggests a life of glamor - nightly dinners out, or a job that pays enough that takeout poses no problem. (If you're not using a dishwasher because you're living off Wendy's or Lean Cuisine, you're either a master of clever self-presentation, or not announcing your non-dishwasher-use in the first place.)

The other, meanwhile, is pride in being a back-to-the-earth, artisanal-local-organic post-yuppie, someone who eschews modern appliances in order to eschew modern appliances. Why buy dry pasta if you could hand-knead your own? Why put dirty dishes into a machine that cleans them for you, when you could clean the by hand? Didn't Michael Pollan say something about emulating our great-grandmothers? If you're not eating processed foods, it stands to reason that you're not allowing a mechanical device to process your dishes, either. After you scrape your leftover bits of kale and quinoa into BPA-free containers or perhaps a compost heap, you're really going to break out the Cascade?

As for dishwashers being fancy, a question for (both) my readers: isn't New York unusual in that you have to be quite wealthy/lucky to have a dishwasher? That was my impression, at least. That it wouldn't be normal in another town for a young lawyer, say, to live without one.

Don't mess with perfection

There is a perfect coffee shop, and I know this will come as a great surprise, but it's not in Princeton. Nothing against the coffee shop in Princeton, which is 500x as wonderful as it needs to be. But the one I'm talking about is the new La Colombe, on 4th and Lafayette. Why perfect?

-Great coffee (I've had the iced, cold-brew, I believe, which comes with a shot of espresso, as well as the cappuccino).

-Great croissants, pastries. (Who is their supplier, and where do I order in bulk?)

-An elegant water-spout set-up including all the seltzer you can drink, free. This is huge.

-Seating, as in actual seats. As opposed to the unwieldiness of getting a croissant at Payard, a coffee at Third Rail, and sitting in Washington Square Park.

-An honest-to-goodness bathroom. Which is to say, there is one - hardly a given in such places - and it has soap (I'm looking at you, Think circa 2007).

-Hipsters make your coffee. Scruffily beautiful ones, who no doubt arrived via skateboard.

-The clientele is made up exclusively of supermodels and NYU grad students. The NYU grad students, at least, aren't complaining.

OK, so maybe it's not 100% perfect. The baked goods, though not expensive, don't have prices marked. Nor, now that I think of it, do the coffee drinks, which are also if anything sub-Starbucks-priced. But as goes along with that ambiguity, many customers casually toss a bill or two into the tip jar, making those of us who haven't gotten on the $2.50-coffee-drink-means-dollar-tip bandwagon feel awfully stingy, especially after we've just gotten through asking how much it'll be for that cookie. ($3, for the record, but it's meal-replacement huge and delicious.) And there's always a huge line, not cramped but wrapped around the massive espresso bar, such that you want to be sure you have half an hour to spare to admire the fashionable patrons, and aren't, you know, in a hurry to get a coffee. (For that, there's Oren's.) But yeah, it's pretty wonderful.