Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chickpeas, H&M sweaters, and mediocrity

-What does one do with partially-soaked chickpeas? I went a bit crazy (like, 30 cents worth of crazy) at the bulk section of Whole Foods, and am trying to decide if this recipe would make going out in 20-degree weather for parsley and mint worthwhile. But I have trouble coming up with recipes that don't end in, '... and then you put it on top of pasta.'

-If this is one of them designer-collaboration extravaganzas, how is it possible that I used to own one of the very same sweaters, or one remarkably similar, from H&M, I think one in Chicago, until the $6-ish garment turned into thrift-store material?

-Why, Philip, why? OK, so beyond the fact that I was not wild about this book, there's the limitation of the autobiography and semi-autobiographical novel that I suppose could be called the A-Student Limitation. (See also.) So often, we get to hear about the life of the student who always felt different from everyone else (up to this point, all can identify with the sentiment) on account of he was simply more brilliant than everyone else, a fact recognized by his performance on exams, and questioned only by ill-intentioned if not bigoted teachers and school administrators. The genre of good-little-boy autobiography is interesting, I guess, insofar as it allows us to see limitations present at various times and places, keeping the excellent from reaching their full potential and all that. But the internal angst of the student who's never so much as seen an A-, whose exam came second only to Sartre, it gets old. But so, too, does the look-how-far-I-fell memoir, of getting kicked out of school, of near-fatal overdoses, and so forth. Just as it does not make people dull that they've excelled in school, failure does not imply a fascinating life story - often just a boring old refusal to hand in homework on time. What would be fun would be an autobiographical novel or, why not, autobiography of mediocrity, of the A-/B+ student.

Should newspapers have comments sections?

"i love garlic and can make a mean mashed potato w/ roasted garlic. however, as i've gotten older i began to have tons of stomach cramps and flatuence after eating garlic...has anyone else experienced this?"

Jul light the menorah

Somehow, the post I wrote about Jews paired off with non-Jews who are also not real-Americans turned into a discussion of Jewish men and Asian women - a topic that's been covered far more extensively elsewhere than the one I was hoping to address.

So, another attempt: here's fashion-blogger/child-prodigy Tavi describing her family's wintertime traditions: "Our family is Jewish, but my mom is from Norway, so we celebrate Jul. It is basically Scandinavian Christmas only instead of a jolly fat guy we Norsemen get an angry little gnome that beats people with sticks."

(This is probably the first - and last - time anyone will approach the Tavi phenomenon from a Jewish-Studies angle, but bear with me.)

What Tavi describes is a family that's embracing Judaism (other posts are about her bat mitzvah), but that allows for Christian traditions only insofar as they're elements of one parent's particular background. Gnomes and j's that must be pronounced like y's are not part of the Christmas, the one that many Jews understand as representative of homogenizing Mainstream Society. Had Tavi written, 'We're Jewish, but my mother's family is Episcopalian so we gather around the tree and sing carols,' she would - and this is just a guess - stand accused of coming from a family that wasn't quite Jewish. But if it's Jul that's at stake, that's another story, because Jul, whatever it is, is not about blending unnoticed into the majority culture. Note here that Tavi's mother is Norwegian - not 'minority' in the usual sense, but in this context, yes, it counts.

(One for the files of why we can't all just get along: Some of these white-but-minority-in-the-U.S. wintertime traditions stray particularly far from mainstream American culture.)

When a Jewish family celebrates Christmas, it's assimilation. But what if it's Jul, or assimilating-Chinese-American-secular-Christmas? A Soviet New Year's tree? Or, moving beyond the not-so-timely question of a holiday season that's ending, how should Jews approach intermarriage in cases in which neither spouse's traditions much align with those of mainstream America? The expectation that the non-Jewish partner should defer to the Jewish one on these matters on account of Jews are this teensy minority that needs all the numbers it can get stops making so much sense when that partner has odd-sounding traditions of his own.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A festive roundup

-Worst fashion suggestion yet: Advising regular women to dress like models do on their time off. Bad advice why? Models are women a) who, if successful, have a stash of free designer clothes, and b) look good in everything, as looking good in everything is their job. The look that's apparently so-very-now, from the description and the photos, seems like what was once referred to as 'chic'; my disapproval is only of the purported inspiration.

This, however, is... something:

And as Scott Schuman, creator of the Sartorialist, the photo blog about street fashion, observed: “It’s the models’ authenticity that makes them so sexy and appealing. People want a look that’s real.”

-Worst advice ever: Is TPP really endorsing a site "recommending that women become 'holiday divas,' indulging in luxury and pampering rather than food"? It goes on: "Among the suggestions are Champagne bubble baths, spa treatments like facials and pedicures and bold, high-gloss red lipstick." Pedicures replace the need to eat how?

-Since I prefer eating food to bathing in expensive wine, I've been trying, post-orals, to come up with new ideas of things to cook. Winter recipes frustrate me for two reasons. One, I'm not entirely convinced I can get excited about kale, and the latest in winter recipes are all about making the most of one's CSA or the half-stand worth of farmers' market. Two, every recipe has the word "comforting" in it. I like some foods, not others, but find exactly none of any particular comfort, except insofar as it's comforting to know you're not about to starve. Is "comforting" a euphemism for "warm"? "Bland"? Because the recipes tend to be both of those. Clearly, the arrabiata-stirfry cycle shall continue uninterrupted.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A brief guide to promoting diversity in fashion

-Celebrate the pale, delicate-featured, nine-foot-tall, emaciated model with one tiny, barely-visible bit of non-white heritage. Sure, she's one flat-iron treatment away from a 'white' appearance, but this model represents change.

-Pity the nine-foot-tall, shockingly gorgeous, perfect-breasted, professionally-successful size four Dutch model because sometimes people give her a hard time about not being a size two. Denounce the oppression face by women of this model's physical appearance in our society.

-Bring color to the pages of Vogue by painting said Dutch model brown.

Interfaith romance and assimilation

In Jewish discussions of intermarriage, interfaith dating, and the like, the non-Jewish partner is implicitly assumed to have one of two identities: that of a universal, non-hyphenated member of the majority culture (i.e. the women Portnoy screwed so as to screw, in both senses, America), or that of a mainstream elite - a member of the New England WASP upper class, say, or the Parisian aristocracy. In both of these cases, the Jewish desire to resist total assimilation, to insist upon raising theoretical and real-life children 'as Jews', and thus to reject the culture and religious traditions of the non-Jewish partner, is understandable. In neither case would choosing Judaism/Jewishness over the other route put the particularities of the other partner's culture in danger of disappearance.

But what about the (frequent) case of a Jew partnering off with a member of another 'particular'? I ask because I found myself wondering whether Prudie would have responded the same way had a Chinese-American woman complained not about her Jewish boyfriend's refusal to embrace the secularized Christmas her own family adores, but instead about his failure to accept specifically Chinese aspects of her heritage, say, if she had told him the Theoretical Children could attend Hebrew school only if they also went to Chinese school, and he'd said no? What if the issue had been Greek Orthodox Christmas up against Chanukah? And so on.

There's a certain degree of assimilation inherent in considering out-group dating acceptable. But it seems the discussions of theoretical children disappearing into the majority are less appropriate when neither partner is the 'real American.' In such cases, an insistence that a child be raised in only one parent's culture strikes me unfair.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An investment piece

On Friday, one thing led to another and I ended up scoring a pair of APC jeans (see attempt at photograph above) for $5, or $150 less than what seems to be the cheapest pair at the store. Used, obviously, thanks to Housing Works Tribeca's jeans extravaganza. The imperceptible weight fluctuations of (to paraphrase Gossip Girl) Manhattan's elite mean new upmarket jeans for all.

The garment's two main flaws - too small, at least post-latkes, and the sailor-pants-esque flare - could be overlooked both because the flaws have upsides (a reminder that latke consumption should be finite, and that skinny jeans really aren't the most flattering, respectively), and because, well, $5. That, and the fashionable men of the French department rave about this brand, and since they tend not to look quite a schleppy as I do on a typical day, I should probably heed their advice. (It would mean a trip to Williamsburg, but yes, but I am intrigued.) The material of these particular jeans reminded me why denim ever caused such a fuss in the first place - they're dark blue, no streaks of any kind, and this thick material that makes other jeans seem like leggings.

I have a whole nautical outfit in mind, one that will involve these plus a striped white-and-navy H&M shirt, perhaps, post-snowstorm, paired with these:

But beyond the one outfit, I'm not sure quite what to do with these pants. Any ideas?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"You know you're not in high finance, considering second-hand underpants."*

I'm not sure if I'm ABD now, or if this status only comes after defending the dissertation proposal, but in any case I've been a humanities ABD, if I am one, for just over a week. Still, it's never too soon to read a scary tale about 20th-year grad students and the general bad life choice that is going to humanities grad school. Why the D bit is the most problematic confuses me - isn't the dissertation why people want to be in grad school in the first place? Or is it just that, life-cycle-wise, it so often coincides with interruptions?

Anyway, in the spirit of the tag to this post, the myths in the linked article, and my own repeating-myself-probably response to them.

Myth 1: The humanities grad student chose humanities grad school over a more lucrative option.

Because this is what's implied whenever anyone points out the low pay typical of grad school. But who's to say Mr. Poetics had a choice between management consulting, launching a successful company, and poetry, and somehow chose poetry? More likely, Mr. Poetics would have found himself graduating from college into a tough job market and, if lucky enough to find a position, working some unexciting, poorly-paid job that perhaps didn't even require a college diploma. (Mr. Poetics may have chosen a prestigious English program over Starbucks.) Now, if Mr. Poetics happened to graduate from Stanford with a dual major in silliness and math, fine, he had choices. But if he's just your regular old A student from wherever without any highly lucrative potential, getting paid to study poetry, even if the pay isn't fantastic, is not the worst idea ever. Would we prefer him 'finding himself' at a mediocre law school, then finding himself in debt?

Myth 2: Humanities grad school "virtually disqualifie[s]" you from doing anything else with your life.

Disqualification should be distinguished from non-qualification. That is, a humanities degree, grad or undergrad, does not qualify you to work as a plumber, engineer, barber, banker... But nor does it prevent you from picking anything up once you're done. If you start at 21 and finish at 45, then yes, it's more difficult, but there are always the options of a) not taking decades to get your degree, and b) leaving if it looks like it'll take decades. Plus, unless I'm missing something, I was under the impression that a PhD, even if it doesn't lead to a desired teaching job at a college, can help, not hurt, with getting one at a high school. If this does not strike you as tragedy of tragedies, then yes, you have backup. If you think a PhD, any PhD, guarantees tenure, a wood-paneled office, and busty-brilliant student acolytes out of a dated novel, good luck, but no one I know who is in fact a grad student thinks like this. Even the most ambitious grad students have Plan Bs, or at least reasonable expectations regarding Plan A. As for those Plan Bs, there are no doubt certain jobs for which you'd want to play down a PhD, but conflating it with something akin to a criminal record seems excessive.

Myth 3: Humanities grad school is an echo chamber of 'postmodern' this, 'Foucault' that, and of no relevance to conservatives, sensible people.

Not quite, as I've babbled about before. Much that goes on in academia sounds lefty, ridiculous, or both to those who never bothered to find out what it is. If you're already set on rolling your eyes every time "gender" is mentioned, you are not a serious conservative critic of the academy, you're just a knee-jerk people-pleaser who knows insulting the ivory tower ups your populist credentials.

*Song lyric from Flight of the Conchords

Reading material

The man who wrote the book letting Americans known that Europe has a Muslim problem is now telling Americans about Belgium's Walloon problem. (via)

19th C French Jews and American Jewish francophiles, and I only just found this? (via)

Tipping is a mystery both to visiting foreigners and to those just reaching the age where situations requiring tips become relevant. No one tells you these things! How are you supposed to know? A dollar per drink at a bar, doubling the tax at a restaurant, these become clear early on, but the rest? So when Prudence mentioned she tips newspaper delivery people $75 each, I was torn between appreciating that someone finally addressed what's appropriate in these situations, and thinking that perhaps this is a bit above and beyond. (Also, the first letter of this set has to be a joke played by someone against letting gay couples adopt.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Testing, testing

Fellow teachers,

What do you do if, ten minutes past the time a (non-standardized) test ought to end, you still have students who won't hand the thing in? My creative approach was to insist a student stop writing and simply remove the exam from that student's desk, then to do the same with the next one. (Most had already handed it in, but not all.) Is there a better way? I've tried the 'I'm leaving with or without your tests' line in previous semesters, but students know I'm not going to actually leave without their tests. Is the answer to follow through and leave? But I don't want to give out zeroes on a final exam! Bah! Something like saying you'll take a point off for each minute has potential, but requires staring at the clock as each student finishes, i.e. makes the whole process worse for student and teacher alike.

Part of why this challenges me is that I was always the kid who'd hand the test in first, whether or not it was a class I was doing well in, so I don't have a whole lot of experience seeing what happens in those final classroom test-taking moments.

So, advice much appreciated.

What is "exercise"?

Just went on my first post-exam run. It turns out that preparing for qualifying exams can in fact reverse years' worth of on-and-off running. If it were not for Dan Savage's miraculous podcast, I'd have never made it to Houston and back. And if it were not for my students' exam, who knows when I'd get off the couch. Geez.

Monday, December 14, 2009


For a vaguely NSFW and, frankly, odd discussion of the alleged rise of the sultry Jewess, see here, here, and here.

What would be absolutely fantastic is if, rather than declaring Jewish women 'hot', the media could admit that Jewish women exist beyond the role of would-be love-interests for Jewish men who looked elsewhere. (For the most recent example, see #3 of this "Shouts and Murmurs" list.)

A conversion tale

It was only a matter of time.

(Yes, this is about online shoe-shopping.)

Why did it take so long? For starters, living in a walk-up, I was never confident that packages would reach me, and was too ashamed to have the giant Zappos logo arrive at my department. But it was more than that. It was in part the fear that one online purchase would lead to an avalanche thereof. But most of all, it was my sense that living in New York, there's no excuse, because there's a shoe store on every corner.

But that's the thing: there's a shoe store on every corner. This makes it tough to decide where to even begin. The massive, bad-nightclub-like ones, such as Shoemania and David Z? Tiny, off-the-beaten-path boutiques with tiny selections and an aversion to sales? Stores with a very distinctive aesthetic, such as Camper or Irregular Choice? Department stores, where the selection is inevitably less impressive than one might imagine? Nine West, Aldo, and the like? There used to be Tootsie Plohound, with its permasale, but that seems to no longer exist, perhaps on account of its tendency to sell steeply discounted shoes in loft-like shops in posh neighborhoods. While I have no trouble if asked remembering where it is I buy pasta or laundry detergent, or even clothes, with shoes there's just about no pattern. They just sort of... arrive.

But the thing in my department is to in some way mark the passing of the orals. In previous years, one classmate went with a tattoo, another with a pedicure. For me, the equivalent seemed a gratuitous pair of shiny ballet flats. OK, it had seemed a not-totally-gratuitous Uniqlo purchase, but the much-reduced thick-cashmere +J line turtleneck sweaters were sold out in my size. Anyway, because I'm neither 15 nor visiting for just the one week from Western Europe, the thought of combing the above-mentioned shoe stores did not appeal to me in the least. Which led me here, and they could not fit better. So fine, online shoe-shopping, kind of fantastic.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pastry woes

On the one hand, I'm not at all surprised to learn that the place Jo and I had been going once a week for croissants - the place with the best croissants, to my knowledge, in the city, at least since Payard closed - is in trouble with the health department. On the other, I was startled to notice "croissants" mentioned specifically in the PDF report.

In defense of studying abroad in Paris

The desire on the part of some educators to include 'roughing it' and 'character building' in curricula is as old as time. Once, an education would not have been complete without cold showers and beatings on the sports field. Today, the travesty is that school does not include farming, or, apparently, living amongst the world's destitute. Nicholas Kristof finds it "appalling how many people go through college and graduate school without ever spending time in a village in the developing world." Fellow French Studies students, take note.

To drive the point home, Kristof includes a jab at students who choose Paris over Rwanda. He writes that studying abroad in Paris "doesn’t count." But count as what? Nobody thinks - despite the state of the Chatelet train station - that France is a developing country. No one goes there to fulfill humanitarian and/or Orientalist urges. The point of going to Paris, in other words, is not to leave the West, but rather to better understand the West. It's thus pointless to compare the dangers of Western European study-abroad - where you'll at most get insulted by some croissant-salespeople and sit on a commuter train under a graffiti message urging the death of those of what happens to be your own ethno-religious heritage - with the sort of trips where one might interview a warlord.

Yes, I studied abroad in Paris. The UChicago program I took was a Western Civilization sequence with a focus on France, but the whole experience was an introduction to aspects of that civilization that staying in the States would not have let me in on. Attitudes towards cheese, shoes, and Jews that had not occurred to me as existing all of a sudden became the everyday norm. Some of it I admired, whereas enough aspects did not impress that I was saved from being one of those people who returns from study abroad pronouncing France as "Frahnce" and draped in more (secular) scarves than even a Chicago winter demands. What I got academically out of those three months is a good part of why I ended up in grad school. It made me curious about a place that both is and is not familiar and ultimately, with those 19th century French Jews, about a community that is and is not like one I know well. It's not saving the world one brothel at a time ala Kristof, but nor did the experience translate into a passive interest in this season's Chanel.

Clearly, not every American student abroad makes much of the experience. While some of the fault lies with the "comfort"-seeking American youth, there are structural reasons for some of the drawbacks. There's the fact that our drinking age is 21, while college juniors are often 20 - students who will behave perfectly normally after a couple drinks at 24 are not yet socialized to handle alcohol, and thus look ridiculous even when drinking in moderation. Then there's the tendency of programs to keep Americans with Americans - we were housed in an American dorm, so even adventurous attempts to mingle beyond the UChicago circle meant chit-chat in English.

But the fact that an experience is enjoyable does not negate the possibility that a student will get something out of it. I've heard critics of study-abroad cite alcohol consumption and shopping as evidence that American students should just stay put. But there's time enough for everything, and it's hard to say that a glass of wine and a glance at the tiny, beautiful, out-of-virtually-any-student's-budget boutiques that line the Marais detract from one's understanding of France. I did more schoolwork in those three months than in any other in college, perhaps because sitting in a café amongst the Parisian haute bourgeoisie with 400 pages of readings was more pleasant than doing the same in the basement of the Reg.

The trips Nicholas Kristof describes having taken as a youth,* and that he asks today's college students to consider, were clearly motivated by a mix of curiosity about the world; humanitarian desire to locate problems and find ways to solve them; and a massive sense of adventure. In other words, there was something in it for him. For him, comfort, it seems, makes an experience less fun. To be clear, I don't doubt that humanitarian trips, if done right, are more, well, humanitarian than trips to Paris, however educational. But I'm not convinced that simply looking up-close at thatched huts is Education, while time spent in Paris by definition is not.

*I'm leaving aside the question of how easy it would be for a woman to have done the same, and whether the chest-beating 'I slept in caves in Algeria' as versus soft and effeminate Paris is not a gendered assessment of what is and is not a valuable use of time.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Your Questions Answered: Installment I

For a while now, I've had an idea for a new feature on this blog, in which once a week (or a day, a month...) I'll attempt to answer a Googled question that led somebody to this blog. As always, there are some good ones. Someone wants to find a straight female gym teacher. Then there are the usual suspects looking for obscene combinations of words that in less titillating ways appear in this site, who should really learn to put search terms in quotes, so as to avoid disappointment. (Still not sure what 'blow my sandwich' means, or why this person in Sweden would be confident enough that others share his - and it's clearly his - interest that he would imagine a no-quotes search would lead to anything but these words at random places in someone's blog.) But the pick today is the following query: "why french women don't get far."

Why, then, don't French women get far? It's a fair question, considering that French women only got the right to vote in 1944, so we need not be thrown off by the fact that whoever typed this went one letter off with the "r" in "far," and really wants to know about how to eat flan every day, not exercise, and yet maintain Audrey Tautou-esque proportions. But who cares what was sought, the question is what it is. If French women don't get far, it could be the Louboutins that they no doubt all wear for their morning strolls to the market. Otherwise, I have no idea.

On the slow, post-exam return to humanity

This week, I've experienced grad school at its most and least stressful. Most, the moments I had to stand outside the room during my exam, and least, when during the class I've been auditing, all the students still taking coursework were asking about the due date for their final papers and I was all, what's a paper? (A dissertation, fine, but my term-paper days are over.)

For reasons it would take a professional to sort out, I'd been convinced that my failure of not one but two road tests last spring was a bad omen for my qualifying exam. It turns out that driving around a block in Red Hook is simply more difficult than finding semi-coherent things to say about modern France.

Now, I'm in this odd phase of having adjust to actually returning email that's not super-urgent, to reminding myself that I can go to social engagements, to the presence on my bookshelves (and god knows at the library) of books not about my lists that I can read guilt-free...

So aside from the requisite catharsis over drinks with the others who just went through this, my post-exam plan, the immediate-ish one for after I teach tomorrow, is to take an entire afternoon off. Totally off! I'm not sure what one does with an afternoon off, but I'm thinking it will involve maybe some Uniqlo, some peeking into a store that had intriguing-looking ballet flats, some taking the fancy salon up on its alleged 'free in-between-haircut bang trim,' and if I'm feeling ambitious, some sitting in a coffee shop and reading something slowly. Yes, this is my one concession to the pro-slow. After reading many books in not so much time, and taking notes on (not in, thank you very much, fellow Bobst patrons, particularly those who write "Yes!" in the margins) each one, reading without the "Overall" blurb I intend to type up in mind might not be half bad.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Race and neurosis

Eugene Robinson doesn't seem too worried about Tiger Woods' affairs. His main concern is that Woods goes for the "Barbie" type, meaning that his mistresses are uniformly blond, thin, and busty. Is Robinson put off by Woods's failure to be attracted to something a bit unusual (say, his failure to find himself a Lewinsky)? Does he not understand why a man would bother cheating with women who resemble both one another and his own wife? Or is the issue more that Woods seems to prefer white women to women of color? I tend to think it's that last one, which means that I agree, it seems, with some folks at the National Review. (Good to know, by the way, that the author of Liberal Fascism likes 'em Aryan. And by the way, if you go for "crazy-hot Swedish swimsuit models," that makes your tastes conventional, not "bourgeois" - bourgeois leanings or lack thereof don't enter into it.)

Anyway. Who knows whether Woods goes for this type (assuming that's even true - I haven't really been following this story) out of self-hatred, or if he enjoys the prestige that being able to score such partners implies, or if he found something special about each of these women individually who each just happened to look a certain way, or if, boringly enough, he's seen the same ads and billboards as everyone else and his tastes were shaped accordingly. It seems clear enough, though, that Robinson projects neurosis onto Woods without a whole lot of evidence.

The neurosis, though understandable, is that of the author, not Woods. It's a bit like how part of my ambivalence towards this personal-style blog comes from my awareness that if its author was an unabashed, unambiguous Jew, as opposed to a delicate-featured Texan belle, she would, let's face it, be called a nouveau-riche 'JAP' at every turn, in that her blog largely consists of photographs of designer shoes and clothes purchased, it appears, with her parents' money. Simply put, while Jewish girls can and do blog about fashion, a Jewish girl could not have this blog, because it would fit the stereotype too perfectly. So when I look at the blog, I'm bothered not only, as everyone else is, by the obscene display of privilege, but also by the specifically Gentile privilege that's evidenced by the blogger's free-and-easy announcements of consumption. Now I realize both that I can't prove what I just feel I know in this case, but also that on some level that I'm projecting my own anxieties onto a blog that has nothing to do with Jews. Which is sort of how I see the Woods situation. Mistresses or not, blonde or not, whatever's going on with Woods, it's unclear why his racial identity would be relevant here - if race enters into it at all, it's only insofar as beauty standards in our society favor not so much white women as a subset of white women who resemble that particular doll.

Herzl also parachutes

MSI is to Hannah Arendt what I am to Theodor Herzl. Sort of. In the sense that Herzl (pre- and post-conversion to Zionism) has a tendency to show up unannounced in papers that don't immediately seem to call out for his presence. But then I find evidence that Herzl is not altogether irrelevant to the study of French literature, and end up feeling like maybe I don't need to edit him out 80% of the time after all.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Popular culture, meet the "shaygetz"

This week's NYT Mag cover story was shocking, shocking! Apparently, sometimes intermarriages between Jews and Gentiles involve no "shiksa" whatsoever. Contrary to popular belief, Jewish women are not all home alone watching episodes of "Rhoda," gorging themselves on latkes, and bemoaning the fact that all the nice Jewish guys have, by some fluke, paired off with clones of Claudia Schiffer.

Of course, the opener (confession - I have not yet read far into this article, and may never do so) - "Last spring he cut apart a frozen pig’s head with his compound miter saw in our basement. He needed the head to fit into a pot so that he could make pork stock." - reads like a parody of what a Jew might fear would happen pairing off outside the faith/tribe/whatever. 'The goyim, they don't just love pork, they hack apart pigs' heads whenever they get the chance!'

Sunday, December 06, 2009

On effort, visible and hidden

Paul Gowder asks: "What is 'trying too hard'"? I answered, "Trying too hard, in any context, is when the effort is visible." While I like how I phrased this, I'm not sure if I agree with myself on this one.

Paul is right that visible effort can, in some cases, contribute to, rather than detract from, results. There's truth to the adage that 90% of life is showing up. Most everyday and workplace conflicts are best resolved by showing that you're taking a task at hand seriously, and indeed by taking the task seriously, whatever the results. Students will often ask - implicitly or explicitly - for an improved grade by pointing out how hard they worked on an assignment, in the hopes of that elusive 'A for effort'. Futile, one might think. But a classmate of mine in college issued this complaint and got her grade raised, thereby leading me to lose confidence - temporarily! - in the educational system.

In fact, visible effort often serves people well in situations one would expect it to do the opposite. A situation fellow UChicago alums know all too well: the kid who declares, whenever tangentially relevant, that he is an Intellectual. He might even wear a Blazer. (For whatever reason, women do not go in for this.) One would expect those who announce their braininess to fail academically, yet often enough, they succeed. Such men are not lying about credentials or inclinations, but are merely discussing them openly, whereas some people might be more inclined to discuss their plans for a new pair of ballet flats than their dissertation topic unless otherwise prompted. Insert gender analysis here, but not all intellectually-inclined men are of this type, so gender isn't everything.

As for trying too hard in the context of dating... Part - most - of what's understood as 'trying too hard' is when someone adopts the opposite of the clichéd expectation of what their gender is supposed to want from a relationship. Meaning, women who come on strong re: hopes for marriage and kids on the first date don't impress, nor do men who ask for sex immediately and with no segue or anything, even when the man wants to settle down and the woman wants some fun that evening, simply because tired insistence on scripts reads as dull. But! Women who offer sex 'too' soon (or who hint at this with an over-the-top sexy outfit, references to a complete lack of interest in 'a relationship', etc.), and men who announce an interest in commitment and things domestic before a 'reasonable' time (or who hint at abilities as a provider through discussions of how well their accounting firms are doing), are seen as trying too hard to please. Here, trying too hard is a problem because it's not directed at an individual, just at a script which the other person may find irrelevant. The turn-off is not so much the effort as the fact that the effort is designed to please A Man or A Woman, as opposed to a particular man or woman. The 'trying too hard' is an effort not to impress, but to be generically impressive. Visible efforts to impress a particular person, assuming that person is somewhat interested, have to go quite far to be deemed creepy; even the slightest visible efforts to impress generically tend to seem excessive.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

"It’s a story of Jewish irresistibleness"

Allow me to summarize: Jews, power, meritocracy, intermarriage is at 47% but "the daughters of political families do seem, possibly, more susceptible" because look here's a list of them and a brief list shows this how exactly? but who cares by the way Chelsea Clinton has (had?) poufy hair and a prominent schnozz so why not?

Friday, December 04, 2009

Acne and frizz

-What to make of acronyms from non-English-speaking countries that, while derived from English words, spell something ridiculous in English? See here and, especially (url potentially NSFW, website itself perfectly Rated G), here, and if you can think of others, that's what the comments are for.

-Race and hair: Oh the eternal question. To answer it, kind of: yes, it's different for a white person to have hair that does not fit conventional beauty standards than it is for a black person to be in the same situation. Curly-haired Irish-American =/= African-American with the same hair texture.

But! A couple things. One, racially-charged beauty standards do not stop being racially-charged when applied to non-blacks. The red-headed Irish person is fairly safe today in America from being thought non-white, but plenty of other 'ethnics' fuss about frizz for reasons very much tied to race. (Thus "Jewfro.") For ethnic groups with a history of oppression, in the US or elsewhere, on the basis in part of non-fine-hairedness - and that could be, oh, many formerly colonized nations - hair is a charged subject. Admitting this does not deny the specificity of racism against blacks in America, past and present, it just helps as a way to avoid conflating 'non-black-with-frizz' with 'racially-ignorant-white-person'.

Next, while there are certainly political advantages, there are also disadvantages, beauty-standards-wise, that come with your minority group being classified as 'white.' When Jews were thought racially distinct, Jewish women were judged as Jews, the same way one judges bagels (bear with me here) on the basis of how good they are as bagels, rather than on the basis of how good they are as baguettes. Overall preferences may have tilted towards baguettes, but there was still a place for bagels. But if we were to judge bagels on the basis of how well they approximate baguettes, we'd find most bagels quite disappointing. The same goes for Jewish women being judged as white women. Because let's remember that those who insist that 'Jews are not a race' typically mean by this that Jews are part of a race, but that that race, in most cases, should be called 'white' and not 'Jewish.' Those who say 'Jews don't look any different' mean, 99% of the time, to suggest that Jews do not look unlike other white people, and that to say otherwise is racist. Whereas Jewish women used to be the exotic alternative, we are now just a group of white women on average less likely to fit a fine-haired, blond ideal. Does any of this make being Jewish in America more difficult than being black in America? Clearly not. It's just something to think about when thinking about race and hair and whatnot.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

No Peddlers

I took a teensy study break to post home decor tips at Cheapness Studies.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

No, it's not the espresso makers

I thought I'd located the ultimate first-world problem, but no, here it is: having a first name that starts with the letter "A" and so having to be presented first at a Paris debutante ball, for which one has been fitted for Chanel haute couture. "[D]oesn't having a last name that begins with 'A' suck?" Yes, I bet it does.

Still, even knowing that this blogger owns approximately $1,000,000,000,000 worth of shoes, I'm a bit sad that she has to return the dress. The demand seems bad publicity for Chanel... unless a subsequent post will announce that, yay, she was allowed to keep it after all.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Against 'slow'

It's not slow-food. It's slow-everything. I'm suspicious every time anyone asks us, as a society, to slow down. It is my suspicion that those who ask for 'slow' are simply out to get New York - perhaps Jews specifically, perhaps gays specifically, but at any rate, something along the lines of the first quote on this page. So am I surprised that Mike Huckabee has not only written a book on Christmas but one that apparently asks us to slow down its observance? No, not so much.

(Are there non-bigots who simply fantasize about living in a cobblestoned past? Sure, but if they don't specifically acknowledge the parts of that past that were not charmingly dedicated to finding new uses for kale, then they're part of the problem. Or, what Travis Boyer says.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ways to improve the food movement

Focus on what matters:

-Health: Obesity-related illness is not a myth. Exercise is unlikely to be the key to fixing this, so public-health-wise, concern regarding diet does make sense. If this can be fixed ala Pollan via switching from corn subsidies to no subsidies or efficient ones, so be it, but I know nothing about agriculture and so will stop before my local, organic foot makes its way to my mouth.

-Taste: Taste is relative. Kind of. But if the idea is to eat more fruits and vegetables (and, depending which week, seafood), the fact is that produce can be anything from delicious to inedible depending what condition it's in - unlike, say, cake, which ranges from very good to good. The Alice Waters method for vegetables works great, but only works if the vegetables themselves are non-disgusting. The way to get everyone eating better is to get better-tasting healthy food into stores.

-Price and availability: If you're rich and live in Berkeley, seems getting good food isn't a problem. If you're anyone else living in this country, chances are it is. The issues of class and region, then, are key. (I'd also like to declare a moratorium on self-righteous lectures in the national press on 'eating local' from journalists in the Bay Area. Have they seen the markets here? Do they understand that we're lucky these days to find kale? And this is Manhattan...)

-Sustainability: Local or organic? Veganism or meat raised right? Whichever it is, someone should figure this out, so those wishing to eat in a way that's environmentally sound can do so rationally, as opposed to the 'ooh, it's like organic, yum' line of thought.

And not on what doesn't:

-Slowing things down: Some people enjoy spending five hours at the dinner table, cooking slowly, savoring each bite. Others don't. It's not immediately clear to me why the second group needs to adopt the habits of the first. Sure, eating too quickly might correlate with eating fast food which might mean obesity and so forth. But the non-savorers might also be those who simply don't care about food as much as the savorers, who'd rather spend their time doing something else than sucking on a lentil. For some, busyness translates to fast food and so on; others point to the busiest times in their lives as the slimmest. In other words, if we should all be eating less, it's not clear that slowing down our food consumption and attempting to derive a greater proportion of our pleasure from eating than from other activities will necessarily help the cause. (Also, to Maira Kalman - what's wrong with "fast walking"? Of all the facets of modern life, isn't this one we ought to encourage?)

-Knowing the ins and outs of farm life: We are asked to know where our food comes from. This is a different matter from knowing whether our food is produced ethically, sustainably, etc. It is now considered particularly honorable to know what goes into growing vegetables, to know not only if animals were raised and (if for meat) killed humanely but exactly how they are butchered, milked, etc. It's all quaint and charming, but really, why does it matter? If the point is that farmers work hard, the same could be said for so many other jobs that benefit us all but whose inner workings no one asks us to contemplate. (My building, for instance, has 10,000 floors. Someone had to have built it, and this was surely more strenuous than grading a stack of 18 French essays.) While it helps to have consumer representatives on the case, we don't each of us, individually, need to know where our food came from. (And, for David Lebovitz - the woman haggling over cilantro while "holding a very expensive Louis Vuitton handbag" could well have been wearing a fake. The presence of the letters L and V on a purse do not necessarily imply thousands spent. No one can tell the difference, or at least, I can't, but my purse is unadorned and from H&M circa 2004, so I might not be the best example. A good test in this case would be whether she went on to put her purchases in the bag, using it like a canvas tote.)

-Europhilic locavorism/terroirism: It is entirely possible to eat well - ethically, taste-wise, health-wise - without having any nostalgia whatsoever for small-town life or a particular village in Tuscany. (Do I repeat myself?) If the very thought of a fantasy version of Provence is what motivates you personally to put down the Fritos, go for it, but the same notion is a turn-off to others who might otherwise get on board.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Disorganized thoughts coming out of the Nock post and discussion

-Jews and whiteness: Rather than just asking, are Jews white, we should also ask if this is really the question that tells you most about what it means to be Jewish in a given context. So if the context is one of heightened racial tensions, where 'race' means 'black' or 'white' only, then yes, this is of utmost importance. But if we're talking about one of very few Jews in a sea of Lilly Pulitzer'd WASPness, Jews 'whiteness' is really the least important thing about their experience. It's a bit like asking whether gay white people are 'really' white - yes, they're white, and yes, that matters, but no, that's not necessarily what you want to hone in on if trying to examine their experience. Meaning, it's hard to say that in America, any divide has mattered as much, elicited as much violence, as black-white (and if it has, it would be male-female and not Jewish-gentile, but as male-female is not a divide most wish wouldn't exist, it's a bit of a different story). There needs to be some way of understanding that the privilege inherent in being non-black does not necessarily translate into the carefree, unselfconscious, undifferentiated-American existence the word 'white' implies.

-Jews as 'Orientals': Rather than just asking whether early Zionists were historically accurate in their claims that modern-day European Jews had hereditary roots in Palestine, we should also ask what about the idea might have seemed non-nonsensical to European Jews at the time. Meaning, casual discussions of Zionism, if they refer to the influence of non-Jewish Europeans at all, mention of European anti-Semitism, but rarely give a central role to the commonly-accepted (or so it seems from much I've read about France) view among European Christians that Jews, yes, even the modern-day ones, had an original homeland and that this homeland was Palestine. Because we can argue today that, aha!, the Zionists were wrong, the Jews were not, after all, an unchanging people of non-mingled blood. But if they were wrong according to our own myth-shattering ideals today, they were simply agreeing with what was common knowledge at the time. There was no great danger, for European gentiles up until the advent of modern political Zionism, in referring to the Jews as 'from Palestine' - it had no implications for the current residents of Palestine, and only served to reinforce the idea that the Jews living in Europe were fundamentally non-European. For Jews to be foreign, they had to be 'from elsewhere.' Elsewhere was sometimes Germany, Poland, etc., but ultimately came down to one spot: Palestine. I get that it takes away almighty Agency from the early Zionists to point this out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On being that guy: Or, on inflicting First World Problems on others

Dear fellow residents of my building,

Yes, I'm the one who lives on the third floor, and yet insists on taking the elevator, thus substantially increasing the time it takes you to get to 34, 41, for all I know 503, this building is huge. My apartment is just two flights up, and there's a staircase right there. I know. My legs work just fine, and I've been known to exercise them intentionally on occasion, jogging on the waterfront outside.

Do I take the elevator out of spite, jealous of your superior views and the fact that you probably don't get awakened each morning by the construction? No - views I could take or leave, and something might as well get me up on time. (The Saturday drilling I could live without.)

No, I take the elevator because until September, I lived on the top floor of a walk-up. This did not merely mean lots of walking up ('a free workout', yes, but a miserable one after a full day of classes, teaching, grocery shopping, subway commuting), but also various DIY furniture-moving experiments that taught me that whatever it is I might have to offer the world, arm strength - or who am I kidding, physical strength, period - will not be involved.

So basically, I take the elevator because I can. Once the novelty wears off, I'll reconsider the stairs. But it's only November, people. Give it time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An account of the few weekend hours I spent awake

Yay! What felt like a bad cold on Tuesday, then definitively swinish (fevers, aches, the whole deal) by Thursday morning, has disappeared into nothing worse than a tendency to have a coughing fit every time I'm about to laugh. Once this subsides, it's vaccination time. But so far, recuperation activities have included:

-Reading Simone de Beauvoir's postwar take on America. Her main complaints were that there wasn't enough good shopping, that orange juice was hard to come by, that hamburgers were unheard-of, and that the Americans were too darn intellectual.

-Making a potato-leek soup that involves no blending. (I only found recipes that required blending, but I didn't think that sounded as good as non-blended.) What it involved was cooking a leek in some olive oil, pouring chicken broth on top of that, and eventually tossing in some cubed (or as best as I could approximate) potatoes. It turned out to be more than edible.

-Overanalyzing the Sunday New York Times. This was particularly fun this week because the Modern Love author is a former (professional) acquaintance, because I know exactly which French café in Brooklyn reacts in a disturbingly nonchalant way towards the three-inch waterbugs in the dining area, and, on a less personal-coincidence level, because of this clever point-counterpoint.

But seriously. This "Complaint Box" section had so much potential, but is not impressing. The complaints need to be general enough to cover a problem others might have noticed as well (i.e. 'this one employee at this one bank this one time had opinions about my personal life and I took it way too personally' does not count), but not so general as to be cliché (i.e. 'people with their cellphones can be so rude!').

The latest, however, is a new low. In what way is telling your host you're a vegan similar to telling her exactly which dish each member of your family is to be served, and how you'd like it prepared? If your guests are on low-carb diets for vanity reasons, how could this possibly be more work on your part? Doesn't this mean you can serve absolutely anything, they'll just eat less of it? And did this woman really lump "kosher" into the category of new dietary trends - ala low-carb and selective vegetarianism - that make throwing a dinner party these days such a challenge? Should the fact that her last name is Goldberg make her immune to the criticism such an error might otherwise inspire? Or are we to presume she's recently wed a Mr. Goldberg, which is why she's only just now had to deal with dinner guests not keen on pig-on-a-spit? Of course, if these guests are so strictly kosher, they're not eating off Ms. Goldberg's plates to begin with, which is another matter.

Anyway. People serve alcohol at events where Muslims, Mormons, and AA-members will be present, but provide an alternative as well. Hosts, good grief, if you must serve a meal, cook up a bowl of green lentils, toss with chopped red onion, dijon mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and for next to no effort and 50 cents, you've fed everyone something elegant and vaguely French.

Oh, one of these days...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Today, pros and cons

Of course, the day of my teaching observation would coincide with Day 2 of an achy cold. But! Right after class, who should I see on the street but Rufus Wainwright! Walking down lower Broadway like a mere mortal. No lederhosen, but you can't have everything.

"No one could help doing that"

So what to make of this:

When I was a young man of twenty-five or so, I was once marooned for eight days on one of society's most arid islands, in company with a Jewish girl of twenty-three. There being virtually no one else to talk with, we were pretty strictly limited to each other's society, and became very intimate. She was the only girl I ever saw who seemed to me the acme of everything desirable, with no offset that I could discover - everything in nature and disposition, education, beauty and charm, cosmopolitan culture and manners. Such I have always imagined Fanny Mendelssohn must have been or perhaps rather Henriette Herz, at the time when the mighty Schleiermacher was making up to her and the great Wilhelm von Humboldt was writing her his charming and whimsical love letters. What especially interested me was my complete certainty that with the best will in the world on both sides I should know her no better at the end of a hundred years of close companionship than I did at the end of those eight days. I never saw or heard of her afterwards, nor tried to do either. I have often thought, however, of what would happen if some rash and personable young Occidental fell in love with her—no one could help doing that—and married her. If he were sensitive, how distressed and dissatisfied he would be as he became aware of the vast areas of her consciousness from which he was perforce shut out forever; and on the other hand, if he were too insensitive to feel that he was shut out from them, how intolerable her life with him would be.
Turns out that even in 1941, in the US, Jews were considered - by some, at least - "Orientals," even Jews whose families had been in the West since they could remember.

I'd always sort of assumed the Belle Juive - and this description is as Belle-Juive as it gets - had relevance in 1840s France, but WWII-era America? Count me surprised. But not that surprised - this does tend to back up what I'd assumed, which is that when non-Jewish men (such as this author) were the ones mainly responsible for creating stereotypes about Jewish women, the stereotypes were far more flattering - if, of course, offensive in their own way, as stereotypes kind of have to be - than are the ones we currently know (ahem, Roth-Allen two-headed monster), ones that come from Jewish men. I doubt if Jewish women today look radically different from Jewish women in 1840 or 1940. So it's strange to think that "Jewish" as a physical descriptor is today seen almost universally as unflattering (and no, the existence of Rachel Weisz proves nothing - an exception that proves a rule), whereas it was once if not the ideal, an ideal.

Ultimately, although this subject no doubt interests me as a, well, Juive, I'm not sure whether it would in any way have benefited me personally to live at a time when The Jewess was exoticized, thought "Oriental," and imagined to be something along the lines of a beautiful alien from outer space. All things equal, it's probably better not to be a fetish object on account of your ethnic background.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

So it was crabs...

... and not lobsters.

My unquestioning faith in the NYT is hereby restored.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On the inevitable descent into grad-student madness

Did you know:

-that a grading marathon is actually much easier to focus on if combined with singing aloud to Israeli rock music? (Yes, I am working from home.)

-that English muffins (Whole Foods' generic, not Thomas - not sure if that makes them more or less durable) can totally be eaten past the expiration date?

-that academic-related anxiety makes the following alternatives, in no particular order, seem reasonable: air-conditioner-repairman-school, the IDF, writing a semiautobiographical novel with a focus on the theme of mediocrity, writing a blog post on the alleged phenomenon inspired by Blake "Serena" Lively's lively hair?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Excuses excuses UPDATED

A good deal of my studying at the moment appears to be about reaching the level of a French high school student. I may know more than most about the obscure nonsense I study, and some tangentially related obscure nonsense as well, but Victor Hugo, for instance, I've only met just recently, and am apparently somewhat far behind. When a sentence begins (in French), "Every not-too-ignorant high school student knows [...]", and ends in something about Hugo's poetry that was news to me, it all does start to look rather futile.

Of course, if the Hugo editions I needed weren't reserve books located in an ostensibly silent part of the library that has for whatever reason been appropriated by those who'd rather chat at full volume than read or check Facebook or whatever, things might go more smoothly.


Also not helpful: according to the Introduction, the collection of poetry whose significance I'm attempting to understand for an exam is best understood as "profondément ambigu."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

1898, 2009

It is popular these days to compare the status of Jews Then to that of other minorities - particularly Muslims. Now, I tend to be skeptical not of the comparisons themselves, which can be quite useful, but of drawing too many parallels. So I have found myself making a comparison along these lines this past week, to the Dreyfus Affair. A high-up member of the military, from a much-despised minority religion, is accused of a serious crime, and the nation was already looking about set to split into two opposing ideological camps. I've been trying, then, to see if thinking about the Affair in any way clarifies anything that's happening now. The best I can come up with is, yes and no. Because this is more me thinking to myself than any kind of argument, in categories:

-The nature of the crime: Dreyfus was accused of espionage during peacetime, not murder during wartime. We now know - have known for over a century - that Dreyfus was innocent. Even many anti-Dreyfusards accepted that Dreyfus was not the man they were looking for, but felt that the status of the army was too precarious to allow for admitting this - a point for justice meant a point against the safety of the nation. Meanwhile, there appears to be no doubt that Hasan massacred members of his own army; the only questions relate to why he did so and whether he acted alone. It's quite striking, then, that the NYT immediately took to discussing the stress of war - suggesting that any among us might have snapped, that the massacre was in some inadvertent way a legitimate protest against unjust American military actions - and thus implying a certain moral innocence in a case of a crime whose basic facts no one doubted, when we compare this to the near-universal immediate condemnation of Dreyfus, where the facts were iffy from the start, and where no in-your-face tragedy had occurred.

-The nature of the war: The Dreyfus Affair took place between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI. Germany was in a sense 'the enemy', but France was not at that moment at war with Germany. Dreyfus, meanwhile, was accused of spying on behalf of Germany, and was - like the vast majority of French Jews who originated from Alsace-Lorraine - seen as somehow German, but was attacked primarily as a Jew, not a German. Rioters in the streets demanded Death to the Jews, not a new attack on Germany. And France was in no way, shape, or form at war with the Jews or even some Jews, let alone a Jewish state. Jews never once knocked over the Eiffel Tower, killing thousands. The US, meanwhile, is engaged in a war against proponents of a politicized version of Islam, both in particular countries and internationally. There are reasons to suspect an international-relations significance here that would have been absent there.

-The broader ideological divide: One side is pro-army, pro-order, pro-majority-religion. The other is suspicious of nationalism, pro-tolerance, universalist, progressive. In neither case is the question really about religious minorities - Dreyfusards were more interested in anti-clericalism and, in some ways, anti-militarism than they were in the specific question of anti-Semitism, while the left today in the US is more preoccupied by rejecting the Bush foreign-policy legacy than with anything particular to Muslim-Americans. Jews were a symbol of that which the Church and reactionaries dislike, just as today, Muslims remind the left of all the terrible things the US has done, domestically but especially abroad. Political correctness, however, was not much of a thing in fin-de-siecle France - it was quite OK to say that one disliked Jews but loved Justice, and so declare one's self a Dreyfusard. Whereas today, only fringe-types would even think to suggest that disliking Muslims is an acceptable attitude to hold. The center-right debate is over how PC we should be (see: David Brooks), not over whether or not we should abandon religious tolerance altogether.

-The status of members of minority religions: It's hard to argue that France had as much of a grievance against Judaism in 1898 as the US does against Islam in 2009. Jews presented a symbolic threat to those who wished to define French nationhood on racial and religious grounds, which, compared with 9/11, makes it seem as though anti-Islam comes from a place less patently absurd than anti-Semitism. But because there are good reasons to fear certain Muslims, things could potentially get much worse for the rest of the Muslims living in the US, who are not, obviously, guilty of anything. In the immediate aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, French Jews felt reassured that their country accepted them - which, to be fair, it did, until 1940, even as anti-Dreyfusards plotted their revenge. Whereas however many times we invoke PTSD and wrongheaded US foreign policy decisions, there's no way this battle will end in a pronouncement of innocence.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A banal, gender-specific, New York-specific anecdote

After a rough few days of reading as fast and carefully as I can, of putting a massive mess of papers in my apartment into working order, and, of course, of returning more library books than I can carry comfortably in exchange for an even bigger heap, I was ready for a treat. I was all set for that treat to be one of these, but I was feeling lazy. (Call it the 'Lack Initiative to Make Cake' diet.) So a pile of books and I headed to Uniqlo, where these - still $10-off! - became mine. It's tough from the image to see what they look like on, so I'll have to post a picture at some point, but they're more pantaloons than harem pants - in fact, they're not harem pants at all, because they lack the dreaded and comical dropped-crotch. Nor do they much look like any of these - more like a $19 version of these. Still, they are definitively silly and trendy. Which was very much the point - the molten chocolate cake of clothing.

Like I'd imagine most adult women, sometimes I think I look good; sometimes pants that are supposed to fit are too small, hair that was supposed to be one way is another, and I'm not pleased; but most of the time, I'm thinking about something else (current preoccupation: contemporary relevance or lack thereof of the Dreyfus Affair - thinking about it but not sure re: posting on it). I was not feeling especially glamorous this afternoon - I'd paired a GAP black nightgown-dress with a pale pink ballet-type long-sleeved wrap shirt; a tan trench coat; black leggings; and black oxfords, all which was well and good before the backpack and tote bag entered the picture. But the pants fit surprisingly well, and I thought, huh, not bad!

I then got on line to pay, with a mixture of delight at getting something fun and guilt at spending an unnecessary near-$20. Then I turned around. Behind me were not one, not two, but three models, and not the tall-and-thin-so-they-can-do-the-runways-but-nothing-special-in-person type of models, but the sort that do to all women around them what Uma Thurman did to Janeane Garofalo in that terrible movie that time. One was in the Estonian 16-year-old ballerina mold, another the fresh-faced all-American blonde closer to my own age and thus probably towards the end of her career, the third a dark-featured (Brazilian? Portuguese?) cross between a model and a movie star. I should mention that they were each approximately eight feet tall. The momentary high from finding a pair of flattering pants? Gone, just like that.

To make matters worse, shortly after this encounter, I saw a woman of modelesque proportions in the very same pants I'd just purchased.

Granted, I still got the pants, and am still thrilled with them. I'm convinced that I would be altogether undisturbed by my non-resemblance to models if I lived somewhere where there weren't quite so many of them, particularly in places where I shop for clothes. Le H&M Chicago me manque.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Quiz: which Great Thinker could this not refer to?

"His prose is so dense that some scholars have said it could be interpreted to mean anything, while others have dismissed it altogether as gibberish. He is nonetheless widely considered to be one of the century’s greatest and most influential thinkers." - Patricia Cohen, NYT.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

You only think you like it

An ever-increasing range of behaviors - shopping at outlet malls, eating fried foods - are constantly being classified alongside the usual canon (alcohol, tobacco, and the hard drugs) as not just 'enjoyable to certain people', but as something far more serious: they are responsible for stimulating the pleasure centers in your brain. Neurotransmitters are, it seems, involved. This is serious.

Wholesome undertakings - exercise, helping old ladies cross the street - are also periodically declared to not only be good, but to stimulate the bits of the brain that make us happy. But when the act in question is one we ought not to like, the brain chemistry is presented as somehow sinister. There is on the one hand what we actually like, and on the other what our brains are tricking us into thinking we do. As though on some fundamental level, we would all prefer a lifestyle of locavore Mormonism, if only some mix of peer pressure and sneaky neuron behavior did not fool us into believing otherwise. As if there were a more authentic form of enjoyment beyond what's known or will soon enough be known about brain chemistry.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Strangest library woe to date

On the binding, the book is the one I need about Albert Memmi. Inside, it is what I'm guessing is a totally unrelated book, in Turkish, seemingly about the late Middle Ages. I'm almost surprised things like this don't happen more often.

Clearly, you just don't care

Pet peeve: when not consuming/liking/taking seriously a particular movie/book/article about a Major Problem of our Age is seen as akin to not caring about that problem, or to having the wrong attitude towards it. The buzz around the new movie, "Precious," suggests this will be one of those phenomena. In her review of the film on Slate, Dana Stevens apologizes for her lack of enthusiasm for it, which gives some sense of the aura around the work. Failure to go see the movie, or if you have seen it, to both take it seriously and admire it for its fundamental truths about the hard life, is to be conflated with either an inability to understand the film on account of your own privilege, or worse yet, with cold-hearted indifference to the questions of race, poverty, obesity, rape, AIDS, child abuse, illiteracy, and... I haven't even seen this movie, perhaps I'm missing a few.

I'm not terribly keen on seeing "Precious", both because after seeing "A Serious Man" - which I liked! - a few weeks ago, I realized that $12.50 is really too much under even the best of circumstances, and because I've already seen "Precious" compared to "An Inconvenient Truth" - another film you are morally obligated to see and love as evidence of your non-indifference to a Major Problem. This sort of hype awakens all my contrarian impulses, and gives me the sense that however well-made the movie may be, I will be inclined not to like it, because I will sense that Society is forcing me to like it as a way of showing that I feel sufficiently guilty about having never for once moment been black, poor (broke, yes, but not poor), abused, etc. What I object to, then, is not being forced to acknowledge privilege, but being coerced into to seeing and liking a particular movie as a way of proving this. Also frustrating: many who go to the movie because It Is Important will no doubt leave thinking they've shown they care in some profound way, leading to horrible horrible Smug.

All of this is perhaps unfair to the movie's makers - it's the hype, not the movie itself, that's putting me off.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Holistic models

Our ambivalence towards judgment leads to the so-called holistic assessments in college admissions - we find it too cruel that a few crude factors could determine who's in and who's out, and so we tell ourselves that a fair decision comes from looking at every facet of a person's being.

It occurred to me earlier, listening to a predictably predictable podcast discussion of plus-size models aren't they amazing, that this is the very same thing that goes on in, if not the actual fashion/beauty industry, the way the industry presents itself. No one is willing to admit that certain identifiable characteristics, few of which are terribly PC, define what models look like, and that even if those change, even if we make courageous strides like allowing size-six buxom blondes ('plus-size models') and fine-featured, emaciated, pale-skinned black teens with straight hair ('diversity') into the fold, something like 99.99% of women and girls will still be excluded from whatever new ideal might arise.

Callers to the program kept asking these two fashion editors about different types of women - the short, the athletic-but-not-overweight, the old, the disabled - and why they weren't being included on the runways and such. Interestingly, only the 5'2" woman got the response that, let's face it, all might as well get: it is what it is. So long as certain women are being singled out for their looks, there will be exclusion that feels unfair. And you know what? I would find it all the more unflattering to not make the (theoretical) cut if I thought 5'2" Jewish-looking 26-year-olds were just as likely to get modeling contracts as were 5'10" Slavo-Nordic adolescents. (Do I repeat myself?)

Point being, sometimes it's better to get rejected - in reality, as with college, or by assumption, which is the only way a modeling agency will ever get to reject most of us - according to generally agreed-upon criteria, than to learn you lack that undefinable quality that divides the beautiful or brilliant from mere mortals.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The market, assessed

So the field trip was a semi-success.

What went well: my students seemed to get into the activity, coming up with ingredients for dishes they were going to mock-prepare, and using French. One even had a whole conversation with a woman working at the market who was French, and the woman thought he was French! This was an unexpected surprise.

What didn't go well: the French woman in question was annoyed that my student was only mock-looking to buy however many pounds of meat, and wanted to know why I'd told my students to speak French to the farmers, that is, why I'd assumed farmers in New York would speak French. I then explained to her, in French, that I had not expected any of the farmers to necessarily be/speak French, and that the conversation they had had just sort of happened (someone at another stand had alerted my students to the presence of a real-life French person at that stand), but was not part of the exercise, which was essentially about looking at what the stands sold and speaking French to one another. I may never be allowed to buy from that stand in the future, although it's not one I usually go to, so oh well.

And... the time change! It was nearly dark out for this, which it wasn't supposed to be, but I forgot about the time change and I teach at 5. That made the whole market-day aesthetic somewhat lacking, even though the market was still quite active.

But the main thing was that I gave my students a good amount of work, but not enough to do actually at the market, so while I expected students might leave early, 40 minutes early is far earlier than I'd hoped. Notes for next time...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Pizza Paradox

Let me get this straight: a substantial snack between lunch and dinner - some pizza, say - is "a nice custom"? Isn't that how we Americans got so fat in the first place? Obviously, we should be more like Europeans, who, as we all know, don't snack between meals.

Oh wait. It's chic Northern Italians doing the snacking. It is Traditional. Now it all makes sense.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Why Larry David needs to leave Woody Allen alone and take on grad-student daily life

Most of my petty grievances stem from one part of my day-to-day life: the part when I have to show a library worker the stamp in each and every one of some tower of library books, to prove that I have borrowed them legitimately. (See earlier rant for background.)

Today, it reached a new low. I arrived prepared at the examining area with all six of my books already opened, in a pile, so that the person whose job it is to check the stamps had to make the least effort possible. But! Behind me there was a man in full businessman-on-the-go regalia, a foot taller and a couple decades older than myself, with either a backpack or a small piece of luggage on wheels. He had two books he needed inspected. Well! The student (a guess) inspector announced that the man should go ahead of me in line, because he'd be out quicker. Perhaps so, and this might have been reasonable had I been there with a duffel bag full of books and had he had just the one, but six versus two? Were those five seconds of that man's time so much more valuable than the four seconds of mine? I am convinced that the man's age, dress, demeanor, and perhaps even gender played into his being rushed in front of me. A grad student with a backpack surely isn't in any kind of hurry. As he proudly marched in front of me, the man offered a gruff 'Thanks' behind him, either to me or to the woman who'd encouraged him to cut the line, but in either case, I offered no 'you're welcome.'

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Whatever Fails Miserably

Woody Allen's "Whatever Works" is, no doubt, the worst movie ever made - a terrible movie regardless, but reaching 'worst' status because of the viewer's prior assumption of competence, if not excellence. Just... no.

This brings up the question of whether it's a good thing when movies represent places and situations we more or less know. This movie had everything 'going for it' in terms of my identifying with it - Uniqlo, physicists, particular streets I know oh so well, cynical New York Jews - and... no. My sense is familiarity makes good movies seem slightly better and bad ones seem endlessly worse.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Local adventures

Just now, after croissants and a mostly-failed trip to the by-then-picked-over Tribeca farmers' market, Jo and I came upon a massive book sale to benefit the Stuyvesant robotics team. They had these amazing shirts that said 'Stuyvesant Robotics', but the books were more promising still. I had my choice between not one but two books on Flemish painting, and ended up with one on the Ghent altarpiece, along with one on German-Jewish history, one on Vienna, some novel, who knows what else between the two of us, but one of the tote bags destined for Whole Foods ended up fully out of commission.

My old drafting ("CAD" for those in the know) teacher was among those helping the not at all geeky team-members sell the books. I took advantage of the fact that I went to an enormous high school where I looked like just about all the other non-East Asian girls and so did not acknowledge this when interacting with him. But it was really Jo who had the interaction - the teacher overheard him saying something about a physics book and got very excited, urging him to buy a set of Physics I and II. I feared where this might go if Jo revealed anything about his profession, but luckily he did as well, so that was that.

It was soon after that point that we came upon a rather odd choice for a school book fair, particularly in a cultural climate where Halloween costumes deemed too scary are prohibited: Mein Kampf, in English, but with the title left in its recognizable form. Hmm. I wondered what might compel someone to decide, you know what, today's the day I'm going to donate my copy of Mein Kampf to charity, and what better charity than the Stuyvesant robotics team? Did an intellectual Upper West Side parent decide enough was enough and that he needed more room for his Roth? (Or not. There was also, unsurprisingly, a Portnoy's Complaint.) Did an alum leave it to the robotics team in his will? Someone's name was carefully written in the front, but it seemed like a not-so-recent original purchase. I was all set to just place the book next to a copy of some book about the Third Reich, but we sort of decided maybe the people selling the books should know this was one in the pile, not to demand that they censor, but to leave it up to the people selling the books to decide if this was one they wanted. Jo mentioned it to a teacher I did not, thankfully, recognize, and he moved it back into a box. I'm 80% sure he knew why we were pointing this book out to him, but my memory of social studies classes made me think we'd be better off with someone old enough to possibly remember World War II than with a student.

Something about the combination of high school teachers and my adult life, of the robotics team, the Greenmarket, and Mein Kampf, made the whole thing feel very much like an odd dream I could very well have had. Only our now-overstuffed bookcases bear witness to its reality.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Against 'holistic'

Ah, the holistic assessment of college applicants has made it to public colleges. Why? From the NYT: "Merely pushing average grades and test scores ever higher won’t necessarily yield the most vibrant student body." Vibrant. Obviously "vibrant" is code for something - otherwise we'd have to assume rather extreme vagueness - but what? "A holistic evaluation, admissions officials say, allows the luxury of thoughtfully knitting together a multitalented student body as well as a diverse one." The language remains coded, although "thoughtfully knitting" offers a warm-and-fuzzy, grandma-sitting-by-the-fireplace image of what happens when an admissions committee gathers to decide who doesn't get to go to a certain school.

As it happens, my sense from this article is that "holistic" is not code for race- and class-based affirmative action, because if that was all that was desired, public colleges could just take the top whichever percent of each high school. No, holistic just means making it so that if you get rejected by a college, you feel as though you as a person were thoroughly examined and deemed unfit. For some reason, colleges imagine students will see this as fair, and convince themselves that referring to whatever criteria they come up with as capable of assessing someone's entire humanity will leave the schools themselves more effective at accomplishing whatever it is their missions might be.

So my anti-holistic views are already familiar here, and I won't rehash now. All I'll add is where the holistic approach screws things up once kids get to school. There is a rather widespread idea amongst college students - and I remember this from college myself - that a good grade on even an undeniably quantitative assignment means 'the teacher likes me', whereas a bad grade is assumed the result of a teacher extracting cathartic revenge on a student who parts her hair on the wrong side or has otherwise unintentionally offended her instructor. Now having done a bit of grading at this point, I'm well aware how very untrue this assumption is - grading is necessary for providing feedback and all that, but is the least interesting aspect of teaching, falling well behind lesson-planning and giving a class. Objectivity in grading is not only the right thing to do, but the default. The power games the student imagines are, a few nutty teachers aside, absent from the grading process. No teacher lingers over the marked-up assignments, savoring the experience. And... I do sort of think the student imagines the teacher grades on the basis of overall feeling about him as a person because he is under the impression that he was admitted to the college on the basis of what he's like as a person. It's not the student's fault that he takes these things personally, because that's just what he's been told to do.

It's weird. I don't think the individual factors that make up 'holistic' assessments are a problem, so much as the idea of as-a-person judgments being made. 'Multiple factors' sounds much better to me than 'holistic,' even if the process behind them is identical.

Au marché

I'm attempting to put together a lesson plan unlike any other I've done: I've asked my students if they're up for this, and they are. 'This' is class held at the Union Square Greenmarket. The idea occurred to me as soon as I learned I was teaching Elementary this semester, a course with all kinds of vegetable vocabulary. It seemed silly to just sit in the classroom talking about Parisian markets some may never see and that quite frankly aren't necessarily that amazing (one key exception being this one market in the 7th arrondissement that had a mini-petting zoo with baby animals of the same species as one could also buy, slightly older and dead, for dinner) when one of the country's best markets is in prime NYU territory.

The difficulty, though, is in the specifics. There are 19 students, so going around as a group - what I'd initially pictured before knowing how many students I'd have this semester - is not practical, given how crowded the market is already. So I'll be putting them in groups. That they'll be unsupervised is fine, considering that they're in college, but who will make them speak French during this time? Hmm. I accept the possibility that some might take 'field trip' to mean 'leave early', but want a) an interesting activity for the majority of students who won't go this route, and b) some kind of assignment preventing the stragglers from getting credit for a class they haven't attended. Also, I'm trying to find a way for the students to use zee French without having to, say, humiliate themselves by asking the guys at the fish stand for du poisson. My plan so far is to put them in groups, each with a dish they need to 'prepare', asking them market-specific questions of what they can and can't find at the market, and some other questions that will make it so that they can all leave early, but that they'll have an assignment to turn in that will make up for that time. (Because the class is 75 minutes, and it's already getting cold!)

So, will this exercise work? Or am I a naive Francophile for even thinking of it? Also, any suggestions from teachers would be much appreciated.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The pretty-man debate continues

Let me get this straight. A woman married to a man who is both physically attractive and president of the United States is advising single women as follows: "Cute’s good. But cute only lasts for so long, and then it’s, Who are you as a person? Don’t look at the bankbook or the title. Look at the heart. Look at the soul..."

Now I know nothing firsthand about Barack Obama's heart and soul - no doubt both are lovely - but if any man is up for awards in both cuteness and title-holding-ness, he'd be the one. Granted he was not president when they met - at most he seemed like someone destined for great things - but as she said herself, cuteness fades, and as photos show, cute as he is now, he was a whole lot cuter then.

Setting aside the question of why Michelle Obama is offering dating tips in Glamour, I find it interesting that she assumes women today overvalue men's looks. I can't remember the last time I've read Glamour, so maybe that is something of a trope in that magazine, but I was under the impression that stock advice to women was to care about what's on the inside, yes, but in terms of loving men without much professional drive (see: "Knocked Up"), not in terms of accepting Seth Rogan looks over James Franco ones.

However, because Michelle Obama knows what she's doing, she's chosen her words well. Yes, "cute" fades in men - the cuter the 18-year-old, the less ruggedly handsome he'll look by 40, not saying which Beatle comes to mind... - but sexy, good-looking, etc. don't have to. Which is why I almost think the cuteness advice is meant not for grown women but for teenage girls - the only set of females commonly known to pick inappropriate male partners on the basis of looks alone - while the comments about male status are directed at women 22 and up. This would, I'd imagine, cover a broader set of Glamour readers than dealing with just girls or just women.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This history of our civilization, in a nutshell

LIMELIGHT: This former church and club will open in the spring as a marketplace with several food vendors, including an organic grocery. - NYT Dining section

Protestant church turned notorious drug-filled nightspot turned organic food shop. Wonder what will come next!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Yeah, I cringed

Patronizing defined? Or just evidence that fashion blogs work best as purdy purdy pictures and that forays into social commentary can only end in embarrassment?

On getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day

Finally, someone interviewed in the NYMag series that asks (minor) celebrities "Would you still live here on a $35,000 salary?" offers the perfect answer: "I think I may already."


Uniqlo is, I'm starting to think, leading an organized effort to drain my bank account. I went today to pick up the (sensible! practical!) black corduroy pants I got last week and that had been hemmed, and had to imagine that I was in the store with blinders on. Today I noticed these, in black, which are currently going for $10 off the price this link lists. Tempting, but too close to harem pants to be justified as something I'd wear for more than five minutes. But then there were black leggings with white stars on them, and tank tops with the same pattern. Space-age! But no. I'm also starting to think that the main advantage of getting an $85 haircut is my subsequent shame at even the thought of any other non-grocery purchases for a while to come.


School anxiety dreams never end. I'm auditing a class this semester, but officially finished with coursework, and yet still, I find a way. In the latest incarnation, the course I teach started at 3:15pm, but I was still in my office, still waiting to print out my lesson plan, at 3:26 (yes, this precise)... only to discover that I had no idea what floor of the building my classroom was on. Only as I begun to wake up did I realize I teach in a different building than my office is in; it took being fully awake to realize that a) my office is not located in my freshman-year dorm, nor in my first-grade classroom, b) that I do not teach at 3:15; and c) most importantly, that I have not in fact forgotten to teach a class, not now, not ever. Of course, in the dream, the class was the one I teach in real life, with the same students, lesson plan, material, and so forth, so even once I awoke, I was vaguely concerned I'd left a classroom full of students waiting. Did I show up extra early today? You bet I did.