Sunday, May 07, 2017

"The lady at home who watches it"

This is a makeup post. An intentionally subjective one, which maybe more makeup posts should be. It's about two products: one which works for me, one which works, but not for me. In that order.

-Charlotte Gainsbourg Nars Multiple in Jeanette

I will get the embarrassing bit out of the way first: I bought a nearly $40 makeup product named after Jane Birkin. Not as expensive as her namesake handbag, but this still makes me a victim of the Gamine Suggestibility Industrial Complex.

Now, the excuses-excuses part: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin's daughter, as well as the celebrity behind this makeup collection, just happens to look more like me, coloring- and features-wise, at least on paper, as it were, than maybe anyone else whose face has ever been used to promote cosmetics. She also has a personal style in that enviable effortless-Frenchwoman realm, evoking those Parisian and now global boutiques (Sandro, etc.) where ordinary (but chic!) clothing costs ten times what you imagined it possibly could.

And on a more practical note: I'd been looking for a non-sparkly blush, and intrigued by the idea of lip tint, despite never quite figuring out which tint-marketed product would do what "tint" suggests. (I also had bought a different Nars Multiple that turned out to be basically glitter, and thankfully done so within Sephora's zone for returns.) This product is, on my coloring, absolutely correct in both of those functions. If your issue, beauty-wise, is looking washed-out and sickly even when feeling absolutely fine, this is your product.

-Glossier Boy Brow, Brown

I had, as readers know, been apprehensive about entering the Glossier store. It seemed too cool for the likes of me. I've read Into the Gloss basically since it started, and probably visit the site daily, which made visiting its shop this thing. But you know what? It's a store that sells beauty products. It's not showing up at a media office uninvited. (Something I did do in that very neighborhood, actually, en route to a different media office where I was expected, but the elevator didn't go to the floor I needed. Point being, this is a not entirely irrational fear on my part.) Yes, visiting Glossier involves taking an elevator to "penthouse" in a building that seems as if it would have a secret bar, and not a secret millennial-oriented version of a Clinique counter.

I say "secret" but the day I went, at least, there was a woman out front in a pink jumpsuit (think astronaut, not romper) waiting out front, directing in potential customers. The store, or "showroom," was also staffed by young women in that uniform. The space was too busy to be intimidating, and filled - as on some level I realized it would be - with readers of Into the Gloss, as versus the site's cool-girl staff (a couple of whom I did recognize on the street nearby) or the tastemakers who (I think?) get sent these products for free.

I'm reminded of that great line from "30 Rock," where Jenna's saying who would be which character from "Sex and the City." She says she'd be a Samantha, Liz Lemon "the lady at home who watches it."

Anyway, the other ladies at home who watch it (that is, envy-read ITG) were very cool, yes, as well as very... younger than millennial. Which I should not have found surprising, this being a brand that recently came out with a new lip gloss.

The product I was curious about, due both to the zeitgeist and their persuasive marketing campaign, was Boy Brow. The showroom is all-tester (if you like a product, a salesperson gets it for you at the register), and includes disposable tester wands and such, which is very wise, I think, where hygiene is concerned. I'm familiar enough with eyebrow makeup as a concept to know I would need ("need") the brown one, as the thing is to go a shade lighter than your hair, so as to avoid the Uncle Leo look. I put it on and... hmm.

Technically, kudos to the product. It worked, as in, it did what it's supposed to do to eyebrows. It made mine look naturally prominent, and even allowed for some shaping in ways that looked sort of high-fashion editorial. The thing is... I can now say, with confidence, that I look worse with more prominent eyebrows. It also just felt weird. (As would eyeliner or mascara, I'm sure, if you didn't get used to those at a young age.) The moment I was back home, I was swiping those waxy eyebrows with eye makeup remover, returning my eyebrows to their yes weirdly light for my coloring natural state.

I have a theory: I think the dark-bushy-brows thing took off as worn (are brows "worn"?) by women who are otherwise fine-featured (and, often, fair-haired), on whom this one stronger, perhaps sliiiiightly less gender-normative feature (thus, I suppose, "Boy Brow") adds an edge. That is, women who already met society's beauty standards to a T can add (or, in rare cases where this is what nature provides, choose not to remove) A Brow and thus have one of those imperfections that brings about perfection.

As a woman who resembles neither Cara Delevigne nor Natalia Vodianova, but is more (to bring things full circle) Tina Fey- or Charlotte Gainsbourg-like in appearance, thicker eyebrows added nothing. They made me look like a grown-up version of a girl who wants desperately to be allowed to tweeze her eyebrows but isn't permitted to do so by her, I don't know, eyebrow-fundamentalist parents. Yeah, I image-searched Gainsbourg and Fey just now and their brow game is, like mine, non-existent. Which, on them, works just perfectly.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Why I'm not moved by the plight of a theoretical sincere Rachel Dolezal. (Hint: note the word "theoretical.")

OK, so. I’m kinda-sorta up to date on the philosophy controversy over an article arguing that if transgender is fine, then so, too, is transracial. The article itself, that is, and some but not all of the heap of commentary the article has inspired. I come at the topic not as a philosopher, nor as someone with a team on the campus speech meta-debate. (For the long version of my thoughts on campus politics, yup, it’s in the book.) No, I come at this as someone who’s found something not quite right about the Dolezal-inspired “transracial” debate all along, beyond the obvious (it's offensive, yes, but why?) but who was only able to sort out, for myself, the… actually quite simply issue at hand this morning, while walking my dog podcast-free. 

To be clear, I’m addressing the topic, not the academic-politics angle. While the short version is, yes, that I think Tuvel’s argument (or, more to the point, premise) is way off, enough so that I do think there's value in people outside her field expressing opinions, my aim here isn't to protest the article appearing in the first place, a debate I think is outside my role to even have.

One more disclaimerish thing: If this overlaps with what any of the other 100,000,000 Dolezal takes have already argued, apologies in advance. I admit I have not read each and every one of them, and so can only say this isn’t one I can recall coming across. With that, here goes:

The problem - not just in Rebecca Tuvel’s article, but in the mainstream conversation about this topic - comes from looking at the issue too… philosophically, or just too much in the abstract, and missing key facts on the ground. In The Article, Tuvel “suggest[s] that Dolezal offers an important opportunity for us to think seriously about how society should treat individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with a certain race. When confronted with such an individual, how should we respond?”

I’m suggesting, in turn, that we take a step back and ask: Are we, in fact, confronted with such individuals? Because if we’re not (and Tuvel admits as much), then we’re giving rather a lot of weight to the well-being of made-up, thought-experiment-inhabiting people, and putting their feelings above those of people who do in fact exist and do in fact make their wishes known.

Put another way: Transgender is a thing, transracial is not. There are people who suffer tremendously from being assigned a gender at birth that does not match up with who they are. These are real people who really exist. Are there people in the same boat where race is concerned? Well, there’s Rachel Dolezal, who seems, above all, a mess. There was a tabloid story a while back about a white man who’d had cosmetic surgery in order). Life, as Mallory Ortberg often reminds, is “a rich tapestry,” and if you comb the planet you can find everything. But it’s unavoidably the case that in the society where this conversation is taking place – and I avoid saying in our society, for reasons you’ll understand after reading philosopher Eric Schliesser’s post on this, which you should* – there is demand for transgender rights, while "transracial" remains an abstract concept, associated almost exclusively with one case, a case that, as Tuvel herself notes, may not even fit. 

There are certainly cases of racial identity being ambiguous, and yes, racial identity has margins. (Trust me, I’m an otherwise white person not considered white by white supremacists!) That, however, is something else. If margins and ambiguous cases were the topic at hand, there’d be intersex analogizing, not transgender.

So the question to ask is what the stakes actually are. If there aren’t – Dolezal aside – white people identifying as black, it makes sense to ask what it is white people do want when rooting for Dolezal (and theoretical other Dolezals) to get to count as black. What comes to mind: While there’s hardly a stampede of white people wishing to be black, there are a good number who wish to be able to say the n-word, or two wear blackface, or to engage in other, less overtly racist forms of (to use a term requiring more unpacking than there’s room for here) cultural appropriation. There are, in other words, plenty of white people who want to live in a society where they can be casually racist without consequences. That phenomenon – unlike transracial – is a thing.

Where transgender is concerned, yes, there are some (cisgender) women who take offense at the existence of trans women, and who feel that the phenomenon of a person assigned male at birth identifying as a woman is the appropriation of a marginalized identity. (That would be "TERFs", but also – and I say this anecdotally – some cisgender women who aren’t radical feminists of any kind.) There, however, the concerns of cisgender feminists – however legitimate in the abstract – tend to fall apart in the face of trans women’s actual existence and actual suffering.

With transracial, meanwhile, literally all that’s at play – again, where actual people are concerned – is, there are many black people who find “transracial” to be, well, racist. But there isn’t any competing concern of the transracial community because guess what? There isn’t a transracial community, let alone an oppressed transracial community. So what you’re defending, in effect, when you defend the non-existent transracial community is the right to be gratuitously offensive. Because that’s the demand white people – not all, but lots – are actually making.

*Schliesser – who also happens to have been my favorite college instructor – also says what’s needed to be said about Tuvel’s discussion of Jewish conversion.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Who is cool enough for Howard Street?

It's never a good sign when, upon entering a store, you hear two young French women discussing how a salesperson had told them (and for this one of them switched to English, presumably the language of the interaction) they didn't have whatever it was in big enough sizes. These women were, you know, slender. Were they talking about the store they were exiting, or another shopping experience? That I can't say.

What I can say is the store this was: Reformation, on Howard Street. This is significant because there's this stretch of southeast SoHo that has this aura of ultimate cool. While I'd like to think I've aged out of being too intimidated to enter certain stores, that part of the city sets off that old apprehensiveness. From Outdoor Voices (been inside) to Glossier (wouldn't dare), Opening Ceremony (dared, for fear-overcoming purposes, really), it's all just so cool. It gets a tiny bit less intimidating west of Broadway, for reasons I don't entirely understand. Agnes b. is expensive, yes, but is not, like, judging me. Oak and Fort might seem minimalist and daunting if I didn't know it from Toronto and, more specifically, from the mall in Toronto.

Anyway. This bit of the city is near the one store where I do actually shop - Uniqlo, still Uniqlo, plus Muji when that's open, plus Housing Works but not the Housing Works in that part of town for some reason - so I decided to take a look. I was feeling confident, for some professional reasons, but also because the trench coat I'd been considering had been on sale in my size and in the color I wanted. (I'd also had luck at a Cosabella sample sale, which makes me think of the lyric 54 seconds into this video.) Maybe these stores... had sale racks? Maybe I would see something gorgeous and splurge?

I started with Outdoor Voices and was reminded that it is - at least to my insufficiently honed tastes - meh, even if the space does look like one of my favorite Toronto coffee shops. (Specifically: Early Bird.) Glossier, sorry, way too intimidating, plus I've already spent too much on things I've heard about on Into The Gloss, so the danger was great that I'd wind up leaving with eyebrow mascara, which is not something I am in fact on the market for.

At this point I was thinking it was time to get food, but I was so close to Reformation and had this vague sense from online that it would be filled with clothes like that French Birkin-esque model-socialite wears/designs. (She'd done a collaboration with them. Why do I know this?)

I went in. And the stuff was gorgeous. On point is I think how I'd describe it if I were someone young and cool enough to shop there. And rich enough. The clothes are (unlike my $60 trench coat, if less than my similarly-priced Theory-via-Housing Works blazer) ethically produced, at least according to the website, which means I can't moan about the prices without either feeling guilty or launching into a rant about how ethical fashion as a concept seems (sometimes but not always) designed to make people who can afford to spend a lot on clothes feel good about themselves.

Who are the women who wear these dresses? This one, say? They're young (as in, I would feel, at 33, too old for that one specifically; this I think I'm just the right age for, but a foot too short), but they have $200 to spend on a dress they couldn't wear to work... or could they? What are their jobs, or are they just professionally fabulous? They're presumably not women who'd be too intimidated to go into the Glossier showroom/store/whatever it is, but I suspect they're so cool they're on the list to get sent the eyebrow mascara for free.

Wheels on Fyre

When I saw the vague social-media rumblings about a music festival gone wrong, my impulse was that this was one trending story I could easily skip. I don't go to music festivals (and was never tempted, even in my younger, occasional show-going days), and can't get up much excitement over controversies (or fashions) specific to music festivals.

Then I saw the viral photo of a cheese sandwich. The sandwich - ordinary if unappetizing, but still presented with fresh-enough-looking mesclun - embodies the story. The story being, as I understand it from copious explanations (and backstories), that a music festival promised a luxury experience (and more; more on that more in a moment) but delivered... a badly organized, music-less music festival. Standard-issue tents and food instead of yacht parties or jet parties or whatever. Something approximating a regular vacation for most people, but a mess, and tragic-feeling for those experiencing it because they'd paid up for something else entirely.

Now, as someone who as purchased unnecessary goods and services, who am I to laugh at others having been ripped off? I mean, I've spent $6 (CAD but still) on matcha lattes, and if one of those turned out to be a cup of lukewarm Lipton, I'd have been displeased. (Note: that has never happened. They're magnificent and worth every Canadian cent.) Does this mean I forfeit my right to cast stones?

Or... does the sheer scale of this spending (tens, hundreds, of thousands of dollars), and its ostensible purpose (avoiding the peasant experience of going to a regular-posh music festival) make schadenfreuding, in this case, acceptable?

Does it even matter what I publicly conclude here, when I can perfectly well find it hilarious in private?  

What struck me most was the movie trailer for the festival, which I watched via the Vox explainer while on the bus to the supermarket (this background, I think, is key). Yes, the video depicts luxury, but more than that, it shows... soft-core male-gaze fantasy. It's a bunch of beautiful (famous?) women, and only women, in bikinis, frolicking and not infrequently making playful physical contact with one another:

This is, in other words, a sort of conspicuous consumption where access to beautiful young women is a big part of what's being bought. And not even in the sense of sex work - no, it's about being seen, by others, as the sort of man who can get women who'd universally read as desirable.

So yes, some of the visceral fun of watching the Fyre story unfold is about my snobbish sense that the (unaffordable-to-me) thing a bunch of people had paid for was (or, well, promised to be) tacky, douchey, whatever. Some is also that the lack of an equivalent phenomenon wherein rich women pay up to watch beautiful men dancing serves as a reminder of just how sexist our society remains. The proverbial punch, then, goes in any number of directions, if mainly, on the whole, up. But is that even the issue? Is this even political? Or if so, is it even subtly political? Or is it just populist catharsis minus so many of the troubling elements that that can sometimes involve?

Friday, April 21, 2017

What I mean when I talk about "privilege" criticism

So. I have been a fan of Eliot Glazer for even longer than I've been one of his sister, Ilana Glazer. Which is to say, I was binge-watching "It Gets Betterish" prior to "Broad City." I am deeply pro-Glazer. However.

The A.V. Club HateSong interview with Eliot Glazer, about a Meghan Trainor pop song, but really Trainor more generally, put me off, and I'm trying to put my finger on why. With interviewer Marah Eakin's encouragement, Glazer explains, at length, why the 23-year-old singer is not just not to his tastes musically, but is - in her embrace of content-free "empowerment" - an anti-feminist villain of sorts:
[I]n a world where feminism needs to be taken seriously, in the wake of the election and how we felt such a blow to the cause when everything shifted, at that point, it does more harm than good to have a singer who I’m pretty sure also doesn’t like the word “feminism” tell little girls how to act.
Oh, and she's kinda-sorta to blame, apparently, for Trump:
Meghan Trainor is just terrible. She really is a reminder that it’s still possible for the patriarchy to take control of the White House, the way that her brand of watered-down feminism can still be equally as powerful as it was when the Spice Girls called it “girl power.”
I should say that I come at this with zero feelings about Trainor or her music. My brief stint as a car-having person means I'm familiar with her butt-positivity song, and I remember it falling very much into that category of songs where I'd neither be pleased nor feel compelled to change the station. I have no interest in coming to Trainor's defense musically or politically. And yet the interview left me feeling weirdly - and with important caveats - pro-Trainor. Why?

As is so often the case with cultural criticism these days (yes, there's a chapter on just this), an essentially aesthetic objection is phrased in political terms. Sure, the starting point is Glazer's assessment that Trainor is "such a lowbrow dum-dum." But that has the whiff of a punch down. Snobbish, maybe even... classist. So the rest of the interview becomes this painstaking attempt at explaining the social justice necessity of hating this random pop singer.

The problem with Trainor is that she's "a 23-year-old from Nantucket." (A Google suggests Glazer's background is at least as posh.) That she appropriates black culture in her use of language. More than the typical white pop star or, for that matter, comedian? More than Glazer himself? Unclear, but Glazer is not the first to raise this issue where Trainor's concerned. If this had been his central political complaint, we could have a discussion of whether criticism along those lines, and from that source, falls more into the helpful or virtue-signaling category (and I'd be persuadable that it's the former), but alas, that is not the main point of the rant.

The main gist is that according to Glazer - note, a man - Trainor's doing feminism wrong:
Her version of feminism is just a party favor. It’s a thing to rhyme words about. It feels like she’s never read a book about feminism in her life. And maybe that’s being 23, but also: Stop. Stop and write songs about jelly beans or something.
That's but one passage of a long-form complaint that Trainor is bad for feminism, bad at feminism, maybe not even a feminist at all. And why? Because her boy-centric, body-positivity-focused concerns are so last season. According to a critic who is, again, a man. (If he were a straight man, I guess it would be a notch worse, but, as Miss Tibbs remarked on "Fawlty Towers," in a totally different context, "a man is a man.")

This is peak "privilege" criticism. We have a man who's managed to frame a gratuitous takedown of a woman performer with particular appeal to girls as the true feminist act. It can't be that Glazer thinks a performer sucks because she "writes terrible basic bitch sock hop stuff," both because that would be purely aesthetic and because it would hint at unsavory (that is, sexist and classist) politics. It has to be that he came to his anti-Trainor stance for only the most impeccable political reasons.

I now feel about Trainor approximately the way I've felt for a while now about Chelsea Clinton, which is to say, anti-anti. Even if the individual criticisms add up, the thing where white men present ugh-that-gross-woman-I-don't-like-ism as a social justice project is just, well, ugh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nice things

I was feeling that hankering for refurbishment. Or maybe just a beauty treatment. The problem: I don't do any of these. I don't get massages, manicures, pedicures, or any of the pseudomedical options. I just never got into any of this. But I get the impulse.

So I was an easy sell, if you could call it that, when I saw Into The Gloss's video with French stylist Christophe Robin, promoting a pop-up he's doing in Tribeca. I clicked on "How To Wash Your Hair" with some skepticism, but by the end I was utterly convinced. 

While my first impulse was to go out and buy the eye shadow the model is wearing in the video (which, gulp, I also did, in silver, as per the details in the comments), I was too intrigued by the prospect of a (free! although in such situations I always tip or at least ask to) shampoo and blowout in a glamorous and fleeting Parisian salon within walking distance (very loosely defined) of my home. 

The salon itself was spectacular. Were there poodle figurines throughout? Yes, there certainly were.

Was the experience exactly like in the video? Not entirely - most obviously, I am not a model. And my hair issue is not and has never been greasiness, as a week in NJ without hot water once demonstrated.

While I met Robin (who's very charming and gave me not just samples but helpful explanations), a different (but also French) man washed my hair with an array of the special products. Then another stylist - a woman who is, much like yours truly, non-French - blowdried my hair... and made it look better than I would have thought possible. Was it the products? The use of an apparently $400 hairdryer? The (special, also-Robin-branded, I think) brush? Whatever it was, it was at least a good part her technique, which I did my best to file away for future reference. How? How did my hair go from a mix of frizz and straw to what you see below?

Yes, this is a selfie I took in a Pain Quotidien.

I was feeling splurgy so I asked the stylist which product would allow me to replicate this at home (leaving out the part about how I frequently fall asleep with wet hair). She said all the products were contributing, which is doubtless true, but I wasn't feeling quite that decadent. So I went with one, a leave-in conditioner (?) sort of product, which, fine, for all I know (having never done this) cost more than a blowout from one of those blowdry places. (I know it's googleable but I choose ignorance on this matter, because this was a lot of fun but not something I expect to repeat.) 

Also: I'm not sure how to balance use of this new product with the fact that I will now never wash my hair again. I have big plans that involve combining The Hair (now with DIY trimmed bangs) and The Eye Shadow and... The Navy Rayon Clothing From Uniqlo, I suppose.

The most surprising aspect of all of this is that I learned that the type of shampoo I'd used in high school, and later looked back on as an example of my hair-cluelessness at the time, is actually the sort I should be using. Clarifying shampoo! That was, all along, the way to go.

Conditions of production

For everything in the world, every good and every service, there's the behind-the-scenes. Others can only judge the final product, as is fair. This is no less true of writing. Below, then, is a behind-the-scenes account. A process post, of interest, I suppose, to other writers, and to anyone curious about writers' neuroses and work-related anxieties.

I'm thinking, first, of my dissertation. Once I knew I'd be writing on French Jews and intermarriage, I had this goal of covering everything. After all, this was a narrow topic! I was going to write the definitive work about every last aspect of it. Fictional and real-life cases! Actual rates across time and location! Comparisons with other times and places! I was going to cover everything from the French Revolution to World War II! I was going to visit different regions and find out everything!

In the end, I had to focus on what was possible given existing sources (and resources) and my own methodological limitations. I did research in Paris and New York, and not across France. I stuck with the 19th century. And - and here's the big one - I was never being able to ascertain how many French Jews married out across this period. France didn't keep records of marriage by religion. I spoke with established scholars who are experts in Jewish demography, and they confirmed that not only do figures not exist in published works, but there's no simple way, likely no way at all, of figuring this out. 

Now, to some doctoral students, this might have posed an exciting challenge. (And I hope someone gets to it!) For me, it would have been a prohibitive sidetrack. I was in an interdisciplinary PhD program, but trained primarily as a literary scholar, housed in the French literature department. If I was going to write the dissertation I needed to and felt passionate about, and to spend less than a lifetime doing so, I was not going to self-train as a demography innovator. I was going to have to state what was known or knowable to a scholar from an adjacent field, and focus on the questions that most centrally interested me, which related more to perceptions and anxieties at the time than realities. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the program I was in, and the project I was doing, was in some ways freeing - I got to work with historians and write scholarship of interest to people in a variety of fields - but it was also daunting. I felt - and still feel! - a certain amount of... regret? guilt? at having not written the work on French Jews and intermarriage covering every possible angle and discipline. Yes, even though my committee was pleased with the result. I did my best to - and this is always the trickiest - make sure my argument as presented at the beginning of the document matched up not with the one-time everything-covering dream project, but with what I was actually able to produce. Still. 

So. While my book is not in the least bit based on my dissertation (it's about the idea of privilege in contemporary American cultural conversations, not that of intermarriage in 19th century France, and is for popular audiences, not specifically academics), the thesis-writing experience prepared me for the fact that the book I'd wind up with was unlikely to cover absolutely everything on the topic. I knew - again, from that experience - that no project can use every methodology. I knew that at a certain point, I'd have to determine which paths served my argument, as well as which were beyond what my skills (or, really, contacts) would allow. I knew I couldn't do everything, just, you know, some things.

Writing a book wound up being quite different than writing a dissertation - more fun as well as more challenging. A dissertation feels like a solo slog, but I wrote my in a cohort. Not continuously surrounded by friends doing the same (except at the BNF!), but often enough that I never felt like I was doing it alone. A book, on the other hand... it's really just you writing it. Yes, instead of an advisor, you have an editor. But there aren't a whole crop of other writers who start and finish around the same time you do. Or maybe there are, if you do an MFA, but I did not, so there weren't. From college, from social media, I knew (and 'knew', respectively) a handful of authors, none of books similar to the one I was working on.

And then there's the structure question. I was lucky to be funded throughout my doctoral program, including long stretches where my only responsibility was to write. Paid to write! Not paid a ton, but enough, and with health insurance. Books - with rare exceptions, as I understand it - are not like that. I was tremendously lucky there as well - editor-wise, publishing-house-wise, and even advance-wise - but there was never a question that I would still need to earn money in other ways while writing. Yes, yes, my privilege is always and forever showing, but I, the author of the privilege book, am not independently wealthy. As is normal for authors, I worked - in my case, teaching and doing other writing. For a year, free time didn't really happen, and I'm going to have to say, it was worth it. If not necessarily a schedule I'd repeat. 

And I think the whole needing-to-work thing was good for the book, as in, good for the end result that now sits before readers. Limited time forced me to focus, in a way I never had to for the dissertation, with those months spent living in a dorm room in Paris with all the croissant money a person could ask. (Also key: books have deadlines. Dissertations, not as much.) What is this book really about, and why does it need to be written? I had to keep this front and center. 

That said, does my inner critic immediately turn to places I would have added/expanded, had I had all the time in the world? Of course! Does this make any criticism that (inadvertently, of course) lands on wondering why this or that wasn't mentioned, where "this or that" is precisely what I'd have mentioned with more time, extra frustrating? It does. This, even though with more time, I'd likely have spent it making more thought-through decisions about whether to get a cappuccino or a matcha latte, and not turning my book into the imaginary, every-methodology-covering fantasy every project probably always will be, before practical constraints and my own limitations enter the picture.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The moment has (almost) arrived...

My book — my first, as I don't think unpublished dissertations count — comes out on March 14th, 2017. Also known as... an hour from now. Here's an excerpt in the New Republic. And here's a piece in Newsweek that is calling The Perils of "Privilege" one of the best books of the week, or of March 14th, but I'm starting to gather that books only appear on certain days. There are glimmers of hope (although it's also a little terrifying?) that the book will not vanish into oblivion before it's even appeared.

Oh! And! I will be speaking about the book in front of people and everything at Book Culture in NYC (112th Street branch) on March 22nd. Exactly which navy rayon clothing from Uniqlo I'll wear for the occasion remains to be determined.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The zone

A weird way to begin a first-person blog post, I realize, but here goes: I used to be very personal-writing-averse. And when it comes to my own inclinations, I still am. It’s not possible to write honestly about your own life without including private details of others’ lives, and that’s not something I’m comfortable doing. It's also easier for me to write about things I care about personally without delving deep into the psychology of why I came to care about them. And in more let's say political terms, I think an emphasis on a certain kind of personal essay puts a shelf life of sorts on women’s writing. (In just about all professions, women benefit – to a point – from being young and conventionally attractive, but the ‘woman writes about her sex life’ genre requires this more than most.)

But I’ve been persuaded, over the years, through writing by Alana Massey and others, that there’s a feminist case for this genre, and more urgently, a feminist case against opposing it outright. Why is it Art if Jonathan Whichever engages in confessional writing, but not if a woman does the same? Why denigrate a road to writing success that's open to young women? Yes, others ought to be open as well, but closing one door doesn't burst open another and all that.

Still, I tended to think there was a middle-ground answer, which was this: fiction. Write fiction, and you get to have all the feelings without the drawbacks of personal writing. Magic! But as novelist Julie Buntin’s super-compelling essay on the topic conveys, your friends and loved ones will respond to your fiction as fact. And how wouldn’t they? Even if they know that details were changed, even if they’re sophisticated enough in these matters to get that the “fiction” label means no one can rightly think the work is point-by-point about real people, they know, if nothing else, that you wrote the thing. You’re conveying dynamics you’ve observed that they thought went unnoticed. Experiences that you’ve had but haven’t announced, or haven’t announced publicly. Keeping things fictional is a way of avoiding outing your relatives about private matters. But for those who know you, you still may be crossing any number of lines.

Reading Buntin's essay, it became clear to me why, despite years of insisting that fiction was the answer, I'm incapable of making that switch myself.

In a dual book review for the New York Times that comes across as ambivalent, shall we say, about the online personal-essay genre (it's of Massey’s new book, plus Cat Marnell’s), Anne Helen Petersen writes that for a while, she herself published essays along those lines, “min[ing] [her] life for the weirdest, best and most tragic jewels until they were gone.” I guess a way to put it is that I did the opposite, but wound up in precisely the same boat. It’s not overshare that’s gotten in the way of my fiction-writing drive. It’s undershare.

I will now retell a story I think I’ve shared some version of before, but in the context of the Buntin-inspired epiphany. It is not that racy. That’s sort of the point:

I wrote fiction in high school, and just sort of default assumed that was what I’d write, if indeed I wrote anything at all.* Then I got to college, where the newspaper was non-glamorous and therefore welcoming (here’s a column! here's an opinion-editor position!), while the literary magazine almost only published professional, non-student writers, but held meetings to laugh at the student-fueled slush pile.

Due first to that column, What Would Phoebe Do, then to its blog extension of the same name, I fell into this mode of writing in the first person, as myself, but always with an implied audience of all the adult authority figures in my life. Not just implied! The column was read by (some of) my professors. My blog, by my family and old family friends. Not exclusively, in either case, obviously, or I wouldn't be a writer of any kind now. But this was an audience I couldn’t ignore.

What this meant was that long before social media took off, I was taking dead-seriously the advice that you shouldn’t put online anything you wouldn’t want proverbial prospective employers to read. (Also relevant: I came of age just before it was impossible to have an offline private life. Facebook only started having photo albums when I was 21. If I were a few years younger, either I wouldn’t have these hangups, or they’d have extended to my life itself, not just online writing.)

It’s not exactly that what I wrote, or write, is this great performance. There's no Real Me who is in fact Courtney Love. But a voice of sorts emerged, a persona, that was, by omission, several notches more ‘nothing to see here’ than reality. There was – is! – this zone of experience that was off-limits, extending beyond what Petersen refers to as “a woman’s insides — her exploits, her eating habits, her feelings, her sex life.” And whenever I try to write fiction, I find myself reverting to the zone, perfectly well able to write about characters who are not me (or, conversely, that I'm particularly interested in writing characters based on loved ones or my former college professors), but inhibited about putting even fictional creations in contexts that involve leaving the zone.

*I had no illusions that I’d be A Novelist, but I was, if I may say so, strong by 12th grade English class standards. I have no reason to think fiction I'd write would be good, but am wondering what it is that stops me from getting further with it, when clearly holding forth in text is not a problem. Nor, for that matter, is the story-creation part.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

So, America

I'd been living in Canada, will be again, but am here now, for... this. Does this have redeeming features? I used to think this had something over, like, Europe, what with our welcoming multicultural ideals-if-not-practice. On paper, things were sort of OK, or getting better? Except for the gun thing?


I used to be That Guy, That American, rolling her eyes whenever Europeans sniffed at the US for being backward, thinking but not saying, your lot did fascism, your lot still does far-right xenophobia while pretending it doesn't which is that much worse. Well. Our far-right has now merged with your far-rights and we're all going to hell and might as well get the nice sneakers and the enormous high-end pastries while we still can.

So: Redeeming feature enumeration commences now:

-The chocolate croissants at Arcade Bakery are Paris-level amazing. As is the space, and the smell, which announces just how great the pastries will be.

-Housing Works thrift shops sell the barely-if-at-all worn clothing of wealthy New Yorkers with great taste, and I now own... not that much of it, all told, because even used, it's expensive, but a good amount.

-There's this sugar brioche from Aux Merveilleux de Fred. It's nearly $7, which is like $10,000 CAD, but the size of a (large) frisbee and maybe the best food there is.

-Sneakers seem like they cost less but don't - it's just that they're in $US.

-Supermarkets are better than in Toronto. (Drugstores so much worse.)

-There are a lot of gorgeous rich people of the sort you don't see in Canada, whom you can kind of hate-mire aesthetically.

-Shake Shack > Hero, if a comparison were even possible. I will say this about my homeland: We know how to do hamburgers.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rory Gilmore's writing career

Everyone loves these Gilmores. I want to get it and, searching my blog's archives, have apparently tried to get it and failed to do so before. I watched (or had on as background noise) all four mega-episodes of the miniseries and... I'm left where I started, wondering what others are seeing that I'm not. I think it comes down to whether you think the fictional New England town of Stars Hollow would be delightful or suffocating, and everyone knows where I stand? Anyway.

As Miss Self-Important points out, the weirdness of the new miniseries is that Rory, who we last saw as a recent Yale graduate, is supposed to be 32 but hasn't let's say filled the time between then and now. A recap I found somewhere — maybe one of the many Vulture ones? — pointed out that these episodes, or some version of them, were meant to air a decade ago, which may explain why Rory's in such an early-20-something rut. All Rory has done professionally since college graduation is briefly (?) work on a political campaign, and write a few freelance articles, and she's sort of couch-surfing, dating around, hanging out with her mom... but also jetting off to London and having a string of glamorous professional near-misses. 

While this might have a slacker-ish, "Girls"-ish sound if Rory were a decade younger, at 32 it's more the sort of thing that raises alarm bells. She didn't have kids, or a different career, or any major illness or personal crisis that we know about. She has a lost decade to account for. She's therefore off. And not off in an oh-those-millennials way, but in a would-be-upsetting-if-real way. But this is never acknowledged. Or it is acknowledged, but in the cutesy manner of the show, where she's just this free spirit on a journey. Which is what it's called, I guess, when people with endless (discreet) independent wealth decide not to do anything to fill their days.

I'm jumping ahead to the end, because it's the only way to make sense of what comes earlier. It's getting spoiler-y:

It's only at the end of the four endless episodes that Rory's relationship to the writing world becomes clear. At that point, she's decided she's going to write a book. A memoir of sorts, about her relationship with her mother, called Gilmore Girls. (The show, get it?) And what does this decision involve? Not literary agents or editors. Not self-publishing. Just a whole lot of telling anyone whose path she crosses that she is now Writing A Book, as though deciding to write a book is a career path. (And everyone she meets treats it as one!) Having read all 10,000 personal essays from writers who've written actual, published books, successful and well-promoted, who were stunned to learn that book-writing alone doesn't pay enough to quit a day job, I'm deeply, viscerally aware that actually writing books is something one does, if one is lucky, on the side.

And yet there's Rory, announcing to her mother that now that she's decided she will Write A Book, she's going to go from couch-surfing to renting an apartment (in Queens rather than Brooklyn, how sensible!) that has a study, because how could anyone write a book in a home without a special room devoted to the project? (I just... I mean...) She announces the book she intends to write with more confidence that anyone will care than I'm able to summon re: the book I actually wrote

But why should she have other concerns when she comes from a world where spare-room-having establishments are being thrown at her left and right? Which will it be, the posh-sounding cabin offered up by the superrich friend-with-benefits, or the spare empty mansion left behind by her superrich grandmother? And then it becomes clear: She's an heiress. That's why she puts on nice new business attire to go into her unpaid job (side note: remember the flack Hannah Horvath got for that unpaid post-college internship) at her town paper! She may be broke, but the world is her safety net!

So how should the viewer, especially the not-Rory writer-viewer, feel about all this? Either we can say that the show offers an unrealistic portrait of the writing life, or it offers a very realistic portrait. If you're wealthy, gorgeous, and went to the right college, you can just coast along on an impressive-sounding but work-sparse career that consists of the occasional highbrow publication. And a memoir of a couch-surfing early-30s aristocratic woman would probably sell.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bowled over

What is it about bowls? Specifically: Why is food in bowls a thing? Because Instagram, is the quick answer. Food - specifically, healthy food - looks nice when photographed from above, in a bowl. The only permitted flat food is, of course, avocado toast.

There are breakfast versions involving granola, milk, and berries. Those I'm OK with. It's the savory ones that I'm having trouble embracing. These bowls - at like $12 a bowl - were very much a thing in Toronto. A city that also sells sub-$12 non-bowl lunch options, so I never wound up trying one.

I'm having trouble putting my finger on what my issue is with these bowls, exactly. Part of it is that I feel shamed by their existence - all that balance, those grains and greens where I'd sooner have pasta, (fewer) greens, and cheese. (The bowl-as-trough aspect isn't the issue.) It's a sense of inferiority for not going bowl, mixed with a sense of superiority for my non-faddishness in this area. (In this one area. I did buy a jumpsuit.)

But it's also the contents of many dishes labeled "bowls," which tend to sound vaguely nutritious but... bland. Cuisine-less, and not as in fusion, or the productive mix of existing cuisines. More like a bunch of supposed-to-be-good-for-you ingredients piles on top of each other. Thai or Chinese stir-fry, salade niçoise, Japanese or Vietnamese noodles with toppings, gnocchi with pesto, these all involve bowls, but they're not bowls in the utilitarian Western 2016 sense of the term. It's some sort of puritanical asceticism where you have a "protein" with your meal. Even if the ingredients are identical, a bowl is not a salade composée.

Consider this pro-bowl Guardian article, whose author writes, "I love how gentle and nurturing it feels" to eat one of these bowls. A bowl - and the Guardian ones actually look OK! - might taste good, but it's not really supposed to. It's supposed to nourish and nothing more. Which is, I think, what puts me off.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

La femme tribecoise

There's a way I'd look if money (and time, and vanity-qualms) were no object. I suspect the same is true for most women, but what exactly the result would be varies by region, subculture, etc. But I'm thinking of things like cosmetic dermatology. Or corrective hair color that doesn't involve a Manic Panic box. Or working out properly not every few months (with bursts of being better about that) but several hours a day. Also a diet with more kale and fewer custard-filled donuts.

The no-stone-unturned version of my look (as I imagine it in my head) exists, and it's the Tribeca Woman. Throughout Tribeca, there are these women who, yes, look rich, but not Upper East Side rich, with obvious designer items and plastic surgery. Slim, but not UES-emaciated. Toned. It's this kind of understated everything's-expensive, where you just know the fact that the best-fitting pair of leggings cost $400 wouldn't have stopped a woman from purchasing and working out in those. They look modern, not preppy or fussy.

Every last one of these women has below-the-shoulder hair, thick and shiny, often tastefully highlighted. This is a zit-free land, wrinkle-free, cellulite-free, but also strangely no-nonsense. These are women who work, but who majored in something sensible in college, and are in dual-income households making I can't even imagine.

They are, in other words, in not just their looks, the result of making all the right life choices. But it all manifests itself in their looks, looks which suggest that despite the proximity of Shake Shack, they're not having a burger and fries for dinner. Choices, yes, and luck. For example: They're all six feet tall. I'm... not, and I'm thinking that's not because I failed to study economics.

Ah, but it feels like it's just about choices, somehow, when I see them in their leggings, hair shining in a way that suggests they've never had a chocolate bar for lunch. It feels, in the moment, like if I just got up at 6am to work out and added more leafy greens to my diet, that's what I'd look like in two week's time.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My wonderful new bag, an escapist post

A little while back, I saw a handbag - the handbag - on a Japanese Instagram account. It was Hervé Chapelier, a brand popular with private school girls on Upper East Side circa 1998, and a look I'd always sort of associated with 15-year-old girls dressed like grown women, but in a preppy way. But! The bag was camouflage. Camouflage in very much the same pattern as a skirt I had, in either middle or high school, from a punk store, I think. A kilt, with a pin, but camouflage. I loved that skirt. Somehow this all came together and... perfection. Also hundreds of dollars. Also readily available in Japan (where the brand appears to still be a thing) but nowhere more convenient.

Then I had the brilliant insight that such bags exist elsewhere. And sure enough! The L.L. Bean version, with zipper, was $39 with free shipping. Technically a hunting bag, but apparently also useful for "dog training," in which case, very practical! The bag arrived today. Looking at it, and one of the other Chapelier varieties online, I'm wondering whether the high-end version wasn't inspired by the less-so. Or vice versa because clearly the $39-and-available version would win out. The lining looks identical, which suggests some influence in some direction.

At any rate, I know exactly how to style it because of this thing called Instagram. Conveniently, what it goes best with are striped shirts, jeans, and sneakers or ballet flats. Probably also white Birkenstocks. Basically everything I own. And in an unanticipated actually-practical plus, it fits my computer.

No, this is not an ad; I'm not angling for any further tote bags. This one, however, is fantastic.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


I'm writing this from a coffee shop near my high school, and not so far from the apartment my husband and I will most likely be moving into, in a building we'd also lived in once before. (No, not in Tribeca. The other direction.) Until "most likely" becomes definitely, I'm staying with my parents, and sorting out all the usual relocation checklist items before the catching up portion begins.

New York has been a bit of an emotional whirlwind, to put it mildly. Unlike Toronto, which is still a blank slate in that regard, here, every location reminds me of something. All of Carnegie Hill puts me back at 11 years old. Downtown is more complicated. Being near my high school doesn't much make me feel like I'm in high school, because I'd lived near it for part of grad school. But it does make me think the years between mid-late grad school and now somehow didn't happen. Which... they sure did, and a lot happened during them! But, like, this iced coffee from the place that was always nice to sit in but a bit more expensive than I'd brace myself for, while a tiny bit less expensive than I'd have guessed, tastes exactly as I remember it from 2010 or so. All time is one.

And then there's the obvious. The globally obvious. I have no political agenda on this, no National Convention speech to give, but was an 18-year-old kid about to leave the city to start college on 9/11, and being right there still unnerves me. Yes, despite living next to it for two years. I'd read about the Oculus, and was near it and figured I should enter. But the mere act of walking into a building marked "World Trade Center," in that location, pretty tremendously freaked me out. I normally find malls and mall-stores and such very calming environments. (Not actually shopping, just walking around in them.) This, though, not so much. I remembered being in the mall-type area beneath the towers a couple days before 9/11, in 2001, and didn't panic, exactly, but let's say didn't stay long enough to find out whether said mall did or did not contain a Sephora.

Mainly, though, I'm just struck by the fact that New York is a hometown. It isn't often discussed as one, but it is. This is the only place where I fit in culturally without trying. Where I can immediately tell who's part of which subculture. Where I effortlessly know the rules of stranger chitchat. (A group of women told me about a free pop-up manicure. A woman with a pink poodle told me Bisou would look good blue. One woman in the Uniqlo dressing room told me not to get that size jumpsuit; another asked me about the fit of a slipdress she was trying on. Note: I do not know any of these women personally.) I know how to cross the street here. I know where to get $5 lunch. All of this is even before getting into the people aspect of this. 

Friday, September 02, 2016

A lesson in decor

Given that I could fill the entirety of social media, of text-lacking space on this planet, with Very Important Thoughts about my recent move, I'll try to be intentional about this. That is, I'll spare you the first-world but not-so-posh saga of living in one of those buildings that fall between run-down walk-up and luxury tower, leading perhaps inevitably to the worst aspects of each. (That is, rulesrulesrules but weak security and no ability to receive packages.)

I will skip ahead, then, to the more generally-applicable lessons I've learned about decor. These are not Rachel Cusk-level home-furnishing concerns. They're more like practical (if bathroom-centric) considerations about design of the sort you only think about when they go wrong:

-Bathroom doors should close. Especially so if an apartment has more than one resident. I mean. The old place had a sliding door that sort of dislodged with use, such that it was eventually at so much of a slant as to make the bedroom and bathroom one loft-like space.

-The bathroom should have a toilet paper roll dispenser thingy. That there are bathrooms designed without isn't something I'd ever considered until living in such a place. (I could maaaaybe see if there were a Japanese state-of-the-art multifunction bidet toilet, but obviously my Toronto rental did not have this.)

-The bathroom light switch should be accessible from the bathroom itself, or at least from the room or hall you go through to get to it. The bathroom that I am indeed still talking about required opening a separate sliding door to access the light switch.

-The bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom - in that order - should all have windows. I remember that NY has a law about not calling rooms without windows "bedrooms," and... I get that.

-Two people need, if not two couches, then a couch plus a soft chair, or one of those couches that functions as couch-and-chair. (Not a design flaw - an IKEA run-out-of-steam flaw on our part.)

-Conversely, two people neither of whom has an elaborate beauty routine do not need two bathroom sinks in the same bathroom. This doubles the amount of sink that needs to be cleaned, all for the opportunity to brush your teeth at the same time, which is... also possible with just one sink.

-Laundry and a dishwasher, in the apartment, are fabulous. (These the old place did have. Odd bathroom and windowless bedroom aside, it was lovely!)

-Everyday-use items should not require use of a step-stool.

-I don't know if any apartment has ever managed this (none I've lived in, at least), but the oven should be close enough to the rest of the kitchen, or far enough from it, that there isn't the issue where you're constantly worried food will fall beside the stove but be unreachable by vacuum.

-There should be this other wing, where you actually live, such that the rent-was-acceptable one-bedroom space is merely a façade, there to divert attention from your tremendous ancestral wealth. It should be accessible via one of those magic bookcases old houses have on British murder mystery shows, except it's pretending to be an IKEA BILLY. There you'll find absolutely everything - the table with the built-in hot-pot set-up, the cool chairs in the window of modern furniture stores, a canopy bed, and, as part of the roof, a dome. Definitely a dome.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

I want to like it: Summer 2016 trend ambivalence

Somewhere in that nebulous region between a desired/cherished clothing item or accessory and one that inspires indifference are the following:


They can look nice, I now understand, after a few months there of thinking it was odd how all the adult women in Toronto were dressing like toddlers. It grows on you. But... the bathroom. How do you use public restrooms when in a one-piece? Once you've Googled to find out how you'd go to the facilities in a given article of clothing, you're probably not purchasing it.

-Bucket bags

So chic! So plausible! So useless if it rains!


If Emily Weiss was wearing something in 2013, it's to be expected that the merely civilian-fashionable are wearing the same thing now. It's the look; bonus points if, when asked where the shorts are from, you reply with an insouciant, 'vintage Levis.' This is assuming that you're someone who can't go outside in shorts without being asked their provenance. This is not my situation. ('J. Crew outlet store' just doesn't have that ring to it, so it's for the best.) But I considered cutoffs. I browsed the used-clothing racks in front of a couple shops in the Kensington Market. I lost interest, partly because I'm not convinced shorts made out of thick denim (the only kind that works for the fringe and fit to be right) are really the way to go when it's 90 degrees and humid (even in Canada!), but mostly because - and this may well be Canada-specific - the look that shouts effortlessness is expensive. It was something like $35 for someone's used shorts. Relatedly...


The entire country of Canada is basically sponsored by Lululemon. Every woman, and surprisingly a lot of men, are in this clothing and/or carrying its reusable tote bags. There are graffiti'd ads for the store on my street. Yes, it's the most attractive workout-wear. And yes, the brand is cheaper in Canada. No, still not cheap. As with cutoffs, the question is always, why would I buy this casual thing that costs at least as much as a gorgeous not-casual item would? I know this marks me as a Bad Millennial to think this way, but so be it.


Loved the idea of a sturdier, perhaps more modern, alternative to ballet flats. So after the L.L. Bean dog-walking ones disintegrated, I bought - no, invested in, as they were expensive-ish and purchased to be practical, to teach in - a pair of black Salamander loafers. Loafers which... never quite crossed over from frumpy to chic, and more to the point, which never broke in, and which remained uncomfortable in that very specific way shoes can, where they regularly destroy all your socks.

-Off-the-shoulder shirts

I'd wanted a black, fitted one, but never found the right one, and wound up wanting, and ultimately over the span of a couple months, getting (and wearing!) a pale blue striped one and a solid white one. Both look nice, I think, but never quite right. Never quite how I'd imagined. The blue one is too cropped, while the white one keeps riding up, as in, it's only off-the-shoulder if I periodically pull it down, and is entirely incompatible with such activities as, say, letting a dog into a dog run. And I'm not sure they're worth the extra sunscreen I've learned they require, ever since getting my worst (and only!) sunburn in ages in the blue one.

-Oh, and why not a food item? Bowls

There's a place near my apartment that sells vegetarian, gluten-free $12 lunches. Its clientele is very glamorous, and sometimes I think, I should be someone who occasionally spends $12 on an Instagrammable bowl of cuisine-less bland slop. But then I remember the superior alternatives - toasting a frozen Montreal-style bagel at home or, on splurgier occasions, getting a similarly $12-ish but substantial bowl of ramen. Toronto has excellent food options; the ones that are sad, arctic imitations of southern California can probably be skipped.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Single-process I think not

-Finally get the haircut that removes the last attempt at hair color experimentation. (Comparable scenario: finally grow out bangs.) Restlessness ensues.

-Think, hmm, your hair doesn't look/feel that much healthier, plus hair "health" isn't even a thing, and your hair is looking sort of meh. Time to shake things up!

-Briefly contemplate a platinum pixie before remembering that you are not in fact Agyness Deyn circa several years ago, while remaining blissfully self-delusional about your non-resemblance to that other same-age hair icon, Alexa Chung, when settling on the more doable alternative inspiration. 

-Locate your long-forgotten Pinterest login information. Pin photos you've just found, only to realize they're repeats of ones you'd put there ages ago. If music tastes are stuck at what you liked at 14, hairstyle ones hover at give-or-take 26. 

-Edit - no, curate - the relevant board, taking care to remove photos where the appeal was probably not a realizable hairstyle, but rather... a very pretty model you'd subconsciously (or consciously!) wouldn't mind looking like, or shampoo-commercial shiny hair of a texture that you don't have now and certainly won't after bleach is involved. 

-Gaze, pleased with your 'accomplishment', at the assembled photos, most of which are (apparently; what else is new) of a Californian lifestyle blogger, who happens to have the hair of your dreams. Vow to suspend disbelief when it comes to your own non-resemblance to said blogger (as would make sense; your lifestyle could not have its own blog), including but not limited to: natural hair color; natural hair texture; tendency of hair, when bleached, to turn orange.

-Put your full trust in the Japanese salon in the Kensington market, the one where you considered getting ombré on a whim, when first visiting Toronto a couple years ago, before you knew that this was a place where you need to book in advance. Wait, with eager anticipation, for your appointment.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Character-building, character-limits

Given the longstanding WWPD fixation on scrappiness oneupmanship, I am, like Flavia, fascinated by the "first seven jobs" hashtag. My take on the hashtag - already known, I suppose, to my avid Twitter follower(s) - is that the whole thing's a bit... misleading? Prone to error by omission?

The gist of the exercise was - as Oliver Burkeman suggested - for people who are now prominent or at least successful to reveal the tremendous self-made climb it took for them to get where they are. As in, who'd have thought, little Jimmy who used to be a lifeguard is now a journalist/director/professor! Who indeed.

But the structure of it - the listing, context-free, of seven jobs, all within the 140-character Twitter limit - doesn't leave room for explanation. Nothing about how long the jobs were for; how they were gotten; whether they were needed (or about 'building character'); what age; etc., etc. The result is that the having-of-jobs - of jobs that would be, if held full-time by a 40-year-old, blue-collar - sounds scrappy. Never mind that having jobs in one's youth may indicate... privilege. Not always - anyone working full-time during college, as a 19-year-old, merits all the scrappiness points - but often. What certainly does suggest at least present-day comfort is the implicit tone - specifically, that there's no fear in anyone's list-presentation of ever having to return to any of those lines of work, because that?, that was ages ago, and trajectories go just the one way: up.

But this isn't about privilege, exactly, but rather meritocratic oneupmanship. It's about showing how impressive you are by explicitly juxtaposing where you are now with where you once were. And there can be good fun in that - I'm not above that behavior, not averse to pointing out, where appropriate, that I've gotten to (thus far) the book deal and manuscript stage of the book-publishing process not through connections, but through copious blogging, then freelancing, much of this time also spent teaching. I totally get the appeal - especially if you're someone others might assume caught certain specific breaks that you did not - of pointing out that you had to work for it.

The question, though, is who can't come up with a nice list of seven first jobs? Presumably, the thinking is (no, this isn't scientific) the actual rich people, who went instead from unpaid internships and/or grad programs straight to white-collar work. But wait! Rich kids aren't (generally) the ones taking unpaid internships! Once you stop and look at what the profile is for a successful, grown-up professional, it starts to seem not surprising in the least that those with impressive jobs and achievements today worked a variety of less-glamorous jobs an eternity ago.

So who is this eternally-glamorous person-of-straw against whom we the list-providers are implicitly comparing ourselves? My grand theory of all this goes as follows: In certain situations (media and academia Twitter come to mind), due to stratification and income inequality and so forth, the 'poor' kids are actually middle or upper middle class. I say this both because I've read those articles and because I was that kid. I could scrappiness-one-up classmates whose parents paid their rent after college, but - despite campus jobs that I got to put on my list, thank you very much - I was far from financially independent during college. There are people who don't ever work; they tend to be very poor and thus excluded, structurally, from the workforce, or very rich and busy providing entertaining friends-of-friends Facebook content via photos of their Floridian perma-vacations. And it's that latter group who are inspiring this batch of exuberant resentment.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Ingrown branches

Every so often, I'll make some pronouncement about how, from that point on, I'll start only reading books that put me into different situations and different experiences. (As in, not that of Jewish women from New York who at least dipped a toe into humanities grad school.) Usually doing so is a way of guaranteeing that the used paperback I picked up on a whim for $2 somewhere, knowing little about it, will turn out to be the semi-autobiographical recollections of a woman with my exact life experience. There are, of course, demographic reasons for this (New York sells, or once did; graduates of literature programs are drawn to writing), but that's not the point of this post.

The point is that I've just now outdone myself in non-branched-out reading. And it was, in this case, kind of intentional. I'd heard interviews with Jessi Klein, whose excellent book of humor essays, You'll Grow Out Of It, was the culprit, and knew enough to realize that this was going to be one of those books that I could relate to a lot. See the last paragraph of this article I wrote, about straight female desire? Imagine a much-funnier (and less apologetically handwringing towards potentially offended populations) version of this, and that's the "tom man" concept. In this era where all female beautification is presented in 'I do it for me' terms, I knew there'd be something deeply relatable about a woman's experiences being attracted to men, but not being naturally drawn to certain aspects of conventional femininity, and thus adopting whichever primping rituals strategically (if subconsciously), to increase romantic prospects.

I knew she's a Jewish woman from New York. I knew that this was not going to be Knausgaard Volume Who Knows or Americanah. I knew what I was getting into.

What I hadn't realized was that Klein went to Stuyvesant. We went to the same high school.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it?"

The thing about having already written the manuscript for a book about privilege is that delightful "privilege" stories keep popping up that can't now be included. This is, I realize, for the best - there's already plenty, rest assured! But this one, from a Dear Prudence letter (yes, the one I just tweeted about), is worth a glance. It's amazing in a somewhat different way than examples I look at in the book, and so it works as a stand-alone vignette of the framework's weirdness:

First, the backstory: In a letter last week, advice columnist Prudence (now Mallory Ortberg) told off a woman who'd yelled at her 18-year-old half-sister for very classic family-drama reasons. The half-sister was the product of the father's cheating. Dad has demonstrated a certain amount of favoritism - including the big'un where family drama is concerned, financial - to the 18-year-old. Prudence correctly assessed that this was a sad situation, but that blaming the half-sister for existing wasn't the answer. The letter-writer's beef was with her unpleasant-sounding father. Indeed.

This wasn't one of the out-there, unusual-sexual-arrangements Prudence questions, so I'd forgotten about it until this week, when someone wrote in to complain:

None of [the situation] was the sister’s fault, you basically said. But I take exception to that. Why shouldn’t the younger sister be made aware of how her privilege has impacted others? That there was time, affection, and money for her in part because it was denied to the other children? This is one of our great national conversations, isn’t it? To acknowledge the impact when people in power (in this case, the father) privilege some and deny others?
It goes on:
For the sister to be so oblivious to how their father had treated his other children is, frankly, her fault. The older sister may owe an apology for the way she delivered her message, but the younger sister owes it to her siblings to recognize she gained from their poor treatment and not blithely go about mentioning it.
Prudence does a stellar job of holding her ground. What interests me here, though, is the specific way this week's letter-writer goes wrong. What this one does is apply a "privilege" approach as if it were the ultimate rule in all things. A "national conversation" evidently necessitates taking an aggressive stance wherever "privilege" is concerned. Note that here, "privilege" isn't the systematic advantage of members of one group over members of another, but favoritism within one family.

What's specifically interesting, then, is that "privilege" confuses matters, in much the same way as it does elsewhere, but it's just more obvious: Rather than locating the site of the older half-sister's (legitimate!) grievance with her father, the question becomes whether the half-sister has acknowledged the impact of her own - yup - unearned advantages. It's almost as if "privilege," in this case (and perhaps others), functions as a passive voice, focusing attention on the acted-upon, and misleadingly erasing the actors.

Placed in this interpersonal context, it all makes so much sense: It can certainly feel more important for someone oblivious to unearned advantages to acknowledge those, than for the source of the inequality to get a good talking-to. And very often, the oblivious-beneficiary party is simply more accessible than the source-of-injustice party. (See that other classic tale: the Other Woman hated, the cheating man given a pass.) But making the ideal end goal Half-Sister Acknowledges Privilege is not only unfair to the half-sister, but also a way of giving a pass to the person here who's actually at fault.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Foer days late to the most important story of all time

So here's something I'd wanted to write about for a Jewish publication, but was very much beaten to the punch, which... I'd sort of figured would happen, because, I mean, this story. It's now yesterday's news, but the personal Weblog is yesterday's genre.

What follows, to be clear, is not the article that might have been. Rather, it's the free-from-constraints WWPD version. This is the very definition of my beat, in a way that no other story past or present possibly could be.

Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer. By now we all know this much: He got the byline, she the pantsless fashion spread in that T Magazine story from over the weekend. It was kind of like that Margot Robbie profile, except, I think, much worse. With the Robbie one, I'd thought it was a bit silly that the standard feminist complaint was that this woman famous primarily for being gorgeous wasn't being asked more intellectual or substantive questions. After all, isn't a better feminist complaint why the women in magazines being asked questions, period, tend to be ones about whom the salient (known) facts are such things as "26," "blonde," "sufficiently good at acting," and "looks good in a bathing suit"? Meanwhile... yes, Portman is beautiful (ahem, understatement), but the reason she's being profiled is because she directed a highbrow foreign film. (Clarification UPDATE: the *profile* is a pretentious/flirtatious musing on Jewish identity and alternate side of the street parking regulations that has been aggregated and parodied all over the place at this point.) But we're still in the world of male-gaze female pantslessness.

The Foer-Portman article, though, presented itself as more sophisticated. This is even alluded to in the profile, which isn't a profile but a back-and-forth email exchange (but intended for publication) between two colleague-type friends (and more on that in a moment). At one point Foer writes (and note that this needs to be specified in a piece given only his byline, ahem): "[...] we weren’t going to be in the same place for long enough to allow for a traditional profile — me observing you at the farmer’s market, etc., which would have felt ridiculous, anyway [...]" Ridiculous why? Because they already knew each other, or because standard-issue celebrity profiling is for peasants?

And then there's the gossip angle, which is too fascinating, and which sheds light on a reason, other than logistics, why the profile may have had to be via email, rather than at the café where the starlet orders and picks at the proverbial cheeseburger (but not real one, in this case, because of the famous vegetarianism of the parties in question).

Anyway. I read Foer's recent short story in the New Yorker. And it was... fine. But it was also a predictable return to that thing in Jewish literature where "Jew" equals a Jewish man; where penises and that ever-fascinating-to-men question about them (cut or uncut?) is the metaphor; and where female characters couldn't possibly play into any of the psychodrama. Not to be all, Philip Roth did it and did it better and so did Arnon Grunberg so why bother, but... Roth and Grunberg did it better, and even if I weren't a Jewish woman myself, I'd be ready for stories about Jewishness that weren't entirely about the concerns of - to use an of-the-moment but in this case entirely needed specification - cisgender men.

Portman, meanwhile, is the subject of longtime fascination here at WWPD. If you're a petite, dark-haired, pale-skinned Jewish woman who's read at least one book not assigned in school, and who has at any point in her life given off that vibe that says, 'Please, men of a certain type, write me pretentious emails' (a vibe that is, let it be known, entirely consistent with "RBF" in day-to-day interactions), you are that type. (There are plenty of us; allow me to shed all intellectual credibility and note that we're what Patti Stanger refers to as "spinners.") But as much as I am that type, I'm also not that. I'm not about to be hired to be the face of a perfume, or to pose in a thousand-dollar sweater and little else. Which is a way of saying that yes it annoys me, as a feminist, that she's pantsless and not given a byline, and yes it gets to me that Jewish literature is to this day such a (kosher-) sausage-fest. But there's also the whole thing of how Natalie Portman is Natalie Portman and I am not.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Edina Monsoon Syndrome

Marisa Meltzer is a brilliant writer, and a bunch of rich-hippie women (think the "Moon Juice" lady or, if you're not as tragically plugged into these controversies as I am, think GOOP) going into the wilderness to revel in pseudoscience is a wonderful, must-click-now topic. So when the moment in the day came to read something with no (immediate) work-related purpose, I devoured Meltzer's Harper's Bazaar feature on the Spirit Weavers Gathering. At it is even more of a gem-filled extravaganza than one might expect; see the Jezebel aggregation the gem-only version. (Basically, weird stuff involving IUDs and menstrual blood, plus the opportunity to purchase $400 dresses.)

But! There is handwringing. Just after retweeting the piece (which I totally meant it as an endorsement), I came across journalist Annie Lowrey's tweets, criticizing the piece for misogyny and shady ethics. (The rich-hippie women hadn't known Meltzer was a journalist. From Meltzer's article: "There's one woman at camp I've met before; she knows I'm a writer, so I keep hiding behind trees to avoid her, like I'm in a Looney Tunes cartoon.") And this seemed sort of... true, and in keeping with my own squicked-out-ed-ness at the nude photos embedded in the story. Yes, these were - are! - public and on Instagram. But in a specific context. I know it seems absurd to call any part of the internet a safe space for attractive young women to publicly post nude photos of themselves, but in a sense, maybe? Maybe not? Gah!

And yes, absolutely yes, there's a super-specific misogyny that involves (generally well-off, generally white) women (and men) bashing other women for being wealthy and white. More on that... later.

Then, though, there's the counter-qualm case: Would Meltzer get any of this criticism if she were a male journalist? (Upon reflection: Probably!)

Meanwhile, the less-enthusiastic aspects of my own response were mostly of a different nature. Here's the passage that jumped out:

[I]t seems like the vast majority—85 percent or 90 percent—of women here are white. The employees of the camp, the women who clean the toilets, are Hispanic. At some point during the weekend there's a talking circle for Spirit Weavers of color—which seems like a lost opportunity for a larger discussion about race, class, access, carelessness, privilege and probably a lot of other things I'm failing to mention.
Gah! Nonono! The thing you want to do, if you've gathered all the clueless rich hippie white women in one place, is not, definitely not, to have them discuss the social issues of the day. Should they really be encouraged to discuss (and thus Instagram discussions of) "privilege"? Think of Mischa Barton's yacht post! It would all be highly stylized and counterproductive and even if productive would look counterproductive and wind up shaming these women into never caring about the outside world ever again.

And then there's the inevitable problematic nature of rich-hippie dabbling. Meltzer's particularly worked up about the level of "cultural appropriation":
I know that people get up in arms when white girls wear feather headdresses to Coachella. At Spirit Weavers there were many white kids running around dressed like Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, with a single feather attached to a headband and moccasins on their feet. I can't tell if all the good intentions at Spirit Weavers make it any better.
And here's where I'm just not sure. It's not that I don't think symbolic or cultural items can be racist, or that people who aren't themselves members of the group in question can never comment on what counts as bigotry. (That Yale window? Super racist!) But... is anyone other than Meltzer offended by the "hodgepodge of cultures and spirituality: Indian music, Japanese incense, Moroccan rugs, all inside a Mongolian yurt"? Is she offended? Or is this - and I find the "I know that people get up in arms" bit telling - about her knowing that this is the sort of thing that will get people - mainly people who aren't Native American, and who aren't otherwise invested in being allies to that particular demographic - riled up?

Meltzer calls out the festival for hypocrisy: "A back-to-the-land weekend is perfect for resting and socializing. Do we really have to pretend we're changing the world at the same time?" But are they pretending this? How can they be bad, insufficiently intersectional feminists if "feminism" is "not a word [she] heard used more than once or twice at the festival"? That is, if it's not even claiming to be feminist? This seems like a conflation of categories. The rich-hippie earth-mama thing isn't inherently progressive, nor is there much reason to believe a woman, say, homeschooling six kids in the wilderness while raising organic coriander or whatever would be liberal. Are these women hypocrites? Or are they just... engaged in an activity that's kind of hilarious and a worthy candidate of gentle mockery? Is it that it's impossible to call the women out for silliness without arguing there's something politically problematic about their silliness?

In any case, it was (clearly) a thought-provoking read. So much so that I could go on, but maybe better to just suggest others read it for themselves.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The long-anticipated Defense of Stuff

The piece I wrote recently for the New Republic about stuff vs. experiences seems to have gotten some interest. Elissa Strauss put the ideas into context helpfully in Slate, while Rebecca Schoenkoff had fun with the topic at Wonkette. The Atlantic included the piece in a "highlights" roundup. Miraculously I can still walk through the streets of Toronto unnoticed, but it's only a matter of time until we're talking sunglasses-and-autographs territory.

And there's now even a Bloggingheads on it! I got to debate materialism with Aryeh Cohen-Wade, who made the case for experiences. I was... meant to make the case for stuff, but never quite got there. What I did instead was make the point that much of what's often viewed as worse about 'stuff' applies no more to stuff than to experiences. The case, in other words, against being anti-stuff.

Because I ramble (slightly) less in writing, here's a second attempt at the positive argument for enjoyment of stuff:

For some people - for whichever mix of we-were-socialized-to and we're-just-like-that - it's fun to buy and/or make new things. This is a broad category that includes clothes-shopping and cooking, home decor and book accumulation. It doesn't mean enjoyment of all these categories, or indiscriminate enjoyment of any one of them. I can't speak to what it means for all, but for me, it means having a particular clothing item/recipe/book in mind (not quite at the home-decor life-stage, she types from her it'll-do IKEA couch) and being pleased to wear/use/read it.

But to simplify matters, I'll stick with the big one: clothes. That's the one with some shame attached. No one is judging me for owning condiments (with the possible exception of a broker my landlord hired to rent out our place, who passed along the not-false information that clear surfaces in the kitchen would make his job easier), or calling book-consumption shallow. But just saying I like clothes makes me sound cretinous. It demands disclaimers, apologies. But I'm going for positive here, so I'm going to save those for later.

Here's what 'liking clothes' involves, for me: I think of things I want to wear, inspired by women I know, or who I've seen on the street in Toronto, or on the street elsewhere when I have a chance to experience elsewhere, or on TV shows (female detectives!), or on fashion blogs (such as there still are), or because - and here I'm thinking specifically of the cherry-blossom sneakers; no other example is coming to mind - because I've seen something in a store window and thought how fantastic it is that this item even exists. I don't just go and buy all of it at once, both because $$$ and because that wouldn't be any fun. (How many times can I refer to Kei's brilliant concept of a "wanty list"?)

Because it's not about wanting white Birkenstocks since seeing a woman in Toronto with roughly my build and clothing color scheme wearing them. It's about sorting out which I'm looking for, in which material. And all that only after thinking about what, of what I already own, I'd wear them with. While I don't quite still view my wardrobe in terms of different fashion personalities, there's nearly always a vision for what will be worn how. What look it's all going for. And I'm not really an impulse-shopper. If I go to a store without a specific item in mind, or with only a vague plan ('I will buy a summer dress'), I wander around with... exactly the attitude of someone who hates shopping, and leave without buying anything.

But I got the sandals, and wearing them is great. I feel more myself in an outfit that I like, more together. And conveniently for me, I'm not so fickle as to require constant changing-it-up in the clothing department. If anything, I make the #KonMari mistake of hanging onto clothes (shoes) beyond repair, simply because I totally would still wear them if they hadn't fallen apart (red patent ballet flats), and sometimes do because... red patent ballet flats! Yes, that's what 'liking clothes' can mean - liking what you own so much that when it falls apart or no longer fits, this is a disappointment, so you keep wearing things a little too long. How oddly... not-wasteful.

For me - and who else would I have the authority to speak for on my very own Weblog? - putting in effort in this area is a matter of self-confidence, or something along those lines. At times when I've felt sort of ugh, I haven't felt I deserved either new clothes, or, on some level, even to wear the nicer things I already own. For others, who knows? If you're someone whose "ugh" leads to purchasing the entire contents of the nearest mall, this is not your experience, and maybe liking clothes is not, for you, a positive force in your life. For me, it is.

In a sense, the positive case for stuff is very straightforward. People like it! I don't need to explain why shopping can be fun, nor that in the history of humanity, people have acquired objects without falling into a sea of debt and hoarding. Thus why the anti-stuff tirades are always framed as, you only think you like stuff, but it's a mirage. What if it's just... not a mirage? What if the things in life that seem nice - new shoes, catching a glimpse of Justin Trudeau at the Pride parade - actually are?

And now the handwringing:

To like clothes isn't to like all clothes. Nor is it necessarily to like status clothes, or the clothes of the moment, although I see nothing wrong with either of these factors trickling into the great unknowable that is why we like the things we do. Nor does it mean spending a lot, or too much relative to income, on clothes. Nor, indeed, does it mean owning more clothes than people who just wear whatever. It means getting enjoyment out of deciding what to purchase and, once you own it, how to style it. It's that simple. No great sin has occurred.

Or, put another way: Those who go out of their way to make sure everything they wear is either used or (definitively) ethically produced (as in, not just expensive and marketed as an 'investment') get to hold a moral high ground. Those who simply don't care what they wear and have closets full of clothes they're indifferent to don't get any good-person points for non-enjoyment of the mall.

Oh, and if this needs stating: To like clothes isn't to get tremendous joy in one's own reflection in the mirror. I'm 20 years past losing sleep over questions of whether I'm stunning or hideous, having too many years' worth of accumulated knowledge that I - like nearly all of us - am neither. I fall into the same category as most, which is to say that if dressed reasonably nicely, I look quite a bit better than I do in sweats.

I'm not clear where the line exists between stuff and experiences. Yes, a plane ticket is in one category, and a knick-knack ordered online, another. But rarely is it that straightforward. (Or nor even there: maybe the flight is to a shopping trip, and maybe knick-knack-browsing online is a wonderful experience!) In a sense, maybe that's where my beef with the experiences-are-better-than-stuff brigade comes from. So, so, so often, the things praised as "experiences" and therefore noble sound awfully... stuff-y, while the things derided as "stuff" are basically about the experiences involved in acquiring the stuff, or that the stuff reminds someone of.

As came up on the Bloggingheads... while lots of stuff-acquisition is about keeping up with the Joneses, so, too, is plenty experience-having. Why does "stuff" suggest debt, while "experiences," which can be at least as expensive and ostentatious, get a pass? Indeed, given that everything gets photographed and shared these days, it's incredibly difficult for me to see how the mountain vista on a vacation that someone surely paid for is any different than a handbag.

In other words, insofar as there is a dichotomy, but it's not stuff vs. experiences. It's between the things (material or not) you actually get some sort of pleasure out of, and the ones you're under the impression you ought to consume, and consume reluctantly but out of a fear of what would happen if you did not. (There's a name for the latter category: kale.) If you find you're spending too much money and time on things you only think you should like, then... that's probably the place to cut back. As in, sure, the money I put towards new sandals could have gone towards one of those exercise classes that women of my demographics supposedly enjoy. But having once dipped a toe into the world of paying to exercise, I get the sense that it's not for me, not now, at least. I'd rather have the sandals, so I chose correctly.