Saturday, September 29, 2012

Loyalty points

Sometime soon, a post on meritocracy, aristocracy, and the Stuyvesant cheating scandal. Till then:

A few days ago was a real festival of cheapness-studied-and-deliberately-ignored. Rain boots, lipstick, and neither the cheapest version around. While both were replacement purchases, and the former arguably necessity, I will focus not on financial justification but aesthetic explanation. The rain boots are muted olive green, and somewhat equestrian, and make me feel like a Swiss or Northern Italian socialite. Yup, even on NJ Transit. They fit perfectly, even the calves, which is not something to sneeze at when it comes to rubber boots, which of course have no give whatsoever. Paired with this other recent acquisition, I could be the very height of glam and practicality. (Must I keep repeating that it's possible to love shoes but not stilettos?)

With the lipstick, meanwhile, I wanted a sheer bubblegum pink, mod but not chalky, pale but not pastel, and no shimmer, to replace a too-light, too-shimmery, and almost-finished tube of Korres. (Requisite Alexa Chung example of what I was looking for.) This is surprisingly difficult to track down. Bubblegum is usually too opaque, too purple, or - worse - in the form of lip gloss. This one seems to be doing the trick. Perfect with a subtle liquid-eyeliner cat-eye - this will do.

Which brings me - alas - to a cheapness-studies note: if you sign up for a Sephora loyalty card (ducks head), they tell you how many points you have at checkout, thereby reminding you how many dollars you've thrown away on not being thoroughly low-maintenance. I tried to remind myself that in the course of living in the woods and not buying stuff, I'd honest-to-goodness gone through things like lipstick and eyeliner, which I'd never thought possible. That if lipstick is purchased less than once a year, it can totally cost more than $20 and come from some neato Canadian company that specializes in lipstick made from food-grade substances, and not from a dreary, brightly-lit aisle in the Penn Station Duane Reade.

But the points don't lie. "You have X points" means "You spent $X at Sephora since picking up that card, more than you donated to the Obama campaign, money that you could have at the very least put in your savings account, you frivolous, vapid fool.'" I think I'd prefer a stamp-card system, like in a coffee shop, so that once you've bought X items and gotten something free, you'd be back to square one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom sans kippa

In what appears to be an effort to alienate the much-discussed but let's face it not-so-populous community of European Jews who vote for their country's far-right parties because conservatism or Likud-ness or who knows beats out a desire not to vote for the heirs of Nazism/collaborationism, Marine Le Pen has decided that the yarmulke has no place in the land of the beret. This, because she's not too keen on the veil, and she wants to be consistent. But lest your Catherine Deneuve-ish self be alarmed, no one's asking you to dispose of your Hermès silk: “Anyone can tell the difference between a veil worn for religious reasons and one that is not.” Well obviously. A scarf worn by a white woman - or man! it's France! - is secular.

As for the kippa, it's like the veil but not. There's a feminist case - not one I tend to agree with - that Muslim women cover their heads or faces not as free religious expression, but because a male relative or cleric is forcing them to do so. Whereas there's not much of a case to be made that Jewish mothers are forcing this on their sons, cue the jokes that I myself am not Borscht Belt enough to provide.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"They keep it fresh"

Back in 2005 (!), I was shocked to learn that Japanese hair-straightening refers to the process by which ethnically Japanese women straighten their hair, and not - as I'd imagined - a straightening technique meant to give wavy- or curly-haired women of other ethnicities a stick-straight texture. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that "Scandinavian blond" means (or can mean) not Nordic envy on the part of the swarthy, but rather the shade almost-blond Scandinavian woman aim for when making themselves even blonder (or, as I understand people see it in blonder parts of the world, going from brunette to blond, wherein "brunette" is what I might call "dirty blond.") From - where else? - Into The Gloss:

I’m blond, but not naturally blond. All of the Swedes get highlights—trust me. They don’t do their whole heads, but they keep it fresh. I’m so sorry, but Americans cannot do blond hair—they just can’t do the ‘Scandinavian blond’ correctly. I’ve been to so many salons, and it’s never the Scandinavian blond. I never know exactly how to explain it, besides saying ‘Scandinavian blond.’ [....]
When I meet other blondes, I know if it’s an American or Swedish blonde: American blondes are more golden. It’s not a ‘pretty’ blonde. [Oh, it goes on.]
I'm thinking we need a name for this phenomenon: the quest of women who already have Trait X to have it even more than they already do. See also: the many, many, many, many dieters who are already thin but want to lose five (imperceptible-to-anyone-else) pounds.

Monday, September 24, 2012

If I were dictator of NJ Transit, I would:

-Lower the prices by so very, very, much.

-Insist on a week-long orientation in public transit, during which commuters ride the NYC subways at peak hours, to learn that public transportation is not your own car. By which I mean, for example, that I'd...

-Ask that the passengers be just a little less vigorously flatulent in the mornings. I'm not a gastroenterologist or an expert in Central NJ dining habits, so I don't know exactly what's causing this epidemic, but seriously, folks. You're not by yourself, or with a forgiving loved one.

-Institute some kind of rhyme or reason to filing onto and off of the trains, so that this isn't a chaotic stampede every morning and evening. It should be clearly marked on the platform where the doors open, and there should be lines, first-come, first-served. And when you arrive in Penn Station, the escalator should work. And there shouldn't also be a train leaving from that platform or the one across from it, leading to stampedes in both directions, and making it so that a good portion of the commute, time-wise, is just getting from platform-level to station-level. 

-Make it known that the world will not end, non-black passengers, if you spend 30-90 minutes sitting next to a black person. Stop being such racists. I mean, I know, that black guy in a business suit going to work at 7:30 am looks soooo menacing. Ugh.

-Instruct passengers to - as the NYU posters advise - "cover your cough." Yes, that would be you, dude sitting across from me, showing your obvious concern for humanity by coughing in my face and littering below your seat. 

-Ban the sale of artificial-butter-flavored popcorn in the stations. It's currently all over NY and evidently Newark Penn Station. At the very least, ban its consumption on the train itself. This is the worst smell known to man and is actually - vindicated! - toxic. 

-Give people who can't get over the fact that Newark and New York both have train stations named Penn, or that the earth is round, a five-minute window during which they can express their wonder at the world, then they must find some silent (but not deadly) activity.

-Ban outright large groups that get on, read aloud the message about how you're supposed to "speak softly and be considerate," laugh and shout about how that's not their group, haha, oh no, then go on to shout at ever-louder volumes all manner of who knows, everything from football news to wondering aloud what 9/11 was (a terrorist attack, some of the older-and-wiser members of this group agreed, evidently committed by Muslim polytheists whose gods wanted it), to mocking New York accents in the form of incredibly exaggerated Chicago accents, to wondering aloud more loudly still, again again and again, why the train is moving backwards (helllloooo, that's how the seats are, that's how it goes on a train, live with it!, I did not say), to playing Britney Spears on a device without so much as a pretext of headphones. Let people constitutionally incapable of riding a train find some other route to the airport. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

"[T]hey really cut out a lot of the hard work, time and sweat that I put into D.J.’ing."

I now have exactly the cold I should have seen coming given my invincible approach to public transportation (deciding hand sanitizer is all hype) and doing ridiculous things like thinking a five-second rule applies to pastry consumed outside the home. (I was really, really exhausted at the time, and now, accustomed to waking up and getting moving before 6:30, retrieving fallen baked goods no longer sounds reasonable.) Old Savage Lovecasts got me through the train, teaching-adrenaline and iced coffee from the place that adds espresso to that got me through class, but now comes the predictable crash. I was totally going to hold forth on something all kinds of profound, but instead, some links:

-One of the best articles yet about unpaid internships.

-Quite possibly the least news-containing NYT Styles story of all time. Next, perhaps a story about how instead of saying "socialite," we're meant to call them "socials" or better-yet, "handbag-designers."

- Says Gail Collins:

The fund-raiser, a $50,000-a-pop sit-down dinner, was hosted by Marc Leder, a financier who The New York Post reported as having a “wild party” last summer in the Hamptons “where guests cavorted nude in the pool” while “scantily dressed Russians danced on platforms.” You cannot blame Romney for that. If presidential candidates had to avoid all multimillionaires who held parties with naked guests and Russians on platforms, there would be no money for misleading TV commercials. 

-Is having a big chest and small waist something to complain about? Evidently.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Premature aging UPDATED

Elizabeth Nolan Brown has an interesting new blog called "This Is 30," which thus far consists of celebrity photos of what 30-year-old women really look like. I'm 29, so I'm listening.

"This Is 30" brings to mind Kate Harding's BMI Project, which sought to show that women (and some men) whose BMIs labeled them overweight or obese looked otherwise. In fact, it showed that the medically overweight do tend to look overweight, the medically obese obese - a separate issue from whether the medical profession is overusing BMI. Affixing photos to these numbers may have helped to humanize the women with whichever dimensions, and to remind us that big doesn't mean unfit or unattractive. But unless one happened to be approaching this imagining that "obese" means an honest-to-goodness crane is needed to extract someone from their home, I'm not sure what surprises were in store.

I fear that the same will be true of "This Is 30, at least if real, non-Botoxed/airbrushed 30-year-old women start appearing on it. I'm 29 and my best guess is, I look it. I'm small, and not a candidate for premature wrinkling. I don't look 50, but I've seen photos of myself from the start of grad school and there's a definite if hard-to-put-your-finger-on-it difference. What I'm saying is, I don't think I've aged especially a lot, or especially badly, but I think virtually all of us would be fooling ourselves if we felt we hadn't aged perceptibly since reaching adulthood.

So it's really Elizabeth's third fact I'm not so sure about: "most 30-year-olds look more-or-less the same as they did in their mid-20s [.]" Aging is gradual, so yes, a 30-year-old doesn't suddenly look different from 25, and is still, given current life expectancy, quite young. While these are tough calls to make on an individual basis, I suspect that few among us would have trouble telling, for example, who are the first-year graduate students, and who's waiting nervously for the job-market info session to begin. (Or is it just that grad school ages a person?)

When it comes to women being 30, I'm reminded of the first episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show, where Lou Grant, oh-so-inappropriately, asks Mary's age while interviewing her for a job. She reveals herself to be 30, then asks, coyly, how old she looks. He pauses for a moment, looks at her, and responds, "30." And it's funny precisely because she-the-actress does, and because it's so clear, in that moment, that the possibility that she-the-character might not only be but also look 30 has not yet occurred to her.

My own realism on this front comes, indirectly, from my line of work: I teach undergraduates, and I've lived in France. Students stay the same age year after year, while their instructors only get older. (When you know full well what 19 looks like, you can't trick yourself into believing that undergrads are actually eighth-graders.) And when I studied in Paris at 20, I was "mademoiselle." At 26, definitively "madame." This before wearing any marital-status-signaling jewelry.

We always feel an age we once were, or maybe a bunch of different ones, but just not the one we are. We remain the same amount younger than our parents, and our peers age as we do. A number - or, more often, a detail - will get fixed in our mind as intrinsically part of our identity. As in: 'I am someone who gets carded. '(Maybe so at 24, but by 38, unlikely, except at places that make a point in carding even the elderly. Not that 38 is elderly! Not that there's anything wrong with being elderly! Gar!) Or - and this is for the laydeez - 'I am someone who wears a size six,', or, 'who takes an A cup.' We often think of our builds as what they once were, and fail to immediately hone in on the sizes/styles most appropriate for our current shape.

And this carries over to celebrities as well, especially stars we remember from their time as child actresses. If we think of Alexis Bledel as that girl from "Gilmore Girls," of course it's shocking that she could be 30. But if we look at the photo of the woman who is 30, not so much. She looks good - famous actresses do tend to manage that - but older than when she was playing a teen.

Thus - I suppose - the expression "premature aging" - it all feels premature.

So some of this isn't even about wanting to be/look young, but more of a pretentious musing on the passing of time. But we also want to look young - and this one's gender-neutral - for reasons not unlike scrappiness oneupmanship, reasons specific to living in a meritocracy. If you've achieved X before you started going gray, or before you noticed those lines on your forehead, then you're basically a child prodigy. For those new at any life stage, there's something amazing about the fact that you do the same thing as that real grown-up over there.

But the obvious one is that we - women, but not only - want to not look 30, or want "30" to look like something other than 30 because of cultural messages we've received about 30 being the official end of attractiveness. Which - as all the drama that goes on among the over-30 set should attest - it does not. All those people writing to advice columnists about their spouses having affairs with coworkers, well, not everyone working in an office is 22, and the 22-year-olds by and large want little to do socially with those much older.

Much like the BMI Project, "This Is 30" could be helpful in showing us that yes, 30 looks like 30, but looking 30 isn't a disaster. Anything that gets us away from images of the overweight as permanently gloomy and eating fries from a drive-through, anything that gets us past the idea that at 30, all women go from fun and lighthearted to haggard, worn-out from family life or, conversely, cougar'd up in desperate search of a man, I suppose can only help.

And I fully agree with Elizabeth's fifth point, especially re: 30-year-olds looking better than they did at 16. We-as-a-society seem incapable of comprehending that while the very prettiest of 16-year-olds are what our culture deems most attractive, most individuals at that age have bad skin and the wrong haircuts for their hair type or facial structure. Yes, young girls get more street attention than grown women, but this is less because men prefer the barely-pubescent than because that's who's most readily intimidated on the street, that's who one can get a rise out of.

(MucinexD-fueled) UPDATE

This was to be my response in the comments to one commenter, then another, then all, so I figured I'd throw it here. But basically, my question to all who say that they looked forward to turning 30, that 30 is really quite young and not so different from 25, etc., is what our goal is here. As in, is our point to say that our entire societal conception of age is messed-up and misogynistic? Or that while 30 isn't old, some other age is - be it 40, 50, or just 35?

Bringing up - sorry! - another sitcom reference: the episode of "Absolutely Fabulous" where Edina turns 40. Edina refuses to acknowledge this fact, and stays upstairs for most of her own 40th birthday party. Meanwhile, downstairs, the new, New Agey wife of one of Edina's ex-husbands is holding forth on how happy she was to turn 40. At which point Edina's mother (think a British Betty White) asks her, "And when will you be 50?" Which sends her into full-on panic mode, at which point the ex-husband dude says, "She hasn't started 50 therapy yet."

Point being, one way is a feminist rejection of social constructions of age, the other simply moving up the age at which a woman becomes "past-it." The latter isn't necessary anti-feminist, and is to a certain extent just common sense. 30 these days isn't, at least in some milieus, what it once was. Yes, yes, fertility remains fairly set, but a) not every woman wants to have biological children (or can, even at 20), and b) the vast majority of situations a woman will find herself in have zilch to do with her capacity to bear a child. But to point out that 30 still constitutes "youth" isn't exactly a feminist message, because it doesn't change the terms of the debate.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Guilty as (over-)charged

Long, long ago, when I was a young'un, a recent college grad and newish grad student filled with energy and dreams, I wrote somewhat disparagingly about a Chronicle of Higher Ed feature on academics' guilty pleasures. No Perez Hilton? No $10 Prospect Heights martinis? C'mon, guys.

But nowadays, I kind of get it. Not all of academia follows this trajectory - I was briefly at an astrophysics-postdoc keg party this past weekend - but me, I'm nicely settled into middle age, and my guilty pleasure these days is to go to the Greenmarket and load up.

But this is guiltier than it sounds! Guilty because what exactly am I doing at 11:45 on a weekday, wandering around, buying groceries, when I have a car, live in the suburbs, and am meant to be in the weekly-haul mode? Shouldn't I just buy vegetables at Wegmans or Whole Foods like a normal person?

Guilty because why did I just spend $3.50 on a bunch of arugula? (Then, at another stand, $2 for what looked identical.) Still a bargain compared with any arugula salad purchased outside, but the calorie-to-cent ratio here can't be impressive.

Guilty also because not all vegetables survive the journey, nor do all eventually get consumed - it's possible, apparently, to overestimate one's own future enthusiasm for broccoli rabe. (I like the idea of broccoli rabe. Readers, expect a post sometime on the many foods I like the idea of.) At home, there are ears of corn for fresh-corn salad, there's lacinato kale for that shredded-kale salad, there's so much basil, arugula, all of it perhaps asking to be turned into one of those "cleanse" smoothies for lack of will to prepare it more appetizingly.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Towards a tip-jar economy

The New York Times, which itself offers unpaid internships, calls out unpaid internships, and questions whether the fashion industry can claim liberal credentials when it so relies on that form of labor. This itself is maybe worth pausing on, but let's press further:

Ginia Bellafante reminds us what we already knew (children of privilege can afford to work for free; the fashion industry's a main offender), but adds something new (a mention, buried within the story, of a specific paid job that has since been turned into an unpaid position, thereby casting doubt on whether there's some fundamental difference between work that merits pay and an educational experience). Also: that you can be an unpaid intern in retail. So add that to unpaid internships at Thai restaurants, for aspiring personal assistants, for academic researchers, for oh, just about everything. If we haven't already reached the stage of unpaid baristas, an economy in which everyone under 30 is paid exclusively via tip jar, via the whim or goodwill of their better-off elders, give it a few weeks.

This is new, but not that new - remember the "Seinfeld" episode where perennially unemployed Kramer gets an intern from a certain university where I happen to be in grad school. The kid is just his unpaid errand boy, until the university puts a stop to it? (Bringing us the line: "As far as I can tell, your entire enterprise is little more than a solitary man with a messy apartment which may or may not contain a chicken.") 1997.

But it does seem to be getting worse. Consider that of 6,599 jobs listed for students at that same university (on-campus, but mostly off-, a mix of jobs and internships), if you narrow this down to "paid," a mere 2,096 pop up. It's possible that some job-jobs aren't thinking to specify that they, you know, pay, when they post their listings, but tentatively going by these numbers, it appears that a third of listed employment possibilities for students at this enormous university are ones for which you get any compensation whatsoever. (Remember that a paid internship is going to mean a stipend, which may be below minimum wage. And those would fall under the 2,096 paid opportunities.)

And we don't quite seem to be at the point where we understand that the existence of unpaid internships itself reduces the number of jobs available, that this isn't (always) simply a matter of employers not having enough money to hire entry-level staff. And that's how the justification goes - it's half that interns are learning, half that In These Economic Times, if you want to fill your days with resume-building, non-vegetating activity, you have to take what you can get. When in fact, what goes on is, not just little artsy and/or non-profit outfits, but also big corporations, purveyors of the most in-your-face luxury, realize that the market allows them to pull an unfortunately-we-cannot-afford-to-pay-but-this-is-a-valuable-learning-experience, and to tag that weak justification onto a posting for a job that was at one time (perhaps until this very job opening!) a paid position.

So yes, it is about whether the employer or employee gets more out of the arrangement, but the employee is getting more because of desperation, because the market is such that many need the job, even unpaid, more than the employer needs the envelopes stuffed, and not (necessarily) because of anything learning-experience-specific.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A feminist case for teachers' unions

The Internet is split over whether liberals/progressives should support the Chicago teachers’ strike. The pro-strike side has the more obvious case – you know, labor organizing. But the anti- has a clear-enough-seeming case as well: teachers in Chicago make on average over $70k, while their students come from poor or working-class families, and it’s those very students – Think of the Children! – who suffer when there’s no school. A lot seems to come down to whether you view teachers as entitled members of a cushy profession, or as underpaid-considering-their-education do-gooders who know better than our nation’s best-looking mayor what’s best for our schools.

To weigh in on this issue, one is expected to provide one’s own biographical position with respect to education. So: my father’s mother and mother’s father were both NYC public-school teachers. I myself have been known to teach a class from time to time, but as a grad-student adjunct, which both does and doesn’t tell me what it’s like for teacher-teachers. The public high school I went to was on the one hand an exaggerated version of a teacher-tenure disaster (teachers arrived, as I recall, based on seniority, so we got the very old, who were not always the very competent. What they’d won was, in effect, a chance to teach kids without discipline issues), and on the other, a place where it hardly mattered that the AP economics teacher conducted class by copying the textbook word for word onto the board. Most students would go to college – many to top ones – regardless. There were some great teachers, but no one was under the impression that what made the school special was overall teacher quality. Maybe that's since changed, maybe I'm far off, maybe the other economics teacher wasn't so hopeless, but that's how I remember it. Oh, and I was at private school for nine years, but my memory of 5-13 is spotty, and focused more on social interactions with peers than Miss or Mrs. Whomever.

With that out of the way, why "a feminist case for teachers' unions"? Teaching, as I've said before, and as Nicholas Kristof gives me reason to say again, is a profession with certain... particularities, ones specific, I think, to primary and secondary ed, and that dwindle once we're talking about educating the 18-and-up. For one, we consider it unacceptable that any child - remember to think of them, those children - would be in a classroom with any teacher not in the top X% of teachers. Logically, it ought to be clear why, no matter which reforms are enacted, some teachers will always be the worst, within each school, within each school system, but never mind that - it's truly horrible that there would be children - sweet, innocent children - forced to contend with less than the best. 

For another, our (popularly-accepted, not talking social science) scale for measuring good and bad teachers is matched only, I think, by how we assess open-heart surgeons. As in, mediocrity is tragedy. So on the one hand, we talk of the "bad" teachers who are just bad, who conduct class as an exercise in autobiographical monologue, who offer a final course grade of "B+" without any explanation of where that came from (no feedback throughout the semester), or, of course, who break whichever of the legal and ethical rules governing the job, and get written up in the Daily Mail Online accordingly.

For yet another - and these are all connected - we imagine that teachers do what they do out of love. Love not of the material, or conveying the material, but of The Children. That teaching - and this really doesn't carry over to university teaching - is a thin, ambiguous line away from parenting. The study Kristof likes to cite, about how a bad teacher means that students are more likely to get pregnant during high school, to not earn much at 28 (does grad school count???), etc., reinforces this notion that a teacher is more than a teacher, but basically a parent. And "parent" is a commonly-used euphemism for "mother." A bad teacher, a mediocre teacher, is, in some primal sense, a mother who's failed.

Teachers' unions - separate from the pros and cons of unionization in general - exist to remind us that teaching is a job. Without this reminder, the feminine, nurturing image of the work (which presumably impacts male teachers as well) would allow it to readily slip into that nebulous world of tasks for which it would be greedy to expect something so crude as monetary compensation. And this is a real danger especially in this day and age, when increasingly everything is an unpaid internship. If no structure were in place to make sure teaching didn't go that route, who's to say that wouldn't happen? What, you want rent money? That must mean you don't care about children, you cold-hearted you-get-the-idea. 

A reminder that teaching is a job is also a reminder that as with any other job, there will be top performers, weak ones, average ones, incompetent ones, and so on. It's great, I think, to have a conversation about job security, about whether the incompetent have too much of it, and about whether a so-so teacher ought to be fired or retrained. But unionization helps us remember that this is a job done by real human beings, and that however selective the profession becomes, there will always be some teachers who are not Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" crossed with the sweetest mom that ever there was. That rather than thinking only of the children, we should think of the teachers as well. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exciting job opportunity

A Thai restaurant in the Village is looking for a "management intern." Unpaid. "The intern will have the opportunity to learn basic management skills within the fast-paced New York City food industry. The intern will handle basic office responsibilities (book keeping, faxing, responding to phone calls, emails, and file organizing)." 

I think - fear - that this is what's referred to when people talk about "Plan B" option for humanities graduate students.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cheapness studied and inadvertently ignored

Readers may be familiar with a tag on WWPD called "cheapness studied then deliberately ignored." This refers to, say, a truly excellent pair of shiny ballet flats, purchased despite no true need, and despite the existence of equivalent flats for half the price. Today was not that kind of day. I managed to:

-Get change for a $5 when I'm 99% sure I'd given a $10 at the Greenmarket. (Why I, a person who lives in the country with a car, was buying produce at a farmers market in Manhattan, is material for another post about general rather than financial ineptitude. Although I kind of think this does make sense, given the poor quality of produce in supermarkets here, and the pain-in-the-neck it is to access the alternatives.)

-Think I'd be frugal by walking to Penn Station, stopping for coffee-and-non-teaching-work along the way. Managed to go to a café in Chelsea where an iced coffee is $3.75. An iced coffee. No foam, no espresso.

-Lose a Metrocard with close to $20 on it, that had been deep in a pocket, but not, alas, in my wallet, which would have been ideal. GAAAAAHHHHHHHH.

It's possible that this has something to do with commute-related fatigue. Will take that into account and institute a policy of hyper-vigilance. Fellow commuters, parents of head-in-the-clouds fourth-graders, your suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On a lighter note

Two Australian (?) women on the subway, of a certain age and in the TOWIE/Real Housewives mold. One is telling the other about a certain "Dr. Zizmor," indicating an ad on the train, and listing the procedures available. Something with a laser. The other is writing down the address and phone number in a notebook.


View from the Village, 6th Ave.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A full day

-Pastry success: this morning's croissant did not (as far as I know) make contact with the floor. Next stage of becoming an early-morning person: figuring out some way to consume food and caffeine before teaching that doesn't involve shelling out $6. Coffee out seems non-negotiable, unless someone can recommend a thermos that could keep coffee hot and in-thermos on the bike-train-train-train route.

-No, young man in the building where I teach who asked, I'm not a freshman at the business college. For so many reasons, you've got the wrong person. (Yet the "are you Jewish?" Hasids have been leaving me alone.)

-Even if the textbook hasn't yet gotten to être, the students need être. Otherwise they get confronted with "nous sommes" and... explaining what this means not in relation to "je suis" just leads to problems.

-Had vegetarian (but coulda fooled me - visually, at least) duck basil stirfry (pad gra prow, mmm) at Galanga and Amy's Bread dessert (lemon layer cake) with an NYU friend, leading to possible culinary jealousy on the part of a certain NYU-grad spouse. Goals for the semester include not spending what I make teaching entirely on lunch, so maybe this won't be an everyday thing. But with a Dos Toros taco (sorry!) a mere $4, sushi from Sunrise Mart about the same, there is hope.

-Saw a woman "smoking" an electronic cigarette on the subway. No one else seemed to notice, suggesting that this could well have been a thing on public transportation in the city for a while now, and it takes a country girl like me to pick up on it.

-Somehow ended up schlepping home a pound each of Murray's mozzarella and Oren's coffee, because clearly the state of New Jersey sells neither this rare cheese variety nor this obscure caffeine-having bean.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The politics of YPIS

Who is it who uses the expression, "your privilege is showing"? In those words, or that message phrased otherwise?

YPIS, we may imagine, is the cry of the underdog. After so much 'well, we all know how it is to have yacht troubles,' someone who sure does not will finally reach a breaking point and inform the group as much.

Or we figure it's a phrase picked up at liberal-arts colleges, once awareness has been raised of the fact that not everybody was fortunate enough to go to high school at Andover, to have parents with advanced degrees, to be white. It's born, in other words, of liberal guilt. It's liberal haves trying to create safe spaces for (largely theoretical) have-nots. As in, sure, everyone in the room has a yacht, but let's remember that if someone yacht-less were to enter, they'd feel really bad if their yachtlessness were highlighted.

Both of these are about the calling-out of cluelessness, and are ways of upholding (or introducing) political correctness. They're about alerting the oblivious to structural inequalities. In doing so, maybe they're inspiring some sort of movement to level the playing field, or maybe not. Bringing us to...

I tend to think YPIS falls further to the right of the left-right spectrum than we might think. This for two reasons. First, there's the fundamentally conservative use of YPIS, or more to the point, of the (not universally appreciated) expression, "first-world problems." It's the assumption that by verbally acknowledging privilege, inequality has been sufficiently addressed, removing the need for any social-justice concerns. It reinforces the divide between an "us" that has and a "them" that does not. It seems to be about being ill-at-ease with one's own privilege, but actually gives the impression that this privilege is in no way precarious.

Second, of course, is scrappiness oneupmanship. This is when YPIS is used to demonstrate that, while Party B is where he is in life just 'cause, Party A, you know, "built it." This is important because YPIS is generally used among those who now have, either by or on behalf of those who claim they once didn't have. Even if it's rarely the cry of the actual self-made (who, when not trying to make it as politicians, tend to play down their humble origins), YPIS is a plea in favor of self-made-ness.

All of this comes back to, and was partially inspired by, the Brooks-Douthat noblesse oblige argument. What, for some conservatives, makes a Romney better than an Obama is that a Romney knows knows knows knows knows he's privileged, whereas an Obama - who well remembers what it's like not to be in that world - maybe does not. Romney has no self-conception as scrappy, whereas Obama might.

If it's the classic cluelessness - not knowing how to do basic chores, say - then a meritocratic elite would seem to win out. But maybe not? Precisely because today's meritocrats don't get how much they have (goes the argument whose conclusion I don't buy, as I'll get to...), they don't create a stoic, austere life stage for their young. Thus, most glaringly, today's college experience. Students have the audacity to live in Target-furnished splendor.

As I see it, though, the reason meritocratic elites aren't interested in having their college-student offspring sleep on splintery boards isn't that they're trashily nouveau. It's that they understand that their status is precarious, even if it's not as precarious as all that, although In This Economy... Knowing you're from a well-established family is quite different, you-can-just-relax-wise, than knowing your parents both went to law school. Psychologically, at least. There's not the same psychological need, then, for meritocrats to embrace artificial rituals intended to mimic hardship. Even in a poorly-functioning meritocracy, there's the sense, however unfounded it may be, that one could lose everything at any time.

So does this mean that we should resign ourselves to born-leader-ish leaders, to graying Ken dolls out of Nick at Nite who gosh darn get things done? Far as I'm concerned, that doesn't really solve the YPIS issues. If the meritocrats (born-rich and otherwise) imagine they're less privileged than they really are, the patrician always-hads, for their part, tend to imagine that their own experience might be defined as "normal." This was, at any rate, my experience at school with people from Romney-like families. They on the one hand knew to feel grateful for what they had, but on the other, imagined that everyone with less was "poor." Making them, of course, middle-class. Noblesse oblige is an interesting idea, but if the nobles fail to see the gradations, if they believe anyone who can't afford to send a kid to private school is basically tragic, if this, then... And as I finish some must-do tasks now, I shall let commenters finish the thought below, or let lurkers finish it silently.

On having lost the capacity for embarrassment

Today, I insisted that I could totally feed and walk Bisou before leaving in the middle of the night (or so it feels like) to go on the bike-train-train (or train-train-train, depending) trip into the city. It's possible that this will be better when I'm more on this schedule, and today, all went smoothly until, promptly after buying an almond croissant, I grabbed it from the wrong part of the (incredibly symmetrical!) bag, and dropped it right on the floor of the coffee shop, in front of a long line of super-posh morning-rush workers. I made a mental note of what part of it had touched the floor, considered that the floor of this particular coffee shop is probably cleaner than the kitchen of the place I'd gotten lunch at the previous day, picked up the thing, and went on my way. OK, I briefly scanned the line for any of my students, to see if I'd need to refer to this incident in class, but that was it.

It was only after all this that it occurred to me that I'd just been in an embarrassing situation. The stuff of teen-mag letters. I'd not only dropped the thing, but picked it up again (it was $3! the floor at this place in the early morning is spotless! and who knows where anything you buy outside has been!), which, yeah, might be interpreted as a George Costanza move. (Getting a dog has cured me of all germophobia. What use is hand sanitizer when a creature that licks everything surprises you with kisses?)

In any case, that café is by far the most expensive of the three possible morning pit-stops, so maybe it's just that I already had in the back of my mind that I wouldn't be back any time soon. The (middle of the) almond croissant wasn't anything special. Maybe I do still have a capacity for turning beet-red, not just while jogging, but in these moments as well. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Reports from the longest day ever

-Class itself: fun. Sorting out the mystery that is online homework: less so. A work in progress, but to be resolved, I estimate, in the next 24 hours. I see how great it will be once it's going smoothly, but that time has not yet come. A sign, no doubt, that I am ancient. I think today's undergraduates expect this kind of assignment. In my day, French homework was written in hieroglyphics.

-"Hey beautiful," said some guys on Broadway near Penn Station. Not to me, but to the woman walking next to me. A foot taller, and about as much wider (but in all the right ways, I suppose), and, most saliently, wearing shorts about as short as bikini underpants, and heels. If I were under 25, this would just be a Slutwalk story about street harassment, in solidarity with this woman who had every right to go out on a hot and humid day in a revealing outfit. And that's a totally valid argument that I support intellectually (caveat being that as cat-calling goes, this particular remark is likely to elicit the least fury). But I'm close enough to 30 that this is also a story about being the woman not called beautiful. Even if my choice of attire (jeans, backpack, flats) may have mattered more than my haggard 29-ness.

-Crowds and delays at Penn Station, with a guy next to me eating (what else) a bag of artificial-butter-flavor popcorn. Upon finally getting a train (and not, mind you, the train I'd arrived in good time for and intended to get), I ended up in some sort of river of unclassifiable NJ Transit fluid, which has now soaked through much of my backpack and, alas, bike helmet strap. The real concern, though, is that this is some kind of omen about the trains, and my strategy of arriving in the city about an hour before I teach (a morning class, to be clear) is actually cutting it too close. Not enough of one to merit going in at 5am to be on the super-safe side. But still.

-Approximately three dozen smaller but cumulatively significant-at-the-time concerns I'm now forgetting because it's late.

-Was this all cancelled out by fish-and-chips and low-alcohol beer with the astrophysicists? I'm going to say yes. Getting out of the house, never a bad idea.

The referendum on meritocracy

Watched some of last night’s DNC, fell asleep post-Michelle (who had just proven herself capable of being president as well as supermodel-in-chief, as well as someone who could totally have been Meryl Streep if she'd gone that direction, but remember, folks, she’s just a mom!), typing this in Word offline on the train... more biking, trains, teaching, more figuring out my students' newfangled online workbook, and have yet to read any DNC commentary, so if what follows was everyone’s assessment, either I’ll notice later or you’ll tell me in the comments.


David Brooks set up this idea, and Ross Douthat applied it to Romney specifically: meritocracy sounds just, but is unjust in its real-life application. More to the point, whether or not in the abstract, this new way of choosing leaders is fair, it hasn’t come through with results. The winners of this contest – whether up from bootstraps or merely the children of professionals inculcated with great work ethics – may be more morally entitled to their status than were the WASP elites that preceded them, but they’re not necessarily proving to be any better at leadership. The banks! Jobs! Whatta mess! 

Thus, as Douthat noted, why all the tunafish-nonsense detracted from the message. It’s clear that Romney’s life hasn’t been one of privilege in the Paris Hilton (or, more accurately, heir-or-heiress-who-never-had-the-get-up-and-go-to-seek-publicity) sense, of lounging about. But – as the Daily Show take on this showed so elegantly – Romney’s case for having “built” his own success is, given his family of origin, implausible.

Which brings us to last night. I first tuned in when a gay Jewish entrepreneur gave a speech in which he mentioned not only Americans of different religions, but also non-believers. Woohoo! Then at one point or another the pizza I was making for dinner split in two while still raw, in the oven. Waa! Then a woman appeared onstage who, as PG in her usual spot-on waynotes, won the scrappiness competition hands-down, being quite literally scrapsof her former self, having lost both legs (and an arm?) in battle. A woman of color, even. I mention the pizza, of course, for waambulence reasons. What have I, limbs intact, got to complain about? Yet, in the moment, complain I did.

The theme of non-complaining continued into Michelle Obama’s turn. Her speech… I was in awe. She managed to be on one level the sweet, unthreatening just-a-mom, the devoted wife, the stunning First Lady (great early-1960s makeup, I so approve), and on another, to offer up a really harsh counter-argument to Ann Romney. There was the tale of Michelle’s father – conveniently revealing how a worse case of the very condition Ann suffers from goes for someone without access to the best medical care or the option of not working outside the home. (Too sneaky, or brilliant? Discuss.) There was a reference to how they value “truth” – take that, Paul Ryan! Mitt and Ann used to eat pasta? Well, Barack and Michelle had student loans. Facts like these you can’t argue with. The Obamas came from so much less, and are that much more personally impressive. You can, however, argue about what to make of that. You can't really get around that this makes their case for scrappiness more honest than Ann Romney's DIY table. But is scrappy what the people want?

As an Obama supporter, I hope this works. I'm endlessly impressed by the Obamas, and more to the point, on almost all the issues, I prefer the Democratic agenda. (My Zionism is not a far-right one, my leftiness of the center variety, meaning I don't find the party too conservative, and I'm a big ol' social liberal, so a Democrat I shall be.) But I fear that there’s a part of the scrappiness message that could turn off some voters, namely those who either started off with more than they did, ended up with less, or both. Those who have it tough and do sometimes complain about it. Those who work, yes, but not that hard.

Even though the Republicans have this bootstraps message, there's a sense in which, if you believe in meritocracy, they're not the obvious choice. Republicans don't really care if someone's privilege is showing, because if they're self-made, they built it, and if they're not, well, their parents or grandparents did, and at least the government in no way contributed a drop.

On more sleep, and with less of my brain wrapped around the concept of online homework, I suspect I'd have more (or less but better) to add. In the mean time, you the commenters, have at it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Profundity of the day

A phenomenon not unlike the blonde brunette: defining "curly" hair as what happens when a woman with fine, straight hair uses bobby pins to create beachy/glamorous waves. Women with naturally wavy-to-kinky hair, you see why this is absurd. To the rest, the problem here is that these "curly" styles - meant to be indicative of pride in one's natural hair texture - are achieved only by straightening hair and then curling it strategically later on. It is in fact lower-maintenance to just flat-iron your hair and be done with it.

The workaday world

The commute continues to happen, with the new glitch that post-Labor Day, the line at the croissant-and-coffee establishment has about as many people on it as I saw the entire last year living in the woods. My own memory of how this sort of line moves was good enough that I correctly assessed that I had time to inhale a chocolate croissant and bring the iced coffee with and still get to class a few minutes early, but this does complicate matters. Will the coffee place I'd go to if I took a West Side train rather than East be any better in this regard? I'd forgotten this about teaching, but having a gigantic iced coffee - thirst and caffeine needs both addressed - is key. The advantage of the place I went today is that they put a shot of espresso in theirs. Thus (given that this is the drink everyone orders) the line.

(Yes, the cheapness-acceptable answer is to have bulk oatmeal at home at 5am or whatever before I leave, but I'm easing into this one step at a time, and if butter pastries pave the way, so be it.)

Other glitches: a white, button-down shirt sends a nice, professional message, but invites bike-lock grease. It just does. And lifting my over-stuffed backpack on the train, the thing finally gave out. Not entirely, but enough that it's probably time for a new one. Class itself was fun, though. Stay tuned for reports on the egregious manners of NJ Transit commuters (flicking dirt from under nails out with teeth!) and (my appetite regained) my myriad quests to stuff as much NYC food down my gullet before the semester is done.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

"[T]he most important American value of all"

I've watched some of the RNC, and can make the following observations:

-The guiding principle of the speeches appeared to be scrappiness oneupmanship. Necessary both to inject some populism into a campaign for the least rabble-rousing Republican ever, and to stay with the "we built it" message. ('I come from humble beginnings. My medieval ancestors didn't have indoor plumbing.' was the general idea.) I especially enjoyed hearing about Ann Romney's Welsh coal miner heritage. As someone of Canadian-Jewish peddler and didn't-get-out-of-Europe-on-time heritage, who never thinks to assimilate that story into my own grew-up-UMC-in-New-York one, I now see I've been doing it all wrong. If your parents didn't have much - or, heck, if someone you're vaguely related to wasn't in fact a member of the British royal family - this is part of your story. Your third cousin twice removed once took public transportation? Fair game. Oh, and there was that time when Mitt ate pasta! Mitt, you see, got a JD-MBA from Harvard, which tells us not that he's a fancy elite, but rather that he experienced life as a broke grad student, which is an experience not entirely unlike being poor.

-"Our national motto is 'In God we Trust,' reminding us that faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all." This from the allegedly reasonable one, Marco Rubio. This remark, which sheds doubt on the loyalty of a great many Americans, is really up there with the Akin "gaffe." If you don't have faith in the god Marco Rubio believes in, you're basically an enemy of the state. Some evidently go for this sort of rhetoric, and yes, a (problematic) motto supports it, but it's just reprehensible. How could a country with religious freedom also be one where to be a patriot, you have to hold specific religious views? And this is, remember, above and beyond the usual "person of faith" rhetoric, where that "faith" could be deism, Zoroastrianism, whatever. This is saying that you need a particular kind of religion, or else. Nor is it like, "May God bless America," which is at least plausibly about the individual saying this expressing his own views. No, this is different. Where's the outrage?