Monday, April 14, 2014

Mideast, Midwest

A brief interruption in my afternoon to respond, in vague terms, to something I've seen floating around online in various capacities: The proper response to a hate crime directed at Jews in Kansas City is not - I repeat, not - a discussion of Israel. Not of Zionism, not of the justification-or-not for a Jewish state, not of specific Israeli policies. Not of civil marriage or lack thereof in Israel. Ugh. WWPD-ing this so as to avoid potentially more time-draining Facebook discussions.

To refrain from using this recent crime as a point of departure for that conversation isn't, obviously, to say that Israel isn't flawed. In fact, this approach is entirely consistent with believing that Israel is the most flawed country to ever exist, should never have been founded, etc. The problem with this line of thought isn't that it's excessively critical of Israel, it's that a neo-Nazi white supremacist trying to kill Jews outside of Israel has zilch to do with Israel.

It's some mix of wacky and dehumanizing to treat an attack on American Jews as some kind of political statement about the Middle East, particularly given that what we're so plainly looking at here isn't a well-meaning pro-Palestinian activist gone violent, but an old-timey racist anti-Semite who expresses his anti-Semitism in the language of the day, which includes but isn't limited to "criticism of Israel." Say the attacks had been at Muslim establishments. Would that be appropriate impetus to launch a discussion of Iran or Saudi Arabia? I'd like to think that we'd readily understand that the issue was racism/xenophobia/intolerance, and not start turning to the victimized group in question and nitpicking the failings of some of its members.

Perhaps, given the method of choice, we might consider that this crime has something to do with gun culture in the country where this crime has taken place. I'm quite prepared to believe that the availability of guns, and not rampant anti-Semitism in pockets of Missouri's elderly population, is the real story here. Maybe we want to look into that, and not what Israel could change about its policies for the purpose of calming down revved up anti-Semites in the southern Midwest.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Up and down the stairs

Netflix did warn that "Upstairs, Downstairs" would be addictive, but there should be some special warning above and beyond that for people already somewhat addicted to that part of European history. To questions of emerging modernity, of the changes in family life, of the mingling of aristocrats and upwardly mobile Jews. I mean, I'm sure everyone has trouble not allowing the next episode to start, but if you're picking up on every last hint they're dropping that World War I is imminent, gah! It's the soap opera version of my dissertation, but across the channel.

As much as I get that it's, you know, fake, I start getting very much into the show, really living the history, really concerned about the outbreak of World War I. Now, this one's kind of new for me. As a child, I had many nightmares about the other World War (due to what may have been excessively early and explicit Holocaust education), but WWI is not something I'd ever feared on a personal level. But now! You just see what's coming! Someone writes "1914" in an inscription and you're like, watch out! They don't know about trench warfare, but it's imminent! Nothing will ever be the same! So much for Europe!

Where I'm at in the series, it's not looking good. The house just took in a family of refugee Belgian peasants. Because a good % of my family-by-marriage would have been war-torn Belgian farm-folk at the time, and because when it comes to this show I apparently have too easy of a time suspending disbelief, I start to think that this is somehow a documentary about whichever French-speaking relatives my husband may have had back in the day.

So I was alarmed, to say the least, when I heard this historical reenactment this morning. I had to remind myself that no, I'm not in Belgium (the bright-blue skies gave that away) and no one's invading New Jersey at the moment.

Friday, April 11, 2014


I'm going, at last! To Kyoto, Takayama, and Tokyo, but with most of the time in Tokyo. Recommendations? Kei? Gwyneth?

In other, more immediate news, I have a fitness accomplishment to humblebrag about: I now finally outrun a miniature poodle. After several runs with my oh-so-athletic neighbors (most of whom are far taller than I am, forcing me to go that much faster), I've gotten out of whichever plateau. But I only learned this when I took Bisou for a run and found that she - she! - was lagging. I also had the sudden realization that, for my friends here, going running with me is probably much like what I experience going with Bisou.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Smile for #tbt

I have never thrown back on a Thursday before, but here goes: In honor of "smile" catcalling finally getting its due, my 2005 post on the phenomenon.

Back when I was still young and urban enough to have these experiences on a regular basis, there wasn't any particular movement or vocabulary fighting it. No phrase "bitchy resting face" to describe the withering glance some give to others in the coffee shop/library/subway whether or not they're trying to. No widespread acknowledgment that calls to smile are insulting. This was the one I was always getting, and it always made me feel kind of guilty - like maybe I should smile more! Maybe I should greet total strangers with a grin and wish them a good day just for the heck of it!

Because self-awareness is imperfect at best, I saw non-smiling-ness as more about being a cynical New Yorker (or whatever the opposite is of "cornfed") and only eventually (around when I wrote that post, I suppose) began to connect it to being young, female, and someone creepy men wanted smiling at them. It makes me smile to see that today's recipients of this are responding in an organized manner.

Tomboy overanalyzed

If a child explores his or her gender and his or her parents don't write about it for a major publication, did said gender exploration really occur? The latest: a mother telling the NYT readership every nuance of her 5-year-old daughter's tomboy-ness, poring over every detail. What does it all mean? Transgender is offered as a possibility; gay, somewhat bafflingly, is not, even thought he whole piece is on some level about its author's tremendous unstated fear that her daughter's a lesbian (see the Cinderella bit). Either way, why does this girl need a permanent record (this being, presumably, her mother's real name) of her gender identity aged 5, as perceived by her mother?

Given the tremendous likelihood that this girl (whether ultimately gay, straight, or bi) is not transgender (reason being, few are), maybe she doesn't want 'that time when mom thought I identified as a boy' etched in internet-accessible stone? Or say the girl does identify as a boy - maybe he, as an adult, isn't going to want such a public record of the first inklings of this as recorded by his mother?

From writing about parental overshare in the past, I know the counterargument - that there's nothing wrong with being gender-non-conforming, so why shouldn't these things be out in the open? Indeed - goes this counterargument - it's commendable whenever a parent publishes a tolerant (although this one's borderline...) essay about a gender-non-conforming kid, and, in doing so, models the right kind of parenting behavior.

All most admirable, but what I keep coming back to is, there are certain things only we may reveal about ourselves. Things that others shouldn't judge, but they will. One does not out a friend in a publication as gay or trans, or as having a particular medical condition, or has having been in a crabby mood three weeks ago. Your children are not extensions of yourself, but people in their own right. You don't get to out yourself as a parent-of unless your child (probably one substantially older than 5!) has outed him- or herself about whatever it is.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


Like many women past the age of, say, 25, I'm inclined to want to look younger. But now, all the more so. In the last decade, "The University of Chicago’s [acceptance] rate plummeted to a little over 8 percent, from more than 40 percent." I'll want to pass as someone who went in the 8% years, not who just made it in back in the 40% era. This is, I suspect, futile - while I was carded recently at Trader Joe's, I've been ma'am'd enough to know I don't pass for 17. I am now accepting recommendations for a facial moisturizer, one containing SPF.

Apart from that, what to make of the school's new status as super-selective, as vs. self-selecting? "Self-selecting," oh, that expression, probably on some level a euphemism for not-that-hard-to-get-into, but the school did seem to attract a specific sort of person. I remember a lot of blazers with elbow patches. People who'd read (like, to themselves, silently) at parties, or host "parties" with one or two guests. It wasn't that people didn't drink - this is, I get the sense, what's imagined when one hears that a school is notoriously un-fun - but there was no particular rah-rah, school pride culture. It wasn't a school where you'd see people in shirts with the school logo. There was a normal-college subculture, the handful of students involved in Greek life. And then I remember learning that more than half of my fellow undergrads had majored in economics - and I'd met very few econ majors in college, so there must have been a whole world I never interacted with. The people I did know tended to see themselves as future PhD students, whether they ended up going that route or not.

And so goes my longwinded way of saying that something's bound to change about the school's culture, for better or worse. I mean, this could be the end of the That Guy in one's Hum class - I don't see That Guy sorts making the cut.

So, fellow alums who may still read this thing: thoughts?


Rumors are circulating that a recently deceased young mother and socialite died as a result of month-long juice cleansing. Apparently a cleanse is normally something one does just for a few days, so the results, whatever they may be, are limited. While I have no idea if there's any truth to these rumors, it stands to reason that a liquid-only starvation diet would be maybe not so healthy. Even - yes, even! - if the liquid in question came from kale.

But so goes the pseudoscientific conversation about health. We're told to eat only real foods, and that many ordinary ingredients (milk, white flour, any flour) are unnatural, too processed, not what we evolved to eat. This sort of approach may hold some value for those with specific medical conditions that require specific dietary changes. And whether or not anyone needs to lose weight, there are surely some who, if they did so sensibly, wouldn't be harming themselves. But it seems a mistake to treat one's diet as infinitely perfectible. If what you're eating agrees with you, is it necessarily disastrous to keep doing what you're doing? Could it be that the psychological strain of self-flagellating over use of white rice rather than brown is greater than any physical damage that choice could possibly inflict?

But it really is all so mixed up together, the health and beauty goals in all of this. Into The Gloss, an addictive beauty blog with no significant health angle, profiles a woman whose mysterious (and waistline-expanding) disease improved once she changed her diet. One might think that this woman's advice would be of use primarily to the others suffering from Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, about which I know nothing, and am quite prepared to believe responds to these dietary alterations. But we instead get a headline, "How To Successfully Transition From Junk Food To A Vegan Diet," suggesting that your everyday reader of a beauty blog would benefit from emulating this woman. I mean, "how to"? Why would the general public get instructions on how to eat if you happen to suffer from this rare disease? We do get a mini-disclaimer at the end, that it's great if you just eat more vegetables, but this is all very much presented as, the ideal would be to take things all the purity way.

While yes, transitioning away from an all-junk-food diet is sound enough, universally-applicable beauty and health advice, what you're moving towards might just as easily be a diet of real foods in the common-sense sense, and not a vegan (and, some Googling of this woman's recipe plan informs, gluten- and refined-sugar-free) transformation. Why not, if you do not suffer from a rare disease, consider a diet that allows eating in ethnic restaurants, at friends' houses, etc? Again, but put another way: is the danger greater from an ordinary loaf of bread, or an extreme purity-seeking approach?

Monday, April 07, 2014

Pants (in the American sense)

When I moved to the woods, something happened to how I dress. Gray sweatshirts started to feature more prominently. Shoes became not merely city-walking compatible but poodle-in-woods-compatible, which is another whole level of comfortable. It's not that the previous incarnation had been all that haute - I was living in Paris and NY, but as a grad student and not in the finishing-school sense - but even so, the chances that I'd go out in sweatpants, loafers, and a puffy jacket were slim. I'd make some effort.

Here, I sort of figure, I probably won't see anyone who isn't a deer or squirrel, and everyone human I might see is someone who's seen me in the above-mentioned ensemble. And it would be kind of silly to dress up to write something from the couch at home. I know this is something people do, mimicking officewear for work not done in an office, but do these people's dogs require quite so much muddy exercise? And isn't the advantage of not-an-office the ability to wear sweatpants so old you don't remember if they're from Old Navy or Target?

But today, I was meeting a friend for lunch and thought, I'm going to wear the slightly uncomfortable pants. No, not the British meaning (WWPD has some discretion), just U.S. English for the black Zara jeans I ordered online without knowing the right size, and thus ordered in what's maybe half a size too small. Such that they look normal enough - the ubiquity of stretch is such that, really, how could they not - but are definitively pants and not sweatpants. To the outside world, I looked about as I always do - no 'why the dress, special occasion?' effect, and they're not even all that flattering - but I didn't feel like I was in pajamas.

And then, as the afternoon progressed, something happened. No, not corset-style fainting. A kind of burst of professional activity I'd wanted to catch up on. (Reminder to self: this will happen in the library or the coffee shop more often than at home.) And even a driving mini-adventure - that is, a trip to a strip-mall I'd never driven to alone before. I spent the day feeling very... not glamorous, exactly (it takes more than the Zara jeans for that), but competent. I leaned in, even if leaning in any particular direction posed some difficulty. My epiphany, it seems, is pants.

Your non-Ukranian privilege is showing

It's tough to feel sorry for the men who travel to Odessa in search of their very own Natalia Vodianova, only to get scammed. Shaun Walker offers a nuanced-enough take that it's not obvious what to make of this. These are men whose one source of privilege is being Western (except that apparently men from Saudi Arabia do this as well). They're not rich, they're not charming, they're not good-looking, and they lack the common sense that comes with having social skills on account of... not having social skills.

The usual systems-of-privilege critique would say they're entitled straight white (if indeed they are white) men, which they are. But at the same time, it's a rational approach, for to play up the importance of being male, Western, whatever, because that's their entire appeal. If they were to be more appropriately PC about it and say that these things don't make them better than anyone else, they're then forced to admit that they are in fact worse than everyone else, on account of wanting to settle down and not being able to do so without dropping thousands of dollars on a scam abroad. Men who are no less straight, white, and Western, but have other things going for them, can afford, as it were, to put less emphasis on those qualities. Ideally the scammed men would do what they could to fix what they could (with the relevant therapies?), but they don't seem up to that task.

A possibly more accurate privilege critique would acknowledge the extent to which the qualities that permit those who wish to marry to do so without involving a check to "Anastasia" are themselves forms of privilege - largely fixed, unearned qualities some men lack. But what trips me up, with this interpretation, is that these men claim to want not just a wife, but a submissive supermodel. If they just said, 'Look, we're lonely, Westernness is our best quality, and we'll trade it for companionship,' it might be otherwise. But if the companion must be runway-ready and less than half his age?

Except... is that really the issue? Could it possibly be that these men must tell themselves that they're in it for the 'superior' women, when the fact of the matter is, the age- and looks-appropriate women back home would also reject them?

Of course, what I didn't notice in the article was anything about underage girls, or assault, or intimidation, all things one would imagine might be involved in endeavors of this nature, and that, if mentioned, would immediately get rid of whichever sympathy these fools may otherwise inspire.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

How Isabelle Huppert got her groove back

-In New York, Bisou learned that she had gotten a nice haircut "for New Jersey." This has to be the best underhanded compliment ever.

-And back in New Jersey, I watched "In Another Country," a movie that one is probably supposed to discuss in terms of cinematography, but I will be WWPD about it and mention that what's most interesting is that it chucks two romantic conventions: that the woman must be young (or younger than the man), and that if one party in an opposite-sex romance is to be East Asian, it shall be the woman. The movie's about various women played by Isabelle Huppert going to Korea and falling in and out of love with a bunch of Korean men. Most notably, each of these women gets her groove back with a lifeguard who spends much of the movie running, shirtless, to the shore, "Baywatch"-style. Although the main message is a more predictable one: if you're going to be a woman of a certain age, be French.

-You know how "health" advice is always euphemistic diet advice, as in how to lose weight? I believe I've managed to transcend this with the following suggestion for how to eat one's vegetables/use up the vegetables purchased with best intentions: tempura. Dust them with potato starch (if some is on hand; not sure this step is necessary), and dip in a batter that's a mix of all-purpose flour and seltzer. (Someone online recommended Diet Dr. Pepper in place of the seltzer. I would not do this.) Fry the vegetables (I used eggplant, asparagus, and carrot) in a mix of peanut and sesame oil. For extra carbs, serve with rice.

Bragging rights

I've tried, on so many occasions, to explain that while women care just as much as men about a partner's looks (yes, all women, I have surveyed all of womankind individually), the way this caring expresses itself is quite different. Then along came a Vows that summed this up perfectly. It's about a self-identified geeky guy who marries a bona fide model. The passage in question:

In July 2011, Ms. Perez and Mr. Sirpal, along with some of his friends, took a trip to Nashville. It was an opportunity, he said, for his friends to see he actually was dating a “10.” 
“The guys couldn’t believe she was dating me,” he said with a laugh.

This - this desire not merely to date a "10", but to be witnessed doing so, strikes me as male. Has a woman ever, in the history of humanity, done the same? Most likely. Do all men think like this? Probably not. (Would most men say something like that so openly, to a NYT reporter? One hopes not. Although it has that grating "Vows" quality of, he must think it sounds meet-cute, or benignly flattering to his new wife, and is oblivious to the cringe factor.) But this seems particular to what it means for a man to want to date a beautiful woman. It matters that he finds her beautiful, but also that she is, in some official, verifiable sense, hot. What matters isn't just that she have a kind of beauty that does it for him personally (which will probably overlap with societal ideals), but that her beauty constitutes power in the world at large. Now granted, most men don't marry or even date women who are or ever were models (I've been led to believe the Stuyvesant High School fashion show doesn't count), but this sort of thing plays out among mere civilians as well.

Friday, April 04, 2014

"Other girls" and "exception Jews"

So I was thinking some more about the "other girls" meme. Specifically of a parallel I'd thought of earlier but not known quite how to articulate. The Daria-esque nerdy intellectual girl who imagines all other girls to be surgically-enhanced bleach blondes and, in doing so, expresses a kind of general misogyny thinks she's the exception. (See also: the women who simply can't have female friends. Also: the "basic bitch."*) Well! This already exists for Jews, and has for some time. Hannah Arendt wrote about "exception Jews," who, if I remember correctly, imagined that they weren't like other Jews, that anti-Semitism wasn't about Jews like them, who actively shared whichever anti-Jewish sentiments, who were, in a sense, self-hating, but their issue was, they didn't see themselves as the thing they hated. But then Nazis, and lo and behold, it didn't matter what sort of Jew you were, you counted.

This still kind of exists for Jews, if less so, simply because the things that used to make Jews feel exception-ish ("exceptional" seems the wrong word) no longer would make Jews exceptional. Are you intermarried? Secular? Critical of Israel? Celebrate Christmas? Had a BLT on Yom Kippur? Congratulations - you're just like everybody else, or not everyone, but enough other Jews that you aren't alone. You may still feel a bit of an "exception" if you show up unsuspecting at one of those parties where it turns out everybody's Jewish and knows one another from Jewish activities (and it will only get that much more awkward if someone at the party remarks on how great it is that 'everyone here is Jewish,' and you've brought your spouse), but you can always... not go to those parties.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible to hold forth in a self-deprecating "exception" manner about whichever violation of Jewish tradition, when you could call yourself a "bad Jew" by which you meant to express that you were less Jewish - less provincial, more individual - than the rest, but maybe that day has passed? Or maybe not - Jews who are thoroughly involved in Jewish life will have a whole bunch of other, similar Jews around them. Whereas Jews who are not... there may be many of us, but we're less likely to spend our time in a large, only-Jewish group, so we could still think we were exceptions, if we were so inclined. I'm not.

But gender also plays into this - the 'heh, I'm a bad Jew' approach is something I have trouble picturing coming from a woman. I do have some ideas why, but am not planning a second dissertation to figure it out.

*If you spent any part of yesterday driving through suburban New Jersey in a gray hoodie and a ponytail, singing out loud when your favorite top-40 (is it still called that?) song came on the radio, this video may hit too close to home.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Reading Maupin through a Savage lens

There are no more "Tales" for me - I finally read my last (technically the second-to-last, but I'd read them slightly out of order) of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" series, Mary Ann In Autumn. The storytelling is just fantastic, as always, and that much more moving if you happen to be a dog person, with a small poodle curled up at your feet as you read. (But fear not - nothing that upsetting happens to any dog!)

I knew from Twitter or however else that Maupin and Dan Savage are, if not friends, people familiar with each other's work. Savage talks about Maupin's concept of a "logical family" as vs. a biological one (i.e. you move away from your small-town family that hates you for who you are, and find friends in the big city who become family), and then, in this latest (well, latest-for-me), the late-middle-aged Michael explains that he allows his early-middle-aged husband Ben to have sex with other men because that's the "price of admission" (a Savage coinage, I believe) to be with this much-younger, good-looking, kind, and generally flawless man.

The novel - well, one of the major plotlines - ends up reading like a Savage Love opening monologue. We have on the one hand Mary Ann, whose marriage to a Republican has fallen apart after she's caught her husband cheating with her "life coach," and on the other, Ben and Michael, whose only rule is disclosure. So evolved! The straights - and this is pure Savage - have so much to learn from gay men! (Or maybe not exactly the "straights" - now that I think of it, there's only one straight woman among the numerous main characters, and that's Anna Madrigal, an elderly transwoman who'd had a wife and kid in a previous life. Female sexuality is fluid in these novels.)

It might have been an interesting exploration of what changes in opposite-sex relationships, i.e. of what happens when "monogamish" converges with age-old double-standards, or how, as long as it's assumed that men cheat for variety but women only when unhappy in their relationships, the double-standard is maintained. But instead we learn that Mary Ann cheated as well, so never mind. The only concession to gender, in this context, is that Mary Ann (as a representative of Women) gets chastised for not enjoying a particular sex act that gay men (according to the novel) always do, and not the one you're thinking of. Anyway, fiction! I'd better write my own if I want it to make my arguments about society.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

WWPD Guides: How you know it's time to go to the supermarket

I used to enjoy food-shopping. Or not exactly used to - I did for the fleeting moment that it went something like this. Now that it involves the terribly exciting choice between driving to Wegmans or Whole Foods, there's none of that 'see what looks good at the market.' There's planning. Or there should be planning. I did not plan.

And so, the official WWPD guide to knowing when to grocery-shop:

-You smell the milk, can tell it's gone off, very off, but wonder what that says about buckwheat crepe batter made with that same milk a couple days prior. Upon discovering that the batter smells more like buckwheat than milk, you figure the batter is probably fine, and gets cooked anyway, so. That you continue to feel fine more than 12 hours after the might I say rather Breton breakfast in question may leave you vindicated, but may pose a problem tomorrow morning, when you want milk for your rather American mass-produced dry cereal.

-You find yourself thinking not in terms of meals, but in terms of bits and pieces that could possibly go together on pasta.

-You think of those "sauces" much-vaunted for their authentic Italian simplicity. The one that's just black pepper, parmesan (still a bit of that!, and if you point out that it's meant to be pecorino, you've missed the essence of this post) and pasta water, or that other that's just olive oil and garlic (haven't run out!).

-Or you find yourself trying to build a meal around a single mid-size artichoke. (For the third consecutive night - it was a container with three.) All the hot new farm-to-tables are taking a showcase-the-vegetable approach. Who's to say your apartment isn't a farm-to-table (the ingredients must have come from farms, and you do have a table)?

-Despite knowing full well that the kale you bought with such good intentions at least a month ago hasn't held up, you start guiltily trying to build meals around the kale. But not trying so hard that you actually remove the decaying kale from the fridge and consume whichever parts of it still look decent.

-You're out of jam. Jam! (WWPD finds the science behind giving up refined sugar convincing, but savory pancakes just aren't the same. Not that there weren't other problems with this morning's pancake.)

-You hear a podcast about beer-battered fish tacos and realize that while you do have beer, you don't have fish or tacos.

Why you can't April Fool with fashion

Cupcakes and Cashmere has a post up this morning about "The Statement Anklet," created by wrapping a chunky necklace around your ankle. My first thought was, that's exactly the sort of crafts-looking accessory I wouldn't wear, but then again, I'm not wearing chunky necklaces (or any necklaces) in the first place. But it seemed a perfectly believable suggestion for that blog. If you're being encouraged to tie a denim shirt around the waist of a lime-green dress, why not a statement anklet? Both seem like maybe not the best idea, but these personal-style blogs have to come up with new material. 'You can never go wrong with a navy sweater' isn't going to suffice. Plus, the sillier a newly-invented form of jewelry sounds, the more likely it really is a thing. See: the dainty knuckle ring. Why a statement anklet, but also, why not a statement anklet?