July 31, 2006
Last night, while I was out at a party, David mowed the lawn, cleaned the bathroom, and washed the sheets. He even drained the toiled and scrubbed inside the bowl! I'm so lucky to have him :)
July 30, 2006
Today, as I was walking home from my weekly big shopping trip at the co-op (Sunday is student discount day) a guy on a bike said "nice melons." To me! Those of you who know me won't have trouble believing that this is the first time I ever received such a compliment. But alas, he was not referring to my anatomy, rather to the fact that I happened to be carrying two cantaloupes in my hands!
Happy Birthday, House
Yesterday David and I celebrated our two-year anniversary of becoming homeowners. Actually, we didn't so much celebrate as say, "hey, we bought our house two years ago today. Can you believe it? Time flies." On July 29, 2004, we went to the title company, signed all the papers, and have voted Republican ever since. Just kidding. Buying our house did have somewhat of a conservatizing effect on us -- we never had a housewarming party because we didn't want to have to clean up after our friends -- but, as David points out, we haven't become NIMBYs. We have actually lived in this house much longer than two years: David moved in in July 2000 and I moved in in September 2002, and we were very lucky to be able to buy the house we were already living in. Our landlord just happened to have recently married and moved to Chicago, and he was glad to be able to get rid of the Ann Arbor property. We looked at other houses but didn't see anything in our price range that we liked nearly as well. Not that the house is perfect. It is in a flood plain, which means that we have to pay over $100 every month for federal flood insurance and we can never enlarge the footprint of the house. It also lacks some important modern conveniences, notably a shower. But we get by. In the past two years David has totally relandscaped the front and back yards and painted the study purple (at my request). He also took the door off the wooden medicine cabinet and stripped the cabinet and the door, but he has not yet refininished either one, so the door is currently sitting on the floor of the bathroom and, whenever we want to use the mirror, we have to prop it up on the towel rack. I just hope it gets done before we want to sell the place, or else we will have to explain why there is neither a medicine cabinet nor a shower!
July 29, 2006
Ratatouille is one of those mysterious concoctions that is way more fabulous than the sum of its parts. I never liked tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, or bell peppers, but for some reason, when you cook them all together with garlic and herbs, it is just about the most fantastic vegetable dish ever. It has become one of those late-summer treats I eagerly anticipate all year because ratatouille is so labor-intensive that it is only worth making when I can get all of the ingredients at the farmers' market. The first few times I made it, I followed the recipe to the letter, afraid that if I didn't use the exact right vegetables in the exact right proportions, that ratatouille magic wouldn't happen. But I have found that it is much less finnicky than I had previously thought. It seems that the only nonnegotiables are the tomatoes, eggplants, and garlic; everything else is open to interpretation. Last week there were no peppers at the market, so I left them out. Today I got purple peppers, red onions, and genovese basil. I bet it would also be good with hot peppers and/or okra. I don't even measure the vegetables anymore: I just buy a bunch of stuff, throw it all together in the slow cooker, forget about it all day, and have a steaming pot of ratatouille-ish by dinner time.
July 28, 2006
Today was my first volunteer shift at the People's Food Coop. The volunteer coordinator called yesterday to ask if I could come in today to do some data entry -- typing recipes into Microsoft Word -- and I told him that I would do it from ten to one. I have had data entry jobs at the University and, although I wouldn't want to do it as a full-time career, I'm more than happy to do it on a volunteer basis. Lately, I have actually been wishing that I had a job, something to get me out of the house and out of my head, but I can't work for money because of my financial aid situation, so volunteering kind of fills that need. And data entry can be kind of soothing and hypnotic if I can get into a rhythm with it. So I showed up at ten with my little radio so that I could listen to NPR while I worked, ready to settle in for a solid three hours. But I finished the stack of recipes I was given in half an hour and they didn't have anything else for me to do!
July 27, 2006
Caitlin Flanagan Reminds Teenage Girls to Follow The Rules
Warning: this post is about sex.
A few months ago, Caitlin Flanagan published a book review in The Atlantic about the new "epidemic" of oral sex among young teenage girls. She critiques the feminist movement for encouraging young women to act on their sexual desires, and points out that this new rage for oral sex, which young girls are giving but not receiving, doesn't provide them with any kind of fulfilment, and may actually be quite damaging to them on a psychological level, not to mention the disease risks.
This article generated a flurry of letters to the editors, several of which tried to make sense of the tweenage oral sex pehenomenon in ways I found quite convincing. One writer blamed it on the culture of extreme praise from parents, in which "children are regularly priased to the heavens for picking up their dirty laundry or for coming in eleventh place in a spelling bee." As a result, children have to try harder and resort to more extreame measures in order to shock and upset their parents. Another writer suggested that the middle- and upper-middle-class girls Flanagan describes are more willing to get on their knees because they "have been progammed to be pleasers from the day they were required to interview for a coveted spot in the right kindergarten." Flanagan, however, is not interested in the social and cultural factors that produce the behavior she laments. In her response to the letters, she dismisses these two explanations simply because they appear to contradict each other -- one blames a lack of standards, the other blames unattainable standards -- and she thus decides they must both be wrong, rather than trying to understand how they might both be right at the same time.
Instead, Caitlin blames the feminist movement, which she says has encouraged girls to break The Rules. She concludes by reminding girls that:
If you want a boy to invite you to the prom, or to treat you well, or to speak highly of you to his friends, or to spend long hours thinking about how he can work his way into your heart -- if what you want from him is courtship, romance, and respect -- the very last thing you should do is ambush him with a sexual favor. That girls no longer know this to the marrow of their bones -- that this knowledge comes to them in a slow awakening of misery and shame -- is testament to how badly our culture has failed them.
This statement pissed me off to no end. Granted, I'm not going to encourage my teenage sisters to go out and have sex with their male classmates, but Flanagan's screed perpetuates tired myths about gender relations that are insulting to both men and women. First, it dredges up that old virgin/whore duality, suggesting that there are two types of women in the world: those who have sex and those who get married, and that if you have sex before you get married, men will see you as "damaged merchandise" and won't want to marry you. But why would I want to "win the heart" of someone who views me that way anyway? Second, it suggests that men don't have to treat women with respect simply because we are fellow human beings, but rather that we have to earn their respect by living up to standards of chastity that we don't expect men to live up to. This brings me to number three, the double standard: it is fine for men to have sex before marriage, but not for women to do the same thing. Fourth, it gives men all the power in the relationship. We are no longer living in the fifties. Girls can ask guys to prom, and women can propose marriage to their boyfriends. Fifth, the idea that women have to "trick" men into wanting them by playing "hard to get" is insulting and dehumanizing to men, suggesting that they are simply animals who enjoy the chase and get bored if they don't get to go out hunting for their female prey -- if that prey comes to them instead.
Feminism is about equality. The phenomenon Flanagan is describing, in which young girls are getting down on their knees to give unreciprocated oral sex to their male peers, does not sound at all equal. To suggest that this is one of the unintended consequences of the feminist movement simply blames women for the continued inequalities and exploitation we experience in our social and sexual lives.
July 26, 2006
On passing your prelims :)
Clean Living, Part 2
Today I mopped the floor for the first time in well over a year. It is something I rarely do because, before I can mop, I have to sweep or vacuum the floor (one inch at a time with the upholstery attachment) and then dust it. By then, I'm usually too wiped out and pissed off to mop. But, as a friend reminded me today, once I've done all the other stuff, the mopping is really the easiest part. And, of course, she was right. Our house is only about 700 square feet (less, actually, according to the City of Ann Arbor, but they have a bizarre calculation method), but it still seems like such a chore. Inspirational music does help, though. I had forgotten what a good CD this is until I heard it last night at Bab's.
July 25, 2006
Living with Strangers
Yesterday I ran into my former roommate Rob in front of the People's Food Coop. I first met Rob in the fall of 2001 when I answered his ad for a roommate, which I found on the bulleting board at the coop. I had been living in Ann Arbor for about six months, but the relationship I was in was ending and I was desperate for a new place to live. Rob had what seemed like the coolest apartment in all of Ann Arbor: a three-bedroom loft on Main Street, just south of Liberty. When I went to check the place out, Rob's girlfriend was there, and she seemed perfectly nice, which made me feel better about the idea of moving in with a guy I had just met. There was also another woman, Heather, living in the third bedroom.
It turned out that we were all going through breakups. I didn't see Rob's girlfriend any more, and Heather was breaking up with her boss, who had sponsored her work visa, and she ended up having to move back to Canada. After she left, a parade of women moved in and out of that bedroom over the next eight months: Alison the undergrad, Mavi who was studying for the LSATs, Lisa from Buffalo who was taking classes from David's summer program (and who ended up dating Rob!), and an exchange student from Germany whose name I forget. There may have been one or two others who are slipping my mind right now.
Rob was a good roommate in the sense that he was hardly ever home, but when he was home, he usually had some creepy friend over. He was also very mysterious. To this day, I'm not sure I ever knew his last name, though I must have done, because I had to write checks to him for the rent and utilities. I never saw him without a baseball cap on, which makes me wonder what he is hiding under the cap. Also, Rob is self employed, and I never quite understood what he did. He always referred to it as "information research," but he also talked about buying loans, and at times I wondered if he was selling drugs. And I always wondered why he always found women to rent his extra bedrooms. In the end, he was harmless, and he did give me (or rather rented me) a fabulous place to live when I needed one, but he is not someone I would choose to hang out with.
July 24, 2006
Courtesy of The Daily Meme:
In honor of the Tour de France, what is your longest bike ride?
I should probably start by admitting that I did not successfully learn to ride a bike until I was thirteen years old. Before that, my parents had tried to teach me, and would push me along to get me started, then let me go, but I never learned how to start or stop on my own. Once I ended up in a beach volleyball pit and another time in the emergency room. But by the time I was thirteen, I had developed enough coordination to just get on and go, and I was super-proud to finally be able to do what most children can do with ease. Bike riding is not something I have ever done on a regular basis, and the thought of doing it as a regular form of transportation (which David does) terrifies me. But every now and then I do enjoy a long ride.
My longest bike ride, which I have done twice, is the bike path from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach and back, about forty miles. This was the annual bike-a-thon to raise money for my high school marching band (I played the tuba). We were supposed to ask people to pledge money for each mile we rode. I was too shy to ask for money, but rode anyway, and had a lot of fun with it, but I don't think I have ever been that sore any other time in my life. I was also super-slow. The band director always said that he would go last, to pick up any dead bodies, but one year he passed me!
July 23, 2006
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
The best thing about having friends with season tickets to the Tigers is that they give their tickets to us when they go out of town! This was the second game David and I have been to this season (together, that is -- he also went on opening day), and the first one we have seen the Tigers win. Despite the fact that it is their best season ever, they lost the game we took my mom to see, which was a bummer because it was her first time in Detroit. But we still had fun, as we did today. We got a sweet parking spot on the street not too far from the stadium, and our seats were right behind third base, giving us a great view of Brandon Inge, the Tigers' sex symbol. My favorite Tiger, however, is Omar Infante, who plays second base, but can't seem to hit to save his life. Nevertheless, the Tigers were on fire today. They scored six runs in the first inning, which is more than I had ever seen them score in an entire game!
On the way back, we passed a deli called Asian Corned Beef. David was hungry curious, but a bit nervous because the place was super-sketchy. In the end, curiosity won out. What, we wondered, was Asian corned beef? And who would be in there? It turned out to be a pretty standard Detroit deli, but they also serve eggrolls, and the specialty of the house is, you guessed it, corned beef eggrolls. David liked them pretty well, and said they reminded him of the Irish eggrolls at Sidetrack in Ypsi. Those are stuffed with pickles, ham, and cheese. I'm still holding out for the chocolate eggroll, which must exist somewhere...
July 22, 2006
Yesterday, Ron Suarez came by my house to tell me that he is running for the First Ward seat on the Ann Arbor City Council. I had never had someone who was running for office come by my house to specifically tell me about their platform, so I thought it was pretty cool that he was out on his bike on a Friday evening doing that. David, however, was not impressed, and even used the f-word when I told him that Suarez had come by.
I'm still getting used to the political scene here in Ann Arbor. When Suarez saw my Granholm t-shirt, he said "well, I can see you are a Democrat" and went on to explain to me that our whole City Council race would be decided in the primary elections on August 8, because there are no Republicans running. On the one hand, I am glad to live in such a Democratic stronghold. I feel comfortable here. But I can just imagine how persecuted local Republicans must feel. I would never vote for a Republican for any legislative, executive, or judicial office, but it still makes me sad that they don't even feel that they can run for office in Ann Arbor: that they have an ice cube's chance in Hell. Though, as we all know, Hell does freeze over annually, and, as David reminded me, it was only six years ago that Ann Arbor had a competent and well-respected Republican mayor.
But now, we pretty much just have left and lefter. Yesterday, Ellen Goodman (who is now my absolute favorite columnist!) published a column in response to Bush's veto of the new stem cell legislation about how he is driving a wedge between the right and the "loony right." Here in Ann Arbor, the choice is between left and lefter. The lefter faction (yes, I realize that is gramatically incorrect) opposes downtown development and pretty much wants to turn the whole city into a park. The craziest proposal is to create a greenway that would run right through where my house is now. Needless to say, I like my house and want it to stay where it is. I would also like to see more development and density downtown, which I guess puts me on the right side of leftist politics. Only in Ann Arbor.
Art Fair -- Finally
I guess I'm not a real townie, because I don't have strong feelings one way or the other about Art Fair. Word has it that true Ann Arborites either love it or hate it. Either they hate having hundreds of thousands of people descend on downtown, making it impossible to get anywhere on what are always the four hottest days of the summer, or they love the fact that, for four days, Ann Arbor becomes the center of attention, drawing interesting people from all over the country. My cousin Becky, who grew up here, but now goes to grad school in Pittsburgh, loves art fair, and comes back for it almost every year. So for me, the best part of Art Fair is getting to see Becky. I do also enjoy being able to walk right down the center of Liberty street without having to worry about traffic, and I love the people watching. Somehow Art Fair brings out all the crazies. Yesterday Becky met me at the Granholm table just as my shift was ending, and we walked around a bit, so I finally got to see some of the art. Some of it is pretty neat and some of it seems totally useless. Yesterday I saw someone walking down the street with a large fake palm tree. I couldn't help wondering what one would even do with such a thing, except maybe open a tiki bar?
July 21, 2006
Running with the Grunion
Last week, the Ann Arbor News reprinted this story from the Los Angeles Times about Pomona College students researching the annual grunion run at Laguna Beach. The grunion run is part of Southern California folklore, made famous by an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 (one of the defining television shows of my adolescence). Every night, the Pomona students go out, watch the fish mate, collect the fish and their eggs, and step on them (I didn't quite figure out why). During the day, they count the number of people sitting on the beach to determine the effect of the human presence on the grunion's mating rituals. What could be more fun than spending a summer at Laguna Beach playing with little fish? No wonder Pomona has been rated the happiest college on earth!
July 20, 2006
Kiefer is Back!
David and I watch television one show at a time. Or rather, one series at a time. Because we don't have cable, we have to netflix our favorite shows and watch them on DVD. So we watch one whole series and then move on to the next. The benefit of watching television this way is that we can watch at our own pace and on our own time. We are not slaves to the networks' schedules. I can't even imagine what torture it would be to have to wait a whole week between episodes! The drawback, however, is that I tend to get a bit too involved in the plots and the characters, who become part of my life while I'm watching these shows.
So far we have seen The Sopranos, Queer as Folk, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. Currently, we are watching 24. Rather, we were watching 24, until I accidentally sent back disc number four while we were still on disc number three. We have now been 24-less for three days. The show is super-addictive: every episode ends with a cliffhanger, and we usually watch at least two episodes a day. David and I panicked when we realized I sent back the wrong disc. What would we do until we got it back? We might actually have to talk to each other! It might have been time for a break, though, because on Monday night I had a really strange dream about going to the drive-thru at McDonald's with Kiefer Sutherland (don't ask).
But now the wait is over. Today we received discs four, five, and six in the mail. So if we don't answer the phone for a few days, you know what we are up to...
July 19, 2006
Thank You, Grandpa
For making me laugh with your link to The Borowitz Report. Being a Sudoku hound, I'm glad to know that astronauts do it too, and that it is just as entertaining (in that oh-so-pointless way) in space as it is here on Earth!
Last week I got a letter in the mail from my thirteen-year-old sister, inviting me to take part in a "flip flop exchange." How does it work? I send a pair of flip flops to the person whose name is at the top of the list, then move my sister's name to the top of the list, add mine to hers, and send the letter on to six other people. They each send a pair of flip flops to my sister, move my name to the top of the list, and send the letter on to six other people. Ultimately, each person gets thirty-six pairs of flip flops. So it is basically a flip flop pyramid scheme, but the pyramid only has two layers. The letter specifically said "this is not a chain letter -- it's just for fun," but isn't that the definition of a chain letter? My first thought was "what on Earth will I do with thirty-six pairs of flip flops" but I didn't want to be the one to break the chain, and I certainly didn't want to call my thirteen-year-old sister to say "sorry, dude, I'm not doing this," so I did it. As David suggested, I can always donate the flip flops to charity. Or, if they happen to be super-cute, I can just wear them, though I've never much cared for the feeling of a rubber strap rubbing between my toes. In any case, it should be fun to see where my thirty-six pairs of flip flops come from. I forwarded the letter to one person in my Ph.D. program, one
July 18, 2006
Come See Me
If the snarkiness of today's previous posts hasn't turned you off too much, come visit me tomorrow at Art Fair I'll be sitting at the Jennifer Granholm/Debbie Stabenow table (on Liberty, just east of Fifth) tomorrow (Wednesday) and Friday from 1-3pm. I look forward to seeing you!
What Do You Call a Man who Sleeps Around?
In a recent column, Maureen Dowd discussed the way in which women have begun to reclaim the word slut. Nevertheless, she points out that women are still judged negatively by the number of sexual partners they have, in contrast to men, who boast about "getting around," as this makes them players (a word with positive connotations) rather than sluts (a word with negative connotations). The problem, it seems, is that we need a new word for men who sleep around. My suggestion? Disease vectors.
I Guess I'll Never be a Townie
On Sunday, the Ann Arbor News printed a list titled You know you're a townie if you... and one of the items was "go to a church that shares space with a temple." This is a reference to Genesis of Ann Arbor, the building shared by Temple Beth Emeth and St. Clare's Episcopal Church. But what about those of us who go to a synagogue that shares space with a church? The implication is that members of St. Clare's are townies, while members of TBE are not. In other words, Jews are not Ann Arborites, but are a foreign presence that Ann Arborites tolerate and share their "church" space with because Ann Arborites are so open-minded. The statement that "you know you're a townie if you...go to a church that shares space with a temple" attempts to differentiate Ann Arborites from those in the surrounding communities by suggesting that Ann Arborites are different (and better) because (gasp) they live near Jews! This statement attempts to pat Ann Arborites on the back for being so generous toward those (foreign) Jews, yet at the same time it tells us Jews that we are not now, and never will be, real townies.
July 17, 2006
Eat Your Politics
Last week, Ellen Goodman published a column in the Boston Globe expressing her disgust at the decision by Whole Foods to stop selling live lobsters. Goodman urges us to get real. Lobsters are, after all, insects, and she suggests that there are more important things to worry about that insects' quality of life. I can't help agreeing. Perhaps not buying live lobsters makes Whole Foods shoppers feel more pious, but what happens to the lobster fishermen who count on this insect for their living? Or the environmental degredation that results from flying in organic produce from the other side of the world?
It is actually really frustrating to realize that, in this world of plenty, where we can pretty much get anything to eat any time we want it, there are very few truly ethical eating options. Everything has trade-offs and it is hard to know what is better. Local or organic? Grass-fed beef or industrially-produced tofu? Farmed fish or canned fish? Nonfat or all natural? Raw milk or soy milk? Free-range chicken or kosher chicken? This one is actually pretty difficult for me. For religious reasons, I would choose kosher. I also like knowing that the animal was slaughtered in the most painless way possible. But I recently read a book about a kosher slaughterhouse that engages in illegal and unethical labor practices. So what is more important, the treatment of the animals or the treatment of the workers? And should I get in my car to drive to a national chain to buy the kosher chicken or walk up the street to the local butcher for the free-range chicken?
On the DR Show today, Diane talked to Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and to Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Both guests were talking about the health and politics of different food choices, and they had interesting points of agreement and contention. They agreed that the best things for us to eat are the least-processed, most real. Nina even said that we should only eat things that don't have labels. I tend to follow this advice, eating mostly fruits, vegetables, beans and grains from the bulk bins at the Co-op, and meat and fish from my local butcher and fishmonger. The only packaged food I do buy regularly is yogurt (and I buy a lot of it). Not only are unlabeled foods more natural (because they only have one ingredient, which makes labeling redundant and unnecessary), but they are also better for the environment because there is less packaging to be thrown away. Where Nina and Michael differed, however, was the degree to which animal products and particularly animal fats should figure in the human diet. Nina, an ex-vegan, focused on the benefits we get from such things as egg yolks, organ meats, and full-fat dairy products, while Michael focused on the dangers of saturated fats and the environmental impacts of animal farming. The point is, there are always trade-offs. Whole milk is less processed and thus more natural than nonfat, but it does have more saturated fat. Meat is a valuable source of protein and minerals, but wastes grain and water resources that could be distributed more equitably. Ultimately, it seems that there is no healthiest, holiest, most ethical way to eat. And that is what the concept of the food chain is all about.
July 16, 2006
High School of the Stars
Yesterday I was reminded of a sweatshirt they used to sell at my high school and decided that, now that I am way far away from Santa Monica, it might be fun to have one. So I googled Santa Monica High School and found this page, which just amused me to no end. There had always been rumors of stars who went to SAMO, but I never quite believed them and I never knew quite how many. Add to the list recent graduate Amber Tamblyn, who I knew in elementary school. Unfortunately, they no longer sell the sweatshirt that I had in mind. What I can't quite understand, however, is why they now sell hats, gloves, and scarves. It never gets below sixty degrees there!
Too Many Choices
I'm currently reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. This book is actually very similar to Stumbling on Happiness, and even presents much of the same data. The premise is that, over the past several years, Americans have experienced the proliferation of options in everything from breakfast cereal to blue jeans to health care to retirement plans to careers, and that our increased need to make choices and the increased number of possibilites actually makes us less happy overall and less satisfied with the choices we do make. Schwartz recognizes that humans need to be able to make choices, to exercise a degree of control over our lives, but that, the more options we have, the less good each potential choice seems, which can ultimately lead to regret and decision paralysis, because we become obsessed with all the possibilities we are giving up.
This principle explains why the process of choosing a Ph.D. program left me so exhausted that I didn't even want to go to grad school. Overall, the University of Michigan was the best option for me because it combined good faculty members with a decent funding package, friendly cohorts, and a great location (especially attractive because I was already living in Ann Arbor. But I had six other options. Some departments were more highly ranked, one department offered the perfect advisor, one department threw a lot of money at me, and some of them were in more attractive locations. As Schwartz predicts, I became obsessed not only with what I was giving up by not accepting each of these offers, but my mind also began spinning with the counterfactuals: I wished that I could combine the best advisor with the best funding package and take them to the university in the most interesting city. Had I read this book before having to make the grad school decision, I would have taken my uncle Richard's advice. He recommended that, as soon as I get two offers, I should reject one of them. Then I would never have been choosing between more than two offers at a time, which Schwarz suggests is good advice because in reality there are never more than two options: the best or the second best. As soon as I did narrow it down to two, Michigan clearly emerged as the best option, though several people (including a very rude department chair at my second-choice school tried to convince me that I was making a mistake. Choosing a history Ph.D. program was the hardest and most nerve-wracking thing I have ever done, and it was a miserable process. I should have felt grateful to have had so many options, but Schwartz's book suggests that I would have felt better about the whole thing if I had either applied to fewer departments, or been accepted by fewer programs.
One passage was particularly poignant. As a professor at Swarthmore College, Schwartz is witness to the plight of the uber-capable. He writes that:
many of the students I teach have multiple interests and capabilities. These students face the task of deciding on the one thing that they want to do more than anything else. Unconstrained by limitations of talent, the world is open to them. Do they exult in this opportunity? Not most of the ones I talk to. Instead they agonize: Between making money and doing something of lasting social value. Between challenging their intellects and exercising their creative impulses. Between work that demands single-mindedness and work that will enable them to live balanced lives. Between work they can do in a beautifully pastoral location and work that brings them to a bustling city. Between any work at all and further study. With a decision as important as this, they struggle to find the reasons that make one choice stand out above the others.
This passage spoke to me because it exactly described my experience in college. I spent the first two years agonizing over what major to choose (physics or math? women's studies or computer science? history or anthropology?), and the next two years agonizing over what to do afterwards (grad school? in what? a well-paying job or a job I can feel good about? follow the boyfriend to Ann Arbor or apply for a fellowship abroad?). People assured me that I was smart enough and capable enough to do anything I wanted, but that was no reassurance. In fact, that was the problem.
July 15, 2006
A Date with the Dems
Last night I volunteered at the Ann Arbor Democratic Party office to do phone canvassing, which involved calling registered voters to ask which issues were most important to them and how they are planning to vote in the fall election. I called 114 people, and got nine of them to take the survey, which seems like a pretty low yield. Most people were very polite with me when I identified myself as a volunteer with the Democratic Party, even the two people who said that they plan to vote Republican. One woman, however, got totally paranoid about the fact that I was calling her. She asked whether I had her address in addition to her telephone number (yes), what other information I had about her (age and sex), where that information came from (County Clerk -- it's public record), and who was paying me to call her (I'm not being paid, that's what volunteer means). Given the fact that she is planning to vote for the Democratic candidates, I couldn't believe how accusatory she was being. Its not like I was asking for money or anything; all I'm doing is trying to help get her preferred candidates reelected. I know it sucks to get a phone call from a random stranger on Friday evening in the middle of dinner, but isn't it better than having Dick DeVos as our next governor?
July 14, 2006
Some Like it Hot
David and I live in an old (1920s), poorly-insulated house. In the winter we pay a fortune to keep it at sixty-eight degrees, and in the summer we power up the window air conditioner in the bedroom just about every night. David has suggested several times that we get central air, and I have resisted, arguing that, even if we could afford to have it installed, running it would break the bank. But the truth is that I just don't like air conditioning. I love having the windows open, being able to hear my neighbors (and, yes, the nearby construction and road work), and sitting on the porch. Even in the car I prefer windows to air because it makes me feel at least a little bit more part of the world and less like I'm in my own private bubble. And when it is super-hot outside, spending time in an air-conditioned environment just makes the weather that much less bearable. Granted, there are times when it really is just way too hot. But the fun thing about not having central air is that we are then forced out of the house and into the world: to the movies, to a cafe, or even to Costco, where we went one day last summer to escape the heat. Or we are forced into the bedroom, which can also be fun ;)
Five on Friday -- Swimming Lessons
courtesy of Criminal Grace:
1. Do you know how to swim?
Not very well, though I did manage to pass the Ann Arbor Rowing Club's swim test, which involved swimming a couple of laps and then treading water for five minutes -- in my clothes. I don't think I would have survived that five minutes had it not been for my friend Shawn, who was doing it with me. Being able to talk to someone made the five minutes go by a lot faster. In any case, I had to pass that test, because wearing a life jacket while rowing crew would have just been way too humiliating!
2. Have you ever had swimming lessons? Did they help?
I was sent to day camp every summer from the age of six to eleven, and there were always swimming lessons involved. They definitely helped -- without these lessons I would have been totally clueless -- but I never got past "advanced beginner." I have often wondered how kids who didn't go to camp learned how to swim.
3. When was the last time you went swimming?
In early December, I attended a medical anthropology conference in Kilifi, Kenya, which is right on the east coast of Africa. The resort where the conference was held had a beautiful swimming pool that appeared to just merge right into the ocean, though this was an optical illusion. One afternoon, a fellow grad student convinced me to swim with her. I was reluctant to do it, as I hadn't been swimming in over three years, and I was embarrassed to be seen in a bathing suit because my weight was down to ninety pounds. When I got into the pool, I found that, having lost all my body fat, I couldn't keep myself afloat.
4. Can you open your eyes under water? Do you plug your nose before going under? Do you even go under?
I do indeed go under -- keeping my head up is too much work! I don't plug my nose, but I do close my eyes. I was able to open them before I started wearing contacts, but now I'm afraid my lenses will float away!
5. Your preference: salt water, fresh water, or pool water?
Definitely pool water -- it is the cleanest! Fresh water is nice because I can drink it (as I once did at Lake Michigan), but there tends to be a lot of scum on lake bottoms. Salt water is also fun because it helps me float. In fact, perhaps I should revise my answer to salt because my best swimming experience ever was in the Mediterranean, in Nice in the summer of 2000.
July 13, 2006
Cooking with Fire
I used to cook. In fact, as most of my friends and relatives can attest, I used to cook quite well. I did it all: sauteeing, braising, roasting, baking, you name it. Except grilling. David is the grill master, king of charcoal, so when there was a piece of meat to be grilled, David was the one to do it. Lately my cooking efforts have deteriorated to the bare minimum: boiling big pots of beans, grains, and vegetables, and then microwaving them when it is time to eat. This means that David has been doing a lot more grilling. The problem, however, is that he rarely gets home before about 8, which means the grill doesn't get lit until 8:30, and it is close to ten by the time we eat. This is fine with David, but I would prefer to eat just a little earlier. So he showed me how to light the grill, and I did it for the first time on Monday. But it didn't work. I opened the vents, piled up the (all-natural) charcoal, doused it with lighter fluid, and threw on a match. It seemed to start, but soon died down and never revived. Finally, around nine, I gave up on it and asked David what I had done wrong. He pointed out that I had forgotten the crucial first step: opening a beer. How could I have forgotten? Maybe because I don't drink. In any case, David opened a beer, put more lighter fluid on the coals, threw on another match, and, thirty minutes later, we were cooking with fire. I don't know how it works, but the beer does seem to be crucial.
July 12, 2006
I just spent the past two hours sorting through my inbox to find some notes that I thought someone from my British history reading group had emailed to me around February. I didn't find the notes, but I did manage to reduce the number of messages in my inbox from 447 to 70. If you email me, there is now a chance that I might actually get your message, though I can't promise a response!
Today I am reading The Sinews of Power by John Brewer, which is about the development of the fiscal-military state in eighteenth-century Britain. Brewer argues that Britain's eighteenth-century military successes depended not only on wealth and manpower, but on the centralized state administrative structures that allowed the state to mobilize that wealth and manpower in its own service. Further, he argues that resistance to state centralization and bureaucratization forced the government to be transparent and accountable, which made it more legitimate and hence more effective. This legitimacy allowed the state to gain hegemony in the sense that its subjects acknowledged Parliament's right to tax them and thus willingly paid their taxes. Brewer acknowledges, however, that this hegemony weakened with greater distance from the metropole, and that, although the expanding state avoided autocracy at home, it did rule its peripheries autocratically. It is a convincing argument, and I did not expect a book about taxation to be so engaging!
Here are some key words (in reverse alphabetical order):
venal: (adj) 1a. Open to bribery; mercenary; b. Capable of betraying honor, duty, or scruples for a price; corruptible; 2. Marked by corrupt dealings, especially bribery; 3. Obtainable for a price.
sinew: (n) 1. A tendon; 2. Vigorous strength; muscular power; 3. The source or mainstay of vitality and strength.
sinecure: (n) 1. A position or office that requires little or no work but provides a salary; 2. An ecclesiastical benefice not attached to the spiritual duties of a parish.
excise: (n) 1. An internal tax imposed on the production, sale, or consumption of a commodity or the use of a service within a country; 2. A licensing charge or fee levied for certain privileges.
customs: (n) 1a. Duties or taxes imposed on imported and, less commonly, exported goods; b. The governmental agency authroized to collect these duties; c. The procedure for inspecting goods and baggage enteringa country; 2. Tribute, service, or rent paid by a feudal tenant to a lord.
bureaucracy: (n) 1a. Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials; b. The departments and their officials as a group; 2a. Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures; b. The administrative structure of a large or complex organization; 3. An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.
July 11, 2006
Those Who Can't Do...
Write books. I just finished reading Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America by Peter Sacks, which I assume is a pseudonym, since he speaks as a journalist who has gone undercover as a community college teacher. As a member of the so-called X Generation (Nintendo wave, born 1979), I was deeply offended by his bullshit expose.
Sacks left a career as a successful (Pulitzer-nominated) journalist in order to relocate with his partner, a doctor, and took a job teaching journalism at a community college somewhere in the inland West. He began with high hopes, but soon found that things had changed since he was in college. The students he encountered had below-college-level reading and writing skills, failed to show up to class on time or even at all, and refused to do any work that wouldn't directly influence their grade. Let me repeat, he was at a community college. People go to community colleges precisely because they don't have the skills necessary to succeed at four-year institutions. The whole point of community college is to get them up to speed so that they can transfer to other universities. And his students wanted to be able to succeed -- Sacks mocks them for wearing Harvard and Yale sweatshirts, signs that they do have academic ambitions, and refuses to help them learn the necessary skills that they will need in order to transfer to more prestigious universities. Instead, he derides this sort of teaching as "hand-holding" and "spoon feeding," expecting if he simply humiliates them enough in class, his students will magically learn how to write. Sacks also notes that his students are working an average of 20-30 hours per week, but for some reason this doesn't explain to him why they simply can't study any more than is necessary. He goes into his new job with the attitude that "those who can't do teach" and somehow figures that, since he can do, since he has been a successful journalist, that this should also make him a brilliant teacher, despite the fact that he knows nothing about pedagogy. So when his students give him deservedly-bad evaluations, he blames them, arguing that, as the postmodern Generation X, raised on Sesame Street, they expect college to be just another form of entertainment. Sacks spends much of the book critiquing this expectation of entertainment, but I think he has missed the distinction between entertaining and engaging. As a student, I don't expect my professors to sing and dance (actually, I really don't want them to sing and dance), but I do expect them to engage my attention. After all, even the most brilliant person in the world can't communicate a concept effectively if he fails to connect with his audience.
Sacks responds, first, by attempting to pander to his audience with his "Sandbox Experiment." He figures that, if his students are going to act like kindergarteners, he will treat them like kindergarteners. He also engages in the unethical practice of handing out undeserved As and Bs across the board. He is not surprised when his evaluations improve. For him, this experiment proves his hypothesis that students in the 1990s approach college with an attitude of consumerist entitlement: they are paying to learn and feel entitled to good grades without having to put in any actual effort. So far, I don't think he is too far off the mark, given that he is teaching at a community college, where students are, for the most part, paying for their own education rather than relying on Mommy and Daddy, and where they are working so hard to put themselves through school that they simply don't have as much effort to give as, for instance, I had as a pampered student at a private liberal arts college.
But his critique takes a sharp right turn into Reaction Land when he blames the culture of postmodernity for all his woes. He aptly describes postmodernity as a much-bandied-about-but-rarely-defined term, and goes on to attempt to define it. His definition boils down to the overthrow of the authority of the middle-aged white man. And, yes, this is an element of postmodernity. The culture of modernity, ushered in with the Enlightenment, was based on the definition of the white man as the bearer of reason, a quality which was denied women, children, and nonwhite people of all ages and genders. Postmodern scholars particularize modernity as a specifically European experience, one which depended on the conquest and subjection of the non-European world. After all, there could be no "modern" society until there was a "traditional" society with which to contrast it. Sacks equates modernity with scientific objectivity and rationality and postmodernity with its rejection. But modernity undermined itself: the Heisenberg Principle demonstrates the impossibility of scientific objectivity (the act of observing always alters what is observed); and the Holocaust turned the latest industrial technology to the task of destroying humanity. Knowledge is constructed by those in power (see Foucault); when higher education was democratized after World War II, new groups of people gained access to the knowledge-making process and, lo and behold, we found that there is not necessarily only one truth. Knowledge is situated. For example, historians had always written their stories based on documents found in government archives. But a history of, say, the Vietnam war based on government archives will look very different than one based on articles from the New York Times, which will look very different from a history based on my parents' diaries, which will look very different from a history based on oral testimony from Vietnamese combatants or refugees. Which one is more true? Sacks bemoans the fact that students no longer look to their professors as the gatekeepers of established knowledge, but professors are the ones who are creating knowledge. They are the ones who struggle daily with the uncertainties of scientific methods and historical archives, and I applaud the integrity of those who are willing to admit that the truth is not neither unitary nor self-evident. Recognizing that there is not one complete, true, and accurate narrative of the past (and to even present history in narrative form is a lie, since life does not unfold as a narrative), it would be an act of bad faith for me to get up in front of a class of undergraduates and pretend that there was.
In any case, postmodernity is a red herring in Sacks's book because it is not a product of Generation X. He equates postmodernity with the questioning of authority, but that was a slogan of his generation, not mine. It was his generation who refused to go to class in the spring of 1970 in protest of the U.S. government's invasion of Cambodia. My generation might be the first to grow up in the postmodern age, but we did not create it -- we are simply trying to come to terms with it, stumbling through a world in which we can no longer rely on the integrity or objectivity hallowed institutions that once served as the arbiters of truth and knowledge. We have seen our parents' marriages break up, we have seen our elected officials lie to us, and we have seen corporations manipulate our access to truth and reality.
Sacks does, however, make some valid arguments, though the things he critiques are not simply or unambiguously products of postmodernity. First, the overcommercialization of our culture. In the post-regulatory age ushered in by Reagan, everything is for sale. Corporations deal in abstractions. College students even sell their bodies as walking advertisements. My eight-year-old sister watches commercials on the internet as if they were the news. But this is a feature of post-industrial capitalism, not postmodernity (though, just as industrial capitalism was deeply imbricated and implicated in modernity, so too is post-industrial capitalism implicated in postmodernity). Second, the culture of entitlement. Sacks argues that students see their education as a commodity, something that they are entitled to because they are paying for it. Unfortunately, this is true: as universities lose public funding, they become more dependent on tuition dollars and begin to treat students as paying customers. The only way to get around this would be to eliminate the tuition-paying system, as is done in Ph.D. programs. Of course, someone pays my tuition, but I am so far removed from the exchange that I see myself as an employee, someone who works for grades (and, I must admit, for my stipend), rather than a customer. Again, this is not postmodernity, but late capitalism and the privatization of the public sphere and public amenities. Finally, grade inflation, or, as Sacks puts it, the elimination of standards, which he blames on the relativism inherent in postmodernism. Grade inflation is a serious problem. In my seven-year higher ed career, I have never received less than an A-, though at times I'm sure I deserved less. A professor in a top history Ph.D. program once explained to me the necessity of grade inflation: because his university can't fund all of its students' dissertation research, his students have to compete with students at other universities for outside funding, and they look better to fellowship selection committees if they have top grades. Sacks would argue that, if these students don't earn their top grades, they don't deserve the fellowships, and I tend to agree. After all, universities are turning out more Ph.D.s than there are jobs, and it doesn't do anyone any good to increase the population of the overeducated unemployed. But professors can't unilaterally end grade inflation -- their students suffer by having worse transcripts than do those students who only take classes from "easy A" professors, and ultimately the professor's reputation as an anti-grade-inflation crusader will hurt his enrollment. One solution Sacks proposes, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to record on the transcript not only the student's grade in the class, but also the average grade in the class, so that evaluators can see how the student did relative to everyone else.
While Sacks does make some valid points, his book smacks of reactionary elitism. He is nostalgic for the days when one had to be white and wealthy to even go to college, and is having trouble adjusting to the democratization of both higher education and American society more generally, however uneven and incomplete this democratization has been. The problem is not the X Generation but rather Sacks's own arrogance and fear of change. All I have to say is get over yourself.
July 10, 2006
If going to the Michigan Theater by myself to see Worplay on opening weekend makes me a geek, then I am a geek. And proud of it! It isn't that I'm a crossword puzzle fanatic or anything. In fact, until yesterday, I hadn't even done a crossword puzzle since my senior year of college, and most of the time I would rather do sudoku. I went because I'm an NPR junkie. I love Will Shortz's puzzles on Weekend Edition, and I had also heard that Neal Conan was in the movie. If only Ira Glass would make a movie! In any case, I'm so glad I went. It was funny, smart, and inspiring. When I got home, I dug the Ann Arbor News crossword out of the recycling bin and worked on it for a while. It was hard. I went back to sudoku. But I'm still working on it. Perhaps I'll have better luck with today's puzzle. Is it cheating to use the internet?
July 09, 2006
I loved Maureen Dowd's column in today's Ann Arbor News, which documents the new trend of brides and grooms merging their last names along with their assets. It was inspiring to read the story of the two Rachels -- she took his last name and he took her first name -- and to learn that my mom's mayor was born Tony Villar. But my name and David's don't merge well, and hyphenation is out of the question -- it would just be cruel to make our children learn two eight-letter last names. I had always thought there were two options at marriage: take his name or keep mine. I actually plan to do both: I'll add David's last name after mine, and use his personally and mine professionally. He would profer for me to just get rid of mine and use his for everything, but I want to have continuity in my professional life. Granted, I'm not published or anything, but I have presented at conferences and won fellowships in my own name. As I told David, if he wanted me to be Emily M., historian, he should have married me before I started grad school! While my own last name isn't overly complicated, his is definitely easier to pronounce and easier to spell, as it is an actual word in the English language, so I look forward to using it. And then my initials will spell Em! Bitch, Ph.D. recently weighed in on the politics of surnames for children, but for us it is pretty straightforward. Potential children will have his last name -- since he cares and I don't, and again because his is easier to spell -- but they will have my religion.
Last night I finally went and saw The Devil Wears Prada. I was reluctant to plunk down six bucks for it, but it has received an inordinate amount of critical attention, and my friend Ken bought my ticket anyway, so I figured it was well worth spending two hours to increase my pop-culture literacy. I haven't read the book, and most of the reviews agreed that the movie was better than the book anyway, so I don't plan to rush out and buy it. The movie was actually quite good, though, and definitely a pleasure to watch, if only for excellent performances by Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, who was fabulous as Miranda Priestly, evil editor-in-chief of a top fashion magazine. She has an awesome monologue where she dresses Hathaway down for her obvious disdain of the fashion industry, explaining that, although Hathaway believes herself to be above fashion, even her choice of a cerulean blue sweater was overdetermined by decisions made years before in the offices of "Runway" magazine. The movie cleverly presented the fashion industry as both ridiculously shallow and something that we can't live without if we don't want to go naked.
But the story didn't live up to the title. Streep's character may have been the devil, but Hathaway's character never actually sold her soul. I was expecting something along the line of Mean Girls, where Lindsay Lohan turns into a truly mean girl in order to achieve popularity in the world of high school. But Hathaway never loses her integrity, though we are meant to think that she has, and her friends and boyfriend certainly think she has. The boyfriend character, though cute, was, in fact, insufferable as the repository of virtue. The guys I saw the movie with characterized him as too earnest to be believable. When Hathaway trades in her frumpy "I'm too smart for fashion" clothes for a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, her boyfriend accuses her of having sold out, telling her that he wouldn't mind if she were a pole dancer, as long as she did it with integrity. The problem is that she was pursuing her job with integrity. Granted, she sold herself short by taking a job running errands and buying (not making) coffee when she really wanted to be a writer, but all she was guilty of was making an honest effort at doing her job well. After all, working in the fashion industry requires that one know something about, or at least be interested in, fashion. And, yes, it does suck to have to work unexpectedly on your boyfriend's birthday, but that is what being a grownup and having a job is all about.
The movie was, however, an excellent commentary about how we get seduced by our jobs. By any job, not just jobs that involve diabolical bosses. I have certainly been guilty of neglecting my friends and family members for my research, and for buying into the notion that professional success will make me more happy than loving friendships. But the movie presented this as a particularly feminine problem: Streep's husband divorces her because she is too busy with her job; Hathaway and her boyfriend break up because he can't handle her missing his birthday party to work. We don't see men having this problem. For some reason it is okay for doctors' wives to feel like single mothers but not okay for fashion magazine editors' husbands to get stood up now and then. In the end, Hathaway's character takes a job at the New York Mirror, and the movie presents this choice as the ideal happy ending: she is now a real journalist and her life will be perfect -- as long as she never has to work late to meet a deadline!
July 08, 2006
Yesterday, this article was the most-emailed article on the New York Times. Its author, Amy Sutherland, spent two years at Moorpark College, which has the nation's top program in exotic animal training and management, so that she could write the book Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, and in yesterday's article writes about using her animal training techniques to discipline her husband.
I'm guessing that a lot more women were emailing it to their friends with messages saying something like "hey, try this out" than men were emailing it to their friends to complain about the article's blatant misandry. The article was, in fact, hilarious, and I was tempted to pass it along to my married friends. But if I were a man, I would have been deeply offended by it. And if the genders in the article were reversed, if a male animal trainer were writing about using his techniques to discipline his wife, feminist watchdog groups would be all over it. But our society is far too complacent about misandry because so often it disguises itself as feminism. Misandry isn't the opposite of misogyny, however, but rather its counterpart. Referring to one's husband as an alpha male is just as sexist (though decidedly more flattering) than referring to one's wife as a bitch. Both terms clearly connote the animal kingdom. By treating her husband like an animal, Sutherland denies his humanity, or at least suggests that he is less human than she is. Ultimately, however, this article is funny because humans (both husbands and wives) are animals. Not only do her training methods work, but her husband turns them back on herself, and Sutherland has the sense of humor not only to recognize it, but also to appreciate it.
While the New York Times engaged in satire about the gender wars, Ellen Goodman at the Boston Globe confronted it head-on with new data that challenges the so-called crisis of boys falling behind girls in school. Using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which is archived here at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research), Goodman reveals that boys are not falling behind. In fact, they are doing better in school than they ever have before. What is seen as a problem is that they are not doing as much better as girls are doing. First of all, this data should clearly demonstrate the idiocy of David Brooks's recent screed against an educational system that turns boys off to learning. The way he describes the classrom sounds totally foreign to me, and I can bet that I have been in a classroom much more recently than he has. But if things have changed since then, and if the NAEP demonstrates that boys are doing better than they ever have before, then obviously the changes are benefitting them. As Goodman points out, the real issue isn't whether boys are doing better than girls (which they still are on science and math, and they still make up a higher percentage of advanced degree recipients and students at our nation's top universities), or whether girls are doing better than boys (which they are in reading and writing, and they are graduating from college in large numbers). The real issue is what factors are still holding people back, and Goodman identifies these factors as race and class: the greatest gender disparities occur among working-class and non-white students. But there is still an element of sexism here that just doesn't get mentioned, which is the fact that boys don't need college as much as girls do: there are more high-paying male jobs that don't require college degrees than there are high-paying female jobs. For example, David's brother, who went to college but didn't finish, earns more than I probably ever will, even if I get a Ph.D. So why don't I just do what he does? Aside from the fact that irrigation and snow removal don't interest me, I simply can't -- his company doesn't employ women.
The other day, my friend and fellow grad student Ken responded to the cliche that history is written by the winners by insisting that it isn't true anymore: now we have women's history! I found this comment hilarious because I recognized its truth. Yes, we have women's history, but women haven't "won" anything except recognition of our historical agency, and the very existence of women's history as a distinct field serves to perpetuate women's marginalization in the historical narrative and the ghettoization of women in the historical profession. David, on the other hand, didn't find it funny, but rather eerily prescient, predicting that, not long from now, we may find that history is indeed still written by the winners, but that the winners will be women. But feminism isn't about women getting ahead of men; rather it is about eliminating the very idea of ahead.
July 07, 2006
This morning on NPR I learned that, one year ago today, four British-born terrorists set off bombs on a bus and on Underground trains in London, killing fifty-six people, including themselves.
I knew that the bombings happened -- in fact, I knew exactly where and when they happened -- because I was there, right in the middle of it all, but I didn't have any information beyond that. I was so scared by what I experienced that I assiduously avoided all news of the event that came out afterwards and, until this morning, had no more information about it than I had when I went to bed on July 7, 2005. I didn't even know until this morning that the bombings were suicide attacks.
Today I can't believe that I was so checked out one year ago, so preoccupied with getting my work done, that I was barely aware of the fact that I was witnessing a terrorist attack from its epicenter. I was almost to preoccupied to be scared. I was in London on a research trip, staying at Goodenough College, which is between King's Cross and Russell Square stations, both of which were damaged when a bomb exploded on a train that was between the two. I left my room that morning just about the time that the bomb went off, and when I passed by the Russell Square station on my way to the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, people were gathered outside the station. I wondered what was going on and felt glad that I didn't have to take the Tube that day, and proceeded through Tavistock Square about ten minutes before the bus exploded there. When I got to Euston Road, commuters and travelers with suitcases were pouring out of Euston Station, and I heard sirens everywhere. I remember thinking that London was in chaos that morning, but it never occurred to me to ask someone what was going on. I just had to get to that library.
I didn't know about the bombings until about noon, when one of the archivists made an announcement to the researchers in the reading room, telling us what had happened and asking us not to leave the building until they had determined it was safe to do so. At three that afternoon, the library closed until further notice. The streets of London were surreal. Most of them had been closed to traffic and all public transport was down, so everyone was just walking home. It was hard to get back to Goodenough because so many of the streets in that area had been barricaded.
That night I watched as much news as I could stomach, but the next morning I put it all out of my mind and got back to work. The Wellcome Library was still closed, so I went to the British Library instead. I wasn't going to let terrorism prevent me from doing my research! The next week I braved the Tube to go to the Public Record Office. The Russell Square station was still closed, so I had to walk about a half hour to Tottenham Court Road each morning and back each evening. One week after the bombings, there was a national moment of silence. I remember thinking it was odd to have a moment of silence in the archives, where everyone is silent anyway. Today I'm embarrassed by the fact that I was so wrapped up in myself and in my work that I barely noticed that people were dying all around me, but perhaps it is what I needed to do in order to cope with the fear and terror.
Top of the Park
Last night David and I finally went to Top of the Park for the first time this year with our friend Ken. The band, Tally Hall, was quite good, though we didn't have a chance to really sit, watch, focus, and listen. This local band is in the process of becoming quite well known, in part through being featured on The OC, a show I have never seen but that has a reputation for airing the music of a lot of up-and-coming new bands. It is also supposedly one of the few television shows with openly-Jewish characters, and even had a seder episode.
Top of the Park's new venue offers many more amenities than the old one did -- a wider bathroom selection (which definitely came in handy), grass to sit on, shady areas, and a fountain -- but I missed the enclosed nature of the old venue, which allowed the kids to do laps around and around and was much more conducive to people-watching. David's complaint was that there weren't enough tables in the beer garden area. Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun hanging out with Ken and being outside listening to a fantastic band on a spectacular evening.
July 06, 2006
Reading for Happiness
Lately I have been reading everything I can get my hands on, as long as it isn't on one of my prelim lists! Two recent books were The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need by Paul Pearsall and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The main argument of Pearsall's book is that the self-help industry is selling us a load of crap. These books are not written by the actual psychologists and neuroscientists who study happiness, but rather by celebrity gurus who want to make a buck by selling us repackaged "common knowledge" that we believe because we have heard it over and over again, even though the science of happiness is increasingly proving that these things are not true. And Daniel Gilbert is one of these happiness scientists. He argues that we can't possibly predict what decisions will make us happy because of the tricks that our memories and imaginations play on us. He presents detailed evidence of these tricks, along with evidence of the fact that misinformation about happiness -- such as the lies that making money or having children will make us happy -- are self-perpetuating because they support our social structures. This is probably why professors often say that grad school was the best time of their lives: if they remembered how miserable they actually were, they would not (in good conscience) be able to encourage their favorite undergrads to go into Ph.D. programs and their profession would die out. Gilbert demonstrates that the best way to know if moving to a certain city or having a certain career will make us happy is to ask someone who is currently living in that city or pursuing that career how happy they are. Not how happy they are to be living where they are living or working where they are working, because their memories and values will color the answer, but simply how happy they are. So the fact that I knew before I applied to grad school that grad students are, on average, pretty miserable, should have suggested to me that I would be miserable in grad school. But, of course, it didn't, and Gilbert explains why. As he puts it,
if you are like most people, then like most people, you don't know you're like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn't see herself as average.So I was absolutely sure that I would be the exception to the "grad students are miserable rule." After all, like the average person, I thought I was smarter than average, more talented than average, and harder working than average. I guess that makes me pretty average! In any case, reading this book didn't necessarily make me any happier, but it helps me understand how my brain is working when I become absolutely convinced that dropping out of grad school will make me happy.
To Market, To Market
This week, the Center for a New American Dream posted this article on frugal organic shopping. My first reaction was cynicism. I eat six servings of fruit and six servings of vegetables (that is six cups raw or three cups cooked) every day and, as a grad student, I just can't do organic all the time, or even most of the time. In fact, I have been known to walk into Whole Foods and specifically ask for conventional produce. Reading this article didn't actually teach me anything new -- I already used most of the tactics it describes: buying in bulk (bulk bins, large packages, large quantities of sale items), shopping at co-ops and farmers' markets, eating locally and in season, growing my own (this didn't work so well, given that David and I share our backyard with a family of groundhogs), cooking from scratch, buying a share in a local Community Supported Agriculture farm, clipping coupons, and comparison shopping -- but it reminded me of the value of creativity, of finding ways to pursue my values, rather than simply dismissing them as elitist. I have also learned the benefits of befriending my local organic farmers. Yesterday at the farmers' market, one of them gave me a free zucchini! David reminded me that zucchini are so prolific that most farmers are just glad to rid themselves of their harvest by any means necessary, but it still trimmed my grocery bill. The problem is that winter is a fact of life here in Michigan, which means that it is impossible to eat green greens all the time unless one has a lot of green to devote to the effort. The price of organic produce just skyrockets when it has to be shipped in from the other side of the world. Maybe when I'm a professor I'll be able to afford it (when pigs fly), but until then, I welcome gifts of free produce -- donations can be dropped off on my front porch, any time of day or night!
July 05, 2006
I have heard (and made) a lot of complaints about The Ann Arbor News, but overall it is a pretty good paper. Ann Arborites who like to pretend that they are exiles from more cultured parts of the country (which is actually most people affiliated with the University) and who can afford to (ie not grad students) also subscribe to The New York Times, but I suspect this is more to keep up their street cred than anything else because the News reprints a lot of stories from the Times, and everything else is available online.
Not that I read much of either, but David reads the News religiously (in fact, he used to get quite pissy if anything prevented him from completing his nightly News-reading ritual) and passes on to me articles he thinks I might like, or articles he thinks I might hate, or articles he just wants me to read. Which, last night, was the entire sports section because Steve Yzerman, my favorite Red Wing, just announced his retirement. Though I'm not much of a sports fan, I have developed an appreciation for our local teams since I have been hanging out with David, and the articles about Stevie were very sweet. But I couldn't help being offended by the sentence "Steve Yzerman has had a profound affect on the history of the Detroit Red Wings." I don't know why it bothered me so much -- perhaps because I am the daughter of an English professor -- but I'm sure that a copy editor at a real newspaper would know the difference between affect (verb) and effect (noun).
Granted, it is not quite that simple because both affect and effect are both nouns and verbs:
affect: (v) 1. To have an influence on or effect a change in; 2. To act on the emotions of; touch or move; 3. To attact or infect, as a disease; 4. To put on a false show of; simulate; 5a. To have or show a liking for; b. to fancy or love; 6. To tend to by nature, tend to assume; 7. To imitate or copy. (n) 1. Feeling or emotion, especially as manifested by facial expression or body language; 2. A disposition, feeling, or tendency.
effect: (n) 1. Something brought about by a cause or agent; a result; 2. The power to produce an outcome or achieve a result; influence; 3. A scientific law, hypothesis, or phenomenon; 4. Advantage, avail; 5. The condition of being in full force or execution; 6a. Something that produces a specific impression or supports a general design or intention; b. A particular impression; c. Production of a desired impression; 7. The basic or general meaning, import. (v) 1. To bring into existence; 2. To produce as a result; 3. To bring about.
It would be appropriate to say that Stevie had a profound effect on the team, or that he had the ability to profoundly affect the team, or that he effected a profound change on the team, or that he affected the team in a profound way.
So, can I have the job?
July 04, 2006
Happy Birthday USA
This is the first time since 2003 that I have actually been in the United States on the Fourth of July. I had forgotten what a big deal it is: fireworks, picnics, etc. For the past two years I was in London on the anniversary of our nation's declaration of independence from the British Empire and, needless to say, the Brits don't celebrate the loss of thirteen lucrative colonies two hundred years ago. There it is just another day. In fact, Bastille Day is a bigger deal. I always said I was going to find an American bar and celebrate with my fellow countrymen (er, countrypeople?) but it never actually happened. Nevertheless, I always find myself feeling most patriotic when I'm out of the country. Here it is easy to get caught up in my disaffection with the current administration or my disgust over the war, but these United States are actually a pretty nice place to live. After all, in the US I have never had a police officer point a giant rifle at me, which is more than I can say for other countries I have visited, but perhaps that is just because I'm white.
For days now I have been struggling to write a 250-word academic bio. Actually, that is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that for days I have been avoiding writing this bio. But it is due Friday, and can't be put off any longer. Reading other people's 250-word bios has really intimidated me, convincing me that my life will never measure up to theirs. This morning I complained to my friend Diana that my life has been too boring to write a 250-word bio, and she reassured me that I was wrong, reminding me of all of the traveling I have done in grad school. Inspired by her confidence in my life, I sat down and wrote the thing:
As a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Michigan, my research focuses on twentieth-century British imperialism and colonialism in Africa, and on the ways in which empire reflected back onto everyday lives in metropolitan Britain. I am particularly interested in examining British and African women’s experience of empire through quotidian practices involving food: marketing, cooking, eating, feeding, and nutrition. I became curious about the lived experience of empire as an undergraduate at Pomona College, during a semester abroad at Cambridge University, and wrote my senior thesis on the link between the emigration of British women to South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century and the simultaneous emergence of maternal welfare programs in Great Britain. At the University of Michigan I have had a chance to study African history in addition to British history, and have traveled to Ghana and Kenya, as well as to London, for research and conferences. I analyze imperialism and colonialism as a way to bridge the traditional historiographical divide between Africa and Europe, and food has provided a particularly useful lens through which to examine the transcontinental circulation of people, objects, and ideas, with specific reference to race, gender, and modes of knowing and governing human bodies and cultural practices. I hope that my dissertation will not only contribute to British and African historiographies, but also challenge our understanding of eating as natural by foregrounding the cultural and political elements of food and human nutrition.
July 03, 2006
Crack for Kids
So it looks like high-fructose corn syrup is getting off the hook for our country's obesity epidemic. This article in today's New York Times argues that it is no worse for us than sugar. But really, that is not saying much. After all, sugar is what makes us fat. No matter what Dr. Atkins might say, the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than we consume. Trust me, I've done it. I have also gained weight, and the only way to do that is to consume more calories than we burn. Of course, everything we eat has calories in it. But with most foods, we get something else along with the calories: nuts give us fat and protein, meat contains minerals, and fruits and vegetables are an important source of vitamins. Not so with sugar. Sugar, in all its forms -- fructose, sucrose, lactose, galactose, dextrose, really anything ending in -ose -- is a pure source of calories. Nutritionally unnecessary. Not to mention highly addictive -- crack for kids. So high-fructose corn syrup may not be any worse for us nutritionally than sugar, but sugar is already bad enough. And what does make corn syrup worse is that it is significantly cheaper than sugar, which encourages us to consume it in larger quantities.
And, speaking of obesity, this article just blew my mind. I was shocked to read that the CDC refrains from labeling children obese, even those in the 100th weight percentile, telling them instead that they are "at risk for being overweight." It sounds rather Orwellian. We have an epidemic of childhood obesity, but nobody is telling the children who are obese. I recognize the importance of not making children unnecessarily self-conscious about their weight, but how can those who need to lose weight do so if they aren't even told they have a problem?
My fifty-six-year-old, twice-divorced, ultra-cynical dad is head-over-heels in love. It is super-cute! I can't wait to meet his new girlfriend.
July 02, 2006
Today I came across this website. The "Successful Academic" does give good advice -- the tips she recommends are all things I actually used to do back in my productive days -- but I find it terribly disturbing that this woman profits from the misery induced by academia. Her career depends on the fact that Ph.D. programs inevitably turn formerly intelligent and articulate people into zombies. If academia were not such a toxic work environment, her career wouldn't even exist. And the most frustrating part is that the more we grad students suffer, the more she earns. I imagine she must love her job!
Keeping it Clean without Breaking the Bank
No matter how many times my mom told me not to judge a book by its cover, I can't help finding myself seduced by a pretty package. This morning at the People's Food Co-op, I decided to brave the cleaning products aisle. I had always avoided this section of the store, sure that its products were far pricier and less effective than their mainstream counterparts. But today I didn't feel like getting in the car, driving to a big-box store, walking across a hot asphalt parking lot, and being surrounded by obnoxious shoppers, so I replaced my empty bottle of Fantastik with its environmentally friendly counterpart. It was really hard not to buy this product instead, given its lovely label and scent, but it cost twice as much. And who will see it under the sink anyway?
July 01, 2006
To say that I'm not the most hygienic person in the world would be more than a bit of an understatement. In fact, I'm downright messy. It is always easy to rationalize my decision not to clean my house -- it will just get dirty again anyway; or if I clean it now, what will I do later when I'm bored -- and I usually have better things to do. Actually, anything usually seems better than cleaning. At times I have wanted to be cleaner, and have read books, visited websites, and bought products that promised me a cleaner home. But somehow, reading about cleaning was a lot more fun than the actual cleaning. And getting obsessed with doing everything perfectly made it less likely to get done at all. I used to have a four-step floor-cleaning procedure: (1) vacuum -- this had to be done inch by inch with the little brush attachment because we have hardwood floors and a vacuum cleaner made for carpets; (2) dry mopping; (3) wet mopping with this kind of mop; (4) a final wet mopping with this kind of mop. Our house is only about seven hundred square feet, but the process took at least half a day. So I only did it about once a year. In between, things were not pretty. But they didn't seem that bad either, because the house was never as dirty as it was when David's old rommate Josh lived here. I wasn't the dirtiest person in the world; Josh was. When I moved in, David and I agreed that he would take care of the outside (landscaping, lawn mowing, snow shoveling, etc.), and I would take care of the inside (everything else). But David, having a much lower threshhold for filth than I have, often did the indoor cleaning when I fell down on the task.
But two months ago, something happened. The toilet exploded. The bathroom is upstairs and water flows down, so the house ended up flooded from top to bottom, second floor to basement. It was raining in the kitchen. The phone lines were soaked through and I couldn't dial out. I ran to the gas station to call the plumber from a pay phone. There was nothing they could do. We just had to wait for it all to dry out and then clean it up. It was no small task but, when it was done, I realized that it is kind of nice to live in a clean house. Since then, I've been doing some cleaning. Just a bit, little by little, one or two things a day. With many days off in between. But things are looking just a little bit different. I bought a bottle of Fantastik the day the toilet exploded and today I was surprised to come to the end of it. I have never used up a cleaning product that quickly! Yesterday I did the floors, and today was pleased to find how good it feels to be able to walk barefoot without having all kinds of schmutz collect on my soles. And the amazing thing is that clearing the crap out of my house also helps clear the cobwebs from my mind.