Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Realities to contend with

-Tavi Gevinson continues to create, impress. As well she should - WWPD is pro-Tavi. It does strike me as strange, though, that we are only just now meant to recognize that the brilliant tween-now-teen is also conventionally good-looking. She has been all along, which is why amazing photographs like this have happened. We-the-public only want to see "ugly" fashions on the young and pretty. The difference with Tavi 2.0 is that this is more overt, if in a subtle, almost rockabilly way. Says a Slate commenter, "As a male in his thirties, I naturally clicked on this because of the babe in the photo. It would have saved me a morning of psychological trauma if it had clearly been stated on the home page that she's sixteen." Yes, that would be the difference between then and now.

-I just (finally!) read Katha Pollitt's Learning to Drive, and in one of the essays, "Webstalker," she offers quite the telling-it-like-it-is take on heterosexual open relationships. This, in reference to learning that an ex-boyfriend had been telling women that she "accepted his need for other women."

Still, it astonished me that she'd believed that business about my permitting his philandering. The only people who seem to know such women firsthand are the men who are cheating on them. You never hear a woman say, 'Whatever George wants is fine with me - I just want him to be happy!' No woman has ever passed on to another the riveting news that Miriam understands that Joe needs variety. It is only men who seem to possess this bit of intimate knowledge, which apparently is so instantly credible, so obviously true, that no one ever asks the woman herself about it.
What struck me about this passage was how far removed it felt from the world presumed by Dan Savage's philosophy of negotiated open relationships, "monogamish." One can present "monogamish" in gender-neutral terms, but then there's reality to contend with.

-And I just listened to the WBUR show on Mary Kay, the cosmetics tupperware party that may or may not be a pyramid scheme. The issue is basically that the company doesn't keep track of whether the women who buy thousands of dollars' worth of wholesale inventory actually sell the stuff. In the company's defense, a guest on the program - who of course couldn't get around the fact that women are either going into debt or making under minimum wage under the banner of prepackaged girl-power entrepreneurship - explained that it doesn't matter if these women are making peanuts. Why? Because (in order of least to most patronizing) for some, it's just a way to supplement their husband's income, for others, to learn business skills (while never standing to make more than peanuts), for yet others, it's about the social component (of demanding your 'new friends' buy makeup from you???) and for others still (including, evidently, dude's own sister), it's just about getting a whole bunch of makeup for yourself at a discount. 'Cause you know, women, shopping...

While the last item really gets at the gender specificity of the product itself, the first three reminded me of the connection I'd made earlier between the housewife and the unpaid intern. There are, in society, those who need to work and are generally recognized as needing to do so; those who straight-up don't and can volunteer or ride horses competitively; and finally, those who do, but maybe not desperately, maybe more for independence than subsistence, if only for the time being, but who will at any rate strike potential employers as not in need of an income.

When a for-profit, not-plausibly-charity-type employer offers "work" that doesn't pay - or maybe pays one peanut and no more - what's happening is, the would-be employee is assumed to have some other source of income, that the alternative to paying this person is not the employee showing up for work straight from the homeless shelter. The employer can then pay less than what the work is worth, comfortable in the knowledge that the employee will neither starve nor (well, there is OWS) protest. It's one thing to realize, hey, at this point in my life, my basic needs are accounted for (or could be with part-time work plus loans), so maybe now's a good time for school, for some part-time pursuits, for bettering myself or the world, and for those who run universities or organize do-gooder internships to meet that demand. It's another entirely to go out looking for paid work, only to find that all that's available to you are learning experiences and opportunities for social interaction, with maybe a lipstick thrown in.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Eight hours in Strasbourg

Yesterday my husband and I brought a poodle to France. This was by far the most glamorous use of 37 euros - the cost of round-trip for two from Heidelberg to Strasbourg, assuming you're not in a hurry. But the trains themselves - picture a 6 local train, but international - are a cultural experience. On one 40-minute leg of the journey, a boy in late peach-fuzz stage downed three beers in quick succession, at around 10am. A musclebound man on that same train had a huge tattoo down his arm bearing the name of the town the train was bound for - Karlsruhe - as well as a muscle tee bearing a message about how the greatest thing in the world is to be from Karlsruhe. He too had a beer - as did basically everyone we saw before noon. (There's a rule on German trains that you can't throw your beer bottle out the window. Having the beer itself, presumably, is a right not to be messed with.) The drinking seems to taper off after that point, once the more serious drinkers enter an afternoon stupor, only to pick up again late in the evening, when the usual Western tradition of Saturday-night drunkenness begins.

Strasbourg itself was, we learned upon arrival, having a "braderie." Had I known this ahead of time, I might have imagined a quaint, contained antiques market. But there are evidently braderies in Belgium as well, so my husband knew what we were in for. What "braderie" means, to continue in NY-centric terms, is a Third Avenue summer street fair, except rather than covering just a stretch of Third Avenue, it's the entire city center. It was the usual European-market array of cheap harem pants and tube tops, bins of underwear, discount racks in front of high-brow stores marking the end of the soldes, and giant fabric posters of Che Guevara and (the official mainstay) Bob Marley, but none of this was the real draw. That would be the mops. Sellers enthusiastically hawking some kind of special all-purpose mop were found throughout the city, and were doing such an amazing business that we proceeded to spend the afternoon dodging the mops that maybe one in four Strasbourg pedestrians had just purchased. (My cynical theory: the mop-sellers work in cahoots with pickpockets who draw on the crowd enthralled by no-doubt-steeply-discounted mops.) The streets were 34th-Street-level packed, and covered in the kind of organic urban debris a country dog can't get enough of. I have no idea what Strasbourg is like when not in street-fair mode.

Braderie aside, Strasbourg was pretty great. I even managed to fulfill my dream of bringing a poodle into a French department store, taking Bisou into Galeries Lafayette. This is most definitely allowed, given that the escalators include a warning decal indicating - with a surprisingly simple icon - that you must scoop up your lap dog while on them. I browsed a parapharmacie, considering and rejecting the possibility that my impending 29th birthday means I should spend 12 euros on paraben-free anti-aging cream. (Sunscreen from Duane Reade or whatever is probably more effective, although the packaging doesn't compete.)

We ate well (lox and gravlax duo, riesling, cappuccino, apricot clafoutis-type tart), and I had a little bit of French high-street fun. American Vintage! Cos! Which, to whom it may concern, sells things like this, but for much less. I know that one is supposed to find it un-charming that the little shops of Paris that seem like boutiques are actually Paris-wide chains, some of which have since expanded to New York. But I didn't mind seeing those that hadn't yet made it to the States in Strasbourg. Not one bit. I'd almost forgotten about that thing, clothes-shopping, because the highlight in Heidelberg is H&M, and Princeton...


Some other time, when not trying to fit an entire vacation into an afternoon, when no poodle is involved, I will need to visit all the historic sites (I've been neck-deep in the world of Alsatian Jewry since forever, and did a qualifying-exam list on the Franco-Prussian war). Some trip that does not involve a poodle-specific suitcase, as well as a carrier that looks more appropriate for a golden retriever, I will have to look at the regional-history bookstores. This was not, in other words, a busman's holiday, but maybe that can be for the best.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The 'rents

Emma Koenig has an amusing, well-executed blog. But you'd never know it from that Home and Garden section (?) profile, which can be summed up as: person who isn't you has $1,200 East Village rent paid by parents who aren't yours. Koenig, as is mentioned in between parentheses, "is anomalous [for her generation] in one respect: she has very little college debt, having received three scholarships along with a loan." This suggests that her parents were not paying her tuition, or at least not much of it, although it's ambiguous. It could be that what they might have put towards tuition went instead toward some post-college rent. A year of $1,200 still adds up to a lot less than one year of private college. But overshare in NYT lifestyle articles has yet to reach the point where you're provided with the bank login info for all individuals mentioned, so that you can see for yourself and summon the appropriate amount of outrage.

Whatever the case, this - and the real-life "Girls" angle -  is what the commentariat latched onto:
To aid in their decision-making on how much to help their daughter, Ms. Bass made a spreadsheet of all her daughter’s friends who were in the performing arts. “I wanted to see who was making a living, who was making a living in their art and who was being supported by their parents,” she said. In a graph of 45 young adults, only 3 were getting no help whatsoever, and those 3, Ms. Bass said, were working full time either in a restaurant or baby-sitting, and had limited energy left over to pursue what they had studied. 
“It made me see that Emma’s social context was such that our helping with her rent was legitimate,” Ms. Bass said. “I didn’t feel like we were indulging her. I felt like it was a necessary fifth year of college where she had to stabilize herself without the structure and positive feedback of school.”
In other words, this. I'm surprised, not that 42 of 45 were getting help (more than a little, sounds like) from their parents, but that Koenig and her mother were able to get this information. One of the biggest problems with the new order of presumed parental support is the lack of transparency. Or maybe that's changed - maybe with this new micro-generation (clinging to 28 here), the post-2008 economy has made situations that were plenty common pre- more socially-acceptable to discuss.

The commenters are completely right that Koenig's story isn't representative of her generation. But the value of a profile like this is that it demystifies how these trajectories can happen. It's a warning to those whose parents can't or won't provide $1,200 a month, but also to those whose parents will gladly do so, but who might envision adulthood involving a bit more independence than that set-up allows. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"[A] single variant – right-wing Zionism – has come to stand for the whole."

[M]ost Zionists use the term to describe not the expansionist desire to control the entire biblical land of Israel, but the more modest claim that there should be a Jewish national home within historic Palestine. That’s all Zionism amounts to. As to the exact size and shape of that home, prescriptions vary from one Zionist to another. -Jonathan Freedland, via
As the kids say, this. Even if you think Israel should be a Jewish city-state composed of Tel Aviv and no more, you are what's known as a Zionist. (If you think one pebble is enough, maybe not?) 

Read the whole thing. That x100 if you're a Zionist who reads this and is reminded, ugh, that's what people think I believe.

Anyway, unlike Freedland, I do use "Zionist." I don't generally modify it with "left-wing," say, because while I'm somewhere on the left of the Zionist spectrum, this would imply less about my views on borders than, I fear, my feelings on Israeli socialism vs. capitalism, which is another issue entirely, and something I think Israelis can sort out for themselves.

Equal-opportunity romance

Amber brings our attention - and Dan Savage brought our attention - to a post by Jos about why women who say they only date women or transgender men (for my stodgier readers, this means men who were born female) are a problem.

Jos makes two arguments. One is something barely comprehensible about how women with this preference are afraid of "trauma" (rape? the idea of rape? catcalls? the abstract patriarchy?) coming from The Phallus. Convoluted and obtuse.

The other, which is more straightforward, is that it's offensive (as in, basic manners, not simply a violation of PC) to imply that trans men are any less male than their biologically-male (cis, for my less stodgy readers) counterparts. Which it is. But does that mean everyone who dates trans men must also date cis men?

This is a sensitive topic not only because of the typically-assumed and true-in-nearly-but-not-all-cases relationship between sex-at-birth, current genitalia and gender, but also because not all trans people who wish to do so "pass" as the sex with which they now identify. So even in an ideal world of sensitive pronoun usage - which, it should be noted, we don't live in - some who are trans would continue to be referred to with the incorrect ones by acquaintances who didn't have the full scoop, and who, however apologetic the might be afterward, may have brought out whichever anxieties. (A policy of calling every narrow-shouldered, small-boned, short-haired, bare-faced individual "he" is going to end up offending a lot of women, who are no less women for not handing over X% of their paychecks to Sephora.)

On the surface, this seems like an incredibly complex and touchy issue. Is it OK for women who identify as "queer" (as vs. "lesbian") to date cis women and trans men but not cis men (what about trans women?) as though it's somehow "queer" to date someone who's changed sex? Doesn't this depend on how the trans man in question identifies - i.e., as someone who's transcended the stifling limitations of gender labels and wishes to remain active in the "queer" community, or, conversely, as a boring ol' straight dude who happened to be born in a woman's body and just wants to be done with it once and for all? Is a woman with a preference for masculine-looking individuals with female genitalia, who uses pronouns impeccably but who perhaps ultimately, in her heart of hearts, doesn't see a huge difference between a very masculine-presenting woman and a trans man who hasn't undergone much in the way of reassignment, in part because some of the people she's dated have been both, perhaps in the course of their relationships... is such a woman a bigot for subconsciously denying the female-ness of very masculine women and the maleness of the male-identified androgynous, and if so, what can she do about it? And what on earth would yours truly, a straight, cis woman, have to contribute to such a complicated discussion?

In fact, while these issues are certainly complex, the issue at hand isn't all that complicated, nor does it require any particular knowledge of gender theory, correct terminology (which doesn't hurt to know regardless), etc.:

When it comes to choosing partners for romantic relationships - which is a euphemistic way of saying relationships with a sexual component, without specifying which acts, if any, are taking place or might soon - there's no such thing as bigotry. By this I mean, if you wish to date only men or only women, or only Thai men and Finnish women, or only those with a certain set of anatomy, and that's that, so it goes. 

And there's no other way it could go, because we-as-a-society deem it wrong to force someone to be romantically involved with someone against their will. If you feel that all someones who meet whichever criteria are not ever ever ever of romantic interest to you, there's no ethical way for someone or some entity to intervene and ask that you become an equal-opportunity dater. It's fundamentally not like hiring someone, or running a country club, because of just how wrong we believe it is for someone to be forced into a romantic situation with someone they don't see in that way. Society impacts individual romantic preferences, but individual romantic choices simply aren't the arena in which justice in terms of beauty standards and the like is to be achieved.

Happily, society influences but doesn't determine desire, allowing the vast majority of people not attractive/conventional-looking enough to ever in a million years get paid for their looks to experience, at least at some point in their lives, a choice between multiple interested parties. But it's certainly possible to have preferences that are self-defeating, as the plain-looking, low-earning men who'd only be happy with a swimsuit model can attest. But dude doesn't owe dates to the women of the world who aren't swimsuit models, and is in fact doing them a disservice if he dates them out of the principle of the thing.

Now, what can be offensive is how one voices one's preferences. This is especially the case if you have preferences that happen to line up with something likely to hit a nerve. It's one thing to only date six-foot-five blue-eyed blonds (a pattern your friends may pick up on, or not, if you live in the Netherlands), another entirely to announce that you 'only date Nordic types.' One to only date those 30 years your junior (assuming you're at least 48), another to announce your unwillingness to date anyone closer to or above your own age. Along the same lines, evidently, it's one thing to only date cis women and trans men, another to make that preference known.

But what if you want your friends to help steer you to the right people? What if you're constantly being set up with the wrong ones - wrong for you, that is - and don't want to waste anyone's time? To stick with the original example, given that the vast majority of men were not born female, if those who were are the only ones you date, but you identify merely as "bisexual," you're... I suppose functionally not so different from someone who lives in a place with very few Syrian Jews, but will only date a Syrian Jew, but thinks her friends will find her closed-minded and so defines her romantic interest as "guys." Technically true, and enough information in many situations, but not an efficient way of finding a partner.

Where offensiveness really enters into it is less in what the preferences may be (because as much as society influences desire, there somehow ends up almost being someone out there who likes everything) than in their presentation. If you present your subjective preference as a universal, as in, 'only X are attractive,' this is offensive even if your preference is something as seemingly inoffensive and fixed as, say, preferring men to women romantically. If you hold forth on what screeching nags women are, then you've turned an otherwise innocuous announcement - that you're a straight woman or gay man - into something objectionable. Along the same lines, if a woman announces that she dates only women and trans men, and does so in such a way as to imply that these two groups are part of one category, if she elaborates that trans men are OK in her book because she doesn't think dating them makes her any less a lesbian, then this, yes, would be a problem.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Acculturation fail

Today began with a vaguely Greek-looking man in front of my husband at a bakery having trouble ordering, and the person behind the counter attempting, in vain, to bond with my husband about those foreigners... My husband, that is, who's not German, and thus is only mostly sure that this was the nature of the interaction.

Later I walked the poodle around an area dedicated to public daytime drinking by 15-year-olds. While I'm not convinced that 21 makes sense, given that it makes effective criminals of otherwise upstanding college students and others college-age, and while I was 15 recently enough to remember that this is the age at which not-especially-troubled kids (11, say, is a different story) will sometimes begin that part of their lives, it hasn't ceased to surprise me each time I see this (which is every day) that everyone, including kids who look practically like middle-school students, can drink this publicly. Beers are clutched during sporting activities (and there are always sporting activities), vodka bottles are passed around, all with no particular sense of taboo, by what appear to be all the different teenage cliques, freaks, geeks, and cool kids alike. This approach to alcohol is, I am assured, and my own experience of France confirms, not a European thing, but a German one. And I have no particular opinion about it, other than that it makes walking a dog trained (inadvertently) only to "go" on mowed grass somewhat difficult.

This evening, once my husband was home and thus able to watch Bisou to verify that she was staying as silent as an inanimate object lest the neighbors complain, I went out to get some meat. While I'll make sure to know enough to ask for whatever it is I've gone somewhere to buy, when there are follow-up questions, that's when things become more difficult. I had set out to get steak, ideally not the one that was 60 euros a kilo. I said which one I did want, and asked - all of this is in German - for 300 grams, bitte.

Somehow this ended up being nearly a kilo of a different kind. I think the guy thought I wanted three large steaks? Given that the last time I was in Germany, a request for a "Bretzel" (pretzel) was understood to mean that I wanted a "Latte Macchiato," this wasn't so surprising. The meat was all somewhere in the back, so the default point-and-hand-gesture option was out. As was the other butcher, where I'd had no particular issues making the very same purchase, because that one closes at six, this one somewhat later, and my husband gets home at 6:15, and leaving Bisou alone for ten minutes - during which time it's not impossible that she'd bark - isn't an option.

After a great deal of looking hopeless, and seeing this massive steak (I at least was able to convey I didn't want three such slabs), I finally gave up pretending to know what was what and uttered one English word, kicking myself for the trillionth time this trip for having forgotten, in the poodle-centric packing, my German phrasebook, yet remembering that whatever I said, even if the correct expression came to me in time, it would sound incomprehensible: "Cost?" 14 euros. I tried, in Germanglish with hand signals, to ask whether I could have half, or at any rate less. No! This was evidently an outrageous question to ask, one that revealed me to be a forest child new to civilization.

I suppose I was prepared to accept this and buy the whole cow if need be, but it didn't to go in that direction. Another man who worked there - the boss? - said it was OK to cut me a smaller piece. I tried to explain no, no more cutting the slab of meat, I don't want problems, but sure enough, there it was, what I'd set out to order, more or less. Awkward, but over, or so I thought.

When I was paying, I apologized, this time fully in English, thinking some apology was better than none. The guy who'd cut the meat took the opportunity to explain to me (in English, which he'd until that point given no impression of speaking with such fluency) just how much I'd screwed up, he now can't sell that other piece he cut, really driving the point home. I then included in my continuous, flustered apology my best attempt at an explanation, namely that I didn't know the procedure, didn't enunciate, didn't gauge quickly enough that an irreversible meat-slicing was underway, or some babbled mix of the above, but it was clear what I had to do was get out of the store as quickly as possible and never return. No worries there!

Given that I'm not even such a fan of meat in the first place, I may choose to interpret this as a higher power telling me to eat entirely vegetarisch. Maybe I should pick up some trendy food restrictions as well. If I'm going to be a difficult American abroad, it's only right.

Price upon request

On one of yesterday's countless canine-walks, I was listening to an interview with Christopher Hayes, the author whose book on elites recently inspired David Brooks. Hayes was arguing that part of why even the wealthiest Americans think of themselves as scrappy underdogs is that every level of society has its own tiny elite, such that the infamous One Percent is in fact dominated by its own 1%, leaving 99% of the wealthiest Americans feeling not so flush. This strikes me as consistent with my own theory of scrappiness oneupmanship - that in a (quasi-) meritocracy, people tell highly edited versions of their own life stories, such that no matter who you are, you're "self-made."

I at any rate thought of Hayes's point about the super-rich when waking up to the NYT style blog's post on engagement rings. Of the ten in the slideshow, eight are "price upon request." The two whose prices are shown are $28,000 and $46,000, suggesting that the others cost more than that. Much more, but how much? Is this luxury-sports-car money? Private jet? Private island?

"Price upon request" evidently means that an item wasn't ever produced to be sold, and refers to items whose value isn't necessarily all that great. But the phrase has so many functions. It's saying that if money could possibly be an issue, it ain't for you. It's a way of suggesting that today's super-rich are actually more like a nobility, and money's too crass for them. And in this case, with the rings, it's a way of telling readers that however much they spent/however much was spent on them, it was but a small fraction of what they, the really well-off, or the really ostentatious, would drop on a rock.

Commenter Tom from "Midwest" dutifully responds to the slideshow with information about how cheap his wedding and wedding jewelry were, for which six other Times readers congratulate him via "recommend." But the slideshow is for the not-so-humble, whose rings cost "only" $500k, who can now feel thrifty and low-maintenance (or, with a certain personality, inadequate or unloved) next to those whose rings were, in fact, $∞.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Busybodies or gun control

-In light of the discussion below, it perhaps bears mentioning that the latest perpetrator-of-American-tragedy is 24, and so a child according to the new science of brain development. Or experiencing the onset of severe mental illness, which even the old brain science acknowledges can happen at that age. Or - and please, no more of this explanation - a burnt-out PhD student.

-As I know I'm not the first to point out (but can't link to Facebook posts), it's wrong to say that all that we can do at this point is mourn, or that it's somehow crass to try to think of the broader implications. It would seem that, for those of us who didn't know the victims, our concern is precisely how to prevent things like this from happening in the future. It's because we feel for the victims that we want to prevent massacres, but also because the tragedies in our own lives, should there be any, are not the Aurora one specifically that we can jump ahead from "how horrible" to "how do we prevent this?" relatively quickly. Maybe it's "politics" in a sense when different people have different ideas how to stop massacres, but not generally in the opportunistic, politics-as-sport sense.

-Every time something like this happens, we get the reports about how the killer, in his pre-killing days, was not the most extroverted, popular person of them all, how he wrote fiction that wasn't upbeat enough for his creative-writing teacher, etc. He had friends, but not many, which is oh so ominous. In this case, the description of the killer in his younger days, pre-psychotic-break-or-whatever-it-was, makes him sound like a scientist. I live in a community of scientists, and this is not a profession big on making small talk. And yet, a peaceful bunch. But we're meant to believe the problem here the existence, in our society, of people who don't greet neighbors with sufficient chipper enthusiasm, and not, you know, the readily-available access to guns.

-There's a cultural relativism discussion - or is it a regionalist one? a YPIS one? - that comes up whenever the topic turns to guns. The idea being that unless you grew up around Gun Culture (not hunting, but guns as theoretical self-defense should the government take a turn for the worse, should you be wronged one too many times), anything you say about gun control is evidence that your life is like the show "Friends," and you're fancy cityfolk using gun control as a pretext for being snooty. Organic kale, triple soy lattes, and gun control. (What gun lobby?)

It's an effective silencing technique, for sure, but it doesn't need to be. Because yes, it's necessary to consider - whether the issue is anti-circumcision, anti-veiling, or gun control, or anything else - that a do-gooder movement might be just a pretext for cultural domination. It also might not be that at all. Is it really "Blue"/"Fake" America's lust for hegemony that compels some of us to point out that even if the problem is illegal weapons (although not even, in this case), the presence of a great many legal weapons throws more onto the black market? There are certain issues where this kind of relativism ceases to convince, and they tend to be matters of life and death. Honor killings, for example. 

-The vast majority of gun-owners are upstanding, responsible people? I don't doubt it. But a society in which guns are around is one in which the evil-lunatic tiny-minority can inflict major damage. The point isn't that if a gun just happens to be available, any of us might snap at any time and go on a rampage. Most people with access to guns behave themselves. Rather, it's that there are a few out there who are so inclined, and there isn't any effective way of determining who they are ahead of time and keeping them - and them alone - away from weapons. 

-Since it would be nothing but cosmopolitan elitism to suggest that ordinary citizens not have access to weapons, we're left with the nebulous 'but what about mental health?' alternative. Most weird people don't commit murder, nor do most gun owners, so if guns are sacred, addressing weirdness is the only option. The problems are that a) not every killer even meets psychiatric/legal definitions of mental illness, and b) it's asking for a great deal of surveillance on behalf of non-experts, aka intrusion, aka busybody-ness, for everyone to be expected to be constantly on the lookout for unusual behavior, lest that unusual behavior indicate that someone is likely to make use of his Constitutional right to buy as many bullets as are sold on the Internet. The guy down the hall failed to deliver the desired, "Hey!"? Didn't seem interested in discussing last night's game? Warning signs! But I suppose it's cosmopolitan elitism to suggest that anyone has a right to be eccentric or socially awkward in peace.


So, as you may have gathered, I'm across the Atlantic once again. Readers expecting vicarious 'I summer abroad' may be disappointed, because the condition of my abroad-ness is that I spend my every waking (and non-waking) moment with a poodle nearby. We brought Bisou to what is ostensibly a dog-friendly apartment, but the catch is that the dog cannot bark. Ever. Nor are the windows allowed to be closed (something to do with potential mold), so the slightest woof will get projected to the entire courtyard. 

Bisou learning the rules of German society.

Bisou isn't exactly a problem dog - not aggressive; no shedding; housebroken; no barking-for-its-own-sake; no trying to destroy the furniture; barks a bit when we leave (despite training) but, according to our neighbors at home and one account from here, stops soon after; is quiet at night and in the morning - but is not in fact a stuffed animal. And noise is noise, or noise is subjective, or who knows. What I do know is that the rule is, if I'm home, she's home. If I'm out, she's out. My husband's working the usual hours at an office. Everything's closed on Sundays, and early on weekdays. (The butcher closes at six.) Oh, and this isn't my "vacation," but time during which I have a great deal of work to complete before I start teaching in the fall. This set-up is a hassle, but doable for a month. Luckily, I like to wander for hours around cities, and luckily, napping poodles aren't big dissertation-interrupters. 

My sense of where a dog can and cannot go on this purportedly dog-friendly continent - well, in this town specifically - is limited, limited further still by my limited comprehension of the language in which I anticipate being yelled at. Anything errand-ish - places that sell shampoo, supermarkets, bakeries, other small food shops - is a no-dog zone. I'm not even thinking about libraries. The market encourages the presence of dogs, and is a free-sausage-treat bonanza. Cafés... allow the kind of dogs that arrive and promptly fall asleep under a table, and we're not quite there yet. I mean, they allow any dogs, and yesterday we didn't sit with her outside at a café because there was an aggressive-seeming one already parked, one that did not think the café was big enough for the two of them. So Bisou can totally sit outside at cafés, although it means watching her constantly to make sure she doesn't happen upon the dark chocolate that pretty much coats Europe's cobbled streets. Can she sit inside if it rains, which it does almost every day? We shall see.

A friend of mine in high school used to claim that you could leave the building even if it wasn't your free period, as long as you showed your schedule thingy to the security guard with confidence. Even if you could only leave at sixth period, if you flashed your "6" card at third period as if you meant it, out you'd go. I don't believe I ever tested this, but it rang true. And I think that's the kind of confidence necessary if I'm going to go around, poodle in tow. Because as small as "miniature poodle" might suggest, and as small as she looks in the photo above, Bisou is about five times the size of a handbag dog. (It's "toy" or "teacup" you're imagining.) Shall I play this as the entitled American? The aging eccentric? The possibilities are endless, or would be for someone fluent in German and with no fear of confrontation whatsoever.

Friday, July 20, 2012

WWPD Guides: How to be exceptional

If you're a Jew looking to make a name for yourself in the field of writing about your experiences as a Jew, what you need to do is set yourself apart from all other Jews. All of them.

Since that's impossible - there are Jews across every political and ideological spectrum - what you'll need to do is write as if you stand alone, courageous in the face of small-minded detractors. You need to present yourself as the very first Jewish person to consider, say, that the Palestinians are people, too. You thought of this! Or, for example, that intermarriage is not 'finishing what Hitler started', because of course every last Jew - but not you! - would say something like that. You might also opt to be the first Jew ever to not hate Christmas, not to keep kosher, not to have a nose job. Or the first to think Holocaust memory is sometimes exploited. You must contrast your iconoclastic self, on the one hand, with, on the other, some kind of amalgam of Uncle Leo, Mrs. Broflovski, Abe Foxman, Senator Lieberman, and Rabbi Schneerson.

The crazy thing is that this works. Every single time. Which is, I think, why Tablet is standing up for the Breslaw monstrosity. As David Schraub says, their defense of the piece that called Holocaust survivors "Jew shit" (oh, but in German) was that the author had been really thinking through her Jewish identity, and this was the truth she found, it ain't pretty, but so it goes. I mean, what will it be next week? Maybe we can get a Jewish man who's thought through his Jewish identity and the honest truth of it is, Jewish women are repulsive? Or a Jewish woman, on how all Jewish men are money-grubbing mama's boys? But these wouldn't be insulting - sorry, sincere - enough. Calling Holocaust survivors "Judenscheisse" is a tough act to follow.

The "exception" Jew is hardly a new concept. See Hannah Arendt, Sander Gilman. (Their work, that is.) This is when someone Jewish totally buys into Jewish stereotypes, realizes that lo and behold he does not meet all of them, but instead of thinking, hey, maybe the stereotypes don't accurately describe real people, he'll think, gosh, I'm the only Jew not like that. He will then 'bravely' say what no one else dares (well, that's how he sees it), and will 'admit' that Jews are pretty much horrible people. He will find a fan base among certain non-Jews - and certain Jews - but will rejoice every time a fellow Jew calls him "self-hating" or otherwise criticizes his stance. Depending how he plays it, it's either that other Jews are all humorless, thin-skinned prigs, or, conversely, that he's the only Jew who actually cares about humanity and isn't caught up in parochial concerns.

There have been "exception" Jews since forever. What's new is that information about what other Jews are like, what they believe, has never been more readily-available. It used to be that maybe you went to some small high school on Long Island where it actually was the case that you were the only Jewish girl in your class not obsessed with designer clothing, that you had this small sample against which you were comparing yourself, and you really did feel different. You might have tried to imagine the world beyond your immediate experience, but may have simply not known that these particular eight girls did not female Jewry make. You might have, even past high school, had the experience of not fitting in with those around you, and confused a sense of outsider-ness with something about Jews generally, like  how someone who had a tough time growing up in a small town in Mississippi might unjustly-but-understandably attribute a few bad apples to the South. 

But now, with the Internet, with the countless Jewish blogs and websites, not even getting into other blogs and articles written by self-identified Jews, it's extra inexcusable for anyone claiming an interest in things Jewish to pretend they don't know that Jews come in all kinds. To pretend that they stand alone in whatever it is they believe. OK, not anyone - in this case, a 14-year-old gets a pass. But that's it.


I approached both of the recent articles - Rachel Aviv's in the New Yorker, and Scott Anderson's in this week's NYT Magazine - profiling men who had, as 14-year-old boys, killed members of their immediate families, only to be tried as adults, with the same thought going into it. The one you're expected to have, namely that it is unfair to hold an adult responsible for a crime committed before the age of reason, whether that's 18 or not.

Yet the actual information provided by both pieces suggested something quite different from the reconsideration both authors advocate for. Not so much that such individuals [said "men" before, fixed] should be tried as adults, as that the arguments against doing so don't add up.

I'll focus on Anderson piece, which is fresher in my mind, and which doesn't advocate for a legal change that's since taken place. Anderson profiles a man whose reasons for killing his parents were that his father was distant and the silent type, not effusive with praise, while his mother nagged him too much. Not an abusive or violent home. The scrappier end of the white middle class. 

It's understandable that the boy's grievances ring true to many, precisely because they are the everyday grievances of so many adolescents. Their banality is what ought to clue us into the likelihood that something was incredibly off - depraved? ill? evil? sociopathic? as a non-expert, I'm going with "off" - about this particular boy, to react to having run-of-the-mill flawed parents by murdering them. He felt he wasn't appreciated for who he was? With the exception of the small subset of adolescent boys whose parents spend maybe too much time telling them they're god's gift to humanity, this is adolescence.

What's striking isn't just the crime, given the facts, but also that upon reflection, this is what the prisoner decided explains his crime. He doesn't seem to understand the sheer number of people who feel misunderstood and under-appreciated at 13, 14, and don't kill anybody, even in households with guns lying around. (Guns not lying around would be a plus, but is a separate, if related, issue.) In the case Aviv profiles, the murderer was upset that he'd been dumped by text message. It might be possible to point to what had made an off person most upset that day, but normal woes themselves don't explain anything.

Anderson provides further background information, some relevant, some not. The kid's mother had had an unfortunate childhood, which may have played a role. Appalachian migrants to the Midwest evidently stick to their own kind, and this particular family didn't have many friends. Are we to believe that the introverted and provincial are more likely to be shot to death by their offspring? That his parents' failure to entertain a cosmopolitan crowd was as much a factor in his murdering them as was his own off-ness?

Both of these articles are the kind of real journalism someone who's blog-crastinating can't sneeze at, and the authors are clearly better-informed on this issue than I'll ever be. But what's missing from both of these accounts is, I suppose, the counterargument. Some explanation of why anyone might support these laws other than, Americans are barbaric, blood-thirsty outliers in the Western world. Some acknowledgement that murder is a really big deal. That this isn't, bleeding-heart-wise, like humanizing those who fall into gangs and drug-dealing in environments where other options are few.

The fact that it's so easy to sympathize with being 14 and miffed at one's relatives, 14 and impulsive, is precisely why we shouldn't readily understand how - even at a young and careless age - someone would think murder was the answer. That's not even within the realm of what was once called juvenile delinquency. (Meanwhile, the latest research is telling us that the "child's" brain only finishes developing at 25, meaning that we should also be having this conversation about criminals who, at the time of the crime, are probably long since out of school and their parents' homes.)

Goes without saying, but I'm no authority on what should be done with/for juvenile murderers, which sentences are appropriate, whether the Supreme Court's rulings thus far have done enough. Nor, for that matter, do I have any particular opinion on exactly which sentencing makes sense for adults convicted of murder. And, as I said, I don't know how to classify the quality that leads certain people to snap, how anyone, expert or not, is able to say which possibly-drug-addled off person is or is not "insane" - even within the world of constructs and legal definitions, this is a tough one to wrap one's head around. I just found the journalistic unsettling in both cases, and, like I said, in conflict with the very story being told.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Grows on trees

It's now accepted wisdom that modern children's ignorance as to where their food comes from is something in desperate need of a remedy. If your child thinks vegetables come from the supermarket or, god forbid, the freezer, this must be addressed. Leave it to the NYT parenting blog to provide the most extreme example: a boy who, because of his (lactose-tolerant!) Northwest European ancestry, must milk cows as some kind of feats-of-strength bar mitzvah, so that his mother can write about it, which is, of course, what coming-of-age rituals are all about. (There's a video as well.)

Anyway, I'm still not sure why knowing where food comes from is supposed to be necessary. A certain amount of this knowledge might come from a biology class (what a plant is, how plants make babies, and the inevitable sprout-a-seed project), but why do we need to know more about farm life than any other? Why do we need to know how crops are harvested? It's not that farm knowledge is damaging, so much as that there are so many other things kids ought to know more about, things that are actually applicable to their lives, that might be more useful. Farm Studies is fine, but not necessarily pressing.

Counter and counter-counter arguments:

-Everyone eats. But everyone also... you see where this is going. We don't expect kids to have intimate knowledge of the sewage system. Everybody breathes, but we don't insist that kids meet with air-pollution researchers. Everybody wears clothing, but I have yet to hear of school trips to the sweatshops of lower Manhattan.

-It's a good life lesson for children - especially ones from wealthy backgrounds - to realize that hard physical labor makes their lives possible. But is the work that goes into growing organic carrots so much more strenuous than whatever factory-workers who make processed foods go through? Do we need kids to know how their houses were constructed? Roads?

-Kids who've been educated about what it looks like when a tomato's on the vine probably have more sympathy for tomato-pickers. But again, there are plenty of crummy jobs out there, and we don't try to teach empathy by having kids do a day in the life as a home-care aide, a day in the life as a Petsmart janitor. More likely, kids will come to have a romantic, and altogether unrealistic, idea of where the actual food they consume comes from, and will then think it's horrible that any food isn't produced in such charming conditions... and will, in turn, not know how to tell the difference between good and bad large- or mid-scale food-production systems. There's a degree of artisanalness necessary to not be on the Twinkie diet, but it's a great deal less extreme than tiny gardens, backyard goat cheese experiments, and the like. No processing plant, however great it treats its workers, however splendid the food it produces, will have the charm of scampering bunnies and so forth.

-If kids know where their food comes from, better yet, if they've grown it themselves, they'll eat fruits and vegetables. If they eat (super-duper-local) fruits and vegetables, they won't be obese. Childhood obesity is a problem. Gardens are the answer. To this, I'd say that if kids enjoy gardening, it's certainly a whole lot better than a lot of other recreational activities thrown at them (unlike football, little risk of concussion). If I had the space (technically the rights to what is in fact a great deal of outdoor space), I'd go vegetable-garden-crazy. But I'm not sure about this as a nutrition fix for The Youth. Even if it works in the immediate moment, and the home-grown peas are consumed, will this make canned or even frozen peas - or, for that matter, home-grown peas grown by someone else - more appetizing? Where exactly are parents going to be procuring all these garden-fresh vegetables, enough so to account for the greenery on the nightly dinner plate? Meanwhile, to repeat myself for a change, it's incredibly unlikely that the presence of local, seasonal, home-grown vegetables is making the difference for anyone's weight. There's correlation, yes, but causation seems unlikely, when not terribly many garden-growing yuppies are in fact subsistence farmers, or are otherwise managing, via farmers market or CSA, to only eat local/seasonal/organic.

-So let's accept that it's inconsequential if your kid eats tomatoes all his life without ever learning what a tomato plant looks like. But it can't hurt for a kid to learn that ketchup comes from tomatoes, or more specifically, roughly what's done to tomatoes to get them to that state, right? But this is really just a nutrition issue, or more simply, a teaching-your-kid-to-cook issue. It's inefficient for everyone to be a farmer, but everyone does need to know how to cook, at least until the nutrition and quality of readily-accessible prepared foods increases tremendously. This is a basic-survival, be-a-functional-person thing. But it in no way requires agricultural knowledge. If your kid will only eat vegetables he himself has bought and prepared, that's at least sustainable. Only ones he grew himself, less so.

On running shoes

Alice Waters wouldn't approve, but the wisest purchase I've made in a long time was a pair of... Nike sneakers. They're gorgeous (Europeans, don't judge), combining neon yellow-green (like the Cambridge satchelwith reflective-tape-material. 

There's this thing with running shoes, where you're supposed to consult an expert and get the very shoe that is the only one you could possibly run in without injuring yourself such that you will never walk again. These will inevitably be the ugliest marshmallows ever made, but if you're a serious runner, you wouldn't concern yourself with aesthetics. (Sure, you may run on average two to four miles at a time, and not every day or close, but who doesn't want to be serious?) You must not be cynical and consider that maybe the salesperson has been instructed to direct gullible customers like you away from the more attractive, better-selling pairs. (Does anyone not learn that the puffiest white ones with lilac details are the way to go?) Never mind that the science of running sneakers a) changes daily and b) is more relevant to athletes than to occasional joggers. This is science, and continued walking ability isn't something to sneeze at.

Whatever the case, this time around, I took the usual approach to shoes, adding a bit of jogging-in-place, and lo and behold, the sneakers that looked the best also fit if anything more comfortably than the monstrosities I'd once been told were all I could wear, and have allowed me to jog for 25 consecutive minutes without complaint. What stopped me from going further was my own desire to come back to the apartment and eat an Austrian soft pretzel, or maybe that the small dog alongside me had had enough. Not the sneakers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In offensiveness today

-From Slate France, the unsurprising connections between far-right politics (in France and Germany) and the local-sustainable food movement. A point that has to be made with the huge disclaimer that no, you're not a Fascist for liking farmers' markets. (Today I bought a kilo of German-grown plum tomatoes, and I suspect I'm not a neo-Nazi.) The issue is more that we have this false assumption that the food movement is all hippie-dippie left, when in fact xenophobia can absolutely enter into a movement based in part on the principle that food from elsewhere is dangerous. If you think elsewhere is a horrible place, why wouldn't its food be anathema as well? And it's not precisely a case of far-left and far-right being indistinguishable. The overlap is more between left-leaning yuppies and extreme-nationalists. My sense is that the far-left would be more bulk-lentils than artisanally-plucked mesclun.

-From Tablet - and not Vice, as might have been more appropriate - an "edgy" piece about how Holocaust survivors are sneaky and suspect for their entitled desire to go on living, by a writer who appears to have something of a Holocaust-awareness-raising allergy. I think the entirety of the Internet is on the case, but... yeah. Nothing like bad taste posing as bravery or originality.

-A Styles take on a somewhat different demographic from the usual haute-Park-Slope or Park Ave. norm: young women who require (shockingly expensive, obvs) prep classes to join a sorority. This article is of course designed to make you, whoever you are, feel like an amazing person for have not required quite so much intervention to make friends in college. But buried in this is a sadder story, as well as a more practical one. Sad, because these young women have social concerns more appropriate for middle-schoolers (an "image consultant" to make girlfriends?), and practical, because all this nonsense about looking just so will evidently come in handy for those who wish to, for example, become lawyers. I came away from reading (OK, skimming) the story feeling bad for the girls who want this, or whose parents imagine they do.

Not under my roof

Parental support until age 18 and no later remains etched in cultural mythology, but fails to correctly describe expectations. The most obvious example of this is college. The FAFSA doesn't operate under the assumption that parental support ends at high school graduation. The expectation I'm referring to isn't that your parents will pay your tuition in full, that the parents of 19-year-olds can afford anything particular, but that it's appropriate to ask them to do so if they can, and that if they can, they will. If you're paying your own way, it's generally because you have to. Even if you're working 10, 20 hours a week, you're probably still a dependent. Parents who can afford to support their 19-year-olds but choose not to - not even to help with tuition at a less-expensive or scholarship-providing school - are not admired for teaching resilience, but considered borderline neglectful. There's an infrastructure in place, if a flawed one, for kids whose parents can't pay, but none for families who've decided that 18 is adulthood, period, principle-of-the-thing. OK, not none - there is the military. But none in civilian society.

Presumed dependence on parents extends further into adulthood, and is no longer exclusively for those who've fallen on hard times. Quite the contrary - many best-case-scenarios involve prolonged assumptions of parental support. If, for example, you wish to go to Harvard Law School, your parents' "resources" continue to enter into the equation until you're 29. The same appears to be true elsewhere as well. Brooklyn Law School takes it further: "Parents’ tax returns are required for all Need Grant applicants, regardless of age and circumstances." Presumably this means even if you're 45, going back to school, and haven't spoken to your parents in over 25 years. The FAFSA considers you an independent past 24, but the law school's own need-based financial aid assumes you don't need money if your parents have enough, or uses family income as a proxy for class. Although it's probably not as involved as all that, which is my point - parents probably are paying for their kids to go to law school. Assessing "need" on the basis of a 26-year-old's Teach for America income probably wouldn't point to the truth.

Unpaid internships - the only "job openings" at so many organizations these days - presumably assume that their unpaid employees are fed and housed, by someone. Even if the company never asks specifically about parents, even if some interns are paying their own way, parents are very much implied. If all unpaid interns were scrambling to work three jobs on the side, unpaid internships would not have proliferated. The assumption that parents are paying has fundamentally changed what it means to enter many careers. And yes, the economy also enters into it, but in the past, if a place didn't have much money to hire anyone, presumably they wouldn't hire anyone, or would hire just one person, as opposed to taking on several unpaid interns.

Planning on spending your pre-settled-down youth in New York? Working in a field other than finance? It will be presumed that your parents pay your rent. It will, which is part of why rents in the city are so outrageous. There's no presumption that the number of people making under $30k a year corresponds to the number of people renting apartments at rates appropriate for that income. Even if you find a place you can afford, landlords will be able to ask for - and get - either a parent-as-guarantor or several months rent upfront (likely borrowed from parents), just, you know, to be on the safe side. If neither of these will be options for you, you'll have to live somewhere far tinier and more out-of-the-way than you can afford, which, if you're not making much, means you'd better be OK with an hour-each-way commute from a closet.

How much parental support into is a phenomenon limited to certain segments of the population - and indeed which segments that is - I'm not sure. Not the entire country (so it's not necessary to comment here that this model does not apply if your parents work at Walmart and you do, too), but not just the Styles set, either. It most certainly doesn't only impact the class of people whose parents can afford to pay for their existences past 18, past 22. My point - to reiterate, perhaps re-reiterate - is not that everyone past 18, let alone anyone past 22, is supported financially by their parents. Rather, it's that this has become, for many, the assumed situation, while at the same time remaining very much unspoken. 25-year-olds whose parents pay their rent are not announcing this on Facebook.

There's a sense in which the new order actually promotes social mobility. If only kids and young adults whose families can't support them into adulthood get it together to find paying jobs, this leaves them ahead of, if not the kids with billion-dollar trust funds, perhaps the ones whose families can pay for a never-ending string of MA programs. Scholarships - grad or undergrad - look good on a CV, but if your parents are very generous, why fill out that Fulbright application? Meanwhile, at colleges that are not need-blind, simply being there and not paying the full ticket price is more impressive than the reverse, above and beyond the sense in which if two people are at the same college, the one who got there from a wealthier family is, all things equal, less impressive. Given that to be a fully autonomous individual, it helps if your parents don't have veto power over your decisions, if their role is reduced to that of advice-givers as opposed to under-my-roof-this-is-how-it-goes-declaration-makers, 25-year-olds who are supporting themselves may have a lower standard of living, but probably feel a good bit better about their lives than those who are not.

But overall, the longer parental support is presumed, the worse things go for the less-wealthy. As bad as it is to be 25 and still under the metaphorical parental roof, your life still governed by those who pay your bills, it's clearly worse still to be 25 and trying to make it in a system that assumes parental support that you're not getting. The presumption of parental support into adulthood ends up trickling down to those who have no such option, but who've bought into the idea that one simply must move to Brooklyn after college, do unpaid internships, etc. The opacity of this new order makes it so that you simply won't know - ever, or at least until arriving in whichever grad program, at whichever low-paid job - that many of your cohort are not living off their salaries.

So what's to be done? Unless there's a revolution, life will be different until 18 in wealthy families than poor ones. Private schools will go on existing, some neighborhoods will go on being safer than others, etc. And any kind of law telling parents how much they can hand over, and until what age, isn't feasible. And any movement on behalf of the theoretical rich kids whose parents cut them off would be beside the point, because a) that's not many people, b) these are people who still have cultural capital, perhaps enough to make up for what they lack in need-based scholarships and an ingrained work ethic.

What could change is, college could be funded by tax dollars, not tuition. This would still mean that wealthier parents would make greater contributions than poorer ones, but would change the structure according to which it's your parents paying - or not - your tuition. It would also mean that non-parents would be paying for college, as would the parents of kids who aren't college-bound, although more probably would be college-bound under this system. What would also likely occur is, the cost of running a college would drop, because things like perma-landscaping projects and state-of-the-art gyms would probably have to go. This is, however, never going to happen.

Pudel adventures

Today was (still is, it's early yet) market day. Bisou, who'd up till now received indifference and glares from locals just trying to pass us to get to one of the many H&Ms in peace, was a real hit in this more rustic setting. A woman selling flowers really took to her, and the feeling was mutual, especially once this woman suddenly emerged with treats in the form of sausage.

As living-the-dream as it is to go to a European market with a miniature poodle, it's probably not the most efficient method of grocery-shopping. This isn't a farmers' market with only local kale and turnips, so in principle it would be possible to buy all your food at it, but when you're multitasking and trying to socialize your dog in a language you yourself don't understand (whatever I learned last time must be relearned), you forget to pick up everything you set out to. As problems go, this is probably the absolute best one to have. The apartment we're staying in has a dishwasher. No complaints, seriously.

The cars are smaller in Europe. Pictured is my dream vehicle.

Living the dream: Eiskaffee and (temporarily) serene lap-dog.

Dog "parking" at a rare non-dog-friendly establishment, a bakery.

A cheese-and-sausage stand. Why they invented leashes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A jet- and poodle-lagged pedagogy post

In Heidelberg with husband and poodle. So I have not kept up with the thread following this post, and I'm way behind on Sunday Styles and the like. I have, however, seen the cargo areas of the Frankfurt airport - evidently two weeks before our arrival, they'd changed how one goes about picking up a pet, but hadn't told us, so that was a completely unnecessary - if not entirely uninteresting - trip to the parallel universe known as Cargo City Süd. (Even small dogs can't always come in-cabin. Inconsequential dog-welfare-wise, assuming the right breed and other factors, but unanticipated-cost-wise, bureaucratic-hassle-wise, something to consider.)

I have, however, read Flavia's latest post, about socioeconomic differences in students' classroom behavior. As usual, lots to think about. To highlight just one angle: student self-advocacy: "Most of us have probably noticed that while some students have no hesitation asking for extensions or extra help or other special treatment (sometimes justified, sometimes not) others are diffident and won't advocate for themselves even when they have a compelling reason." Indeed, although at this stage - having taught for three years and been in school for 300 - I've seen it more as a student than as an instructor.

But yes. There are certain students who come to a teacher to explain that they're really stressed and thus need an extension, and other who won't tell the teacher that, say, a parent just died, and will come in as if nothing happened. I have found it frustrating, as a teacher, that you can only give extensions/exceptions for students who've come to you with their problems, when for all you know the kid who always gets Cs - but who doesn't seem depressed or troubled in such a way as to allow you to ask how he is - might well be going through a worse crisis that he just hasn't told you about. Or - perhaps more poignantly, the kid who gets A-/B+ grades, and would be a star but for some crisis... that you don't know about, or have any way of finding out about. 

I've also, however, found it frustrating as a student when someone comes to a teacher with an utterly B.S. excuse (in one memorable case from pre-grad-school, a student who felt entitled to an A in a language class on account of having lived for a time where the language was spoken, a fact that somehow hadn't led to As on the assignments) and actually gets somewhere with it (as that student did, who went and got that A). As someone who was not raised to expect teachers to care about my feelings, who was never encouraged to take "mental health days" (or physical health days) or to expect to be able to forget my homework at home without consequences, that one could make a fuss about nonsense and get results has always struck me as unfair. To me, but also to students who had super-legitimate reasons to hand work in late, but still managed to get it in on time. 

On the other hand, it can seem self-defeating when a student with legitimate what-have-you fails to mention it, out of pride or cultural background or who knows. 

There's certainly a class distinction when it comes to self-advocacy, but in my experience, it's only a small number of the wealthy students thinking the teacher cares about their problems. I'd almost go as far as to say that there will be that kid in the class who expects sympathy for her hangover/his upcoming family vacation to Tuscany/her chemistry exam later in the week that will determine if she gets to med school so is it OK if she skips her Creative Writing assignments just these few times with no consequences thanks in advance? 

What leads to this attitude? Much of it could be innocuous, like when a student accustomed to life at a tiny private school (or homeschooling) switches to a large college. Just as it's not the instructor's job to know what other responsibilities/leisure activities each student in a 40-person class has that week, it's not the student's to understand that the instructor has 240 other students that semester. Sometimes it really will come as news to a student that a class of 40 will fall apart if each student has his or her own syllabus. But there are no doubt some upper-middle-class parents teaching their kids that the teacher is always wrong, and that the way to an A is complaining, not working hard. Other times still, kids pick up that message without having been taught it, simply by observing what gets results. As in, sometimes that which looks and quacks like "entitled" has no more profound explanation.

So. Self-advocacy can get grades changed, even without the proverbial threat-of-lawsuit-from-parents. But it's almost never something the top students engage in. The top students may also come from wealthier/better-educated family backgrounds, but they'll have been raised in in the Amy Chua "tiger mom" manner, which is to say, as if they were struggling immigrants, whether or not this bore any resemblance to their actual socioeconomic situation. Or they didn't grow up in the States, and so are unfamiliar with the nurturing, "American" classroom environment. Lots of people who make it to grad school were, not surprisingly, raised to get As without insisting upon them, and so are mystified, if not necessarily annoyed, by this kind of behavior.

Is the answer simply to be less indulgent across the board (with whichever exceptions for extreme circumstances), or to encourage all students to come by if they have a problem, as in, to actively reach out any time a student gets grade below an A, just to be sure that nothing external and unfair has stopped them from reaching their full potential? I suppose I lean closer to the former. I'm not confident that I'm in a position to rank my students' obstacles, let alone when I know I'll never have the full story. Many really tough life situations aren't ones a student - rich or poor - will want to tell a teacher. While I do hope students are getting whatever help they need outside the classroom, I think it's reasonable that they won't want to share everything in exchange for the possibility of an extension on some assignment, and thus am totally fine with students sharing, or not, according to what they're comfortable with.

Also, class background isn't always so transparent in a classroom setting, especially in this age of scrappiness one-upmanship. You can guess quite a bit by the type of school it is, but at schools with a great deal of socioeconomic diversity, it may well be your students/classmates with the least financial concerns whose financial concerns you'll hear the most about.

And finally, in terms of teaching not just the subject, but Life Lessons, a (good) boss will be understanding if there's a real problem, but will think less of you, perhaps stop paying you, if a non-problem prevented you from doing your work. But you also don't want to be too harsh, just to make a point. Flavia's approach - a strict policy on the syllabus, paired with an insistence that students in genuine crisis feel free to come to you to work something out - does seem the best way.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A question for David Brooks:

Isn't a meritocratic elite different from a hereditary elite, in that the leaders of today can't be assured that they'll be the leaders of tomorrow, let alone that their grandchildren will be? Having "a stewardship mentality," knowing you're "privileged," these things don't work in a society where elite status is precarious. Noblesse oblige rests on the confidence that one is, in fact, noblesse. A society with (some) social mobility is one in which there will always be anxiety among those at the top, who know they're in no way entitled to that position.

WWPD Guides: not worrying about it (too much)

Whereas men tend to underestimate what's necessary for looking their best, we - women - will often realize that we've been worrying about - and devoting time and money to - something to do with our appearances that we could perfectly well skip. See the women who imagine their lives will be radically different if only they lose five pounds, but who could perfectly well stay the size they are without facing any health or social-stigma consequences. See Edith Zimmerman's story of relying on, then abandoning, face makeup to cover acne, and later acne scars, only to discover that she looks just fine without the paint. See those of women who stop straightening their hair, only to discover that their natural hair texture suits them better and turns more heads.

We're often wrong in our assessments of what's worthwhile. We may overestimate the amount of artifice we "need" and end up looking (by the standards of our milieus) ridiculous. Or we might just end up looking the same. A woman with thick, dark eyelashes can fund the mascara industry if she wants, but why bother?

But the inefficacy of certain priming can't be the reason to liberate one's self from excessive primping, because sometimes artifice delivers. It's not always the Snooki "makeunder." You won't always look more tasteful or sophisticated if you switch to hippie soap/shampoo and no more. You may just look worse. This will not come as news to any woman who's gone to work bare-faced and been asked if she's tired, and not - as we might imagine - congratulated for her low-maintenance turn. 

"Not worrying about it" means accepting that abandoning whichever ritual might not amount to any improvements. It means outgrowing the middle-school imperative to look your best and then some. How you look matters - and can be controlled - less than you think. But yeah, it could be that you would look noticeably better doing X, Y, and Z, yet also that there are better uses of your time. These things are not inconsistent. Life is easier for the better-looking, but there's only so much primping can do, and there's a threshold at which you'd be better off changing other things about your life than your looks.

The idea, though, is not to take an absolutist stance. If you believe that X, Y, and Z make you look better, but you want to reduce time and money spent on primping, or chemical exposure, or simply the stress of worrying about it, what you can do is, make 'looking your best' a special-occasion thing, as opposed to a necessary-for-leaving-the-house one. Shift it down. You can look merely presentable, using your own judgment to tell where "presentable" ends (and this will vary, of course, depending what it is you do for a living) and "dolled-up" begins. 

This approach doesn't have the same liberation appeal as discarding the offending primping implements, as a great big bonfire filled with push-up bras and Clinique. But there's a huge difference between thorough hair-and-makeup to go to work and for a swanky party, between losing five pounds for aesthetic reasons for your wedding and spending your entire adolescent and adult life maintaining a weight that doesn't agree with you. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012


This series that involves my calling out egregious examples of parental overshare leaves me a bit conflicted. Basically, I don't like that every time I post on this, I'm inviting further readers to hear about how so-and-so's kid threw a tantrum. I try to only link to things I know are already getting so many readers that whatever I add is a drop in the bucket, which are after all the articles that most concern me, but linking is adding to an audience. It might be justified, in a way that the overshares themselves are not, because the end goal is no one doing this anymore. Which kind of involves explaining what it is that's done, how often, and why it's a problem. But I wish there were another way.

So I'm going to take advantage of the fact that the last one of these I read was in a print publication. One that's online as well, but no link. It's actually a piece about the perils of overshare parenting, but by an author who simply can't resist. So it's one step in the sensible-critique direction, ten giant steps back. The piece conflates online-forum-participation, which offers reasonably anonymous support to stressed new parents, with high-profile, for-pay mommy-blogging and parenting-article-writing. It's illustrated, alas, with a giant photograph of the author's child, albeit as a newborn and so less-than-identifiable. (The online version has a more recent photo.) We do, however, have the author's own real name, and the piece ends with the author explaining that she probably shouldn't tell us that her child enjoys admiring (examining?) its own behind in the mirror, but there you have it.

The problem, in this case, is that it's being presented as somehow unfortunate that it isn't considered acceptable to spill absolutely everything online, that parents must god forbid censor themselves, sacrificing Truth (about their offsprings' "potty") to appease oversensitive brats who'd rather their bowel movements not make the news. Furthermore, the author reserves her real fury not for parental overshare, but for the meanies on the Internet who'd dare to judge the parenting decisions of those who've put their parenting on display. Anything other than adulation, anything other than, 'you're doing great, mom!,' is unacceptable. The world is a scary place not because your parent might relate your most private moments to a major publication, but because not every reader will obey the unwritten rule of only commenting on confessional writing to congratulate the author on being wonderful.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Special privileges"

Calling Flavia, Flavia's commenter "i," and the usual WWPD audience:

The following just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed: "Young, Privileged, and Applying for Food Stamps." I immediately knew that this would not be an article about food-stamp fraud, that is, about wealthy people getting food stamps (for kicks?) by manipulating the system. My guess, however, wasn't exactly right. I'd assumed this would be about an upper-middle-class kid regressing to the mean, or, I suppose, dropping below it. Cut off by the parents, and learning just how little a degree in Medieval Tapestry is worth in this economy. Or at least something about a PhD on welfare. Instead, it's by - and about - Katrina Briski, a white, college-educated young woman from, in her words, "a working-middle-class-family background." An example she gives of "suburban comforts" she's had at her disposal is ChipotleThis is "privilege"?

But that's exactly what's interesting about the essay. The author has somewhere along the line latched onto the idea that she is privileged. Not merely that she should be grateful for what she has, which most everyone should be, but that she comes from the stratum of society that ought to feel guilty for all it has. Even though what she has - white skin and a state-school non-STEM BA - is not exactly an Andover-Princeton-Goldman trajectory. Going by the information she herself provides, Briski neither started out nor ended up (thus far - she's young yet) wealthy or high-status. There are others relative to whom she is privileged, and her race, level of education, and childlessness defy stereotypes about who requires government support. Given her age and life situation, she might be more "broke" than "poor," although it's really too soon to tell. But "privileged," without painstaking contextualization, would seem to misrepresent the author's place in the world.

One might speculate that this perception of herself as "privileged" has informed her career choices, such as taking unpaid internships. One might also speculate that this self-perception is what prevented her from getting a job at Trader Joe's - if you come across as "privileged," you probably will have trouble finding work at a supermarket. I say this not to judge Briski's choices. Quite the contrary, these strike me as rational choices for someone who - presumably in the course of her education - came to believe that she had better own her privilege... despite not owning a heck of a lot else. I am judging the system that produces these expectations.

This phenomenon - by no means unique to the author - seems pretty clearly related to the fact that so many Americans now go to college, and college, which continues to think of itself as a thing-for-the-elite, continues to teach students noblesse oblige. "Service." The idea that it's greedy to want pay from one's first jobs. This, even when the students have massive debt and are not in much of a position to hand out helpings of oblige to others. 

For all the talk of unchecked privilege, I suspect there's also a great deal of overestimated privilege among Young People Today, who've dutifully learned about all the systematic oppressions that don't apply to them, yet find themselves quasi-unemployable and fully without the trust funds one somehow imagines every white, college-educated kid has to his name. Relative privilege is something, but it doesn't pay the rent. Thus, I think, OWS.


In further "privilege" news, the NYT's "Room for Debate" on circumcision bans has, not unexpectedly, drawn a horde of passionate commenters. Men who weren't circumcised and who imagine the procedure to be some kind of penisectomy (having evidently not taken in the number of children in Hasidic families), men who were circumcised as infants and who attribute whatever's gone wrong in their lives to their parents' fateful decision to make them a millimeter or whatever smaller in that area, and women... no, not so many women.

One can get to the point at which one thinks, 'hey, I grew up thinking this was sensible, but now that I stop and think about it, it is at least worth discussing,' until one comes across this winner, who believes that Americans accept male but not female circumcision not because one is mutilation and the other not so much, but because of some kind of nefarious cabal:

Does the author really think that male circumcision really gets a pass because it is (a) a religious practice, and (b) relatively safe? Is there really no importance in her reactions to the question of factor (c): that circumcision is part of a religious tradition that has very special privileges in the USA? Isn't it really the case that some religions are more equal in the eyes of the law than others?
Thus far, that comment has gotten 12 "recommends." Walt and Mearsheimer, I've found your next cause. The Euphemistic Circumcision Lobby.