Sunday, March 30, 2014

"I learnt classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up." - Basil Fawlty's unconvincing excuse for not being able to communicate with Manuel.

Lately, I've spent time on a regular basis with no fewer than four native-French-speaking friends. And here's my problem: I associate French-the-language with French-the-discipline. I equate sending an email in French to emailing my advisor. To a situation where, if I mess up the gender of a noun, I might suffer professionally. Speaking aloud means formulating a coherent thought as one would in a seminar - something that might lead to a term-paper topic and maybe even a dissertation.

How did this come to be? Part of it's my own personality*, I suppose, but part of it is also, I'm convinced, about how I came to know French. I'd taken the language from age 8 on, but only really learned it while studying abroad in France. Which sounds so great - language immersion! Except that the immersion was in the form of intense UChicago courses conducted in French. The profs, some native-French and some not, all had impeccable French. But "French" was this thing whose grammar one learned in intricate detail, or the language of a giant stack of historical or literary texts. I'd read these texts in a genuine Parisian cafe... where the only French I'd speak was to order "un cafe, s'il vous plait." Our group lived not only together, but in an American dorm, with other Americans studying abroad. But there wasn't much time for hanging out - I had more (but also more interesting, given my interests) coursework that term than any other in college. Even if there were French people around, or if I'd been outgoing enough to track some down, I'm not sure when this socializing even would have taken place. Subsequent trips to Frahnce were like this but more so - but at least I have a dissertation to show for it? 

Anyway, I now have a new approach to addressing this. Rather than talking with a French-speaking friend in English, I explain that I'm shy about speaking French but very much want to do so. And then they'll speak French and so will I and that settles it. I just need to spell out what the issue is - i.e. that it isn't not knowing the language - and problem solved. 

*An actual anxiety dream I had recently: It took place (where else?) at my elementary/middle school. But I was enrolled. As an adult. Because even though in the dream (as in life), I had my high school diploma, there was some middle-school credit missing that I could only take at my middle school, like that's where the class was offered. (It didn't come up in the dream that I have a diploma or two beyond high school at this point, although in the context, it wouldn't have mattered.) I was in some office in my middle school lobby, or near the basement gym (which figures prominently in these dreams), trying to deal with the missing credit (my plan, in the dream, was sensible enough - I was going to let them know I already had a high school diploma, and had therefore finished as much of middle school as could possibly be necessary), when I saw a stack of some kind of... they were something like course evaluations, but students made them about one another, for the class I'd been taking (but, presumably, failing). And I could see two of them said that their problem with the course was a fellow student, Phoebe.

The dream ended on a strangely realistic note, with my thinking, huh, seeing as I'm on 91st and Madison anyway, I might as well stop for coffee and cake at Yura. My subconscious is a perfectly functioning Yelp when it comes to sit-down bakeries. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pedestrian humor

Humor is subjective, and anyone who has, in her adult life, chuckled aloud to "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" and "Keeping Up Appearances" and "Two And A Half Men" is in no place to judge. That said, I really don't see why "Pedestrians in Bars Eating Toffee," the parody of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," is supposed to be better than the original. Didn't get through all of it, so maybe it gets amazing at the end, but even if it does...

I mean, it starts out strong - a description of someone's circa-2001 worn-out sneakers, where on the original there'd be a discussion of a hyper-luxury car. So you sort of think, OK, the gimmick here is, these are pedestrians, real people rather than impossibly rich ones. Because that's been the criticism of the original - that it's basically rich people being rich in fancy cars. But then almost immediately, in the parody version, we learn that these are young men who live and grew up in nice parts of Manhattan. They're talking about growing up on the Upper West Side, and having gone to school on what sounds like the Upper East. While this is not Seinfeld-level wealth - and while these specific young men, for all I know, may have gone to public school and grown up in rent-controlled apartments - Manhattan of today, even Manhattan of when these guys were growing up, is just not scruffy enough for the contrast to work.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New extremes in #normcore

I'm more fascinated than I should be by "normcore," which seems to explain so much. But I thought of it most recently when I saw that another of my excessive fascinations, Into The Gloss, had a spread on... wedding bands for the unmarried. Not in the traditional sense of, a woman will wear one to avoid getting hit on, or a man will do so to project a certain married-man allure. (This is apparently a thing, or so George Costanza believed.) No, because wedding bands are attractive, like, as jewelry. This is demonstrated - how else? - with the use of a naked (but mostly SFW) model smoking a cigarette, and then some other women whose glamor is demonstrated in various ways, but who are there to encourage you to go out and get a wedding band for yourself. Because ITG is ever so persuasive, you may well do just that.

The cynic in me says, ITG is sponsored by one of the jewelry brands mentioned (see the tremendous banner ads for said brand), and they had to come up with something. But why wedding-band chic? Why does that convince, if not because it's the ultimate in conventional jewelry? It seems to fit with the old-lady-chic vibe, in the sense that it's the sort of thing that's cute when someone early-20s or younger does it, or, perhaps a better way to say this is, is a way to highlight that one is so young that, haha, one couldn't be married, one is simply so young and rich and fabulous that one will spend a usual wedding-ring amount on a wedding ring, to wear as a random accessory. I have trouble imagining a woman of a more madame age doing this.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The perverse pride of the pale

So, being ancient, and having devoted the bulk of my 20s to the 19th century, I'm not up on Tumblr or memes. It's possible that I actually said "the Twitter" the other day, although that one I sometimes use and mostly understand. Anyway, I only just now learned of the Me vs. Other Girls meme and associated controversy. It turns out that being pale, dark-haired, and literate is a meme! Or only if you're defining yourself in opposition to dim-witted spray-tanned bleach-blondes. Seeing as I live at a science compound in the woods, where I'm as much the Penny as anyone, I, at least, am not.

It's an interesting conversation, though, or the start of one. Some of this seems to be socioeconomic humblebragging - like, yes, you're pale and stayed away from the peroxide, and read Great Books, and don't fuss over status-y brands, but that's because you're an upper-class white person, not because you resisted temptation to go all TOWIE'd out. Yes, being upper-class means a certain degree of alienation from the mainstream, but if it comes from a place of feeling better than the mainstream, and if you sit around feeling superior with others like yourself, so what if a state-school sorority you're never interacting with anyway would have shunned you?

Some of it - because this also comes from people who really did grow up feeling like outsiders - really is about feeling like an outsider, but in that cringe-inducing adolescent way where one misses that everyone feels different. ("Daria" works because even pretty sorority girls feel like Daria.) If the "women" on Tumblr comparing themselves to others in an emo fashion are in fact girls between the ages of 10 and 16, fair enough. If grown women are doing this, I'd be more concerned.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In defense of not identifying as bisexual (if you don't happen to be bisexual)

There's the nice article about male bisexuality, but then, oh, is the discussion. There are some in the comments who believe bisexuality doesn't exist (silly! gratuitously offensive!), or who (quite rightly) point to the many instances of gay men claiming to also be attracted to women, for reasons other than also being attracted to women, to say not that there are no bisexual men, but that of the men so identifying, many are not that. There are others who think women can be / definitely are sexually fluid, but not men, oh no, not that there's anything wrong with that. (Ugh.)

But the popular view, to which one must smugly nod along, seems to be that we are are bisexual, or that if we're not feeling particularly bisexual, we should apologize. Bisexuals see the person. Whereas straight and gay sorts see... their partner's resemblance to their favorite celebrity crush? I have no idea. (OK, I do have some idea, but with modern understandings of gender, one no longer conflates it with anything anatomical.) Never mind that one could be bisexual and shallow - if you're attracted to Kim Kardashian and Ryan Gosling, say, and would settle for no less. (Note the desperate attempt to keep celebrity references current, and not make it that obvious that my mind for such things lives in 1996.)

Obviously, obviously, obviously, but a disclaimer all the same: At this point, there's obviously more pressure on bisexual people to be straight than on straight people to be bisexual. I'm agnostic on whether the pressure is greater for bisexuals to be gay than on gay people to be bisexual - sort of depends on the context. But one can see a tide turning, as if we're somehow, as a society, skipping over an affirmation of bisexuality as valid and to be respected, and jumping ahead to a condemnation of anyone who'd dare place him- or her- or any other pronoun's self in any sort of sexual-orientation box.

I suppose there's nothing to be lost by assuming everyone's bisexual, or that you yourself are bisexual, in the sense that the possibility you'll be attracted to someone of the gender you didn't expect is non-zero. It's all constructs, right? In a society where same-sex attraction was encouraged, maybe those of us who've never experienced it would have more thoroughly considered the possibility, and have managed to summon something for someone of the same sex, and would consequently feel something other than lowered self-esteem when confronted with a Natalia Vodianova billboard. Could be! We don't live in that society, so what do we know?

If we've decided that it's as offensive to rule out an entire gender as it would be to do the same regarding an entire race, then fine, we are all bisexual, even if not all of us have yet met people of both genders we're attracted to. This is, after all, the only accurate way to discuss race and attraction - those who grow up in homogenous environments very often (or so I've heard; I grew up in NYC!) experience their first interracial attraction only once in a more diverse setting. If it's now the thing to extend this to gender, so what if common sense suggests otherwise, i.e. that gender isn't like race, but a far bigger distinction? What's the harm?

But in terms of making sense of the world, there are many people (most?) for whom an attractive person of one gender means something really different than an attractive person of the other. How straight or gay (i.e. not-bi) people interact with men will differ from how they interact with women. (I refer you to the official WWPD definition of sexual orientation, from 2006, which I stand by as much as I do anything from that long ago.) It's something beyond having a type. It's how you understand who you are, who your partner is/partners are. It matters - as comes up in the article - if you're gay and trying to explain why you can't just fall in love with someone of the opposite gender.

Again, while everything's a construct, while "sexual orientation" is a modern invention and so forth, we do live in the society we live in, and for many people, that's going to mean noticing the best-looking person of one gender but not the other in a room. It does meaningfully describe some people's lived experience. Maybe there's a spectrum, a Kinsey scale, what have you. But people who are, for all practical purposes, into just men or just women may not be as rare as all that, and at any rate do appear to exist. What I mean is, it's not, day-to-day, as if every straight and gay person is struggling to repress attraction to the same/opposite gender. Those who are should absolutely, if conditions permit, and if they so choose, come out as bisexual. Those who are not are justified in continuing to identify in that dreaded binary way.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The late-1990s Livejournal I never had

The great thing about getting older, all those it's-great-to-get-older protest-too-much articles always claim, is that you reach a certain age and no longer care how others see you. In my experience, this is largely true, if more for those of us for whom ancientness correlates with romantic settled-down-ness. (If you're single and dating, you're bound to care a bit more how attractive people you have yet to meet will find you.) I can remember, in early adolescence, having thoughts about, say, how my thighs looked when I was sitting vs. standing. I no longer ponder my appearance in this micro way, nor even in an especially macro one. I use a mirror when necessary, i.e. to not put eyeliner on random parts of my face, but I don't gaze into it in search of any more holistic information.

It's possible to go along feeling like one's vanity is done, only to have it return, if momentarily, just to remind you that it can. That you're not above such concerns after all. I was feeling maybe a tiny bit old attending a friend's 27th birthday party, but the real issue was that the bar it was at was otherwise populated by people who hovered around the legal drinking age. It was also karaoke night, and the songs it occurred to me to request were popular... before the millennium. I was drinking beer from a pitcher, out of a plastic cup, which somehow made it that much more salient that I'm no longer 21. We were all old. Not quite the-old-people-at-the-bar old (there were some definitively elderly people filling that role), but still.

That, and the book I'd suggested for the book club I'd suggested, "Lucky Jim," has a great many... comparative descriptions of two women, one (Christine) effortlessly gorgeous, the other (Margaret) always somewhat off. Jim at one point wishes Margaret were just a bit prettier. He dreads seeing her in one particular unflattering outfit. She's not horrible-looking, but sort of borderline - with the right sort of effort, or if she just happens to be dressed and made-up in a way that pleases Jim, she's attractive, but she's incapable of inspiring the sort of nervous, must-run-in-opposite-direction response that Christine summons just by existing.

While reading, I did think how probably all women have been in both roles to different people, on different occasions. Or the sensible part of me thought this. The less-sensible one thought, oh my God, I'm Margaret. (A follow-up title for Judy Blume?) Every time I dress up, it probably looks like a costume. There's probably lipstick on my teeth - or I should be better about checking this on the rare occasions I wear dark lipstick. I probably have some outfit that's the paisley dress and velvet shoes. Gah!

I suppose what it is is, it's just such a convincing-seeming description of the ways men see women. While a more enlightened approach would be to just identify with the protagonist - after all, women, too, divide men into Christine and Margaret categories, which is just as unfair, if not more so given how little control men have over their self-presentation - I both identified with Jim and took the relatively literal approach of identifying with the recipients of the male gaze. That the "male" in question, to whom I imagined possibly coming up short, is a fictional protagonist from 1950s England mattered less than it might have, because this is a very good novel and thus, alas, sort of timeless.

All of which is my longwinded way of explaining why I so appreciated Rachel Hills's positive spin on a certain French aristocratic model's previously-mentioned high self-esteem. Specifically, Rachel suggests we adapt said model's self-description as a template, putting in our own physical traits: "See, I’ve had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born ________, with a pretty face (not to everyone’s taste, I concede), and ________." Rachel fills out one of her own, and I see that I'd be capable of doing so as well. After all, weren't we all born with a pretty face that not everyone finds pretty? And we can probably all come up with two more traits such that to mention them would be to boast.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Freedom of spirit, overanalyzed

Jemima Kirke, aka Jessa from "Girls," has such pretty hair. Is her painting derivative? Evidently. Is there some fascinating unstated story behind why "Brian," "Mike’s best friend," is "there most nights after the kids go to bed"? I want to go with yes. That hair, but also that free-spiritedness. So many of these free spirits about! Such a funny expression - are we the relatively anxious and uptight in some kind of spiritual prison? How is a "free spirit" different from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? So many questions! Questions the freer of spirit probably don't find themselves internally debating. If you're queasy about spontaneous DIY tattoos and people smoking inside in a house with young children, your spirit may be on the restricted side.

On a note totally unrelated to questions left unanswered in the Kirke photo-spread, men can now be bisexual. Science has now decided that this exists, whereas some earlier incarnation of science looked at the men attracted to and involved with men and women alike and said, nuh-uh, or something. What was news to me, though, was that the prof who had initially claimed men physically can't be bisexual is the same one as led the notorious in-class dildo demonstration at Northwestern.

Also surprising, to me: the extent to which that episode resembled that scene from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life." I must have skimmed the previous CCOA discussions of this incident, because I'd always thought the "dildo demonstration" was, some prof showed the item in question in class, in order to, I don't know, identify it? I hadn't quite put it together that "a female guest speaker was brought to orgasm by her male partner using a sex toy." Thank you, NYT Magazine, for enlightening. A free-spirited female guest speaker, no doubt.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The guyfriendzone

The "guy friend," a topic I thought WWPD had retired, must resurface now that Jezebel's linked to this hilarious Onion article (redundant?) about the phenomenon, entitled "Sexually Frustrated Woman Just One Of The Guys." Sample passage:

“You don’t have to be on guard around her,” said coworker and friend Ted Reiner, 26, a man to whom Valetta gives “awesome” dating advice and whom she has specifically styled her hair and clothes to please and hopefully arouse. “I don’t have to worry about what I say to her. I’m never trying to impress her or anything. Plus, she’s not high-maintenance at all. And she’s not crazy or clingy or anything.”
A Jezebel commenter has already responded, "Sounds like a Nice Girl," i.e. like a Nice Guy, but a girl. I disagree. What's spot-on about the piece, in that usual spot-on Onion way, is that the woman doesn't give the men who won't date her a hard time. She doesn't whine about their lack of interest. She certainly doesn't try harangue the guys she wants to date into sleeping with her. She never even makes her interest known!

Which is really why the whole Nice Guy/Friendzone paradigm isn't gender-neutral. The man who befriends a woman/several women as a way of getting into their pants will generally make this known. A woman in the equivalent situation probably will not. (Having never had the good, or perhaps bad, fortune to be considered one of the guys, at least in a group of straight guys, I wouldn't know firsthand.)

Or maybe that's not quite it - maybe the difference is that in Harry-Sally friendships, it's assumed the man's carrying a torch, at least if he's single, even if he's not. Whereas part of what makes the Onion article funny (yes, yes, the dangers of analyzing humor) is that no one thinks unattached women with male friends secretly want to sleep with said friends, in part because no one - apart from women, that is - thinks of women as getting "sexually frustrated." The piece works both as a painful truth to the one-of-the-guys women who've experienced this - or so it's been received on Jezebel - and as a humorous gender-reversal for those who believe the received wisdom about only men thinking like this.

Fitness strategies for the desperate

It was, as many readers no doubt noticed, a cold winter in parts of the U.S. Was and is. While I'd been very good about running in the fall, when the ice arrived, and I couldn't alternate between the treadmill and running outside, it all kind of came to a halt. Various minor winter-blah illnesses further conspired to get me as out-of-shape as possible as quickly as possible. The prospect of a half-hour of guilt-free weekday sitcom consumption failed to cancel out the two frozen minutes' walk to the gym. Did I mention I've gotten very used to life with a car? 

So behold, my plans for battling running-inertia. 

-Make appointments to go running with friends in the area. This means keeping a mental - maybe even physical - list of who might want to do this, and being a bit more the organizer than I usually am. But seeing as all that needs to be organized is a time and place to show up in sneakers, I can probably handle it. 

-Announce to the aforementioned list that I am about to go running, not so much to go with people (people do tend to require notice) as to compel myself off the couch. There, the danger is in spamming my friends, but the chances of my doing this (the running or the emailing) often enough to constitute spam are low indeed. 

-Bring Bisou! Except I'm never quite sure this counts as exercise. With all the sniffing and marking, there's not much continuous jogging involved. But it has a certain undeniable two-birds-one-stone advantage.

-Save the better and longer podcasts for running, i.e. not for dog-walks. That would be Dan Savage, of course, or the Marc Maron interview with Lena Dunham. That would most definitely not be anything about recipes from NPR. 

-Tell myself (and this I've been doing, sort of) that it's a damn shame not to run when it's warm out. (Check!) Convince myself that anything above freezing counts as "warm." (Eh...) 

-Be a French aristocratic fashion model (who says things like, "See, I've had this great chance in life of being born with good genes. I was born tall, with a pretty face (not to everyone's taste, I concede), and a thin body."), move to Paris, and hire someone called Bruno to whip me into shape.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Not-so-sweet 16

Ah, Facebook. A high school friend was tagged in a scanned copy of our school literary magazine's yearbook photo, which alerted me to its social-media presence. At first I wasn't sure I was in the group photo, but yesterday several friends and, more definitively, my husband, confirmed. It's from either my sophomore or junior year, making me 15 or 16 at the time. (I presume WWPD has an international audience - a very glamorous one at that - that might need this spelled out.) I can tell it's not my senior year in part because of the presence of students I know graduated before me, but also because I must have looked better than that by 17. At least that's my recollection.

'Hi, I'm on the school literary magazine! Please read my thinly-veiled short stories about unrequited crushes!'

It's hard to explain exactly what was most unimpressive about my appearance at whatever age this was. (I'm estimating 16; 15 was worse, and involved glitter barrettes.) I looked a bit fatter then than I do now, going by this photo, but probably weighed the same - the well-known phenomenon of "baby face." I don't think I still own that exact sweater, but wouldn't rule it out, and in any case still dress like that. I haven't found drastically better things to do with my hair. The eyebrows look a bit 1990s-tadpole, but that's to be expected. None of the clichéd adolescent complaints (acne, braces, bad glasses). 

No, it's the expression. The face that radiates no life experience, and so, so much awkwardness. While I may not look better at 30 than at 23, and while no age thus far has left me looking like a supermodel, there's something nice about knowing that whichever ravages of ancientness have yet to reduce me to looking as I did at 16.

Let this post be a lesson to the pop-evo-psych-PUA contingent, who insist that women peak while still technically girls, and that it's downhill from 16 on. This may be true of the handful who go into runway modeling at that age. Not so the rest of us.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"She looked like a ninny, dressed by rote, wearing what she thought made her look feminine rather than what suited her body and her job."

Behold: a man telling a woman not to dress for men. Jean Touitou, founder of the expensive French denim-and-more company A.P.C., thinks intelligent women who aren't dressed to his liking look like idiots... and somehow presents this as if it were a feminist observation. Women, he claims, dress in ways that "emphasise body parts that call out to men's sexual desire," which is wrong, he explains, because "these so-called sexy clothes are often hideous." Hideous... to him. And why on earth does she care what he thinks?

Women should dress for themselves, and eventually for other women, and only then maybe also for a handful of men. But they must step out of this outrageously sexed-up hell of signifiers; if they don't, this junk will make them lose their self-respect. 
Does he not see the irony? A man saying that women shouldn't dress for men? Or is he including himself in the "handful of men" women might aim to please? "I advocate understatement," he writes, which... I get that his business is selling gamine-menswear clothes, but is this some kind of political position? Does the Guardian want some kind of feminist hear-hear? If so, I'm afraid I won't oblige.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Rerun-appreciation as warning sign

In the grand tradition of "Hitler was a vegetarian," we now have another heap of disparate data points about Connecticut killer Adam Lanza. While to his credit, Andrew Solomon doesn't explicitly invite us to look at each new detail as the key, and makes clear (to those who read the whole thing) that Aspergers (where many of the more symptom-y details seemed to point) might be a red herring, it's hard not to read such pieces this way. And what do we learn? "He loved reruns of 'The Bob Newhart Show' [...]," for example. An appreciation for old sitcoms is now a warning sign? Great. So, too, is writing fiction that depicts something that would be unsavory in real life. Oh well. And remember, we've already established that a dislike of hair-salon chit-chat is a something to keep an eye on.

The essential in Solomon's piece comes far too near the end, i.e. that part of long-form articles almost nobody gets to:

Adam Lanza was a terrorist for an unknowable cause who committed three distinct atrocities: he killed his mother; he killed himself; he killed children and adults he’d never met before. Two of these acts are explicable; the third, incomprehensible. There are many crimes from which most people desist because we know right from wrong and are careful of the law. Most people would like to have things that belong to others; many people have felt murderous rage. But the reason that almost no one shoots twenty random children isn’t self-restraint; it’s that there is no level at which the idea is attractive.
Precisely. Randomly killing children is incomprehensible and impossible to relate to the rest. We have a pile of biographical information, all of which we're unavoidably reading through the lens of knowing what this man went on to do. That changes how we interpret the spectrum-type details, but also the mundane ones provided to show him as, in his father's words, "'a normal little weird kid.'" Even the "Bob Newhart" reruns - and could a show be any less violent or controversial? - read as suspect.

"Jansson's Temptation"

Food diaries exist. Right? This is a thing? I remember we had to keep them for a week freshman year of high school - a week when I happened to eat many eggs, I recall, and had to account for my cholesterol consumption in biology class. I haven't had reason to keep such detailed track since. But today, what I ate probably does merit one, and since I don't think Grub Street's knocking, WWPD it is:

-At what felt like 4am, due to some combination of the time change, the need to catch a particular train at Princeton Junction, and having stayed out till almost midnight (old age), but was probably more like 8am, I think I had grapefruit juice, some Raschera cheese without crackers (by which I mean matzo) because I was all out, and coffee.

-At my Canadian-family reunion - in New York, not Canada - I first had a giant cappuccino, with sugar because it seemed useful, what with the sleepiness. Then I had gravlax, which was excellent if unfortunately partially covered in a cream sauce of some kind (and as for why that would be a problem, despite my very much enjoying a whole-milk cappuccino, clearly this is not a nutritional concern, but some kind of latent picky eating that reemerges if surrounded by enough family members), with a side order of something called "Jansson's Temptation." I was not the only cousin curious to know what was so tempting to this Jansson. Alas, Jansson seems to like an anchovy-flavored potato gratin. Fortunately, there's no combination of potato, cheese, and salt I can't enjoy.

-At the Paris Baguette on 32nd Street, I had a mini mochi doughnut. Dessert!

-Iced coffee from Stumptown. Black, no sugar. Delicious. $3.50, so it really should be.

-Against all sleepy odds, and thanks in no small part to that iced coffee, made it home via the stretch of pothole that is the trip between here and Princeton Junction. Fed and walked a stir-crazy poodle. Once back from the walk, had plain pasta with more Raschera, which may or may not be a cheese that's meant for pasta, but it melted nicely. Wanted to include vegetables of some kind (there's kale-of-best-intentions in the fridge, and some winter asparagus), but exhaustion ruled out that possibility.

-Fell asleep for an undisclosed, insufficient amount of time. Woke up ready for... dinner? Second dinner? Remembered, and consumed, the remaining non-doughnut mini-mochi, because all it required, preparation-wise, was opening the package it came in.

Let it be stated for the record that this is in no way representative of my usual habits. But if you're doing an NPR show or writing a Well blog post about the failings of the modern Western diet, feel free to cite this diary as Exhibit A.

Saturday, March 08, 2014


It was bound to come to this: we now have shaming-shaming. And since the pornographer who revealed the identity of the frat boy who revealed the identity of the Duke porn star has himself come under criticism, I think we've also seen some shaming-shaming-shaming.

French and Anglophilia

As all of us with too much TV under our belts know, every show is an older show. Ron Swanson is Lou Grant, etc. So, another for the books: "The Mindy Project" is "The Vicar of Dibley." (Like, to the extent that much of what's been called revolutionary about "The Mindy Project" - much of what I've called groundbreaking about the show - doesn't count as such, if British shows count.) Which probably explains why, despite in principle supporting Geraldine's quest for a pretty-boy, I kind of rooted for her to fall in love with David, who's the show's Danny.

In further Anglophilia, I was recently informed (well, reminded) of the existence of lemon and sugar as a topping for crepes, on Pancake Day. Most excellent.

Friday, March 07, 2014

"Orangutan sounds"

There are potentially valid arguments against the SAT: that it doesn't measure anything important, or that it simply reflects socioeconomic background.* Then there's Jennifer Finney Boylan's take:

Boylan found the SAT stressful, thus "The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture." While she's by no means alone, plenty of students don't find the test all that torturous. Meanwhile I've had classmates who find any number of assignments too stressful to bear: essays, long and dense readings, lab reports (ahem). Should these, too, be chucked? And this is... supposed to be cute? It can't possibly be serious:

As the mother of two former SAT takers (one a sophomore in college, the other a senior in high school awaiting the result of his applications), I can also point out another problem with the test: It usually starts around 8:30 in the morning. I don’t know if the members of the College Board have ever met a 17-year-old at that hour, but I can tell you this is not the time of day I would choose to test their ability to do anything, except perhaps make orangutan sounds.
Yes, how terribly unfair. How biased in favor of morning people. Never mind that work tends to start in the morning, as do plenty of college classes. As does high school. The ability to suck it up and accomplish something in the early morning isn't some abstract skill of no use later, but quite handy if, say, you find yourself living in Central NJ and commuting into NY. If all the SAT measured was the ability to show up for the SAT at groggy o'clock, this would probably measure something worthwhile.

*While the socioeconomic thing is a good point, I never cease to be amazed by the frequency with which those who repeat that argument turn out to be advocating on behalf not of the underprivileged, but the snowflake, hidden-genius children of the upper-middle class.


Just had a sitcom-esque moment I'd have never expected. I'm sitting in a coffee shop, and someone from the place was going around asking if anyone had arrived in a certain well-known low-end variety of Honda. Aaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!! What has happened to it?! If this were a sitcom, surely something - likely a piano - would have fallen on it. My newish-driver impostor syndrome went into overdrive. The car full-on exploded, thanks to my forgetting to do something any experienced driver would have known! It's rolled into the road - my memory of parking and locking it some kind of delusion! (I suppose the fear might have been that it was stolen, but if so, how would they know the model? And do people really steal used Hondas from a lot down the street from the Lotus garage? Probably, and if that happened, I'd have a very long walk home.) I should never drive to coffee, before having coffee! What happened to my car?

Turns out, nothing. Another same-model vehicle is blocking someone, or parked in the wrong place, or something.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The web of artifice intersectionality

This morning's poodle-walk accompaniment was the BBC Woman's Hour discussion on the "politics of afro hair." As someone with moderately politicized hair myself (on "Jewish" hair, see this essay; the point is not to question the Jewish authenticity of the Alicia Silverstones of the world, but rather to note that the women whose hair matches up with what's thought "Jewish" experience our own version of hair politics), I take a semi-personal interest in such discussions. Having spent about a week total of my life in the UK, and having never been black, this discussion was - as must always be disclaimered - not about me, even if I can personally relate to some of it, and not in the classic oblivious-white-woman 'sometimes I have a bad hair day, too!' sort of way. Disclaimer done, let's proceed:

Initially, my hopes were not so high - the discussion was introduced with a mention of how Lupita Nyong'o had worn her hair in an "unaltered state," I think was the expression, to the Oscars, which seemed an unfortunate conflation of hair-straightening and hair-styling. It would be like saying that because Nyong'o wasn't somehow painted lighter, she was wearing no makeup at all. This is, after all, the trouble with "natural" - we enter into a web of artifice intersectionality. Some forms of effort are not problematic ("problematic," argh, but no other word works here) in a racial sense, but might be in a gender one. More on that in a moment.

Then came the debate itself, which introduced further levels of intersectionality. Hannah Pool, a journalist, was pitted against Editi Udofot, a hairstylist; both are black. As the website confirms, Pool wears her hair in an afro, while Udofot has a blond weave. This was our starting point.

And so began one of those privilege discussions where the winner is, ironically, the person who's more educated, more upper-class (or whatever UMC is in the UK, because I understand there's also the aristocracy), more privileged.

Pool offered a critique of the ethics of human-hair extensions, explaining that only rich white men benefit from the sale of these, all the while talking to an apparently successful black businesswoman who sells hair extensions. Pool also announced to Udofot that she (Udofot) would look more beautiful with natural hair... this despite having never seen Udofot with natural hair, and despite Udofot's protests that this is not how she herself likes to look. Udofot explained - and having had equivalent conversations about my own hair, boy could I understand - that not all black women's "natural" is equally attractive. Her own natural hair, she explained, is thin, and incapable of growing into an afro like Pool's. She likes big hair, she explained, so whether she wears it straight or curly, she requires some kind of artifice. Nor, she went on to explain, when the topic returned to Nyong'o, is short, non-straightened hair some kind of automatic ticket to looking like a movie star.

Indeed. I've had they 'why the flat-iron?' conversation with people who assume that, barring said device, I'd surely have, I don't know, flawless ringlets, or cascading Pantene-commercial waves, or even just that insouciant French-girl hair. They're not imagining a less curly but somehow more voluminous version of this. Now, we may still say that it's unfortunate that women with meh natural hair feel they must alter it, but we need to be honest, and not claim that in all cases, "natural" looks better. For some women, "natural" means sacrificing beauty privilege a whole lot more than for, say, Nyong'o, who is maybe the most beautiful woman in the world.

And then... class. Often enough, for one's more "natural" state to be thought beautiful, one merely has to enter into some well-educated elite, simple as that. Easy peasy. Udofot explained that she prefers how she looks with the blond weave, but that she also prefers how she looks with makeup and nice clothes. Pool found this all just so sad, and wanted to explore the underlying issues (patriarchy, capitalism, and racism, I suppose?) that have fooled Udofot into thinking she must do all these things - some racially-problematic, some not - to her appearance. Udofot didn't seem particularly interested in being rescued from what is, after all, her source of income. But if she wasn't convinced, Pool nevertheless came across as the voice of BBC reason.

I mean, I don't know Pool or Udofot, and have subjected neither of them to extensive sociological examination. My knowledge of British-class-system-via-accents is limited at best. But my overall impression was that a look that's caught on plenty in more upper-class circles was being held up as superior. While there may be some objective truth to this - the cost! the chemicals! the impoverished non-Western women selling their natural hair! - it somehow leaves a bad taste when that-which-is-posh gets equated with better. And all the talk of what is or isn't "pretty" - this is going to vary by subculture, and perhaps that needs to be addressed.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Whole, sustainable fish in a barrel

Are Whole Foods customers really that bad? Nils Parker thinks so. And it's certainly the kind of thing you can assert without drawing too much controversy. It's fish-in-a-barrel at this point. Do people who shop at Whole Foods get all defensive and excuses-excuses about it? Yes, even if the excuses, like Wegmans not having a bulk grains-and-legumes section, or the local Gristedes being more expensive, are tough to dispute. It's embarrassing to admit to shopping at Whole Foods, so much so that even legitimate reasons sound like silly excuses. Even if you don't show up in a new Prius (or any Prius) and head-to-toe Lululemon (or any Lululemon), you're in effect confessing to being that guy.

Parker engages in a bit of the ol' assertion of a perfect stranger's thoughts, but it's OK, because the stranger is a Whole Foods shopper, not a human being:

They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?
Eh. Perhaps customers are this insufferable other branches. One can infer such insufferableness from my favorite Whole Foods sign, which I'm sure I've posted before but now's as good a time as any to bring it to new readers:

But at the Princeton branch (a good drive's remove from the town or university, deep in strip mall and office park territory), the customers seem quite reasonable, as well as a socioeconomic mix. (These things could well be related.) It's a popular lunch stop for people who work in the area, and not just in the pharmaceutical-company-executive sense. Also for locale-specific reasons, the staff will be, say, preppy blond teens from the area, so between the posher staff and less-posh clientele, there's less of a customer-cashier class divide than one might find at a big-city branch. It's not that this region is somehow devoid of entitlement. The behaviors Parker describes are ones I've seen... in coffee shops. On NJ Transit. Most which is precious or insufferable seems to cluster in town itself, with its no-prices-given food boutiques and tiny seasonal farmers market where the ten interested parties must fight over a bunch of lacinato kale.

But yes, maybe Whole Foods is, as a rule, that bad. But it's too easy a target. It's too easy to write about the cliché, and to ignore the reasonable hordes in favor of the rare few who meet it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

30, something

Finally! A "30" essay (see also: the "40" essay with the gratuitously transphobic or maybe just weird last item) not devoted to the loss of looks that happens instantaneously upon leaving one's 20s. Erika L. Sánchez has "come to terms with the grey hair and the faint appearance of wrinkles," but not with the expectation that 30-year-olds have it together in all life areas:

Thanks to TV and film, I keep foolishly believing that 30-year-old women are supposed to be ultra-successful, live in immaculate homes, and wear expensive high heels. They're supposed to be married, and either have children, or start planning for them. People who are 30 are not supposed to live hand-to-mouth or have panic attacks about their looming student loans. This is not what grownups do.
30-anxieties are real, but more gender-neutral than one might imagine. "30 under 30" lists. Precocious novelists and the stark reality that you will never be one. Or even - as Sánchez points out - the measure of basic settled-ness expected after 30. The 30-is-great counter-message tends to be, sure, you don't look or feel 22 anymore, but at least you own a home and a car and are settled in your career. Even the silver-lining articles can be dispiriting, because chances are, you'll at least not meet some of the milestones. Both because times have changed - that job the dad on "Leave It To Beaver" had probably wasn't waiting for you upon graduation - and for so many personal, individual reasons, like, for example, maybe you spent your 20s getting a not-so-practical advanced degree.

My 30-worries, then, aren't particularly gendered, either. This, despite a whole industry devoted to the idea that 30, in a woman, spells decrepitude. In beauty writing, 30 - even 29 - is the age at which one must start putting money towards the alleged problem. (Note the comment to the Julia Restoin Roitfeld profile: "Wow, she looks great for 30!" The woman looks a well-lit, well-photographed 30, which doesn't look 80.)

Thanks to hair dye and retouching, we don't have much of a sense of what each age looks like, and end up considering all aging premature. Consider Lena Dunham's response to the Photoshop debacle: "I felt like, thank you for removing the one line from my face because I’m 27-years-old and shouldn’t have that there." I could well see not wanting whichever line, but there's nothing outrageous about its making an appearance at 27. Or, conversely, we're told that 30 is so ancient that when what we see in the mirror is quite similar to what we did at 25, we figure we look 25, and 25 looks 20, and really, we could totally walk into a high school unnoticed, except of course we could not.

My sense, from having seen a lot of rich women of all ages, is that nothing has yet been invented that allows you to control the age you project. Most people - men and women, of various degrees of tobacco and sun exposure - look the age they are. Somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While you may think a particular feature is giving you away as not 14 , that's not it at all. There are things one can change to be healthier, or to look better - some of which may be categorized as "anti-aging," some not - but you're not going to look younger. What you accomplish before 30 is kinda-sorta up to you, but you're not responsible for looking 30. It's just inevitable.

So it's not, for me, that I'm somehow above the desire to avoid aging, nor that I, as Sánchez does regarding herself, think I look better at 30 than ever before. I don't think I'd be above pressing a look-10-years-younger button. It's just that I'm convinced no such button exists. So the money I might otherwise spend on "lifting serum" I'd much rather put towards, I don't know, coffee beans so expensive it would almost (but never quite) pay to just get coffee out. Stumptown and Intelligensia readily displace any Clarins or Estée Lauder budget.