Monday, December 25, 2017

"Kantaro"'s surreal relatability

I have a new favorite television program, and by "television" I mean Canadian Netflix. "Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman," which I'm somewhere in the middle of, tells a story at once universal and highly specific. The highly specific first: it's about a Japanese businessman who gets his sales visits (to bookstores) done as quickly as possible, so as to try desserts in cafés near wherever those visits happen to have taken him. When he arrives at the dessert place, a mildly NSFW but ultimately more suggestive than literal scene ensues: eyes rolled back, syrup splashed, and then, inevitably, his head transforms into the (main ingredient of the) dessert in question. After each visit, he writes on a pseudonymous blog about the culinary experience.

The drama comes from the possibility that Kantaro will get found out at work for slacking off while on the clock. Much suspension of disbelief is needed, because a) he's the best salesperson, so maybe they don't care that he's eating a snack here and there, even if snacking for him evidently requires table service?, but also b) dude could just, like, schedule his blog posts, so it's not obvious where and when he's posting, with the times and places lining up with his sales visits.

So fine, this much is specific: we are not, all of us, Tokyo salesmen with distinctive eyebrows, who reach heights of ecstasy when eating traditional Japanese bean-based desserts.

The universal: who doesn't use Yelp or Google Maps or just a knowledge of whichever area to go eat the most delicious thing near whichever work task? Who doesn't get a doctorate in French in order to eat market cheese and croissants and other delicacies readily affordable even to a grad student, the trick being just to get to Paris in the first place? Who wouldn't choose to live and work near a dreamscape Toronto East Asian food corridor, with a Japanese convenience store in the back of a ramen shop, an H-Mart, and (at least) two amazing izakayas? Who doesn't order a bowl of scallion noodles at a Shanghai-style restaurant and then feel the need to recite exactly what is making the food so exquisite?

I can't quite imagine being as thrilled as he is (or to be honest, thrilled at all) about the prospect of a melon-flavored shaved ice, but replace "melon-flavored shaved ice" with "crema bomboloni" and I see where he's coming from. What makes Kantaro so great is, he's not a foodie in the sense of, he's sharing photos of food on social media for status purposes. He's genuinely thrilled with everything he's eaten, to the point where you're sometimes a little worried about him, and wondering if he should maybe keep a KitKat or something on hand, if the cravings are too much.

In some sense the show isn't even about food - it's about the tension between fun and responsibility, and about the way having just enough time to go do something makes whatever it is that much more enjoyable. In a really boring sense, it's a show about time management - the way that if you're trying to get something big accomplished, it's paradoxically easier to have a routine than to have all the time in the world. Except... it's totally about food.

Which brings me to maybe my biggest question about the show, which is whether Kantaro ever eats... meals. Anything savory? Ever? Or does he have regular meals but feel indifferent to them?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Why 'Ban Men' is not the answer

When Dan Savage declares himself "done with men" in a recent column, it would be a stretch to take that literally. (If nothing else, he is a man, and can't be done with himself.) But when straight or bi or otherwise somewhat-into-men-identified women make declarations along those lines, this is taken seriously. (As in the letter Savage is responding to!) Being done-with-men is... it's not a thing, exactly, so much as an ambient mood. Every day, a new story emerges about another of those men. Men in positions of power being awful. The stories are so plentiful that today, a man I'd actually encountered, in person, in a professional situation, is on the list. (I'd thought I was sufficiently out of the loop that this couldn't happen, but a brief brush with media-stuff is apparently enough.) And if you yourself are not a man, you do have that option, in the abstract at least. No men, none, done with them.

The zeitgeist, then, seems headed towards a world without men - as a dream, if not, of course, a reality. As a millennial, feminist woman, one who has authored countless think-pieces, a New Yorker living in Toronto, a woman who owns a Glossier highlighter for crying out loud, I'm the target audience for women-only spaces, but also for a very modern sexuality that allows women to just sort of opt out of men. Ban men! Men are the worst. I know I should agree to this. And I don't lack for personal experience of certain men - men I knew personally, men in public spaces - being the worst. But... yeah.

That women - some women? most women? - seek out sex with men, seek out sexually charged interactions with men, find men desirable, have partners who are men (without finding their partner's gender a drawback) becomes this lost detail. That a woman would actually want men, and would admit to this, at a time like this, is... passé? problematic? It's an admission that can be made, if at all, with a regretful tone, with this sort of, ugh what a shame, this can't be turned off. That there's any sort of positive joy in attraction to men is taboo.

The "joy" aspect might seem like a side note: What does the female pursuit of pleasure have to do with the far more pressing concern of female victimhood? (Worse: it may come across as nostalgia for old-time office 'flirtation' of the sort that consisted of what is today rightly understood as sexual harassment.) This is why it's important to see that women's desire for men and sexist oppression are intertwined. The expectation of female passivity in hetero relationships is what gives us the rom-com narrative - repeated in real-life (if embellished) examples such as newspaper wedding announcements - where a woman was indifferent to some man in her life, until he pursued her and persuaded her to get past her apathy or even revulsion. Also the pick-up artist myth that every woman is a strategy away from consent.

Female heterosexuality is understood - as I've mentioned before, likely on WWPD - not as a sexual orientation but as a lack thereof. As conventionality. As basic-ness. As agreeability. Which, I mean, I see how it can look that way - the curious privilege, as a woman, of wanting the gender one is expected to want is that one gets to play-act that role - but a moment's reflection on how teen girls (who are for various reasons that would themselves be a post largely exempt from those expectations) respond to heartthrobs suggests that straight and bi women are, yup, attracted to men.

If we were to acknowledge that women want, and more specifically, that women have desires other than being thought hot and available while 22, by men at least two decades their senior, that would... well, that would be at least as dangerous to patriarchy as the conceptual banning of men.

While there may be differences in exactly how men and women - as well as those of varying testosterone levels - experience desire, it's a mistake to imagine (or to infer from the trans man's testosterone anecdote in Savage's post, a story I'd seen somewhere else recently as well - maybe The Rebel Sell?) that women could take or leave the people they're drawn to. It's a mistake - or a fantasy? to think of female desire as the desire for, at best, a very special friend. It's a dangerous mistake, because it leads to a mistaken understanding (see also) of exactly why it is that the villain in nearly all of these cases is a dude. It leads to imagining the reason there are male but not female Weinsteins is that men, but not women, want. As versus that societal power dynamics are such that (some) men are led to believe wanting=getting, while all women are aware that wanting and acting on it entails risk. Risks of all sorts - of violence, of unwanted pregnancy, of ruined reputations, this is all old news.

But there's another risk, which is of falling into the category of... undesirable. The Woman is meant to be constantly rebuffing advances, not pursuing and - some of the time - getting shot down. A woman who pursues is one who has made peace with the fact that not everyone finds her attractive. Whereas a woman who doesn't pursue? She can live in the belief that the world's straight men are divided between those who definitely want her and those who are simply too respectful (or intimidated, or busy with work...) to express their desires for her. If pleasure, for women, involves being thought desirable, then what joy could there possibly be in verifying that the hot guy who hasn't given you the time of day is, in fact, not interested? How could the slight chance he is interested make pursuit worthwhile, if the whole point is to be thought beautiful, which would rather have to happen unprompted.

All of this - and personal bias, fine - is why I think The Conversation needs to incorporate, and not brush aside as distasteful or irrelevant, the fact that many/most women desire men. If anything, we'd all be a lot safer if that were better understood.

Monday, November 27, 2017

When croissants sell out

There is nothing that better convinces me a pastry will be amazing than learning that it will be near-impossible to acquire.

Recently, when on the Yelp page for a different bakery, I saw a review mentioning that the really good croissants were from somewhere called Tasso. Tasso? How had I not heard of this bakery? From the moment (a good long while ago at this point) I knew I'd be moving to Toronto, I've been keeping track of the eternal best-croissants-of situation. I thought I'd tried all downtown contenders, as well as some from further afield. While the baseline croissant standard is quite good (much better than, oh, say, New York), they sort of peak at Nadège or Bistro Normandie. From photos available online, and reviews, it seemed as if Tasso might be on another whole level. The real Parisian deal, but somewhere walkable (or TTC-able) from my apartment. How had I not known??

Here's how I hadn't known: it's only open three times a week, from 8:30am until they run out, which can be... not long after. It's also not near where I work, live or used to live, so there's no reason I'd have ever happened to pass by. (It's on a street I've been on maybe twice, both times to go visit an urban farm.) Convenience-wise, this was not so far from trying to go and get a croissant in France itself. But I was up, I was curious, so finally, today, I went.

I arrived and didn't see any sign indicating the name of the bakery. Instead, what I saw was a line. A San Francisco line. Not a November-in-Toronto line, or at least not one for something other than sneakers. (Young men regularly camp out all night in front of sneaker stores here, in all seasons.) But there was enough of a crowd, and not much else around that it could be for, that I deduced this was the place.

It was the place, all right. I got in/on line (which is it in Toronto? I'm trying to acculturate), between two families that knew each other. There was no Canadian politeness on any front in terms of either they or I moving position, as the whole thing is croissant scarcity, and everyone was very on edge about the possibility of the place running out. The man in front of me was telling the people behind me that one time, they ran out of kouign amanns at 8:35. So clearly I was going to need to order one of those. The woman behind me was saying that she no longer recommends the place to people she knows, as it's getting too popular, but not too popular as in too mainstream (I've just finished reading The Rebel Sell, so I feel obligated to point this out) but as in, someone else might get the last croissants. I felt sort of bad, being this interloper from outside the neighborhood, from America, even, which somehow makes it worse.

The people standing near me seemed to think the place was about to sell out. (Again, not sell out as in, like what some 6th grade classmates of mine were very concerned was happening to Green Day. Sell out of pastries for the day, or, rather, the week.) Others kept leaving with these big paper bags full of pastries. Why so many? That did it - I was going to get multiple pastries, too, if I wound up getting any, that is.

My turn came, and I could see... a bunch of things, really. I noticed a sign they put up when they're "almost sold out," which is amazing. I noticed that there's no seating - it's take-out only, but does serve coffee. An unusual choice in Toronto, to be sure. But mostly I noticed the pastries. Exquisite. Not over-hyped in the least, by the look of them.

Having now tried them (croissant and kouign amann), I can say that they are indeed the best in the city (barring any extra-secret bakeries open only ten seconds a week), easily as good as Parisian ones, and better than any in New York. The plain croissant has that flawless middle-of-croissant dough that I've basically only ever encountered at Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, aka the best Paris bakery, which has sadly closed. This means... what does it mean? It means I now need to get up early on at least one weekend day and take some pastries home on the subway. In a very ambitious version, this gets incorporated into an early-morning jog. But the damage that could do to the pastries themselves might not be worth risking it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Recommendations, "they were fresh when they were frozen" edition

-"Le Meilleur Pâtissier." Much as I wanted to love "The Great Canadian Baking Show," much as I like it and will totally keep watching it, a Guardian piece about global Bake-Offs led me to what I'm just going to declare the best of the bunch: the French one. Predictably? Yes. It seems at first like the usual cozy, homey, hygge (?) set-up, except the assortment of random French (and Walloon) contestants, with varied day-jobs, all turn out to be exquisite French pastry chefs. The level is something else. The harshness, for me, a graduate of two French programs, familiar. (Not cruel, but unapologetic about the search for perfection. The French answer to Paul Hollywood, Cyril Lignac, seems more than up to the task. Everything is just pushed a bit further, with the contestants making more complicated things, and the judges giving more detailed feedback than in the British original, and a whole lot more than in the Canadian one. The show has also solved the problem of combining French cultural consumption with times of the week when I'm keen to relax, and not to catch up on spillover novels purchased here and there, for possible dissertation-related reasons, but not gotten around to. 

-The Toronto public library card. With access to the university library, and a whole lot of books I own that I need to catch up on, I'm ashamed to say I only just got this. But the card is not just for the library - it also allows access to all sorts of movies and TV shows. Thanks to socialist Netflix, I watched a curious 1967 CBC documentary about the Six-Day War, with a (stated; it had to do with sources) perspective so pro-Israel that even I went hmm on occasion. The Canadian angle - which kept taking me by surprise - meant, among other things, that Israel was referred to as being around the same size as the Niagara Peninsula. 

-The Danforth. The part of Toronto I live in - Yorkville - is convenient for work, has worked out surprisingly OK (by expensive city standards) rent-wise, but is very much the rich-person going out district by night, with assorted super-expensive boutiques, car dealerships, cosmetic surgeons, assorted non-surgical beautification offices, etc. There's a Whole Foods, and the Kebaberie (and more specifically, the lentil soup at Kebaberie), but otherwise, not much, or really, not much for me. Which means weekend trips to other areas. Often "other areas" winds up being, near the old neighborhood, so either the Kensington Market or West Queen West, both of which have more going on, but take forever to get to. The Danforth, however, is one short-enough subway ride away, and has... stuff. As in, bookstores (one of which had my book!) and a Japanese café, but also a French bakery whose specialty is - bear with me - pastries shipped in frozen from France and baked in the shop. That may not sound promising, but the croissants and flan, at least, defrost magnificently.

-J-town as day trip. I'd wanted to try an udon place that's effectively inaccessible on the weekend subway, so - as planned - I took a weekday subway to it over fall break. The noodles were good, maybe not good enough for that long of a subway ride, but the advantage of having taken the train to the end of the line was... I was right there on the bus route to J-town, the Japanese strip mall! This entire trip took forever, but is the sort of thing I enjoy tremendously, especially when (apologies to the NJ years) it doesn't involve me driving. The kitchen is now stocked with all the necessary Japanese pantry items, and - for better or worse - I now know that the best (bread) bakery in the city is very likely Bakery Nakamura. It might be more efficient to learn how to make raisin bread than to attempt that trip again any time soon, but given the likelihood I'll figure that out, seems like another trip may be in order.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Fall break, fantasies and realities

All semester long, I'd known something was coming up called "fall break." I knew it mainly as the reason planning syllabi would get tricky around that week of November - some of my classes have their "Week 9" before the break, others after, which seems entirely normal to me now, but which I found mega-daunting at the time. It's hard to say what I imagined fall break would consist of. Going somewhere? No - it's not a vacation. But maybe something like leisurely catching up on work? Getting dressed and going to a coffee shop, rather than determining that more work gets done if I just stay in dog-walking sweats and work during the non-poodle-stroll, non-classroom hours at home, in those? There was also the more ambitious variant of this, which also involved profound levels of reading, writing, socializing, and attending cultural events of all kinds.

I suppose I hadn't realized quite how busy this term would be, nor had I (fully) anticipated that every practical life-thing that couldn't be done during the semester would more or less have to happen this week. So it's basically a work-week, but without the physical act of being in class, and thus with more hours to work with.

But I must have absorbed - along with that inexplicable desire to own-but-not-wear highlighter makeup - those millennial mantras about self-care and reclaiming one's time and so forth, given that I decided, what must have been a few weeks ago, to preempt the likelihood that the week would be entirely sensible. I did this by making two reservations, both for Tuesday (that is, yesterday). The first was for a soba weekly pop-up night, on a night when I normally teach. The second: a full-on hair refurbishment, with cut and color and everything. (Well, those two things.)

Tuesday Of Break became this thing lingering in my mind as the day of bliss. Rather than scrambling from one task to the next, making 5pm 'lunch' out of various snack foods I keep in my office (bulk-purchased seaweed snacks from the Korean grocery store are now finished),  I'd be turned into a balayage'd Pinterest lady, eating at Toronto's answer to Sobaya. Rather than quickly grabbing whichever caffeinated drink also has the most sugar at the coffee shop near my evening class, I'd sit, all serene, drinking tea, say, somewhere inconvenient, just because I could.

It seemed maybe not the best omen for the week when, over the weekend, the man who runs the soba pop-up called to say there's an issue with the buckwheat and could I go instead next Tuesday, which... I cannot. (Maybe in December, I said, and oh, I meant it!) It wasn't about the soba - which is, obviously, far worse news for the soba-sellers than for this aspiring soba-consumer - but what the soba night represented. Everything seemed to be very much not falling into place, serenity-now-wise. I could already see how the hair appointment might also be a bit above and beyond (I'd gotten greedy!), and might also have to be cancelled. Between this and the time change gloominess, etc., etc., I was feeling mighty sorry for myself. Or however one euphemizes that mood in hyperaware, 2017 terms.

And yet, somehow (OK, I know how - it involved taking like my fourth-ever Toronto taxi ride) I made it to the hair salon, on time and everything. It was my first time going to the salon in question, but I was put at ease immediately by the presence of a wonderful, napping dog. While I don't look radically different, I think the ~balayage~ and haircut improved matters tremendously. If nothing else, I now look like someone who had the time, on one recent occasion, to be refurbished. At least as importantly, I came away from the experience feeling very time-reclaimed, and more than ready to spend the rest of fall break either working or (we all have our things) taking tremendous amounts of public transportation to the Japanese strip mall and udon restaurant in the sort-of-suburbs.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The elusive Birkin fit

For the last few weeks, I've had this notion of finding a pair of vintage Levis-or-similar jeans. I'm almost certain I got the idea from the Aritzia website's denim category called "Better Than Vintage." The mere concept struck me as both wasteful (I am 34) and poser-ish (I am also, in some sense, 14). Why not actual vintage, if that's what you're looking for? After all, Instagram is chock-full of French women (such as) in incredibly flattering, by all accounts real-vintage pairs. These women live in France, where vintage US denim has almost got to be harder to find than in Canada, yet they seem to have figured this out.

The plan seemed straightforward enough. I knew, from past trips to vintage clothing stores, where in Toronto the racks full of vintage jeans could be found. And over the course of two recent outings, a brief one to Little Portugal and the Kensington Market, and a more extensive (-feeling) one to Parkdale, I saw them all. OK, not all, but it sure did start to feel that way. I can't say I tried them all on because it was clear from just glancing at them that they would not fit. Not fit, that is, because these were men's jeans. I am a 5'2" woman. While there's no law that says people of my gender and physique can't wear men's jeans, the aesthetic fact is that we cannot do so and have the jeans in question be fitted. The chances are already slim-so-to-speak that a woman my height and general appearance will look like this (or, to put this in slightly more realistic terms, this) under any circumstances, but putting on a pair of large men's jeans seems not to further the cause.

The place with the best selection as well as a useable dressing room was probably In Vintage We Trust, in Parkdale. Even there, they were all too big, except for I think one pair that was too small in the way I remember jeans often being too small in dressing rooms of my youth, before stretch denim became ubiquitous. That is, too small in the waist, hips, etc., but sort of cartoonishly enormous through the legs. A fit that's uncomfortable and unflattering at the same time, and not in the modern-silhouette sense. No matter which pair, what size and shape the circa-1998 label promised, it looked like if Elaine Benes had put on Jerry's jeans.

The fantasy of perfectly-fitting vintage jeans is a complicated one. On some level, it's like all clothing fantasies - about having a flawless-by-society's-harsh-standards physique and looking amazing, especially from certain angles. But it's also a branch of the broader effortlessness dream. The idea is half that you're someone who had all the time in the world to try on evvvvery last pair until you found the one made for your body (that is, a leisure fantasy), half that you just happened upon these ones that fit you great because you're you and you're the sort of person who falls ass-backwards - literally, in this case - into good luck. It goes beyond high-end athleisure, which, while also taking its appeal in part from exclusivity, is nevertheless accessible to everyone under a certain dress size and with $90 to spend on leggings. Finding form-fitting non-stretch pants, with no consistent sizing, is a challenge of another order. Thus the carefree, 'They're vintage!' one is meant to utter to one's Instagram influenced fan base. Easy-breezy.

The unseen effort, I suspect - for there's always some - is that these jeans have been altered. Given that the pseudo-Jane Birkins of Instagram are if anything slimmer than I am, that these jeans fit me wrong in the way that they did suggests to me that these other women are getting their jeans altered. Altered, that is, in width. Not hemmed - nothing so short-person and pedestrian. No, I mean taken in, in the legs especially, so as to fit like the new, stretch-having jeans, while somehow being all-cotton. I have now Googled it and it's apparently a thing. It's not that all the effortless-chic Parisiennes have spent hours in the equivalent of Parkdale (in the Marais, as I wistfully recall) combing through used menswear. Who has the time?

But I think it was the leisure aspect that appealed to me about this quest. The dream wasn't so much the jeans themselves as the afternoon or evening I'd have, trying on as many as I felt like, and stopping for a coffee along the way. Neither my weekdays nor weekends have been conducive to that lately. Imagine having the time to sort through a pile of jeans that made their way to a Toronto vintage shop and find ones that just happened to fit me right!

Then when, yesterday, I declared that I was free to spend Saturday afternoon just trying on all the jeans, all of them if I so chose, I was promptly reminded that trying on a heap of ill-fitting pants is not actually a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Reminded, too, that a jeans quest sparked by a practical-ish need - the fact that my light-denim pair was falling apart and becoming generally unwearable - would not be answered by purchasing a pair of pre-owned pants of any kind. So I full on gave up, de-romanticized the quest for jeans, and spent approximately two minutes trying on and purchasing these, which will do the trick.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My very urgent not at all late Mayim Bialik op-ed take

A million years ago, I read (and reviewed) that "Israel Lobby" book. The main thing I remember about the book itself was a certain rhetorical device: the authors would preempt whichever point about a sinister Jewish cabal controlling everything with a finely-worded disclaimer about how of course they are not anti-Semites and of course they do not think a sinister Jewish cabal controls everything. It was this odd back-and-forth - the thing they were arguing, and the periodic insistance that anyone who noticed what they were arguing had (willfully?) misunderstood.

Disclaimers are funny like that. If everyone thinks you wrote X, but X is something you don't think, not even a little bit, it's always a good idea to stop and think why that mistaken belief about your work is out there. Sometimes there will be a reason - a bad headline, say - but you want to be sure. You want to be sure you're not arguing X. I went through something like this when writing my book. I anticipated certain criticisms. But rather than disclaimerizing and saying that even if you think my book is about X, oh no, I insist, it's not, take my word for it, I went and looked at the texts that are deeply X and examined where I did and did not agree with those stances. Where you think something controversial, you need to own it. Where you've been unfairly accused of thinking something you don't, you should at the very least know for yourself why the accusation is unfair.

This approach is more easily accomplished in a book than an op-ed. Maybe that was the issue with actress-scientist Mayim Bialik's recent NYT piece. But also, maybe not? Because bad takes are clickbait, or maybe for a more noble reason I'm not thinking of at the moment, the NYT Opinion pages had her do a video continuation of the op-ed as well, where she could defend herself from her critics. I watched a lot of it. I watched her go through the ritual of explaining that of course she doesn't victim-blame (which she does; that's central to the op-ed!), because... well, what was her reason, exactly? Because it's her, and she's a good feminist, and how could anyone possibly think something like this of her? (And I caught the very beginning, where her editor notes how well the piece is doing traffic-wise. You don't say.)

Well, the reason people criticized her piece was because she wrote it. I mean, I have no preexisting beef with Mayim Bialik. If anything, for various personal reasons (see comments to the post below) I'd have been biased to agree with her. But... the piece itself! Why is it remotely relevant to Bialik's history or lack thereof with respect to the "casting couch" (on that term, see Jessica M. Goldstein's excellent take) that she was not allowed manicures as a child? Why the cutesy ending about how plain-looking women don't need to look for love on casting couches, as though that's remotely what the expression "casting couch" has ever referred to? Why the reference to choosing not to flirt, as though the women men think are flirting with them actually are in all/most cases? Why the treeeemendous blind spot of, dressing modestly within a religious context has a long history of not doing a darn thing to prevent sexual abuse or assault?

I get the minuteness of Bialikgate. Minute compared with what's happening in Somalia, minute compared with the story now circulating of Trump joking about how Pence wants to murder gay people, and minute within the broader Weinstein-and-abuse story. (Bialik's story is about having not been a victim; thus in a sense the press it's gotten, since anything other than #MeToo was, from a cynical journalistic perspective, a fresh take.) The fate of the world does not hinge on whether Mayim Bialik gets, I mean really and truly gets, where her op-ed went wrong. And it's not as if she's abusing anyone. Anger should be directed at abusers, at the culture, not at individual self-identified feminist women who fail to meet flawless Awareness standards. Why am I still thinking about it even at all?

Partly it's that the piece came so close to being useful. It might have been a reflection on the ambiguities of an industry where, under the best of circumstances, people - women especially - are getting chosen for work in a large part based on their looks. It might have been a piece that reflected on how an industry (or society) that pseudo-values women only when young and gorgeous winds up screwing over all women. It might even have been an unpopular-opinion-ish point about how lived experience is different for women deemed sexy and those deemed less so - about how plain-looking or dressed-down women can absolutely still get assaulted, abused, etc., but may not be the recipients of a certain kind of ambiguous male attention. It might have been nuanced. It might have stayed put at Bialik's own highly specific experiences, without the additional take-tastic level of and you, too, could avoid sexual assault, if only you wore longer skirts, hussy. But who would have clicked on that?

So I guess this interests me as a media story. But also a rhetoric one. The it's me disclaimer, the one where the argument that the author is not actually saying whatever it is they're saying isn't so much an argument as a demand not to besmirch their good name, is really something else. I wonder if it's a rhetorical devise only really possible if you're someone generally protected from criticism. A star, in one area or another. Someone without the protection from criticism that stardom allows may well want to pull a but it's me, but be, at one stage or another, prevented from doing so.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yes, I guess, all women

A lot of the Weinstein coverage has taken a certain approach: all women have experienced this. Not from Weinstein, specifically - though granted his alleged harassment and assault ran the gamut - but from the Weinsteins in our lives. Every woman, goes the (generally woman-authored) thinking, has dealt with this. Accompanying this is the notion - which has its own issues - that every woman has this group of other women she shares stories about who to avoid, which is unfortunately not the case.

I don't know what to make of the it-happens-to-us-all interpretation. As in, I really don't. I keep swinging back and forth between doubting - doubting, that is, that this has happened to all women, but also and more to the point, that you even need to make the case of universality to explain how awful this story is... and thinking that yes, that does actually sound about right, all women probably have encountered this in one form or another.

Put another way: I don't think it helps, from a feminist perspective, to present the universal female experience as being one of constant unsolicited male attention. I know women for whom something like this is true, others for whom, nope, not really. I suppose I fall somewhere in between - as do, I suspect, most women.

In one sense, I am a woman who has - luckily - never dealt with anything quite like this. I have never been asked for sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement. The only workplace sexual (or just body-related, hard to explain succinctly) harassment I've ever experienced was from a (powerful) straight woman.

How much of my spared-ness from that universal can be attributed to the workplaces I've landed in (straight men were underrepresented in my early-mid 20s work environments), and how much to the fact that I'm... within normal limits, but not someone met by a horde of suitors upon leaving the house, not someone who could have one of those jobs where looks especially matter? I have no idea.

But when I think less strictly about the Weinstein narrative - and when I leave the moment, that is, being 34 and very wrapped up in work stuff that keeps me living very much in the present... sure. There were things with elements of this. There was a librarian where I was doing research who wouldn't leave me alone until my now-husband actually physically showed up at this library. I can piece together a Weinstein-ish picture from certain boss behavior (not all bosses, but not none, alas), a certain college classmate situation (which I sure hope that college's administration would be better about dealing with today but who knows), and the overall experience of having existed as a young woman. Not a young and beautiful actress, but a young woman, which is, for what I'm going to guess is the vast majority of young women, enough. (Other incidents I'm thinking of, now that I think of it, have been in the last year or so. Young-ish will do.)

There was also, though, a time I still think about more than I should, when some (male) profs suggested - to me as well as to another woman grad student - that we promote the department by putting a third female grad student - a strikingly beautiful one, not present - on our brochures. And you know what? I'm going to classify that in the same pile.

What "lucky" is in this context is its own question. It's both easy and appropriate to focus on the recipients of Weinstein and similar's unwanted advances. These are not stories of glamor and sex appeal (and - in cases like Paltrow, Jolie, extreme beauty, celebrity relatives, the hovering presence of Brad friggin' Pitt) helping anyone, but quite the contrary - they're stories of exploitation and abuse. But it is worth also keeping in mind all the women who - because they aren't beautiful 22-year-olds - are not part of the story, as it were, to begin with.

While writing this post, I came across Marie Le Conte's excellent post on just that angle:

Something I hadn’t seen discussed in light of recent events is how they treat the women they don’t seek to abuse. In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones. .... There is absolutely no doubt that one of the scenarios here is far worse than the other, but escaping from the threat of being sexually assaulted doesn’t even mean that women will get to be treated as human beings.
Yes. Exactly.

The story of gorgeous young women being lunged at and worse is - in crude media terms - easy to illustrate. The story of ordinary-looking women in that same workplace situation, getting harassed not by a powerful movie exec who wants to show he can 'get' the world's most beautiful women, but by a boss in some less-glamorous situation exerting his power over the nearest young and vulnerable woman, a notch or ten less so. And that of the women not lunged at, but treated as invisible, this... I mean, from a journalistic perspective, how would you even illustrate that?

But the story is all of this. Any system that values extreme youth and physical attractiveness winds up being awful, in different ways, for all women. For the women (fleetingly) treated as if they matter (except not really; it's a ruse - see Jia Tolentino on that angle), there are doubts about whether anyone ever did, ever will, take you seriously professionally. For the women who had been in that situation, give or take, but have aged out of it, there's the nagging question of whether you're too old, not just for Under Age Whatever achievement lists, but for achievement, period, if your accomplishments aren't those of a woman young enough to count. (Thought processes such as, 'Why write a novel if it would, realistically, only ever be finished, let alone published, at age whatever?') And for the women never or less-frequently in that situation, at any age, it's a cap on professional options extending well beyond the tolerable unfairness that not all of us have the option of being Glossier brand ambassadors.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ugh-ing in unison

Highly recommend Michael Sacasas - via Navneet Alang - on "affect overload," or the way social media drifts from ubiquitous emotional displays regarding one crisis to... the same thing, but re: the next:

"Even apart from crisis, controversies, and tragedies, however, the effect is consistent: the focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, the future does not come into play. Our time is now, our place is everywhere."

Sacasas argues - and I think he's right! - that this phenomenon makes it very difficult to actually stop and think about... well, anything. I'm half asleep but have been wanting to yes-and this since reading it earlier today:

The thing on Twitter, maybe a bit on Facebook too, where everyone is upset about the same thing, all at once, and you feel like you're interrupting a meeting for those distressed about the topic of the moment if you opine about anything else... it's real. It's a thing. It's the thing where someone without any apparent connection to a story of the moment announces they're tired, and the assumption - the default assumption! - will be that this is a tired from the strain of the upsetting story in the news that day, and not any other sort of tired. Not the literal tired of having not slept, nor even the personal-and-political tired of having dealt with discrimination on a personal level. (Not that the not-having-slept tired can't have personal-as-political roots of its own...) No, the tired of terrible things having happened, that you have read about. The tired of something having happened to a member or members of a demographic you're not necessarily a part of, but that you definitely consider yourself an ally of. And it's not just "tired" - it's any out-of-context ugh. The assumption is that you are plugged into exactly what everyone's talking about now, even if you're in no way employed as a commentator, and that this is an ugh at what everyone else is ugh-ing about.

The impact, then, isn't just to reduce the thoughtfulness with which it's possible to analyze current events. Nor is it just to make any thoughts not about the news seem insensitive. It's this odd performance-yet-shaping of emotion. Think of your moods in a given day. When were you happy? Sad? Angry? I suspect that even for the very online, these don't especially track with news stories. Not never - for reasons I myself don't entirely understand, I find the Weinstein story incredibly sad and angering, even by awful-story-in-the-news standards - but... not as much as it would seem from social media? Because people have offline lives, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic things going on in their online lives, inasmuch as those can be divided at this point, etc., etc., apologies but I am tired in the literal sense. 

The overshare era is done, replaced with intense displays of emotion about what would have to be a limited part of what's impacting anyone's emotional life. Yes, this relates - in ways I'm not quite awake enough for - to Jia Tolentino's argument about the personal essay feeling irrelevant unless anchored in an issue, unless - in a sense - an op-ed. Which is a win for privacy, I guess? But seems as it if would have some downsides as well.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Red Sweater(s)

It was a big-news week. So many huge, important stories tweeted out as must-reads, which I would notice here and there in between teaching, and which I am catching up on, one by one.

I do not have the bandwidth, though, for follow-through on any of the stories of the moment. What I will tell you about instead is sweater-shopping.

It all started - as these things not infrequently do - with a photo of Emily Weiss. More specifically: of the Into The Gloss / Glossier founder in a red sweater that was just so great. Céline, evidently, and discounted to a price at the high end of what I'd consider plausible for a sweater to cost full-price, and at any rate, that was over a year ago, so for this whole host of reasons, that specific sweater wasn't going to happen. But something like it, why not? I loved the idea of a bright red sweater - an everyday item not in a fade-into-the-background navy, gray, or black, like my other sweaters. A pop of confident, grown-woman color.

If I speak of a quest, it sounds as if I was devoting every moment from whenever I saw that photo until the moment of locating a sweater along those lines in an attempt at finding one. That would not be an accurate way of describing the last year or so, to put it mildly. But it would be fair to say The Sweater was always on some level in the back of my mind. It inspired the purchase of a rayon, long-sleeve, bright-red shirt from Uniqlo in New York. But upon return to Toronto, the moment had come. I was going to find this sweater.

Uniqlo did not come through in that regard. It had numerous variations, each not quite right: v-neck rather than crewneck, short-sleeve rather than long, dark crimson rather than the perfect bright red. They clearly have the right fabric, but use it only for this one $150 turtleneck dress, which is definitely not the thing I was looking for.

I don't know what came over me, as this is not my normal way of shopping, but I decided to look on eBay. Sure enough, there it was. The great advantage to being ancient is that I can tell, from a photo, if something is likely to fit me, and indeed, this did. Even with all manner of I-live-in-Canada fees, it was something like $80 (CAD) - not cheap but not outrageous. I was thrilled.

I became a notch less thrilled about it when the Everlane pop-up appeared in Nordstrom, and... there it was. The Sweater. In the right color, at least. Too expensive ($140ish), but still. I had to know. Did The Sweater exist, even if I wasn't about to buy it? The eBay one is a true, bright red, but more like cherry-red, a bit darker than the neon, almost orange red (think Nars Heat Wave) I had been imagining. (On Pinterest they look identical, which tells you something about the level of color difference we're talking about here.) Had I foolishly bought a sweater online, in some confusing and effectively non-returnable way, only to see The Sweater in person?

Was it foolish, though, given that I would not spend that much on a sweater, even if it were The Sweater?

I am pleased to report that the sweater I already bought is the superior entity, at least for my subjective purposes. The Everlane one fit me all wrong (too long and generally odd-fitting), and the material was flimsier. As for the color itself, while it's for sure the color of The Sweater, I can now see that the shade is - like all permutations of orange - not great with my coloring, whereas the slightly darker red seems to work.

If there's a moral to this story, it could well be that it's sometimes worth it to look for clothing in places other than Dundas and Yonge, with all due respect to that most relied-upon of intersections.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Hi from Canada

At the curious intersection of American gun culture and progressive Twitter... motifs?, the following narrative has emerged:

The problem isn't guns, or not mostly/most urgently guns, someone will say, but rather something amorphous in society. Toxic, aggrieved masculinity, say, or "white male entitlement." White men. Or just: men. (The first link brings up a thread where that very question is debated.) This is about men being the worst. And also, maybe, whiteness, if not in the act itself, which sure seems to correlate with maleness, then with which killers get which treatment in the press, from law enforcement. The problem isn't guns but societal unfairness.

Make a pronouncement along these lines, and you will get nods of agreement from some, trolling from others, but you know what you probably won't get? You probably won't get the gun nuts I got in my mentions (and in my employer's inbox...) for weeks after writing this.* Those taking this stance are people whose politics on this I share, I guess, kind of? But something seems off about the priorities, or maybe just the pragmatism?

Anyway, here's how I see it: racism, sexism, structural injustice, all of this is real. It's all important. It's important, too, that every time one of these idiots goes and shoots some unfathomable number of people, whichever motivation gets attributed (attribution of motive being its own web of problematicness), lo and behold he - virtually always he - has a history of domestic violence against one or more women. It all matters. It should all be addressed. It's not zero-sum, not at all.

But all these societal problems are intractable relative to having fewer guns. When addressing the specific and I think rather important issue of how to make it so people aren't constantly getting killed or seriously injured as a side effect of human awfulness, sure it's a good idea to look at the "human awfulness" angle, but also: guns.

Put another way. I want to live in a world without racism, sexism, domestic violence, or self-destructive urges, without white male entitlement. But I can picture a world without ready access to guns.

Guns are physical objects. Countries with different laws don't have this issue. It's not that there aren't obstacles - legal** and cultural - to shifting away from a gun culture. But consider those obstacles relative to abolishing racism and sexism. Especially to abolishing unconscious racism and sexism. Yes, a world with a bit less general awfulness would also have less gun violence, less violence of all kinds. But it should not be possible to kill, as guns allow, on a whim.

*A strange thing about having written that article is, even nearly two years later, there are these rounds of, a mass shooting happens, the piece again starts circulating (without my sharing it), and I again get the furious tweets, emails, etc. The moment I see something in my inbox with the subject heading, "You live in Canada," it's like, yep, that time again.

**Yes, I am aware of the Second Amendment. Whether the answer here is new interpretations of it or a repeal, others would know better than I would. I'm certain the issue is guns, but am not the policy strategist who's going to figure out how to get rid of them.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On just reading about Justin Trudeau for the articles

What does "sexy" mean to you? What does the word evoke?

If you're wired any way other than standard-issue hetero dude, there's an awfully good chance your answers to those two questions will not be the same. The word "sexy" evokes young blonde women with large breasts. And yet, people who meet that description - and images of the same - do nothing for me. How can that be? Does this mean I'm... sex-negative?

I've been vaguely following the discussion around Hugh Hefner, who has died, and who was - I am now learning, this is not something I'd ever given any thought - apparently not just a tame-ish middlebrow pornographer but also a social liberal in some important and before-his-time ways. What does it all mean?

Sexual liberation without feminism is not sexual liberation for all. It's sexual liberation for men. Mostly for straight men. When women push back against male sexual liberation, this gets mistaken for prudishness, when what it oh so often is, instead, is a lack of interest in... women, or women presented for a male gaze. Or sexual acts involving a man and two women, at the man's suggestion. (Our society's default where Sexual Adventure is concerned.) A lack of interest, that is, in the things straight men tend to/are expected to find sexy, paired with a visceral understanding that a good number of things men find sexy aren't the greatest for women. (As it would go, for men, were women in charge.)

Ours is a society already centered around male desire generally, straight male desire especially. More to the point, it's one centered around men - their needs, what's convenient for them - in general. So abandoning rules, unless intentionally done with feminism in mind, means giving further freedom to men, while decreasing that of women. It's not always zero-sum, thank goodness - the pill seems a fine case of everyone benefitting - but it sure can be. 

The mistake is to think differences in male and female interest in sexy-as-society-defines-it are rooted primarily in an asymmetry of desire, rather than an asymmetry of power. To imagine that men lust, women lust after push-up bras and, later, eye creams that might make them look lust-worthy.  

Remember that we are living in the era of the Savage Lovecast and nuanced, mature conversations about cuckold fantasies, but also that of "cuck" as (revived) insult. Of consensual post-monogamy arrangements and Very Modern (ostensibly) gender-neutral forgiveness of dalliances, but also of Trumpian men-can-do-whatever, women-not-so-much. We are not living in gender-neutral times, no matter what pockets of doing-its-best enlightenment might suggest. This means we haven't the slightest idea how male and female sexuality would differ without all the cultural constraints that are most definitely still in place.

Let me put it another way: Is a magazine featuring sexy photos of men, plus serious articles, even conceivable? A niche one for gay men, perhaps, but one with a mainstream or presumed-female audience? Because it's not that women just aren't visual creatures. Looking at photos of attractive men, being aware of attractive men, this is absolutely understood as a part of female heterosexuality, but one to be outgrown. In a woman, sexual desire - for men, maybe in general - is seen as incompatible with seriousness. Incompatible with maturity. Thus - maybe? - why so much of the recent feminist move to reclaim female heterosexual desire (reclaim it, that is, from the assumption that it's merely the desire to be desired) has centered not merely on younger men but on boy bands and teen idols.

The (misguided) thinking is that mature female sexuality - once you age out of caring about Jordan Catalano or One Direction or whatever - is about flexibility, malleability, being agreeable. Thus the refusal, on the part of... society? too many men?, to ever really believe a woman when she says she's straight or - for that matter - gay.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

No opinion

For over a decade of my life, maybe longer, I had opinions. So many opinions! Why? I have no idea. But I did. Whichever (entirely sensible) reticence stops most from holding forth in print on various topics their views may change on in a week's time, I lacked. I had an op-ed column in the college paper. I blogged (and wrote some articles) during grad school. After that, I wrote more articles; guest-blogged while at the Dish; had various regular but technically freelance gigs; and... the book. An entire book, published by a major publishing house, filled with my opinions! Something I still can't believe I had the opportunity to do.

For the past few weeks, I have been - to put it very mildly - busy with work. Work that has zilch to do with my opinions on privilege; on Chait's latest piece, Trump's latest outrage; cultural appropriation; intrafeminist debates, "Becky"; or problematicness. OK, near-zilch - one course I'm teaching involves some discussion of contemporary-ish opinion articles, but on French Jewry, which is not really at the heart of takesville. And I've been doing some book-stuff here and there. Mostly, though,  I'm teaching and doing admin work for French language classes. The pace of this work, while intense, is likely to slow up a bit once further into the semester, meaning I will again be able to opine. Able as in, with a bit of free time and energy that could go to that. But will it?

I can't decide if my profound indifference, at least at 10:17pm, after teaching two classes almost back-to-back, one ending at 8pm, is simply a matter of being tired; whether it points to some ominous disinterest in the things that used to give me pleasure; or whether it's a sign that I'm ready to move on to the next thing, writing-wise. And I think it's mostly the third.

As for what the next thing writing-wise will be, the whole tired thing means my notions are, for the moment, somewhat vague. More literary (fiction; I can appreciate, but not produce, poetry), less take-ish.

It's been freeing, in this odd way, to realize how not-remunerative even professional, full-time ( if patched-together) opinion-writing, except I guess at the very top (which I can safely now say having a book out with a major publisher, and clips in major publications, is not), tends to be. Payments are too low, too late, to be anything but supplements to a day job. Editorial and columnist positions that sound great and are indeed a lot of fun are - sometimes, not always, but more than one might imagine - freelance, precarious and without benefits.

And that's when everything is going as promised. If I were to speak openly about every entity, every individual, that either didn't come through with payment or required months of prodding to do so, or that caught me at just the right moment and persuaded me to do extensive unpaid labor, I'd burn... not my most important professional writing-related bridges, thank goodness, but... still quite a few of the somewhat-important ones? But what would even be the point, when the culprit likely isn't the individual editor, or even (necessarily) the specific publication, but the industry as a whole? Because on some level, the assumption is that writing - the fun sort of writing - isn't anyone's means of self-support. Thus the non-absurdity, in this context, of demands for revision of work you have done for free.

If I start from the assumption that none of this pays, not really, I can save the opinions for... where I actually, urgently, have an opinion about something. For things like... the book. Or, more recently, this article. And I can also write other things! Things not tied to the news cycle! At least, this is the hope.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Best of Toronto, subjective and subject to change edition

Lately I have mostly been either teaching, doing admin work for teaching, or drinking the enormous coffee-chocolate-sugar beverages that allow me to do both of these things on little sleep. Aka it's the start of the semester. But I'm trying - now that I'm doing just this, and not writing a book at the same time - to see a bit of the city. Recommendations include:

-Ravine-running. This sounds very adventurous but is basically, you run through the city, then a suburban part of the city, then end up somewhere called the Nordheimer Ravine, which is... it's a park. A very small park, anchored by a very authentic-feeling trail, but not so much so that you can't see tall buildings from it. (A plus, for me; maybe not for everyone?) Also good: ravine-walking.

-Little Portugal's beautiful-expensive-clothing district. V-S-P Consignment has (sometimes? seasonally?) one tucked-away affordable-stuff section, but is otherwise... well, it's otherwise some sort of fabulous Parisian consignment shop, which is to say, I could afford nothing, but admired everything. For a variation on that aesthetic experience - think Tokyo, rather than Paris - there's Blue Button Shop.

-Uniqlo. I know, not a very original (or original-for-me) recommendation, but... it's here now! And has even gotten the good socks (the Heattech ones) back in stock! Fine, so some of the collaboration areas are either picked-over or not quite brought to the Eaton Centre branch. It doesn't matter. I never did figure out where one buys practical clothing in Toronto, and now thanks to globalization I've been saved the trouble of doing so.

-The bus. Under-the-radar and very chic. Often empty. Air-conditioned, which is more than can be said for many of the streetcars.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What happens in Cambridge

Normally, a Harvard news story causes my eyes to glaze over. These stories receive a lot of attention in the press generally, and fascinate whichever subset of my Facebook friends went to Harvard, but their broader interest - for those who've never so much as applied to Harvard in any capacity - is doubtful. It might have some - if there's some bigger story hinted at - but if the stakes hinge on exactly what's happening at Harvard, it's like, why does the algorithm think I want this information?

If this is also your attitude towards Harvard stories, you should push past this and read about Michelle Jones's near-admittance to their history PhD program. Also Heather Mallick's response. It's an upsetting and compelling story all around; I'm really just going to look at it from one side-note but I think important angle: admissions.

It can seem, to rejected applicants, that US universities are looking for against-all-odds narratives, and turning away kids who've had it easy. (I discuss the notorious Suzy Weiss 'humor' piece in the book.) This is not the case. It's easier to get into elite colleges if you're super-rich and your parents will buy the school a gym. There's this odd dynamic where privileged-ish kids think they're being rejected for being insufficiently tragic, when in fact it's far more likely to be because they're insufficiently rich and well-connected. I'm thinking here more about college admissions, but maybe this applies, a bit, to grad school? Maybe?

At any rate, where college is concerned, there's this sort of track where a handful of students from poor backgrounds get to attend elite schools, but often only in exchange sharing (sometimes very publicly) their inspirational stories. (While the NYT scholarship program itself sounds great... does the NYT readership get the familial dirty laundry of well-off applicants? OK, of the ones who don't opt to be profiled in the lifestyle section?)

The stories need to be PG-rated tragedy, though. Again: inspirational. Nothing that would be a liability. The narrative has to involve the family being a mess, but the applicant him- or herself being a sweet, somewhat nerdy kid who's basically like the other incoming freshmen, but with less money and more character. Even more of an innocent, where ordinary teenage misdeeds are concerned, than an equivalent posh kid.

When colleges reject applicants who come across as privileged (voluntourists, proud SUV owners), they're not making it harder for the privileged to get in, but, rather, penalizing moderately posh applicants who didn't (couldn't?) pay for a tutor to tell them not to write their admissions essays about a vacation... while happily admitting the very rich. Similarly, a different route to admissions is about obstacles-overcome, but not really. Some obstacles, ones that in no way tarnish the image of the applicant. It can't be a faux-obstacle, but it also can't be something that makes the applicant seem like the source of the obstacle.

A grad school applicant who had murdered her own child? This is a liability obstacle. It's also - with the full picture of this student's background, and how she came to be pregnant in the first place - a depressingly unsurprising outcome of life circumstances about as tragic as they come. Hers is an inspirational story in some respects, but not in the way that works as a sound byte, or for all audiences, because - as is so often the case when obstacles are overcome - it's messy, and upsetting, and not just inspirational. And so we arrive at the other end of admissions hypocrisy - maybe not an intentional, cynical hypocrisy, but a hypocrisy all the same.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the value of a pumpkin-spice soundtrack UPDATED

The Guardian review of Greta Gerwig's ah-mazing new movie, "Lady Bird," opens with an interlude about men. The reviewer - also a man, which is no crime - first congratulates Noah Baumbach on the "smart career move" of working with Gerwig (who is also his-as-in-Baumbach's partner), both because Gerwig is talented and because she offers insights into how it goes for the ladies: "He realized that without her voice, he would be yet another guy in his 40s trying to speak for women half his age. (Woody Allen would do wise to follow a similar path.)"

That intro is a disclaimer that suggests the reviewer will not get the movie itself, or not entirely. (A man certainly could get this movie, and this reviewer does, in places. Girls have, since forever, been identifying with protagonists of male coming-of-age movies.) Which is - and I say this as a tremendous compliment - a girl movie. It's a movie about being a girl. I related to it in the visceral way I did, not because I have any familiarity with what it's like to have the precise adolescence depicted - I was never a small-town girl dreaming of the big city, nor a Catholic school student, etc. - but because oh my goodness. Having just mentioned two facts about the movie clear from the first minute or so, it's spoiler time...

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Must be nice

The expression "they took our jobs" evokes, what, that South Park episode? Nativist resentment? That's assuming the "they" in question are immigrants. What if "they" refers elsewhere?

Twice recently on Twitter - once antagonistically, once not - I've seen this topic pop up. What interests me is the question itself, which is when someone should or shouldn't take a prestigious internship, or fellowship funding for a creative pursuit, or for a grad program, or... you get the idea. When is a job not just a job, but economic redistribution?

Because the answer clearly isn't never. Sometimes, money of that nature does or should take need into account. College scholarships come to mind. Specific jobs programs. Beyond this, though?

As appealing as it might be to aim for need-based employment - in spirit, if not in practice, because how on earth would this be enforced* - it seems like it would invite any number of unwanted consequences. If the truly independently wealthy - people who've inherited or been given so much money that they don't need to work - did the honorable thing and either didn't apply for internships/fellowships/grants or - because surely even the fancy are allowed ambitions - handed back any money they won, then... great? (Would they, though? Are the independently wealthy handing their far more substantial corporate salaries, in full, over to charities?)

It gets much trickier when you get into this other caste of supposed rich people with no need to work: adults currently - or potentially - dependent on their parents or partners. Compared with adults who have neither option, these are... adults with options. But what are those options? The parents scenario can involve things like - to give a not-that-uncommon example - not coming out because if you did, your parents would cut you off. Or parents who want to give and give and give, and do, but really shouldn't, because they're not actually rich enough to support their 30-year-old child's journey through a fourth graduate program.

The partner one has its own issues. There's the extreme (but, again, not-uncommon) case of people staying in abusive relationships for financial reasons. But there's also the precariousness angle - a partner could leave, or lose their job, and then what? Is this gendered? Sure can be! The notion that a woman with a higher-earning male partner doesn't need to work is bad news. Deeply bad news, in that it extends not just to women who do in fact have partners who fit that description, but also, as an assumption, to women as a caste. If women are viewed as people who do/should/surely must have rich husbands, why pay women an equal amount? Why pay women at all?

Point being: There are the people - and this would be most adults - who need to work to live and it's that simple. Then there are the handful who don't - how nice for them. Then there's this not-insignificant group of people who could - under temporary or precarious conditions - not work, but who would be risking something in giving up on employability. And I'm not keen on the implications of declaring that set part and parcel of The Privileged, and announcing, for example, that a stay-at-home mom is entitled for seeking a return to the paid workforce.

*As in, how would anyone force rich people not to take jobs (whereas the state can, in theory, force rich people to pay higher taxes, which is the way this should actually be dealt with), but also as in, how would employers measure need? Or how would that happen in a non-exploitative way? Employers can and sometimes do exploit desperation, but will, in other situations, reward the already-posh. But this notion that redistribution is going to come from employers seems mighty unrealistic.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

A most sophisticated trip to the Eaton Centre

Who is Inès de La Fressange, and why does her name being on an item of Uniqlo clothing make a person ("a person") that much more intrigued by it?

For reasons stemming from the timing of poodle-grooming and the necessity of a TTC day pass for this, I had an excuse yesterday to check out Inès de La Fressange's new line at Uniqlo. I realize this isn't the most exciting use of the one true weekend day of a long weekend, but it seemed like it would be relaxing. Which I'm going to have to say it was.

To be clear, I know exactly who Inès de La Fressange is, or as much as is possible from having read various La Fressange profiles over the years, retaining dribs and drabs. She's very tall and thin. French. A former-and-current model - not young, but so French that she gets to embody glamor at any age. But I doubt the idea is to appeal specifically to whichever subset of the population has read these profiles. It is, I suspect, her name - French and aristocratic, but with Inès suggesting a still more cosmopolitan sophistication.*  It costs 75 euros to have her name on an otherwise nondescript t-shirt. A sinkhole investigation finds a whole Fressangian merch empire akin to the part of Hudson Bay where they sell everything, including all these random wooden paddles, in the store's trademark stripes. No La Fressange paddles, I don't think, but door stoppers, dog leashes...

What does La Fressange's involvement entail? Presumably she's not personally stitching together each garment. Has she designed them? (She's evidently designing something.) Does she serve as muse for a Uniqlo designer (maybe?), or does she get a catalog to look through and say whether or not she approves of whichever style having the stamp of La Fressange? How do they decide that Fressange-anointed items should cost $10 more than their regular-Uniqlo equivalents? If still - and pardon this most peasant of observations - less than, say, Aritzia, which was what brought me there in the first place.

$50 plus tax later and I'm the owner of dark red thick-wale corduroy miniskirt that has Toronto winter (by which I mean fall) practicality written all over it. I'd like to think La Fressange would approve. I also kind of think I once saw her on the street in New York, and that she smiled at La Caniche, but it's possible some other tall, French-looking woman did this.

*Wikipedia tells me her full name is Inès Marie Lætitia Églantine Isabelle de Seignard de La Fressange - the capital "La" explaining why her last name isn't just "Fressange" but rather "La Fressange," which is spectacular - and that her grandmother was part of a French-Jewish banking family, which makes Inès herself vaguely Jewish, which makes me basically Inès de La Fressange.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Blueberry bagel as subtext

So. Lots of the people on the cultural appropriation is wonderful bandwagon, or adjacent liberal but anti-"PC" bandwagons - and who are at this very moment being called out for their white obliviousness on that topic - are Jewish. This has been the case for the last however many rounds of this topic. Best as I can tell, it's true in the US and Canada alike. What does it all mean?

-The ungenerous interpretation: The Jews in question are white, middle-class or well-off, and but for this one marginalized quality, Jewishness, would be raging alt-right white supremacists, as versus contrarian liberals. They feel as they do because they're white; their Jewishness is incidental. And after all, Jews are also well-represented among this set's critics.

-A more generous interpretation: Those with a liminal, intermediary, ambiguous identity - Jews, but also, to varying degrees, white women, gay men, non-black POC - have unique insights into how it goes for the oppressor and the oppressed. Even if they're not announcing their Jewishness, and instead opining as white people critical of 'identity politics', it's relevant.

-The sympathetic interpretation: Jews have long been oppressed, still are, especially by the newly-revived neo-Nazi movement, but a left framework refuses to acknowledge this one form of oppression makes some Jews feel excluded from the broader anti-oppression struggle and be sort of like, screw you, left and right. (Subtext: 'We never got a chance to complain about the dreadful things done to bagels.') But then you have to choose; some choose the right, whether out of a sense that the left is worse-for-the-Jews or for whichever other (esp. baffling in light of this GOP administration) reasons.

-The meta interpretation: I keep thinking about Item 3 from Bret Stephens's (yes, how apropos) advice to those who "aspire" to write op-eds. It is, in effect, to avoid nuance. That this is what the style does indeed demand means opinion-writing can't ever quite reach the subtleties of opinion-having. A stance that places you on a culture-wars team sells better than one that does not. (I'm still amazed that I got the opportunity to write a book that's critical of privilege discourse, but not team-anti-identity-politics.) To really get into the subtleties of how Jewishness impacts an experience of whiteness, this is something that needs... introspection? A separate study of its own, one not in op-ed format?

As might be obvious (?) I lean towards all of the above. I don't think the answer here is to say that well actually, white opinion-writers A, B, C, etc., are Jewish, both because they're still also white and because the listing of the Jews, no matter the motivation, can feel like a sinister activity. But not mentioning that A, B, and C are Jewish somehow feels - to me, a white Jewish writer a few notches to their left - like missing something important.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The beginnings of thoughts

-The post-decency presidency. He's not just unconcerned with niceties on some liberal-arts-seminar level. It's this elaborate performance of, how would a person act if totally OK with being awful? And the answer is, unsurprisingly, not great. 

Because oh. my. goodness. Say what you will about virtue-signaling. Roll your eyes, if you feel like, when acquaintances with no personal relationship to a tragedy, no news or help to share, post about how they find it sad. But if your job is president of a country, then even if your mind is on which flavor of potato chips to next eat, you really do have to at least pretend to care. Ideally you would care, but given who the president is, that's exceedingly hard to picture happening.

All I can think is, Trump won on a platform of opposing political correctness broadly defined - not just of-the-moment hypersensitivity and progressive Tumblr excesses. Not just baseline, mainstream-etiquette rejection of overt racism and sexism. No, it goes further. It's about rejecting whatever check most of us but especially politicians are meant to have on selfish and tone-deaf impulses.

Which, look, if his thing were that he said what popped into his head, had no concern for niceties, but had good policies, and diverted the energy that might have gone to platitudes and PR towards improving things, then... fine? But no, this is not what he was doing. This was never what he was going to do. He's dispensed with niceties and put, in their place, awfulness.

-The White Lady, post-post-election. (Chapter 4 is on this but I wrote it - like the rest of the book - pre-election.) Anne Helen Petersen's essay and much of the Taylor Swift continues to exist content. Also: Chelsea Clinton continues to exist content. Louise Linton's #designerboasting, Paris Hilton's canine McMansion. The lady who opened a fancy-Toronto-neighborhood-named but also appropriative bar in Brooklyn. Marie Antoinette.

As always, there's the question of, how much of ugh-white-ladies is anti-racism and/or anti-oligarchy, and how much a form of ugh-women-in-general but with a progressive-seeming veneer? It would seem to be a case where speaker identity matters. When a white man - I don't care how sure he is that he's speaking As An Ally - declares white women the worst, particularly a straight white man who likely has a romantic history (real or desired) in which white women play a substantial role, I have to wonder. Whereas when a woman of color - especially, in the US context at least, a black woman - makes what are in principle the same points, I'm ten trillion times more likely to think there's something there.

But this still leaves the question of whether it's on the whole a positive development that Bourgeois White Lady Awfulness has become such a thing in the culture. How much is it a necessary corrective to the idea (an idea someone may in fact hold, maybe?) that the real racism or classism is sexism, i.e. that rich white women of the Louise Linton persuasion are, because women, just as oppressed as, say, trans women of color? And how much is it just a new way of sparing rich white men - that is, the people with the most power, but oh, not the most luxurious privilege, just, you know... power - their comeuppance?

-Sam Sifton or maybe the NYT on behalf of him crowdsourcing female authors. A response tweet that one got - and that I'm now not finding - with someone's spreadsheet listing books they'd read, with the authors' gender and race also noted. The necessity of feeling allowed to like what you like (and of having some space where you consume whatever you consume, without an audience), but also the advantages of being... thoughtful? intentional? when, as a critic, you're deciding what to promote. Which is a different thing. And which is what a summer reading list in a big newspaper consists of. The whole thing didn't begin with online activists digging up a Goodreads account.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

As yet unanswered: what brought "Meghan" to the back room in the first place

If there were ever a question that feels of another (recent) time, it's the one about whether it's offensive for straight women to go to gay bars. A time when same-sex marriage was not legal, making (straight) bachelorette parties in gay bars not just out of place but unthinkingly cruel. Also, maybe, a time when gender and sexual orientation categories weren't quite as fluid as they now are, in some quarters.

And yet, here we are. Kind of. The latest installment of this oddly persistant topic began with a somewhat all-over-the-place think-piece by Rose Dommu, in Out. Dommu was arguing that "in 2017, women can go anywhere we want to!", gay bars included.

Most of what Dommu says is harshly phrased but seemingly uncontroversial - bachelorette parties behaving badly shouldn't be in gay bars, but not all women are bachelorette party participants (or, for that matter, straight, cis; from between the lines, seems Dommu herself is describing straight, cis women as a group she's not a part of). Also: men, even gay men, should not say cruel things about women as a group. Agreed! The only remarkable thing about the piece is Dommu's insistence that it's misogyny for a gay man not to want to have semi-public sex where women are present. ("If you can't dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you, not call for that woman's removal.")

 Is it a violation of consent to demand access to a space where there's implicit consent among members of a particular gender? I'd think yes, kind of? But what do I know - it had honestly never occurred to me that the fact that it's 2017 would have any bearing on whether women should expect an enthusiastic welcome at gay male sex clubs. I don't believe Title IX covers this.

I learned about the story from the latest Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage interviews Alexander Cheves, about his response to Dommu. So, two men discussing whether or not a phenomenon (excluding women from gay bars) is sexist, which isn't great, but at the same time, the 'right' of women to go to gay male sex clubs seems an absurd thing to make one's cause. Cheves and Savage discuss an incident where a woman inadvertently (or so she claims?) stumbled into the sex-club back room of a gay bar, got groped (most likely, as Savage and Cheves speculate, by someone who, in the dark and given the context, thought they were groping a man), freaked out, and then got the back room (but not the bar itself) shut down.

The discussion is a fascinating (to me) case study of what happens when there's no clear answer to who falls where on a privilege hierarchy. It's a great privilege talking-past: For Dommu, gay men are part of this privileged category, men, and thus in a position of exclusionary privilege when deciding women can't enter their establishments. And for Cheves, straight women fall into their own privileged category, straight people, and are showing up at gay bars out of a sense of straight entitlement. Which is closer to what's happening, but which is also, I think, missing the point.

Cheves ends his piece with the sentence, "Check your privilege at the door." He's able to arrive at that clear-cut explanation - that this is simply about straight privilege and queer spaces - by changing the terms of the debate from the ones Dommu (messily) laid out. That is, he responds not to Dommu's point about women, of all sexual orientations, belonging anywhere, but instead addresses the question of straight people generally demanding access to and control over queer spaces generally, with straight women this barely-differentiated subset of The Straights.

Writes Cheves:

There are cultural zones for certain demographics that are intentionally exclusionary — not out of hate, fear, or prejudice, but because everyone deserves space, and you must respect it. Straight women: If you don’t like this, go literally anywhere else in the world. Wherever you go, you can be assured that there will be straight people there.
Which... look, he's right, Savage is right, straight women should not be shutting down gay sex clubs because of our delicate, sex-negative lady-sensibilities nor holding bachelorette parties at gay bars (which is evidently a thing, if not one I've ever encountered so much as anecdotally), even in areas where same-sex marriage is legal. But is it really true that all space except gay bars is safe and welcoming for women? In the whole world? Which... Cheves would seem to get, in that he references "straight male violence against women" in the previous paragraph.

I guess what I'm wondering is, does straight entitlement explain why "Meghan" - the name Cheves gives to a straight cis straw-woman - is at a gay bar in the first place, if not as a guest of a gay male friend? Or rather, does it fully explain what's happening there?

It's curious how straight womanhood gets discussed - in this conversation and others - not so much as a sexual orientation but as a sort of absence thereof. As the desire for convention, for stability, for social approval. It's readily forgotten that it's the desire for men. Straight women are imagined to have no desire apart from the desire to be desired. Not to be all ridiculous here but: Think of the meme. Women are either the nagging girlfriend or the unattainable object of desire. The sometimes humiliating but ultimately powerful role of protagonist goes to men. It's not that the meme Is Sexist, but rather that it only works because everyone knows these tropes.

So why are these straight ladies in gay bars? Here's a theory! They're there to look at men. Not men they consider pets or zoo animals. Men they consider... men. To look at men without being looked at by men. Also, perhaps - and this is all speculation, not the results of, like, a bachelorettes-at-gay-bars survey - out of a certain degree of identification with gay men. This, to be clear, is an explain-not-excuse.

Human beings are complicated; a straight woman who's by all accounts cis might still identify with desire as gay men are understood to experience it - a desire for men, for a particular man, that's not linked up with a desire to be a people-pleaser. This is merely a subset of how cis women can - for reasons having zilch to do with gender dysphoria - will sometimes, in all sorts of contexts, wish they were men. This is something I've tried and it feels like failed to explain here various times over the years (!), so rather than explicitly linking to posts from 2011, 2012, I'd suggest reading Rebecca Solnit's excellent new essay on more or less this topic.

But yes, it's true: A straight woman who sees herself as belonging - physically or just symbolically - in gay male spaces, even ones that are bonkers for her to expect a welcome in, is revealing oh so many unchecked privileges: her identification with maleness is nothing compared with what trans men experience, but also, and more to the point, she's missing that it's not actually an easy-breezy party to be gay in our society. She's missing that she could be open about her crushes growing up, her boyfriends later on. She's missing that her desires conveniently - at times annoyingly, but mostly conveniently - line up with societal expectations. She's ignoring that the reason gay male sexuality is viewed as so separate from white picket fence land is that gay people were, until five minutes ago - and socially, to some extent, still- prevented from having that outcome.

Her privilege, agreed, it is showing. But her choice to exercise it in that way is - if there's anything to my theory - rooted in a lack thereof.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

In 2017, are there still blogs?

Hello again, blog readers. I blog to you from a coffee shop, in a country led by a handsome liberal-minded leader. I hope your 2009 is going well.

If I were to give you recent updates of my day-to-day life, you would hear a detailed account of syllabus-planning and IKEA-furniture-building. Are you me? If not, you may not find this compelling. So instead, some links:

-Sarah Ditum on the at times overestimated role of women in organized white supremacy. Pair with Tanya Chen's story about racist bots posing as "basic white girls."

-Kat Stoeffel on feminism pre- and post-election.

-Penelope Green found a woman who's "paying $3,499 for a 212-square-foot room" on the Lower East Side, "which comes with a terrace and four roommates." A correction notes that the room is not, as originally stated, 65 square feet.

-In further exorbitance: French presidents sure do spend a lot on makeup! Presumably no-makeup makeup. As is the French way.

And in the self-promotional realm:

-I discussed what happens when the White Ladies called out (by other white ladies) for doing anti-fascism wrong are white Jewish ladies, for TNR.

-Soon after arriving back in Toronto, I did a TV Ontario book interview, with Nam Kiwanuka. Who was fantastic. This was my second-ever TV appearance, the first of which was when C-Span came to a book event. I was - and doubtless seem - terrified. The program aired last night; there's also a book excerpt accompanying. It's the book's afterword, which I - although yes, I would think this - find relevant to our times.

-New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni interviewed me for his column. No big deal, things like that happen to me all the time. (They do not.)

And finally, some Toronto and non-Toronto recommendations:

-The new Sud Forno, near the Eaton Centre. Custard bombolone heaven.

-Kintaro Izakaya. Current contender for best restaurant in Toronto, according to the very subjective izakaya-centric rating system WWPD adheres to.

-Riverdale Farm. Specifically, the sheep.

-That new HEMNES dresser. Enormous and life-changing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Other writers

Other writers live in New York. If you, too, live in New York, then other writers live in a specific Brooklyn neighborhood. If you live in that neighborhood, then other writers live in Manhattan, in townhouses or Classic Sixes they were handed upon reaching majority.

Other writers are three years younger than you are.

Other writers have held beautiful-person jobs, which they write about more eloquently than you ever could.

Other writers got there by connections.

Other writers had the gall to not get there by connections.

Other writers are raising five kids which actually makes them better at managing their time, would you believe it.

Other writers are friends with other other writers and make this known on Other Writer Instagram.

Other writers have secret family money.

Other writers definitely don't have secret office jobs.

Other writers are sent Glossier products for free.

Other writers' eyebrows don't even need those products.

"As if it were nothing"

I knew Taffy Brodesser-Akner's feature on the status of the diet industry in an ostensibly post-diet culture would be brilliant before I started reading it, given author and angle alike, and yes, it sure was. Diets are passé, but eating less to lose weight is not. If you'd ever wondered about how that's supposed to work (I had! I had wondered this!), you need to get to it.

It's a deeply reported piece, as well as a personal one. Brodesser-Akner leads with the reported, not the autobiographical, but it's hard to picture a story working at the level it does if it were written by a journalist, however talented, who lacked personal experience in that area. The personal angle comes through most clearly in the conclusion:
A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still.
I've read through a handful of the piece's nearly a thousand comments, which was enough to see I was not the only reader to wonder about the "ease" Brodesser-Akner says she witnessed. It seems possible, I think, both to respect her response to seeing thin women eating non-diet foods, and to question whether "as if it were nothing" is an approach to food our society ever really allows women, of any size. Which is something she argues, or at least suggests, elsewhere in the piece, when she writes, "A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own."

What that conclusion describes might be called thin privilege - that is, the blithe indifference of the thin to the struggles of those for whom every bite is fraught. But is thin privilege, in that understanding, something all or even most thin women have ever experienced firsthand? Is it the typical experience of slimness?

Let me be clear: In a society that stigmatizes being fat, it's advantageous not to be fat. In one that valorizes thinness, it helps still more to be thin. If you're someone who has never had to wonder if you'd fit in an airplane seat, or if the store has a large enough size, if a doctor has never suggested you lose weight, you probably can't get what such experiences are like, and may have never even considered them. If I were privilege-categories dictionary dictator, that would be Thin Privilege.

But how many thin people - how many women especially - experience "ease around their food and... their bodies"? Is that thin privilege? Once you include people who were once fat but are currently thin due to tremendous effort, and once you add to those the ones who'd be not-fat regardless but remain thinner still due to (yup) tremendous effort, you're talking about a whole lot of... effort. (See Alana Massey's excellent essay on this phenomenon.) Some of that effort crosses the line into diagnosable eating disorder territory. That which does not will nevertheless often take up huge amounts of time and mental energy that could be going absolutely anywhere else. Throw into the mix women whose thinness is the result of stress or illness - here, see Maris Kreizman's - and you've got quite a lot of women who absolutely reap the unfair advantages of thinness, but maybe don't experience thinness as "ease."

I point all this out not to say that well actually, thin women have it worse, or even as bad. Certainly not. Rather, it's that because these two things - societal weight obsession and sexism - are intertwined the way they are, they're that much more difficult to dismantle. In theory, "wellness" and so forth might have proven a great equalizer, reminding that you can be living well, or not, at any size. As Brodesser-Akner's piece makes painfully clear, it's done nothing of the kind.

Dieting has long been the default (not universal, but yes, default) state of women's food consumption, as well as an activity engaged in by women and men who - because society has deemed them fat - are trying to lose weight. The concept of "clean eating" manages to somehow merge existing fatphobia with a purity requirement extending to all women. It's not a chipping away at thin privilege. It's the worst of both worlds.